Making a Business Book Pay Off
So you want to write a business book—fantastic. Business books remain a popular marketing tool for many companies and professionals, especially those involved in the business of dispensing advice (such as consultants, accountants and attorneys). And for good reason: A book provides an outlet by which professionals can communicate their insights and expertise, and the possibility of becoming a best-selling author can be enticing. Furthermore, having a book as one’s calling card conveys credibility and authority, and instantly sets apart the author and his or her firm from competitors—thus helping to influence prospects and sell more work.
However, despite good intentions, many authors and their firms severely underestimate what it takes to produce a book that generates substantial market impact. First there’s the issue of time. Paid advisors—whether they are management consultants, auditors, lawyers or accountants—are busy people and are expected to spend their work hours generating and delivering client work. Therefore, much of the work on a book must be done in the author’s spare time. Then there’s the effort required. Few people are so gifted that they can write a compelling book simply by sitting down and “putting pen to paper.” A successful book requires extensive research, rigorous analysis of data, and cogent writing. The investment can be substantial.
The point is that books can generate significant awareness of authors and their firms, and a really good book can easily recoup its often-hefty investment many times over in both tangible and intangible ways. On the other hand, poorly executed books—which, unfortunately, are all too common—can squander a firm’s time and money and sometimes even tarnish the reputation of the author and the firm itself.
Based on our experience developing and ghostwriting books, and our observations of others who have done so, we offer four keys to producing a business book that engages readers, provides solutions to a pressing business problem and, most important, generates a lot of business for the firm that authors it.
#1: The Book Comes Last, Not First
Ironically, some of the most successful business books didn’t begin life as books. Rather, the book was simply the culmination of a long series of investments in research, analysis, consulting, and marketing on a topic. By the time the book-writing began, the ideas that formed the basis of the book had already been well-developed and familiar to potential book buyers. This might seem like a minor point but it’s not. Many business books are “rush jobs” launched to capture a new market (such as the current darling, the Internet of Things). In these books, examples are few and superficial (they often are based on newspaper and magazine clippings). Not incidental is the fact that such books also can be painful to develop because the authors have little to draw on and end up having to “make it up as they go.” Prescriptions are predictable, generic and unproven, and the core elements of the book rarely go beyond the conceptual.
The problem with books such as these is that their development was totally backwards. Rather than asking, “What book can we quickly write to grab a stake in a new market?”, the authors should have first asked “What topic do we already have some expertise in and experience with today, and how can we take it to market while further developing our ideas through best-practice and other research and eventually write a book?”
When a book is developed in this way, it will have much greater impact because the ideas are more likely to be novel, robust, and backed with rich, compelling examples.
To illustrate, let’s go back to the mid-1990s and Reengineering the Corporation, one of the most successful business books of all time. The authors, Michael Hammer and James Champy, didn’t set out to write the book when their two companies launched a research program on the management of information technology. It was only after several years of best-practice research across a number of studies, developing a reengineering approach, and gaining reengineering experience through consulting work, that they began to write the book.
The book, of course, was a runaway success: Reengineering sold millions of copies worldwide, catapulted Champy’s heretofore small and unknown firm, CSC Index, into consulting’s “big leagues,” and made reengineering a household word. Since then, firms around the world have generated untold hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue in “reengineering” consulting projects.
#2: The Battle Is Won or Lost in the Content
While many factors contribute to the success of a book, what really distinguishes a successful book from a mediocre performer is strong, compelling content. And that takes time to develop. It requires data that supports the relevance of the topic (the “case for action”) and the validity of the authors’ prescriptions (rich case studies). It demands that this data be thoroughly analyzed, and that analysis shaped the argument and not the opposite (which we’ve all too often seen). This research and analysis, which must be done before any actual writing takes place, can take a minimum of six months and sometimes more. One book we’ve worked on recently began with more than a year’s worth of research that informed the book’s central thesis and frameworks—including interviews with dozens of executives, in-depth case studies on more than 100 companies, mining of current and past related consulting projects, and intensive secondary research. This was followed by several more months of analysis before we (the writers) were brought in to begin the development of the actual book.
Contrast this with the way many business books are developed and written. A firm sees an emerging market it wants to penetrate and decides having a book is the best way to do so. With nothing more than a title and a page of bullet points in hand, the firm brings in a ghostwriter to sit down with the authors and “capture” their thinking. The authors have been pondering the topic, perhaps have collected some articles, and maybe pitched some related work or even completed a project or two. Because their ideas are nascent and examples few, there isn’t much for the ghostwriter to capture. Pulling enough material out of the authors to fill an entire book is painful: Draft after draft is generated, with each only incrementally better than the former. If the ghostwriter is good enough, he can help pad the copy with content he can find on his own through some concerted web searching or co-opting relevant content from other documents the firm has published. Somehow, it all comes together in the end, but the product is inferior to what could have been produced had the firm approached it in the right way. And the market’s acceptance of the book reflects that.
The problem is this: Even the best ghostwriters will only be able to wallpaper over ideas whose walls are cracked or crumbling. The best prose in the world simply can’t hide fundamentals flaws in the logic and argument that form the basis of any good book, business or otherwise.
But how does an author know if his content is strong enough and ready for the writer? One good way to find out is to critique the material on seven key criteria:
- Novelty—Is it unique and does it break new ground?
