Episode 261 – Let’s Play with John Williams

John Williams‘Everything is sales… the title should sell people on reading the subtitle, the subtitle should sell people on flipping it over to look at the blurb and the blurb should sell you on opening the book up and flicking through it. And if all those things occur in the right way, then the chances are you’ll buy the book.’

John Williams is an ideas guy, and he helps other people make their ideas happen too. He’s also a very experienced marketer and business book writer, and in this conversation he shares exactly how he knocked out a full first draft of his new book F*ck Work, Let’s Play in just nine days… 

Packed with practical inspiration for entrepreneurs and writers, this is a fascinating under-the-hood glimpse into the mindset and methods of someone who’s succeeded at both.


F**k Work, Let’s Play site: https://fworkletsplay.com/

F**k Work, Let’s Play Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/johnwilliamsfwork

John on Twitter: https://twitter.com/johnsw

Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

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

The Clubhouse behind-the-scenes event: https://www.joinclubhouse.com/event/Md0z2408

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

The Extraordinary Business Book Club bookshop: https://uk.bookshop.org/shop/extraordinarybusinessbooks

Alison Jones: I’m here today with John Williams, who is a global innovation expert and founder of the Ideas Lab, which has helped thousands of people start a business they love. He’s the author of F Work Let’s Play, how to do what you love and get paid for it, which was WHSmith’s business book of the month. And he’s also a fellow Business Book Awards judge.

So welcome to the show, John

John Williams: Thanks very much for inviting me, Alison.

Alison Jones: It’s great to have you. Of course, this is reciprocation, isn’t it? Because I was on the Ideas Lab a little while back,

John Williams: That was a great episode. Yeah.

Alison Jones: It’s always a little bit anxiety making when you interview a podcaster because they’re going, Oh, well I’m not sure I’d have done it that way. I’m not sure about your questioning techniques.

We’ll see how we go.

And let’s start off John with, I know, and I fudged it, the title of the book, it’s kind of the elephant in the room, isn’t it? I’m guessing you thought quite long and hard about that. What do we think about sweary titles because actually this isn’t the original title of the book, is it?

John Williams: No, so this is a new revised, updated and expanded version of my first book that was published by Pearson in 2010, which was called Screw Work, Let’s Play. And I proposed the end of 2018, no, 2019,  I seem to get confused about years now, because years last forever.

I proposed to Pearson. I said, why don’t we do a 10-year anniversary edition because it’s such a good book. And, frankly, for the sake of updating it, it would bring the book back to life. And it seems a shame that people won’t be reading it right now, because when it was written, it was talking about things like Twitter were brand new and Instagram hadn’t been invented.

So, you know, it’s a difficult book to recommend when it’s 10 years old, when it includes marketing advice. And they came back and said, actually, funny enough, we’ve been looking at this and we’re kind of interested in having a book with the F word in the title, would you be willing to change it? So the suggestion didn’t actually come from me.

My agent who heard this news first went Oh I don’t think John would like that, he’s very attached to screwing work and I went, no, it’s absolutely fine. Yeah, because there’s a couple of reasons why, and one is because when I was writing this book in 2009 for Pearson, I was speaking to one of my creative mentors and therapist, Jerry Hyde, and you were trying to come up with a title and he said, well, surely this should be F Work, shouldn’t it? And I went okay,  I think that might be a bit extreme, but he was saying, basically what I’m talking about is the world of work has changed so much. You don’t have to dress up, go someplace. You don’t have to have a job. You don’t even have to have a plan, which is one of the things I write about.

You don’t have to have five-year goals. You can start with something small and grow it as big as you want, or you can keep it small. It’s just all the rules have changed and the careers advice we got from our parents. And you know, I used to read in these very dry business books more than a decade ago, you know, guides about VAT and setting up your company, which you do need to know, but that’s the very smallest part of working for yourself.

And, and I felt like, yeah, we need to make a strong statement. So I pull my punches a little bit by making it Screw Work. And it was me that pushed for the title Screw Work, Let’s Play and Pearson eventually accepted it, because they didn’t even like that. And then it was ironically Pearson saying, Oh no, let’s F it this time,

Alison Jones: It’s hilarious, isn’t it. So 10 years ago they were a bit wary of the word screw for Screw Work, Let’s Play. And now suddenly… it just shows you how fashion has changed in publishing and the shift in cultural norms. Isn’t it?

John Williams: Not just that, they were wary about Screw Work, Let’s Play because it’s not self-explanatory. The subtitle is do what you love and get paid for it. And what I discovered in the process of writing this book, it is a book about play, but play in all the different meanings of the word.

So it gets quite nerdy, but the word there’s the concept of playing it out. So not knowing where you’re going, but responding to feedback in the moment that’s playing it out. There’s the concept of play is always a choice. You can’t, you can point a gun at someone’s head and say, okay, play now and have fun and whatever they do it isn’t fun, and they’re not really playing. So play is always a choice. And then there’s also the concept of being in play. And I wanted to convince the people who are dreamers, who are looking for their passion and never doing anything, to actually get in the mix and do something and that’s about being in play and being engaged with your market and being engaged with your readers, if you’re a writer and, you know, being in the thick of it.

 So the word became very important, but they were worried, that people would interpret it as just giving up your job. And I said, yes, there is a danger of that. But I think because the subtitle is more explanatory and because it’s such a powerful title. I think we should stick with it, they wanted to call it Escape the Nine to Five, which is more kind of more explicit but in the end just was dull and Screw Work, the title Screw Work, Let’s Play, really helped the book to become this kind of big hit, that was profiled in The Times, translated into 10 languages and had a lot of kind of cult draw around it for a certain kind of person who’s a little bit unconventional.

Alison Jones: Yes. And actually I think that is the job of the title. The job of the title is to make you stop and look, the subtitle can explain what it’s all about, but you’re right, it’s the impact of the title that you want, isn’t it

John Williams: I’ll just say on that point, everything is sales when you’re running a business or communicating a message and the title should sell people on reading the subtitle, the subtitle should sell people on flipping it over to look at the blurb and the blurb should sell you on opening the book up and flicking through it.

And if all those things occur in the right way, then the chances are you’ll buy the book.

Alison Jones: It’s like a mini marketing funnel, isn’t it, just those different assets in the metadata. Yeah, really interesting. What else did you notice about redoing the book 10 years on.

John Williams: Well, I wrote it in Thailand, so I was waiting a long time for the sign off on this book. And my original plan was to write it over Christmas in 2019 and then was a bit kind of worn out by work  for months leading up to that. So didn’t do anything and probably procrastination.

And then I’d booked this month in Thailand. So I often go away in January or February to escape the British winter because I can run my business from anywhere in the world and you can go to a lot of countries in Asia for a month without needing a visa. So  I booked a month and I was going to go to this Island called Ko Lanta in the South West of Thailand.

And write this book, assuming it was signed off by the time I got there and it was signed off just before Christmas. And then I flew off in January 24th. And by the time I actually landed in the coworking space on the Island of Ko Lanta surrounded by digital nomads from all over the world, I only had nine days left to knock out the first draft. So I basically had to just work quite long days and you know, across the weekend, seven days a week, to get this first version shipshape. I’d already, what I had done is I’d gone through the original version of the book.  I’d used the physical version of Screw Work Let’s Play marked everything we wanted to change.

 And then it was a matter of sitting down in this coworking space, ordering Thai food to my desk, which was a very nice feature of the coworking space.

Alison Jones: Yeah.  You thought that through. well, hadn’t you.

John Williams: Yeah, they had a menu on the intranet of nine different curries. I mean, I was in heaven. You just order it, they take it off your card and 20 minutes later it turns up at your desk.

 So I started writing, but I also quickly emailed everybody who’d been featured as a story in the book, as a case study. So I had loads of stories in there of people who have lived these values and are, you know represent doing what you love and getting paid for it. And these people, some of them I hadn’t spoken to for more than 10 years.

And so I sent out all these emails and thank the lord they all replied quite quickly. And I set up to interview them. Meanwhile, I started writing all the new content. So there’s lots of new marketing content. I added this concept of power-ups because in the intervening 10 years, I’ve worked with so many clients, I now know what goes wrong. When people read the book and the information they need is in the book, but they don’t get the bits that are really important. So they kind of end up getting stuck. So I added these power ups to make things faster, like how to be everywhere on social media, how to use video to create intimacy in your marketing, lots of other things like that.

Oh, and how to also manage life, if you’re one of those people who has lots of ideas, otherwise known as a scanner personality, which maybe we’ll talk about later. And I would write on my Apple Mac, which I’d taken with me and I had an external keyboard and mouse.

And I bought an iPad pro with a pencil. So that, because I knew I wouldn’t have access to a printer. My normal process in writing is to write a draft of a chapter, print it on double-sided paper, which I then recycle and then make the marks on paper and then apply them to the manuscripts, which is a weird way of doing things, but I just feel that going backwards and forwards is much better than spending nine hours staring at a screen.

Alison Jones: Oh, yes, absolutely. And you see it differently. Don’t you?

