#40: Trials and tribulations

How not to write a book.

This is yet another of Vaughn Tan’s weekly attempts to make sense of the state of not-knowing. The first issue explains the project; you can see all the issues hereMy book, The Uncertainty Mindset, is about uncertainty, innovation, organizational design … and cutting-edge cuisine. You can get it here.

Finalmente, a decade after beginning the research for it, The Uncertainty Mindset is out. I got some copies from the warehouse on Saturday and there have even been reports of it sighted in actual bookstores.

Naturally, I would like nothing more than for you to buy many boxes of books and distribute them indiscriminately to all your associates. But, in case you aren’t going to do that, here are the six main takeaways from the book. They apply not just to restaurants specifically but to businesses that face uncertain futures that will be demanding in unexpected ways at unexpected times.

  1. Redesign employee job roles to be modular (not monolithic).

  1. Set expectations that employee roles will continually change and evolve (instead of remaining static).

  1. Choose to pursue open-ended goals (instead of only clearly specified goals).

  1. Use well-designed concrete work to train employees (rather than only abstract training programs).

  1. Motivate innovation work with carefully chosen sticks (not only with carrots).

  2. Design projects to progressively overload employees and teams (instead of only allowing them to remain in their comfort zones).

Each of these could be unpacked into a whole chapter—which is what the book actually does. I’ll do some kind of virtual book talk in August or September. If you’re interested in participating, let me know on this form.

Why did The Uncertainty Mindset take nearly a decade to produce? It sure wasn’t the writing of the manuscript that took a long time.

Much of the research on which the book is based is observational—actually being at a site watching what’s going on for weeks or months. This fieldwork took over a year to set up and several years to conduct. I began the process in 2009 and it really got going in 2010; much of the fieldwork was done by 2012, but I went back to several sites off and on through 2017. Though the fieldwork took ages, what took by far the most time and energy was figuring out what book to write and finding a publisher who wanted to publish that book.

I had no idea at all how arduous it would be to produce a weird, unclassifiable book in the modern publishing context—so what follows is an attempt to describe the process I went through without meaning to imply that other books will face the same problems.

Books for university presses start as a proposal, not a full manuscript. I started writing the first version of the proposal in late 2012 and finished that in 2013. That went to four university presses over three years, with minor modifications between each press—none expressed much interest. (“We think this book, while about an interesting domain, will not be that interesting.”) With hindsight, the various v1 incarnations of the proposal were uninteresting because the book as I envisaged it then was a scholarly book addressed at an audience of sociologists and organizational theorists. It would have been a yawn.

Eventually, a friend introduced me to a different editor at a press to which I’d already sent the proposal. I was going to be in his city for a conference, so we met for lunch and talked about the project. His advice was to write it for a general audience and he seemed interested in that version of the book. I rewrote the proposal from the ground up and added a couple of sample framing chapters written for a general audience. That took six months.

Proposal v2 went out to two anonymous reviewers (again the normal process for university press books) and got good reviews. I realised at this point how important it is that the acquiring editor understands and supports the thrust of the proposed book, because s/he gets to choose the anonymous reviewers for the proposal. I got a provisional contract for the book by the end of 2017.

I went to LA for the first 3 months of 2018 to write drafts of the remaining chapters. One of the hardest things to do was sit down at the desk every morning at 5am and, taking a leaf out of Simenon’s book, write at least 1500 net words before allowing myself to open the door to the outside world. In practice, this meant writing about 4000 mostly junky words in a 4-6 hour stretch, then editing those words into something sensible the next morning before starting the day’s writing quota. The net after editing was usually 1500 relatively acceptable words. Trying to generate more than 4000 words a day was not productive—some things just can’t be done (at least not by me).

I was incentivised to get each day’s writing quota done as quickly as possible because I’d lucked into an apartment a few blocks from the beach in Venice and just wanted to be outside in the sun, on the sand. I also knew only a handful of people in the city, and had (partly by design) only molasses-slow internet access and no car. All this meant I somehow I got a full draft done there by the water.

When I got back to the UK, I moved for the summer to Oxford where some friends were starting a bakery. There, continually distracted by cooking, I started working through structural edits. This was more irritating and tedious than writing the draft and took the rest of the year. Meanwhile, I was seeking permissions from the sites involved in the book to name them. (My original research agreements promised pseudonymization in publication.) This turned out to be slower than expected and problematic in unexpected ways. For that and other regrettable reasons, I went in search of another publisher at the end of 2018.

Once more into the morass, this time with a full manuscript and some introductions from friends and mentors. I also got advice to look for an agent to represent the book to trade presses. Every agent I spoke to (five total) told me that the book would not have a broad enough appeal and a clear enough identity to make sense for a trade press. This was frustrating to hear, but makes a lot of sense from what I’ve learned about the bookselling business since. Books that straddle categories (e.g. management and cooking) are hard to place in bookstores and defy what seems to be a highly compartmentalized way of thinking about topics.

Columbia came through with a contract in mid-2019. Their process for getting approval for the full manuscript had been accelerated by going back to the same reviewers the previous publisher had used. But the pseudonymization and inclusion problems remained—this prevented the reviewer-approved manuscript from going into production because it raised the harrowing prospect of having to rewrite more than half the manuscript to eliminate one of the sites completely. 😱

I eventually got two legal opinions about the agreements under which the field research had been conducted. Finally, at the end of 2019, I managed to get all the sites signed off on the manuscript draft and on being named or included under a pseudonym.

After those storm in a teacup tribulations, there were a few months of intense tedium (copyediting, indexing, proofreading, making the cover, etc) before the manuscript left my hands entirely in March 2020, to eventually appear as books in a box on the stairwell last Saturday.

In 2012, had I known what a huge pain writing this book would be or how much help I’d need from friends and total strangers, I wouldn’t have written that first proposal—good thing I hadn’t a clue back then.

Inmensa nostalgia invade mi pensamiento.

Photos in this issue: Bellevue (2012, at Intellectual Ventures), Chicago (2017), Playa del Rey (2018), Venice (2018), Oxford (2018), New York (2019), London (2019), London (2019; photo by Jimmy Tassan Toffola).

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Find me on the web at www.vaughntan.org, on Twitter @vaughn_tan, on Instagram @vaughn.tan, or by email at <uncertaintymindset@vaughntan.org>.