Leadership expert Jurgen Appelo’s advice to first-time authors is simple: ‘Iterate.’
He goes on to explain: ‘You need a feedback cycle. You need to know as soon as possible whether it is making sense, what you’re writing. People have to read it.’
Jurgen walks the talk, building his community as he wrote #Workout and selling 5,000 highly illustrated books immediately to his own fan base, before it was picked up by a traditional publisher.
This interplay between traditional and self-publishing is one fascinating aspect of this interview, as is the importance of building a platform and community as you write, but there are many other gems such as Jurgen’s approach to illustrating his own book and his up-front permissions policy.
Jurgen’s site: http://jurgenappelo.com/
NOOP.nl blog: http://noop.nl/
Jurgen on Twitter: https://twitter.com/jurgenappelo
Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky
The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/
Alison Jones: Hello, and welcome to the Extraordinary Business Book Club. It’s an absolute pleasure to be here today with Jurgen Appelo who calls himself a creative networker. You could also call him, he says, a writer, speaker, trainer, entrepreneur, illustrator, manager, blogger, reader, dreamer, leader, free thinker, or just a Dutch guy. Inc.com has called him a top 50 leadership expert and a top 100 leadership speaker. He blogs at NOOP.nl offering ideas on the creative economy and agile management, organisational change and personal development, and he’s the author of the book Management 3.0, which describes the role of the manger in agile organisations, and most recently Managing for Happiness, which offers practical ideas to engage workers in proof work and delight clients. Welcome to the show, Jurgen.
Jurgen Appelo: Thank you Alison, great to be here.
Alison Jones: It’s a terrific intro, isn’t it? I like that. Looking at your books and looking at your whole brand online, the two words that immediately leap to mind are playful and colourful. I guess that’s kind of very much at the heart of your message, but it’s quite difficult, isn’t it, to make books playful. How did you go about that? How did you get the publisher on board with it?
Jurgen Appelo: Well, interestingly enough, I don’t think the publishers have any problems with playfulness; as long as things sell then they’re happy with it. I notice that there is significant need for playfulness and fun in the world of management and leadership, which is where I operate because there’s so much serious stuff out there. I noticed that I had the best kinds of jaws when I added a dash of playfulness to whatever I was doing. I have plenty of examples of that in my books, and that was also when my teammates, my employees told me that they enjoyed their work most, and we had a bit of fun and added playful elements to our work. I just noticed that this is a core thing that we should be focusing on, on happiness, playfulness, creativity as a knowledge work these days, and they’re not. I don’t think the publishers have any problem with that.
Alison Jones: I think the trouble is that, often colourful and playful equals design spend and production values, and it makes it a more expensive book basically, but you’re right, the difference between looking at a traditional book with black and white text filling each page and looking at one of your books, is quite marked.
Jurgen Appelo: Well, you’re totally right there. I mean, there’s a difference between writing about playfulness and making a book that looks colourful and playful, so definitely I had a conversation with my publisher about Managing for Happiness about the quality of the paper and everything to make things affordable because when it’s a full colour book, production costs tend to skyrocket, but we figured out how to make it work.
Alison Jones: Obviously, you are an illustrator as well. I’m guessing that’s quite important because these are very visually creative books, aren’t they? You haven’t sort of written the text and then slapped a few illustrations in to break the text up. The two are very much created together.
Jurgen Appelo: Yeah. Well, it’s funny how that came about. I wrote my first book, Management 3.0 about eight, nine years ago. I figured I needed an illustrator because I had some things that I wanted to visualise, and I thought how to find one, then, it occurred to me, hey, I’ve made plenty of drawings in the past. When I was young, I liked illustrating. I made cartoons, etc., so why not do it myself? That saved me on the expenses as a side effect, and that was unintentional, but people really, really appreciate it when an author makes his or her own illustrations. It makes a book much more personal. You don’t have to be the best illustrator by far. People don’t care about that. Stick figures are fine in come cases, but people really appreciate it if you make an effort to do your own illustrations. I’m not a professional illustrator by any means, but it was fun doing it myself. Then, that sort of accidentally became part of my personal brand.
Alison Jones: That’s so interesting because normally my advice to authors would be, no, no, no. You need a professional illustrator. There’s nothing that kills a book more than a really flaky illustration, but I guess if you’ve got that style and you can pull it off, then there is something really… it’s almost vulnerable, isn’t it? You’re putting your pictures out there, which feels much more vulnerable than just putting text out there, and more authentic.
