00:00 AJ Harper: People still read books and love books and keep them forever and they highlight them and dog-ear them, and you want to write that book. You don’t want to write the book that’s just, your name and then no one cares and it’s a better business card.
You want to write that book that people treasure and they take with them through thirteen moves, they won’t give it up! They also have the e-book version, they recommend it to everybody, and people still care about that, even if you’re not someone who reads books, believe me, people still read books.
00:34 Michael Port: Welcome to Steal The Show, with Michael Port. This is Michael.
Today’s guest is AJ Harper, and she’s a developmental editor and a publishing strategist. She’s helped hundreds of authors from newbies to New York Times bestselling authors, with millions of books sold, write and publish game changing books, develop significant and loyal followings, and build their brand.
For ten years, AJ wrote exclusively for personal and professional development authors. As executive editor for Collaborative Books, AJ worked with thought leaders and bestselling authors among them, Lisa Nichols, Les Brown, Barbara De Angelis, Mark Victor Hansen, Dr George Fraser, DC Cordova, Barbara Marx Hubbard, T. Harv Eker, Brendon Burchard, Marcia Wieder, Lisa Sasevich and many more.
AJ is the writing partner for business author, Mike Michalowicz, who is a good friend of the business, and who has been on the podcast. He is a tremendous guy, author of several books, including, ‘The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur’, ‘The Pumpkin Plan’, ‘Profit First’, and ‘Surge’. Profit First is a book you should read if you have a business, or do any kind of accounting.
For several years AJ served as publishing strategist and mainline editor for eWomen Publishing Network, a division of eWomenNetwork. I gave a keynote for them many years ago. The largest women’s business network in North America, which is true. About three thousand people at that conference.
In 2015, AJ retired from ghostwriting, so that she could give her full attention to mentoring authors. She accepts a limited number of book development projects each year, and she is one of the Heroic Public Speaking writing coaches. So, if you work with any of our writers, you might get lucky enough to work with her.
So, without further ado, here’s AJ.
02:33 AJ Harper: Hi, Michael!
02:24 Michael Port: AJ, you started out as a playwright.
02:36 AJ Harper: I did.
02:37 Michael Port: Which is really cool! Because I’m, like, this secret, wannabe playwright.
02:42 AJ Harper: You should do it!
02:43 Michael Port: Well, the keynote that I just wrote for the NSA annual conference, is a play. It’s Amy and myself… If I say it here, this is going to come out before NSA and then all the surprises will be ruined.
02:58 AJ Harper: Don’t say anything.
02:59 Michael Port: But it is, I can guarantee, nothing they’ve ever seen. So they’re either going to go, “Oh my gosh! I love that! That was crazy!” or, “What the heck was that?”
03:08 AJ Harper: Is it reminiscent of your TEDx speech?
03:11 Michael Port: Yes, but…
03:12 AJ Harper: Because one could say that is like a play.
03:15 Michael Port: Yes, that is. It’s like that, except, multiply it by about 30.
03:19 AJ Harper: Oh, wow! Oh, I want to see that.
03:23 Michael Port: Yeah! When we get off the air, I’ll show you the script.
03:25 AJ Harper: Okay!
03:25 Michael Port: Okay.
03:36 AJ Harper: So, you’re just teasing people, now?
03:29 Michael Port: Yeah, I’m completely teasing people right now. I wouldn’t do that to you, I’ll give you the script, but my listeners? No, I’m happy to tease them as much as possible.
But, you did, you started as a playwright. I’d love to know a little bit more about your journey and how you wound up in self-publishing, and, of course, trade publishing, business, non-fiction. How did you end up there?
03:51 AJ Harper: I was a playwright from a very young age. My first official gig I was seventeen, at the Playwright Centre in Minneapolis, which still exists and is a great nurturer of new voices. And I was fortunate to have great mentors who hooked me up with gigs and I did that, that was my only writing life, until 2004, and I had a baby.
And I didn’t want the playwright’s life, with my son, because I knew I was only going to have one.
04:24 Michael Port: Yeah. Well, tell them what the playwright’s life is like, because most people haven’t experienced it.
04:29 AJ Harper: Sure. So, you have to be able to be flexible, you have to be able to go, maybe you’re going to go for a month and do a workshop somewhere. Maybe you’re going to be working all day, because playwriting doesn’t pay very much, and then go rehearse for five hours and then go home and write new pages to bring to your actors that next day.
So, that’s three hours of sleep and not talking to anybody you care about.
