Having just finished a new book on body language, brain science, and how people communicate, due out in May 2014 from Harvard, I’m going to post a brief series on writing – what I’ve learned. Is it true that everyone who’s sentient has a book inside waiting to be expressed? What are the best ways to crank out a book-length manuscript? And once you have, what about publishing it? What does that terrain look like?
I guess the obvious question to start with is, why write a book? It’s a lot of work, it takes a long time, and there’s always the risk – growing daily – that no one will read it.
The stats are dire. There are more than one million books published in the US alone every year. Of those, some two thirds are self-published. Book sales are declining, having peaked in 2007. Your nonfiction book published in 2014 will, on average, sell less than 250 copies per year, fewer than 3,000 over its lifetime, which is increasingly short since publishers don’t backlist as much as they used to.
If you think about a book as a product needing to be marketed to sell, then it looks completely daft: why would you bring out a million competing kinds of toothpaste every year and expect them all to sell well?
If you think about your book as competing for precious reader-eyeball-hours, it looks equally idiotic. More books, fewer sales means that publishers have less money to spend on marketing to try to reach those increasingly rare reader-eyeball-hour resources. Less help from the publisher means that the author has to do more and more herself. So you not only have to write the book, you also have to figure out how to sell it.
How will anyone hear about your book? They won’t see it – there’s a less than 1% chance that your book will be stocked in a bookstore. I can’t even calculate the odds that it will be displayed with the cover out.
If you can’t count on the publishers or the bookstores, where does that leave you?
You have to create the market yourself.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I was asking about why anyone would write a book in light of all those scary numbers.
I do think that there are some good reasons to write a book in spite of it all.
To establish yourself as expert in a field. In an era of increasing specialization, and a daily explosion in knowledge, experts have clout and authority. So if you want to be at the head of your field, you need that book – especially if you’re a consultant or something similar, who’s hired because of your expertise. And then you’ll probably need another book in a few years’ time. But let’s worry about the next book later.
To become a professional public speaker in your field. Public speakers – the paid ones – still need a book to point to, to establish their bona fides. The only exception to this is celebrity status from something remarkable you’ve done. If the status is sufficiently strong, you can just have people talk to your agent when they call. But watch out – last year’s celebrity status fades quickly, and then you’ll need that book. Even (former) President Clinton has had to write books to keep himself in the public eye.
To satisfy your inner need to get it down on paper. It may be ego, it may be explanation, it may be just wanting to leave a record of your passing through this world of woe. But I happen to think that writing a book to make a personal statement is a perfectly good idea for book writing.
To create a public persona and personal brand in order to succeed in your field of endeavor. It used to be loyalty that bound employer and employee together. Now, loyalty is passé, and you need an edge for getting that promotion, or making that smart lateral move, or jumping to another organization. I’ve seen too many great workers cast aside because of politics or because of a sudden shift in the business. They’re left in career limbo and may never get back to where they were. A book is the beginning of a personal brand and a public persona that will keep you in demand.
To create marketing oomph. I’ve seen a number of friends and clients write their way to marketing success with a book that catapults them into the inner circle of consultants, companies or service providers. If you’re a small organization, a book can help you compete with the big players. If you’re in a crowded field, a book can help you stand out. And so on.
I believe all of these reasons are good ones to write a book. A combination of several reasons makes even more compelling an argument. Each one of these reasons will suggest different marketing strategies and roles for your book. That’s why it’s important to get clear from the outset why you’re writing one.
Next time, I’ll talk about what to do next – once you’ve decided that a book is a good idea for you or your organization.