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Book Editors Alliance

Is Book Authorship For You?

A Guide for Business People and Others (Part One)

Once upon a time, the writing of memoirs was reserved mainly for notable statesmen, artists, and generals. Samuel L. Clemens, who was an entrepreneur as well as the author "Mark Twain," made a fortune publishing the memoirs of President Ulysses S. Grant, who turned out, surprisingly, to be no mean stylist.

Occasional business people have always written books, too. Alfred P. Sloan's MY YEARS AT GENERAL MOTORS (1963) is still considered a business classic, and generations of youngsters have been lured to Madison Avenue by David Ogilvy's urbane CONFESSIONS OF AN ADVERTISING MAN, published the same year. But the modern era of business books was launched by IACOCCA (1984), the mega-bestseller which made Lee Iacocca a sort of business folk hero and even prompted a short-lived presidential boomlet for him.


Today, executives of every stripe are authoring books, with mixed results. Some books by business people, like Bill Gates' THE ROAD AHEAD (1995) and Michael Eisner's WORK IN PROGRESS (1998), are bland and uninspiring (though their authors' fame may sell many copies). Others are unintentionally revealing. "Chainsaw Al" Dunlap's MEAN BUSINESS (1997) exposed its author's self-centered arrogance in a way that clearly foreshadowed the ignominous fall to come. The best business books combine a compelling personal story with valuable "takeaways"--lessons readers can apply to their own working lives. It's a recipe that describes such varied books as MOMENTS OF TRUTH by SAS chairman Jan Carlzon (1989), Jack Stack's THE GREAT GAME OF BUSINESS (1992), Andy Grove's ONLY THE PARANOID SURVIVE (1996), and Guy Kawaski's HOW TO DRIVE YOUR COMPETITION CRAZY (1996).


Why Write? If you're considering writing a book, start by deciding why you're interested. Understanding your own motives is important And they're not always obvious--even to you.


As a publisher, I once signed up one of the world's great real-estate moguls to work with a writer on an authorized biography. With the manuscript complete and the presses ready to roll, the mogul suddenly demanded that we not publish the book.


In consternation, I flew to his office in an effort to salvage the project, but he refused even to explain his decision until we'd been wrangling for an hour. A bit desperate, I urged the mogul to consider the value of the book as a legacy to future generations. He responded, "Oh, I know this book will be my legacy. In fact, the way I look at it, the minute this thing is published, I might just as well retire and die--my life's work is done!"


At last the mogul's feelings about the book were clear. It was also clear that his objection to publication was purely irrational. Heart in my throat, I announced, with all due respect, that we fully intended to publish the book--in effect, defying the mogul to sue us. Of course, he didn't sue--in fact, once the book had been safely published, and the mogul had not keeled over as a consequence, his firm bought several thousand copies of the book and proudly distributed them to clients and friends.


As this story suggests, authoring a book is a very personal process which will closely reflect some of your deepest dreams and desires. Before you embark on it, think hard about why you want to do it. Is the book your personal legacy? A creative outlet? A billboard for your philsophy? A place to settle scores? A potential career-enhancer? Books have served all these purposes, and more. But the experience of authoring a book will be more enjoyable and rewarding if you're clear on your goals from the outset.


Is Authorship for You?


The old saying has it that everyone has a book in him. Maybe so, but not everyone ought to let it out. If you want to write a book--and still more, if you plan to publish one--you ought to consider what makes for a saleable business book. Few business people, of course, can expect to write a best seller along the lines of IACOCCA, Peters and Waterman's IN SEARCH OF EXCELLENCE (1982), Hammer and Champy's REENGINEERING THE CORPORATION(1985), or Jack Welch's JACK (2001), but anyone who publishes a book wants to reach a significant audience. Your chances of doing so will be greatly influenced by your honest answers to the following questions.


Who Knows You?


It's very hard to sell a book by an unknown author. Fame within an industry doesn't mean that the general public knows or cares about your work. It's a bit absurd, but second-tier basketball players and one-hit pop music stars are better known than ninety percent of the top executives in business. (Just ask the editors at People, which sells a lot more copies than Fortune or Forbes.)


There are just a handful of business people today who can be considered household names: Bill Gates, Ted Turner, Donald Trump, Ross Perot, Jack Welch, and maybe a few more. Then there are business leaders who are superstars of the corporate world though little known by "average Americans": people like Warren Buffett, Lou Gerstner, Carly Fiorina, Phil Knight . . . you get the idea. All told, such business celebrities number a couple of dozen--no more.


If you're not on this elite list, finding a book publisher is apt to be an uphill battle. Of course, it'll help if the book is truly valuable and unique. Which leads to the second question to ask:


What Do You Have to Say?


I've been approached hundreds of times by would-be business authors who say, "I have a great story to tell--my own rags-to-riches tale of personal success." It's usually true--and that's precisely the problem. Millions have lived their own rags-to-riches stories. Without some truly unique twist, it'll be hard to win much of an audience for yet another.


The same rule applies if you hope to write a book of ideas--management secrets, for example. So much has been published about the familiar laws of success--serving the customer, striving for quality, offering a unique benefit, and so on--that only some idea that's truly different, and obviously so, is likely to break through the clutter. This is why management gurus like Tom Peters tend to "raise their voices," going out of their way to concoct titles that are zany or surprising (like THE PURSUIT OF WOW!).


When I was an editor at Times Business, we had success with HOPE IS NOT A METHOD (1996), a management guide by Gordon Sullivan and Michael Harper--neither one a famous name. Why? Sullivan was a four-star general, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, and the book applied the lessons he'd learned in redesigning the post-Cold War military to corporate reengineering. Fascinating--and unique.


How Frank Do You Want to Be?


