Interview with David Maister

You left a prestigious academic post at Harvard Business School to become an independent consultant, author and speaker, which suggests you have a great passion for your work. Is it possible to teach passion to businessmen, or do you find yourself telling some clients that they're in the wrong business?

No, I don't believe that you can "teach passion." However, you can get people thinking about their work lives, whether they are fulfilled by their careers, and whether they want to do anything about it. I would very rarely tell someone they are in the wrong business - revolutionary changes are not what most people need. They just need to believe that life could be better, and that they can do something about it. (I write about my own career choices in my latest book, STRATEGY AND THE FAT SMOKER.) In many ways, it's like sports coaching - you don't say "Here's the world record, go!" Big changes like that intimidate rather than motivate. Instead, you ask "What's the one improvement you could make that would make things better?" Like all diet and exercise programs, it's about the rules of the journey, not setting ridiculously ambitious targets.

In addition to consulting, lecturing and writing books, you publish podcasts, videocasts, DVDs and subscriptions. As a businessman, do you see all of these outlets as potential revenue sources, or are some of them chiefly intended to enhance your platform?

My activities on the internet have all been a big experiment. I'm very glad I have done them, but I have found that it's very hard, indeed, to monetize things like blogs, podcasts and vidoecasts. They are mostly things which serve to build a reputation for my consulting and speaking services, which is pretty much my dominant (if not quite exclusive) revenue stream. Over the years, I've made some good royalties on my books, but it's always been a very, very minor portion of my income. My books are, in effect, also reputation-building tools, not stand-alone money-makers.

You published your latest book, "Strategy and the Fat Smoker," through your own press, rather than giving it to a trade publisher. What motivated you to make the transition to self publishing?

Like many of my friends and colleagues, I have been disappointed over the years at dealing with publishers. Basically, it's hard to see what added value they provide. Even if they publish your book, it's up to you to market your own book and hire your own PR people (if any). In the old days, they provided a convenient way to get things like typesetting, design and editing done, but even these tended to be done in a cursory way. I know of no-one who has been very happy with what was done on their behalf. Nowadays, of course, all of these services are obtainable easily, so you don't have to do a "package deal" with the publisher.

It's still true that the "supply chain" of book distribution is designed around the large publishers. For example, while you can get a self-published book listed on Amazon, it's very hard to get one into the retail chains or the airport bookstores. In addition, it's hard (though not impossible) to get the media to take seriously and review a self-published book. I made it happen through a great PR guy (Mark Fortier at Fortier Public Relations) but it was a lot of work.

Do you see yourself continuing to publish your own books in the future, or did you find the extra work and up-front expenses a poor trade-off for full control of the process and the publisher's share of the profit?

The jury is still out. Both sides of your question are true - it WAS a lot of administrative detail and hard work taking responsibility for the book production and distribution, but it also DID feel good to be able to make all my own decisions. Right now, I'm in the "post-partum" stage, so the thought of another book is the last thing on my mind.

If I thought I could find a publisher who'd really get behind my books, I'd switch back in a minute. But I'm not holding my breath!

David Maister is widely acknowledged as one of the world's leading authorities on the management of professional service firms. For twenty-five years he has advised firms in a broad spectrum of professions, covering all strategic and managerial issues. His first book on professional businesses, Managing the Professional Service Firm, was published in 1993, followed by True Professionalism, The Trusted Advisor, Practice What You Preach , First Among Equals and Strategy and the Fat Smoker. His books are currently available in 14 languages.

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