Strategies for frequent posting to business & tech blogs

Readers of the Ipso Facto blog may not be aware that my writing appears in many other blog locations. In addition to two active personal blogs (one of which has been running since 2004), my old Harvard Extension blog (2005-2008), various employer and school-related blogs from 2005-2012 (Computerworld, The Industry Standard, MIT, and my first startup), and a 2007 guest-blogging gig on a site dedicated to virtual worlds, I have been very active on my current company’s blog. But there is a lot more blogging activity on the individual product sites for books like Twitter In 30 Minutes and the recently released book about the iPhone 6 and 6S. It’s hard, but I have developed a strategy for frequent posting on the blogs. It helps give the books a higher online profile, and in the case of several of the books, the posts prompt feedback from readers which I can use for follow-up editions of the books.

Here is a sample of recent posts:

How is it possible for me to write so many blog posts? There are several answers. First, I am an extremely prolific writer. In 10 years I have written well over 1,000 blog posts across all blogs. More than 450 posts appear on my old Harvard blog alone, and a few others are above 200 posts. I am just one of those people who likes to write, and when I get the urge I have to sit down in front of my keyboard and get it out there, as I did yesterday morning on Ipso Facto with my blog post about the Fessenden School and St. George’s.

Second, for the book blogs, I have started to excerpt sections from the manuscripts. It’s a great way to showcase the quality of the books while getting some additional online attention. I am also using draft chapters from my forthcoming Lean Media book to get feedback which I can use to improve the manuscript.

Simpsons blog post example from Lean Media In 30 Minutes

I have also begun to leverage other types of content — chiefly videos — upon which to base blog posts. This is especially true of the books about browser-based software, which are easy to screencast. I have created scores of short YouTube videos on topics such as how to do something in Twitter or Excel or LinkedIn. It’s not hard to take the embed code from one of the videos, put it on the blog, write up a summary or additional instructions, and then post it.

Crowdsourcing book design vs. using experienced professional book designers

Earlier this year, I started a project to redesign the In 30 Minutes book series. There were several reasons for this, including:

  1. Dropbox GuideThe existing design, while eye-catching and effective, was beginning to look a little dated.
  2. There were some issues around placement of template elements, such as the large clock taking up too much space to fit in a long subtitle (see the inset sample).
  3. A desire to have a new, more modern look in preparation for expanding distribution of the series to retail and other outlets.

Every publisher knows that relaunching or redesigning a publication is a big deal. That’s true for books as well as websites, magazines, pamphlets, and other types of media that have a visual identity. Oftentimes there are restrictions or requirements associated with the redesign that require special attention, such as wanting to preserve a color scheme or design element. Think of the Apple logo, which has undergone several iterations over the past 40 years. For much of the time, the apple symbol has remained constant even while the colors and depth have changed.

For my books, the existing designer declined to take on the job — it would take a lot of effort, and as a full-time graphic designer with a well-known magazine publisher he did not have the bandwidth to devote to the project on nights and weekends.

So I tried using a design crowdsourcing service called 99designs. The idea is the customer pays a flat fee for a design template, and then designers all over the world compete by submitting bids. Here are some of my observations about choosing 99designs from last May:

The concept is not without controversy, and many experienced designers don’t participate — it goes against their beliefs about the client/designer relationship, the prize doesn’t come close to their standard rates, and there’s a real chance they may not win. But it opens some doors for younger designers, as well as designers from other countries who otherwise would have a tough time recruiting clients outside of their regions.

I liked it because it gives me the chance to see ideas from lots of different designers, and moves fast — the contest can wrap up in about a week. So I decided to give it a shot.

There were a lot of submissions and ideas from the designers participating in the contest. I eventually chose a winner … but decided not to use the design. It was good, but it was missing depth. It also did not seem so flexible for books with longer titles or subtitles.

Friends in the publishing industry were helpful in giving feedback and also recommending some professional designers. I eventually chose TLC Graphics and have been very happy with the results. You can see the new look in the design for one of the first books that will carry it, iPhone 6 & iPhone 6S In 30 Minutes:

iPhone 6 and iPhone 6S BookThere are other color combinations in the works as well:

Four new book cover designsThe old covers are gradually being switched out. For some books, the interiors are being completely revised, including LinkedIn In 30 Minutes. I hope to have the entire process done by spring 2016.

