The agony and the ecstasy of a Thomas L. Friedman column about your book

Yesterday was an exciting day for me. I got to experience the highs and lows of a book launch within half an hour — and learn what a truly committed publisher will do for you.

I spent much of the last two years working with the CEO of [24]7.ai, P.V. Kannan, on a book on artificial intelligence. The book is called “The Age of Intent: Using Artificial Intelligence to Deliver a Superior Customer Experience” and the official publication date is May 28. The book is at the printer now, and we’re well into the period of ramping up the book promotion for the launch.

P.V. has an incredible asset that most authors could only dream about — he is friends with Thomas L. Friedman, the New York Times opinion columnist and author of the massive bestseller The Earth is Flat. Friedman has written about P.V. and [24]7.ai in that book, in other books, and in columns over the years.

When Friedman heard about P.V.’s book, he not only requested an advance copy, but end up writing a foreword for us. Most of the famous people you get to write a foreword will just glance at the book and write some self-serving stuff and most authors frankly don’t care — they just want to put that famous person’s name on the cover. But this was different. Thomas L. Friedman read the whole book and wrote a foreword that actually quoted it in detail and added a fascinating perspective. (I know, because I edited it. In case you’re wondering, his foreword was clear and nearly perfect in the first draft, all I needed to do was fix a few typos and add the Oxford commas back in — he is a newspaper guy, after all.)

We knew that it was likely that Friedman would also write a column about the book. Ask any author “What would you do if Thomas L. Friedman would write a column about your book?” and the answers would be things like “Drive from San Jose to New York to get him a hot cup of coffee” or “Babysit his children for a month.” Obviously there is no quid pro quo here — P.V. and Friedman are professional acquaintances — but all of us involved with the book were very excited about the possibility.

I gave the publishing and PR teams one piece of advice: get the Amazon page up as soon as you can. I knew that if and when Friedman wrote about the book, there’d be as surge of people going to Amazon, and we’d be incredibly stupid not to be ready for that. And sure enough, the Amazon page has been live for a few weeks now.

What happened this week

Late in the evening the day before yesterday, Thomas L. Friedman published a column titled “A.I. Still Needs H.I. (Human Intelligence), for Now.” It appeared in yesterday’s edition of the Times on page A25.

The column wasn’t about the book. But it was about Friedman’s visit to one of the centers for P.V.’s company, in Bangalore, and about how A.I is changing the world of customer service and outsourcing — very much the topics that the book covers. And halfway through the column is this passage:

It’s at that critical point that the human agent not only has to step in and answer the question that Aiva [the AI-powered virtual customer service agent] couldn’t, but also to “tag” the customer’s queries that stumped the bot and feed them to [24]7.ai’s data scientists, who then turn them into a new, deeper layer of artificial intelligence that enables Aiva to answer this more complex query the next time. (Kannan is about to publish a book on A.I. called “The Age of Intent.” )

Cue the confetti. Friedman has published a link to our book in The New York Times!

Even though this type of promotion is priceless, it didn’t go quite the way we had imagined it would. For one thing, the book isn’t on sale until May 28, three months from now. And for another, the column linked, not to the Amazon page, but to the publisher’s page for the book. And at that moment, the publisher’s page had a picture of the cover and said, in big letters, “Coming Soon.” And nothing else.

As soon as I spotted this, I knew we were losing sales every moment. People would click on the link, say “Huh, have to keep an eye out for this book,” and then forget about it. I noticed this at about 6:00 a.m yesterday in my hotel in Arlington, Virginia, and sent an urgent email to Naren Aryal, the cofounder and publisher of Mascot Books, which was our publisher under the imprint “Amplify.”

To be clear, I was not disappointed in Naren or Mascot. On this book and the previous one I worked on, Naren’s team had been extremely professional and responsive. There is no reason that the publisher should have its own book page fully populated three months before the book is out, when the publicity has yet to happen. It was obvious to me that the Amazon page was what we needed to be prepared; few people go to the publisher’s book page for a book they’ve never heard of before. But here we were, caught with our pants down.

By 6:30 am, Mascot had a fully populated page up on its site with, not only a button to preorder the book, but a link to Amazon. Naren called me to tell me they’d done it. I have no idea whether he did that himself or woke up some poor person in his organization, but somebody did what needed to be done very quickly that morning and got the page working well before most of the people reading Friedman’s column would be seeing it.

So, now let me answer two questions you may be asking.

First, why didn’t we ask Thomas L. Friedman to wait until later to publish his column, and to link to our Amazon page rather than the publisher’s page?

The answer is: this is The New York Freaking Times, and, as an independent media outlet, they do what they want.

You don’t tell Thomas L. Friedman and The New York Times to write about your book.

You don’t tell them what to write about it.

You don’t tell them when to write about it.

You don’t tell them to include a link.

You don’t tell them what to link to.

If they want to publish a column about you three months ahead of the publication date and link to the publisher’s page, you smile, thank your lucky stars, and deal with it. The value of an independent thinker like Thomas L. Friedman is that he writes what he wants, not what a publicist tells him to write. So no, we don’t get to tell him what to do or when to do it.

Second, why was the publisher so responsive?

Well, Mascot Books is a small and scrappy hybrid publisher. They’ve published hundreds of books, but are right now concentrating on business books, which is why the Amplify imprint exists. Because they are a hybrid publisher, you pay them to produce the book, instead of them paying you an advance.

I’ve gotten six-figure advances from large publishers on several of my other books. I doubt if any of them could have moved as fast as Naren and Mascot did.

The Thomas L. Friedman column is as big a deal for Mascot as it is for us. Naren is a hungry, scrappy businessman. He really wants this book to be a success. And we are his customer, which is not the case with a traditional publisher. (For traditional publishers, the bookstore is the customer.)

Naren and Mascot are the most author-oriented publisher I’ve ever dealt with, and they’ve followed through on that promise.

As you may be wondering, what happened with the book? Well here’s a picture of the Amazon page from last night:

That little orange banner means that our book is now the top new release in the Enterprise Applications category, three months before publication, and ranks in two other categories as well.

For this to take off, there has to be a lot more promotion in the days to come. But thanks to a New York Times columnist, a well-connected author, and a publisher willing to scramble around when most of us are still drinking our morning coffee, we didn’t fumble our first, best publicity opportunity.

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