Archive for September, 2011

Breaking the Rules to Create a Bestseller

Point: Rule-breaking products may require business model innovations.

Story: At BIF7, Alex Osterwalder told his story of breaking the rules when creating his book, Business Model Generation, now an international bestseller. Creating this book meant taking a lot of risks.

The current business model for business books is broken, Osterwalder said. There are too many books and too few readers. Every year, another 11,000 new business books pile on top the 250,000-space of competing titles. The average book sells only 250 copies per year. Worse, book sales are declining: a 12% drop from 2007 to 2009. If Osterwalder wanted to create a book on business models that people would love to buy,  he would need to innovate the business model for business book production and sales.

From the start, Osterwalder asked people what they hated about current business books. People said existing books were too fat with turgid prose but at the same time too light on substance. Second, people found the books impractical because they lacked useful “Monday morning” actions items. Finally, the books were too text-heavy, missing the richer, reinforcing learning experience of a text-and-graphics combination.

To address these problems, Osterwalder envisioned something more like a coffee-table book akin to architecture books, being simultaneously informative and beautiful.

Osterwalder also faced a business problem: no book publisher wanted to break the rules of traditional business books to publish his book. At the time, Osterwalder was an unknown author from Switzerland wanting to create a book with high production values, expensive color printing, and a very un-business-book approach. The only solution was self-publishing.

But, self-publishing wouldn’t be easy because Osterwalder had neither the cash, book production resources (editors, designers, etc.), marketing department, nor  distribution assets of a publishing house.

To solve the problem, Osterwalder recruited peers to co-create the book. Ultimately, 470 people contributed to the book in a wide variety of ways. People joined Osterwalder for early access to the ideas, to be part of something bigger, and for the stimulating collaborative process of working on the topic. Not only did this community of contributors help make the book, but they were also its best sales force.

To raise money, Osterwalder offered advanced sales under a “pay me now to reserve a copy” philosophy. Demand for the book proved higher than expected, so he raised the price from $24 to $36 to $54 to $81. And, just before publication, he offered a last-minute premium deal: for $250, the buyer would be listed in the book as a contributor who helped make it happen. For distribution, Osterwalder ultimately chose Fulfillment by Amazon.

The book quickly became a bestseller in business and in the top 100 of all books selling on Amazon. Osterwalder’s success in self-publishing attracted the attention of Wiley and other traditional publishers, who would never have taken a risk on Osterwalder’s book. “Once you’re successful, everyone wants in,” Osterwalder said. After tough negotiations, he signed with Wiley. To date, over 200,000 copies have sold and the book has been translated into 22 languages.


  • Listen to customers and partners to uncover why competitors fail.
  • Look for lateral inspiration; that is, look for out-of-category products that evidence desirable characteristics.
  • Pre-build customers through a co-creation community in advance of the product release.
  • Play with the pricing and offering to maximize revenues and volume.
  • Find service partners and community members to handle or support the critical secondary tasks of the business.

6 Comments »Case study, Innovation