04:51 Michael Port: When you put it that way, it doesn’t sound so fun.
04:53 AJ Harper: It’s so much fun!
04:54 Michael Port: Yeah, but it’s actually one of the reasons that I didn’t resonate with the lifestyle of the actor. As much as I love the work, and I love the craft, same thing: you never knew where you were going to be, and at what time.
Basically, the way it worked is, they said, “Look, if you want to get a job, if you want to book a job, plan a vacation. Because as soon as you plan the one vacation you take all year, you’ll get a job for that one week.”
And your life is very unpredictable, and some people, myself included, need a little bit more consistency in their life. And so, entrepreneurship, to some, might seem risky, but, to me, was actually much more steady and consistent, because I had control over it.
05:36 AJ Harper: That’s the same for me. And also, as I said, playwriting is one step above poetry in terms of earning a living. So, you really need a lot of luck on your side. I had plenty of hard work, but you need a lot of luck.
05:49 Michael Port: And now, you need a lot of luck, yes, but your talent is extraordinary, because I’ve seen your work, and, as a result, you’ve become one of them most in demand editors. You used to do more ghostwriting. I don’t know if you do…
06:02 AJ Harper: For ten years.
06:03 Michael Port: Yeah, do you still do ghosting?
06:05 AJ Harper: So, in 2004, I had my son, as I said, and moved to New York a few weeks later. And then said, “That’s it, I’m just going to write, but no nine-to-fiver, and I’m also going to write anything, except being a playwright.”
And within six months, I had my first book deal, and it was for almost no money, but because I came up from playwriting, and theatre world, where it’s about apprenticeship, and I’m also from Minnesota, where we’re all about apprenticeship, I just said, “Okay, I’ll just write a book, just so I can figure this out.”
I had never written a book before, and, in fact, only ever wrote plays and maybe a couple of news articles.
06:46 Michael Port: Yeah, but that’s, I mean, everybody’s got to start somewhere. My first book was my first book.
06:51 AJ Harper: This one was not as good as your first book, but I was figuring it out, so I didn’t care what they paid me. And then, the next book I got was a self-help book, for second wives, which I know nothing about. But she liked me, and she was very connected.
So, she started referring me. I would get these calls, from self-help, personal growth, business, spirituality, and I just made a decision, I knew a little bit about business, enough to know, just dig deep in this.
So that’s what I did exclusively for ten years, writing in the personal and professional development genre.
07:31 Michael Port: What percentage of your clients ask you to keep your ghosting confidential?
07:38 AJ Harper: Almost all of them. I can name two who don’t, and I work with hundreds of people.
07:43 Michael Port: Yeah, that’s amazing.
07:44 AJ Harper: Now, whether they tell people and I don’t know, that’s another thing entirely. But I always honour my NDA’s.
07:51 Michael Port: Yeah, of course.
07:52 AJ Harper: So, sometimes they refer to me as an editor, but I actually wrote it. In fact, if you’re wondering if something’s ghosted, sometimes you can find clues in the acknowledgements of books. And it’s the best education for a writer. And because I was a playwright, it came so naturally to me, because I could assume their personality as if they were a character in a play.
And that’s why I was able to be successful. That, paired with the fact that I’m really good at adapting to authors and how they like to work, and so I wasn’t really imposing, I didn’t have a dogmatic approach, so that, if people weren’t good on the phone, but wanted to write, or didn’t want to write and were good on the phone, I could adapt to those things.
08:38 Michael Port: Mm-hmm. And so, you moved away from ghosting, and now you’re editing. Primarily in development editing?
08:45 AJ Harper: Development editing and most people don’t know what that is, but it’s usually your first editor, they’re doing the 30,000ft view. Is it, chiefly, is it going to work, do you have a strong core message, at HPS you call it a ‘big idea’, and one of the reasons I resonated with you guys was because a lot of the things you say, are things I had been saying for years, so I can totally get in the zone.
09:11 Michael Port: Yeah, and probably because we, even though we weren’t playwrights, we have a shared background, because we lived with playwrights and their work all the time. And if we didn’t understand dramaturgy, if we didn’t understand the work that it takes to write a play, then I don’t know if we could serve that play as well, as we could if we really understood what that writer is trying to do with the characters and with the overall play.
It’s one of the reasons we asked you to come and write speeches for our clients and coach our students in writing, because you’re such a good developmental editor. And it’s very important that people understand the distinction between that and a copy editor.
