How to Write a Business Book

By George Merlis Wednesday, June 23, 2010

How to write a business bookTable of Contents:

Part 1 - Assessing the Market

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. Here, 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 a few basic areas.

Types of Business Books

  1. 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.

  2. 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.
  3. 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 280 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 Should a Business Book Be?

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.

Part 2 - Selling Your Book Idea to a Publisher

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. A publisher will pay you an advance against the book’s earnings, edit and print it and distribute your work to bookstores and online booksellers.

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, plow 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.)

How Much Will a Publisher Buy a Business Book For?

In 2002, after two decades of conducting media training workshops, I decided to write a book that expanded on what I taught. I wanted to create a comprehensive takeaway for clients that went beyond the 20- to 22-page customized workbook I create for every media training session. Also, I felt a book would validate my expertise to prospective clients and yield more business. 

Coincidentally, I hoped to create a modest revenue stream. Well, make that a revenue trickle because I knew publishing was growing every more parsimonious. For example, a how-to book on energy saving I co-wrote in the 1970s earned a then-generous $15,000 advance. McGraw-Hill, the nation’s largest business book publisher, bought my proposed media training book in 2003 for a $10,000 advance. Today, that would be considered a generous advance. An agent I interviewed said $5,000 is a typical business book advance now.

Finding an Agent for Your Business Book

One way to find an agent is through the web site

There are also some useful books:

The agent I interviewed requested anonymity because he doesn’t want to receive any more than the 30 proposals he receives every day.

Don’t write your whole book and then go hunting for an agent. It’s better to prepare a proposal; agents and publishers both prefer this. Your proposal should be an essay of up to eight pages explaining the premise of the book, your credentials, a survey of competing books now on the market, and a detailed chapter-by-chapter outline.

The proposal should also have one or two sample chapters; agent and publisher need to know you have the necessary writing skills.

Finally, describe your promotional campaign for the book: the publicist you intend to hire, the speeches you intend to make, the media you intend to do and the book signings you are going to line up.

Out of the advance, your agent collects a 15 percent commission, up from the traditional ten percent. And you will need an agent because many publishers no longer accept unsolicited proposals directly from an author. Publishers used to have armies of recent college graduate readers poring through unsolicited material. Today, they save money by outsourcing that job to agents.

Book promotion used to be the publisher’s job, but they’ve outsourced this job, too -- to authors. A publisher is much more disposed to buy a book from an author who pledges to hire a competent book publicist than from an author who has no promotional ideas or budget. Publishers and agents can recommend the right publicist; just be aware that a publicist will cost $1,500 to $2,500 a month.

How Much Will a Business Book Generate in Royalties?

Let’s do the math: Your advance is $5,000. Subtract the agent’s commission of $750 and two months of a publicist at $1,500/month.  That leaves you with $1,250. You can’t count on future book sales to change the picture very much. Many books don’t “clear” their advance -- that is, they never sell enough copies for the author to earn any royalties over and above the initial advance.

But even with only $1,200, you’re still ahead and you do have a book to drive business to your company or to burnish your image.

In effect, the publisher is financing your business promotion effort, to a point. It all depends on how many books you’re going to need. In my case, I used close to 1,000 over the first two and a half years after publication -- some for sales promotion, others as takeaways to participants in training workshops.

Publishers don’t give you an unlimited supply of your own book -- you have to buy copies after the first 25 or 50. In my case, McGraw-Hill had a $16.95 price on my media training book and sold me copies at the discounted price of $8.00.

Here is how the numbers worked out for me: Advance: $10,000, agent’s commission: $1,500, publicist:$2,000, books purchased: $8,000. I was, in theory, $1,000 in the red. In practice, this wasn’t the case because the book yielded new clients and I incorporated the $8.00 book price into my media training fees.

Can You Use a Ghost Writer for a Business Book?

If you have never written a book before, if you don’t really have the time to write one or if you doubt that you have the necessary skills, you may want or need a collaborator (i.e. a ghost writer). Your agent can find one for you.

How much will this cost? It varies. Some collaborators take an up-front fee, some work on a percentage of the advance, and some on a percentage of all earnings. In no case should the collaborator receive more than a 50/50 split.

For my media training book, I wrote the proposal and the book myself. I called it “How to Master the Media,” but McGraw-Hill insisted that I re-title it, “How to Make the Most of Every Media Appearance” because they thought my title was too confrontational (It was, by design!). In vain, I pointed out that it was impossible to work their mouthful of a title into interviews, while “How to Master the Media” was practically a soundbite in and of itself.