In summary, while I am glad I tried a crowdsourced service and the price was reasonable, for the series designs a dedicated professional book designer has worked for me each time I have updated the look and feel of the books (first in 2012, and now in 2015). Besides looking better, I feel that the designs also had the necessary flexibility required for this type of series.

I am happy to discuss my experience with 99designs and working with professional designers in the comments section below.

 

 

 

 

 

An action plan for telecommuters and their managers

Mary Meeker’s latest report on Internet trends was recently released. While many observers are pondering the some of the big stats relating to the size of the digital economy and the big companies that stand to benefit, I was interested in a data point that pretty much slipped beneath the radar. Buried on page 126 of Meeker’s slideshow was this finding, relating to freelancers:

Freelancers = Significant & Growing Portion of Workers @ 53MM People, 34% of USA Workforce

She broke down the numbers further, relying on data from oDesk/Upwork:

Mary Meeker Internet trends freelancers vs telecommuters and virtual office action plans

If these numbers are correct, it represents a huge change in the way Americans are working. Certainly, the data shows that freelancers are ready for virtual work, if tens of millions are already doing it.

But are companies ready? The slide did not break out the telecommuting workforce. Millions work from home on a full-time or part-time basis for employers located elsewhere (ranging from across town to the other side of the globe). But it’s a drop in the bucket, compared to the numbers of people who could be telecommuters if their companies allowed it.

As author Melanie Pinola pointed out in her book The Successful Virtual Office In 30 Minutes: Best practices, tools, and setup tips for your home office, coworking space, or mobile office, most jobs that take place in front of a computer screen are candidates for being done remotely. But not all companies are on board. She cited the example of Yahoo, which killed its teleworking program in 2012 because its new CEO thought collaboration and innovation were suffering.

As Melanie noted, “Good collaboration and innovation don’t require you to be within touching distance of your coworker.” If companies have the right team in place, and the right tools, telecommuters can not only be productive, they can successfully collaborate and innovate, too. Melanie’s book covers many of the tools and best practices that can help a virtual team — as well as individual contributors, their managers, and their freelance partners — operate at peak efficiency. She has also written Virtual Office Action Plans, which describes strategies and approaches for telecommuters, freelancers, and business managers.

What’s the best home office setup for a virtual office?

I’ve worked out of three home offices in the past ten years. I’ve been able to get a lot accomplished in these offices, including writing a graduate thesis, managing a virtual team, and starting my own publishing company. However, if Melanie Pinola’s The Successful Virtual Office In 30 Minutes had been available at the start, I would have been able to get a lot more done in terms of getting the best possible home office setup. This blog post will serve as a review of the book, albeit a biased one — while I really did get a lot of useful information from Melanie’s guide, I am the publisher of the In 30 Minutes series.

best home office setupMelanie is the author of a top-selling LinkedIn book and writes about home offices, telecommuters, and virtual work for Lifehacker. She’s also About.com’s mobile office expert. As a virtual worker for decades (she started working from a home office in the 1990s) she knows the virtual mindset and what’s required to have a successful virtual office. It’s not just a matter of wanting to work from home, or assuming a Wi-Fi connection and laptop is all that’s required. She methodically works through the different aspects of setting up and maintaining a high-performance virtual office, starting with legal and technical requirements and finishing with a list of Top Tech Tools for home offices. Specific topics include:

Finding the best place to work and creating an efficient home office or remote workspace (Chapter 1)

  • Recommendations for setting up the ideal virtual office, based on the latest research.
  • How to use alternative offices such as coffee shops and libraries to get more done.
  • Four elements of a productive home office.
  • Ergonomics (or how to stay healthy)
  • Must-have supplies for your home or mobile office.

