‘It’s tempting, especially when you’re a consultant, to not share anything. Because you’re worried that what you do, what you talk to your clients about, is your secret sauce… it took me about a year or so to realise that that’s completely untrue.’
Jono Bacon has written a few books now, and every time he’s learned how to do it better. In this conversation he shares all that learning generously, and reveals how open-source philosophy and the power of people have informed not just his career, but his approach to writing a business book.
Accent-spotters will have particular fun with this…
Jono’s site: https://www.jonobacon.com/
Jono on Twitter: https://twitter.com/jonobacon
Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky
The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/
This Book Means Business – the mentorship programme: https://alisonjones.lpages.co/this-book-means-business-mentorship/
The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge January 2020: https://alisonjones.leadpages.co/proposal-challenge/
Gift the 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge! https://alisonjones.com/christmas-offer/
Alison Jones: I’m here today with Jono Bacon, who is a leading community strategist, a speaker, author, and a podcaster. He’s the founder of Jono Bacon consulting, and previously served as director of community at GitHub, Canonical, XPRIZE, and OpenAdvantage. And his clients include, well, there’s a very long list here, I’m going to pick a few. Huawei, GitLab, Microsoft, Intel, Google, you get the idea, many others. He’s a columnist for Forbes and opensource.com, he’s founder of the Community Leadership Summit and Open Collaboration Conferences and cofounder of Bad Voltage. And he’s the author of The Art of Community, and his newest book, People Powered. Welcome to the show, Jono.
Jono Bacon: Thank you, Alison. It’s great to be here. Appreciate it.
Alison Jones: Well, okay, I was just laughing at your accent as well because you’re English-born, you’re Yorkshire-born in fact, which is the wrong side of the Pennines, you can’t help that, but you live in America. So it’s a mash-up.
Jono Bacon: Yes, I confuse everyone, particularly Americans. When I meet Americans, they’re like, “Are you Australian? Or New Zealand? You come from somewhere, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.”
Alison Jones: So we’re mid-Atlantic.
Jono Bacon: Right. I’m kind of an English-American mongrel, but that’s okay.
Alison Jones: That’s quite cool isn’t it?
Jono Bacon: It certainly sounds cool.
Alison Jones: Yes. Love that. So tell us a little bit about People Powered, which is a fabulous title. What it’s about? Why did you write it? What did you want for it?
Jono Bacon: Right. The backstory is, about 10 years ago, I wrote a book called The Art of Community for O’Reilly. And I intended this to be one of those books that you write, which is kind of your career standout, this is the way in which I like to do things. And this is how I would recommend people do the work that you were talking about. In my case, building communities. And it ended up turning into this massive technical, rather complicated book, that was absolutely, I think, well-intentioned towards practitioners of the area. So if you’re a technical community manager, there’s bags and bags of detail in The Art of Community that I think will be very useful to you. But if you are, for example, an entrepreneur or a business person, and you’re relatively new to what these communities are, it was a bit in depth. And when I started-
Alison Jones: And that’s very O’Reilly isn’t it, to be fair? O’Reilly do those big technical manuals. Knowledge architecture was where they started, wasn’t it? Was that driven by them, was that a sort of editorial decision?
Jono Bacon: Yes, I think so. I mean, it was one of those things where I think what they were seeing and what I was seeing were very similar, which was we’re seeing this real growth in open source technology. And they’ve kind of pioneered a lot of the books around open source. But there is this community-building element to it, which is a soft skill within a technical area. And that was essentially the goal of the book. And it went through two editions, so now it’s particularly big, because it’s had an extra addition through it. But what I would have is when I started consulting about… I started consulting just over three years ago full time, but when I wrote The Art of Community, people would reach out to me and say, “Hey, can you help me implement this into my business?” And that’s when I started consulting on the side.
But over the years, as my client base has grown beyond just open source, people would buy the book and they’d say, “I’m really looking forward to reading The Art of Community.” And I’d just think, “Well, I think it’s a good book, but I think it’s probably too in depth for,” like I say, “for someone in the C-suite of a company.” So I always knew I wanted to write what I guess you could say is traditionally a business book, which provides 280 pages. It’s the kind of thing you pick up at an airport. It provides a high-level overview of a topic. It’s detailed but doesn’t drown you in detail. And that was the goal with People Powered. But I knew that to get this published in the business press, there’s just a whole set of things you have to go through, which are very different.
