Daily Life

2011 Interview with Steven Pressfield

Two years ago I had a chance to speak to a key player on The Domino Project, Ishita Gupta, and one of the authors involved, Steven Pressfield.

When Steven’s next book came out the email I had for him had been shut down. I contacted his admin about an interview for the new book and was told there wouldn’t be any. We get plenty of books in for review so I moved on to the next one, but was disappointed because I like his work and really enjoyed speaking with him. My bruised ego thought “I’m sure if Oprah called they’d find some time on the calendar.”

Well, guess who showed up on Oprah today? When I heard about this earlier in the week I grabbed this interview from the archives (click here if you’d rather listen to us) and sent it to transcription. No reason for me not to take advantage of a probable search boost from Steven getting an hour with the greatest name in TV.

John:  Good morning. Welcome to Marketing Over Coffee. Today we have a special interview with Ishita Gupta and Steven Pressfield.

We have two special guests with us today. Ishita Gupta works on The Domino Project, a series of books and some new ideas on book marketing. She also works on a number of projects with Seth Godin, whose book “Poke the Box” was the first book in The Domino Project. Ishita, thanks for talking to us today.

Ishita:  Thank you for having us on.

John:  Also joining us is Steven Pressfield, the author of “Do the Work,” the recently released second book in The Domino Project. His previous books include “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” which in 2001 was made into a movie with Will Smith, Matt Damon, and Chalize Theron and readers of military books will surely recognize him as the author of “Gates of Fire” which is regarded as one of the best books on the Battle of Thermopolyae. Steven, thanks for joining us.

Steven:  It’s my pleasure, John. Thanks for having us.

John:  Ishita, tell us a little bit about The Domino Project to get started.

Ishita:  The Domino Project is a new publishing venture started by Seth Godin, who you just mentioned, and powered by Amazon. I think the biggest thing that I like to talk about when I think about Domino is it’s changing publishing in a way that’s not thinking that publishing is dead, but it’s just taking publishing to the next level of what it can be.

We work really closely with authors like Seth and Steve and try to publish books that have impact and send things out to the market and to the world that our readers will value. It’s a lot of thinking about what readers will want and how to get that to the market as quick as possible and in a way that will delight both the authors that we’re working with and ourselves and the people who ultimately will get these books.

John:  From the first two books that we’ve seen, it seems like a core concept is that these are kind of books to motivate, not just the regular “Here’s the concept, here’s a bunch of tired case studies.” What’s your guiding principle on choosing books for this project?

Ishita:  The things that we publish are all about initiation. That’s what Poke the Box’s main theme was – and Steve will speak better to this about “Do the Work” – it’s really about taking action.

We want to compel people to change the way that they’re doing things. If you’re feeling stuck or you’re feeling like you’re in a place that you want to change, these are the books for you. Most business books that we see out there are very long and filled with statistics, which is great for a certain kind of reader but these aren’t the books that we’re publishing. I think what we think about a lot at Domino is what is going to change a conversation that someone has with their peer, with their colleague, with their family. What is going to make them want to spread something, and ultimately, what is going to compel them to change?

You’re right. It’s a lot of topics on initiating, on honesty, on courage, on biting the bullet, and doing work that you think matters.

Steven:  Ishita, let me ask you a question because I was thinking about this last night. I know that Seth defines the books for The Domino Project as “manifestos.” How would you define that? What does manifesto mean to Seth and to you and The Domino Project?

Ishita:  When I hear the term “manifesto” I inherently think that there’s a call-to-action. A manifesto is something that you read, and after reading it, something changes within you. Whether it’s the next action that you’re going to take or a thought that you had about something, some paradigm will shift. I don’t think we use the word manifesto lightly.  That is our central goal. That is the central focus in the books that we publish, and I think also the books that we read as individuals.

Our team is composed of about eight people all with very different backgrounds and creative outlets, ideals, and thoughts and it’s really about what makes us want to go out and do meaningful work, change the way we think about things, and I ultimately think that’s why we decided on the term manifesto.

These are “books” that are short, that are compelling, and are really built to spread. A manifesto in and of itself is something designed to speak to a lot of people is universal in its theme. That, to me, is why we’re using the term manifesto.

Steven:  Basically, I’m a novelist, so when I first saw The Domino Project and what Seth was doing with Amazon, my first thought was, “Can we do this with novels?” Maybe in the future in some way maybe; I don’t know.

Like Ishita says, these Domino Project books are maybe 100 pages long, something like that –something you can actually read in one sitting – so I don’t think it does fit for a novel. More’s the pity from my point of view, but certainly it is a new paradigm being only with Amazon, not in a bookstore, not at any other online place. A very interesting new product that doesn’t exist I don’t think in any other place.

