So You Want to Write a Business Book

Most top executives are certain they’ve got a book in them, weaving their corporate triumphs into compelling case studies and innovative best practices. But if you’re serious about buckling down to create your business masterwork, the experience of Paul Brown and Charlie Kiefer – authors, with Babson College president Len Schlesinger, of Just Start: Take Action, Embrace Uncertainty, Create the Future – may be instructive.

Their book started, like many, with just the nugget of an idea. “The whole premise of the book was simply going to be that entrepreneurs think differently than the rest of us,” recalls Brown. But two chapters in, they realized they weren’t saying anything new. Tearing up the draft and starting again, they had an epiphany: they’d just followed the same process that entrepreneurs do when seeking out winning concepts. “We tried it, it didn’t work, so we asked, what did we learn from this?” says Brown. “At that point, we got excited: we have a process! Act, learn, and build off that learning – why not apply that to all situations of uncertainty? We put into practice the stuff we believed.”

Like entrepreneurs, they wanted to move quickly to get their ideas into the marketplace. So, eschewing traditional publishing houses (and their long lead times), within eight months the team had self-published Action Trumps Everything: Creating What You Want in an Uncertain World. The book was successful; Kiefer estimates it sold “somewhere in the vicinity of 8-10,000 hardcover copies and double or triple that electronically” (many of their e-books were downloadable for free).

That might have been the end of it – but one more iteration was yet to come. Mainstream publishing houses, intrigued by the book’s concept and initial sales, wanted them to revise the book under a new title. “It’s close, but we need more stories,” Brown recalls them saying. “Can you make it more specific, more action-oriented? Can you give exercises? There was a lot of learning on our part in reaction to the marketplace.” They eventually signed with Harvard Business Review Press and published a revised manuscript, now titled Just Start, in early 2012. (See my interview with co-author Len Schlesinger about the book.)

From aborted manuscript to self-published book to publication by a major house, Kiefer and Brown have experienced the full range of contemporary publishing. Here’s their advice for aspiring business authors.

  • Look for a mainstream publisher if: your topic has broad-based appeal. “I’ve been doing this since 1989 or 1990,” says Brown, “and the thing that gets beaten into your head by publishers is to go as broad and mass market as possible, in order to sell as many units as possible.” And for a book like Just Start, which is relevant to almost any business professional, Brown believes it’s still the right answer, given the services and distribution mainstream publishers can provide.
  • Think about self-publishing if: your topic is time-sensitive (traditional publishers aren’t equipped to move fast) or perfect for a niche audience. “Instead of thinking how to make it broad, we can also think about how to make it really narrow,” says Brown. “Think about a book on how to run an internal focus group. There are only a certain number of potential buyers for it, maybe Fortune 500 companies. Doubleday doesn’t want it but for the people who run a Fortune 500 company, it’s really valuable. You can get more and more information that’s targeted for the people who need it.”

What does the future hold? Brown predicts we’ll see more “hybrid middlemen” on the scene – companies like Greenleaf Book Group that provide a la carte services (such as copyediting, cover design, or marketing) to authors who are self-publishing. And with the proliferation of social media and other communication channels, Kiefer cautions would-be authors that the hard slog of writing a book isn’t always the best answer: “We grew up with books, and they represent something, so people feel they need to produce them. But I’m not sure that will be true in the future. There may be ways to get ideas out there more efficiently.”

The publishing industry is changing rapidly – and that’s the best reason to follow Brown and Kiefer’s advice to take action, learn, and adapt.  What’s your take on the future of business publishing? Do you plan to write a book? What approach will you take?

This post originally appeared on the Forbes website on June 27, 2012.

Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.