I can hardly believe it, but my manuscript is officially in production and pre-orders for my book Building a Second Brain (BASB) will open in just TWO WEEKS, on Tuesday, Nov. 16!!!
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If you’re just joining, I’m working on a book called Building a Second Brain. See here for the initial announcement amd here for my last update.
You’ve probably heard many authors plead for pre-orders, but today I want to explain why they are absolutely pivotal to the success of a book today. I had never heard the full reasoning until recently, and it sheds a lot of light on how a new idea becomes the “next big thing.”.
When I first decided to go the traditional publishing route, the deciding factor was that I thought a published book would have a much greater shot at gaining widespread, mainstream exposure.
My biggest challenge with the concept of a “Second Brain” has always been its validity and credibility – Is this something everyone should do, or just a few oddball nerds? Is this a valuable skill or a waste of effort? Is it a marker of competence and professionalism, or just a sign that you have way too much time on your hands?
This is the challenge that every new idea has to overcome: whether it will take its place in the pantheon of respectable thinking, or be banished to the intellectual backwaters of society. This is sometimes known as the Overton Window, referring to the range of ideas that are considered acceptable to discuss and pay attention to. Anything “outside the Overton Window” is not considered politically correct or socially acceptable.
So our main challenge is, can the concept of “building a Second Brain” make it through the Overton Window?
To be clear, this is a very formidable challenge. Only a tiny percentage of ideas ever make it that far. It takes a number of factors, all working together at the same time and converging right at the moment the mainstream culture is ready to accept it.
As far as I can tell, those factors are:
- A core niche to drive intensity and excitement around the idea
- A portfolio of products and services to meet demand for the new idea
- A book published by the establishment publishing world
- A range of events and gatherings for people to meet and connect socially around the idea
- Signals of credibility and authority from the mainstream media
We already have the core niche – the vibrant community that has formed around PKM, tools for thought, digital notetaking, and “Second Brains,” of which my work is only a small part. We have the first product – our cohort-based live online course by the same name.
The book is the next step in this progression. It is a physical artifact that represents everything a Second Brain stands for – freedom, effectiveness, leverage, self-expression, agency – in a compact physical package that will eventually be available in every format and in multiple countries and languages.
It might seem paradoxical that a bunch of printed pages is the most powerful representation of an idea, which is immaterial. But that is exactly the point – we often underestimate or dismiss ideas because they are immaterial. They don’t seem fully real. When you print words on high-quality paper, in a fancy literary typeface, with majestically wide margins, authoritative-sounding chapter names, the imprint of a respected publishing house that’s been around for a century, and the names of influential thinkers as testimonials, suddenly the idea is given literal weight. We can’t help but treat the idea with more respect when it is surrounded by all these signals of credibility.
We’ve already passed several tests and been “approved” by several gatekeepers. In the process, we’ve gained powerful allies – an influential editor and agent in the self-improvement genre, and a Big 5 publisher with extensive distribution networks.
But now we face a new gauntlet to run – the supply chain.
My publisher will submit my book to all the usual online marketplaces and retail store chains. But that doesn’t guarantee anything. These distributors receive far more books every month than they can possibly feature. So it comes down to a choice – which books are they going to bet on? Which books have a powerful enough draw to bring people into the store? Which books will be unexpectedly popular, such that the store might have some of the limited supply of the book if it runs out?
In this sense, book distributors are like venture capitalists. They want to pick the obvious winners, yes. But even more so, they want to bet on the underdogs who come out of nowhere to win the race. They want to be known by their own customers as forward-thinking and hip to the latest trends. Perhaps most of all, they don’t want to be left out of the next big trendy wave to sweep the reading world.
And I’m not just talking about the managers of bookstores, by the way. Even online stores like Amazon have to make decisions about which books to feature in prominent locations on their website and in emails and in the algorithm. Many bestseller lists such as the New York Times bestseller list aren’t based on sales, but on editorial curation, which means we also want to influence their choices. From corporate buyers at massive distributors like Ingram to airport bookstore reps to Costco procurement specialists to grocery store stockers, the distribution of this book depends on the good favor of thousands of people spread all over the world.