Learning strategies to help you work more effectively on your own and as a virtual team member (Chapters 2 & 3)

  • How to ward off roommates, spouses, children, pets, phone calls, and other daily distractions.
  • Crucial time-management tips.
  • How to work well with other virtual team members.
  • Best practices for effective communication across a distributed team.
  • Dealing with resentful coworkers.
  • Coping with isolation.

Using technology to help you stay productive and connected (Chapter 4)

  • Useful apps for real-time collaboration.
  • Software that can make you work more efficiently.
  • How to secure your digital data.

Applying the tips for the best home office setup

Reading Melanie’s book, I immediately picked up some tips that I could apply right away to my home office setup. They included installing a door to keep out family distractions (especially in the evening, when I am most productive) and dusting off an old space heater to keep my home office warm in the winter months (much cheaper than cranking up the heat for the entire house). The recommended applications included a few that I want to explore further, including Slack. There was also an extensive list of tools and apps relating to coworking spaces, which is a popular mode of work these days (see my review of the Cambridge CIC).

This new book practically pays for itself, in terms of the increased productivity and better insights into virtual offices. Whether you are a freelancer, consultant, small business owner, or are interested in telecommuting, this is a wonderful and effective guide for getting the most out of your home office.

Creating a special Google Docs resource for educators

Google Docs resource for educatorsWhen Google Drive and Docs In 30 Minutes was first introduced more than two years ago, almost immediately I noticed an interesting trend in the traffic logs to the product website. Lots of visitors were coming from schools and school districts all over the country. Then, I started getting huge bulk orders for the books from my two print distributors, CreateSpace and LSI. Emails from some teachers confirmed that their schools had ordered the books as K-12 teacher training for Google Drive for Education. In this post, I am going to discuss the creation of several new products intended to serve teachers, curriculum managers, school administrators, and educational IT professionals who are interested in providing a Google Drive/Google Docs training resource for their schools.

First off, I would like to note that Google Drive and Docs In 30 Minutes is not only about Google Drive and Google Docs. It covers the other programs in the suite, including Google Sheets, Google Slides, Google Forms, and Google Drawings, as well as collaboration and other features. It is the top-selling In 30 Minutes guide, and I just released a revised and expanded 2nd edition.

That said, Google Docs for students is the top draw for K-12 educators. Primary school students are not likely to need spreadsheets or presentation software. In many school districts, starting in 3rd or 4th grade, students begin to practice typing and composition. Google Docs provides an excellent platform to practice, and its collaborative nature also allows teachers to check progress and make comments. For teachers who are new to Google Docs and are using the educators’ version of Google Drive, a book that’s like Google Docs for Dummies (but much shorter) provides an excellent starting point.

A request for a special Google Docs resource for educators

My first thought was to create bulk ordering options for educators at a steep discount. That was easy enough to do. But then I got an interesting request from a teacher:

I also want to know if your would be willing to offer a license for people to have access to it at our school. You see, there are about 150 people learning about Google drive. Maybe 30 of them are English speakers. The school might consider getting a license for people to view the .PDF, but individuals probably won’t want to shell out $4.99 since they see it as something that the school is making them do.

This was an interesting thought. How about offering an affordable license that any teacher or staff member could access on their computers, tablets, or Kindle? I put together a simple license, priced it attractively, and let it fly. The teacher recommended it to his school, and then I started getting other sales.

This month, to coincide with the release of the 2nd edition of Google Drive & Docs In 30 Minutes, I updated the license to include two versions: A single-edition license as well as an educational license subscription, which will provide regular updates to the text of the books as well as extra materials such as videos. You can see the descriptions and prices on the dedicated Google Drive & Docs In 30 Minutes page for education.

 

 

 

 

 

How the C. diff book is doing, 18 months after launch

C diff guideIn mid-2013, my publishing company released its first medical-related title, C. Diff In 30 Minutes: A Guide to Clostridium Difficile for Patients and Families. Publishing a C. diff book for patients and their caregivers was a risky proposition. At the time, there was only one other similar title available on Amazon, which didn’t appear to be selling very well, judging by the the publicly available sales data that Amazon displays.

