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July 13, 2004

News & Opinion: The Business of Business Books II

By: 800-CEO-READ @ 2:32 PM – Filed under: Publishing Industry

Today we talk with Paul B. Brown, book reviewer for the Sunday New York Times business section and author of Publishing Confidential: The Insiders Guide to What it Really Takes to Land a Nonfiction Book Deal (Amacom).
Q) I consider Publishing Confidential to be a terrific booksmart, well-written, and extremely well-realized in terms of design and tone. But make the business case for this book. Beyond the what of the book, answer the real question: so what? Why should people care about this book, and how is it different from whats already out there?
A) There always seemed to me to be two kinds of problems with the How to get your book published books that are out there. First, they seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time on how to write. And second, they never treated getting your book published as a business problemwhich it is. You have a product (your book, or your idea for a book) and you need to figure out how to get someone (a publisher, in this case) to buy it. I decided to write a book assuming people knew how to write, and were more interested in how to get what they had written published.
Q) Since the writing and publication of Publishing Confidential youve gone on to become one of the most influential business book reviewers in the media (with your gig for the Sunday Times Business section). Are there days, when the UPS truck pulls up with heavy packages of 6-10 business books (on top of Fedex and USPS), that you kinda wish fewer people would take your advice?
A) Nah. First, I like both my FedEx deliverywoman, and the UPS guy and I want them to have jobs. More importantly, I think everyone who has a good idea for a bookand the market decides what is good and what isntshould have a shot at being heard. I do read an awful lot of booksin addition to the Times, I review for Fast Company and CIO Insightbut I would have to read them any way to keep up with what is out there, so I know what to pitch and what not to, when it comes to my own book ideas. This way, at least I am getting paid for doing the reading I have to do.
Q) Along those lines, have you learned or experienced anything about business books in the past six months that isnt reflected in your book?
A) The most interesting thing to me is the continued acceleration toward self-publishing. There is a long chapter on it in Publishing Confidential. When I update it, I will give self-publishing even more space.
Q) You advise people on how to sell a book to publishers; Lissa helps people sell the finished product. What advice do you have (or books/articles to recommend) to individuals who plan to write a book?
A) Other than reading my book, right? Joking aside, I think the best thing people can do is become an even greater expert on the subject they want to write about. They are going to be judged, for the most part, on how well they know their subject matter. How well they write will be of a far lesser concern.
Q) Can you comment on the state of business books today. On most days are you pleasantly surprised? Disappointed? Frustrated that you dont have enough time to read books that really intrigue you? Rewarded with occasional books that tell you something new? What types of books would you like to see less of, and what types of books do you think dont exist but should?
A) My biggest gripe is that the business books fail to recognize a basic fact: It takes about two years from the time someone says, You know, I ought to write a book about X, until that book is actually in the stores. As a result, in the summer of 2004 we are reading books about things that were scandals or trends a couple of years ago.
Thats the macro picture. As for the books themselves, I wish that just about all of them would have a greater how to component. Unless the subject matter is truly newand most of the time it is not, rather it is a variation on an existing themethe author can get by with less explanation of what they have, using that space to show the reader how what they have can be of benefit to people reading the book.
Q) Are there any particular business books over the past few years that you think have not received the attention and audience they merit?
A) Nope. I think the market is a terrific judge of what it needs and what it doesn't. While I thought that The Ennegram Advantage (co-authored by the humble Paul B. Brown) was a terrific book, not very many other people agreed. If the book fills a need, the word gets around.
Q) If publishers acted more broadly on the business ideas they promulgate, what changes might we see in the production and distribution of business books?
A) Golly. How much time do you have? In no particularly order: a) Books would get to market faster. It is ridiculous that it takes two years to go from idea to bookshelf. b) Books would remain in stock. It is embarrassing how often publishers run out of a hot title. c) Publishers would reduce the number of books produced. Instead of having an editor bring out 20 books two or three times a year--in the hopes that something hits--the number of titles might be cut in half. And d) my favorite. They would conduct focus group books about half way through the writing process to see if the author is approaching her subject matter in a way the potential audience would find helpful.