They’re two dramatically different things. The copy editor makes sure that your grammar is correct, that there aren’t typos, the periods are in the correct place.
10:03 AJ Harper: They’ll fact check, continuity, yeah.
10:07 Michael Port: Yes. And, you’ll still see typos in books. It’s very, very hard to write an 80,000 word book, even if it’s been gone through by you, five times for edits, and by a copy editor five times for edits, something still shows up, so don’t give authors a hard time about one typo in the book.
Every once in a while I’ll get an e-mail, “There was a typo on page 92!”
10:31 AJ Harper: And your response should be, “That’s a miracle, that you only found one.”
10:35 Michael Port: Exactly!
10:37 AJ Harper: You know? Because there’s five or six people who have been over it with a fine tooth comb multiple times, and it still happens.
10:43 Michael Port: That’s right. So, what’s your opinion on speakers using ghostwriters to write their books, if they don’t feel that it’s a strength of theirs or that they have the skill that they need? You moved away from ghosting, but is that because you don’t think speakers should be working with ghostwriters, or it just wasn’t for you at all”
11:06 AJ Harper: No, not at all. First of all, I’m very involved with all my clients. Most of them are still really good friends of mine, so, it just became burn out. It was ten years. And I started to see that I could help authors, who did want to write their own book, using the system I developed for myself, to write books that are truly transformational.
Meaning, not in the hokey way of saying ‘transformational’, but a shift in perspective or suddenly believing you can do something, or having tools or strategies, and there is a way you can do it yourself. And even though you hire a ghostwriter, it’s still not really you.
So, I wanted to be able to help people do it on their own that wanted to do it. That said, I have nothing against ghostwriting, if you’re a speaker, or any non-fiction author. I do have strong feelings about ghostwriting fiction, which I never did.
11:59 Michael Port: Oh, that makes sense.
12:01 AJ Harper: Yeah, but it happens all the time.
12:02 Michael Port: Interesting, really?
12:03 AJ Harper: Oh, my gosh!
12:04 Michael Port: I would never have thought that!
12:06 AJ Harper: Oh, my gosh! So much!
12:07 Michael Port: Really? So, the author, not the ghost, the named author, they have an idea, and then the ghostwriter actually writes the story for them?
12:21 AJ Harper: Yeah, it’s crazy!
12:22 Michael Port: See, because, with non-fiction books, if you’re a speaker or if you’re a CEO and you want to share your methodology and your ideas, and you want to write something that is helpful for people who want to do what you’ve done, et cetera, people don’t expect you to have studied writing and to be a writer.
You know, “Well, she’s a CEO, so it makes perfect sense that she had a professional writer to help her write the book, but with fiction, that’s very different.
12:49 AJ Harper: Yeah, that comes from your soul and these are all creative ideas and I just couldn’t understand. It’s usually a machine, it’s usually a big author who’s expected to turn in out, a lot of times it’s a series. But, with respect to authors that are thought leaders, or speakers or both, who has that skill to be able to transfer, especially from stage to page. That’s a different type of communication.
Also, those aren’t my ideas, they’re not my personal and professional stories, that’s not my research. So, while I do sometimes help people develop that better, in terms of, “Well, the way you’re teaching that isn’t coming across,” for the most part I’m just organising it and really understanding what their readers need and helping them deliver on that.
13:39 Michael Port: Yeah, there is a real need for you in the industry, because, historically, that’s what acquiring editors, or developmental editors, at publishing houses, actually did, they really worked on the books.
Now the industry, on the trade side, doesn’t support that in the way that it used to, so a lot of authors are publishing with trade publishers, and they’re not getting support from the publishing companies, so we all need collaborators on creative projects, because once you get into the weeds, it’s very hard to see the forest for the trees.
14:09 AJ Harper: Oh my goodness, yes, you can waste so much precious time, and you can also undermine your own confidence, so that now you think you can’t finish it, or it starts to infiltrate of aspects of your life.
14:20 Michael Port: Yeah, you start questioning your writing, because some of it’s not working and you’re not sure how to make the switch. And your editor comes and says, “Oh, yes, the transition is here,” and you go “Oh, my gosh, I can’t believe I didn’t see that!”
That happened to me often. I was very fortunate with my last book at HMH, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, my editor was an actual, real editor, and he really worked on the book, but I never had any feedback from any editor I ever worked with on my first six books. Which is pretty incredible.
14:50 AJ Harper: Yeah, I remember you telling me that, that is a little crazy actually.