John:  One thing with “Do the Work” is it does serve up a lot of the concepts from your book “War of Art.” Are you looking at this as a lead in? By making this book spread far and fast, it will entice people to get into the rest of your work, or do you consider it more free standing?

Steven:  I consider it free standing, but of course any book you hold will bring readers to your other books. But this one, like Ishita says, was really more of call-to-action in a manifesto the way Ishita defines it. Do the work rather than war of art.

The way it came about in a way was that a young guy wrote to me. He sent me an e-mail and said, “I’m stuck in the middle of this screenplay. I have to deliver it in two weeks for a class I’m taking. Help!”

Normally, I would never respond to something like that because I don’t want to be anybody’s guru or anything like that, but just for the hell of it I thought, “Okay, I’ll give him a little assignment.” I did, and it seemed to work.

That’s where, from my point of view, the idea of “Do the Work” came out where it’s much more of a “Take this step, take that step, take this step” rather than being as theoretical as the “War of Art” was. So it fit perfect into Seth’s concept, or The Domino Project’s concept, of the manifesto.

Ishita:  I just want to jump in here quickly and say that I have both sitting on my desk right now. I have a copy of the “War of Art” and then I have a copy of “Do the Work.” To me, they fit very perfectly together, but at the same time, the concept of resistance I feel like you introduced in “War of Art” whereas in “Do the Work” it’s more about how you battle the resistance. Both are very actionable. But when I think about “Do the Work” all I have to do is look at it and I’m compelled to get over the resistance and do my work or start my blog or what have you.

I think it almost does take it a step further. Both are amazing books, but for action, I’m looking at them both right now and I’m thinking, “Alright, let me just do the work.”

John:  That’s an excellent jump on point there, too. Steven, for the folks who aren’t familiar with your work, tell us a bit about the resistance and how the book revolves around that.

Steven:  Resistance with a capital R is a name that I gave for myself to all the forces of self-sabotage. Procrastination, self-doubt, fear, all of those things that stop us – from a writer’s point of view – from facing the blank page. But from an entrepreneur’s point of view it will stop you from starting a new business or taking some step that you know you need to do.

Resistance in my experience always kicks in when you’re trying to move from a lower level to a higher level or to identify with a braver part of yourself or your higher nature. So it’s that negative repelling force. It’s kind of the dragon that we have to slay every day if we’re artists or entrepreneurs.

John:  You’re talking about definitely getting started. I think another key point, too ,that people miss is the idea of losing to the inner critic, if you could talk about that and how that fits into this.

Steven:  The inner critic is just resistance par excellence. It’s that voice that comes from – and we all know – our parents, our childhood, our teachers, or maybe from previous lives for all I know. But that is resistance par excellence. Resistance really takes the shape, for me, in voices in my head telling me why I can’t do something or why I should put it off for another day, procrastinate for another day. “Don’t do it, do something else. Do something that’s easier” or “I’m not good enough,” “I’m too young,” “I’m too old,” “I’m too, whatever.” It is that inner critic voice. That’s really exactly what we’re talking about.

John:  Another big point that hit home quickly was talking about how screenwriters pitch as far as framing your story and then filling in the pieces. Could you talk a little bit more about that?

Steven:  That’s one of the first steps in “Do the Work.” This may give your listeners a sense of what the book’s about. As far as starting a project is what I call the foolscap method of starting a project that I learned from my beloved mentor Norm Stall. Basically, what he said to me once when we’re talking about writing books – we had a piece of yellow foolscap, a pad of foolscap – and he said, “Steve, God created a sheet of yellow foolscap to be exactly the right length for the entire outline of a novel.” That has been an enormous help to me.

The bottom line of that technique is whatever your project is – if it’s a new business, if it’s a philanthropic venture, if it’s a book, a screenplay, whatever it is – step one is get it all down on one page. That was step one in getting something rolling.

The next question is: what do you put down on the one page? How do you do it?

A great trick that I learned having worked as a screenwriter for many years, the way screenwriters work, is they break the project down into three-act structure: Act 1, Act 2, Act 3. I think that is a great way to break down any project, whether it’s a new business or anything at all. Just put down the numbers one, two, and three – start, middle, end. That’s a great way to organize a project in your mind without thinking too much about it.

John:  We talked about getting rolling and getting started. There’s a section in the book that talks about “the belly of the beast” when you’re facing darkness. Maybe your first real failure is eminent or possible. If you can talk about that, what does that mean – belly of the beast? What do you do with that?

Steven:  One thing I’ve found in any project is almost universally about three quarters of the way through – or maybe a little father, maybe seventh eighths on the way through – any project will explode. It’s like that point in running a marathon where you hit the wall. It seems to me it always happens. I don’t know why it does, but it does. The real point at that juncture is, first of all, be ready for it so it doesn’t completely throw you. Secondly, not to take it personally, not to take it as personal failure that happened to you.

