I wrote a book. It's called Users Not Customers, and it's being published by Portfolio/Penguin, on sale October 27, 2011. By itself, this isn't such an unusual thing. About a half a million books are published each year on a global basis. But for people who know me, it is quite odd: I'm CEO of HUGE, a digital agency, where we spend all day helping people move their businesses to the Internet. In fact my entire career has been in the interactive space, where I've been a management consultant, technology entrepreneur and venture capitalist—in each case my job was building new cutting-edge, digital businesses. I even work hard to lead as close to a paperless life as I can. And now, I find myself in the unusual, heretical position of arguing the value of an analog, hard-cover bound, 256-paged product.
Let’s start at the beginning. I wrote a book because I had a big idea. I not only wanted to explain that companies need to focus on users to be successful in today’s digitally-driven economy, but I also wanted to illustrate a formula for becoming a user-first company that extends through all aspects of the organization. This was not something I could sum up in a sound bite. I needed room to linearly explain complex, make-it-or-break-it strategies that could save businesses from collapse. Looking at the media landscape, I realized that books are still, after thousands of years, the only way to comprehensively communicate a big idea. Anything digital just wouldn’t cut it.
The Internet has created no shortage of ways to communicate and share information. But at its core, it's a short-form medium, where people go to get innumerable, frequent snacks of information. Two-minute videos, uploaded PowerPoint presentations, short articles and blog posts are great for expressing straightforward messages. But some ideas are worth diving into to really flesh out arguments, concepts, and nuance. That can't happen in a Tweet. Case in point, since writing the book, I’ve written articles summarizing key concepts in the book. I’ve tweeted, filmed short videos, blogged, and done public speaking engagements. But none of these morsels, nor all of these morsels put together, effectively communicates the whole.
Fred Wilson, the venture capitalist who writes the well-read and influential blog AVC, would likely argue against this notion. He has said he has no need to write a book, because his blog is one giant book. “I write a chapter a day and it is available for free for anyone who wants to read it,” he wrote. But blogs lack a linear format, and linear storytelling empowers readers to grasp a full set of knowledge around a particular topic. For example, I could repackage much of AVC into a fantastic narrative about how to build a startup—and any reader of this great library of insights would surely be worthy of funding from Fred himself. But because this content is in blog format, readers never have a chance to do this. Instead they read the latest post, and then move on to whatever’s next in their Twitter feed.
And while I love the Kindle as much as the next person, in my mind there is simply no substitute for reading a printed book. Print books feel substantial; there is a sense of accomplishment when finishing them; and the level of recall and comprehension is significantly better. This has been proven when it comes to news media, and I suspect it’s true for books as well.
In spite of these strengths, books do have a major flaw: timeliness. I proposed writing this book 18 months ago. The manuscript was substantially finished in March. By early June, I couldn't change anything—the words were frozen in time until the October publication date. If I were writing a history book, this wouldn’t be a conundrum. But I was writing about technology companies whose products, services and fates change with incredible speed—Groupon was only on the up and up when I had to put down my pen; Netflix hadn’t toyed with Qwikster; you get the idea. I aspired to solve this problem by communicating the concepts strongly, broadly and clearly enough that specific business events wouldn't change their relevance, accuracy or clarity.
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