14:54 Michael Port: Well, Rick Wolff was my publisher at HMH and he developed the Hachette’s business division, Warner business division, so he’s been in the industry for a long time and I think he prides himself on the quality of the books that he produces.
So, I’m going to ask you a question about speech writing and book writing. You mentioned, you know, getting your written ideas into the spoken form for speeches, or spoken word into written word. Sometimes speakers need to go back and forth.
Sometimes they will write a book and then go, “Oh, boy! I need to make a speech based on the book!” And they have to try to figure out how to make a speech based on the book and the book might not have originally been written in the structure or style that they would want to use for the speech itself.
Or vice versa. They’ve been giving a speech for a long time, which is often the case, that they’ve developed over the years, then they want to turn it into a book, and they’re trying to figure out how.
So, would you be able to articulate some of the differences between writing for the page, and writing for the stage?
16:01 AJ Harper: Sure! Well, depending on what the stage is. Is it a keynote?
16:06 Michael Port: Yeah, let’s assume it’s a keynote.
16:07 AJ Harper: Okay, because if you were doing breakouts or workshops, then it actually is closer, because one of the big distinguishing factors is that a book as to be able to show you how. Unless you’re writing a parable, or you’re writing a short little piece, but if you’re trying to do a traditional, let’s say, business book, it needs to be actionable content.
And that’s not always the case in a speech. You’re trying to convey this big idea, support the big idea, the promise of it. As you say, the promise of adopting a big idea, but not necessarily, “Now, these are the steps.” Sometimes, but even then, those steps are going to be pretty broad.
So, a book needs to go deeper, a book needs to have way more social proof; case studies, stories – your own and others.
16:59 Michael Port: Yeah. It’s interesting. Would you agree with this analysis? I’ve often analysed speeches as either message based speeches, or curriculum based speeches, and generally, a keynote, a breakout and a workshop are slightly different.
A keynote is designed, generally, to strike the key note. There’s a particular message that the organisers want the audience to have, and they pick a speaker who can deliver that message and set that tone for the conference.
And then there is a break out, which, generally, is designed to show people how to do something, and then a workshop, generally, is designed so that you actually do it together.
So, you can take one piece of content, and you can expand it or contract it to fit into any of those different mediums, but it does take work to expand or contract that content, so that it is appropriate and fits. And I’ve often seen books in the same way, that they’re in the non-fiction space, business, especially. There are message books about business, and then there are curriculum books about business.
When I think of Seth Godin’s books…
18:06 AJ Harper: Seth Godin’s message.
18:06 Michael Port: He’s message. So, each book has one message and he’ll give you lots of examples so you understand how that message applies to the world in which you life, but he’s not going to give you a list of, “Here are the five things you should do to make that happen.”
Your job is to understand, based on what he’s taught, the concept, so that you can then apply it in your life. And so, Seth is very appealing to a very thoughtful and intellectual business owner, because they’re looking for those concepts and then they can figure out how to apply it.
If you take something like, ‘Book Yourself Solid’, or Mike Michaelovicz’s ‘Profit First’, or John Jance’s ‘Duct Tape Marketing’, these are all curriculum based books. Because the reader is not buying it to enjoy it at the beach.
I mean, if they’re going to buy a beach book, they’re going to buy Elizabeth Gilbert, maybe something a little trashier, just for fun and relaxation. But if you get into a book like ‘Book Yourself Solid’, or ‘Profit First’, you are going to be taking a lot of notes, you’re going to be thinking how it applies. And so, generally, people aren’t buying those kind of books unless they have a problem and they have to find a solution to that problem.
And then, if the book provides the solution in a curriculum type format, they go, “Oh, I’m going to implement this! Great book!” But the message books are often a little more visceral.
19:35 AJ Harper: Yeah, well, they spark ideas. But most people, I’ve found, don’t have a sense of how to apply them. There’s a small percentage of us who can take a Seth Godin book and try and figure how to apply it to our own business.
19:48 Michael Port: Yeah, that would actually be an interesting concept, if someone did a whole series of workbooks based on every book that Seth Godin wrote. So, it could be, “Here are checklists and steps.”
19:58 AJ Harper: Yeah, so, “Here’s how to do Purple Cow,” yeah.
20:00 Michael Port: That would be really interesting.
20:01 AJ Harper: It would. I wonder what Seth would have to say about that.
