How to make an innovative book? (help wanted)

It’d be daft to write a book about innovation without some effort to make the book itself an innovative thing. So I’m asking you, wise blog readers, for some help: How can a book, in how its designed, written, marketed, or something else, be an innovative thing?

Some thoughts:

As I’ve covered elsewhere, innovation means something new that’s good, or better than before. I’m not looking for fads or change-for-change-sake gimmicks: but I do want good, clever things you’ve seen other books do that should be emulated, or new ideas you’ve always thought should be part of what a good book is.

Book design: Aren’t most bibliographies a snorefest? Are there things about footnotes that drive you nuts? Isn’t there a smarter way to help people find other resources? Either in the book itself, or connecting the book to the web? Kawakasi made the cover a design competition (an idea I like) – what else has been done, or should be done?

Marketing: I did two no-frills low radar book tours to support artofpm. Is there a better way to use my time on the road besides the standard lecture, Q&A, drinks routine? Especially on a budget? Things more interactive, more fun, and more memorable? What’s the best book related event you’ve ever been too? The best book marketing you’ve ever seen?

Book writing: I’ve been doing my best to use this blog and open interviews (still open!) to help bring people into the process. But as I head into draft two, are there other new ideas I should be trying? Something I missed or you heard about that might work for this project?

Speak up! – now is the time to help a book be all it can be. Please pass this link on to all your designer and marketing friends :)

24 Responses to “How to make an innovative book? (help wanted)”

  1. Mark Denovich

    Twist of the Wrist II by Keith Code had what I thought was a well targeted innovation. The book is focused on the art of motorcycle riding & racing.

    What he did was add definitions in the margin for “hard” words. Considering the target audience I thought this was a good idea.

    I can’t see how that helps you, but books haven’t seen much in the way of innovation since Gutenberg.

    Although I do like how the Pragmatic Programmers release their books. They’ll sell you the PDF and/or the printed version. More importantly, they’ll give you draft copies via PDF as soon as they are available. This gives early access and often results in a lot of constructive criticism.

  2. Scott (admin)

    I’m a wanna-be Guttenberg wennie: so I do know that punctuation, page numbers and several other things came post Gutteberg.

    One idea: as a rule, all references and URLs in any book should be up on a website somewhere.

  3. Scott (admin)

    The margin idea is interesting; I see it now and then and often its over done (there’s 20% of the words on the page dancing around in what used to be the margins).

    Another idea: Bibliographies suck. Why is alphabetical order relevant for a bunch of authors I as a reader probably don’t know? ArtofPM had an annotated bibliography, where I commented on why certain books were relevant, but that’s only so much better.

    So I’ve thought about ranked bibliographies. What if, like a search engine, I ranked books based on their value to me in writing the book? (Implying value to the reader wgho wants to learn more). I’ve tracked my notes and I know how many notes I’ve taken from every book I’ve done research with: would that be more useful or just a trick? Not sure.

  4. John

    The ranked bibliography idea is a good one, as long as the sources were still grouped by chapter. That’d help me a lot more in digging deeper for any chapter I find particularly interesting.

    One idea for marketing would be to offer a free book to anyone who brings their own existing copy to one of your book tours. You can autograph the copy the reader brings, and autograph the free copy as a gift the reader can pass along. Everyone wins – you get positive word of mouth, the reader looks like a nice guy, and the recipient gets the gift of a good book. Of course it depends on how many books O’Reilly can spare. :)

  5. Craig

    Book Design:

    Bibliographies – I agree these can be serious snorefest. I received my masters in Industrial/Organizational psychology (how to get the right people in the right places, with the right information and help them learn) and few things are as annoying as writing and reading APA format. Huge chucks of information about citing which can get annoying reading, writing, and verifying. If you have the option avoid these type sort of citations just tag with a number. It is easier read, find, and edit. Keep the texted focused on what you are trying to say. IMO its sort of like a good UI for readers. =)

    It’s sad to say but most people AREN’T going to look these things up. It’s nice that they are there… its legally necessary…… but people are reading the book (or will be) because of the research YOU have done. They want to know what you have found and what you think. The rest is stepping stones for more information….sort like suggested reading…

    Footnotes – In truth I think if you asked people they probably skip them so I would use them sparingly. You probably want to avoid formulating pages where people have to read a lot of these. I will say that if you have to use a footnote…. keep it short. It looks goofy when a page is 1/3 footnotes and if it’s that important included it in the text using a summary.