I had three problems with the publisher: the title, which I felt was wimpy; the inability to do running revisions (new behavioral science validated some of my training techniques and I wanted to insert that validation into the book); and the cost of buying my own book. 

If the book had been selling 500 to 1,000 copies a month in bookstores and on Amazon, I would not have been troubled by any of this. But, like most business books, my store, online and e-book sales were modest, so I researched self-publishing. When I discovered that each copy would cost me significantly less than $4.00 and that “print on demand,” meant I could make changes whenever I wanted, I decided to get the rights back from McGraw-Hill, revise the book, put its original title back on it, and self-publish.

Part 3 - Self-Publishing

A few months ago, a feature film producer attending the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books happened by the stall of EC Printing, a firm that prints books for self-publishing authors. There, the producer spotted a full-color book of illustrations that Go for Launch Productions of Glendale, AZ had self-published to promote its feature film and animation design work. 

The producer was impressed, contacted the company and that led to a lucrative deal for Go for Launch with Universal Studios. Interestingly, the firm had printed an extremely limited run of books, a mere 100 volumes, yet that was sufficient to land it a very important deal.

A book can drive customers to a company or enhance a business person’s credentials. If that’s your primary goal in writing a book, self-publishing may work for you. It is less time-consuming than finding a publisher. Last time I wrote about the arduous process of finding a publisher. Today, let’s look at self-publishing.

John Tantillo, Ph.D. is the CEO of The Marketing Department of America, and bills himself as “The Marketing Doctor.” He has succeeded in making himself into a unique brand. He self-published the book People Buy Brands, Not Companies because “commercial publishers [...] are operating with an increasingly creaky business model. Fact is, they don’t really know what sells and, sadly, most of the time they don’t know how to sell very well. With commercial publishing, you basically give up control in exchange for them paying you a small amount of money, offering you their ever diminishing prestige. As a marketer, I found that unacceptable because I don’t believe most commercial publishers would be dynamic and aggressive enough to support my book.”

The biggest downside of self-publishing is that you pay all the costs:

  • writing (if you engage a collaborator)
  • design (if you can’t do your own design)
  • printing
  • promotion

Even with a publisher, these days, you are still stuck with the promotional costs, the collaborator costs and, if your book requires illustrations, you have to license them out of the publisher’s advance.

I have the unique experience of having gone both the publishing and self-publishing route with one book. McGraw-Hill published How to Make the Most of Every Media Appearance in 2003 and then I took back the rights and revised and republished it myself in 2007 as How to Master the Media. I did this principally because as the book’s biggest customer--I was buying them to promote business and also as a takeaway in my media training workshops--I was subsidizing McGraw-Hill. 

Each book I bought cost me $8.00 and did not count against my advance. The self-published How to Master the Media costs me well under $4.00 a copy. Is it worth it? Well, to quote Dr. Tantillo, the branding expert, “Business people spend a lot of money on knick knacks for potential clients, but there is nothing more memorable than being able to autograph your own book – especially if it’s a book that reinforces your credentials and underscores your grasp of the business. It sets you apart from the competition with relevance and without gimmickry.”

Advantages of Buying Back the Rights to My Book

In deciding to take back my book and self-publish it, I enjoyed a number of advantages that other authors might not have.

  • McGraw-Hill had already published the book so I had the benefit of the company’s editorial input. True, I revised it extensively, but the skeleton upon which I hung the new muscle had been vetted by a veteran editor.
  • Because I had worked in newspapers and studied print layout in journalism school, I was able to design my book myself. A book is not a long essay; creating one requires some layout skills and/or very costly software like QuarkXpress or Adobe Indesign.
  • I was able to shop around and choose a reputable printer, EC Printing.

Some print houses, usually billing themselves as print on-demand firms, charge for printing books and then pay the author a royalty based on book sales. In theory, this enables an author to recoup the printing costs. In actual fact, it rarely does. These companies print your book and place it in the listings (albeit not necessarily in the stores) of major chains and with online retailers.

However, they have a lot of control over your work because they set the sales price, they control the inventory (so you never really know how many books are sold) and they own the ISBN (International Standard Book Number). That means that for all intents and purposes, they own the book even if they don’t own the copyright, because you need that ISBN to get a bookseller to list your work. Whoever controls the ISBN controls the product. Additionally, POD outfits charge authors a lot more for their own books, usually 70 percent of the list price which they, not you, have set.

