Dear Business Leader,
If you’re like most of my clients, here’s your problem:
You can’t get your book out of your head and onto the paper!
My authors have amassed so much experience, expertise, and insights that it’s daunting to figure out how to break it down and organize it into a book that people actually want to read.
“Tom” (not his real name, of course) is a perfect example of the business leaders who come to me. He runs a boutique consulting firm whose analysts work with some of the biggest companies on the Fortune 500.
When we first spoke, he said, “Derek, I know how to write. I write all the time. Reports, white papers, analysis findings, training summaries—you name it. But when it comes to writing this @&%! book, I just sit there looking at the screen. It’s like my mind just goes blank.”
He was honestly relieved when I told him that he’s in the same boat as virtually every other business author I’ve worked with.
Tom’s first problem: he tried to write his book the hard way
When first-time writers sit down at the keyboard, they try to go from blank screen to final product. They envision a hardbound book with a gorgeous cover and thick, print-worthy paper. They see themselves cracking it open for the first time and inhaling that new-book smell. The pages flutter open to the beginning: “Chapter I.”
They go through the book in their fantasy world, hearing their brilliance come through the words on every page. They impart sage wisdom and the crucial learning that their readers need and want.
Then they open their eyes, look at the computer screen, and have no idea where to start.
That never works.
The process of creation is inherently chaotic. Professional artists know this. That’s why painters create sketches and sculptors create models (a maquette or bozzetto) before creating the full-scale work of art.
While business books may not be on the same level as the Mona Lisa, the creative process is the same: sometimes you just have to start somewhere before you can figure out where you’re going.
The great thing about writing (vs. painting and sculpting) is that you can easily edit your work.
(Kind of hard to part marble back on after chiseling.)
Instead of trying to create the perfect book from the beginning, Tom should have just written something—anything—to get going. He could always come back and change it later.
But the feeling that he had to get it right from the very beginning paralyzed him, like it does with everybody else.
(Don’t try to stare the page down; it doesn’t blink.)
The second problem Tom faced was that, unbeknownst to him, he was wrestling with two books at the same!
This is also pretty common among my authors. They know so much that they usually have enough material for two or even three different books.
When they try to write “the book,” they get frustrated and confused: “Should this go in here or not? I want to say this…but I want to say that, too! Why is this so hard!?”
Once we go through my discovery process, we identified the two books, then picked which one he needed to write now and which one he could write later.
As a side note, let me say this (and hear me well):
So many business professionals try to cram everything they know into one book and it just comes out a jumbled mess. Don’t be that guy.
I tried to do with my own book in The Business Book Bible. Eventually, I found my sanity and cleaved off the material for what eventually became Why Ghostwriters Write It Better (forthcoming).
By focusing on writing business books—instead of how to write a business and how to work with a business book ghostwriter—each of the respective works was more focused, more relevant to their respective audiences, and stronger for the resulting editing.
Pick the book you need to write first, and shelve all the other material for another day.
The third and last problem Tom faced—but probably the most important—is that he didn’t know who he was writing to.
The #1 question you have to answer as a business author:
“Who is my one reader?”
I can’t stress it enough: this is the most critical issue you have to decide on.
Everything—from the title to the content to the font choice—hinges on the answer to that question.
The scary thing is: I have yet to work with an author who knew the answer.
They thought they were writing for one audience, but after we got down into the weeds, we realized that their content, their message, their focus, their tone was all aimed at someone else.
In Tom’s case, his book was ostensibly written for middle managers, but after digging into his material, I pointed out that it was really for front-line employees. That is, one step below who he thought he was writing for.
Another author had a slightly different twist on this problem. When Dr. Karin Stumpf came to me, she intended to write a management book for her consulting clients. About four months into the project, I said, “Karin, after all the conversations we’ve had…I really think you’re writing a leadership book here”—a subtle but distinct difference.
After a few rounds of discussions and some deep thought, she came to the same conclusion. We retooled the manuscript, worked in some new material, and voila!: Leading Business Change was published by Productivity Press (an imprint of academic publisher Taylor & Francis).
So how do I magically navigate all these authors’ challenges?
How do I sift and sort through years of experience, all their stories, all their ideas for the masterpiece to emerge with a clean manuscript?
Is it some sort of superpower? The ghost equivalent of x-ray vision?
I’m good (okay, if I’m being completely honest, I’m really good) at extracting abstract principles and processes from a mountain of transcribed confusion.
Also, I write really
But even with those capabilities, the first couple of books I ghosted were like pulling teeth. (Thank goodness I had—and have—wonderful authors who’re committed to creating a great book, no matter what it takes.)
No, it took me a couple of early clients and a lot of analysis before I stumbled upon my easy and natural 5-step process for writing business books.
