July 12, 2004
News & Opinion: The Business of Business Books I
For all the terrific talk on this blog about business ideas, let us never forget that business books are, above all, products in the marketplace of ideas. In that regard its great to find two recent books that provide bookends, as it were, to the process of writing a business book. Paul B. Browns Publishing Confidential: The Insiders Guide to What it Really Takes to Land a Nonfiction Book Deal (Amacom) tells prospective authors everything essential about selling a book to a major publisher. And Lissa Warrens The Savvy Authors Guide to Book Publicity: A Comprehensive Resourcefrom Building the Buzz to Pitching the Press (Carroll & Graf) shares a wealth of informed and trenchant info on how to get the damn book to the largest possible audience once its been produced. Both books could be fairly called how-to books, even if they dont fess up in the title. Yet they stand head and shoulders above this genre because each is written by an authority with real writing chops. Not surprisingly, the intelligence is playfully and smartly packaged. Over the next couple of days this blog will feature a Q&A with each author. Today, Lissa Warren. Q) Okay, let's start with the easy one. Why is there a need for your book today? A) Because when it comes to books, publicity is more important now than ever. In todays economy, most presses simply dont have the money to do extensive web marketing or ad campaigns, or direct-mail outreach. What dollars they do have are spent on in-store co-op with chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble. That means publicitywhich is relatively inexpensivebecomes the primary means of getting the word out to the consumer. Despite its importance, many publishing houses maintain very small publicity departments, choosing instead to staff-up areas like sales and subsidiary rights because the money they bring in is more easily quantified. Consequently, publicists are over-worked and cannot give every book the attention it deserves. Thats why authors need to learn the ropes. They need to understand how they can help their publicist, and what they can do if their publicist isnt getting resultsor even trying to. And thats where my book comes in. Q) What have you found to be the greatest misconceptions by business people about business books? A) I dont know that business people in general have that many misconceptions. But business book authors certainly do. They have an uncanny ability to expect a bestseller much more than, say, a novelist or poet would. Even if its their first book, and even if theirs isnt a Fortune 500 company (meaning even if they dont have a huge platform from which to launch the book), they still assume itll sell like hotcakes. Its not always a bad thing. That kind of confidence can lead to lots of excellent coverageand a great sales track. But when it comes to business books, its a crowded field. Whether your book is about HR, personal finance, or leadership, youre likely to be covering much of the same ground that others have already covered. That means youre going to have to get out there and hustle. Youve got to show what makes your book different. To accomplish this task, youre going to have to arrange lots of speaking gigs, or find a lecture agent wholl arrange them for you. Youre going to have to write some op-eds. Despite your busy work-life, youre going to have to make time for radio interviews and calls from reporters. In other words, youre going to have to work for it just like youve had to work for other things in your career. Q) Do you believe that business publishers do a good job of following the ideas of the business thinkers they promote? If yes, which ideas apply, and if no, which ideas should? A) Most publishers pride themselves in publishing authors whose philosophies they agree with and whose philosophies they disagree with. Its our job to promote discourse, after allnot to tell people how to act or think. Also, keep in mind that most people who work at a general trade publishing house are just as likelymaybe more likelyto have an MFA as an MBA. Economists were not. So I dont think that following the ideas in the business books we publish is a priority in most cases. Its more important to get them out there and let the public make use of them. That said, I did find myself turning to Bill Bridgess Managing Transitionsa new edition of which we published in 2003when we had some changes recently. And it was very helpful. Q) In my very biased opinion, children's books are an area that has gone through tremendous overall improvement in the past 20 years. Would you say the same about business books? How would you characterize business book publishing today? A) Id agree with you about kids books. But Im not so sure about business titles. The celebrity-CEO book is still alive and kicking, and very rarely does that type of tome provide any startling insight. However, I am encouraged by the number of business narratives that are on bookstore shelves these daysbooks that are genuinely awesome readswhich is, after all, what a book should be.