20:05 Michael Port: I don’t know, we’ll have to see. Maybe one of our listeners will do one and send it to Seth and he be, like, “Hey! This is great! Let’s publish it.”
20:09 AJ Harper: Probably.
20:09 Michael Port: Who knows? So, when somebody comes to you with a written script, what do you do to make sure that that language works on stage with the spoken word?
20:22 AJ Harper: Well, here’s the thing, it’s so much of it, just like playwriting, is about workshop. And you’re always talking about practice, and I believe that. So, if we’re just working with words on a page, if I can’t hear it, if they can’t hear it, if their performance coach can’t hear it, that is so limiting.
It really needs those last edits, meaning, the last three or four drafts, have to be done in workshop, in my opinion. There’s the rhythm of how people speak, there’s drama, there’s pacing that doesn’t happen in a book, you know? So, you have to be very aware of that.
21:01 Michael Port: There’s lots of little things that I find people do in their writing, and then, when they try to bring that to the stage, it sounds stilted. So, for example, sometimes we will, written form, start a story with, “It was 1984. It was dark. And raining.”
Often we have these cliché hooks or pat ways of introducing stories in writing, that, when you take it to the stage, all of a sudden it doesn’t sound natural. And so, we just have to flip the script so that it is much more natural.
So one might say, “In 1984, this is what happened to me.” It’s very different than to say, “The time was 1984. I was thirteen.” In writing it may work better. Are there other examples that come to mind that are like that, that might work when you’re writing?
22:02 AJ Harper: Sure, so an example would be, most people don’t know how to tell a story to immerse a person, and write a story that immerses us in the moment. We normally tell stories. But, you know, you’re always talking about changing stories to present tense in speeches, but even that, the dialogue isn’t going to work the same way as it would be in a book.
22:30 Michael Port: Yes. Correct!
22:31 AJ Harper: First of all I would say most authors make the mistake of not including dialogue in a book. They’ll be like, “He said this, and she said that, and we talked about this.”
22:41 Michael Port: But where’s the dialogue?
22:42 AJ Harper: Where’s the good stuff?
22:43 Michael Port: Where are the characters?
22:44 AJ Harper: I mean, this is probably the playwright in me. But wouldn’t you rather read a story where you get to have actually experienced the conversation? That doesn’t really work as well on stage. You could take a key line, right?
22:57 Michael Port: Yeah. That’s very insightful, because, now that I think about it, that’s one of the things that often happens when people will start telling the stories, they’re often sharing the information, and we don’t see the characters. Who are the people? What do they look like? How do they move? How do they sound? And in order to do that, you generally need dialogue.
23:18 AJ Harper: Right.
23:19 Michael Port: Because you become the narrator, a character in that story, and then you also play the different characters.Now, it’s not like third grade acting where on one side it would go, “So, Sally, how are you today?” and then you go to the other side, “I’m very good.” So that’s where you start and then you find a much more naturalistic way of including that dialogue.
And, you’re 100% right, this script that Amy and I are working on now, I started writing about three months ago, four months ago, and it’s for a 30 minute keynote, so that means I write 18-20 minutes. Because, especially with this one, there’s going to be, I think, a lot of laughs, and as a result here will be a lot more time held in these beats than we would even in just rehearsal.
So, that’s why I write it shorter, people often write too much, rather than not enough. That’s not usually the problem. So, we find, as we’re rehearsing, we’re continuing to rewrite. And so, great writers are great at rewriting what they’ve written. That is, in large part, what your job is.
And so, if you don’t have the experience, in a creative endeavour, where you keep going over the same thing again and again and again, making tiny little changes, tiny little changes, tiny little changes, then you often think, “Well, I wrote it, and I went through it a second time and I made a couple of changes,” and then boom! you think that’s the script.
But we were, this weekend, working on it, and we made edits. We’re going to continue to do that, probably up until a few days before. Not major ones, but small ones, because we’ll notice just the change in the end of one line will nail a moment in a way that it wasn’t previously.
So, when you start working with a writer, say on a script or a book, what are some of the first questions that you ask them, or what are some of the things that people should be thinking about when they’re starting to work on a script or a book?
25:36 AJ Harper: Well, the very first thing, aside from taking their pulse about what they’re trying to accomplish, because they probably have different goals, is always about readers. If it’s a book, it’s the reader. I think the biggest problem in our industry right now is that people are not focussed on the reader.
Most people write a book, and it’s, ‘me, I, me, I’, they’re not in service to the reader, to the point of even, is this even the book they need? It’s just a book you want to write, but that may not be what your people need.