Early on, I called the first step in the ghostwriting process “the interview.” After working with client after client like Tom who didn’t quite know what their book should say, I realized that what we were really doing was discovering their book.
That is, they would talk and talk and talk—with me thoughtfully listening and prompting as necessary—while we explored one idea or chased an idea down the rabbit hole. I’d then send all those audio files to my transcriptionist in Kansas.
At the end of a few weeks’ worth of conversations, I’d have a mountain of raw material to work from. The bones of their book were there before me (literally in black and white) but not in any particular order.
This is where I did my magic. I printed everything out and went through the pile of papers, sifting and sorting, stacking and restacking, looking for themes, hidden gems, overlooked points, uncovered threads of logic, and unconnected cause-and-effect until I emerged from the mess bearing “the Blueprint”: the working document that identified:
(In case you’re counting, that’s just Step 2.)
Only after we’d done all our homework and figured out what we’re writing and to whom we’re writing did we actually start writing.
This is where I ghosted the first chapter, sent it to Tom, let him read it, got on the phone, got his feedback, went through everything he liked and didn’t like, everything that sounded like him or not, all the new stories and ideas that reading the chapter spurred, etc., etc., etc.
I collected all his feedback and then ghosted chapter two. Then we did it all over again.
With each chapter’s feedback, I got a better sense of Tom’s voice. He got better clarity on what he really wanted to say. We both got a better feel for how the book was shaping up.
But don’t imagine that this was a glorious time where the heavens opened, the angels sang, and a light shined down from above.
No, as you read earlier, the act of creation is necessarily chaotic.
By the time we were finished, this first draft of the manuscript was anything but pretty. There were paragraphs bolted on in odd places, sentences sticking out here and there unnaturally, and stories stitched into places they had no business being.
That’s why I call this step “Frankendraft”—writing a book is less about painting the Mona Lisa and more about bringing Frankenstein to life.
Every chapter, every paragraph, every line, every word.
Not to check for typos (I hire proofreaders for that) but to make sure the the words flowed…that we folded a whole paragraph into a single sentence…that the words were powerful, compelling, and clear.
Have you ever edited yourself and found that just by moving one sentence around, the meaning of an entire paragraph became clearer? Have you proofread your own work and discovered that changing just one word changed the entire tone of the sentence?
That’s what real editing is about. Not just that the content is there and that it makes sense, but that it’s presented as powerfully and clearly as humanly possible.
That’s another challenge most first-time business authors face when they sit down to write: they get so hung up on presenting their content that they become paralyzed. A great ghostwriter knows that it’s going to sound rough in the beginning.
After the major overhaul of the manuscript, I gave the manuscript to Tom to read over as well as share with a few select people: namely, his spouse and chief consultant.
(Again, in case you’ve lost count, that’s only Step 4.)
Having his wife and right-hand man read the manuscript did three things:
After getting the tweaks and tidbits back from his trusted readers, Tom and I put our heads together and decided what to change, what to delete, and what to bolster.
I made the changes, went through the whole manuscript again—editing yet again as I went—and then…
…we still weren’t finished.
No, after making all those changes, the manuscript had to go through yet another round of editing: proofreading.
You see, it is physiologically impossible to proofread your own work. It’s why you can read and re-read an email five times and still never catch a glaring typo. It’s not because you weren’t paying attention; it’s because your mind showed you what you expected to see.
I’m a professional writer. I know the rules of grammar. I know the Chicago Manual of Style. Despite my country upbringing and Southern accent, I do know correct English.
(By the way, there’s not really such a thing as “correct” English, but that’s a discussion for another time.)
Despite that, I’m still chagrined when my proofreader finds 3rd-grade mistakes in my copy.
That’s why you always—always—get a proofreader.
And then, if you’re really smart…you get another.
It’s why the major publishing houses put their authors’ manuscripts through two, three, or even four rounds of proofreading by separate, fresh proofreaders. I do the same.
That’s right. I like my author’s book to go through two independent proofreaders after I’m through with it.
A thought leadership book is unlike any other kind of book.
Even though they’re shelved alongside business books, they really deserve their own genre.
You see, other books are primarily written as commercial products, just like iPads or suits or soup.
A customer buys it and, if they like it, they buy more of the same.
With other kinds of authors, they write a book, a reader buys it, and then the author writes another one and their readers buy the new book.
Thought leaders look at authoring differently.
A business author doesn’t count on their book’s sales; they count on what the book sells.
They know that they’re not going to recoup their investment in writing a book. While they’d love to sell a million copies—or at least break-even—that would just be the icing on the cake.
The real benefit in writing a thought leadership book is all the other things it does for their business.
