As publishing ventures go, the book Briefs for Building Better Brands: Tips, Parables and Insights for Market Leaders has been something less than a runaway success. It recently ranked 556,532nd on Amazon's bestseller list. Author Allan Gorman, a New Jersey consultant, figures just a few hundred souls actually shelled out $16.29 for his 152-page self-published collection of essays. He gave away most of the 1,500 copies he printed to clients and friends, and he still has 400 taking up space in his office.
Nonetheless, Gorman sees the 2004 book as a roaring success. "It's turned my business completely around," he says. He's getting more invitations to speak to marketing groups and a better reception when he meets potential clients--many of whom seem impressed to be dealing with a published author. The book, Gorman says, helped push revenue at his firm, Brandspa, up 25% in 2005. That's a nice return on a minimal investment, since it involved little actual writing (he compiled it mostly from things he'd already written for newsletters and his website) and cost less than $10,000 to design, edit, and print. "The book is a calling card, an advertisement for my consulting," Gorman says.
It's been more than 20 years since two books--Iacocca and In Search of Excellence--first turned business titles into a hot category. Since then, for better or worse, thousands of CEOs and consultants have been inspired to get in touch with their inner Hemingway. A few such efforts have become bestsellers, but most wind up as gifts to clients, required reading for employees, or just nifty adornments for credenzas. But that doesn't signify failure. For many writers, the hoped-for payoff from publishing a book comes not from bookstores but at their day jobs, where the halo and image-boosting created by literary efforts can help generate new business.
It's a time-worn formula, but it's getting a new twist. In the past, most would-be business authors tried to get their books published by a big publishing house, usually by agreeing to a small advance and a "buyback," in which the author promises to purchase thousands of copies himself. But lately publishers have soured on these deals, which usually aren't very profitable. At the same time, a host of new online services has made self-publishing easier and cheaper than ever. And anyone can list his or her book on Amazon.com. What's more, the perception of self-publishing has changed. "Even two years ago, I'd have said independent publishing is really stupid--you're acknowledging you can't get a real contract," says Paul B. Brown, author of Publishing Confidential: The Insider's Guide to What It Really Takes to Land a Nonfiction Book Deal. But today even A-listers like Tom Peters and Jim Collins have self-published titles. And as self-publishing gains cachet, more businesspeople are looking at books as effective promotional tools.
Barry Nadell can attest to that. Since 1994, he and his wife, Leslie, have run InfoLink Screening Services, a company in Chatsworth, Calif., that offers employee background screening and drug testing. By 1995, Nadell was getting speaking invitations from human resources associations to talk about laws relating to background checks. The more speeches he gave, the more he recognized the potential of having a book to sell to the crowd afterward. So in 2004, he self-published Sleuthing 101: Background Checks and the Law, getting 5,000 copies for about $10,000--less than the cost of an ad campaign in a trade publication. He easily recouped that cost by selling copies for $19.95 at speeches and in online bookstores. But far more valuable has been the exposure Nadell has received as an author. "I've been interviewed over 150 times on talk radio, which is like having an infomercial that costs nothing," says Nadell. The book, he estimates, has boosted his company's revenue by nearly $1 million.
The self-publishing process is ridiculously simple. True skinflints can set the margins on Microsoft Word to make their manuscript look like book pages, and then send it directly to a digital publishing house such as Fidlar Doubleday or Starnet Media Group. Dan Poynter, who runs Para Publishing in Santa Barbara, Calif., offers a website and seminars for self-publishers. He recommends making a slightly larger investment by hiring a professional editor, a cover designer, and a typesetter (the total cost can be as low as $3,500). Printing costs usually start at around $3 per copy, depending on length and quantity ordered.
The actual writing--assembling war stories, case studies, and wisdom into coherent chapters--often is the hardest part. For first-timers, many publishing-on-demand firms offer research and ghostwriting services starting at about $60 an hour; the total price tag depends on the size of the project. Once the books arrive, head to www.amazon.com/publishers to find out how to list the title for sale.
Then the real work begins. Authors published by established houses complain endlessly about how little promotional help they get. As a self-publisher, you'll get exactly none. Start by sending review copies to any publication you think might publish reviews, which are the most cost-effective form of getting the word out. If your business has put you in demand as a speaker, ask conference organizers to buy copies of your book for everyone in attendance, or arrange to sell and sign books in the back of the room afterward. (The National Speakers Association runs workshops on exploiting such book-speech synergies.) And handing out copies to employees, existing clients, and potential new clients often leads to unexpected sales. "I've had clients who've bought 500 books at a time," says C. Leslie Charles, a Michigan-based jewelry designer who has self-published four books. And consider sending copies to established publishers, too; it's not unusual for big publishers to buy rights to a smart self-published title.
Of course, as more entrepreneurs write their stories, it's reasonable to ask whether this is necessarily a good thing for readers. The business book aisles are starting to resemble the blogosphere, home to 70 million-plus bloggers--but perhaps only several hundred actually worth reading. Just because you can write a book, should you? "If you're a consultant or a CEO, the worst thing that can happen is readers will say, 'This book sucks, I wasted my money, shame on them," warns Mark Sanborn, president of the consulting firm Sanborn & Associates, who's published books on his own and with mainstream publishers (including The Fred Factor: How Passion in Your Work and Life Can Turn the Ordinary Into the Extraordinary, a recent Wall Street Journal bestseller).
That prospect is unlikely to prove much of a deterrent. A recent survey found that 81% of Americans believe they have a book inside them, waiting to be written. There may not be readers for all those titles. But in offices throughout the country, there are bookshelves waiting to receive them.