Episode 96 – Turning talks into books with Miranda West

Miranda WestHow do you turn a great talk into a great book? It’s not as easy as you might think.

Miranda West is the founder of Do Books, which originated with the Do Lectures in Wales, focused on smart working and slow living. But as she explains, taking a message from stage to page involves more than mere transcription.

This is also an inspiring story about what can happen when you have a crazy idea and go ahead and send the email…


Do Books site: https://thedobook.co/

Do Books on Twitter: https://twitter.com/DoBookCo

The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge: https://alisonjones.leadpages.co/proposal-challenge/

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. I’m here today with Miranda West, who’s the founder of the Do Book company, an independent publisher of a branded series of inspirational How To books, which look gorgeous by the way. I’ll try and put some pictures up on the website. She’s got a background working with large publishers such as Random House, mainly in commissioning and editorial, and hello and welcome to the show, Miranda.

Miranda West:                   Hi Alison, it’s really lovely to be here. Thank you for inviting me.

Alison Jones:                        You’re welcome, great to have you here. Now let’s start off, tell us a little bit about Do Books. What are they, who’re they by, why are they different, and how did they happen?

Miranda West:                   Right.

Alison Jones:                        I want all of those things please, not necessarily in that order.

Miranda West:                   Within half an hour.

Alison Jones:                        Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Miranda West:                   So, the Do Book company, we’re an independent company, quite traditional in that sense. We launched in 2013, we publish books by individuals who have spoken at The DO Lectures, which for your listeners who haven’t come across The DO Lectures, it’s a bit like TED Talks, but held on a farm in west Wales over four days in July, and they invite 20 of the world’s doers. So innovators, disruptors, tech pioneers, but also chefs, it’s quite a broad range, and they cover off subjects like business, and design, new technology, the environment, and the overall theme is positive change. The idea is that by listening to other people’s stories that would inspire you to then go and do whatever it is that you’d wanted to do in the first place, and just help take you from where you are now to where you might want to be.

So the books are a stepping stone from the talk to actually putting it into action. So, as a result, the book series that came out – and I’ll talk a bit about how that came about, because as we know it doesn’t just happen overnight – and so the books are designed for that. So I try to create quite a, they’re quite varied subject-wise, but thematically they should tie in with the lectures, and each book is written by somebody who’s spoken there.

Alison Jones:                        Brilliant.

Miranda West:                   So how it came about originally was I was working at Penguin Random House, I had left to move to Switzerland, my husband’s job was relocated there, we had two young children, so we left London and moved there for what turned out to be two years, which was quite a nice break actually. Obviously after three months I was like, “Okay, I’m bored now.” And I realised that freelance editorial work wasn’t quite for me, just you and a book, immersed in a book for hours, and I wanted to do something a bit more challenging and new, and where I was learning, because I’d been in editorial for a number of years by that point and I was senior commissioning editor, and it was quite a fast paced world. A bit exciting, and we had brilliant, brilliant authors there.

So I was thinking what to do and I thought, “Oh, well it’s…” that was back about five years ago, so it’s when the world of digital was really taking off and everyone thought e-books was going to be the next great things and really disrupt the industry. So I thought, “I’ll start a digital imprint.” And I was just researching, keeping on top, reading lots and just keeping on top of industry developments, and during that time somebody sent me a link to a talk, which was by a guy called Craig Maude, and it was all about books and iPads and how that’s all going to work, and why that’s great, and it was really interesting. So it really chimed with what I was interested in at the time, and then I was kind of like, once a commissioning editor, always a commissioning editor, I think.

So antenna went up, and I was like, “Well, where is he speaking? Because it looks quite informal.” But he was over from the States and it looked quite British, and I had a look at the website and did some research online and it was this thing called The DO Lectures, that I hadn’t heard of, which was interesting because we were speaking to TED actually when I was at Random House, and I thought, “This is brilliant.” Because it’s just the look and feel of it, and it’s a bit earthier, and it was held in Wales, and I was born in Wales. So I was just looking at their speakers, and half of them I hadn’t heard of, which was brilliant actually, but similarly, equally they were doing extraordinary things, and they were doing these world-changing things. Like they had the founder of Kickstarter, and they’ve had Tim Berners-Lee speaking, obviously the inventor of the internet, and also more unassuming people; farmers working in the realms of sustainability and things, and I thought, “That’s really interesting.”