So, with the speeches, it’s audiences. It’s more narrow, but, for books, it has to be one person. I’m always telling people, it’s one person.
26:17 Michael Port: It’s the same thing when you write an e-mail, that is going out to a subscriber list, where you don’t say, “You guys, all of you.” We’re not writing to the whole group, it’s just one individual.
One of the things that I did when I wrote Book Yourself Solid, and I was working through it, I counted the number of times I used the word, ‘you’, in the introduction, to make sure it was the most used word in the introduction. And it was.
26:43 AJ Harper: Nice, nice. I like that.
26:44 Michael Port: I mean, when you go through and you count it, you’ll see, it’s the most used word.
26:48 AJ Harper: Well, and honestly, it’s how you connect with readers, so you really need to intimately know who your reader is, so that it is toned. A reader has to know that you get them. A reader has to know that you understand what they need, and that it informs the core message and the promise. Because, are those the things that they need next? Is the promise the thing that they want most?
That informs everything. Then, now, what’s the outline? The outline is in service of that. So, now you’re only taking that content, the reader becomes the filter.
27:20 Michael Port: Yeah. Do you have a particular process for deciding what type of structure you’re going to use for the book? Because, certainly, one can just do an outline, like, here’s this idea, this idea, and introduce a bunch of ideas.
But, of course the structure of the book influences how well the reader consumes it, and how much pleasure they get from it. Do you have any particular way of looking at the structure of a book?
27:47 AJ Harper: I do. I have a set way of doing introductions, and there are just some rules that introductions have to follow in terms of notes they need to hit, even though most people hardly read them any more. But, every single chapter has to start with, what do they need?
It’s really simple. It’s what do they need first, in order to understand this message and deliver on the promise. Then next, then next, then next. It’s honestly just that simple.
28:16 Michael Port: You know, it’s interesting, I can see it, even in your face, there’s like a little bit of that frustration of, like, “I wish people would keep it simpler.”
28:24 AJ Harper: Yes.
28:25 Michael Port: That’s kind of what I’m getting. And, sometimes, people who are newer don’t have the ability, yet, to make it simple and effective. Often, simplicity comes with mastery over time. And so, sometimes I think that folks who are starting, they try to make it complicated.
28:44 AJ Harper: Or clever. Yes.
28:45 Michael Port: That’s what I mean, yeah. That’s right. So, they’re trying to make it clever, which turns out to be complicated, because we’re so worried about people thinking we’re smart.
28:54 AJ Harper: Oh my gosh, it’s one of my clients’ biggest issues they have to get over, is, “Am I going to sound like I know what I’m doing?” And they try to chunk their content into interesting ways that make sense to them, but they have the advantage of knowing what the reader doesn’t know.
And so then they’ve led the reader down this path. The reader has to trust you, just like they do with audiences. They have to trust the speaker. “I’m going to go on this journey with you,” and you give them that trust, by providing them that rope that they can hang on to, as they’re on that journey.
29:25 Michael Port: Yeah, so when your clients are thinking about writing a book, at this stage people have options. They don’t have to use a trade publisher any more. They can self-publish, and they can hybrid publish, and so many different options out there. I think, actually, now it’s getting more overwhelming for folks, because there are so many different options, and they often say, “What should I do?”
Trade publishing, self publishing? What should they do?
29:55 AJ Harper: It depends. There’s a lot of depends. It’s like one of those, if you believe this, go here, take this path. Ultimately it’s this: If you want control over your title, when you publish your book, if you need to publish your book in the next year, for example, and if you have some cash.
30:15 Michael Port: Yeah, because you have to lay out money.
30:17 AJ Harper: Then go ahead and self-publish. If you would like the credibility of a publisher, it’s not as relevant, even as it was five years ago. When I first started out, it was, “Don’t let anybody know that you’ve self-published!” Now it’s a badge, people wear it with pride, “I self-published.”
30:32 Michael Port: Yeah, of course, because you can produce a book that looks just as good as any book any trade publisher can produce.
30:40 AJ Harper: With the right team.
30:41 Michael Port: Yes, yes. Ten years ago it really was very difficult, even with the right team. They still looked offset, the type, sometimes a little crooked, where the bindings weren’t quite so good. So now, you can. So yes, with the right team, you can.
30:58 AJ Harper: But if you do want the credibility, and the other thing, a Big Five publisher, that’s why your last publisher, which was a Big Five, you did get your developmental editor, maybe you don’t want to pay for that person. Maybe you’d like to have that support.