Jurgen Appelo: Exactly. You just start off by saying, look everyone, I can’t draw, but I’m going to try anyways, and that makes you really vulnerable and people really appreciate that. So, yeah, do it.
Alison Jones: That really useful. I guess that’s the manager standing at the front doing exactly that as well. Look, I’m not really a good drawer, but here’s my attempt, and engaging the people in the room. Oh yeah, nice synergy. Actually, coming back to that point, you said about the Management 3.0 was originally published quite a few years back. I think the original title was #Workout, wasn’t it? Which, I thought was really interesting, so tell us a little bit about that.
Jurgen Appelo: Well, actually it’s the other way around. Managing for Happiness, my last book, that was originally published as Workout.
Alison Jones: Oh, I beg your pardon.
Jurgen Appelo: Yeah, no problem. Well, with my first book, Management 3.0, that was traditionally published. I had a blog, a very popular blog, NOOP.nl. I wanted to write a book. I was approached by a famous author who has a series with Addison Wesley, Mike Cohn, Signature Series, and he reached out to me, asked me if he want to publish a book in my series. I said, hell yes, of course because that saved me all the trouble of finding a publisher.
That was easily arranged, but because I had a good audience already basically with my blog, so that is what publishers need. They need certainty. They need know that you already have an audience somewhere. But, that was a traditional publishing process. Then, with my last book, that started out as Workout, I wanted something more illustrative, and I wanted to self publish. I wanted a full colour book. I knew that when I go straight to a publisher with a suggestion for a full colour book, they’re going to say, no, we’re not doing that anymore.
So, I thought, I’ll do it myself. I started with a mailing list. I simply created draft chapters and invited people via my blog to subscribe to my mailing list so that they would have access to the full chapters in their first version. That worked really, really well. I had thousands of people subscribe to my mailing list so that they could have early access to the book while it was being written. I ended up with 10,000 or more subscribers. Then, when it was done, I basically had my first buyers already because once people had the first version, they definitely wanted to have the first paper version, which I produced myself, in colour. I printed a good number of copies. That was a bit of a risk that I took, but it was an exclusive edition because I published it myself, high quality paper and everything. I was able to sell all of them. There were 5,000 copies. I sold them within a year to my own crowd, to my own fans basically.
Alison Jones: Which is fantastic, that would be a really good target figure for your average trade publisher, wouldn’t it? For a first year.
Jurgen Appelo: Yeah, well, you could do a thousand, five thousand. You’ll have to do the calculations yourself depending on the size of your audience. Once I had that up and running, then actually, the publisher Wiley reached out to me and said, hey, we see you’re self publishing a book. Would you like us to take over? I said, yeah sure, because they know many more people that I don’t.
Alison Jones: By that time, you’ve mined your network, haven’t you? That’s a good point.
Jurgen Appelo: Yes, yes. People were sick and tired of buying ten copies of the same book. My own promotion only got me so far. Of course, Wiley had their own suggestions. They said, let’s rename the book because we don’t like the title Workout. They came up with Managing for Happiness. It’s a bit like someone telling you that they want to rename your child. I had to get used to the idea, but I got over it and actually I think they made a good decision, in hindsight. It was re-released as Managing for Happiness, a couple of new chapters, a couple of other ones removed that were less popular. I had basically my readers vote on the chapters they liked most. Then, it was re-released as Managing for Happiness.
Alison Jones: That’s such an interesting trajectory and such a modern trajectory. I mean, this in and out of the traditional and self publishing thing couldn’t have happened a few years back, could it? And, I love the way that you actually lived the agile, you know, you walked the agile talk while you were writing the book. You had the beta version going out there. You have the MVP out to your early readers and getting feedback on it, brilliant.
Jurgen Appelo: Exactly. I think, this is the new approach to publishing. You basically remove all the risk for the publisher by just proving yourself, that you have an audience, that you can sell the book in its first version, indeed as a minimal viable product. It doesn’t have to be complete, but just something that people are willing to pay money for. If you can prove that and you have a few thousands of sales, then the publisher is happy to start talking about wider release. Then, they’re going to say, well, we want the new release to be significantly different from the previous one of course, so you add new chapters, so that the people who already have the first version, have a reason to also buy the new version. That makes sense.