    Resources – The bibilography is nice because it’s all in one place. Some O’Reilly books have a webpage tagged on with it with examples and stuff which is ok……but it can be outdated. But I think the best thing you have right now is your blog, forums, and webpage. If you keep them going and people keep talking and contributing there is nothing static which can compare. It’s a place where people who are interested in learning about innovation gather and discuss. What could be better than that? Not only that it keeps them in YOUR loop. =)

    Also one of the things I love about the internet is just being able to ask the person who wrote the book questions. That’s really cool. Most people think the people who write books are in ivory towers yelling down to the groundlings. By interacting with your readers out ideas I think is innovative.


    Marketing is “nice” but in the end if the product stinks the best launch in the world isn’t going to help. Not only that but big marketing ads seem to explode onto the scene only to fizzel out leaving the product hanging. For good examples look at the hype on movies….

    I’m not marketing expert by any means but I could see where marketing a book would be difficult. Soooo……IMO…….the best route is the grass roots. Find who your audience is and hunt them down and find ways to interact with them. Honestly……. I think one of the best ways to “get out there” is to try and tag into some academic conferences or college appearances and set up a great presentation….then follow it up with more personal interactions such as having a drink with people, going bowling, whatever… show them you are a person who is easily approachable. Think of it as a networking opportunity (great speakers are hard to come by). I think that the great marketing for speakers and writers comes from great products and great interactions, it just takes time. Keep if fun…..funny….. and entertaining….and you’ll get tagged into more and more groups and it will make things down the road a lot easier. Short of that you have to look at the book market…. I don’t follow the best sellers or anything but the biggest book releases I can think of have been Harry Potter….. that’s a very different audience than the book on innovation. While it may not be an “academic” book…..but…..part of learning is teaching people to think about things differently and you do a great job at that…….from there you may get into new more interesting venues. /rant

    Book writing:

    One of the things I have seen in a book that I have really liked is writing in the margins. It sounds sort of stupid if you look at Robert Greene’s the 48 Laws of Power (doesn’t show up in the “see inside” sorry) you’ll see what I mean. He basically included stories and other things that went along with the chapter in the margins in a different color. If you added up all that text is was probably a whole book in and of itself. A lot of the stories were historical or came from myths. It was really cool addition to the book.

    I’ll shut up now. =)

  6. Carl

    Index – You don’t see a good index any more these days. If I’ve read about something in your book that I later want to refer to, make it easier for me to find that in your book than to dive on google and find it there (I have bought the book, after all).

    I’ve lost count of the number of books I’ve bought recently where I’ve wanted to refer to something later and haven’t been able to find it. Post-it-notes/bookmarks aren’t practical a lot of the time, so we need something that’s an integral part of the book.

    Let’s face it, how much would we find on the internet if there was no index??

    Now that would be innovative….

  7. Jeff Mather

    The best bibliographies I’ve seen are from the humanities and come in two parts: a high-level “bibliographic essay” that relates the references to each other, and then the detailed listing that lets you find the references unambiguously. The essay has phrases like “The definitive reference for topic ABC is the rather dated book XYZ by Miller; but a wealth of recent research by FGH and JKL have updated the thesis and provided new context.” The reference section itself becomes a worthwhile, readable reference.

    The “Oxford History of the United States” series — for example James T. Patterson’s _Restless Giant_ — provides good examples.

  8. Chris R

    The best bibliography I’ve seen in a technical book is in Kent Beck’s “Extreme Programming Explained”. The references are organised by area: “Philosophy”, “Attitude”, “Systems”, “Programming” and so on. Each reference is annotated with a description of what you can expect to find in the book and how it relates to XP. It gives you pointers as to where to go next and certainly provides more value than a plain old list of texts.

