The hidden land mines that can blow up your book project

Building a book is a major undertaking. At the start, it seems like anything is possible (and it is). But as you close in on completing it, challenges lurk — problems that can cost you time and energy and eat into your success.

Here’s an incomplete list of the unsuspected land mines that can blow up your book — and what you can do to protect against them.

The title conflict

The title of your book should be unique — at least among books in your field. You want to be sure that when people hear about your book and search your book title, that it’s easy to find your book.

The confusion is bad enough. If the other book is by an author more well-known than you, it’s likely to be deadly.

How to protect yourself. Book titles can’t be trademarked or copyrighted. So be proactive. Search your title on Amazon (still the most comprehensive search engine for book titles) before you choose it. Search it again as your manuscript is nearing completion. And pre-announce your book, marking your territory so that others planning a similar book will steer clear of you.

The competing book launch

It’s actually quite common for two or more books to come out on the same topic around the same time. (How many corporate AI strategy books will be released in 2024?) Counterintuitively, this can be a plus — if multiple books address a topic, you’re more likely to get covered in a trend piece in a publication, and for authors to be booked together on event panels. Authors in a given space are more likely to help each other than compete.

How to protect yourself. Even if competition is helpful, you still don’t want to come in second. . . or tenth. To maximize your positioning in a crowded space, make sure your book is differentiated, by articulating a unique solution, addressing a focused audience, or publishing in an innovative format. And if possible, get your book out first, before competitors with similar ideas.

The balky publisher

Your publisher’s contract says they can reject your manuscript. If this happens, it’s a disaster. Even if the publisher simply demands significant changes, that request can generate major work for you. (I once had a publisher tell me to just “cut 10,000 words” from a 70,000-word book, which was a significant challenge.)

How to protect yourself. The key here is not to surprise your editor. They’re far less likely to blow up your book if the manuscript looks like what they expected. While it’s often hard to get an editor’s attention early in the process, they will look at work in process, if only to protect themselves. So share a finished chapter or a polished draft of half the book with the editor, to maximize the chances that you can notice of any problems well before the book is done.

The roadblock created by your employer

If you work for a company, your employer can often block your publication. For example, your employment contract may specify that intellectual property you create belongs to the company, which would give them a veto over your publishing it. They could also claim that you’re revealing company secrets, especially if you are going to publish stories about your experience that don’t cast the company in the best light. Even if you’ve broken no rules and all the content belongs to you, they could just decide that your being an author creates too high a visibility for you outside the company, and threaten to fire you.

How to protect yourself. Before writing, check your the IP provisions of your contract. Even if there’s not a content issue, no employee should write a book without engaging with their manager, as well as the company’s PR department. Ideally, they’ll be open to clearing time for you to write or helping promote the book, especially if you’ve worked with them to ensure that publishing the book is in their best interest.

The powerful reviewer within your company

As your book nears completion, senior C-suite folks may insist on seeing a copy — and then telling you how to change it. It’s no fun to complete a book, only to have the CEO or the CMO throwing little edit bombs into the process.

How to protect yourself. If suspect your senior managers are likely to want a say, get them a version as you complete your first draft. This ensures that the book is in reviewable condition, but that you’ll have time to address their issues. Sometimes a small crowd of reviewers assembles when internal buzz builds as the book is nearing completion. The best strategy to fend off “suggestions” from these busybodies is to use a copy-shop to print and bind hard copies of a near-final manuscript and share them with people within the company that you want to influence. My experience is that a bound hard-copy manuscript sends the message “this is nearly done” — and discourages the niggling little edits that are too easy to suggest when someone receives a soft copy.

The fact-check or plagiarism bomb

I call this the “Oh, no!” moment. It’s when you find out that something you described in your manuscript never actually happened that way. Or that a significant passage in your book was copied from somewhere else.

How to protect yourself. If you’re describing events, verify what happened with more two or more sources. If you’re quoting someone from an interview, share a short excerpt with them to make sure they agree with how you’ve quoted them. The solution to the plagiarism problem is to be fastidious with sources, always keeping the source links with the content even as you’re working on it. This makes sure you can verify that the passage you wrote isn’t just a chunk of raw notes that got pasted into your manuscript somehow.

Two overarching strategies defuses most of these land mines

If your manuscript is a disorganized mess right up to the deadline, you’re asking for trouble. A lot of the land mines I just described, including the title conflict, the balky publisher, and the CEO reviewer, can be mitigated by following a disciplined planning process that generates solid, reviewable draft chapters.

A second strategy can also help: write in a modular fashion. Don’t mix up your case studies, argumentation, secondary research, and advice; separate them within your chapters. This is not just beneficial for your reader; it also ensures that if something is going to blow up, it’s easier to localize and repair the damage.

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