Update on Tempo

Okay, I’ve been stringing you guys along, promising a book, for nearly two years now. You could be forgiven for thinking that the project has fallen by the wayside. On the contrary, in spite of the insane pressures of leading a product launch at Xerox and writing this pretty demanding blog, by some miracle, I’ve actually been making steady progress on the book. I thought I’d share a few details. First, we’ve nearly locked down the cover. The ‘we’ includes my good friend and very talented designer/finance quant, Adam Hogan, who is doing the cover for me (while bumming around somewhere in the Czech republic). You’ll hear more about the talented Mr. Hogan on this blog soon.

As you can see, I’ve also nearly locked down a subtitle: timing, tactics and strategy in opportunistic, narrative-driven decision making. If that sounds like a bit of a mouthful, that’s because these are exciting days in book publishing. One of the things you have to do is Aim for Amazon, and strike a delicate balance between a great title/subtitle for humans and a search-friendly one for indexes and search engines. One of the proven strategies that has emerged is to optimize the subtitle for online discovery. The skill is not unlike the skill needed to think up great blog headlines, a game I enjoy a lot. I haven’t completely locked this down, but it’s getting close.

Let me share a few more details, including the final table of contents. And don’t forget to sign up for the announcement list, if you haven’t already.

The Table of Contents

Writing a book is an exercise in wrangling complexity, and one of the hardest parts is to getting the structure, sequence and number of chapters right. Over the two-odd years that I’ve wrestled with the book project, it has had as many as 12 and as few as 4 chapters. I finally have a structure I am happy with:

  1. Introduction
  2. A Sense of Timing
  3. Momentum and Mental Models
  4. Narrative Rationality
  5. Universal Tactics
  6. The Clockless Clock
  7. Conclusion

I hope the chapter titles intrigue you. I’ll share more in a future update, assuming I haven’t actually finished the book by then.

Three Remarks

The manuscript now weighs in at about 50,000 words, which is about right for its category: somewhere between a business book to a pop-science book, and I am doing my final heavy-edit pass.  I thought some of you might enjoy pondering a few things I’ve discovered. This might be especially interesting to those of you who are planning to write your own books (something I strongly encourage, see my post Everybody Should Write a Book).

First, word counts are very deceptive.

I often write 4000-6000 word posts here on the blog, and have been clocking between 80,000 to 100,000 words every year. So based on pure word count, the book should have taken me 6-8 months to finish. Why has it taken me more than 2 years, and counting?

Developing a coherent narrative that long, and structuring and sequencing it properly for effective and stimulating reading, is extremely hard. Especially if you are trying to get the thing done mainly on Saturday mornings, and every week you have to sit down and develop situation awareness of a bigger manuscript each time. Programmers say that a 1000 line program is not 10 times as harder to write than a 100 line program, it is 100 times harder. Difficulty scales as the square of length. So by that measure, this book has not been 8-9 times harder to write than my longest blog post. It has been 64-81 times as hard.

Second, book writing is not like blogging.

The longest series on this blog, the Gervais Principle series, currently weighs in at about 24,000 words, and will close at about 28,000 when I finish the last part. Since the narrative there is not as tightly integrated, it has not been as hard to scale. So though I do eventually plan to publish that in “book form,” I really won’t dignify it with the noun book. When I get done with that, it will be a blook, and though there are people out there ready to tell you that any half-coherent collection of 10-12 blog posts is a legitimate book, I now know that’s just too low a standard. It isn’t the publishing vs. self-publishing distinction or the book vs. ebook distinction that matters. A serious book project is intrinsically a far harder intellectual challenge than a blog series.  At least if you’ve challenged yourself and are attempting to write something worthwhile and ambitious. Tempo will have its share of flaws, but lack of ambition won’t be among them.

Third, a book is not software.

It was hard for me to finally come to terms with this, but I finally realized that continuous beta, release early and often, test-driven development, and similar concepts, are bad ideas when it comes to a book project like mine.

When I started the project, I was very enthusiastic about applying these ideas. I did a few rounds of early beta reviews of the first few chapters with a selected beta-testing panel. But I found that it was just not worth the management overhead. A book is something that really gestates best in solitude and privacy. It is really hard to involve others, no matter how well-intentioned they are, continuously. I found I was spending more time managing, disambiguating and synthesizing a pile of mutually contradictory review comments than making progress on the manuscript. Some highly modular book projects may benefit from this consultative process. But most, I suspect, will not, and will mature better when driven by a more dictatorial author. Some day, when this whole project is a distant memory, I’ll reflect and try to figure out why. My suspicion is that a book with a tight narrative, like mine, is a single atomic unit, no matter how big it gets. It can only meaningfully be “tested” in its entirety.

