Business book authors dream big. But the size of your dream is less important than the intellectual ingredients you bring to the project. I know the power you get from being prepared — and the sinking feeling when you realize you’re missing something crucial. If this is your dream, your first step is to assemble the ten elements I describe today.
Why listen to me? Because since 2007 I’ve been working on business books non-stop. I wrote or cowrote four, edited four others, and collaborated on 12 proposals. I’ve seen the dreamers and been one. Whether you’re pitching publishers or self-publishing, you’ll get nowhere without the tools I’ve listed below, approximately in order of importance.
1. Case studies
Business books are stories, and a source of stories is the most essential element for a business book. Unless you’re writing a memoir, you’re writing other people’s stories, also known as case studies. If your work puts you in touch with dozens of clients or subjects, you’re in great shape. Researchers, journalists, and academics have it easy, with rich source material; agencies and consultants also come into contact with lots of potential subjects.
Without the case studies, all you’ve got are your insights, and a book of nothing but insights is boring. Insights without case studies are also far less believable.
How to get them: If you work with clients, get permission to feature them. If not, you’ll have to do research, contacting people you’ve read about and asking to interview them. This works best if you can feature them in a post on your blog, LinkedIn, or Medium; a podcast; a contributed article for a site like Forbes; or a newsletter article.
2. A unique idea
Tell me something I’ve never heard before. Then I might be interested in reading what you have to say. You basically have two choices here. You can debut a relatively new idea (for example, “Streaming will kill TV,”), or you can write the definitive guide (“The comprehensive guide to SEO strategies”). Your new idea may be an offshoot of an established idea (“Content marketing for entrepreneurs”). But if everyone is already talking about a topic, what’s the twist you’re adding that will make your book stand out?
How to get it: Test your idea with friends. The best reaction is a startled look, followed by “Really? Tell me more.” If they’ve heard it before, figure out your unique take or angle. One way to test ideas more broadly is in a blog post, podcast, or Facebook post. Testing the idea makes sense because, in my experience, the risk that people will steal your idea is lower than the risk that it’s less original than you think. Even if your idea is solid, you’ll need to develop it further before it is strong enough to build a book on.
Timing is crucial. Your book should come out at the exact moment that everyone has realized they have the problem that you’re solving. This happened for me once: Groundswell, my first book written with Charlene Li, came out just as the whole world was waking up to the power of social media. It sold 140,000 copies. I thought we were brilliant. But mostly, we were lucky with the timing.
Remember, your book is going to come out at least a year after you start working on it. So what will be just the right idea a year from now?
Some books are timeless (as Writing Without Bullshit is supposed to be), but those books are a lot harder to sell.
How to get it: Timing is like a wave for surfer: it’s something you catch, not something you make. If a trend has already peaked, write about the leading edge of the change. If it’s not here yet, you could start the wave with your book — but that’s a long shot.
4. A creatively assembled author platform
As any publisher or agent will tell you, an author needs a promotional platform. Publishers expect you to do most of the work of selling your book. If you’ve got a popular blog or podcast, a large following on Facebook or LinkedIn, or a slot contributing to Forbes or HuffPost, you’re in good shape. But if you don’t, you can get creative. Do you have popular friends who will promote the book? Do you have good relationships with reporters? Will your company contribute resources — will your sales force promote it to clients? In one of the proposals I worked on, the author had access to remnant space that allowed him to advertise cheaply on a huge ad network.
How to get it: Build your network on Facebook, Twitter, a blog, or similar outlets now. Build up a mailing list. If you’ve haven’t enough followers to matter, brainstorm resources with an experienced marketing or PR person. Chris Syme‘s books and blog are good resources for authors building a platform.
5. A structure for thinking about your idea
Books are not just extended rambles. A business book typically starts with a “scare the crap out of you” chapter to hook the reader, and follows with a framework of some kind that organizes people’s thinking around the idea. The elements of the framework become chapters in the rest of the book.
How to get it: What’s the natural way to think about your idea? Is it a series of steps? Is it different for different industries or types of products? Is it a set of methods? If you can’t organize your insights, you have no book.
6. A great title
You can succeed without a great title, but it’s a lot harder. Once you’ve got your idea, you should be constantly trying out different words to explain it. A great title is intriguing, unique (just search Amazon.com to find out if somebody else is using it), and relates to the book. If it’s a bit obscure, you can explain the connection in the subtitle.
How to get it: Brainstorm with one or two other people. Write a description of the book, as if you were writing the book flap, and look for words that pop out. And don’t worry if your initial title ideas suck; the wrong title is just a step on the way to the right one.
Why should we believe you? A business book isn’t credible unless you’re credible. Have you researched the topic, given speeches on it, written white papers, worked with dozens of clients, or gotten access to exclusive content that makes you the authority?
How to get it: If you’re not credible, don’t write the book. Books spring from writers’ experience, so concentrate on getting the experience you need to be credible. Then come back to the book idea.
It takes time to research and write a book. They don’t spring to life instantly. If you think you can assemble something in a flash and it will be great, you’re probably wrong.
How to get it: You could work nights and weekends, take a leave, ask to work shorter hours, or write a book between jobs. You could get a divorce — then you’ll have lots of time on your hands. You could write pieces of the book as blog posts or reports for your employer (but see item 10 below).
A source of data isn’t a requirement to write a business book, but it makes what you write far more believable. Statistics about your target audience — or their customers — will set your book apart.
How to get it: If you work for Gallup, Nielsen, or a similar research company, you’re in luck. But even if you don’t, surveys are relatively cheap to field. I got 547 qualified people to answer my survey on business writing, generating data that I used throughout my book. To make sure your survey is well designed and generates exactly the data you’ll need for your book, you may want to hire a survey expert.
10. Your employer’s support
If you have a job, your employer may have rights to anything you produce at work. Even if they don’t have those rights, you don’t want to surprise them with a book launch. You’re much better off working collaboratively with your company’s marketing and PR departments than at odds with them. (If you’re an independent consultant, this won’t be an issue.)
How to get it: Have that difficult conversation with your boss. Point out your shared interests. And determine who owns the rights to the content — while you can still have a successful book launch if your employer owns the copyright, you’ll have to leave that content behind on the day you quit.
If this post has helped you, that’s great. If you need more to get your book ready, I can work with you on book ideas, proposals, or book content. Email me at josh at bernoff dot com and let’s see if I can help you achieve your dream.