When I am exploring a nonfiction book idea with a new client, one of the first things we discuss is the hook. What makes your book different from the hundreds of others that also deal with your topic? What can you do to grab the attention of the potential buyer? In all honesty, a lot of clients struggle in this conversation, and it goes back to the point I made about originality in an earlier post (Tony Robbins Doesn't Need Your Help): although you may not have a unique subject, you can be unique in how you address it.
A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon a book with spine that struck me as truly different: Chapter One: You Have the Power to Change Stuff by Daniel Flynn (Thankyou Group, 2016). Flynn's business, thankyou., began by selling water to help alleviate the world's water crisis and now sells more than 55 products to support a campaign to end poverty. According to Flynn, he began his company with no business experience, only an awareness of global poverty and the simple question, "What if that were me?" Unlike many social enterprises, thankyou. gives 100 percent of its profit to its mission. Respect.
Flynn states that the purpose of Chapter One is to encourage readers to "Dream with us. Write with us. Change stuff with us." This book fits within the social entrepreneurship genre that will feature prominently in this blog (Walk a Mile in Blake Mycoskie's Shoes), but it takes a really interesting approach and has several "hooks" I've never seen before. If the company itself is half as innovative as the approach it took to this book, it could do amazing things for the world.
One. Unlike Mycoskie's book that was written when his business had become successful, Flynn's book is about his brand's beginnings ... hence the title, Chapter One. His idea is that he will write sequels (Chapter Two, Chapter Three, and so on, presumably), chronicling the fortunes of the company as it grows. It's a brave move, given the high failure rate of startups, but I like the idea that, over time, Flynn will create a complete business biography.
Two. There is no recommended retail price; instead, people pay what that want to. By asking purchasers, "How much are you willing to invest in an idea that could change history?", some people may pay a dollar, but others might pay thousands simply because they believe in the company's mission and want it to continue doing good work. The "pay what you like" approach was possible because, cleverly, the company pitched the idea to Australia's largest book retailer, which liked what the company was trying to do. I haven't seen the sales figures on this and can't say how effective the idea has been, but I'm impressed by Flynn's commitment to thinking differently about bookselling, a mindset which reflects his entire business ethos. (The downside, of course, is that selling via Amazon and other such platforms won't allow buyers to pay what they like.)
Three. The interior of the print edition is laid out horizontally. This is the most gimmicky aspect of Flynn's approach, which he spends some time justifying at the start of the book. Just as with the pay-whatever tactic, the purpose of the landscape layout is to challenge the reader to depart from the norm and think differently, however uncomfortable that may be. It's a great idea for the printed version, but readers of the ebook have to settle for imagining the reading experience that Flynn describes in the introduction.
Chapter One shows that you do not have to confine your "hook" to the content. There are other ways to differentiate a book from the crowded literary category you might be competing in. But beware: a hook can too easily become a gimmick if it's not done in the proper spirit. However, I believe Flynn gets away with the gimmicks because they fit squarely within thankyou.'s business model, which is founded in thinking outside the box, and I sincerely hope that the company is around long enough for us to find out what interesting ways Flynn can find to write Chapter Two and many more chapters thereafter.
Book Review: Start Something That Matters (Random House, 2011)
At the start of 2018, I made it my resolution to read one fiction and nonfiction book per month for pleasure. Now, that may not sound many, but I probably read at least two other books per week as part of my day job, so it’s a realistic goal rather than an ideal one.
In February, I chose Start Something That Matters, by the founder of the TOMS shoe brand, Blake Mycoskie. It's been in publication for seven years now, but I only came across it recently and was curious. I was interested in it because social entrepreneurship is such a growth area, and since TOMS launched, other “one-for-one” initiatives have sprung up. Did TOMS invent that model? Perhaps not, but it is certainly the highest profile example, and as such, it has undoubtedly inspired other for-profit companies that give one of whatever they sell to someone in need, including Warby Parker (eye glasses) and Smile Squared (toothbrushes).