So I just quite instinctively, probably quite foolishly, emailed the info@ address that day and just said, “My background’s publishing, this looks really interesting. Have you considered publishing books by your speakers?” Didn’t expect to get a response, got an email back that afternoon from the founders, who are Claire and David Hyatt, who used to run Howies clothing, that they sold to Timberland, and now they run a company called Hyatt Denim. So their background isn’t books, it’s clothes and fashion, but David’s incredibly well read and he used to work in advertising as a copywriter, and his boss was actually Paul Arden, who did the books ‘It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To Be’, which kind of informed the look of some of the books, but I’ll come to that.

So he got back to me and said, “Well, yes we have thought about that, but if I’m honest haven’t got the time or the expertise to make it happen.” We had a Skype a week later and I guess between us we developed a business plan and I put forward my ideas, and cut to a year later, I then had to quickly learn how to ‘run a business’, in inverted commas, from registering a company, to getting a domain name. So that was a huge learning curve, but I was so ready for it by then and I wanted it to happen, and then about a year later launched with the first five books in the series.

Alison Jones:                        Fantastic.

Miranda West:                   And then it’s kind of gone from there.

Alison Jones:                        And what I love is obviously they start as talks, how does that differ do you think? What’s the quality of that, how do they shift between those two modes?

Miranda West:                   Well it’s very different. What we could have done was almost a transcript of the talk, but I knew from the get go that a lot of people wouldn’t have heard of The DO Lectures, unlike Ted, which is a much, much bigger organisation. So I now go to the lectures every year, and I did that first year. David was like, “Well, you should probably come along and see what you think.” I listened to all the talks, and I’d sit at the back, I’d take notes, and then if … So there’ll be something there, so I suppose I commission quite instinctively. This is kind of something about the speaker’s background or area of expertise that I think, “Oh, that’s really interesting and that’s relevant to where we are now, so maybe that could be explored.” It might be something they say in the talk, it might be a single sentence. I’m actually developing, we’re doing a new series next year, and actually one of these books, they’re more fiction, almost like parables, and that came out of this throwaway story that one of the speakers said half way through the lecture that I picked up on.

So I suppose their area of expertise, or the speaker, there’s something about them. They’re charismatic, they’re really interesting, and I’m drawing from their experiences. More often than not I’ll then approach them and say, “Have you considered doing a book on this?” And what’s interesting about this process is that more often than not, because they’re not writers, they’re actually out there and they’re doing it, and they’re experts, they’re story consultants, they’re designers, they’re beekeepers, they’re lawyers, they work in improvisation, they’re mindfulness coaches, half the time nobody’s asked if they’d like to do a book.

So then that’s quite an interesting conversation. Sometimes they might already be under contract with a publisher, so we can’t really progress it, or annoyingly a lot of the time they’re far too, and this is the most common problem, is that they’re too busy, because they’re literally running a company that’s in the midst of some amazing growth spurt and they can’t down tools to write a book.

So that’s frustrating, especially if we both want to do it, but then time gets the better of us, or they’ll be like, “Oh, I’d love to do a book. No ones ever asked.” And then we work very closely together on the proposal, so bear in mind this is the first time they’ve written a book. So we do a lot of upfront work. So we’ll work on the structure, really finesse that, and then when it comes to writing, because also remember they’re working, they’re not necessarily writers so they’re fitting this in around other commitments, so when it comes to the writing they know exactly what they’re saying and they get it down. Also, the books are only between 20,000 and 30,000 words long, so about 100 pages. So they’re designed to be concise guides.

Alison Jones:                        And they’re quite small format, aren’t they?

Miranda West:                   Yes. Yes, exactly. Small format, paperbacks. So the idea is they focus on the doing, not all the background theory, so by the time you finish reading the book, you’re baking sourdough bread.

Alison Jones:                        Yes, which is what I do.