Daunting, isn’t it? What can we do when we are at the mercy of so many far-flung people we will never meet and who are unlikely to appreciate the full implications of this new idea?
There is one thing we can do: we can send a powerful signal that people want this idea, they want the book that delivers it to them, and they will follow through on this desire and order the book before it’s even available.
That signal is pre-orders. Pre-orders are like a shockwave rushing through the book supply chain, telling everyone at every link in the chain what the demand for this book is likely to be.
The most incredible thing about all this is that this early signal tends to be self-fulfilling. If we can turn heads with our pre-order numbers, then distributors will order more copies, which will cause the publisher to print more copies, which will make them invest more in promoting them, which in turn generates more pre-orders, leading to more exposure and attention, creating a flywheel of excitement and enthusiasm that can mean a difference of tens of thousands of copies.
Tens of thousands of copies might not seem like a big deal. Don’t the bestsellers sell millions?
Yes they do, but here’s the thing – ALL of those pre-orders, from Nov. 16 all the way to July 22 when the book is officially released – all of them are counted on Day 1 of the book’s release. Yes, you read that right. If we receive 10,000 pre-orders (which is my goal), it will count as if 10,000 people decided on the very same day to all buy the same book all at once.
Imagine how that looks to the publishing supply chain. It looks like a bomb dropping, or a hurricane making landfall. Depending on its magnitude, they might very well launch new promotional campaigns, push aside other books to make room for this one, and of course, order more copies.
A lot of potential readers look to those lists to decide what book to read next. But not only them – the gatekeepers of the mainstream media look there as well. They want to snag the next up-and-coming author for their morning show, their news segment, or their talk show. Choosing from the bestseller list gives them an insurance policy. They are unlikely to be embarrassed featuring writers who have already proven they know how to speak to a mainstream audience.
A certain amount of mainstream media exposure would unlock unbelievable opportunities to put the ideas of BASB in front of new audiences. Imagine what an appearance on CNBC TV might do for reaching decision makers. Or the possibility of unlocking grants and government funding to pilot this material in schools. Or universities incorporating digital productivity into their curricula so students graduate digitally fluent. Or translating this book into foreign languages, which depends partly on it reaching certain sales milestones.
Do you see now how it works? We can create a chain reaction in the supply chain. A difference of 1,000 or 2,000 in pre-orders might mean a difference of 10,000 or 20,000 sales upon launch, which might mean the difference between making a bestseller list or not, which might very well mean a difference of an order of magnitude in the ultimate reach of this book. And the power to make all that happen lies with you.
Why does this matter? Who cares if “Second Brains” become a mainstream thing? Isn’t it better to keep it small and niche anyway?
The reason it matters to me is because there is a vast swath of people in the world who will only realize the benefits of a Second Brain if they hear about it through their media outlet of choice. They aren’t tech workers or on Twitter or taking online courses on PKM. They are trying to make it through classes in college or high school. They are working in large, bureaucratic industries trying to be more productive against all odds. They are struggling to make a living with their online business so they have more time to spend with their families. They are in foreign countries where the job market provides them so few opportunities, striving to access the abundance offered by the Internet.
I worked and lived among these kinds of people throughout my 20’s. I spent a semester studying abroad and teaching English in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, worked in microfinance in coastal Colombia, and served for two years in the Peace Corps in Ukraine. I tried to teach them what I had of value, the English language, but also saw that it wasn’t enough. There are tools and techniques and ways of thinking that you have to know in order to access the power of the greatest economic and cultural force of our time, the Internet.
These people are the ones who drive me to push this idea as far as it can go. People who don’t yet have access to the benefits of technology-enhanced productivity and creativity. People who stand on the edges of the Internet economy, aren’t taking part in the “great online game,” and aren’t currently empowered by technology to turn their ideas and dreams into reality.
We have this unique chance to send those individuals the gift of knowledge. This is knowledge that unlocks the potential of other knowledge. That unlocks their own potential to find and utilize whatever knowledge they need to solve whatever challenges they face. And we can give them that gift through an act as simple as pre-ordering a book.
If you would be part of the chain reaction we are creating, subscribe below and you’ll be the first to know when pre-orders open on Nov. 16.
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