Inc. At 20 Years!
Look back at the people and trends that shaped our world, 1979-1999

How a business book is made, and what you don't want to know about it

Author's note: Everything you are about to read is true. Only a few names--and an identifying detail or two--have been changed, so that I can continue to keep my children and my ex-spouse in the manner to which they have become accustomed.

PART 1
In which we see how thoughts became branded ideas

"I need a book."

The man on the other end of the phone is a futurist who used to work for Apple, but it really doesn't matter what he does for a living. He (or his representative) could be a consultant, an Inc. 500 CEO , or a business-school professor. They all say the same thing when they call me. "I need a book. I need you to make me a best-selling author."

Welcome to the world spawned by In Search of Excellence. Little did McKinsey consultants Tom Peters and Bob Waterman imagine, when they set out to commercialize their ideas nearly 20 years ago, that--

  • they would spawn an entirely new industry: the branded-idea business, and
  • in the process, they would create jobs for people like me.

Before In Search of Excellence, if you came up with an idea, it became part of the business currency. With the exception of Peter Drucker--and perhaps W. Edwards Deming--the creator of the idea remained unknown. Sure, there was always the maverick business professor who did extensive consulting work with corporations--for example, Ted Levitt of the Harvard Business School is a key reason that companies started going global in the 1970s--but for the most part their names were known to only a few. (1)

Peters and Waterman changed all that. They proved that at worst your "silver-bullet solution" (2) could make you a guru (see " When Everyone Was Excellent." ) and at best could lead to a cottage industry.

Want to know how big the branded-idea business is?

  • Take a look at the business section of your local bookstore or library. It is 20 times larger than it was in 1982, when HarperCollins (née Harper & Row) published In Search of Excellence. The majority of those books cluttering up today's shelves deal with just one idea.
  • Think about the person who addressed your last trade-association meeting. She had a book, right?
  • There are now two major publishers--Currency (part of Bantam Doubleday Dell) and HarperBusiness (part of HarperCollins) that produce nothing but this kind of book.

Nobody has an exact number, but the value of the branded-idea business must be approaching $10 billion a year, when you factor in the ancillary businesses such as the speeches, videos, seminars, and consulting work that result from having a book published.

That last point is no small one.

The smart "authors" today view their books as loss leaders.

I'm ghosting a book for which a major publisher gave the named author a $250,000 advance. After agent fees and expenses, I am getting the entire advance to create the book, which will be out this fall. Why would "the author" readily give up a quarter of a million dollars (besides the fact that I am such a charmer)? The reason is simple. He figures his consulting business will go up $5 million a year once he has a book to leave behind on sales calls. "Spending" $250,000 to generate $5 million is a 20:1 return. Not all consultants are dumb.

PART 2
In which it's explained how 'writing' gets done

OK, so how does one of these business books get created?

It starts with an idea. A potential author could generate it. ("Hmm, I wonder how the wit and wisdom of Yogi Berra could be applied to management.") But just as frequently the idea comes from an editor ("Can we do Your Inner Angel's Guide to Management?") or an agent ("Susie is doing 75 business/motivational speeches a year, and she's never been on TV. Damn, we've got to get this girl a book").

From there the process is very Hollywood. No, not in the sense that everyone wears Armani, (3) but in the way that movies are developed.