So, you mentioned Mike Michaelovicz, I do still write with Mike, he’s my only person I write with, we have an editor at Penguin Portfolio. I have an editor. Even editors need editors. So, there’s that, but also they have distribution muscle, that even though you can do it on your own, and I will say that I hope that everyone who self-publishes realises that you must publish in other places besides Amazon.
It’s one of my biggest pet peeves, because people don’t realise how they’re limited. Regardless, a publisher can move more books than you can. They can get them there, they don’t have the same challenges.
You can do it yourself, absolutely, but if that’s a factor for you. But, other than that, you can self-publish. If you have the money and you can find a good team, you can do it.
32:06 Michael Port: Yeah. So, I guess one of the questions, it seems like, is, “What’s the point of the book? Why are you writing a book?” Because sometimes it seems like, “Well, I’m a speaker, speakers have books.”
I mean, really, when I started in 2003, we didn’t have social media – I feel like such an old man – we had e-mail, so you could send out e-mails and blogging was just starting up, I mean, it was around before that, obviously, but it was just starting to get big, and there was a little bit of podcasting going on a couple of years later, not quite that early.
But, nonetheless, if you were some sort of expert, if you didn’t have a book, you kind of felt a little bit naked. I remember thinking, “Well, if I want to get known in this industry, then I’d better start writing.”
And I remember I was a little nervous, because I didn’t really like to write when I was younger, and I’m pretty dyslexic and I have trouble spelling my own name, so this could be a challenge. And so I just started writing a little bit every day. Just about anything, just a couple of paragraphs, because I figured, “Nobody has to see it, it’s just getting in the habit.”
So, I felt like I got better over time, because I developed the habit of speaking to my readers, the way that I speak to anyone that I’m talking to in any medium. And I moved away from trying to sound like my father, who is an academic.
I just couldn’t write like that and, frankly, my readers wouldn’t want to read a book like that. My father is brilliant. He’ll send me a sixteen paragraph e-mail about one little thing. He just can pontificate. So, maybe that’s where I got it from.
So, anyhow, this constraint that you often feel, that you’re supposed to write the way that you were told to write when you were younger, or that there’s some special way of doing it that it has to be done this way often limits people and they don’t find their own voice. They try to be something other than they are, and so, for me, that habit broke that.
34:08 AJ Harper: Oh, the daily habit?
34:10 Michael Port: Yeah, the daily habit broke that, because I wasn’t doing it for anyone. I wasn’t trying to get any praise for it. I just thought, “Well, let me see,” because I never journalled when I was a kid, that wasn’t something that…
34:22 AJ Harper: You know what? That’s good, because then you don’t have to go back and look at those.
34:25 Michael Port: Exactly, that’s exactly right! So, in any event, are there things that you’ve seen writers do that are effective habits for being prolific? Are there certain things that you recommend people do to get better at writing?
34:46 AJ Harper: Yeah, actually, one of the first pieces of advice I give people is to have a daily practice. It doesn’t matter if it’s fifty words, it’s just, and often times, if I have clients that are struggling to get all their content out, I’ll say, “Just check in with me via text, I don’t care if it’s a hundred words, just give me the number, in a text.”
That practice is very, very helpful. Also, just speak it then. You have to remember that everything is going to be rewritten, and if you just let yourself communicate, that’s a good habit, whether it’s into your phone, or writing it down, that’s fine.
Also, I work with a lot of speakers, even outside HPS, and even in HPS, and speaking is a big part of developing the content for a book. And, with Mike Michaelowicz, often I’ll say, “You’re going to go to this event, can you try this out, is this connecting?”
So, to get that feedback, writing is an isolating process, and one fo the great things about HPS, is it’s more of a community and so you’re not writing in isolation, but for other folks, getting out there on the stage is very helpful, “Let me test this content,” then you have more confidence.
But you asked me a question, why do books matter? Does anybody still…?
36:09 Michael Port: Yeah.
36:10 AJ Harper: People still read books! People still read books and love books and keep them forever and they highlight them and dog-ear them, and you want to write that book. You don’t want to write the book that’s just, your name and then no one cares and it’s a better business card.
You want to write that book that people treasure and they take with them through thirteen moves, they won’t give it up! They also have the e-book version, they recommend it to everybody, and people still care about that, even if you’re not someone who reads books, believe me, people still read books.