Partly as a result, I merged my beta-sign up and announcement-email sign up lists. I may still solicit a very limited round of feedback on the complete manuscript, but I will only be asking a small group of trusted friends.

So yes, I will be releasing the book sans bold experiments and clever “Version 0.9, beta” tags. Good or bad, flawed or not, it is going to be an old-fashioned “first edition.” If it turns out the ideas need to evolve and be repaired, there may be a “second edition” at some distant date, but don’t expect “weekly builds” or new micro-editions every week. I suspect, once I get this out the door, I’ll be too exhausted to even look at it again for at least 6 months. That said, I did adopt one software practice: the book manuscript (typeset as a set of LaTeX source files) is evolving as a Subversion repository.

The Road Ahead

There’s still plenty to do. While I’ve gone through the whole self-publishing process before, I had a lot of help last time, since I was editing and “producing” an anthology. Now, I am doing it pretty much all by myself, and the game has changed a lot in the ten years since I last played. Every week there’s some bit of news or the other that makes me stop and think briefly about my publishing strategy. When should I release a Kindle version? How do I get on the iPad? Is it worth targeting retail outlets at all? Should I even look for a returns-based distribution channel given how that model is collapsing all around?

Those are the fascinating publishing strategy questions. There’s also a whole lot of tedious process grunt-work involved in publishing a book today, but fortunately, much of it is behind me.

So I am very hopeful that this time I will stick to my planned release schedule: February 2011. No more delays. Famous last words.

And again, don’t forget to sign up for the announcement list, if you haven’t already.

If you want to help me do more pre-publicity for the book, please grab the linked image on my sidebar, and put it on your blog.

And thank you all for your patience and continued interest. It is gratifying to be periodically asked how the project is coming along.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Brilliant!! Jetzt aber!!! Finally, we get to see it in a couple months’ time…cannot wait Venkat!


  2. Isaac Lewis says

    Looking forward to seeing this!

    The cover looks pretty funky, though the subtitle is a bit hard to read – the dark brown lines behind the white letters make it a bit confusing for my eyes. Maybe that’s just because I’m looking at it on a screen.

    (As an aside, I’m often surprised when I hear how long the word counts are of some blog articles I read – over 20,000 words for the Gervais series! And I read a lot of such articles, which means my average words read per day must easily be in the tens of thousands. When I read physical books, I seem to get through them much more slowly).

    • I agree on the text/illustration issue. You might actually be better off playing with the alignment, font size and placing of the text: The additional complexity might make it harder to read in one sense, but would be compensated for by the fact that it now matches the dynamics of the background better.

      At the moment, not only is the image making the text harder to read, the text is weakening the dynamism and fluidity of the image.

      As an added bonus, adding some pacing to the way people read the subtitle would make it seem less academic and more accessible.

      All of this assuming an arrangement is possible that simultaneously respects the phrasing and fits with the composition of the picture, but you’ll never know till you try!

      Personally I find I read blogs faster because I follow the flow of my own narrative, not having to follow someone else’s: Skim here, dig into this bit, with usually little requirement to follow the same sequence for a protracted period. With a lot of books I dip into them, and spend the first few minutes skipping back to remember where I’d got to. On the web the only thing I have a similar experience with are forums.

  3. Off topic, the latest release of “Be Slightly Evil”, On Dodging Decisions, failed to show up in the list archive.
    Could you fix that please, thnks.

  4. Isaac and Josh:

    Thanks for the comments. We’ll probably tweak the design a little more to see if we do better with the subtitle text.

    Word counts online are often surprising because there are no page breaks in continuous scrolling articles I think. A 4000 word article can be 6-10 pages on paper depending on layout.

  5. I am very excited for this. I only hope it doesn’t suck. No worries, no fear: I have high expectations and don’t expect to be disappointed.

  6. Steve Napora says

    I just signed up on announcement list page, and I look forward to reading your book.
    Anyone shopping on Amazon has probably noticed the “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” sections. When your book winds up on the booksellers’ sites, are there any specific titles you would like to see show up?

  7. I updated the cover graphic in the post… now shows the latest, final cover.