Having worked in the nonprofit sector for 15 years and seen the struggle organizations have in raising funds, I LOVE the “conscious capitalism” movement. Companies like TOMS would never replace the not-for-profit sector, which often plays such a critical political role, but social entrepreneurs are adding something valuable to the philanthropic landscape. I have high hopes that, one day, giving will lie at the heart of every successful business and that corporations that don’t follow suit will simply not survive.
Mycoskie’s book is a clear attempt to influence people of his generation and younger to follow his lead. He says, “I feel a deep responsibility to share everything we have learned at TOMS, so that as many others as possible can start something important.” It could have been a straightforward business biography, with some advice thrown in, but in keeping with his view of the world, Mycoskie explores a range of other inspiring stories of mission-driven people with a simple idea who are making a difference.
“Simple” is a key message of the book. You cannot save the world yourself, but you CAN solve one of its problems. It’s a powerful point. Mycoskie had a lightbulb moment in 2002 while on a trip to Argentina. He liked to wear the locally made alpargata shoe and thought they would have a market in the United States. But then he discovered that local children were walking barefoot to school, and he realized how much easier and more comfortable the kids’ lives would be if only they had shoes, which is something we all take for granted in the affluent West. In 2006, TOMS carried out its first “shoe drop” of 10,000 pairs in Argentina and the brand was truly born.
The book is a useful guide and giver of inspiration. However, it’s not the most riveting read. My principal criticism of the book is that the writing is somewhat sterile, and I don’t get a clear impression of Mycoskie. He had a cowriter, which may explain this absence of voice. This is an issue for people who have something to say but need a cowriter or ghostwriter to say it for them, and even the best ghostwriter in the world will still act as a filter (perhaps unconsciously) that sifts out some of the nuance of an individual’s voice. But in this case, I doubt “voice” was Mycoskie’s main concern. He set out to honor his responsibility to share the TOMS experience, not blow his own trumpet, and he achieved it. And, if you yearn to start something that matters, you should definitely add this book to your reading list.
In June 2002, Kyra Oliver experienced the worst tragedy imaginable: the loss of a child. The death of Hayes, Kyra’s four-month-old son, as a result of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), was a catastrophic event that prompted her to embark upon a personal healing journey focused on helping other parents understand SIDS and on her health and wellbeing.
The journey began with the Hayes Foundation, which Kyra established just a few months following Hayes’s passing, with monetary donations that she requested be given in place of floral tributes. Four years later came the “This Side Up” campaign that provided invaluable SIDS information for parents of new-borns. During this time, Kyra turned to extreme fitness as a way to find strength and community. She says, “I realized there was no way I was going to be able to handle this pain that I will have the rest of my life if I didn’t take care of myself. I feel so lucky that I saw this and felt it. I didn’t even realize just how amazing it could be at the time, but I did know that I had to take care of myself. I had to be healthy in order to survive.” This move toward physical health ultimately led Kyra to establish Your Own Utopia (y.o.u.), a business that focuses on helping individuals find the wellness approach the works best for them.
For about 10 years, Kyra had been working on a book about her experiences and insights. “I knew that I needed to get this information out, and it was kind of in my head for a while. Then finally I started writing stuff down and typing it up. It just kept nagging at me, ‘You’ve got to get this thing done, but how can I get this focus?’” While she struggled with her book, a friend had noticed some inspirational material that Kyra had been posting on Facebook and encouraged her to use them as the basis of a different book. And so, this shorter book became her first; however, the book she truly needed to write was still unfinished.
Finally, Kyra realized the way to get it done. “I work really, really well with deadlines,” Kyra says. “You give me a deadline, it gets done.” After this epiphany, she decided to set a release date for the book of June 11, 2018; the anniversary of her son’s death. Having the date to work towards gave her all the impetus she needed to complete the book: “I have a lot of work to do, but it’s going be released! It is called Lifestyle That Feels Good: Finding y.o.u. (Your Own Utopia).”
It is a book that pushes the message of wellness and how to achieve it based on what works best for individuals, including recipes and fitness suggestions, and positive mindset. The first book, entitled 8 Ways of Being: How To Motivate Yourself to Live Happy and Free Every Day, was released early this year, on January 23, which is another significant date because it’s Hayes’s birthday.