Alison Jones: Yes, that is interesting, isn’t it? Actually, one thing that I think somebody said to me this week actually, and I hear it very often is, oh, I want to get that balance between putting stuff out, to get the word out, and get the buzz going, and write the book in public, which I’m a big, big fan of, but I don’t want to put it all out there because then people haven’t got a reason to buy the book. I think that’s, I’m not sure that’s true really. I think the more you put out in those early stages… I don’t see much point in holding it back. I’d be interested to hear your thought on that.
Jurgen Appelo: Oh, yeah. I put out everything I had at that time, but I knew that things would change in the future. Actually, the book was too large because it was 500 pages when I self published it. The publisher said, we’re not going to do a release of 500 pages in full colour. You have to make that 300 or 350, so I tuned it down and made sure that there were some new chapters, and so everything that I deleted is simply available as a free downloads for anyone. Yeah, you can still use everything you’ve already done, but I agree, there’s no need to keep things a secret or whatever. I actually do not understand those authors who publish first version, first chapter for free, and then, you can buy the rest of the book. I’m not going to read one chapter. I want the whole book. I think I find that a little old fashioned to read it, so put out the whole thing for free in the first version as self published, and then make changes to the traditionally published version that you might publish later.
Alison Jones: Yeah, get it all out there, brilliant. Now, one thing that’s obviously very core to your business is you do a lot of speaking. Just tell me a little bit about how you use the books alongside your speaking gigs because I know you’ve got a couple of interesting things that you do there.
Jurgen Appelo: Well, it is true that speaking gigs don’t sell books. It’s the books that sell speaking.
Alison Jones: Yes, nicely put.
Jurgen Appelo: Yeah, so I earn a lot more with my conference talks and company appearances, around Europe mostly. Then, the books help because you can increase your fee as a speaker when you’re a professionally published author around the world with translations in various languages, that helps. What I’ve done in the first year after Managing for Happiness came out, for everyone who booked me as a speaker, they got 100 copies, or 50 copies, or whatever for free, depending on where I had to travel and what the speaking fee was. It was part of the package to get a stack of books. They loved that because then they give them away to organisers, to attendees, and there’s a book signing, etc.
What I noticed does not work very well is, if you give them the option of buying extra books, not even at cost price or something like that because then they don’t usually sell. You have to make the books free as part of your speaking fee and then you can get rid of them.
Alison Jones: Of course, you get paid for them, they just have to pay for them as part of the fee rather than separately. I sure it’s in your budget lines.
Jurgen Appelo: Yeah, yeah, yeah. For me, it somehow it doesn’t work. If I offer them separately and say, well, you get at a 50% discount you can get my book because I order them straight from the publisher and I have an author’s discount of 50%, so I earn nothing. I don’t even earn royalties on those books. Then, still they don’t order them.
Alison Jones: What more can you do?
Jurgen Appelo: I’m not starving.
Alison Jones: You said something about giving away random copies to people, which I really liked the idea of as well. Is that quite a playful thing that you do when you’re speaking?
Jurgen Appelo: Well, I know it depends on the organisers because they have different ideas. It’s their books. I tell them, you decide what to do them. Sometimes, they do a random draw and they organise something, and they have a lottery, or whatever. Sometimes, it’s the first 50 people who sign up for a conference, so they get my free book because they know their going to get my books for free. That’s an incentive for people to sign up first. Yeah, I leave it to the organisers. They usually know better what to do with them. Every now and then, I end up with an organiser who didn’t think of it. Then in the moment, they expect me to come up with some kind of arrangement while I’m standing there on stage. And now, Jurgen’s going to give away free books, and I’m like, what? Me? They’re your books.
Alison Jones: At that point, you just throw them into the room and let the scramble happen.
Jurgen Appelo: Yeah, exactly. That has happened before. And, sometimes, yeah, the books are over there for the first ones that are able to get them. Then, there’s a stampede across the room.
Alison Jones: That’s very funny.
Jurgen Appelo: I’ve lost them, I think.
Alison Jones: It’s not your problem, right?
Jurgen Appelo: No.
Alison Jones: One of the things that I will say struck me on your site is that, you have a permissions’ policy, which is very enlightened and very unusual. I think, it really made me think, permissions and how you use people’s content, it’s such a minefield these days. When people share things, they think they’re doing you a favour, but of course, this is copyright material as well, and copyright still matters to, particularly to publishers. What were you thinking when you put that permissions’ policy together? How have you found it useful? How has it been received by people?