  9. Eric Nehrlich

    I really liked the Art of PM bibliography with the explanations of what you found valuable about each book – I added a few books to my reading list based on your recommendations. I have started using bibliographies as a selection device, actually – when I’m first looking at a book, I’ll flip to the bibliography and see which books in there I recognize. If they don’t refer to some books I think they should, it’s a turn off. On the other hand, in the Art of PM, when I saw that you had referred to Sources of Power, I was totally psyched because I loved that book.

    I don’t think I’ve been to a good book-related event, although I’ve only been to a few, and they were mostly book-readings, which are stultifying. I suspect that the best marketing you can do is to get copies of the book out there to people who will write and talk about them. I know some people post book chapters on their blog for comment – I’m not sure whether the increase in publicity offsets the possible loss in revenues, though.

    A snazzy book cover can make a difference. When I’m scanning over a row of books in the bookstore or library, I will pick up ones with unusual covers. Chip Kidd’s book The Cheese Monkeys was one I picked up this way, and I later found out he’s a hugely influential book cover designer.

  10. Brian Drought

    Picking up on Carls ‘Index’ post….

    Put the book online in a database… people can search for keywords and it simply returns what pages of the book to find them on. No worries about people stealing the book, and we get a nice searchable index. :-)

  11. jcopenha

    yes references should be on a website somewhere.. One of the neat things I’ve seen recently is in a “Windows Forms 2.0 Programming” by Chris Sells. All of his web link were actually . Like a personal for links in the book. VERY helpful. Something that might be a little gimmicky is send a pack of those “book arrow” bookmarks you were talking about with the book. Then I wouldn’t have to go looking for a bookmark when I’m reading it.

  12. adam

    I’m a fan of wide margins towards the spine and margin notes — (see eg TW Korner’s The Pleasures of Counting on Amazon) — but not an overwhelming amount of text in the margins. Make sure any on-line version (Safari?) handles margin notes properly — their footnotes need fixing, for one thing. I’m probably a freak who actually likes footnotes, though.

    As for biography I’d like both the boring listing so I can chase more detail on something specific, but equally you’ll have read a huge pile of probably quite similar books on the subject so I’d like to know your opinion on what each of them does well and badly in a kind of discursive best-of list and whether I can cover a subject with only one or two volumes and skip the rest.

    References and URLs etc on a website is a given, but don’t remind me of it every time you put a URL in or use a stupid icon.

    Most technical books I read could do with some more carefully thought out pictures or diagram to help illustrate something. A poster may not always be appropriate, but definitely look for opportunities visual explanations. (If you haven’t already, read Tufte’s book first. They’re self published and innovative, but the layout style may not suit your book.)

  13. Chris R

    Following up on the idea about having an online index – O’Reilly’s Safari service already does much the same thing already. For example, suppose you remember that Scott mentioned something about working on the “Channels” functionality in IE…

    – Go to the page for ArtofPM:
    – Go to the Search Box at top left
    – Choose “Entire Site” from the dropdown
    – Choose “Current Book”
    – Enter “channels” and press Go
    – There it is – 2nd result. Click “Read More” and you can see it is in section 16.1

  14. Timothy Johnson

    Hi Scott – long time, no link. A couple of book pointers on some of the more innovative books I’ve seen: Orbiting the Giant Hairball and Unstuck, both of which employ some fun and innovative formatting.

    You might also check out Mike Wagner’s site on brand ownership and apply his four principles: different, inviting, relevant, and truthful to your book and its formatting. His site is

    Best wishes and good luck!

  15. Scott (admin)

    Lots of good stuff – thanks guys. I agree about annotated biblios, or the ones that Jeff Mathers described (short biblio essay followed by entries).

    Bob: i’m a fan of the head first spirt, but as this book’s goals aren’t strictly skill development, I’m doubtful it’d be a good move for this particular book.

    Jcopenha: Yes! TinyURLS!