By using these key dates, Kyra found a way to not only make the books available but also make them part of Hayes’s story. Most importantly, though, her books are a gift that share a message of healing with other people. Kyra says, “While my growth has been huge—I’ve worked really hard at that growth—my intention is to give back and to try to create a better world.”
And books that are at once cathartic and generous are true books with spine.
(A digital version of Kyra's first book, 8 Ways of Being: How To Motivate Yourself to Live Happy and Free Every Day is available on Amazon now. The print version will be available on Amazon in March.)
Whenever a nonfiction manuscript arrives in my inbox for editing, I usually can’t wait to dive in: I’m excited not only to iron out any kinks in the prose but also to learn something. Recently, I’ve gained insights into living with dementia, alcoholism, and terminal cancer (and I should add that none of these books were miserable—they were all incredibly inspirational!). From a less emotional standpoint, I have learned about the craziness of being an HR specialist, the exploits of a nineteenth century American rogue, and working in the music industry.
But there is one kind of book I find it hard to muster much enthusiasm for: books about “financial freedom.” There a LOT of books on that subject around, it seems. It’s not the subject, per se (who doesn’t dream of financial freedom?); it’s the fact that the books I come across are all predictably similar. They all talk about setting goals, shifting one’s mind, and investing in real estate. It was interesting the first couple of times, but now it’s so rote that it’s deathly tedious.
To add some excitement to the process, I’ve begun to place little bets with myself as to what page range I might find the first reference to Tony Robbins or Robert Kyosaki. There are few others, too, but those dudes are the two most oft repeated names. A passing reference is irritating enough, but I am willing to let it slide. It’s a different matter, however, when I see whole passages given over to regurgitating the teachings of these “masters,” and I become incredibly hot under the collar.
So angry, Lorna! Chill, sister. Why do you care?
I guess this aggravates me for two reasons.
1. It shows a lack of original thought on the behalf of the writer. No “book with spine” relies too heavily on the wisdom and experience of other authors; it has its own contribution to make to the world. I don’t know much about Kyosaki, but after watching a documentary about Robbins, I know he has a uniquely powerful voice (in a literal sense, too; it’s as if he’s just finished smoking a 4-foot cigar), and any mention of him in your book will just make you sound like a follower, not a leader, and undermine your authority about your subject. After all, who was it said, “It is not the acolyte who sets the world alight”? Me. I said that. I just made it up as I typed. See? It’s easy to be original (if not especially profound...).
2. The likes of Robbins and Kyosaki DO NOT NEED HELP. They are more than capable of making their own book sales without free promotional support from unknown authors. According to Worth magazine’s 2016 “The Power 100,” Robbins is already worth $500 million and his many businesses generate $6 billion annual revenue. So, no, please don’t help him out. I think it’s safe to assume he wouldn’t do the same for you. I’m even annoyed I’m giving these guys some free publicity here! But I’m doing it to make a point, so I guess it's okay.
I’m not saying it is wrong to be inspired by people, and, let's face it, a completely original thought is a mythical creature that lives with the unicorns, but it is still possible to be endlessly original in the way you express those thoughts. So, put your own special spin on everything, and rid your writing of cliché and the likes of Tony Robbins forever! And if you get it right, you’ll be the one other authors can’t resist quoting … and then you know your message has set the world alight.
The business of all nonprofits, whatever their social or cultural mission, is publishing. From newsletters and blogs to reports and grant applications, nonprofits are having to continuously put out a range of publications in order to tell their stories and reach new audiences. Science Connected is the one nonprofit I've worked with that understood this perfectly, but that's because publishing is its core objective.
Science Connected – based in San Francisco – is the passion project of founder Kate Stone, who set out on a mission nearly a decade ago to make academic research more accessible to the general public. Becoming a nonprofit in 2016, Science Connected publishes Gotscience.org, an online science magazine (which I have had the honor of copyediting in the past), but the organization recently broadened its publishing remit to include downloadable teaching resources and now, for the first time, books.
I asked Kate to tell us about the first title to be released by Science Connected, Think Globally, Garden Locally, a book about pollinators and responsible horticulture.