In the study of business authors “The Business Impact of Writing a Book” conducted by Wellesley Hills Group (and cited by Forbes, Bloomberg, and BusinessWeek), the researchers found:
96% [of business authors ] said they did realize a significant positive impact on their businesses from writing a book and would recommend the practice.
Most of them, however, said that the indirect benefits—generating more leads, closing more deals, charging higher fees, and getting better speaking engagements—far outweighed the direct benefits of book publishing.
Not every business book is an expert book and not every business author is a business owner. Some business books are works of love whose authors never intended for them to offer any return on their investment of time and money.
Even those authors still reap these rewards.
Take Marc Levinson’s example from writing The Box, an engrossing history of the metal shipping container. (Yes, engrossing.) In the preface to the paperback edition, he wrote:
Early on in my work…I would proudly tell [people] I was writing a history of the shipping container. The result was invariably stunned silence…Eventually, I stopped talking about the book altogether…The response to the book’s publication in the spring of 2006, then, caught me by surprise…[The] invitations began to arrive. In New York, I shared a platform with architects using containers to design office buildings and portents. In Genoa, I spoke alongside an entrepreneur who turned containers into temporary art galleries, while in Santa Barbara, California, the local museum joined forces with a university to [address] ramifications of the container I have never considered…
Even with a subject as seemingly boring as metal boxes and transportation, a book propelled an author to become an expert speaker and consultant…even though the author had no intention of becoming such.
That’s the power of a business book.
In the old days (circa 1990), there was no question. If you wanted to be a legitimate, serious author, you had to get a legitimate, serious publisher.
Sure, you could print your own book…but it wouldn’t look like a real book.
Self-published books stuck out like sore thumbs and no serious bookstores or retailers would carry them. Self-published authors either handed out their pitiful books to family and friends or sold them out of the trunk of their car.
(The real history of self-publishing is much more engrossing, but that’s the Cliff’s Notes version.)
If you wanted your book to look like a real book, you needed a professional cover designer, a professional typesetter, a professional book printer and binder, professional editors, etc.—and all those professionals were gainfully employed by the industry. They didn’t need (nor were they probably allowed) to take on side-jobs for would-be authors.
Fast-forward to today.
The publishing industry has been turned on its head, many (most?) of those professionals are now subcontractors who can freelance, and the equipment needed to create a professional-looking book can be hired for a fraction of the price.
In other words, the barriers to entry have fallen like the Berlin Wall.
That’s both good and bad.
It’s good for those of us who have niche books whose market is too small for a publisher to justify (like my book, The Business Book Bible: its comparatively small readership can’t justify a full print run). It’s great for those who want to print a book with no interference from the publishing house. It’s great for authors whose books won’t be a commercial success (as many thought leadership books aren’t).
On the other hand, those barriers kept out the riffraff.
To be a published author meant that you had been vetted by a literary agent, an acquisitions editor, a publishing committee, and a host of other publishing professionals. It meant you were legit.
Nowadays, any lonely housewife can publish a cheesy romance novel.
(No offense to housewives or the romance genre. I have friends and loved ones who identify with both.)
Because of that, the overall quality of “published” material has gone down the drain. Self-published authors rush to Amazon believing they’ve written something worthy of sharing with the world…when in reality, it’s only a rough draft that holds the promise of one day being a decent book.
I don’t hold that against them. Nobody wants to believe they have an ugly baby. Unfortunately, they soon find out when nobody shows up at the baby shower.
If you’re not going to go the traditional publishing route, then you have to take on the responsibility of doing all the professional vetting that your publisher would.
On the other hand, you retain full control, all rights to your intellectual property, and you can design your book around your overall marketing platform vs. experiencing all the horror stories I could share with you about traditionally published authors with successful books who have absolutely sworn off publishers (and there’s a very long list).
I don’t advocate for either. Both have their pros and cons.
But basically (and I mean very basically), it boils down to this:
Which is right for you?
In graduate school, I learned to always start an answer with, “It depends…”
For Tom, credibility wasn’t an issue. With his market, just the fact that there was a book on the subject was enough to overwhelm any worries about whether the author was legitimate or not. Plus, we used a graphic artist who focused exclusively on book cover design, an old-school typesetter trained in New York’s publishing world, two professional proofreaders…and, of course, a professional ghostwriter. His book was sleek and sound.
On the other hand, I’ve worked with authors whose budgets simply couldn’t justify the expenses that come with self-publishing or who wanted the credibility that comes with a big publishing house.
So we create a publishing proposal, queried a number of literary agents (and some small publishing houses), and landed them a publishing contract. They loved the feedback and guidance they received and breathed easier knowing that an established publisher was behind them.
It all comes down to your unique situation and perspective.
Authors like Tom gravitate to me. I know how to take their extremely technical or otherwise complex information and, using a skillful combination of their stories and an artful presentation of their material, effectively convey it in such a way that people actually enjoy reading.
Technology, international tax law, economics, data analytics, change methodology, business-to-business sales—regardless of the subject matter, I translate my authors’ knowledge into a smooth read that informs and intrigues at the same time.
But writing for the reader is only one side of the coin.
The other side is subtly weaving the author into the book, deftly referring to their accomplishments or experience without boasting or seeming self-centered. The goal is to artfully earn the reader’s trust and respect without turning them off or alienating them. People need to connect the ideas they read with a real person behind the words—not some disembodied narrator. For those executives to really listen to Tom, they had to feel like the author was really speaking to them.
Once you win your reader’s confidence, they can let down their defenses. Instead of challenging or arguing with your every assertion, they can relax and settle into a meaningful conversation with you and your ideas. But of course, they won’t do that until they believe you know what you’re talking about. Ergo, you must win their respect and admiration even as you win their trust.
That’s the art and science of business books.
It’s okay to admit it: there’s a little bit of ego in writing a book.
That’s actually a good thing.
If there weren’t, you wouldn’t invest the same amount of pride, passion, and priority in making sure your book represented you, your thoughts, your experience, and your life well.
Even business books are intensely personal, intimate works.
Frank Lloyd Wright could point to his buildings. Steve Jobs could point to the iPhone. Roman Polanski can point to Rosemary’s Baby.
But business owners—and especially those who work with intangible ideas—they don’t have those physical representations of their life’s work—
…until they write a book.
It’s more than “just a book.”
In my ebook How Business Authors Work with Ghostwriters, I list the three primary criteria every author and ghostwriter have to go through to figure out if there’s the potential to work together.
The first and easiest checkpoint is to see if the author’s project is a fit for the ghostwriter.
For example, if you’re looking to write a book on vampire erotica…I am obviously not your man. Business fables, yes. Story-based thought leadership books, absolutely. But novels? I’d have to pass.
Second, you have to ask whether the ghostwriter fits in your budget for the project. I’ve had some wonderful people with great stories.
Alas and alack, I had to pass.
I understand that my fees don’t fit in everyone’s budget. It’s hard to justify hiring a specialized professional for a project unless you expect a substantial return on investment (or are so wealthy that you’re not looking for a return).
But honestly, those are the easy questions.
The harder issue is whether we’re right to work together at all.
When you hire a ghostwriter, you need someone that you “click” with—someone with whom you have a near-instant rapport. If our personalities mesh well together, then we can get past figuring how to work together and get down to the actual work.
When we both enjoy working together on the project, the book reflects it. That enthusiasm, that synchronicity, that—dare I say it—synergy flows into the ink on the page.
Basically, we’ve got to figure out if we like each other enough to spend hours and hours together over the next several months.
No you don’t. If you did, you wouldn’t be reading this. Writing a book is incredibly, excruciatingly difficult. Were it not for the irony—and if I could have afforded somebody like me—I would have hired a ghostwriter for The Business Book Bible.
And you never will.
I have yet to work with an author who knew exactly how their book should read. Some have a better idea than others, but all need help figuring out what to write about and how to present it.
You’d be surprised at how many people you know who would love to know what you know.
But here’s the more important consideration: you should write your book for you.
Taking hours to go over the events of your life, your collected insights and experiences, and turning into something cohesive enough to read is one of the most incredible personal journeys you’ll ever have the privilege to walk.
Do it for yourself, if no one else.
My love for business books began in high school with a Brazilian missionary’s tattered copy of “Quest for the Best.”
It was love at first read.
While my peers read the 90s’ equivalent of Twilight, I devoured books on economics, biographies, success stories, business management, entrepreneurship, and anything else business-related.
I earned a degree in economics from Louisiana Tech and then a master’s in economic development from the University of Florida. My graduate thesis on micro-finance was based on my field research with Dominican loan sharks.
My professional career experience includes being the administrator of a non-profit that sheltered expecting and parenting teens. I was also the in-house business and marketing consultant for a $30 million company group, during which I assumed day-to-day operations of a $2 million company for months during a leadership crisis.
Burning with an entrepreneurial spirit, I left conventional employment to start an IT services company with a coworker (who is still successfully in business). During the start-up phase, I supported my family by taking on copywriting projects. Once I realized I could make a living combining my two loves—business and writing—I decided to pursue a full-time career as a business writer.
Today, I’m one of the foremost authorities (in the admittedly niche field) of business thought leadership books. My clients include a Texas oil tycoon, a Turkish economist, an IT startup millionaire, a Brazilian attorney, and a Cajun colonel, among others.
Originally from Mayberry (a.k.a. Pitkin, Louisiana), I live in Baton Rouge with my wife, children, and a small zoo.