To mis-quote the opening line of GoodFellas, as far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a pirate, which partly explains the fact that I’ve just published a book called Be More Pirate. But it’s also been the ethos of the last twenty years of my entrepreneurial life, and the principle with which I’ve made and marketed this, my first book.
Throughout the entire process I’ve harnessed pirate principles of rewriting rules, and seeing as we all know a book is judged by its cover, then that’s probably a good place to start the story. No book title, no author name, just a stolen Steve Jobs quote and a very hot pink skull.
It wasn’t easy getting that approved, and I’ve learned a lot about some of the good and ‘less good’ habits of publishing along the way, but the power of Be More Pirate is to inspire a pirate state of mind, and that included the team at Penguin - who’ve embraced this exercise in rule breaking, in most excellent pirate fashion.
With a cover symbolising our commitment to doing things differently, we did justice to the message of the book; a manifesto for a new social contract to counter the disruption of the 21st Century, created in the spirit of 18th Century pirates
My confidence for being controversial came from the process. I spent the year of writing testing relentlessly in talks and workshops, from the streets of Baltimore to the city of Athens to the townships of South Africa. I worked with the generation that the book is aimed at to make sure it was as authentic as I hoped it would be effective. At the same time as staying connected to my audience, I also stayed connected to my publisher and heard again and again the drive for doing things differently, to try new techniques, to challenge the model and try out some new rules.
So, to raise a rebel pirate flag over the launch that would do justice to the call to arms the book had become, I donned a high-vis jacket, waved around a clipboard in an official manner and installed a fluorescent advertising billboard for Be More Pirate on the front of my publisher’s head office, despite having no official budget or permission to do so.
Luckily I got away with it, just. After an initial (worrying) silence, social media buzz translated into real support culminating in Richard Branson personally tweeting his congratulations. The book broke the top 100 and Tom Weldon - who I’d hoodwinked into paying for the bus-sized fly poster I’d stuck on his office - emailed his congratulations.
But, and as Tom would say, it’s about long term, not launch, and the first wave of marketing activity is also in play, also long term and as you’d expect by now, breaking conventions along the way. From prioritising podcasts over traditional media, to a groundbreaking collaboration with Blinkist, to long term partnerships with social media influencers, through to a micro targeted campaign on Linkedin… Everything we’re testing, experimenting and exploring is about doing things differently.
You see, I believe in in this book, I believe in its principles, I believe in its manifesto, and I believe we need some new rules when it comes to doing things differently.
I think we are all beginning to realise that the idea that Technology Will Save Us from this mess we’re in is looking increasingly undercooked and oversold. Incomes fall and inequality rises. The march of the machines threatens mass redundancy, and a backdrop of almost guaranteed ecological disaster can’t seem to wean us off our addiction to consumerism. No one is coming to save us. Take one look at our current leadership, and the alternative, and tell me you disagree. The leadership we need now is within. We have to decide whether we’re part of the problem or part of the solution. And when I say we, I mean you.
Because you as an industry hold so much responsibility for shining a spotlight on new ideas, and bringing new ideas to, and from, new audiences, voices and communities.
Like so much of the hangover of 20th century business models, there’s a lot of questions to be asked about growth for growth sake, what are the new rules for publishing that when the currency of ideas is more important than sales?
That’s why I wanted to talk about rule-breaking, that’s why I wanted to write this book. Because I think the question is upon us all, history tells us time and again that yesterday’s rebels and rule-breakers become today’s heroes and tomorrow’s legends. At the same time, history views dimly those who followed orders and played by the rules. For people living in historic times, do you feel confident that you will do what’s required when it’s your time right to NOT do what you’re told? Will you flinch when it’s the responsible thing to break the rules and risk everything?
And that’s why I want to talk about pirates. What’s so profound and potent about the 18th Century millennials aka the Golden Age Pirates, is that they didn’t just break rules in purposeless anarchy, they fundamentally rewrote them. They didn’t just reject a society, the re-imagined it; and they didn’t just challenge the status quo, they changed everyfuckingthing.
I know most of us have a mental image of pirates usually informed by Hollywood, but I’d argue that the troublesome true history of pirates, suppressed at the time by the Establishment they threatened, puts them alongside the working class heroes like the Levellers or perhaps even pioneers of civil rights like the Suffragettes in their fight for fairness and equality. Bold claims I know, but I think it’s time to look further back for our lessons. We’re increasingly too wedded to unproven short-term models. For all the unicorns galloping out of Silicon Valley, there’s a lot of horse shit behind the scenes.
And so far it’s working, not only have sales been promising, but more importantly, I’ve lost track of the number of the rebellious responses I’ve received so far, from the resignations it’s triggered to a young woman who is using pirate principles to run a massive campaign to get her friend released from illegal detention by the Home Office. This book has touched a nerve, because deep down I think we all know the biggest mistake we could make is assuming that the way things have always been is the way they still have to be.
Considering how many times I’ve challenged them over the last 18 months, it may sound counter-intuitive, but I wouldn’t be doing this, or indeed have signed with Penguin, if I didn’t respect them so much. Amidst an industry facing great disruption they’ve held course and not lost sight of their historic values, those of Allen Lane who wanted ideas in the hands of the people and found radical ways to make that happen. His inspiration is one of the reasons Be More Pirate was kept as accessible as possible, as a paperback from launch. And it’s not over yet, in fact we’re just getting started, but I can’t give away what’s yet to come over the rest of the year. For one thing, I haven’t got permission for most of it.