Want to write a successful business book? Follow these 3 rules.

Lots of businesspeople want to write a book—and many of them should. Just make sure you do it for the right reasons.

If you’re thinking of writing a book, I say go for it! But just make sure you do it for the right reasons. Some would-be authors want to have a New York Times bestseller. Some want to write a book as a purely promotional vehicle for their business. Well, unless you happen to be a well-known celebrity with a large following, those are the wrong reasons.

If you’re an entrepreneur or business leader seeking a larger canvas, writing a book is one of the most satisfying and rewarding things you can do in and for your business career. But it must be done the right way. To stay on track, you need to be aware of three big realities involved in writing a book.

The first reality is that you can’t bluff your way through the writing process. There’s nowhere to hide on the final, published page, so don’t try it. The printed word strips away all pretences and lays the author bare for all to see. The most successful authors know this, which is why they value being readable to being clever. You should, too, which leads to the first rule of business book-writing. Rule #1: Clarity always beats brilliance.

The second reality is that you can’t promote yourself in a book. If you give in to the desire to splash your brilliance or your company across every page, the reader will quickly tune you out. Virginia Wolff wrote that “the state of reading consists in the complete elimination of the ego.” At a party, we are always put off by blowhards and bores. That goes double for readers of business books who will discard a boring book in seconds. (It takes a little longer to disengage from the human kind.) This leads to the second rule of business book-writing. Rule #2: Don’t promote your business, promote your ideas.

The third reality is that readers may be hardnosed, but they’re seldom closeminded. Readers may punish pretentiousness, attack aimlessness and dismiss diatribes, but they always seek out new ideas and fresh perspectives. They’re looking for the truth, because truth has value. After all, that’s why readers read. A recent book buyer on Amazon noted that “many self-help books are written to satisfy the ego of the writer. […] Not bad or wrong, simply not valuable for a reader.” Every reader enters into an implicit bargain with the author: Tell me the truth and I’ll trust you. If you break that trust, you’re done. There’s no going back. No matter how much credibility and authority the author may bring to the table, if he or she doesn’t level with the reader, the bargain is broken. Which leads to the third rule of business book-writing. Rule #3: Authenticity trumps authority.

Truth should be the ultimate goal of every author. There’s nothing more satisfying than telling the truth. “That’s great,” you might say. “But I don’t have anything much to say. It’s all been done before.”

Has it? Has it all been done?

Do you really have nothing to say?

If you truly believe those two things, I think you need to ask yourself a question: Why have thousands of books been written on topics like leadership and success and business growth and money management—and why are thousands more on those same topics in the process of being written?

The answer is clear:

Because each book offers a different story told through a different lens. Your lens.

Readers have an insatiable thirst for knowledge and insight. Every well-written book offers this, and more. The “more” is the author’s unique perspective, a perspective borne out of experience and education and a set of beliefs that no one else shares.

Every author has a different world view, just as every author has a unique set of fingerprints. This world view automatically colours their world and their thoughts—and by extension, their book. And that’s what will give your book its originality and freshness—and value.

Businesspeople are smart. Smart people are curious. They’re always searching for answers to problems and challenges. Most of them read copiously because they’re always looking for nuggets and takeaways—fresh insights that can make their world and their business better. Authors provide those building blocks.

The goal of writing a business book is always the same: to help the reader learn something new that they can apply to their own lives.

How do you create such a book?

Start by looking outward. Most people assume writing a business book requires introspection. In fact, that’s not even a half-truth. To provide a book that has real impact, you must look outward, towards the only person that counts: the reader. I’ve said this from the start, but it cannot be repeated enough. Unless you’re writing a modern day version of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, the reader comes first, second, and last. Which means you need to put yourself in the reader’s shoes.

How do you do that?

First, you have to figure out what kind of shoes they’re wearing. Start by looking at their most profound needs and concerns. Get a sense of how your knowledge and experience matches up with those needs and concerns. Those needs will vary according to the type of book you’re writing.

What type of book is that? Great question. In fact, it’s the first question I ask a client:

What kind of book do you want to write?

It isn’t a trick question because your book can run the gamut from a breezy conversational narrative to a deeply researched treatise. Today’s business books are a lot different from those of the past. They are allowed to break conventional boundaries to take on numerous forms including, but not limited to:

  • How-to (The 7 Habits of Effective People)
  • Case study (Good to Great)
  • Exposé (The Big Short)
  • Theory (The Innovator’s Dilemma)
  • New idea (The Power of Why)
  • Allegory (Who Moved My Cheese)
  • Business novel (The Goal)
  • Memoir (Shoe Dog)
  • Biography (Steve Jobs)

That’s a lot of shoes to look at. Part 2 of this post will flesh out the entrepreneur’s dilemma, and help you see which shoe fits best.


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