Reflections on writing a book

Nov 27, 2010 by

It’s now been about five months since the book has been out and it has been interesting for me to reflect on the entire process of writing, publishing, promoting and waiting for reviews. One of the claims I made in the book is that people can often benefit by thinking about their work as a series of performances. For me, writing the book was just another avenue of performance like many others in my life including speaking and playing music. A lot of the ideas in the book are about improvisation. In many respects the book was improvised. The writing was a very organic process. While I knew there were certain ideas I wanted to express, I didn’t know precisely how the ideas would be realized in words nor precisely which examples and other supporting material I would provide. In most cases I just began in a certain direction and the path revealed itself with further research and writing. I had to trust that this process would produce a desirable final product. Along the way I had constant visions of being unsatisfied with the published book once we got to the point where I could no longer make any changes. In fact I expected that I would not want to read it at all since I would find myself critiquing it and wanting to change things after the fact.

One of the toughest times for any performer is having to deal with reviews. It’s not just the critical feedback that may be hard to deal with but the disappointment that can come from pouring your heart and soul into one aspect of a performance, only to have that completely overlooked in favor of something that you thought of as inconsequential. Worst still is when some people totally misinterpret an aspect of the performance or just don’t get it, according to your own expectations. Most mature people, and not just those who are artistic performers, know that you have to accept the limitations of your ability to appeal to everyone. You can please some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time but not all of the people all of the time. Fans of one performance may pan your next one. Additionally, you cannot expect that all feedback will be authentic. Friends, family and colleagues might say they liked your performance when they really hated it while those in a competitive position might pan it while secretly admiring it and taking inspiration. As they say, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”

So five months on, what is the state of the book?

I am actually not sure how many copies the book has sold although it wouldn’t take me much effort to find out. I received a report at the end of June when the book had only been out for two weeks and I had sold several hundred copies by that stage. I will receive another report in January. I am somewhat encouraged that the book appears to be ranked number seven on an Amazon list of most wished for books in software design tools and techniques. For a book that’s been out for such a short time, that actually seems to be pretty impressive. I guess we’ll see whether it translates to sales.

There have been a number of very positive reviews and one review that found the book did not live up to expectations. I’m most satisfied by the reviewers that appreciate some of the unique content such as the discussions about feedback loops and hunting, diversity, and the caution that I gave to those that blindly or over-zealously apply the book’s ideas, or for that matter, any other ideas that are given out as advice. Generally, people seem to find the concepts appealing and recognize that there is a lot of content in the book – possibly even too much. Some reviews complained that the book is too academic or too long and I can understand why they might feel that way. I had always intended that the book have a lot of detail and that all sources would be cited. Generally I find that too many books nowadays do not list sources. I personally that a real disappointment as well as somewhat disrespectful of other authors. In terms of the depth and breadth, one of the reasons I wrote the book is that I had found all previous discussions about jazz and business have been too lightweight, espousing a lot of the less tangible connections but not giving much detail about the specifics of execution.

One thing I’ve had to fight from before the time before the book was published is the notion that the concepts described in the book are only applicable to software development. Early on, the publisher made a mistake in releasing an unapproved edition of the back cover blurb that implied that the book was only applicable to software. This was subsequently fixed but copies of that blurb are still floating around on the Internet. In its published form, the back cover of the book recommends that it be categorized under Innovation / Collaboration / Management and the only reference to software is the fact that I work at IBM. Either that or the bogus blurb or perhaps simply the content is enough for many online and brick and mortar bookstores to list the book only in the software section. There is certainly a good share of software development stories in the book but I like to think it is well-balanced with the other content.

The list price of the book is a little high, in my opinion, although I did manage to get list price lowered once before publication. I don’t think it is unreasonable given the unique content in the book and its depth and breadth but I would prefer to try and get more readers, even if it means less money in my pocket.  I think the list price on Amazon is great. In Canada, I believe most people are buying it from Amazon because Chapters, the largest Canadian book chain, sells it at the Canadian list price with only a membership discount. I also found out that Chapters won’t carry the book in the stores (although it’s listed on their computers) because the publisher’s margin is apparently too high. No reply from the publisher on what the deal is there.

Despite my prediction that I would not want to read the book after its publication, I have in fact read it a number of times. I have been surprised to find myself happy with the content. I was at first amazed that I could not find any mistakes but have since found enough to maintain a list of erratum.