36:43 Michael Port: You know, that’s one of the questions I ask in interviews. I say, “What books have you read lately?” Because I’m interested in how people learn, and if they say, “Well, I don’t really read,” I say, “Okay, well how do you learn?”
Because, for some people, reading might feel laborious, or slow, but they might be voracious learners, they just find that information in different ways. They listen to audio, they watch video, because they can, now. They apprentice, so they follow somebody around and they just see what that person’s doing, that’s how they learn.
Anybody who is interviewing will know the answers to this kind of question.
37:27 AJ Harper: They’ll be ready, they’ll be ready.
37:28 Michael Port: They’ll be ready. But if they don’t give me a strategy, of, “Here’s how I learn,” then I get worried that they may not be focussed on learning, as a way of being. And I think that, on the flip side, those of us who write and create content, I think we need to continue to do it, because that’s one of the ways that we learn.
We learn so much about the people we serve, when we write books or write speeches. Because you’ve got to get deep into their mind and their heart and their soul to understand them. And then, of course, you have to make sure that all your protocols actually make sense, and until you put that down on paper, you don’t know if it makes sense, until someone reads it and you can say, “I get that. I know what to do with that. Excellent!”
So, I found that it was a wonderful way of developing my expertise over time, by forcing myself to write about the things that I knew and wanted to teach. And, I think, if I hadn’t written as much as I did, I don’t think I would be as good a teacher.
38:34 AJ Harper: I believe that, yeah. You have to test all of those strategies and what works.
38:39 Michael Port: Yeah. And so, sometimes, even if you write a book that doesn’t end up being a massive hit, you know, some kind of evergreen bestseller, sometimes the process of writing the book, helps your business so much, because it improves your intellectual property.
38:52 AJ Harper: Oh, yeah!
38:53 Michael Port: And, of course, people don’t buy, just ideas, or conversations, they buy outcomes and they are more likely to buy outcomes when there is a protocol attached to the development of that outcome, because they can say, “Well, if I start here, go here, and finish over here, I should be able to produce that outcome.”
And one of the big differences between experts and non-experts is that the non-expert may have a lot of the same information that an expert has, but it’s not organised in a way that they can apply it.
And that’s one of the ways that, through a book, you’re able to demonstrate to people and say, listen, I have a protocol for how to do this. It’s not just that I understand it, but a protocol that you can do, because it’s been re-engineered.
Before we wrap, is there anything that you want people to know about book writing, or speech writing, that we haven’t covered, or that you think would give them a leg-up or a little bit of extra inspiration?
39:46 AJ Harper: I’m always amazed how many of my clients need reassurance, that what they have to say matters. And the thing is, you and I can talk about the same thing, but we’re going to have a different set of clients, and that’s because some people want to talk to Michael Port, and some people want to talk to AJ Harper, and we have personal reasons for why we resonate with people.
So, even if you think, “Gosh, there’s already nine books on this,” or ninety. You go on Amazon and you search, and, “Oh, gosh! Four people have that title!” You know, I would say that none of that matters. All that matters is that you are delivering quality content that’s truly transformational, that’s authentic to you, and in your own voice, and you will find your people.
Don’t ever worry that that’s been done before. It’s pretty much all been done before in some fashion.
40:37 Michael Port: Yeah, your big idea doesn’t have to be different to make a difference.
40:41 AJ Harper: And how it’s different, is because it’s you!
40:44 Michael Port: Yeah, if you bring yourself to it fully, and are fully self-expressed and are relentless about your commitment to the outcomes for the people who are reading it.
40:52 AJ Harper: Right! Absolutely!
40:53 Michael Port: Amen! AJ, thank you so much for being here, you’re fantastic!
40:54 AJ Harper: You’re so welcome! Thanks for having me.
40:59 Michael Port: Thank you for listening to Steal The Show with Michael Port. I’m your host, Michael Port.
This podcast was produced by our director of communications, Laura Bernstein, with sound production and marketing by Kast Media. Music is mixed by Shammy Dee, and we recorded today’s episode at Heroic Public Speaking HQ, the most impressive public speaking facility in Lambertville, New Jersey and, perhaps, the world.
Special thanks to our guest, the incomparable AJ Harper, and to you, for listening and learning how to be a performer in your spotlight moments.
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I love you, very much, and not in a weird way, but I do love you for being the big thinker that you are, and for standing in service of others, as you stand in the service of your destiny. Now, go out there and break their legs. Bye for now.