“Reengineering Retail” author Doug Stephens on writing bestselling books
“The Retail Prophet” kicks off our 3 Questions series on writing & publishing nonfiction
Founder of the global advisory firm Retail Prophet, Doug Stephens is one of the world’s foremost retail industry futurists and thought leaders. A contributor to The New York Times, BBC, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal, he’s helped to shape the strategies of brands like IKEA, Walmart, Estée Lauder, BMW and Google.
Doug’s most recent book was 2017’s Reengineering Retail: The Future of Selling in a Post-Digital World. Published with Figure 1, it has sold 50,000 copies and been translated into five languages. He is currently at work on his next book, Resurrecting Retail, which explores the impacts and lessons that the Covid-19 pandemic has had for retailers, and the possible pathways ahead.
Thanks Doug for taking the time to participate in 3 Questions! As you know these questions are aimed at thought leaders and organizations who are considering a book, but don’t yet have any experience with the world of publishing. So with that in mind, off we go with…
Question 1: What is the biggest hurdle you had to overcome when writing your first book?
The biggest hurdle for me is always that of figuring out exactly what the big “aha” is in a book. What counterintuitive insight or revelation can the reader take away from reading it? How does it change current thinking in the industry etc.?
Anyone can plop a bunch of facts, figures and phenomena onto a page but what the reader needs is a sense of what it all adds up to. That’s the tougher part but the one that separates a good book from a great book.
Question 2: Reengineering Retail continues to be a bestseller. How have you learned to focus the subjects of your books so that readers respond to them?
I’m a big believer in the idea that humans are a story-based species. We learn through stories because storytelling is in our DNA. It’s the way we learn and have always learned. So when I approach a new book, I ask myself what the beginning-to-end story is that I’m trying to tell.
The research, the facts, and theories are all vital elements for any business author, but ultimately what humans internalize and remember is the story arc and whatever moral, so to speak, or key insights it contains.
I also think that the role of a nonfiction author is to make complex concepts simple for a reader to understand. I know that sounds obvious, but I’ve read books that actually do the opposite, making simple concepts sound complex. I admire great vocabularies and poetic writing styles, but they can also be obstacles to getting your point across. If the reader can’t understand your point, it doesn’t matter how profound your writing is.
And lastly, I’ve found that it’s vital to appeal to the reader’s emotions. To paraphrase Maya Angelou, long after they forget the details of what you wrote, they’ll remember how you made them feel. So, while being true to yourself, it’s important to build in emotional highs, lows, inspiration and your unique sense of humour.
Question 3: What is one piece of advice you would give anyone who is thinking about writing a book about their work and ideas?
For me, writing has been and continues to be a bit like childbirth: a long, often painful process with a rewarding outcome. Writing is not something that comes easily or effortlessly to me. I’m not one of these prolific writers that can just sit down and let their brain flow out onto a page.
I’ve found that a great way for me to approach a book is in smaller pieces by keeping an active blog. A blog gives you the ability to publish bite-sized ideas to your audience that you can then refine, test and rework if necessary.
It’s a great means of gauging what ideas, concepts or stories really resonate and which fall flat. If each week you’re putting a new piece out that extends the story or narrative, soon you’ll have the spinal column of your book.
From there you can begin to assemble and arrange your ideas into a book framework, and expand the scope of your research— and what began as a collection of articles starts taking shape into a finished and cohesive work.
Find out more about Doug’s work at www.retailprophet.com.
Figure 1 publishes books by leading thinkers in the areas of business, science, social movements and the environment. We also publish gorgeous illustrated books on art, architecture, design and food. Check out our books and learn more about our approach to custom publishing at www.figure1publishing.com.