But we had a few things going for us: A well-respected international C. diff expert, Dr. J. Thomas Lamont, was the author of the book. We used an easy-to-understand structure that featured practical information as well as case studies based on the author’s extensive experience with patients. I created a solid website with lots of resources for browsers, including a simple guide to what is C. diff, a list of C. diff symptoms and a resource describing basic C. diff disinfectants and procedures for healthcare workers and patients.

I also priced C. Diff In 30 Minutes competitively. It was hard to justify the same cover price as the competing title, which was much longer and had several reader reviews in mid-2013. On the other hand, C. Diff In 30 Minutes wasn’t some Kindle freebie. It contained expert information that can help patients understand and cope with a little-known but devastating gastrointestinal infection. I priced the ebook at less than $10, and the paperback under $15 (which was often discounted).

The result? The guide has been a steady seller almost since launch. With almost no promotion beyond a few hundred dollars in Adwords, the book has sold nearly 1,000 copies, generates a nice revenue stream for the author and my publishing company, and has gotten consistently high reviews from real customers (to date, almost all reviews have been 5-star reviews). Here are some samples:

KS:

“When I learned in 2013 that I had c.diff, I found this little book to be a lifesaver!!! Many doctors don’t know what to tell patients regarding the best ways to treat c.diff, but from guidance in this book, it was a slow process, but I was able to fully recover in roughly 6 months. The book is WELL WORTH its nominal cost!”

Linda:

“This has been the best information yet. I am a former c diff patient. My mother is currently hospitalized with it. We now know what to do for her and how to protect others over the next few months.”

Publishing other types of health books?

The second reviewer also noted that she was glad we had published books “other than computer books.” This naturally made me wonder: What other health/medical titles could we publish? These require a certain degree of expertise and/or deep experience. Unfortunately, doctors are hard to recruit for these projects, mainly because they are so busy (as you may have guessed, C. Diff In 30 Minutes is written by a relative, and he’s too busy to do another one). I had another potential writer with expertise in Alzheimer’s, but he backed out later when he made a cross-country move.

As for C. Diff In 30 Minutes, I hope to expand distribution to hospitals, nursing homes, and healthcare workers. We may also have to release an update in the next few years to cover fecal transplants, which have really taken off since 2013.

Solving the Twitter retention problem

Solving the Twitter retention problem, one reader at a time

This week, I released the second edition of Twitter In 30 Minutes. It’s a Twitter book that covers the basics, starting with registration and working its way up to more advanced features such as hashtags and lists. In this post, I would like to talk about a surprising research finding about Twitter retention data that I stumbled upon while preparing the latest edition.

This Wall Street Journal blog post from April highlighted the Twitter retention data, which had been gathered by Dutch firm Twopcharts:

A report from Twopcharts, a website that monitors Twitter account activity, states that about 44% of the 974 million existing Twitter accounts have never sent a tweet.

An earlier WSJ blog post based on Twopcharts data noted that only 11% of the Twitter accounts created in 2012 were still tweeting more than a year later. Twitter subsequently restricted Twopcharts’ access to Twitter data, and a senior executive later claimed Twitter was “happy” many users decided not to tweet — in other words, Twitter viewed some of this inactive population as passive consumers of Twitter, rather than active participants.

Regardless of Twitter’s spin, Twitter has had a problem for years getting people to participate in the service after they’ve signed up. Despite adding tips and constant reminders to tweet and follow other accounts, lots of users have trouble figuring out what to do once they are plunked down in a firehose of short messages, random photos, trending topics, and mysterious Twitter syntax. As the WSJ blogger indicated, millions simply give up.

Solving the Twitter retention problem, one reader at a time

Some of them ended up coming to my Twitter guide. While the first edition of Twitter In 30 Minutes targeted totally new users, I found out that many of my readers already had accounts, and had trouble getting the hang of Twitter. They used the guide to boost their efforts and figure out the more confusing elements of the service.

For the second edition of Twitter In 30 Minutes, I wanted to make sure that I served these two audiences (totally new users, vs. people who already have an account). I tightened the focus around these three elements:

  1. The importance of a good network on Twitter.
  2. How engagement takes place, using examples from real life.
  3. Best practices for creating Tweets, posting photos, and participating in discussions

I also completely redid the screenshots. Many of the first edition screenshots were rendered obsolete after Twitter updated its interface earlier this year.