Tips for Self-Publishers

If you’re starting out from scratch, here is how to deal with these common issues:

  • Editorial: Your word processing software may catch misspellings and egregious grammatical errors, but there are far more pitfalls awaiting an author than those. You can hire someone to edit your book for you. A Google search of “freelance book editors” yielded well over 100 entries. A free-lance editor will cost you between $15 and $40 an hour, depending on your needs and the editor’s level of experience. Simple proofreading usually costs about $25 an hour. 

    Writing and re-writing charges start at about $45 an hour and can go as high as $100 an hour. Many of these editors will negotiate a flat rate for the entire job, so you have a fixed cost going in. These days, it’s a buyer’s market, since there are so many out-of-work writers and editors.
  • Design: Most printers offer design services. They already own Adobe Indesign or QuarkXpress and for a fee will design the book for you. Since I did the layout and interior design for How to Master the Media, EC Books supplied me with the cover design which, I feel, is far more compelling than the cover McGraw-Hill created.
  • ISBN: Get your own. A single ISBN and bar code (essential if you’re going to sell through Amazon or in bookstores) should cost you under $50. 

Another tip: Be aware of copyright laws. If you write your book by cutting and pasting together Internet articles or if you pull photos off Google images and plant them in your book, you are inviting a lawsuit. Many images and documents on the free Internet are copyrighted, and holders of copyrights can be aggressive about protecting their intellectual property. Use your own words, otherwise you are plagiarizing.

How much will your book cost you? Dr. Tantillo says, “As long as you are willing to roll up your sleeves and be there every step of the way (and this means doing most of the writing), you should be able to produce the book for between $5,000 to $10,000 (no more than $10,000!)” 

In my case, I encountered none of those costs, so I paid only for the books printed.  

The more books you order, the lower the cost per unit. For a 5.5 by 8.5-inch paperback of 150 pages with a gloss laminated full color cover, expect to pay about $3.60 per unit for 250, $3.10 per unit for 500 and $2.30 per unit for 1,000. Longer books, like mine (233 pages), cost slightly more. Your other costs depend on how much you do for yourself and how much help you have in preparing your manuscript.

Finally, be aware that, sometimes, established publishers will discover a self-published book, be impressed with it, and buy the rights to reprint and distribute it. That’s what happened to networking expert William M. Saleebey, Ph.D, with his book Study Skills for Success. After he self-published, Simon & Schuster picked it up and republished it. His second and third books, Sell Yourself and Connecting: Beyond the Name Tag, were self-published. Dr. Saleebey says he’s glad he self-published. “I had 100% artistic and content control and reap all of the profits.”

Dr. Saleebey, a speaker and trainer with expertise in the psychological aspects of personal and business networking, mounted an ambitious promotional campaign to sell Connecting: Beyond the Name Tag. You would expect that chore to fall to a self-publishing author, but even if a major house buys your book, the sales promotion burden is still going to fall on your shoulders.

Part 4 - Promoting Your Book

Whether a book is bought by an established publisher or self-published, the sales promotion chore falls on the shoulders of the author. As a matter of fact, any book proposal sent to a publisher without a comprehensive promotion campaign attached is likely to be rejected out of hand.

If you have written your book solely as a business promotional tool, then books store and online sales may not matter much. My primary goal in writing and self-publishing How to Master the Media was business promotion and to have a takeaway for participants in my media training workshops. But as long as I was going through the effort of researching, writing and designing the book’s layout, it was just a few more steps to insure that the book could be sold to the public at large.

I’m glad I made the effort because from time to time I get an e-mail from ordering another consignment of seven-to-ten books. And from time to time I find a deposit from Amazon in my checking account for sales of the Kindle version of my book. Now, I’m working on an iPad manuscript which will be greatly enhanced with numerous live links to relevant web sites so the book can take advantage of the iPad’s browsing capabilities.

I also sell some copies directly from my own website,  Like John Tantillo, Ph.D., author of the self-published People Buy Brands, Not Companies, I don’t have a separate website for the book. He gives the perfect rationale for that: “I wanted the book to drive sales to my brand rather than to sell books. Don’t get me wrong, I want to sell books, but I’d much rather get a consulting assignment or land a speaking engagement where I can sell even more books. What this means is that I have incorporated the book on my web page,, and have a link to Amazon where visitors can buy the book.”

Dr. Tantillo went with’s Create Space to publish his book. Create Space may be all the printing and sales service you require. You can submit your manuscript, get a free ISBN (International Standard Book Number), create a Kindle version of the book and begin selling through Amazon and your own e-store. Using Create Space’s Expanded Distribution Channel, the book will be offered to libraries, schools and brick-and-mortar bookstores. Be aware, however, that if you plan to give out hundreds, or even dozens, of copies of your book for sales promotion purposes, you’ll likely pay more per copy than you will if you go with a printer, as I did.

William Saleebey, Ph.D., is author of three self-published books, the latest being Connecting: Beyond the Name Tag. His book is about power networking; creating strategies and tactics for developing business referrals through networking. Appropriately enough, he is using networking to sell books. 

“I have done three signings since the release of the book in December,” he writes. “I continually announce and promote events, media interviews and speaking engagements through social media channels of LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.” 

Dr. Saleebey also created a web page for the book, which connects to a PayPal page where the book can be purchased, and he promotes the book on his blog.

If you think your book might serve as an educational text -- whether it has been published or self-published -- contact schools directly. I recommend going directly to the teacher of a relevant course, not to a department head. At the college level, most schools post their course catalogs online.

How to Make the Most of Every Media Appearance, the McGraw-Hill version of my book, had no textbook sales that I know of but How to Master the Media, my self-published version was ordered by the Columbia University bookstore in connection with a course and is currently used as a text in a public relations course at George Washington University. I directly pitched the book to the GW teacher and he assigned it to his students.

Additional Ways to Generate Book Sales

  • Write a blog about your area of expertise and plug the book on each blog entry. 
  • Give speeches and include the cost of a book in your fee for each attendee. If your book is designed to drive business to your company, you are getting paid to promote your business.
  • Give speeches for free on the condition that you can sell the book at the end of the address. The late Paul Harvey, radio personality and author of a steady stream of bestsellers, honed this to an art form. Four nights a week he would give a speech -- albeit for for a hefty fee. At the end of the speech, he would retire to the back of the auditorium and autograph and sell copies of his latest book. That little sideline was sufficiently profitable for him to finance the Lear Jet which flew him from city to city for those speaking/book selling ventures.
  • Reach out to the local media. If you have an area of expertise, chances are there’s a radio show or a newspaper that will have an interest in that expertise. Volunteer your expertise and, when you’re being interviewed, refer to your book. Even if you sell no books, the media exposure -- and the citation that you’ve written a book -- can help drive business your way.
  • Set up book signings. Booksellers who might ordinarily resist stocking your book, will carry copies if you offer to come in, speak briefly and do a signing. You will need to publicize the signings, but you can do that virally through e-mails and social networking sites.

Do You Need a Book Publicist?

A budget for a publicist is almost a requirement to get a book published these days. Publishing houses have outsourced public relations efforts to authors. A self-published book can benefit from a publicist’s efforts, too, but be aware it can cost you between $1,500 and $2,500 a month. 

Now, what should the publicist publicize? If you’re with a publishing house, they are going to insist that the publicist concentrate on book sales. But if your primary purpose in writing the book was business promotion, then book sales are beside the point and you might want to hire a publicist to promote your business. The publicist can use the book as a credential to promote your more lucrative real business. Any book sales you make are coincidental to your real goal: getting new clients or customers.

The two business book writers I’ve cited here, Dr. Saleebey and Dr. Tantillo wrote books less as a direct revenue stream than as a promotional tool, as I, myself, did.  If you’re like us, assess the costs this way: A $1,500-a-month publicist using a $4.00 book as a tool generates a couple of $5,000 client fees or consulting assignments. That’s a wise investment. A $1,500-a-month publicist generates $1,500 worth of book sales. That’s a wasted effort.

As in any business venture, you measure success by what brings in the greatest return on investment.

*Disclaimer*: Harvard Business Services, Inc. is neither a law firm nor an accounting firm and, even in cases where the author is an attorney, or a tax professional, nothing in this article constitutes legal or tax advice. This article provides general commentary on, and analysis of, the subject addressed. We strongly advise that you consult an attorney or tax professional to receive legal or tax guidance tailored to your specific circumstances. Any action taken or not taken based on this article is at your own risk. If an article cites or provides a link to third-party sources or websites, Harvard Business Services, Inc. is not responsible for and makes no representations regarding such source’s content or accuracy. Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Harvard Business Services, Inc.

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