When I wrote The Art of Community, I already had a relationship with O’Reilly, put together a short proposal, sent it over to them, they liked it, I wrote the book, it came out. Whereas with People Powered, I had to find an agent and put together a much more comprehensive proposal, because the trade press, they’re pretty finicky about what they’re going to publish. So it was a much more involved process, but I’ve learned a lot going through and it’s been a lot of fun.
Alison Jones: Well hang on a minute, don’t just stop there. We’re going to unpack that a little bit. Yes, finicky is a great word. They are quite finicky about what they publish. What do you think… I mean, obviously someone like HarperCollins, Penguin Random House, the Big Five, you got to be agented. They just don’t read unsolicited manuscripts. So first catch your agent. So, any tips on that? What do you think it was about your… I mean, obviously it’s you. You’re selling yourself, so it’s your background, your credibility, your status, your following. But the proposal specifically, what do you think caught their attention about that?
Jono Bacon: Well, what’s kind of interesting is the way it worked for me, and I bet this happens to a lot of authors as well, the way it worked for me is I put together a proposal and it was relatively in depth. And I reached out to a friend of mine called Deb who works at a Prentice Hall, and she introduced me to a couple of different agents. And I sent it over to these agents and they thought it sucked. They thought it was terrible. They weren’t like, “This could be improved…” They were like, “This is not a good book. Who is the audience? We don’t understand who this is for.”
So I went away and took about seven months. I kind of stepped away from the project, focused on my business, and then realised I need to come back to this, this is important. I actually sat down with a whole bunch of friends and talked through the book idea with them. And then eventually settled on a revised proposal, sent it back to the same two agents, and they said “There’s some real potential in here.” They were too busy, and they’d already told me this up front, but they thought there was potential there.
So that’s when I started reaching out to different agencies and also just again through some personal connections that I got introduced to, and I ended up working with an agent at Waterside Productions in San Diego; Margo, who’s fabulous. And one of the mistakes that I made when I wrote the proposal was I talked primarily about the book. And one of the things that she said to me was, “You need to sell yourself first and then you sell the book.” Because what a lot of these trade press publishers are looking for is they’re looking for someone who’s got an interesting perspective and a point of view that is encapsulated into the book. And she said, “That’s going to be the biggest challenge you’re going to have. You’ve got a reputation within the tech world, but broadening out beyond that.”
So we spent probably a good four or five months going through the proposal and just getting it refined. I got a tonne of other people to feed into the process. And then eventually we got to a point where it was undoubtedly stronger, thanks to Margo’s guidance and counsel. And it was, for example, throwing away big chunks of the proposal that I thought were interesting, but she said, “Publishers just don’t care about this.” Like I, for example, put massive amounts in there about how I would promote the book, and she said, “You can summarise this, but they care more about the content and the manuscript, the story that you’re telling, concrete examples that you’re putting together and things such as that.”
Alison Jones: That’s fascinating, because in my experience, publishers care a huge amount about your ability to promote the book, because you are the brand. But it’s about establishing that you have the platform. You don’t need to go into the detail of what you’re going to do about it. As long as they know you’re going to be proactive and people listen to you. That’s the core thing, isn’t it?
Jono Bacon: Right. Well, it was also really important to me, because I knew going through this process that I was kind of punching above my weight, getting into the trade press. And this is a press that typically prints books by Hillary Clinton and James Comey, fairly heavyweight people who’ve got large networks. So my view was, A: I want to be the best author you’ve ever worked with. I’m going to get my manuscripts in on time. I’m going to go above and beyond in producing great work. B: I’m going to go above and beyond in promoting this book and making sure that it’s something that reflects well on your publishing brand as well as myself.
So I wanted to get that over really in the manuscript and we ended up dialling that back a little bit. And then when we started pitching towards the publishing houses, it was on the calls. We basically had three offers from some publishers that we were pretty happy with, which of course HarperCollins Leadership was one of them. And those calls were an opportunity to kind of get that message over.
Alison Jones: Fantastic, that is brilliant. And you’re happy with that? Were you? Did you deliver on time?