If you’re interested in selling lots of books, writing is only half of the task. Promotion is other half and I’ve found little time to give to that and need to do more. I’ve been writing a series of related articles and just started the third in a series of articles for InformIT and have another to write for another site/publication. Of course I am trying to push the book in talks here and there but it’s hard to do so without feeling like a salesman!

The main reason I wrote the book is that I wanted to collect all my ideas and opinions about working and put them in one place. I have often joked that it’s my manifesto. Yet more than anything, I wanted to inspire people to think about some of the ideas. In the preface to the book I wrote “This book is an artistic expression that captures some of my personal thoughts about the world in which we work and play.” I believe that art should prompt a response in senses, emotion or intellect. In this respect, it was great to see one reviewer write: “You may not agree with everything, but it will make you think.” Knowing that the book evoked that reaction gives me a lot of satisfaction.

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect those of the author’s employers and/or clients or any of their respective clients. Your use of this content is governed by this site’s Terms of Use.

Scott Berkun: straight, no bullshit

Aug 24, 2010 by

Scott Berkun is the author of The Myths of Innovation and Making Things Happen. A prolific writer, Berkun blogs at his own web site and contributes to many other sites including BusinessWeek and Harvard Business Review. He is also an in-demand speaker and his experiences on the speaking circuit are captured in his most recent book, Confessions of a Public Speaker. Before he became a full-time writer and speaker, Berkun worked at Microsoft as a project manager. His latest gig is with Automattic, a small company that’s made a huge impact in the blogging domain.

Berkun’s communications are refreshingly genuine, thought-provoking and insightful. One of his most popular essays is How to detect bullshit. I have a great deal of respect for the way in which Scott connects with his audiences. People that know me well know that I am all for an absence of bullshit. When I sent Scott my book in consideration of an endorsement, I was a little concerned but hopeful. Scott pulls no punches and if he thought the book was bullshit I trusted that he would say so.

Fortunately for me, Scott’s a self-confessed jazz fan and he appreciates the idea of drawing parallels between diverse domains. He was kind enough to provide a pithy quote and it was perfect for the cover of the book. Most recently Scott interviewed me for his blog. While you’re at this site, check out the numerous other posts (he recently celebrated his 1000th blog post) and the longer essays. You may not agree with everything Scott Berkun writes but his musings are sure to get you thinking.

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect those of the author’s employers and/or clients or any of their respective clients. Your use of this content is governed by this site’s Terms of Use.

John Goldsby: collaborating from the bottom up

Jun 14, 2010 by

This is the second in a series of posts introducing people who have endorsed the Jazz Process book. The first post in this series introduced jazz biographer and linguistics professor, Jack Chambers. For this post I have the pleasure of writing about jazz bassist, John Goldsby.

Goldsby was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky. In 1980 he moved to New York where he stayed for almost fifteen years, performing and recording with many great musicians as both a sideman and a leader. In 1994, he moved to Cologne, Germany to become the resident bassist in the Westdeutscher Rundfunk Big Band (Cologne Radio Big Band), a position he still holds today. The Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) is the television and radio station in the Nordrhein-Westphalia area of Germany. It is run as a “public” radio station but has a much broader scope than PBS in the United States. In addition to the Big Band, the WDR also employs two full-time symphony orchestras and a choir.

For the reasons that I will outline in this post, I asked John Goldsby to write the foreword to my book. When I first read what he had written, I was genuinely moved and impressed although not surprised. The purpose of any foreword is to make a case for the book. One of the most effective approaches is to riff on the book’s themes. This is, in essence, what a jazz musician does when collaborating in a musical performance. When jazz musicians formulate original statements they draw on ideas that others have put forward or passed on. In some cases they do this deliberately and in others they may not realize or recall their source of inspiration. In his literary performance, Goldsby identified many of the key themes that I offer up in the book and combined them not only with his own ideas but with the ideas of others that he has picked up over the years. For example, in riffing on the theme of trust he recalled something that legendary bassist Ron Carter had explained to him about Carter’s experience playing with Miles Davis. Just as he would in a musical context, Goldsby drew on a collective of ideas and crafted an engaging statement that compels the reader to tune into the sections of the performance that follow. As an author I could not have asked for more.

