101: Writing a Business Book...Why and How?

By George Merlis Wednesday, June 23, 2010

If you are a business person with a lot of experience, fresh ideas and a desire to share your knowledge you may be thinking about writing a book.  Over the next few weeks, I’ll address creating and publishing a business book.  To put these entries together, I’m relying on my own experiences -- as the author or co-author of five published books -- and on interviews with an agent, two other authors and an executive at a self-publishing printing house.  In addition, I’ve done some online and bookstore research.

Why would a business person with a heavy schedule consider writing a book?  A book can burnish credentials, drive business to a company and generate a revenue stream.  I put the revenue stream last because proceeds from most book sales are pretty modest these days.

A visit to my local Barnes & Noble gave some indication why a business author’s earnings may be modest; there’s a lot of competition.  The B&N I visited stocked nearly 4,000 separate business titles.  Speaking of competition, a random survey indicated that your biggest competitors may be Suze Orman and Warren Buffett.  Ms. Orman had more titles on the shelves than anyone else I could find -- I counted eight of them -- and books about Mr. Buffett were equally numerous.

While B&N divided its 4,000 titles into 13 separate categories, I found the business books actually fell into three basic areas:

Reportage about business, business trends and the economy:

In this category are the many volumes about the run-up to the current recession, such as Michael Lewis’ “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine.”  “Sixty to Zero,” a chronicle of the fall of General Motors, was another example of this sort of journalistic business book. I am assuming that readers of this essay are not full-time reporter/researchers so unless you are an insider in a news-making company, you’re unlikely to be writing one of these volumes.

Profiles of businessmen (either biographies or autobiographies) and histories of individual companies:

In this category I found books by outsiders, such as Ken Auletta’s “Googled, The End of the World as We Know It,”  and books by insiders, such as  “Delivering Happiness” by Henry Hsich, CEO of online shoe retailer Zappos,  and “Only the Paranoid Survive,” by Intel’s Andy Grove.  An unexpected CEO book was “The Ride of a Lifetime: Doing Business the Orange County Choppers Way,” by OC Choppers founder Paul Teutul, the star of TLC’s hit show, American Chopper.  Without question Teutul is the business author with the biggest biceps and most tattoos.  While you may lack the biceps and ink, perhaps you have a corporate story sufficiently interesting to warrant attempting such a book.

How to succeed in business:

This is a vast category and runs a long gamut including marketing, advertising, sales promotion, investing,  employee motivation, accounting, entrepreneurship, e-commerce and personal finance.  In this category we find the ubiquitous and competing “.... For Dummies” and “Complete Idiot’s Guide to.....” series. Other titles I saw included “Facebook Marketing” (I found no fewer than three titles about how to market on Facebook), “Twitter Marketing” (no, the book is not 140 characters long), and “Ignore Everybody & 39 Other Keys to Creativity.” My favorite in this section is rapper 50 Cent’s offering: “The 50th Law” which features his business wisdom from the mean streets including “Hood Economics” and “Hustler King.”  Even though they lack Mr. Cent’s exciting professional background -- he is a former drug dealer who was shot nine times in an assassination attempt -- most business people write books in the how-to category.

My recommendation is to write about what you know first-hand, because it can take months to research what you don’t know first-hand.  A trust attorney I met wrote a book that attempted to explain trusts to non-lawyers.  I know a networking guru who wrote a book on networking.  I attended a seminar by an author who wrote a book on creating seminars. And a friend who has a marketing firm wrote a book of successful marketing case histories, drawing lessons other businesses can apply. After two decades of media training, I have written two books on how to handle yourself in media encounters.

Once you’ve settled on your subject, you need to assure yourself you have enough material to fill a book.  Not all ideas are book-worthy; sometimes you can capsulize what you need to communicate in a brochure or magazine article-length piece.  Assess if there’s enough material by creating a full outline of your book. There is no right or wrong way to construct an outline. Personally, I start with a simple list, then expand the list into an outline and then write a paragraph for each outline point.  If I feel the urge to write more than a single paragraph for each point, I know I likely have enough material to fill a volume.

How long are business books?  Well, the reportage, business profiles and biographies can range upward of 500 pages. But how-to books are always shorter; typically running under 275 pages.  How many words is that? It depends on the size of the type and the layout of the book.  Some of the how-to’s have charts and graphs and open layouts that add many pages.  My current book, “How to Master the Media” is a conventional-sized paperback, runs 235 pages, has a few illustrations  (screen grabs of web pages) and stylistic flourishes (insert boxes with highlighted material), is printed in 11 point type and contains 85,000 words.  So figure if you want to write a 200 page book you will need a 70,000 to 75,000-word manuscript.

If you have the time and the inclination to write a book you are now faced with a critical decision: find a publisher or self-publish. I’ve done both. To find a publisher, you will have to sell your book idea three times: to an agent, to a publisher and to the public.  In the self-publishing scenario, you have to sell it only once: to the public. (Unless you’re planning on giving the book away as a promotional vehicle, as the trust attorney did. In that case no sales are involved.) If you want to go the publisher route, don’t write the book; write only an outline.  As a rule publishers buy business books based on outlines not full manuscripts.  If you decide to self-publish, plough ahead and write the whole book, using Microsoft Word. Publishers and printers require electronic submission and prefer Word.  The software has tools you’ll find very useful like word counts, grammar checks, change tracking and comprehension level guides.  If you’re like me and World’s auto-formatting drives you crazy, you can turn those features off while you write. (And if you figure out how to do it, please let me know, I’ve never had success shutting down all of them.)

Next time I’ll address selling your book idea to a publisher.

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