Google support falls short when it comes to Google Blogger custom domains

Google blogger custom domains support
Earlier this year I published a short “how-to” blog post titled How to renew a Blogger custom domain through Google Apps. I’m mentioning it here, not only because it’s a useful resource for anyone who purchased a custom domain through Google’s Blogger service in recent years, but also because it points to a problem with Google support.

Google has a myriad of wonderful products, ranging from basic search to advanced tools such as Google Earth. I use many of them every day, and even wrote a Google Docs for Dummies substitute. But the fact that I even had to write such a title indicates that Google’s interface design and online support resources don’t work well for everyone.

For instance, Google Blogger has thousands of support articles and forum posts scattered all over the net, as well as related resources from Google Apps and other tools that interface with Blogger. But when it came time for me to renew a Blogger custom domain that I had purchased through Google in 2012, these help resources were useless. I simply couldn’t find what I was looking for to help me access the control panel for my domain.

Contacting a live Google employee for Blogger custom domains support

As described in my blog post, I eventually found a contact form and asked how I could proceed with the renewal. To my surprise (Google has a reputation for limiting contact with actual Google employees) someone responded within 12 hours, with an answer for my problem. It worked! I posted the solution on my blog, so other people in the same predicament could help themselves.

Some people might say that the fact I got a response from a real Google employee so quickly is a sign that Google support is actually quite strong. But I suspect the only reason I got any support was because I was A) using a paid feature (custom domain purchase) and B) it was tied to Google Apps, a premium service aimed at small businesses. The New York Times summed up Google’s attitude toward human support in this 2012 article:

Google, which at 14 years old is a relative ancient in Silicon Valley, is one of the few companies that publishes phone numbers on its Web site. Its phone system sends callers back to the Web no less than 11 times. Its lengthy messages contain basic Internet education in a tone that might be used with an aging relative, explaining, slowly and gently, “There’s nothing Google can do to remove information from Web sites.”

Note: Google has a new process for registering custom domains. See How to use Google Domains to register a custom domain on Blogger

Releasing the second edition of my Dropbox guide

A few months ago, the second edition of Dropbox In 30 Minutes was published. It’s one of our most popular guides in the In 30 Minutes series. In fact, some people mistakenly confuse it with Dropbox For Dummies. This post will get into the thinking behind the second edition of the guide, from content to production to marketing.

Dropbox on a mobile device

Dropbox In 30 Minutes was the first guide published in the In 30 Minutes series. Released in the summer of 2012, it quickly began to sell in channels such as Amazon and Apple’s iTunes store. The paperback edition, released in the fall of 2012, also was a hit. The first edition was downloaded or purchased as a paperback thousands of times over an 18 month period. It currently is listed as one of the top Software Utility guides on Amazon.com.

Not long after making the title available, I recognized a problem: Certain information tended to quickly become outdated. While the core concept of Dropbox — software that helps you sync files between computers and mobile devices — has remained the same, specific aspects of the software have shifted. For instance, the Dropbox logo has had several noticeable tweaks in the past few years. Of a more practical concern for readers, the interface for mobile devices — iPhones, iPads, Android phones, etc. — has been completely overhauled. The desktop program for Windows PCs and Macs has also changed, albeit in a more restrained manner (for instance, right-clicking on a file brings up different options for sharing or manipulating the file in question).

For a while, I made incremental tweaks to the text of the guide and simply updated the content files for the ebook and paperback editions. But then I became aware of two additional issues that needed to be addressed:

  • The “publish date” for the guide, which was listed on the product pages on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple and Bowker’s ISBN database began to look old. For fiction books, “2012” is considered “new”, but in the world of how-to manuals for popular software programs, a two-year-old title starts to look a little long in the tooth.
  • Older versions of the paperback guide were being resold on Amazon. I don’t blame readers for doing this, but the problem is a reader in early 2014 purchasing a used edition from July 2012 would be getting a fair amount of outdated information. This resulted in understandable frustration.

