Wednesday, February 16, 2011

General Patton's Secret to Writing Books

There's a great scene in the classic 1970 film "Patton" which contains the best advice for authors who use their books to market and sell services. Here's the scene, mashed up with a modern soundtrack:

(Click here if you can't see the video.)

If you want to skip ahead to Patton's Advice, it's at 3:08 though you should watch it all for context.

At the beginning of the scene, we see George C. Scott as General Patton being awakened with information about enemy troop movements. On the bedside table, there is a book written by Nazi General Erwin Rommel  entitled The Tank In Attack. Patton then leads his soldiers to defeat Rommel, after which we hear him shout "Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I read you're book!"

The implication is that Patton was able to design a strategy to defeat the wily Desert Fox just from reading his bookAnd that's exactly what you want to avoid!

When I wrote my first free ebook Nearly Free IT, I wanted to give readers a way to get their small business technology off the ground on the cheap. My goal was to help them achieve Fortune 500 technology on a micro business budget. I wanted to teach them how to use free web-based tools to empower their business and to save money.

Just before the launch of the book, many of my friends who had received advanced copies warned me that I was making a terrible mistake. "You're giving away too much," was a common concern. "You're revealing too many tech secrets," was another. I have to say, this gave me a serious moment of pause -- was I giving away all my secrets for free? Was I endangering my future business prospects?

It makes sense to write an ebook as a way to build credibility. It's a great marketing tool and it helps you give value before you charge money. This helps build trust and let's prospective customer's get comfortable with your work. The real danger is that you might give too much away and therefore eliminate their need for your services.

I remember spending an entire weekend in a panic worrying about all the terrors that would befall my family because, like Rommel, I was a magnificent bastard. Could I be giving away so much that people would never need my services? Could this ebook force me to spend the rest of my days penniless and insane living under a bridge?

Then the truth hit me like a diamond bullet and I launched the book without a single change. The answer was so simple I wanted to kick myself -- my target market isn't start-ups. My ideal customers are  established companies that are suffering growing pains as they transition from small to medium-sized businesses. How could a book aimed at start-ups be a problem? If anything, I was laying a foundation for future business. All the start-ups that survived to become medium-sized businesses would (hopefully) call me first when they needed technology help.

Now, almost 2 years later, Nearly Free IT has been downloaded over 175,000 times from my site. Business is booming and my company is growing. The majority of readers that have written to me all thank me for giving them so much useful, actionable information. But, unlike that magnificent bastard Rommel, I didn't reveal so much that I put myself in danger.

As an author, you have to walk the same tightrope. You need to give away useful information that readers can implement immediately. You need to give away so much value that your prospective customers can't imagine how much more value you're able to provide when they actually pay you. But you need to do it in a way that doesn't give away all your secrets.

The last thing you want to see is your customers smiling maniacally and shouting "You magnificent bastard, I read your book!" just before they fire you. You don't want to be replaced by your book. Instead you need to find the right amount of information to give away that will whet their appetite for more.

R-Squared Computing | Lou RG | Nearly Free IT | Firm Wisdom

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  1. This is such good advice! And it gives me comfort to know another writer who doesn't write systematically same amount of time each day.

    1. I tried putting myself on a fixed writing schedule and it was a huge waste of time. I ended up discarding the majority of my work. Now I write when I have something to say. Thanks for the comment. What book(s) have you written?