Book Publishing: Winners and Losers

Success is something that is usually best explained in hindsight, when one can see the trends that came together that made someone or something into a hit, while another seemingly surefire idea or icon went down in flames. Much like the stock market, it’s easier to make guesses at why something happened than to venture a guess on what will happen.

Still, there are certain steps one can take that will increase one’s odds of success: the right combination of bait and tackle or the right look matched with the right song. The same is true of writing a successful book. While there is no guarantee of success, taking certain steps can help make success more likely.

In his candid post “The Author’s Dilemma – Why Most Business Books Suck,” John Greathouse explains why in his opinion most business books aimed at entrepreneurs aren’t very good, or very useful. By “reverse engineering” his reasons why these books fail to achieve their purposes, we can identify the positive traits that a good book should have.

“Why do most business books suck?” Greathouse asks. His answer: “In many cases, the relevant content of business books could be summarized in fewer than five pages.” So thin content is a problem, and a successful book might contain more meat and fewer trimmings.

Greathouse reminds authors that entrepreneurs need “tactical guidance,” not lofty corporate strategy. They don’t have time to read thick tomes, much less the attention span. The takeaway: make sure your content is suited to your audience. “The business world” is a big place where everyone from the owner of a small plumbing company to the CEO of General Electric dwells. Know which one of them is meant to read your book.

Greathouse also bemoans the large numbers of “formula” business books: the parable (for example, Who Moved My Cheese?), the biography (Winning, by former GE CEO Jack Welch), or the historical novel (the marketplace is overloaded with books at the moment about how Wall Street’s excesses precipitated the 2008 recession). Formulas are popular because they work; however, a smart author may look at the marketplace, ascertain what kinds of books are missing from it at the moment, and direct their effort toward filling a niche.

But just having a good book that avoids Greathouse’s pitfalls may not be enough. surveyed 200 authors and found that the number of books sold was directly related to how much help the author received. According to their website,

4,500 Median number of copies sold of the first book that an author wrote where the author did notuse a book publicity or marketing service

5,000  Median number of copies sold of the first book an author wrote where the author did notuse a book agent

10,000  Median number of copies sold of the first book an author wrote where the author did use a book publicity or marketing service

12,000  Median number of copies sold of the first book an author wrote where the author did use a book agent

If you blend these numbers with Greathouse’s ideas, the winning strategy is to write a good book, sold to a publisher by an agent and marketed well by a professional publicity or marketing service. Will this guarantee success? Again, no one truly knows the cosmic forces that align to make the 1969 Mets World Series winners, and the New York Yankees, with baseball’s highest payroll, frequent losers at crunch time. But one thing is certain: doing the right things will increase your odds of success substantially.

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