In fact, this just happened. I was working on a novel called “The Profession” which I’ve been working on for more than two years. I thought I was done and the exact same thing happened. It just blew up on me. I gave it to friends I really valued and colleagues, and they hated it. They were right.

So I found myself three quarters of the way through having to go back to square one. It really threw me. I made a couple of terrible mistakes and taking it too personally, over identifying with it. It took me months to thrash my way out of this. If I had only listened to my own advice.

The problem I’ve always discovered in my own work when this kind of thing happens when you hit the wall is there’s almost always a reason. You’ve almost always made a mistake in the initial conception of the project. You misapprehended something or you thought something would work and now you’re three quarters on the way through and you see that it doesn’t work.

The answer is, in the Marine Corps they have a way of working that they call “work the problem.” That’s kind of what I do. To remember that the problem is the problem. It’s not you. It’s not any personal failing of yours. It’s just a mistake that you’ve made, a misapprehension that you’ve allowed. It’s like a virus you’ve allowed to get into something and you just have to go back to square one, painstakingly, laboriously and figure out what went wrong. What did I leave out or what did I put in I shouldn’t have put in here? Just solve the problem like a mechanic would solve a problem in an automobile.

That’s the area that I call “the belly of the beast” in “Do the Work”. I think anybody that has done any long project knows that that moment always comes when the project just hits the wall and they have to go back to square one.

John:  Ishita, it’s funny. You’re in the throes of this project now. Two questions for you. One is, how is the measurement going? Is it doing what you wanted it to do? Second, what’s next for it? Where are you going with this?

Ishita:  It’s doing exactly what we want it to do. Just going from “Poke the Box” which was Seth’s first book, we have measurements for that. It’s interesting because we think that digital isn’t spreading and people aren’t reading on e-devices and things like that just from a marketing and book publishing standpoint. On Amazon’s side, Kindles are now outselling regular traditional hard covers by two to one, or even three to one in some instances. That, for us, was a really big learning.

Operating in the digital space has always something Seth has been in the mix with, but for the team at Domino it was a really big learning experience to see where and how people were actually reading. To touch on “Do the Work” it’s been incredible to see how many vast numbers of people are reading now digitally on the Kindle. Just today, I think, Steve, we had sent an e-mail back and forth about “Do the Work” being number one on the Kindle as a bestseller, which is amazing. It’s been only two days since launch.

To me, those are all really heartening things that are coming out of the way that we’re choosing to operate. There was a really big sponsorship for “Do the Work” which was GE, which I think is interesting because not a lot of publishers are open to looking at businesses as potential partners. There’s some maybe either fear or hesitation there, but that was something that really took us over the hump, I guess you could say, in terms of getting this book out to as many people as possible.

I’m really pleased. I know our team is always trying to think about how else we can spread these books that are really important to us and to our readers. I think having Amazon as a partner and having them do what they do best which is targeted marketing, which is insane  distribution, that’s something that’s a fantastic partnership because now we can do what we do best which is curating and working with authors like Steve and getting really great books out there. And we can let Amazon do what they do best which is reaching tons of people and helping us fulfill and do that. So I’m really pleased with where we’re at.

John:  In the future, what’s next?

Ishita:  It’s interesting because this is a new space for us. Everything that we’re doing is testing and experimenting. But we are working with authors coming in the pipeline for the next six or seven months. We have content lined up. We have great authors who were pitching to work with us, who have agreed to work with us. There’s a constant edge that we’re on to try to do (A) what we’re doing better and (B) figure out what it is we’re doing. Everything that we’ve tried I think with “Do the Work,” Steve, you could tell that we were learning just as much as your team was throughout this whole thing.

Steven:  You covered it up pretty good, Ishita. It looked like you knew exactly what you were doing, to me.

Ishita:  It’s a learning for us. I think our next move is to still take our content just as seriously as our marketing techniques and figuring out our distribution. It’s just a matter of who we want to work with and what ideas we want to send out there. I know the people on our team are totally innovative and everyone comes from a totally different background. It’s interesting to see what ideas we come to the table with.

The future is going to be maybe ten books this year. We’re thinking about 10-15 books. Seth is probably going to only write one or two this year. But just bringing on a bunch of really great authors.

John:  That’s great. “Do the Work” is available only at Ishita, thanks for telling us about The Domino Project. That’s pretty interesting new marketing techniques for publishing. We’re interested to see where this goes.

Steven, I’ve noticed that you had the artist on campaign scheduled for October 2011 release. Can you tell us anything about that or is that still on the wraps?

Steven:  It’s sort of a full-fledged follow-up to the “War of Art.” That’s about as much as I want to say at the moment. But thanks for asking, John. It will be out October.

John:  That sounds great. That will do it for us!

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