John Williams: Yeah, there’s something about the fact you can’t edit it, but my brain is not thinking what’s the key combo to sort of get to that word and change it.

It’s just, you know, circle this, this bit’s duff, replace it with a better sometimes it’s just like, remove that word. Sometimes it’s replaced with something better, but I haven’t even thought of right now. So that’s a lot easier to do on paper. And I knew I wouldn’t be able to print very easily because they charge you like 10p per page in coworking spaces and it would just be impractical.

So I bought this iPad and I bought a very expensive PDF editor called I think it was called PDF Expert and got this workflow where as soon as I finished on the manuscript, it would be accessible as a PDF on my iPad. And I’d walk outside where it was 30 to 35 degrees C and lie on the one of the benches out there, one of the nice sort of sofas and scroll through the manuscript to the bit I’ve just written, make the marks I wanted to make.

And then basically as soon as I saved that, it was available on my Mac as a PDF  to carry across the changes into the Microsoft word document. And for me, that was my ideal process. You know, Thai Curry fuelled, alternating between indoor air conditioning and outdoor iPad, you know, making marks on a PDF.

Alison Jones: So fascinating to hear people’s tools and methodologies, the way that they get into a rhythm. And you know, this is what I do, this is how I do it. It gives you a real kind of structure for what you’re doing, doesn’t it? It helps you just go. I love as well, that you had the time away. I’m very envious.

Obviously you wouldn’t be able to do it a couple of months later, hey, so you timed it very well. That sense of all you had to do was focus on the book. Did you find that. For me, you know when I sort of got to focusing like that, everything else immediately demands attention but of course because you’re away you can’t do it, you can’t go walk the dog all you’ve got is you and the book.

John Williams: All I did was, I woke up in the morning, had breakfast at my hotel, go on my moped, rode five minutes up the road. There was only one road in Ko Lanta and only one main road anyway, and went to the coworking space, started work, worked straight through till, I don’t know what nine o’clock or something like that.

And then everybody would be on a WhatsApp group saying, Hey, we’re going to this beach bar tonight. And I would join them at about nine o’clock and grab dinner and a beer. I mean, there would always be people to talk to. And which is for me works, I don’t have children, so I don’t have to worry about that kind of stuff.

I was there on my own. And although there was one very funny moment when I was working like on Sunday or something quite late, and there was a German guy in there and he saw me working on this book called F work, Let’s Play and took a photo with his watch in the picture showing that it was nine o’clock and he thought it was hilarious, that I was saying F work and here I was working really hard.

Alison Jones: Yes, that is actually now you think about it. It’s quite funny. Isn’t it?  I hope you told him this is playing

John Williams: Exactly. And the book is not about things being effortless. It’s about you doing work that you would choose to do in some form, even if you won the lottery. So if somebody handed me a hundred million quid, I would probably still write books, almost certainly still write books.

I’ll be writing in some form and I’ll be doing a lot of the other things I do.

Alison Jones: And let’s talk about the other things that you do. Just tell me about the Ideas Lab, which is such a great title, but just, you know, how you came to set that up. How does it fit with that idea of work as play? What does it mean to you?

John Williams: Yeah, well ideas are play for me. I love new ideas. It’s been the story of my life. When I was 11 years old, I started reading every book on science I could find, went through the kind of physical sciences and then got into psychology and creativity and read Freud at the age of 13 or something. So I love new ideas, new ways of interpreting the world.

I love the creative process. I played around making electronic music from the age of 18 onwards and writing occasionally. And so I loved that more than anything. I was actually in technology originally. So I was a programmer on special effects software that was used by Disney and automation systems used by BBC TV and news studios all over the world.

 And I really enjoyed that. And then I moved into consultancy and I was a senior managing consultant at Deloitte for a year, working on cutting- edge broadcast systems and multimedia technology. So I love anything that’s new and different. And so I wanted to help people create new and different things themselves.

And so now I help people just like me, who maybe have had a good job and want to escape and work for themselves. And they often have lots of interests and lots of ideas. They love learning and love reading books. Dreaming of writing a book, if they haven’t already written one. And they want to make a living sharing everything they know, and the things that they are excited about. So, you know, whether that’s something very practical, like, you know, I’ve got people who teach about system administration, people who teach about internal communication and then I’ve got people who teach yoga and help painters paint more work and put more work out into the world and yoga teachers who help people with their anxiety.

So everything really. There’s a lot of people now, people who make a living out of the contents of their brain as I would put it. So they’re experts in something, and they want to turn that into a business.

Alison Jones: And do you have that conversation with them sometimes, I know this is very much a kind of me turning it to the topic of this podcast, but no apologies. These are people with expertise, making their distinctive path in the world. Do you have that conversation about books with them? What do people say about that?