(By the way, all profits from the sale of the book go to support Science Connected education programs, so CLICK THE IMAGE ABOVE to get yourself a copy today!)
Lorna Walsh: Describe the book for us. Why is the topic so important?
Kate Stone: The book is about how to welcome pollinators into your garden, grow food without pesticides, explore the relationship between chemicals and bee deaths, and meet a scientist who became a beekeeper. Available in full-color paperback and Kindle e-book, this book includes an annotated bibliography of additional resources for readers who want to learn even more about sustainable food production and protecting our pollinators.
Thanks to the support of the Clif Bar Family Foundation, Science Connected is ensuring that all citizens can access science information and education, learn about the world we all share, and participate in meaningful discourse about science, nature, and environmental sustainability. Agriculture is adapting to changing environmental conditions and consumers want healthy, sustainable food options, so access to scientifically accurate and easy-to-read material can positively impact in the products we create, the food we grow and buy, and the way we treat our planet.
LW: What tools and resources did you use to create the book?
KS: Crucially, we received a grant from the Clif Bar Family Foundation, which enabled us to assemble a team of science communicators to research and write the first GotScience Magazine special series and book about urban gardening, sustainable agriculture, and healthy pollinators.
Our designers used Adobe InDesign to assemble the print version of the book and the latest Kindle Direct Publishing tools to build the Kindle version.
LW: As a first-time book publisher, what were the challenges involved in this project?
KS: In addition to our usual team of writers, editors, and web developers, we had to assemble a new team with experience in print and e-book development. There are many different e-book formats and tools currently in use, so we had many lengthy discussions about which ones to target in our first project. Also, since GotScience Magazine is published solely in digital form, image resolution is optimized for electronic delivery. To publish a print book, we had to replace images with print-quality versions.
This book took just over a year from concept to upload, so the project was a big time commitment. A book is also a financial commitment, and we invested about $5,000 its production.
A lot goes on behind the scenes of producing a book. Any nonprofit should consider if you want to do the publication work in-house or work with an established publisher. Educate yourselves about the details involved in each option!
LW: Science Connected has been publishing GotScience.org online for some time, so where does book publishing now fit within Science Connected’s strategy?
KS: We believe that cultivating an informed citizenry is vital to democracy, and the mission of Science Connected is to create equal access to scientific research and STEM education for all learners. Expanding our publishing efforts to include e-books and print books further supports our goal of providing widespread public access to the latest scientific research.
Book publishing will help us in our mission to build bridges between citizens and scientists thus expanding scientific knowledge for the benefit of people and the planet. Science Connected values lifelong learning, equal access, conservancy, and empowering others to make informed choices to support a healthy planet. Nearly 1,000 teachers and parents have downloaded our science education materials. (You can access those through our STEM Education Resource Center.)
Our team of science education experts also collaborates with other organizations to produce science education resources for parents and teachers worldwide. For example, we wrote the teaching guide that accompanies this new book from the Marie Curie Alumni Association: https://www.mariecuriealumni.eu/news/mcaas-my-super-science-heroes-book-series-coming-soon.
Welcome to the first ever Books with Spine Blog post!
I thought I'd better begin by explaining that “books with spine” is more than simply a play on words: it’s a genre.
In this blog, I’ll be talking about books written by authors who – whether or not they realized it at the time of writing – created something of social importance and inspired change. I will explore how books continue to touch our lives, looking at some of the most inspiring stories to be found in the field of mission-driven publishing, and my posts will fall into one or more of the following categories:
• Social enterprise
I’ll be mostly writing about nonfiction on this blog because, as a professional ghostwriter and editor, nonfiction is my bread and butter. However, that's not to say I don't recognize the awesome power of make-believe; you only have to read Alice Walker’s The Color Purple or George Orwell’s 1984 to appreciate the world-changing impact that fiction can have. Ultimately, whether rooted in fact or imagination, all great literature deals with truth, and the only difference is that nonfiction’s currency is real life and fiction’s is the lifelike (and, yes, even fantasy can be lifelike).
I hope you enjoy reading the blog and will recommend it to others. Oh, and if you have a story relevant to this blog, pitch it to me!