Goldsby is one of the foremost jazz bassists of our time. He’s certainly a virtuoso of his instrument but there’s far more to this musician than just great bass chops and tasty solos. Whether he’s leading his own innovative projects or supporting and reinforcing the efforts of others, Goldsby’s reputation is that of a consummate collaborator. Karolina Strassmayer, a superb alto saxophonist, has worked with Goldsby in a wide variety of situations, from the WDR Big Band to Goldsby’s quartet to Strassmayer’s quartet and everything in between. She was effusive when describing her experiences working with Goldsby:

John is one of the most supportive musicians I’ve ever played with. He always seems to know what the music needs and knows how to lift the music. He can shine in such a variety of musical contexts without ever sacrificing his individual style. He’s a fantastic bandleader, he knows what he wants to get from his tunes but leaves plenty of freedom for the players to express themselves.

What makes Goldsby such a great collaborator? Listen to him perform and you’ll hear how well he plays a supportive role. His bass lines are always anchoring the ensemble, giving others the freedom to explore uncharted territory. He’s ever mindful of what the soloists and the ensemble are doing, responding to their improvisational forays and on occasion, urging them to greater heights. When he takes his turn out front, he plays delightfully groovy and lyrical solos that increase the value of the band’s offering. More impressively and importantly, he moves effortlessly between leading and following as the music demands. The ability of individuals to transition smoothly between these roles allows a team to exploit decentralized leadership and act with greater agility. I wrote about decentralized leadership in a recent post: Top talent and decentralized leadership.

Goldsby is particularly knowledgeable about the history of jazz and the role of the bass in jazz. His book, The Jazz Bass Book — Technique and Tradition, is the definitive study of jazz bassists. I was at a talk Goldsby gave in Toronto some years ago where he was introduced by Todd Coolman, another world-class jazz bassist. Coolman is himself somewhat of an authority on the jazz bass tradition and he was quick to point out that much of Goldby’s success comes from his knowledge of jazz bass history. In 1993, shortly before moving to Germany, Goldsby released Tale of the Fingers, a quartet album in which he assumed leadership duties. The album pays tribute to many of the great jazz bassists of yesteryear, demonstrating Goldsby’s respect for the jazz bass tradition. Knowing history is important. It gives you the opportunity to repeat past successes and avoid past mistakes. It’s also an essential path in innovation. You can’t be original without knowing what has already been said. This is particularly true in the business world, where innovators use patents to keep others from exploiting their novel inventions. Novelty of a patent is determined by searching for prior art, the body of knowledge relevant to the patent’s claims of originality, including other patents and publicly accessible descriptions or demonstrations of other inventions. If a patent is granted and it turns out that prior art was overlooked, the patent may be invalidated or reduced in scope. In some countries, inventors even have a duty to disclose pertinent prior art with the relevant patent office. Goldsby’s ability to craft a compelling foreword to a book or a compelling solo leverages his knowledge of what others have said and done.

Goldsby’s appreciation for jazz across time is matched by an appreciation for jazz across cultures. Jazz blogger, pianist and fellow Ottawan, Peter Hum, identified Goldsby’s insightful thinking about the global nature of jazz in a blog post written late last year. Why is this so noteworthy? Empathy for the experience and perspective of others is essential to effective collaboration and it is the hallmark of a truly great leader. Empathy also has great value in understanding and conquering competitors. U.S. Army officer, Major Brian L. Steed notes this in his book, Piercing the Fog of War: Recognizing Change on the Battlefield: Lessons from Military History, 216 BC Through Today. Steed writes: “One area of particular importance in contemporary conflict is developing empathy for the opponent.” In noting how the U.S. has conducted international relations he makes this important point:

Seeing the world from a single perspective and making assessments from that perspective have resulted in failure after failure in the U.S. experience. This is especially true when the conflict occurs with an opponent from a culture significantly different from U.S. or European cultures. Korea, Vietnam, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq are all examples of areas that have presented and are presenting difficulties.

In making the move from New York to Cologne and the WDR, Goldsby not only crossed cultural divides but gained unique experience as a member of a large ensemble. Nowadays there are only a handful of jazz orchestras active enough that they can afford to retain a complete complement of full-time musicians and each of these bands employs just one bassist. In his position with the WDR Big Band, Goldsby is part of an organization employing hundreds of musicians but he also has the freedom to pursue his own small-group projects. Some of Goldsby’s notable albums featuring him as a leader include Viewpoint, a 2000 release featuring a sextet, Space for the Bass, a 2009 album featuring a quintet, with each musician hailing from a different country (Strassmayer plays on this one), and The Innkeeper’s Gun, an exciting bass-drums-alto-trio excursion released just this year. There are many musicians who shun large ensembles just as there are people who do not wish to work for large companies. There’s nothing wrong with that but it’s important to understand that both small and large teams have their upsides and downsides. At least in the purely acoustic realm, no small group can match the huge range of dynamics and timbres that a large ensemble can generate. When I started out in the software industry, I consulted to a number of large companies including my current employer, IBM. Dealing with such bureaucracy, I swore I would never work for a large organization again. Years later, the small company that I worked for was acquired by IBM. I came to realize that there are many things we simply could not have done without the resources of a large corporation.

