against fortune-cookie writing

This article appeared in modified form in the Maven Game newsletter. Sign up here.

After the last Maven Game¸ on dark publishing, went out, I received an email from my foil/nemesis/mentor/guiding light, Matthew Butterick:

It’s interesting that there are so many businesses / services / consultants that want to help self-published authors make books, but fewer (any?) who want to help build those higher-margin products and services around the book. (No sideways criticism of your consultancy intended.)

Matthew: I live for your sideways criticism. Please continue.

Motivated authors like Ms. Gentile and I might consider that “easy.” Most do not. You know how lets you upload artwork, which can then be stamped onto everything from coffee cups to thong underwear, and automatically makes a storefront? I’m surprised that that kind of thing hasn’t emerged for self-published authors. Not least because it would have a better chance of justifying its cost.

If you haven’t read the piece yet, I was basically going on at trademark length about how many authors are selling e-books directly from their websites with all kinds of digital assets thrown in as part of a premium package: videos, podcasts, worksheets, etc. You can’t do that through Amazon and Barnes & Noble, so it’s not really aggregated or tracked anywhere, hence “dark publishing.”

I wrote back:

It goes back to the same issues publishers had with CD-ROMs in the 90s—there is no standardized format or set of assets that readers expect. So usually authors end up gathering up a hodgepodge of ancillary materials (often shoddy) that might once have gone into an appendix or workbook, and then hiring a designer off of to put lipstick on a pig.

This is why the book as a medium is so durable post-digital—it offers a clear set of constraints. Even as a digital asset, readers expect consistency and compatibility with the physical edition. There are standards to meet.

I hesitate to write about this in the newsletter because so many peers and clients do it, but I’ve been consistently disappointed with these free giveaway “e-books” that are de rigueur for newsletter list-building.

Inevitably they consist of a few thousand words of generic, instantly forgettable advice in the form of a tastelessly overdesigned and overinflated PDF.

Yes, technically you’re giving readers a “free 35-page e-book” but if you have to use a 35-point font and enormous margins to do that, what’s the point?

You get the feeling the authors don’t expect the readers to read these, and the readers don’t care what they contain as long as it’s a “free gift for signing up”—it’s like a fortune cookie.

Actually, that’s pretty good. I’ll use that.

A lagniappe is a small gift given to a customer, like a thirteenth donut with every dozen. The word derives from Spanish, but the practice, in one form or another, has been around since Moses got a 10th commandment for the price of nine. (Ironically, he coveted that one.)

Gifts, no matter how small, exert a profound subconscious effect on us; merchants have long known that “a little something extra” goes a long way with customers. Gifts create good will, repeat business, referrals.

The problem is, once one shopkeeper starts lagniapping, the competition does, too. That charming little surprise with purchase becomes customary. Over time, the thirteenth donut degenerates into a fortune cookie. After all, if the customer isn’t actually paying for it, why bother investing any money, effort, or time in making it good? Let’s just give him a stale sugar cracker filled with lies.

Fortune cookies aren’t really food—they’re just food-shaped objects intended to fulfill an obligation as cheaply and efficiently as possible. “Free e-books” are the fortune cookie of today’s authors.

For aspiring thought leaders, this is widely touted as a best practice. In the interests of “conversion, we dutifully create book-shaped objects to “thank” new subscribers to our email lists. We don’t put the good stuff in there, of course. We just recycle the ideas that are already all over our sites and puff them up to a bare minimum length with fortune-cookie writing: stale, crumbly, with a hint of vanilla. Once the document feels substantial enough—sort of—we throw it into our newsletter software and wait for the conversion rate to climb.

What’s the harm? After all, who doesn’t love free stuff they don’t want?

Have you ever tried to actually read one of these free e-books? If you have, have you also gotten into the habit of routinely discarding the new ones you get, because why bother? Another iPhone, another pair of shitty white earbuds in the garbage.

The thing is, making a book, an actual book, is hard work. The word “book” came to connote the things it does when these were exclusively physical objects that, by default, called for a certain amount of effort and vetting. Now that you can take 500 words of lorem ipsum, save it as an EPUB, and call it a book, it’s like we’ve gotten something for nothing—an easily manufactured item that connotes value without actually delivering any.

Yet, despite all this abuse, readers continue to demand more of the things we call books. Authors should demand more of themselves when they write them. Don’t go whipping something book-shaped together just because the customer expects a fortune cookie in return for their e-mail address. When you label a 10-page, over-designed assemblage of “tips” a book, you do yourself a disservice.

After all, at some point you’re going to want these people to buy one of your actual books. Isn’t that the whole point of getting them to sign up in the first place? They visited your site because they were curious about you and your ideas, because they’d read something you’ve written or something someone’s written about you.

So you give them this fortune cookie because the metrics show you an improved conversion rate. What the metrics don’t show you is the slight frown as they crack open the cookie, read the fortune, roll their eyes, and leave the crumbled mess behind on the table.

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