Jurgen Appelo: Well, the reason is that, I was simply annoyed by people not understanding basic copyright law. They ask me questions such as: can I make a hyperlink to your blog post? I’m like, seriously? You’re asking? I mean, you want me to spend time on writing an answer over email that says, well, nobody in the world is asking people for permission to link to. I mean, if everyone did that, we would always spending our whole days writing emails about links. My God, think for yourself. There are others like, can I write about your idea? Well, of course. Ideas are not copyrighted. You can write about anything, just don’t use my text as I have typed it in my book. My permissions policy was basically explaining basic copyright law to people. You don’t need to ask me permission for writing about me or my ideas, but if you want to use specific piece of text or a blog post, you need to contact me. That’s all the permissions policy says, basically, but still some people don’t think and then they ask me.
Alison Jones: Basically, now you can say, go and read the permissions policy, at least. You don’t have to write it.
Jurgen Appelo: Yes. Well, there are some of these webpages and frequently asked questions pages that are simply answering the same question that you get asked every month or so. That’s the way it is. I mean, I appreciate the attention of course, so I’m not complaining, but people could do a little bit more effort just understanding how it works.
Alison Jones: Do you know, I think there are so many people who genuinely don’t have a clue how copyright works, and don’t think. If something is on the web then it is available for them to use, and lift, and paste somewhere else. Yeah, it’s a really interesting field.
Jurgen Appelo: Yeah, it is an interesting field. Actually, I haven’t had that many problems with people stealing my stuff or thinking that they could simply copy, paste my work. That has maybe happened a handful of times in 10 years. It is more often the case that people are too careful and they ask me permission for things that they don’t need to ask permission for, so I have the opposite problem.
Alison Jones: That is funny, so if anybody wants to link to your blog, they should just feel free, that’s what you’re saying? Do that, do that, feel free. Brilliant.
Jurgen Appelo: Do that, my God.
Alison Jones: Let’s talk about writing for a minute. What is writing look like for you? When you sit down to write, what’s your routine? What have you discovered works for you to get started and keep you going?
Jurgen Appelo: The routine is chaos, I think. No, seriously, I don’t really have a routine. It’s just whenever I think, well, I think I have a bit of time now in a Starbucks café, or wherever, at an airport while travelling. I just take my tablet and start typing. Usually, everything starts usually with the blog post. Then, the blog posts tend to add up over time. Then, if you write enough blog posts, you have a book. That makes it relatively easy. Then, of course, you have to reorganise and rewrite everything. I am not at this moment in a book writing process. I just write blog posts that might end up being in a book at some point. My publisher is begging me for a next book, so it’s slightly annoying because I have a lot of other things to do. They expect a proposal anytime soon because I promised them. But no, I don’t really have a process.
When I was really working on a book, Management 3.0 or Managing for Happiness, or the little one in between, How to Change the World, the processes where different per book. It really depends on the kind of project, and what other things you have going on. For example, the first book, Management 3.0, I wrote in 2008 mainly when we had the huge credit crisis going on in the world. I was working at a company at that time where there was almost nothing to do because the customers were hoarding their money, and there were hardly any projects, so everyone was just basically staring out the window waiting for the next project to emerge until the credit crisis was over. That gave me a lot of time to write my book. The last one, Managing for Happiness, I had to squeeze that one in between all my busy speaking engagements and workshops and everything. The entire process was completely different. I was travelling all the time instead of sitting behind the desk. So, yeah, it really depends.
Alison Jones: And, you just start with the Word document and keep typing? Do you have a particular sort of tools or systems that you use? I’m just fascinated by the way that people actually organise their writing.
Jurgen Appelo: Oh yeah, sure. I use Evernote for all the pieces of text that I have, the thoughts. Sometimes, I have these smart, or at least I think they’re smart, one-liners that I throw out on the social media that sometimes get a lot of retweets or likes, and sometimes not. I save them in Evernote because they might be useful for a book in the future. I have lots of notes that I take from other books and articles. I read everything on Kindle, business books. Then, I transport all the notes that I have to Evernote, so I have thousands of notes in Evernote. That is just a huge collection of fragments, basically.
The writing, draft I usually do in Evernote even though the editor sucks, but all the other editors are even worse, in my opinion. I had lost my work with Google Docs several times, so Google Docs has been blacklisted for me by now. Then, there are plenty of other tools that use mark-up language, which I hate. I really don’t understand why some people write with mark-up because then you have all these annoying HTLM codes in your text. When I want something bold, I want to see it bold in my text. I don’t want to see bracket B, bracket and things like that. That makes no sense for me, at least.
