This post is inspired by the third chapter of Scott Berkun’s book The Myths of Innovation. Why not get yourself a copy and join in the discussion?
While reading this chapter, I came across a section which I can’t get out of my head. Under the heading ‘The Infinite Paths of Innovation,’ Berkun discusses three stories of unlikely success: Flickr, 3M and Craigslist.
At the end he makes this remark:
Had you rounded up all of the great innovations experts and authors from these times, none of them would have predicted these outcomes. In all three cases, common sense would have dictated that the markets involved (photo software, office products, and classified ads) were highly saturated businesses with few opportunities. But now, looking back (as we learned in Chapter 2), it seems inevitable that these markets were ripe for change.
One could argue that the book market today is highly saturated. Each year millions more books are being published, and the new wave of self-publishing brought on by the digital age heralds an even bigger flood of authors putting out their wares.
So how can you stand out from the crowd? How can you succeed in the book-saturated world we live in today?
The purpose of Berkun’s chapter is to prove that there is no repeatable method to innovation. As he points out:
Successful innovations are highly unpredictable, even in the view of experts or the innovators themselves.
However, he provides information in this third chapter about the “patterns and frameworks that can be useful,” referring to them as “scaffolding” rather than “foundations.”
The chapter is full of interesting stuff. I suggest you read through it yourself.
I’m now going to take the three examples he sites and apply them specifically to writing.
Are You Willing to Change Direction?
The programming behind the photo-sharing website Flickr was originally developed for a online game called Game Neverending. At some point in the development, the programmers realised that the photo-sharing tool was a stronger business prospect than the game itself. So they put all their brain power into developing that aspect instead, and produced the Flickr we have today.
How does this apply to writing?
When writing a novel, are we so focused on our original vision that we’re not open to change? Sometimes the story may start out as one thing, but then in revision becomes something completely different – something stronger, more compelling, far better than the original. Are we willing to let it evolve into something different? Do we follow that new slant with as much passion and gusto as we did the first version?
As writers, we should always be looking for ways to make things better. If a novel isn’t working, can we break it down into a novela or a short story? If a short story is blossoming into a novel, are we happy to go along with it?
What if you write science fiction and couldn’t bear to set anything in the here and now? If the story you’re currently working on demands to be set in a different place and time, do you go with it? Or do you make it fit with what you’ve always written?
Continually look for the potential in your work. Cultivate your ideas, and allow them to interact. Be flexible with what you’re working on. Look for the power in your words and your work – it may come from areas you’re not expecting – then have the courage to pursue the new course. Often those sudden changes in direction are what lead to a fresh new perspective in your work…and an opening in the world of books.
Have You Created the Right Environment?
3M started out as the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Co. In 1925 a lab assistant needed a tape that marked borders on car bodies. He experimented and came up with the masking tape 3M sells today. Realizing the potential for innovative ideas from their employees, 3M created a work environment which encouraged further experimentation and discovery.
Are you picky about where your ideas come from? Do you view some ideas as better than others because of what sparked them?
Do you surround yourself with interesting information? Do you read regularly and widely?
Do you allow yourself time to pursue different ideas and stories? Or are you always fixated on writing one particular thing?
If you always write prose, why not try poetry? If you always write romance, why not turn your hand to mysteries? If you always write fiction, why not change course and give non-fiction a go?
Set yourself up in an environment where experimentation is encouraged and interesting failures are rewarded.
Do You Consider Your Readers?
Craig Newmark started by e-mailing information about local events to his friends. It soon grew into a website where people could post information. According to the Craigslist FAQ page, there are now more than 700 local craigslist sites in 70 countries.
Big Publishing has to take into consideration sales figures and main stream markets. Self-publishing, on the other hand, allows authors to provide for a niche market.
This leads to many more books, but if you play your cards right it allows you to capture the attention of a specific audience – a tribe. If you find ways to fill their interests and needs, you win yourself a fan base.
So instead of making your work generic in an attempt to appeal to everyone, why not write for a specific niche? Then package and market your work with that niche in mind. Far better to have a smaller number of loyal fans who will pounce on your next work, than a much larger group of readers who are pausing briefly to look at your work while on their way to the next popular book.
How Does This All Help?
The examples above show that to stand out from the crowd you need to:
- Give free rein to ideas that produce interesting and unique content, and
- Appeal to an audience (even if it’s a specific and small one).
So put yourself in different situations, be flexible and look for niche interests to fill.
What are your thoughts on this subject, and on the third chapter of The Myths of Innovation?
P.S. For the next four weeks, I’ll be taking a brief hiatus from these posts about Berkun’s book. To celebrate the release of Punch for Prompt, I’ll be posting four short stories based on Charlotte’s writing prompts. Stay tuned. It’s going to be fun!