Miranda West:                   You’re starting a company, you’ve completely changed the way you tell the story about your brand or your company. So that’s the idea.

Alison Jones:                        So the relationship between the original talk and the book is actually quite a tenuous one, isn’t it? By the time you’ve done all that translation.

Miranda West:                   Yeah, that’s it. So also I knew that they had to, give that they’re small books, because also we’re all time poor now, so I didn’t want to have these big meaty tomes, I wanted to have something that people could just read in one or two sittings, but then refer back to and underline things. So content-wise, they work very hard. We have a make every sentence count policy, and I do the first edit, and a lot of that is just cutting back, cutting back, so you’re really finessing it so each sentence carries an idea. I knew that they had to work hard because people may not have heard of The DO Lectures, so I knew that in Waterstones, or Foyles, or the bookshops they actually capture our imagination, or they look interesting and people are going to pick them up, and they stand on their own two feet, because once they’re out in the big world, they have to really.

Alison Jones:                        And let’s just talk about that for a minute, because I think that’s really interesting. There’s two aspects of this, one is the design of this, which is gorgeous, as I say, and very obviously branded. It’s a series, and you know as an author what it is you need to write, because you’ve got the model there, and you know as a reader the sort of thing you’re going to get because you’re used to the series, and then there’s also the question of getting them into bookshops, which is not trivial these days, is it? So are those two related do you think?

Miranda West:                   Well, possibly. So, two things; one, in terms of getting them into the bookshops, right from the get go I knew we had to have a distributor. There’s no way that I was going to get meetings with Waterstones and independent bookshop chains on my own, and also that’s the key difference, that’s what puts me off when somebody wants to self publish. I think you’re really limiting your options in terms of getting into bookshops, which is where you need to be, at the end of the day, unless you’ve got amazing online profile. So I had a couple of meetings, and I had a very good meeting with PGUK, Publishers Group UK, and they represent a number of independent publishers, and they’ve been our distributor from 2013, and they do a great, great job.

So the first year they got them into places like the Conran store, Paul Smith, and that, as you said, that is linked to the design I think, and the look and feel of the books, because we had this very clear series identity that was quite confident, and that’s because we partnered with a cover designer from the States called James Victory, and his background’s poster design, he’s a graphic artist, so he’s not a traditional book cover designer, but I went with him because I thought, when I asked him I almost wasn’t expecting him to say yes, to be honest, because he had some very big clients, but he was keen to do it.

He had done a DO Lecture in the past, so he knew the brand, and the designs he came up with were completely not what I was expecting, but they’re very fresh and original and quite daring really, but they’ve got this nice elegant typeface that suggests the level of expertise that the authors have, but then similarly you’ve got the Do Grow cover, which is just got this very scratchy crayon design underneath, which kind of suggests it’s for beginners. It doesn’t assume any prior knowledge on the part of the reader. Anyway, it seems to work, and people like them. For about two days I was just in free fall because I just couldn’t make a decision. They were unlike other book covers, which on one hand is very good, but then similarly you’re completely out of your comfort zone. It’s like, “Well, what if everybody hates them?” And at that point you’re knee deep into a new business, and it’s like, “Well, if everyone hates them, then there’s no business.”

Alison Jones:                        Because it matters so much, doesn’t it, that whole don’t judge a book by the cover thing is complete nonsense. It’s the only thing you have at that stage, isn’t it?

Miranda West:                   Well it’s your primary selling tool, and we’re in a very busy world, there’s a lot of distractions, and we do a lot of work on social media, and building the community so people find out about the books that way, but also there is this secondary audience who are browsing in bookshops, and the cover is your primary selling tool, and it does have to work very hard, and it has to stop busy people in their tracks, and encourage them in a silent way to pick them up, which is very challenging. So, yeah, we’re very fortunate to be working with James. We’ve got an interesting relationship in that I just brief him with a title and a subtitle-

Alison Jones:                        That’s it?

Miranda West:                   So none of these 15-hour covers meetings like we used to have, but he’s written blog posts about this because he maintains that actually the way we work is based on trust. So I trust that he is an artist and a creative, and he’s going to go off and think about this, I send him other bits and bobs but I don’t give him precise brief. He then assimilates all the information and produces something that he thinks is great, and I don’t at that point go back and ask him to refine it, I take it as is, and that’s how we work.

Alison Jones:                        Sounds beautifully simple, and of course the joy of having that series design is that you can do that. There’s so much that’s, not taken for granted, that the wrong phrase, but you know what I mean. It’s there, it’s established, the parameters that you have to juggle each time, the variables with each cover are quite restricted, and that gives you quite a lot of freedom, doesn’t it? Because you can just focus on getting the metaphor right, or the grouping of the images.

Miranda West:                   Yes, that’s it. I’m not entirely sure how he does it. Also I love coming up with the titles and the subtitles as well, because that’s all part of it and part of the overall package. We have quite long subtitles, which I like, but also they have a promise, so that seems to work quite well as well.

Alison Jones:                        Fantastic. And what’s really interesting as well, coming back to your speaking relationship, is that very often people want to write a book so that they can get speaking gigs, and it’s really interesting, refreshing and I think helpful to see it the other way around as well. It’s like get out there speaking, and there’s people like you sitting at the back of the room with a notebook going, “Oh, would you like to write a book?” Because actually it’s so closely integrated these days, it’s all about platform and message and having something interesting to say.

Miranda West:                   Well, that’s it, yeah exactly. And then if you’ve got the right person sat at the back of the room with a notepad who’s then going to help you turn it into a book, because it is a different medium, it has different parameters and sensibilities and you’re progressing your idea, whereas if you’re doing a 20 minute talk you don’t really have much time to really develop the idea to a natural conclusion. So I think it is working with the right person, but there’s probably a lot of people in the back of rooms with notebooks these days.

Alison Jones:                        I think that’s right.

Miranda West:                   At conferences and-

Alison Jones:                        I’m often one of those, yeah. Absolutely. Because that’s where the ideas get their first airing, and if you’re in the room you can see how they’re landing, can’t you? You can see the engagement and reaction of people in the room, and that gives you the clue as a commissioning editor.

Miranda West:                   Yeah, absolutely. But also interestingly I’ve found that some of the lectures and the talks, some of the best ones where you’ve got a room full of people crying or laughing hysterically, actually my feeling is that sometimes they’re not going to be books. So actually I say no more often than I day yes. So from a year of 20 speakers there may be two or three who I approach, and that’s just this weird alchemy, a combination of what’s happening at the time, or that particular individual and what they’ve got to offer, and the subject, and like I say, it might just be a throwaway sentence that sparks an idea that’s quite different, actually, from the talk they’ve given. So that’s the weird alchemy that I’m never very good at explaining.

Alison Jones:                        And I guess a part of that, also, is your commissioning strategy, because you’re developing those themes in your publishing, you’ve got the slow living theme, and so I guess that’s part of it as well, isn’t it? Something’s got to fit with what you already have so you can cross promote it properly.

Miranda West:                   I suppose so. I never know if I’m that strategic, but yeah, hopefully I am without really realising, but yeah. So as you say, the books fit into two strands, we’ve got the smart working books, which are more business and self improvement, personal development, things you might apply to the workplace, because the people that go to the lectures, who oddly I commission for first and foremost, but now we’re finding that that commissioning strategy, small s, does expose us to a much broader audience, and I think that’s because the people who go are just trying to create a better life for themselves. They’re trying to work out how they can make a living and do something that they’re really passionate about. So we’re helping them wrangle with those problems, which is a lot of people. People don’t want to be in a dead end job anymore, they want to be doing something that’s stimulating and fulfilling, and can thy make a living from that?

So that’s what we do. So they’re the smart working books, and then the slow living books are more allowing you to process all this information that we carry around in our heads, and work with our hands. So you’re slow living books, just to explain, are more cookery, or growing, or keeping bees, or baking sourdough bread, or making jams and chutneys. All of these things, I’d like to do one day.

Alison Jones:                        And this is the joy of being commissioning editor, it’s what floats your boat, isn’t it?

Miranda West:                   I’d love to make chutney, let’s publish a book on that. So one of these days I’ll get round to actually putting some of these books into practice myself, but I never seem to have the time. So, at The DO Lectures after the talks they have workshops, which are these breakout sessions, and it allows you to process everything that you’ve heard, and we’ve made hand planes, little surfboards, people make their on bread, they do lino-cutting workshops, and I just love that, the yin and the yang. Using your head, using hands, and actually making something.

Alison Jones:                        And that’s like a microcosm of that whole thing you’re talking about. On the one hand it’s do, on the other hand it’s write, and it’s that lovely synergy of reading, writing, the cerebral stuff on the one hand, and the actual, “Now, what are you going to do about it?” I love that mix.

Miranda West:                   Yeah. Well hopefully we’re at that sweet spot. What I love most is when we get people putting pictures on Instagram and things, which is brilliant now, and they’re showing a tatty old book, there was a book called Do Breathe that we published, and this woman was embarrassed to put this on Instagram, but I carried this book round, it was a tatty old book, the cover was trashed, but she carries the book round with her every day, refers back to it, and I thought that was fantastic. Similarly, the bread ones have got people posting loaves of bread, sourdough, that look like a biscuit, it’s like, “First attempt.” But that’s brilliant, isn’t it? Because at some point they’ve been inspired to have a go and to try and learn something new.

Alison Jones:                        I love it. It resonates so much with me. My publishing imprint is called Practical Inspiration, and it’s exactly that same-

Miranda West:                   Hotchpotch, yeah.

Alison Jones:                        Yeah, mix of stuff, I’m all over it. It’s brilliant. Now, I’m not going to let you go without winkling out of you a tip, so obviously you’re coming in from the commissioning editor and the publisher’s point of view, which I think is really interesting for lots of people who are listening. So if you had your best tip for a first time author, what would that be?

Miranda West:                   Right. I think a couple of things. I think one, it’s difficult with first time authors because they feel that they have to put everything down, they have to put everything onto the page, and actually sometimes less is more. What I advise our authors is to write with a particular person in mind, an individual, somebody they’ve met, and that just really helps them to almost get out of their own heads, the ego’s put to one side, and then they’re actually writing for someone else, and that allows, I don’t know, the reader is invited into that writing process from a very early stage. And actually when you do that, the writing is less about you and what you know, although obviously that comes through, and more about what can somebody get out of this? How can I help someone else with my experience and my knowledge? And it just shifts the balance and then suddenly the writer is much more accessible. You’re not writing for your peers, you’re not trying to outsmart somebody, you’re writing for somebody who’s genuinely interested in what you’ve got to say and wants to learn from you, and it just really helps to set the tone and the level. We do assume a certain intelligence on the part of our readers, they’re not complete geeks, well some might be, but similarly they’re educated and they’re interested in social issues, and they’re aware, and they’re hungry for new ideas, they want to know.

So I think once you flip it almost, especially for a first time author, and also you’re not writing for everybody, I think that’s the point. It’s very difficult to write for everybody, so write for one person, and actually literally have that person in mind. It may not be, it’s not your partner, it’s somebody who’s come along to one of your talks, or you’ve met and they’re interested in what you do. Maybe they’re young, they’re in their 20s, and suddenly you realise you know an awful lot about your subject and you can make it interesting to that person.

Alison Jones:                        It’s such a great tip, and I think a lot of people end up writing for their critics almost, don’t they? They’re second guessing, it comes across as convoluted and defensive. Awesome advice. Did you day you had a second, or am I just being greedy now?

Miranda West:                   Oh, hold on. Second tip. Well, no, I suppose maybe that was the don’t try and outsmart people, which is probably where your point about the critic comes in, because the critic probably won’t read the book anyway.

Alison Jones:                        Right. That’s the ludicrous thing, isn’t it?

Miranda West:                   I suppose the other thing is, certainly with business books, think of yourself as more of a guide or a mentor than a writer or an author. So you’re guiding somebody through the process, or your experience, and there’s an element of handholding I think, because ultimately you’re passing on your knowledge, that’s why you’re doing the book. You want to share it with other people. So it’s just really have those other people in mind I would say. Yeah.

Alison Jones:                        It’s all about the reader. I love that. And if people want to find out more about, not just Do Books of course, but DO talks as well.

Miranda West:                   Yeah.

Alison Jones:                        I haven’t ever heard of them before, and I’m shocked about this.

Miranda West:                   I’ve not done flagrant self promotion at all.

Alison Jones:                        Here’s your chance, go on.

Miranda West:                   It’s my chance. So, the website is thedobook.co, that’s just .co at the end, we’ve got details of events on there, all the books are there, we also do bundles, which you can only get online. You can also order the books in your local bookshop, I should say, and they’re on Amazon too. We’re going to be doing audiobooks this year, well I say this year, we’ve got about six weeks left, but I’m assured they’ll go live before Christmas.

Alison Jones:                        Well, I think you’re probably going live in 2018 is okay, so you can say this year in the magic of podcasting.

Miranda West:                   No, I think it’s supposed to be next week actually.

Alison Jones:                        Oh right.

Miranda West:                   That’s what I’ve been told.

Alison Jones:                        We’re speaking in November 2017, by the way, just to put this in context.

Miranda West:                   Yeah. We also do e-books, and when you buy a print book from the website you get a free ebook version, that’s automatic.

Alison Jones:                        Ah, that’s fantastic, isn’t it? I like that.

Miranda West:                   Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, we’re @dobookco. Doing quite a lot on Instagram at the moment, quite enjoying that, and we do a monthly, or bimonthly newsletter, which we send out through MailChimp, you can subscribe to that through the website, and that had all the latest news and what we’re up to, and lots of inspiration, and that kind of thing. Also, we’re on Medium, if you search Do Book company, we should come up. We have a Medium publication and we post extracts from the books, top and tails, so they’re standalone articles. We do that every two weeks, more or less.

Alison Jones:                        We might have to have you back on as an object study in content marketing for publishers, actually, this is terrific. I also forgot to ask you, I always ask people to recommend a guest to the show. So somebody with something interesting to say, particularly about business books, but not necessarily just business books. Who would you recommend that I talk to on the show?

Miranda West:                   The person that’s coming to mind is my good friend Sophie Rochester. Her background’s book publishing, more from the PR perspective, and she worked on a lot of the Irvine Welsh campaigns back in the day, she then set up the Literary Platform, which was working at the heart of books and technology, so she was doing that for about five years when there was the big digital transition, but she’s now started a new venture called Yodomo, which is more about video tutorials, but I know she’s speaking to a lot of publishers, and I just thought it might be interesting to have somebody on the show who’s transitioning more into video, because there’s way for authors to, not promote their books, but it’s going to be another field and I think it’s going to be growing to share content and things.

Alison Jones:                        Yeah, I can’t argue with that.

Miranda West:                   I think her perspective might be interesting. It’s a new platform, but I think it might be quite fast growing, and it’s not blogging, it’s on curated YouTube I suppose, but there’s going to be an app, which is very intuitive to use, and I think what we’ll see is more people actually putting themselves, and their knowledge, and their skills online in video form for other people to find, and digest, and listen to.

Alison Jones:                        It ties in beautifully with those instructional, practical sorts of books that you’re talking about, doesn’t it? And now I’ll watch somebody doing this, as well as listen to them talk, and as well as reading their book.

Miranda West:                   Yeah. So actually what she’s finding when she speaks to publishers is that they’re very interested in sharing some of that content in video form, and then of course from a publishing perspective that would drive people back, eventually, drive them back to the book. So I suppose it’s this idea of unpackaging the book, in a way, in a different form that’s relevant to how people are consuming things today.

Alison Jones:                        Yeah, that’s so important. I think the book is part of your whole content output and platform, it’s just not the whole thing, and it ties everything together, but it’s not just the only thing you’ve got. That’s a really interesting recommendation, thank you. I look forward to following up.

Miranda West:                   I hope she’s available, I’m sure she will be.

Alison Jones:                        Well, I’ll tell her you sent me and hopefully that will help.

Miranda West:                   Yeah.

Alison Jones:                        It was so interesting talking to you, Miranda, thank you so much for your time today.

Miranda West:                   It was lovely speaking to you, thanks very much.

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