Newsletter 11 October 2023: Just one idea; Robert Caro’s notes; an X-cess of fakery

Special note: All of us are in a very raw state because of the devastating events taking place abroad. Business as usual is anything but usual right now. If reading about business books takes your mind off of things for a moment, I offer these insights for you. If not, I’ll catch you later.

Newsletter Week 13: One idea is all you need; Robert Caro’s research secrets; X marks the malarkey; plus three people to follow and three books to read.

One idea is powerful. Two are a not.

Think about the nonfiction books that influenced you most. I’m betting that you, right now, can easily rattle off the main theme of any of those books in one sentence.

That’s because, although a good book can go on for many chapters and hundreds of pages, it all hangs together around a single, simple concept.

Here are some of my favorite examples:

It’s not just that those books have a single idea. It’s that you can describe it simply. Ideally, the idea is encapsulated right in the subtitle.

The title of a book is a handle: it’s a name we can use to share and remember the book. But the subtitle is a description of what the book is about. A potential reader should be able to read the subtitle and say “Ah, that sounds like something I need to know about.”

A book about a single idea can still be rich and detailed. You can describe why the idea is true, why people are wrong about it, the steps involved in adopting it, how things got this way, what to do next after you’ve accepted the idea, how it applies in different industries, and so on. Simple ideas often have complex consequences. Frankly, if they don’t, it’s not worth writing a book about them.

What you can’t do very well is write (or sell) a book about more than one idea.

Here’s a personal example. My first book, written with Charlene Li, was Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social TechnologiesIt was based on a simple idea with complex consequences: that companies could use social media to accomplish business goals. In 2008, when it was published, that was a new and powerful concept. It sold 150,000 copies, and both Charlene and I built our careers on it.

My second book, written with Ted Schadler, was Empowered: Unleash Your Employees, Energize Your Customers, and Transform Your BusinessIt did moderately well, but didn’t set the world on fire. It was about two related ideas, as you can tell from the subtitle: that you should empower your staff to create solutions with technology, and that you should magnify and encourage the voices of your company’s fans. Those ideas are related — they’re both about empowerment — but one is aimed at managers and the other at marketers. One is about workers and the other is about customers. It was hard to tie them together in one book, and despite the boost the book got from being the sequel to a bestseller, it never really took off.

If you have more than one idea for a book, you need to narrow things down. What is the one idea you have that will surprise and help people? Can you write a subtitle that captures that one idea?

There’s always space for related ideas in the body of the book. But if you have two or more ideas, your readers will have no clear idea why they should get your book. Choose the single best idea and then make it as sharp as possible.

News for authors and others who think

Publisher’s Weekly documented a panel of publishers pontificating about how AI will affect their business (gift link). Like any other business, publishers need to think strategically about AI. How will you empower your employees to use it? How will you deal with its shortcomings? How will you protect your content? The impacts may be immediate, but the results won’t play out for at least two years.

“Even though his readers usually have to wait at least 10 years between books, [Robert] Caro jokes that he’s actually a very fast writer. It’s the research that takes forever.” Read in Medium: Note taking secrets of a major nonfiction writer. I love Caro’s method of posting and annotating an outline on a bulletin board.

Twitter was once a source of real-time truth. Wired describes how, as X, it’s now flooded with masses of fakes and disinformation. In a time of war, when public attitudes will determine politicians’ actions regarding the war between Hamas and Israel, this is disastrous.

Three people to follow

Jeevan Sivasubramaniam, managing director of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, an insightful voice in publishing who posts frequently on LinkedIn.

George Colony, still the CEO of Forrester, and still posting the sharpest possible takes on technology.

Mark Cuban, who is in the very tiny intersection of billionaires, media stars (Shark Tank), smart people, and actual good guys. Singlehandedly keeping generic pharma prices under control.

Three books to read

Simply Put: Why Clear Messages Win–And How to Design Them by Ben Guttman (Berrett-Koehler, 2023). A five-part framework for clear, brief communication.

The Self-Employed Life: Business and Personal Development Strategies That Create Sustainable Success by Jeffrey Shaw (Page Two, 2021). Absolutely everything you need to succeed as a freelancer.

Data is Everybody’s Business: The Fundamentals of Data Monetization by Barbara H. Wixom, Cynthia M. Beath, and Leslie Owens (MIT Press, 2023). Frameworks for ethically turning information into profit.


I’m not feeling promotional right now. You know where to find me.

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