Jono Bacon: I did. What was interesting that was news to me was, again when I wrote for O’Reilly, I’ve written a couple of books for O’Reilly and I wrote a book for Prentice Hall as well, when you submit your manuscript, within two or three months your book is on the shelves. And with Harper and various other similar publishers, they’re planning a year ahead. So we signed the contract in the middle of last year. It was actually just after the 4th of July in the U.S. And we knew that the book was going to be coming out in November, but the deadline for submitting my manuscript was towards the end of the year. So I didn’t have a lot of time to write the book.
So one element of being a good author to work with is I wrote the manuscript and then I also sent it out to, I think it was seven or eight people, to read it, provide feedback. So I kind of went through my own editorial process before I even submitted the manuscript. And they said, “This is one of the best manuscripts that we’ve had submitted.” So I think the work paid off. And this is one tip that I’ve given to other authors, is just go above and beyond for your publisher. Because if you do that, they’re more likely to want you back to publish something else.
Alison Jones: Well, I endorsed that wholeheartedly as a publisher, absolutely. One thing that interested me as well. Looking at your background in open source and the ideology, the philosophy there, it’s a way of life, open source, isn’t it? It’s not just a kind of technical thing.
Jono Bacon: Yes.
Alison Jones: Do you think that permeates how you write as well? Some people hold their secrets tight, don’t they? But do you think you have a different attitude towards it?
Jono Bacon: I think so. It’s been a bit of a journey for me, because I will have an enormous debt of gratitude towards the open source world. Because it’s, first of all, been a trigger point for my career. But I’ve met so many incredible people from so many different backgrounds, from senior leaders in companies, people who are running companies, to engineers who are building software. And these different groups have different cultures and different approaches to how much they share and how much they put out there. And there is a general philosophy and open source of openness and transparency, and I think that is great.
But one of the things that took me a little while to understand was, as I’ve been building out my own approach to how I build communities, it’s tempting, especially when you’re a consultant, to not share anything. Because you’re worried that what you do, what you talk to your clients about, is your secret sauce, and that you let the recipe out. And it took me about a year or so to realise that that’s completely untrue, that you can publish a book. Like what I put into People Powered is the approach that I use with many of my clients, if not most of my clients. But I’m not worried about losing clients from it, because a client still wants that hands-on directed guidance from the consultant. So to me it’s kind of like a restaurant publishing a cookbook. You can make the recipe at home, but you’re probably going to get a better experience when you go to the restaurant itself.
What has changed for me is when I was growing up, I, from a very young age, particularly getting interested in technology, I was very, very sceptical about buzz words and language that people use to impress each other with. I remember reading, what was it? Strunk and White-
Alison Jones: The Elements of Style.
Jono Bacon: The Elements of Style, yes. I remember reading that when I started writing for O’Reilly, and then this other book-
Alison Jones: You really take your authorial responsibility seriously, don’t you? This is brilliant. I’ve never known an author actually read this stuff. It’s great.
Jono Bacon: Right, yes, well I read that and I read, I wish I could remember the name of this other book, but this guy basically dedicates an entire chapter on how jargon is-
Alison Jones: On how jargon is bad, yes.
Jono Bacon: And he says it’s used for social posturing or career posturing. And I agree with a lot of that. So what I’ve tried to do in my writing is to be authoritative and knowledgeable, but also down-to-earth and let your personality show through. So I was really proud that when I released People Powered, a friend of mine actually posted a quote from it and he said, “It’s a typical Jono Bacon book. It’s full of humour and heavy metal references.”
Alison Jones: This is interesting, because you are a man of many talents, and that creative thing… I love the way you just bring it all together. It’s just like, “Oh here’s me, here’s my heavy metal thrash stuff, here’s the books, here’s my gin.” Because you’ve got a gin map. You bring all these aspects of your personality together to create something really unique online. It’s really interesting.
Jono Bacon: Well thank you, I appreciate that. It’s tricky though, because I think there is a temptation, particularly as your career starts growing, to not let that silly stuff show. And I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have a fun side to them.
Alison Jones: Oh, I do.
