People fight chaos with personal development

Tomáš Baránek

We are now trying to avoid books with any hint of quackery. And that makes selection all the harder, because quackery these days is not what it used to be – modern quackery hides behind a veil of research and scientific terminology.

One of the reasons why procrastination is now a household word in the Czech Republic is Petr Ludwig’s book The End of Procrastination. The book and the topic it deals with was, in turn, popularised by its publisher, Jan Melvil Publishing, which was co-founded by the Faculty of Informatics graduate Tomáš Baránek.

While Baránek has been a fan of computers since childhood, his fondness for them did not eventually lead to a career in IT. He worked for the Computer Press publishing house in its early days and ten years ago he started a publishing house that now specialises in well-regarded personal development books.

What is behind this boom in books that teach you how to be more productive or happier?

I think it’s a natural result of the chaos of our time, the information overload, and the changes in the way we work. While our grandfathers had one job for a lifetime, we can go through a number of them in our time, which results in chaos. And whenever there is chaos, there is also a need to remove it and establish order again. Our readers are people who feel this need more intensely and who believe that there are tools to help them achieve this. The trend for personal development books has been around for a long time, though – the first that became a hit was Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. It gained momentum in the second half of the 20th century, probably due to a combination of various forces – a stronger focus on individualism, the pressure to perform, and a desire to live your life the way you want.

Have we reached the peak yet?

You can’t expect me to say that we have reached the peak. I don’t think we have. It’s more about the changes both on the market and among the readers. On the one hand, there are a large number of younger readers who are just reaching productive age and discovering the possibilities of personal development. Many of the previously published books are new to them, so their sales still haven’t peaked. I can understand that readers who have been reading this genre for a long time may feel oversaturated, but we have the same problem. We deal with it by trying to choose books that bring us something new, even though we have been in the business for ten years. What we publish should still work both for the young generation and for those who have been working on themselves for a long time, because I think personal development is a never-ending process.

What is it like for you personally? Have you never felt that it is the same thing over and over again?

I avoid this by discovering new topics. We try to focus on what could be new trends and find topics that we haven’t covered before or do the opposite and go in-depth into an older topic. Our approach is even more evidence-based now, we are very cautious about whether the information in the book is well researched. While we always followed this rule, we didn’t use to be quite as strict at the start. Now we are trying to avoid books with any hint of quackery. And that makes selection all the harder, because quackery these days is not what it used to be – modern quackery hides behind a veil of research and scientific terminology.

Do you sometimes feel that for some people, there is no point in reading these books, because they just keep collecting and reading them without ever putting anything into practice?

We published a book called Mindset where the author describes two groups of people with different mindsets: in her experience, people can be divided into those who see their abilities as fixed and those who think they can be changed and developed. The result of her research is that the first group, while able to achieve great success, tends to reach a point where they just get stuck. They don’t believe that they can go any further and therefore avoid any new challenges so as not to undermine their fundamental convictions.

The second group, on the other hand, sees failure as a chance to learn and improve, even if there is eventually a limit to that. When you see your abilities as something that can be developed, you are predisposed to be always happy and successful, because you can never be defeated – any defeat brings some new inspiration. It sounds awfully textbook, but it is something I want my children to understand.

"However, we think that e-books are still in their infancy and their current design is really unfortunate – it’s just a paper book in a different format."

What about the people who cannot put anything from the books they read into use?

I think that your mindset determines whether you can work on your personal development. There is a term in Japanese, tsundoku, which means buying a lot of books without reading them. It’s like when you buy a gym membership and then don’t actually go there. Psychologists are examining this phenomenon and they think that what happens is that after each such half-step, you already begin to feel like you are working on yourself, even though it’s nonsense – it is enough to satisfy you. However, I still think that these people have more hope than those who just do nothing. At least they believe that education can improve their lives.

You speak like a psychologist, even though you studied IT. How did that happen?

My dad is a mechanical engineer and my mum is an artist, so that’s probably at the bottom of it. As a kid, I created my own magazine and liked computers just like every little boy back then did. When I saw a really good computer for the first time just before the revolution in 1989, I was simply astonished. There was always some piece of electronics that I admired and, in my mind, even art was about technology. This dichotomy has always been present in my life. I also loved writing, both poems and prose. When I was in the second year of my IT studies, a friend of mine asked whether I would like to write articles about computers, and she hit the nail on the head.

Jan Melvil Publishing was one of the first to start offering e-books. What was that like at the beginning?

We were definitely no visionaries (laughing). We started publishing new books as e-books in 2011. The other publishing houses were afraid to do that, most of them only offered e-versions of older books, where they didn’t have much to lose. The idea was that if a book like that started spreading through pirate copies, they wouldn’t lose as much as if it was a new book. On the other hand, these books obviously didn’t sell very well. We had the courage to start publishing new books in both electronic and paper versions.

Now we are making the same move with audiobooks. We thought we would use the flexibility we have as a small company. We made a lot of mistakes in the beginning but within a year, our e-books started generating a small but steady income and we liked that. One of the issues with the normal book distribution process is that everything happens very slowly, which results in an unstable cash flow.

Things are easier with e-books. However, we think that e-books are still in their infancy and their current design is really unfortunate – it’s just a paper book in a different format. For us, e-books generate about 15% of our revenue, while for others it’s mostly between three and five per cent. This is because we try to view e-books as a service rather than a file and keep working on them. Right now, we are working on a system that would allow us to publish them ourselves. Otherwise, the market is quite stagnant.

That’s exactly right. What stands in the way of improvements and when are things going to change?

I think that e-book 2.0 or 3.0 will be something like Facebook. You can think of it as a book club where you discuss books with other people – this is going to be similar, just online. However, I have no idea when we can expect something like that. The technology is already there, but there are still issues with text sharing and other legal matters to resolve.

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