John Williams: Yes, I do. I’ve had many and I used to run a course on writing nonfiction books. So I ran one of those for a couple of years, but I don’t do that anymore. And, it’s a subject I find fascinating. It’s quite, it’s quite different to the pace of everything else I do because  I like to help people create a business and launch or create a product like an information product for instance, or group program, or a course, that they can launch and make money from and get all the marketing strategy for in three months or less.

And the only challenge of books is it’s got a very different kind of timescale.  So yeah, I do get into lots of conversations and a lot of the stuff that you have to consider as an author are actually very similar with what you have to do with creating any product. And I talk a lot in my work about product-market fit, which means how do you take the things you enjoy doing and interested in and good at and put them in a package, create an offer around them with a price, where when people see it, they go, the right kind of person will go, Oh, well, yes, I want that. I will pay for that. And in actual fact, a book is very similar. How do you take everything you want to say or could say, choose, you know, a subset of that, package it into something with a cover and a title and a, you know, a list of contents that makes people want to buy it and want to share it with others.

Alison Jones: It is, it’s like a launch, isn’t it? Writing a book. It is all the things you have to think about with that.  Who am I doing this for? What problem am I solving? How do I get the messaging right? All of that is in a book as well.

John Williams: Very similar interesting. There’s obviously some separate things about how do you manage a long-term project and that skill of writing and editing, that is very specific, but there’s a, yeah, it is essentially a product you are creating.

Alison Jones: So John, if I was to ask you, what’s your best tip for a first time author, because this, this is great. You know, you’ve worked, you’ve done it yourself and you’ve worked with other people on it. So I’m excited to hear. What’s the kind of one thing, if nothing else, what do people need to take away from this conversation?

John Williams: I think, I would say I’m tempted to say two things and one is a marketing thing, and one is a book thing and…

Alison Jones: You absolutely can, fire away.

John Williams: And, and one is because they’re both missed so much and I’m sure you’ll know this, Alison, one is that when you get a book deal, you think what you’re going to do is sit down and empty the contents of your brain, and then you’ve got a book.

And then what you discover is actually, that’s not the case. What you’re trying to do is create a result for people and take people on a journey with your book and you should only include what you need to include to produce that result for the person who’s bought the book, for your reader. So it’s not about you, you know, putting in as much as you possibly can.

It’s about you thinking, what is this book actually going to do for people and it’s often about getting specific and niching the focus of what you’re doing down rather than saying, well, I know about, I don’t know what, fitness for over 40 year olds, so I’m going to write everything I know about fitness for over 40 year olds.

That’s not necessarily a good book

Alison Jones: And it’s so funny, it sounds kind of self-evident, but actually it’s really hard, isn’t it? When you’re writing about a subject that you know completely, and you’re passionate about, reining yourself in and being really rigorous about writing for the reader, rather than for yourself, it’s easier said than done.

John Williams: Yeah, it is because if you’re excited about something, you go, Oh, I could tell them how to do this. But if your reader is a beginner, for instance, in a topic, you telling him how to do something further down the line that they’re not even going to understand for a year doesn’t help. You’re actually, you’re actually making the journey worse for them.

You’re making the book worse for them. So that then that’s a really difficult thing to resist when you’re excited and you go, Oh, I could put this bit in then they would be able to do that as well.

Alison Jones: And it’s also why they say books aren’t written, they’re rewritten because you go through and go, do you know what, that shouldn’t be in there. You take it out.

John Williams: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. I remember I was writing my, actually it was my second book. I was writing my second book and I go like, you know, this is a good book, but it’s called Screw Work Break Free that one. And I thought, why does this not read as nicely as the first book? And then I realized I’m comparing my first draft to my final draft of the first book and the first draft of the first book was nothing like the final draft. And so I actually put in the book, never compare your first draft to anyone’s final draft, including your own.

Alison Jones: Yeah. Yeah, because they’re looking at books and going, Oh, I could never write like that, that person didn’t write like that first time round.

John Williams: No, definitely not. So the second thing I was going to say, what I think is really important and is I often ask this question of people, maybe it’s the first question that’s worth answering, which is what do you want your book to do for you? And the normal response of first-time writers is to look at me blankly as if I just asked them a question about quantum physics or something.

It’s like: What? I don’t understand. And so I think it’s because what people imagine is that when you write a book, it will be successful. And then when it’s successful, everything will magically get better for you in your business and your work, you know, but as we know, that’s not the case. And you know, it’s like, you can have a website that has a million hits a day, but there’s nothing for people to engage in or buy or do on your website that doesn’t achieve anything, it just cost you a lot in hosting fees.