Jono Bacon: And I think the more we let those things through, I think it actually builds a real relationship with your audience. But it’s difficult because it’s very easy to turn into the very formal person who’s talking about, “Mnnn, I know a lot about…”
Alison Jones: Do you not think a lot of the jargon, the temptation to resort to or to hide behind jargon and obfuscation, it’s rooted in fear really, isn’t it? A lack of self-confidence?
Jono Bacon: Yes. I completely agree with you. And the thing is as well, I think some of these things are so obvious. Like one of the things I kind of rail on… Well there’s two things I rail on in a lot of my presentations at conferences. One is people who don’t indicate when they change lanes.
Alison Jones: Oh yes.
Jono Bacon: That is a capital offence.
Alison Jones: There’s a special circle of hell for those people.
Jono Bacon: There really is. But the other thing is when someone connects to you on LinkedIn and you actually think, “Oh, these people look interesting.” And you accept the connection, and then they immediately spam you via direct message about what they’re working on. To me, it just comes across as desperate. Because it’s automated. And the same way that I think jargon or overuse of jargon, or even having a tonality that sounds too produced, it smacks a little bit of desperation. And I’m fairly comfortable in my own skin, and so it’s easy for me to be snooty about this. But I think a lot of people aren’t comfortable in their own skin, and they’re quite nervous about their position in the pecking order of the world that they live in, particularly if they are in an underrepresented group. So I think some people do tend to fall onto that stuff unwittingly, because they’re trying to wrestle with that.
Alison Jones: Yes. It’s like a life, what is it? Life ring, what do they call those things? Flotation devices that you chuck out to someone, they just cling onto that.
Jono Bacon: Oh yes.
Alison Jones: There is a word for that and it’s completely gone out of my head.
Jono Bacon: Floaty?
Alison Jones: Let’s call it a floaty. You know what I mean.
Jono Bacon: We’ll call it a floaty. A life preserver, is that it?
Alison Jones: Yes. I think that’s what, that’s quite American… Anyway, it’s gone. This is ridiculous. I’m going to go back afterwards. Insert here the word for the round thing that you throw out to people who are drowning. Yes. Anyway.
Jono Bacon: That’s a survival donut.
Alison Jones: Yes, the survival donut, let’s call it that. What’s the process that you go through? Because I feel like I quite often find when I’m writing, never when I’m speaking, but when I’m writing, I can end up using the big words, because you’re just in writing register. Do you kind of force yourself to read stuff back? How do you keep yourself honest with that tonality?
Jono Bacon: For me, honestly it’s pressuring my friends into reading the work.
Alison Jones: They keep you honest.
Jono Bacon: Yes. Like when I write articles, I generally don’t send it out to people to review. Otherwise, I’d never write anything. It would take forever. But with a book, a book is a seminal piece of work that you’re putting together. And I like to essentially invite criticism. It’s very tempting to send out a book to someone that you’ve written and say, “Hey, let me know what you think.” But I actually say to people, “I want you to tell me what’s wrong with this.” Because unless you’re invited, particularly as you are probably going to send it out to friends, I don’t think people feel very comfortable being critical. But then you send it out and there’s a lump in your throat until you get the response back.
Alison Jones: It’s so vulnerable-making, isn’t it?
Jono Bacon: Oh it is, yes. And my writing approach has changed over the years. Like when wrote The Art of Community, for example, I basically wrote each paragraph with the intention that it was final. So it took me forever to write the first page of the book.
Alison Jones: Oh wow, that’s fascinating.
Jono Bacon: Yes. And I’ve changed that in recent years, where I actually wrote People Powered in six weeks, the first draft of it. And I knew it was going to be rough. It was going to be horrible. There’s going to be pieces missing. It wasn’t going to make sense. And then I basically just edited and edited and edited and edited until it was in shape. And then I left a couple of weeks, like I said earlier on, to send it out to people and get some feedback. So I essentially went through two rounds of editorial input from people who I know.
And what I did is once I’d finished that first draft, I went through and I’d actually start reading the… This is going to sound bizarre, but I read the book backwards. Because I read the first three chapters, and you’re paying attention and you’re focused. And I’d look particularly for things that sounded boring or uninteresting and I didn’t have examples. But then I’d read chapters nine to 11, and then I’d read chapters three to nine. Because I think if you only start at the beginning and go through the rest of the book, by the time you get to the end of the book, you’re so sick of reading it that you’re not really paying attention. So I’d start backwards and then it would mean that I’d hopefully provide as much attention to that side of the book as the beginning bit.