In most businesses, tact is essential. It's rarely smart to be blunt in your public assessments of colleagues and competitors. After all, you never know when you may need their help


For the would-be author, tact is no virtue. Too many business books are tactful and therefore bland. The boardroom is a setting for high drama--intrigue, quarrels, deceptions, ultimatums, confrontations. If you're willing to share this reality with the reader, your book will be fascinating; if you sanitize it to avoid hurting people's feelings, much of the interest will drain away.


Thus, many authors write memoirs only at the end of their careers--when burning a few bridges is less costly. Think through how honest you can afford to be before you commit to writing a book.


Even if your book is to be a "how-to" rather than a "tell-all" memoir, it's important to make your book a personal story instead of a merely abstract recital of lessons learned. I helped Congressman Richard Gephardt write his book AN EVEN BETTER PLACE, which is devoted mainly to setting out his political vision for America. What makes the book of more than routine interest are Gephardt's heartfelt accounts of some dramatic episodes from his own life, such as his infant son's harrowing battle against cancer and the insights it provided into the glories and weaknesses of our health care system. The personal connection makes the policy prescriptions feel real and meaningful.


Similarly, when I worked with legendary investor Victor Sperandeo on his business book about the secrets of successful speculation, his stories about learning money management as a professional poker player made the lessons vivid and memorable. (We even played up his wise-guy nickname, "Trader Vic," on the jacket of the book--and it sold well as a result.)


Are You Willing to Play the Media Game?


Nowadays, an author's work is just beginning when the manuscript is complete. Your publisher will want you to play an active role in selling the book, through radio, TV, and print interviews, bookstore appearances, speeches, online chat rooms, and so on.


Most of this is not glamorous. Rather than being whisked to Los Angeles to joke with Jay Leno, you're more likely to be asked to spend an hour on the phone with a radio host who hasn't read your book, or to gamely sign autographs in a bookstore for a lunchtime crowd of twenty. Nonetheless, this grass-roots selling is viewed as crucial by most publishers, and in some cases it does help jump-start book sales. If you can't devote at least a few weeks of your life to book publicity, lower your sales expectations--or forgo publishing altogether.


What You'll Get Out of Publishing Your Book--and What You Won't


You'll Impress Your Peers.  Authorship among business people is still rare enough to garner significant respect, especially if the name of a well-known publisher appears on your book's spine. Throw in a blurb by a high-placed friend who owes you a favor ('Far more insightful than any of my books'--Peter Drucker), and you'll sense people recalibrating their opinions of you: "Hmm--I always figured I could have done a better job of reorganizing XYZ Corp than Fred did, but he must have something on the ball to have written that book . . . "


You Will Not Become Famous.  Do not, however, expect the general public to hear about you or your book. Most people will remain blissfully unaware, despite your best efforts and those of your publisher.


This reality is borne out not only by harsh experience but by simple statistics. Consider: Most of the books that appear on the New York Times best-seller list will sell fewer than 200,000 copies. This number is less than one tenth of one percent of the US population. It is also a tiny fraction of the number of people who tune in to the least popular sitcom on any of the TV networks. And these are the best-sellers, mind you--a small fraction of the 40,000 new books published in the US each year.


Truth is, Ray Romano is much more famous than Tom Peters. At least, a lot more people have seen his work.


You Will Not Get Rich.  Publishing deals vary, but most authors earn between $1.50 and $3.50 for each book sold. Now, most non-fiction books published by major US publishers (Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, and so on) sell between five and fifteen thousand copies. A "minor best seller"--a book that appears for a few weeks on the BUSINESS WEEK best-seller list, for example--might sell thirty to fifty thousand copies. And a "business blockbuster" would include most any title that sells over 100,000 copies. (These are few and far between.)


You can do the math. Most business book authors will earn less than $100,000 for their books . . . often significantly less. You'll have to share this modest sum with the writer and your agent. And if you devote as many hours to writing the book as most authors do . . . well, let's just say that your hourly pay rate is likely to be lowest you've earned since you spent the summer after college loading trucks down at your uncle's lumber yard.


You'll Experience Significant Frustration.  By and large, book publishing is not a well-run industry. There are publishing companies that are exceptions, of course. But most editors don't have enough time to work with their authors . . . most publishers don't have enough money to market all their books as well as possible . . . and most books don't achieve the recognition and sales they probably deserve.


However, there are benefits. One of the first business authors I worked with was an investment guru at one of the world's great oil trading firms. His books on sophisticated futures trading methods were expensive and sold in modest numbers--ten to twenty thousand copies each--to a highly selective audience.


I once asked him, "Why do you write these books? Is it the money?" He laughed and said, "The money the books bring me is nothing compared to what I earn trading commodities."


I persisted. "Why, then?" He learned toward me and whispered conspiratorially, "The books made my career." He went on to explain that the prestige he'd gained from his books had vaulted him to the first level in his industry. He was no household name . . . but whenever he walked into a financial firm, he was pointed out as "so-and-so, the famous author." I've heard similar stories from many other authors since then.


You'll Learn More Than You Imagine.  Many leaders from business and other fields who turn author often find the process personally engrossing.


Former president Jimmy Carter discovered that he loved writing so much that he's now authored over fifteen books, many of them best-sellers. Even writing the most recent of these has proven to be a voyage of self-discovery. In 1996, I helped him complete LIVING FAITH, a memoir and meditation on his Christian faith that has become Carter's most popular book. We spent a week together in the dining room of his modest home in Plains, Georgia, talking about what it was like to grow up in a dusty peanut-farming community in the deep South during the Great Depression--a profoundly stratified and racially divided society in which young Jimmy's best friends were all African-Americans. The insights into Carter's own life and psyche that we teased out together became the basis for the book's most poignant chapters.





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