- Focus—Does it have a single, fundamental message?
- Relevance—Does it meet a critical business need?
- Validity—Do you have the data to prove your ideas “work”?
- Practicality—Does it demonstrate an approach that can be implemented?
- Rigor—Does it have tight, consistent logic throughout?
- Clarity—Does it use words and concepts that are clear and concise?
If the content meets these tests, it’s time to bring in the writer, whose first order of business is to help the authors determine how to take the theme, analysis, and examples and organize them into a book. He will develop the overall architecture of the book—how the theme progresses from chapter to chapter.
Once the book’s architecture is set, the writer will develop detailed outlines for each chapter that put all arguments and supporting data in their place. This is arguably the most critical point in the book’s development. If a detailed outline cannot be created for the book—and “detailed” means 50 pages or more—then there’s probably not enough content yet for a book.
The outline is critical for another reason: It’s the primary tool for extracting the authors’ ideas and putting them on paper. The writer will use the outline to guide conversations with the authors, and subsequently shape the transcript of that discussion into prose. But these sessions will only be productive if the authors are prepared to discuss the outline at the right level of detail—which, in our experience, isn’t always the case.
Two recent books we’ve worked on provide a night-and-day comparison. In the case of one book, each chapter was supported by a detailed outline backed by deep research and thinking. Because the outline had been prepared well in advance of his discussion with the writer, the author had time to reflect on the topic and think through what he wanted to say. As a result, conversations between the author and writer were detailed, comprehensive and highly productive, giving the writer plenty of meat to work with to shape and build out each chapter. The development of chapter drafts moved quickly—in fact, we were able to write the first draft of the entire book in about three months.
With the second book, chapter outlines were sparse and, in some cases, the authors were only vaguely aware of what they wanted to say (or even how their chapter related to others in the book). In a few cases, a chapter “outline” was all of five bullet points or, at best, a short high-level PowerPoint deck that had been used in a sales presentation to a prospective client. Not surprisingly, chapter-development sessions were typically long and difficult, often requiring multiple interviews to generate sufficient content, plenty of frantic searching by the writer to find additional content, and more than a few drafts of each chapter.
#3: Marketing Should Begin Long Before the Book Is Published
One of the most important things we’ve learned about book writing is that a book should never be the first publication a firm uses to get its message to market. Early in the research and analysis of the content, the firm should write and place articles, give presentations, and deliver the content in other ways to “prime the market” for the book.
Assume, for a moment, a firm’s idea has a 12-month research and development cycle (which is not uncommon). By month six, the firm should have done enough case study and/or survey research, and have sufficient relevant client work to draw upon, to deliver compelling conference presentations on the idea and pen a strong article or white paper for its own publication or an outside one. Such a document can serve as a microcosm of the book, enabling the firm to confirm the structure, flow and argument it intends to use in the book. The sections of the paper effectively serve as proxies for the book’s chapters.
If a survey is part of the research (something that should be done in the early months of the project), the firm should publicize the survey results when they become available. Surveys of executives can be an excellent tool to help make the case for the relevance of a firm’s idea. Finding out that a particular business problem is plaguing a great number of companies, at a great cost, can be the data necessary to make the case that there’s a fundamental business issue in the first place. Such data also is very newsworthy to business media which, by running stories on the survey results, will give the book considerable (and free) advance publicity.
Thus, over those 12 months of R&D on a concept, a firm has many chances to get various aspects of its concept to the marketplace (Figure 1). By the time the book-writing has begun, and the book is published, the marketplace will be familiar with the firm’s concept. If they’ve been intrigued with what they’ve read or heard already, they will want more. That means the book is far more likely to hit a receptive market.
#4: Post-Publication Marketing Should Not Be Left to the Publisher
Once the book is published, the firm should work collaboratively with the publisher’s PR people to promote it aggressively. Typically, publishers will get the book to reviewers, search for serial rights (book excerpts in magazines and newspapers), and set up some journalist and broadcast interviews. To promote a book well, however, the firm should set up press interviews with reporters not covered by the publisher’s PR people. These are often smaller, second-tier publications whose audiences generally will be more interested in the topic than readers of broader business publications.
Furthermore, the firm’s PR staff, in tandem with the ghostwriter who worked on the book, should develop, write and place op-eds in key business publications and business sections of general newspapers to generate buzz. In our experience, few book publishers will help write or place those articles. The firm also should aggressively promote the book through presentations at conferences and via all relevant digital channels (including a website dedicated to the book and its concepts).
The best way to view the division of labor between the publisher and the authoring firm is this: the former is responsible for promoting the product (i.e., the book itself), while the latter must promote the concept. One of the reasons that Reengineering became a phenomenon is that the authors and their firms tirelessly and effectively promoted the concept to business audiences. No one can say for sure, but without such an effort behind it, Reengineering probably would be viewed today as simply a well-researched and well-written book instead of the blockbuster that it became.
A book is one of the most expensive, time-consuming, and highest-risk marketing initiatives that a company can undertake. The payoff can be huge, but only if the project is approached correctly. Firms that research and develop their book ideas thoroughly, understand when and how to use a good ghostwriter, and aggressively market the book’s ideas before and after the book is published are much more likely to see a strong return on their investment.