Alison Jones: That’s fascinating. And I’m remembering when I worked at Oxford University Press discovering in the lexicography bit in the Oxford English dictionary. Whenever they do a new edition, they don’t start at A, because it’s just so daunting. They start at U, and it says two things. One is it doesn’t feel quite so bad, because you’re at U, you’re nearly at the end of the alphabet. And the other thing is that if you’ve got new lexicographers, by the time they get back up to A, which people are looking at first, they’re quite good. So there’s some sound science behind that. That’s really interesting. I feel greedy asking this, because you’ve given us so many already. But if there’s somebody listening to this and they’re writing their first book and you don’t want them to go through the hell that you went through trying to get every sentence exactly right like you did with your first book. Yes, no, don’t do that: what would be your best tip for them?
Jono Bacon: So what I found works well for me, well there’s a couple of things that actually… This might be a collection of tips.
Alison Jones: Yes we love that, go for it.
Jono Bacon: The first thing is, I think it’s important to be disciplined. So what I did is I created a Google spreadsheet and I put down today’s date and then however long I’ve got to write the book. And I’d figure out, “Okay, based on the number of pages that I need to write, how many pages do I need to write each day?” And I’d factor into that equation having at least two or three weeks for vacation/sickness, things that going to get in the way, work emergency. And that would give you a sense of how much you need to write and then how you get through it.
Because I think for first-time authors, writing a book is a pretty daunting process. And it’s a lot to do and you can feel part way through the process, you’ve still got so much to do. So that means that, particularly if you draw a graph around this, you can see how far along you are. I would actually draw a trend line between now and the end date and then I would draw the actual line of how many I’ve actually done. And my goal was to keep it under the trend line, kind of like a burn down chart in project management circles. So that, first of all, was very helpful. So if I, for example, I’d feel great levels of satisfaction if, at the end of the day, I’ve actually written five or six pages, because I knew I’d bought myself some time.
Alison Jones: It’s like The Quantified Author, isn’t it?
Jono Bacon: Right! The other thing that I found very useful was actually to go through the book and then to stub out all the headings. They don’t have to be the final headings, but I’d look at, for example, what is the purpose of Chapter One? Now, how do I want to break this into different pieces to tell the story? And then I’d even break that down into subheadings. And then I’d just essentially go through and fill in the content in each of the different sections. Because the worst thing I think you can do is, as you’re writing, figure out the book as you’re going along. It’s better, in my mind, to go out and design the book chapter by chapter first of all. And then what you can do is you can then go in and fill in the content. So I would definitely recommend that.
And then the other thing as well, which I would strongly recommend, is essentially what I did with People Powered, is write your first version of the manuscript, finish a bit early, and then send it out to people who you know and trust for feedback, because it is invaluable what you’ll get out of that. There was so many things, the only things that you’ve missed, things that don’t make sense, or even things that sound a little bit condescending and you didn’t intend them to. For example, when I wrote People Powered, I was talking about when you build a community, you’re essentially building an experience, and restaurateurs go through the same thing in designing the experience of going to a restaurant. And I mentioned a specific restaurant in that, and my best buddy in the UK said, “Sound like you’re showing off pal,” with that restaurant. I was like, “Yes, that’s actually quite true. I probably shouldn’t do that.” So I removed the restaurant. So little things like that can be very helpful.
Alison Jones: That’s hilarious. He’s from Yorkshire, I’m guessing.
Jono Bacon: He’s actually… He went to university in Durham, but he’s mainly a Southerner actually. Yorkshires and Southerners can be friends.
Alison Jones: No, no. They’ll definitely tell it to you straight, Yorkshire folk, don’t they? Stereotyping wildly there, sorry.
Jono Bacon: It’s all good.
Alison Jones: And I always ask people as well for a business book recommendation. I’m fascinated to know what you would say. Is there a recommendation for a book that you think everybody should read, obviously apart from yours, that it’s really kind of stuck with you and perhaps also affected your writing?