    Carl: I was very impressed with the index for artofpm. Flipping through it the first time I was convinced they’d made stuff up (I didn’t remember mentioning various things).

    Craig: good thoughts – thx.

  16. Phil Veal

    I’m a big fan of communicating graphically – many complex ideas around business and subjects like project management could be communicated more effectively if we just thought about it a bit more. For some resources that may give you a few ideas, I’d try reviewing a copy of Sheridan Anderson’s “The Curtis Creek Manifesto” (the fact that it’s about fly fishing is neither here nor there), and check out some of Scott MacLeod’s stuff on comics (“Understanding Comics” is one book I liked). Garr Reynolds at Presentationzen references some of MacLeod’s work. Also, check out Tom Peters’ “Re-Imagine” – the early paperback versions made an attempt to “re-imagine” the business book that was well-intentioned, if a little hyperactive. Good luck – I look forward to seeing what you come up with!

  17. ronpih

    +1 for Kathy Sierra’s books. Better than that, though, is her blog which talks about the innovative concepts she applies to those books (among other things).

  18. Maarten

    If you use endnotes, please make it clear in the main text where end-notes are available. Even better if you distinguish notes that are citations from ones that actually have additional content.

    I’ve been intrigued by Lessig’s idea to use a wiki to update his book, but haven’t checked it out.

    I’ve long wondered how online community tools could supplement a book.

  19. Steph

    Look at Richard Minsky, that guy is a genious! Brilliant design! U cn also go to to see more innovative artists, get a bit of inspiration.

  20. Rob Donoghue

    Many good suggestions so far, so I’m going to feel free to step out into left field.

    * Own your own executive summary. Someone out there is going to make some $$$ summarizing the book for CEO-Reads or some such service. Do it yourself. Treat it as marketing material and get it out there, possibly in a few different formats.

    * Your illustrations from the Art of PM were the first thing that struck me about the book – most notably because they weren’t Gantt chars, but also because you rocked the informal look. From that perspective, look at the book and ask “If a guy wants to take the lesson from this book and pitch them at his workplace, what tools am I giving him?” Consider putting out some Visio/Omnigraffle stencils or other useful graphic elements. You can monetize this or not, but as a comparison, look at what Dan & Chip Heath (Made to Stick, Switch) do with their book-supporting products.

    * Epilogues – My wife has a weakness for Romance novels, and I ended up losing my kindle to her after I demonstrated how many could be downloaded to the device. In doing this, we made an interesting discovery: Julia Quinn, a romance novelist of some note, has published “epilogues” to several of her books as $2 ebooks. They go back to the characters and add a bit more detail about what happened next. It’s clever, and they were certainly an easy sell. While it’s probably more applicable to fiction, it’s worth noting that the idea can just as easily be ported to non-fiction.

    * Bookmarks – Bookmarks makes better promotional handouts than anything else I’ve seen, provided there’s some utility to them. If you have a core message, mnemonic or idea that you can put on a bookmark, that’s a winner.

    * Tear Out Pages – Totally impractical, I acknowledge up front, but perforating some pages with the intention that they be removed (to be handed out or shared or stuck on the refrigerator) is quirky and fun.

    * Doublesided slipcover – Not applicable for a paperback, but a thing I’ve seen in some fantasy books is to printon both sides of the slipcover for a hardback book. Put the usual cover on one side, then a map on the backside. Maps might not always be appropriate, but if you have material for (as one other poster suggested) a poster, this is less awkward than trying to fold it into the book.

    -Rob D.

    PS – As an additional note of pure personal bias, I’m a great fan of bibliographies that offer short, personal insight into the book. Feels very human when done right – connects me to the author and makes me more interested in the books.

  21. Edkat R.

    As far as marketring Baen free library uses the good technique of offering a free bok or exerpt to get readers hooked or for non fiction to demonstate the worthiness of their thoughts. Once people have read one book they are often willing to buy the next.

    An interesting idea I have thought about is quoting yourself rather than finding quotes by famous people.



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