A strong practitioner, an innovative and inspiring leader who knows when to let others take the lead, an appreciation for the old and the new, an understanding of cultural differences, and the ability to excel in both small and large teams. In business, this kind of experience would make John Goldsby an ideal CEO. I was not surprised when John told me he reads a lot of business books. John is truly one of the best jazz musicians around and his music is engaging and highly approachable. This is no doubt helped by the fact that his skills as collaborator allow him to attract top talent and inspire them to deliver great performances. Check out some of his recordings to hear the results.

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect those of the author’s employers and/or clients or any of their respective clients. Your use of this content is governed by this site’s Terms of Use.

Jack Chambers: a passion for language and learning

May 20, 2010 by

This is the first in a series of posts introducing people who have endorsed the Jazz Process book.

To those in the world of jazz he is Jack Chambers, jazz biographer and journalist, perhaps best known as the author of Milestones: The Music and Times of Miles Davis, the definitive biography of the pioneering jazz trumpeter. The book was first published in 1983 and 1985 by Beech Tree Books and was instantly a classic. Intricately researched, rich in detail, superbly organized and thoroughly engaging, the book is so good that copious parts of it somehow ended up in the autobiography penned by Davis and Quincy Troupe. Chambers addressed this issue in a new introduction he wrote for the book when it was republished in in 1998 by Da Capo Press. His latest jazz literary masterwork, Bouncin’ With Bartok: The Incomplete Works of Richard Twardzik, is a biography of jazz pianist, Richard Twardzik. Unlike Davis who is possibly the most well known of jazz legends, Twardzik is known by few and his brilliant career was cut short at the age of 24 when he died of a heroin overdose while on a European tour with Chet Baker. To accurately recount the short career of a little known figure is no small feat but Chambers did it as brilliantly as he does everything else.

Chambers’s knowledge of jazz is far-ranging and over the years he has written about many other jazz musicians including Duke Ellington and Gil Evans. I was fortunate enough to have Jack present at a Gil Evans tribute concert I presented a few years ago. He contributed to the programme notes and I took the opportunity to have him sign my copy of Milestones. That was the first time, and to date the only time, I have asked an author to sign a book and I look forward to returning the favor soon.

As notable as Chambers’s contributions are to jazz, writing about his favorite music is not his only gig. As J.K. Chambers he is known as a professor, researcher and author in the field of linguistics. He has pioneered research in Canadian English and has been a visiting professor at universities throughout the world. He has also parlayed his expertise into linguistics into a third career as a forensics consultant, testifying as an expert witness on such esoteric topics such as the language of pornography at obscenity trials.

Whether it’s jazz or linguistics, Chambers has excelled through his passion for learning and sharing knowledge. His response to the question, Is there a connection between language and music for you?” posed in a 2005 interview, is insightful:

But music and language do have common ground. Both have syntax and phonology, and if I am good at talking about them it is because I can use the same analytic skills on both. Linguistic structure is, of course, hard-wired and irrepressibly human. Musical structure is not hard-wired but learned, and learned with great effort for the greatest practitioners. But it is also uniquely human, and I suspect that it takes its form by spinning off our language faculty, like a kind of satellite. And jazz is especially language-like, because musicians use the syntax and phonology to construct motifs (phrases and sentences) and melodies (discourses) that no one has ever heard before, and they do it spontaneously, just as speakers do in ordinary conversation, except that at its very best it is more like a poem than like ordinary conversation. And how they do it, no one knows. Every three-year-old can do that with language. But only the most gifted musicians can do it in music.

It’s always a pleasure and a learning experience to read anything that Jack has written. Of course the subject matter is usually of great interest but the man knows his way around words as you would expect him to and his turn of phrase is always artful. I actually found it quite daunting to contribute to programme notes alongside his writing. It was similar intimidating to ask him to review my manuscript with the thought of providing an endorsement. Ever the gentleman he not only provided a testimonial but with just a few simple words, “Adrian– You write as well as you do all those other things,” he encouraged a budding author.