Jono Bacon: Yes, I think the book that I would probably recommend here from a business book perspective would probably be The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. I like that book for a number of reasons. One is that I think that it provides a very pragmatic set of life principles that can be applied in your career, in your life, and elsewhere. And he explains those principles in a very approachable manner. And it’s very clear and easy to understand. And it’s fairly pragmatic. And they have a workbook that goes with it as well if you want to do that. And I think that it’s exactly what I’m looking for in a business book.
I actually have a bit of a pet peeve with a lot of business books, because I feel like each chapter shares one or two principles and then they drown you in examples. And by the time you’re on page six of the chapter, you’re thinking, “I get it, I understand that. I don’t need any more examples. Tell me something different.” And I really wanted to avoid doing that with People Powered. And I think that 7 Habits is a good example of that. The thing I love about it as well is that the writing is very approachable.
One of the other books that sprung to mind was The Obstacle Is the Way by Ryan Holiday, which is a phenomenal book. And I actually have a stockpile of them at home and I give people who are going through rough times in their lives, like a friend of mine was going through cancer and another friend of mine got fired from his job or let go rather, and I give him books because I think it’s remarkably valuable in those times of difficulty. But the criticism I would have of Ryan’s work a little bit is that he tends to descend a little bit too much into the all of the ancient Rome story. Is it the basis of Stoicism? And I think you can lose people a little bit there, but Covey doesn’t do that.
Alison Jones: He doesn’t always wear his learning lightly, does he?
Jono Bacon: Right, right. Exactly.
Alison Jones: Great recommendations though, thank you. And where can people find out more about you and all the really fascinating stuff that you do? And actually, I’m not going to let you go quite yet, but let’s do the links first and then I’m going to come back to something. Go on.
Jono Bacon: So probably the best place is my website, which is jonobacon, Bacon like the delicious meat, .com. And because I have such a stupid name, it’s the same for most of the social media networks. So Twitter, Facebook, it’s jonobacon. With the exception of Instagram. Some cad out there stole my name. And so I’m jonobacongram on there.
Alison Jones: You’re talking to a Jones. You’ll have no sympathy from me. The idea of a unique name…
Jono Bacon: What’s odd is that some people think my name is John O’Bacon, which is-
Alison Jones: Your Irish cousin, perhaps?
Jono Bacon: Yes, Mr. O’Bacon.
Alison Jones: Love it, yes that is quite funny. And the thing I wanted just to raise, and I can’t believe I didn’t comment on this earlier, is that you are also a podcaster, obviously. And I just had a quick listen to your podcast. And I listened to the first one where you’re just like, “I’m just going to do this thing, I’m just going to chat to people. Basically, this is just my opportunity to talk to really interesting people.” And I was like “Yes, absolutely.” So just in 30 seconds, just sum up the podcasting experience and tell people whether you’d recommend it or not.
Jono Bacon: Yes, I love podcasting. I’ve been doing it since 2004 now.
Alison Jones: Oh wow, that’s before it was even a thing.
Jono Bacon: Yes. And for me it’s just frankly because I just like talking, and talking to interesting people and having a bit of fun with it. I think it’s really rewarding. And now it’s better than ever because it’s easy, the equipment is cheap, lots of people are often willing to hop on a podcast with you. I think just having an interesting point of view is the most critical thing, and my new podcast Conversations With Bacon, is really just designed to be a long-form conversation with somebody. It’s an hour long, where we can really dig into, much as we’re talking about the philosophy of writing and the approach to writing, just the philosophy and the approach to how they’ve approached their work and their careers.
Alison Jones: Yes, it is. It’s a beautiful thing, isn’t it? And what I love about it, and your approach sounded like very much like mine when I started it: I don’t really mind if nobody listens, I’m going to really enjoy this, and I think that’s the way to do it.
Jono Bacon: Yes, exactly. There are some cheap hacks out there who will try to do anything to get you to listen to their podcast and it just seems like a waste. Good content will bring listeners, is the view that I’ve got.
Alison Jones: And indeed readers.
Jono Bacon: Yes, exactly.
Alison Jones: Podcasts, books, it’s all the same. You got something interesting to say, say it well and get on with it. Brilliant. I have absolutely loved talking to you, Jono. Thank you so much for your time today.
Jono Bacon: Ditto, yes, this was great Alison, thank you.