“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. Nobody cares but the guy who wrote it and maybe his mistress.”
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 to the tipping point with titles like Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun and Jesus, CEO: Using Ancient Wisdom for Visionary Leadership..
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, allow us to help. We compiled a panel of experts to walk you through the essential rules of writing and publishing a business book. Consider yourself scared straight.
1. Know the Bountiful Beauty of Brevity
War and Peace was 1,440 pages. Atlas Shrugged was 1,088 pages. 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 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.
Today’s readers don’t have the attention span for 7 Habits or 12 Disciplines or 50 Ways. It should be more like 3 Habits and 6 Disciplines and a Baker’s Dozen Ways. “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?’”
2. Animals Are Your Best Friend
The question isn’t “should you use an animal metaphor” but “what animals are left?” From Harvey Mackay’s Swim with the Sharks (1988) to Bill Guertin’s The 800-Pound Gorilla of Sales: How to Dominate Your Market (2009), the animal kingdom has been pretty thoroughly harvested for their business lessons. Monkeys, cats, alligators, fish, purple cows—you name it, somebody’s used it to demonstrate a management philosophy. The safest bet is dogs, the trendiest animal metaphor of the moment. In just the last few years, there’s been From Wags to Riches, Sales Dogs: You Don’t Have to be an Attack Dog to Explode Your Income, and Get the Cookie, Paco!: Valuable Lessons in Leadership from My Dogs, to name just a few.
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.”
3. Your Ghostwriter Will Probably Get a Bigger Advance Than 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.”
But that’s not the bad news. The bad news is that if you hire a ghostwriter—and most authors who aren’t actually authors (i.e. the majority of business book authors) use ghost writers—it’s going to cost a little more than what you’re being paid by a publisher. Actually, a lot more. 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 $5000,” says Levin—but the quality won’t be especially good.
“It’ll be crap,” Levin clarifies. “You get what you pay for.”
4. Be Somebody
Business books used to be a genre in which you could become famous because of what you’d written, not the other way around. 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. And it’s arguable that even today they’re only household names to people who really, really love business books.
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.”
Here’s the most depressing way to determine if you’ve got a future as a business book author. Would a publisher 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.’ ”
5. Buy Your Own Damn Books
Bob Sutton, author The No A--hole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t, knows exactly how any business book can become a best-seller. But it’s going to cost you.
“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.”
6. Nobody Has Any Idea What the Hell They’re Doing
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!’”
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the July 20th, 2012 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek.)