If you’ve not read Milestones, I encourage you to put it on your reading list as it is simply one of the best jazz biographies around and everyone can do well to know about Miles Davis. If you’ve read Milestones, check out Bouncin’ With Bartok for a rare insight into the lost talent of Dick Twardzik. You can also find Chambers’s jazz writing in Coda magazine.

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect those of the author’s employers and/or clients or any of their respective clients. Your use of this content is governed by this site’s Terms of Use.

The book cometh

May 15, 2010 by

Last Friday I was in London, Ontario speaking about the Jazz Process at a PMI Symposium. After my talk I offhandedly tweeted that the book would be out soon. A number of people asked me for more details and I thought it would be good to share them on this blog.

The camera-ready manuscript was sent to the printers on May 6th. Books are due to arrive in the publisher’s warehouses on June 3rd and should be available from booksellers shortly thereafter. If all goes according to schedule a special shipment will be sent to the IBM Innovate conference in Orlando, Florida. The book is being published by Pearson Education under the Addison-Wesley imprint. Pearson Education is a division of Pearson, the largest publisher of books in the UK, India, Australia and New Zealand and the second largest in the USA and Canada. Although the Addison-Wesley imprint is typically employed for information technology titles, this book will carry suggested categories of Innovation/Collaboration/Management on the back. On a related note, the Library of Congress cataloging information lists the following as the book’s subjects: 1. Teams in the workplace, 2. Diversity in the workplace, 3. Organizational effectiveness, 4. Communication.

It took me about 18 months to write the book. Based on initial velocity I had estimated that I might have it done early last year but I ended up getting sidetracked by many other projects. From the outset I was adamant that I would not write anymore than was necessary. I really dislike reading books with fluff and filler. Consequently I was a bit concerned that I might not have enough words to present a volume of substance. I ended up with about 110,000 words. The initial book design was a larger format with minimal white space. This was the complete opposite of what I wanted. I pushed for a smaller, more portable format with enough white space to ensure a high degree of readability. Based on these design changes they had projected the book would come in at 390 pages but it’s just under 300 with all the front matter, bibliography and index. That’s a perfect size in my mind so I’m very happy with the result. The book will be published in a 6 x 9″ paperback format with 264 pages of content (not including the front matter), 20 figures and over 10 pages of cited works.

The process of writing the book was not unlike a jazz performance. In the chapter entitled Maintain Momentum, I make the point that you must have form in any performance or project. From the outset I knew all the points I wanted to make and I had detailed the purpose of each chapter in my initial proposal to Pearson back in 2008. Despite all of this structure, the process of populating the form with content was very organic and very improvised. In the course of making my points and expressing my perspective on various matters I found myself writing about all kinds of topics that I had not expected. It was very much a journey and one that I enjoyed immensely. One benefit of all the writing and researching was that I was able to further develop many of the important points. This has made it a easier for me to present a compelling argument and that’s useful for my presentations and other writing.

I feel very fortunate that I was able to secure a contract with a good publisher. I know people who have self-published and it didn’t take me long to rule out that option. In my mind, whatever additional in-hand revenue I might have given up was more than worth it to get a polished product and widespread distribution. Pearson supported me through the entire process, ensuring that things were just the way I wanted them. They had a great team working on all aspects of the book including editing, illustrations, copy, layout, cover design, proofreading, promotion and so forth. That said, even with a good publisher, an author must take responsibility for finding and fixing errata just as a software developer should take responsibility for finding and fixing bugs in his or her code. Even after Pearson were done with proofreading, further passes on my end (with help from friends and family) found over 70 mistakes. It’s possible some minor bugs still exist in the text but we deemed it good enough to ship. The editing process really was very much like delivering a software project. After delivering a “feature complete” prototype we went through many iterations of testing (proofreading) and fixing. There were seven iterations in fact and with each pass we found and fixed less bugs. There were occasionally regressions, especially in the first iteration of editing. As a result of fixing one thing, other bugs were inadvertently introduced.

An important part of publishing a book is obtaining endorsements. They are considered to be an essential element in the marketing of any book. To be honest, this was not something that I was looking forward to as I didn’t want to get drawn down the wrong path. Many books have a large number of endorsements but I wanted quality over quantity. Most of all I wanted genuine testimonials. I read so many book endorsements that are over the top. In many cases more importance is given to the public identity of endorsers than what they write. None of the endorsers I chose are household names but they are people whose work I greatly respect and their affirmation means a great deal to me. I look forward to writing about these thought leaders in the near future.

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect those of the author’s employers and/or clients or any of their respective clients. Your use of this content is governed by this site’s Terms of Use.

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