Friday, July 11, 2008

Current Projects III: ghost-writing non-fiction book

So there's this guy, see. His name is Bob Krim. He's a history professor, specializing I guess in economic history, and he co-founded a local non-profit call the Boston History & Innovation Collaborative (BHIC). The purpose of the organization is to research Boston's 400-year history of innovation as a tool to help build tourism as well as provide local business and civic leaders with models of how to succeed in the innovation economy. So after a bunch of years of research, the BHIC put out a 60-page research report called Innovate Boston!, in which dozens of case studies of both social and technological innovation are explored within nine distinct eras of Boston's history.

That's all well and good. But now Bob decided he wants to reach a larger audience and tell a more complete story. His idea is to expand the research report into a 250-page book aimed at a national and international business readership. The angle is that the research reveals there were four times when Boston was on the brink of economic ruin, yet managed to rebound and redirect its economy through remarkable innovations. The book, then, will provide a lesson into how to achieve growth in the midst of a downturn. In each period, there were five chief drivers of innovation: entrepreneurship, local network, local funding, local demand, and national demand. The "special sauce" connecting these elements is what Bob calls the "bump and connect" - people coming together to share ideas, learn, challenge each other, and collaborate to make new things happen.

His working title for the book was How Boston Failed. I came up with something a little more positive and descriptive: Innovation at the Brink. We're still working out the subtitle. How I became involved is that Bob knows a guy in the publishing business, John, who knows my boss, Neal. Bob asked John if he knew a writer who'd be willing to ghost-write the book for him. John told Bob to ask Neal. Neal wasn't interested/didn't have the time, but asked me if I was interested. Indeed I was. So Neal told John to tell Bob that I was game. Bob and Neal and I met for breakfast one morning, a proposal went back and forth until terms were agreed upon, and my work began. This, by the way, is the essence of how bump and connect works.

I was given copies of the research report, some early treatments of the book proposal and sample chapters, and all the cases. Piled on top of each other, it's about two feet of material I had to pore through, master, conceptualize, and spit out in language that was less academic and more compelling than the source material I was working from. My initial deliverable was one sample chapter, an introduction that explained about the research driving the book concept, and synopses of the various chapters.

Each synopsis is about a page long, but here are short descriptions of the chapters:
  • Era 1: 1630-1730 – The founding of Boston and the emergence of a farm- and land-based economy, which faltered in the 1640s as a result of the English civil war. A shift in fortunes occurred with the growth of the salt cod trade with the West Indies.
  • Era 2: 1750-1850 – The rise to prominence of Boston’s port and maritime prowess, as trade with British-controlled ports is prohibited in the wake of the American Revolution. This led to the Northwest China Trade and the advent of the Clipper Ship era.
  • Era 3: 1810-1900 – The development of a domestic manufacturing industry, led by a group of innovators creating new forms of technology and financing, and founding new mill towns like Waltham, Lowell, and Lawrence that gave birth to the American Industrial Revolution. These innovations kept Boston moving forward after the maritime economy sank by 1857.
  • Era 4: 1920-2000 – The Technological Revolution, which began with local innovators from industry and from the local hospitals and universities, and led to the growth of such powerhouses as DEC, Wang, and Polaroid. Boston led the way in computers, lost the lead to Silicon Valley, then came back stronger and more diverse in the late 1990s. From the ashes of those powerhouses grew the dot com boom and the biotech industry.
The sample chapter I wrote was for Chapter 2, currently titled, "Port Story: Boston Rides Wave of Innovation." It's gone through four drafts and now it's just about ready for a July 30 meeting with someone who, if the stars are aligned, will be interested in publishing the book, paying us an advance, and enabling me to finally tell my kids their Dad is a published author.

This is already probably more information than Bob would want me to share, so I'll refrain from printing an excerpt of the chapter. Suffice to say, if and when we get the green light to produce the rest of the book, I'll let you know.

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