I tend to use Evernote for writing blog posts. Then, when it becomes a book project, as I did with Managing for Happiness, I transport it to Scrivner. Scrivner is then, the organisation tool once I already have all the text. Scrivner is great for reorganising and generating the results in all different kinds of forms, whether it’s PDF or Ebook, or whatever. I don’t do any writing itself in Scrivner. I just use it for organising the final results.
Alison Jones: That’s so interesting. Evernote and Scrivner are big favourites in the Extraordinary Business Book Club, but most people use Scrivner for the writing. It’s just interesting to hear how people differ, how different people do it different ways. Really interesting. Actually, that seems to be, you said, oh, I’ll just sit and write, but actually there’s a lot of thought and a lot of organisation in there.
Jurgen Appelo: Yeah, well the process is that the tools basically emerge. I’m very particular about the things I want and don’t want. Like, Scrivner, I didn’t check recently, but I write on the aeroplanes. As far as I know, Scrivner doesn’t have a disconnected app that I can use for writing a piece of text that will then end up somewhere in the Scrivner hierarchy, so I still have to use another tool for writing on aeroplanes .
Alison Jones: I see.
Jurgen Appelo: I do all the writing while I’m not connected. Yes, and not on my notebook. I do a lot of writing on my Android tablet.
Alison Jones: Fascinating. Thank you. For people listening to the show who are first-time authors, and maybe still in the trenches, what would your one best tip for them be? For first-time authors.
Jurgen Appelo: Iterate. I started writing books, at least I tried early 2000s, and I completely failed because I started with big book projects and I had no feedback, what so ever. That is something that I’ve learned in the agile world where I am from, that you need a feedback cycle. You need to know as soon as possible whether it is making sense, that you’re writing. People have to read it. The blog is a perfect example of a short feedback cycle. You get responses, hopefully, likes and comments, etc. on your blog, if you start out as a blogger, but you could use other techniques as well. There are platforms where, as a book writer, you can write your book and then have readers read along with you. As long as you some kind of feedback cycle, with your audience.
Like my first book, I originally wanted to write about solar engineering and complexity science, big topics, because they fascinated me, but through my interaction with my audience on my blog, I noticed that the biggest need they had was agile management and leadership, how to be a manager and a leader in an organisation that is becoming more agile with agile software development. I thought, okay, I will make that the main topic for my book. That’s what I learned from that feedback from my readers. Then, I still wrote about complexity science and software engineering, but they were more like the undercurrents in the book with a much clearer focus in terms of the target audience. That made all the difference. That made the book a success because I had a validated audience.
Alison Jones: Yeah, absolutely brilliant tip. Thank you. I’m a big fan of agile, and I think getting that feedback. Also, it’s not even just about the feedback, is it? It’s also about, you testing out your own ideas and seeing what it is you think, as you write it. I think that’s the important thing as well.
Jurgen Appelo: Oh yeah. It’s amazing how many things I have learned because I wrote about it. It’s true. Sometimes, I just started writing blog posts having absolutely no idea where the blog post was going. Then, at the end, I thought, ah, okay. That’s how I think about it.
Alison Jones: Writing is a thinking tool not to be underestimated. Yeah, brilliant.
Jurgen Appelo: Exactly, exactly, yeah.
Alison Jones: If I asked you to recommend an extraordinary business book that you think is particularly interesting and that everybody listening to the show should immediately go out and buy and read, what would it be?
Jurgen Appelo: Well, there are a couple of course that come to mind, but one that I have often recommended is Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull who was CEO, a former CEO, I don’t exactly know of, Pixar Animation Studios. I give it five stars because the stories are so awesome. The way the company works is just fantastic. It is all about management and leadership in a way that I call, Management 3.0. Yeah, it’s just a fascinating read. One the most interesting companies I’ve ever read a book about.
Alison Jones: You’re the second person to recommend that book to me this week.
Jurgen Appelo: Oh, interesting.
Alison Jones: Yeah, isn’t it. I need to go out and buy it immediately. Brilliant. Excellent recommendation. Thank you so much. Now, if people want to find out more about you and about your books, where should they go?
Jurgen Appelo: Well, I have a blog called, NOOP.nl, N-O-O-P.n-l, and I have a website, jurgenappelo.com.
Alison Jones: Brilliant. I’ll put all those links up on extraordinarybusinessbooks.com, as always, so if people want to click through, they can do that. Thank you so much Jurgen. We ranged so widely there, absolutely fascinating conversation. Thank you so much.