The second edition of the Dropbox book hits the market

Because of this, I decided to issue a Dropbox In 30 Minutes, Second Edition. I hired a review editor to go through the original guide and flag bits which needed to be rewritten and have new screenshots. I also redid the annotated screenshots of the Dropbox mobile application, and added new sections relating to Camera Uploads, security, Dropbox for Business, and more. I’ll continue to do small tweaks as conditions warrant, but I already have my eye on Dropbox In 30 Minutes, 3rd Edition!

If you are interested in downloading or purchasing a copy of the guide, please see the options on this page.

Publishing a jQuery programming guide

Over the past year, I have done several content experiments or expansions in the In 30 Minutes series, ranging from cooking to health and medicine. In this post, I’ll be talking about the jQuery Plugin book that my company released this month. While software has been a focus of the series since the beginning, this is the first title that gets into making software as opposed to using it. The story begins last summer. I am a long-term member of the Hacker News community, and on a thread about ebook publishing I left this comment about best practices for experimental publishing. It got 16 upvotes, which was a nice validation — I am not a hacker, but I like to be able to positively contribute to Hacker News when I can. But the thread moved out of sight, and after a few days I forgot about my comment. Six months later, I received an email out of the blue. It started:

I’ve been checking out your “30 Minutes” series and was originally inspired to write my own ebook after reading your post on HN a few months ago. I have since wrote a small 48 page guide on “jQuery Plugin Development”.  I haven’t launched it yet, just waiting for some feedback after sending it to a few friends first.

The author was Robert Duchnik, a Canadian developer who was living in Thailand. We began corresponding, and tossed around the idea of releasing a programming title as an In 30 Minutes guide. This was an interesting area to expand into. Most In 30 Minutes titles are written for mainstream audiences. They range from Melanie Pinola’s book about LinkedIn to the experimental easy Chinese recipes cookbook on the iPad authored by Shiao-jang Kung. The jQuery Plugin guide was focused on a much narrower, highly technical niche audience. Marketing to this group would be a challenge.

Moving Forward With jQuery Plugin Development In 30 Minutes

Rob’s book had some big things going for it:

  1. He’s a jQuery Plugin expert, with many years of experience in the field and the operator of Websanova, an online resource devoted to jQuery Plugins.
  2. Rob has an existing audience, via Websanova. From previous releases by Melanie and Tim Fisher (author of Windows 8 Basics In 30 Minutes), I have found that those authors who already have existing online audiences have a huge advantage right out of the gate. Not only can they turn to their fans to purchase copies and help spread the word, but by virtue of the fact that they have already interacted with the audience over time they have an innate knowledge of the problems that readers face, and what people want to know. This makes for better books and a better author/reader relationship going forward.
  3. There was already a draft manuscript. It needed some light editing and a proofreader, but otherwise it was in pretty good shape.
  4. The manuscript was short. This is an asset, as we want readers to be able to understand the topic at hand in less than 30 minutes.
  5. The market for books about jQuery plugin development had a hole. Through discussions with Rob and a quick analysis of competing titles, I determined that there is a need for this type of resource (high-quality, quick-start programming guide) on this topic, especially if it were priced right.
jQuery plugins
jQuery Plugin Book

This last point is important. I am not talking about low-balling the competition. There are already lots of free online resources about how to write jQuery plugins. There are also a small number of books about jQuery plugins, but most of them are long and somewhat expensive. There was not much in the middle, in terms of length or price. This is where jQuery Plugin Development In 30 Minutes would live. Rob and I came to an agreement in January, and we moved forward with preparing the manuscript for publication. There were some new writing tools to try out, and some difficulties related to producing code blocks in Scrivener (my primary book production tool) but we established a workflow based on markdown and Github and published the title at the beginning of April. You can read the table of contents for the jQuery plugin book here. The title is available for the Kindle, iPad, Nook, and Google Play, as well as a paperback and a PDF.

In addition, you may be interested in reading some of Rob’s blog posts about jQuery plugin development: