The Stack

How to Write a Bestselling Business Book


A genre of forest destroyers: 11,000 new business books are published every year

Illustration by Kyle Platts

A genre of forest destroyers: 11,000 new business books are published every year

“I don’t read business books,” says Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan, a business book that spent 36 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. “And I almost never talk to anyone who reads them.” He isn’t alone in his disdain. “I usually tell people not to read business books at all,” says Bob MacDonald, who’s written several popular business titles such as Cheat to Win and Beat the System. “They’re just ego trips. You’re not going to learn anything.”

Regardless, publishers keep cranking out as many as 11,000 new business books each year, according to the co-authors of The 100 Best Business Books of All Time, which doesn’t account for the untold number of self-published e-books. Publishers don’t seem to have any idea what works. The strategy, if it can be called that, is to flood the market and hope a book floats to the surface. So for every Tipping Point or Freakonomics, there are remainder bins filled with titles such as Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun.

For aspiring megasellers, there are ways to escape obscurity and mediocrity—and reason yet to try. “People trust things that look and feel like books,” says Survival Is Not Enough author Seth Godin. “In a world with too much media, books still represent some territorial skill.” So if you’re determined to venture into the fray and write something that likely won’t be read, will put you thousands of dollars in debt, and could feasibly make you the laughingstock of your industry, here are a few tips in honor of the late, great business writer Stephen R. Covey.
 
Jack Up Your Klout Score
Business books used to be a genre in which you could become famous because of what you’d written. Nobody knew the names of Covey (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) or Jim Collins (Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t) before they wrote their iconic books. Now you need name recognition or an impressive Klout ranking, a measure of Internet influence.

Jim Cramer, host of CNBC’s Mad Money and author of the bestselling Stay Mad for Life, puts it in the most polite terms possible. “I’m not a celebrity, but I have a recognizable persona,” he says. “I have a brand, so to speak. It’s hubris for me to say this, but I think that’s how you get a book published these days.”

Cramer says he has the all-important 'I know that guy factor'Photograph by G. Paul Burnett/The New York Times/ReduxCramer says he has the all-important 'I know that guy factor'

You have to expand your footprint online. “You’re not Keats writing a poem off in the corner,” says Barbara Monteiro, who runs a New York public-relations firm that specializes in business books. “You have to be part of the conversation. And that means being on Twitter or Facebook (FB).” You’ll know you’re ready when a publisher will put your face on the book jacket. “That’s actually a pretty good criterion,” Cramer concedes. “People need to be able to go, ‘Oh yeah, I know that guy.’ I’ve got the ‘I know that guy’ factor.’ ”
 
Know the Bountiful Beauty of Brevity
Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices, Peter Drucker’s 1974 classic of management literature, ran to 839 pages. “It used to be, whoever wrote the biggest book won,” says Michael Levin, ghostwriter, author of more than 100 books, and a regular guest on ABC’s (DIS)Shark Tank. No longer. “There’s nobody today who would read an 800-page Drucker book unless it was on the final exam at a business school.”

So what’s the ideal length? Kenneth Blanchard, co-author of bestsellers such as The One Minute Manager and Who Moved My Cheese? suggests 100 pages or less. “When we first shopped around One Minute Manager in the early 1980s, nobody in New York would touch us,” he remembers. “Everyone was like, ‘Who’s going to pay $15 for a book that’s 100 pages and most of it’s white space?’ ” As it turns out, quite a few: 13 million, if you go by Blanchard’s website; 539,000, according to Nielsen BookScan.

“I saw a guy give a motivational speech recently,” Blanchard says. “He had seven secrets to success, and it took him 45 minutes to do the first four. You could see the audience squirming in their seats. They were, like, ‘Oh God, there are three more?’ ”
 
Animals Are Your Best Friend
Ninety-three-year-old Martin Levin, author of last year’s All I Know About Management I Learned From My Dog, is living proof that animal metaphors are still the industry standard. After struggling to find a U.S. publisher for a small first run, his book has since been reprinted in 10 countries—a global impact that even Levin, with 60 years’ experience in the book industry, never expected. “Nobody in the U.S. knows who I am,” he says. “Every day I get another copy of my book written in a language I can’t even read. It’s a riot.”
 
Pay Someone Handsomely to Write It for You
The typical advance for an unknown author for his or her first book is around $10,000. “Since the recession, publishers have tried to reduce or eliminate advances,” says Michael Levin, who’s co-written or ghostwritten books for Zig Ziglar, Michael Gerber, and Jay Abraham. “I’ve seen some extremely big-name people offered zero advances for their books. And I’ve seen them take it.”

When you hire a ghostwriter, it’s going to cost a little more than what you may be paid by a publisher. Christopher Richards, an Oakland (Calif.) business-book ghostwriter, says the average fee is around $40,000, but many of his colleagues “won’t work for less than $250,000.” Cheaper options are out there. “You can find somebody to write your book and paint your house for $5,000,” says Levin. “It’ll be crap. You get what you pay for.”
 
Buy Your Own Books
Bob Sutton, author The No A-‍-hole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t, says it’s common practice to buy back books to game the virtuous cycle of bestsellerdom. “You have to be rich enough to buy enough copies,” he says, “or be part of a company that commits to buy enough copies so it gets on the bestseller list. Other than that, there are no guarantees. You want a hit, you have to pay for it.”

The strategy can work. In 1995 the authors of The Discipline of Market Leaders personally purchased 10,000 copies of their own book in small quantities at booksellers across the country, according to a Businessweek investigation. The book reached No. 8 on the New York Times bestseller list, where it stayed for 15 weeks. (The authors and publisher denied taking part in unethical marketing practices.) According to Sutton, it’s a marketing strategy still used by many business-book authors. “I’m not going to name names because I could get into trouble,” he says. “Let’s just say it happens a lot.”
 
It’s All About What You Call It
“When [my book] Cheat to Win came out,” says MacDonald, “there was more discussion about the title than the content.” Sutton had a similar experience with The No A-‍-hole Rule. A Silicon Valley lawyer claimed she kept his book prominently displayed in her office “so that her colleagues will be nicer to her because they’re such a-‍-holes.” As far as he could tell, she kept it purely for the title. “I don’t even know if she read it,” he says.
 
Write What You Want to Read
There are no foolproof formulas. Even those who’ve succeeded in the genre can’t say with any certainty how they did or how to reliably do so again. “If you’ve got the ability to sit down for a period of time without moving and write a book from beginning to end, you will get published,” says Martin Levin.

“There are three types of [successful] business books,” says Jack Covert, a co-author of The 100 Best Business Books of All Time. “The first kind is essentially self-help books. And then there’s the very hands-on ‘How to write a great résumé’ type of book. And then there’s the linear Malcolm Gladwell kind of book that takes a big research-based idea and tells brilliant stories to support it.”

Mad Money’s Cramer has a different philosophy: Write something good. “This might sound silly, but I like my books,” he says. “I think it’s important that you like your book. It should be something that you’re, like, ‘This is great! It’s like a book! It’s like a book that you’d want to read!’ ”


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