So it’s kind of a similar thing. There are plenty of books, actually, plenty of authors I’ve met who have written really successful books. I think they’re broke because there’s nothing in the book that makes the reader want to come and find out about the author and engage in what they do.

So assuming you’re writing a business book, because you want to boost your own business, your own work, your consulting or speaking, you need to make sure that there are things in the book that make people get in contact with you. For instance, you know, opt-in to download this thing or come join the Facebook group where we’re discussing this book and these kinds of topics, whatever it might be, something that gets them into a more intimate relationship with you.

Alison Jones: There’s got to be a call to action, and there’s got to be something that having read the book and going, Oh, this is great. I love this person. How can I work with them further? There’s got to be a step that they can take, right?

John Williams: Yeah. Yeah. And I built a community of 20,000 people from my first book, on automatic mostly because I’m not, I wasn’t very organized at social media strategy back then.

Alison Jones: Brilliant. Superb tips, both of them. Thank you, John. And I’m just going to ask you for a business book recommendation, you and I, of course, both judges of the Business Book Awards. So I know that you too have read very many, very, very good books. I’m really interested to hear what you’re going to recommend.

John Williams: Well, the one that’s had the biggest impact on me recently is the, it’s a quite an awkward title. The Almanack of Naval Ravikant and Naval Ravikant, N A V A L, is an American entrepreneur who is the founder of Angel List. He’s very immersed in the startup world, but he’s also a profound thinker and this book interests me.

It’s got a foreword by Tim Ferris. It’s not written by Naval, it’s written by a chap called Eric Jorgenson and Eric, basically Naval wasn’t interested in writing a book particularly he puts out most of his ideas on Twitter and on podcasts. What Eric did is he went round and compiled all his thoughts from tweets and from podcast interviews and put it into a coherent form in a book.

And then made it available for free. You can go to, you can Google the Almanack of Naval Ravikant and you can download a free version as a PDF, but if you want to buy it, you can also buy it as a paperback, which what I did. And the first half of the book is about wealth and how to achieve wealth. And the second half of the book is about how to be happy, more or less broadly speaking.

And he is a very, very profound thinker on both those topics. It’s a little aimed at people who understand the startup world and think in those kinds of very large-scale impact businesses. But because I’m from the startup world originally it all kind of makes sense to me. And I think he’s one of the most profound thinkers on wealth and value creation, as you could broadly describe it.

Alison Jones: Brilliant. Never heard of it. And I love it when somebody comes up with a recommendation that’s completely new to me. Thank you. I’m going to go and check that out.

John Williams: How’s that for a recommendation?

Alison Jones: And that’s interesting, isn’t it as well because people often like, Oh, I don’t want to put too much of my stuff out. You put your stuff out there, actually it brings people to buy the book, doesn’t it? Because it’s just such a much more convenient way of consuming it.

Yeah. Brilliant. And John, if people want to find out more about you, more about your books, more about the Ideas Lab, where should they go?

John Williams: Well, probably the best place at the moment since we’re talking about the book is there’s a micro-site for that, which is F Work Let’s Play.com as in FWORKLetsplay without the apostrophe, even though that pains me, dot com. It’s very troubling, but you can’t have apostrophes in URLs unfortunately.

And if you go there, you can get links to the book because sometimes it’s a bit difficult to find on Amazon. It’s currently, you know, back when we were allowed in shops, it’s currently a top 10 book in a whole chain of shops, which is illegal to go into. So that’s in your marketing strategy and can’t plan for that one.

And, and you can join, there’s a Facebook group on that page which you can join for free called the F Word Let’s Play, create a business you love with John Williams Facebook group. And we talk about all the kinds of things we were talking about today, really in there. And I occasionally run free five-day challenges to create a business and a product stands out.

So there’s a whole bunch of stuff there. And the book is I, I have to say I very rarely boast about things I’ve done, I think they’re good enough. It’s a really solid book. And when people read it you can see the reviews for the first book. There aren’t many for the second one yet for this new version.

They absolutely love it, particularly if they’re the kind of person who is a little bit more, what you might describe as right-brained, a bit creative, diverse in their interests and, and love to learn things.

Alison Jones: Yeah. And it’s very, very well written, actually. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Brilliant. Thank you, John. I could have talked to you all day. There’s so much to, and thank you for talking about your writing process. That was really, really interesting just to kind of go under the hood of that and and so many great tips there.

I think this is one that will bear listening to a second time with a notepad in your hand actually people. It’s great to talk to you today. Thanks for your time, John.

John Williams: Thanks very much, Alison.

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