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Being the Bear

The first time I saw Joel Sartore’s now-famous 1999 photo, my mouth was as wide as the bear’s. Almost as great as the image is the story behind it. 

©Joel Sartore/National Geographic Image Collection

While the other bears were splashing wildly around the river trying to grab fish as they swam by, this one old bear just stood patiently in a spot with its mouth open. The old bear enjoyed an entrée in all meanings of the word, gaining both dinner and a place on National Geographic’s list of iconic photographs.  The image was beyond a metaphor, it was an inspiration.  I wanted to be that bear.  How could I get fish to jump into my mouth in business?

Beyond all the lore, lures and lies

The act of fishing basically involves separating the fish from the water.  Fishing is filtering.  In most cases, you have a lot of water and not many fish, so it’s hard to catch dinner.  But somehow Professor Bear figured out how to get the fish to separate itself from the water.  Wow.

Being the bear means thinking like a fish.  Since a fish can’t swim up a waterfall, it has to jump.  To generate the force necessary to jump up a waterfall, the fish takes advantage of the up current formed by the falling water as it lands[1].  The stronger the current, the higher the jump.  But rivers are irregular, and the varying terrain creates certain spots where these currents are strongest while at the same time blocking other paths.  In other words, the fish has little choice but to launch from only a few select locations.  A wise old bear seeing the appetizers and soup leaping from the same spot can assume that the main course will be airborne soon.

Anticipating the moves of your target works in business as well.

Years ago, I made the mistake of buying a digital press, basically a 20-foot long photocopy machine that made black-and-white books.  At the time my company was buying so many books that we could justify owning our own press.  The problem with the machine was that it was so fast that we finished a month’s work in five days, leaving the press idle the other 25.  My CFO suggested that we sell printing services.

The printing market was a mess. 

There was so much excess capacity in the industry that wholesale prices were below our cost.  But we could not be a retail printer, because we only had the ability to make paperback books. Our only hope was to sell retail printing services to people who wanted small runs of books.

The question was how to promote our service.  General advertising would not work, because the number of people writing books at any given time is tiny.  This would be like fishing by dragging a net up the Indonesian coast.  For every fish in the net there would also be a ton of discarded plastic.  We needed to find a place where only authors congregated. 

We tried advertising on websites for self-published authors, but that was like making eye-contact in an asylum.  Most self-published authors are nuts. They love to talk about their book, but surprisingly few of them actually ever get around to writing it. All these authors who were “just about” to finish their book would have us quote jobs, send us some unformatted and incomplete Word files, and then sink back into the brackish murk. We had busyness, but no business.

While we groped around the printing market, my office became an arsonist’s dream.  Teetering towers of unfinished manuscripts covered my conference table like abandoned Jenga games, while over in the corner was a pile of books that was just begging for a match and some marshmallows.  I was staring at this pile when I saw a fish jump. 

On the back of every book there is a barcode called an International Standard Book Number (ISBN). Every book needs an ISBN and there is only one source for obtaining them.  Getting an ISBN is a pain in the neck that every author postpones until they are ready to print.  But since they can’t print the book without the ISBN, we know that any book without one has not been printed yet.  In other words, the only people who buy ISBNs are people who are just about to print a book. Waterfall identified.

A company called Bowker handles every US ISBN and is happy to sell a list of the last month or year of new registrants.  But to my amazement, they didn’t sell the product I wanted: a daily feed of new ISBNs.  It took me several months to negotiate, but eventually my company became the only entity in the country to receive a list of every ISBN registered the previous day.  I wanted the fish that were still airborne. 

Once I had this daily list, our pitch was as easy as standing in a river with our mouth open.  It began with a voicemail message:

Hi, Ms. Smith, my name is Jim and I want to talk to you about your new book.  Call me at…”  

This had something like an 80% response rate. 

And the first thing they asked was always some variant of, “How did you know I was writing a book?

It’s my job to know.  I help self-published authors save thousands of dollars by using short-run digital printing.

Most self-published authors make the mistake of running 1000 or more copies of a book that not even their relatives will read.  People would squander their savings and deforest Canada all to get the per-copy price down.  It was easy to demonstrate how a run of 50 books that cost 90% less was a good way to start. 


Our press was eventually so busy that we had to purchase three more and move to more forklift-friendly offices.  We ran the presses so much that their parts would literally melt.  A team from Japan flew to St. Louis just to witness firsthand how we were destroying their machines with our booming business. 

The business was profitable and hilarious.  The best self-published authors are ones who have been rejected by the legitimate publishing houses.  But for every one of these who at least tried and failed, there were dozens who failed to try.  Nobody edited or proofread, and I think some of them even turned off spell-checking.  Some of the books were so bad that they were actually fun to read.  I had one author whose manuscript was too short, so he just had us print two copies and bind them together. 

Each of our sales reps developed his or her subspecialty. Jill had a way with the sexual deviants, while I focused on conspiracy theorists and self-helpers. We gave all the religious authors to Bill who could both quote scripture and get them to prepay, since they often sought divine intervention against our invoices. The fact that our author population seemed to be weirder than normal folks was almost a case of adverse selection.  Sometimes trying to be the bear attracts a less desirable school of fish. 

For instance, back in Engineering School, there were four guys for every girl.  Realizing this, a young lady seeking a boyfriend might consider hanging around the engineering campus.  The problem with this strategy is that we male engineers were a quirky bunch. We didn’t dress that well, or care.  Many of us had trouble making eye-contact with girls and at least two of my classmates walked without using their elbows. As one of my female classmates put it, “the odds are good, but the goods are odd.”

Still, I think it is always worth trying to be the bear, especially with a new product.  What is it about your market that everyone has to do?  What do your potential customers have in common?

If the fish all have to jump from the same place, it’s dinnertime.