It wasn’t always the case, but in the last two decades some great business books have leapt from the sports pages of our local newspapers to the business book shelves of our local bookstores.
The marriage of sports and business in the book world was inevitable.
After all, the two have much in common. Both are competitive endeavors. Both have winners and losers, and both require hundreds of hours, scratch that, thousands of hours to become world class in each respective field. Once coaches and athletes started to write business books, the similarities between the playing fields of each became far more transparent.
Of course, only a small percentage of sports books are business books. For example, the legendary hall-of-famer Vince Lombardi wrote the now classic book Run to Daylight in the 1960’s as a behind-the-scenes, “week in the life” of the Green Bay Packers book. Ironically, three decades later his son, Vince Lombardi, Jr., would write the definitive business book featuring his dad’s leadership techniques in 2001. I had the good fortune to edit that book, What It Takes to Be #1 among other, shorter, Lombardi books in that same business genre.
The list of sports figures who wrote bestselling business books gets longer all the time. Many of the good ones were written by basketball heroes inthe 1990s, when writing about business and sports became all the rage. Rick Pitino (former coach of the Kentucky Wildcats), Pat Riley (former coach of the New York Knicks, Miami Heat), and Michael Jordan (legend of the Chicago Bulls) were but three of the authors who wrote one or more best-selling, inspirational leadership books.
One of the greatest business/sports book authors of all time is John Wooden. Once again, I had the chance to work on multiple books by Coach Wooden, who worked closely with first class, prolific writer Steve Jamison. Wooden’s books have sold more than a million copies, even though he did not get started until many years after he won his record number of games and championships at UCLA.
If you are interested in reading some of the best sports/business books of the last few years, you have the chance to do so by following a single writer. John Wooden sidekick Steve Jamison, who, in the interest of total transparency, is a good friend of mine, has mastered the knack of writing bestselling business sports books across several different playing fields. Steve is as prolific in tennis as he is in basketball and football. In addition to the half a dozen or so Wooden books he wrote with Coach Wooden, he is also the co-author of Winning Ugly, the “phenomenon” book he wrote with tennis great and coach Brad Gilbert. And it is the same Steve Jamison that the late, legendary hall-of-famer 49er coach Bill Walsh turned to when he decided to write his leadership memoir. That book, The Score Takes Care of Itself, was written with Walsh’s son Craig as well, and released only weeks ago to great reviews and sales.
If you like business and sports and have not read many books that combine the two, now is your chance. These books may be just the tonic you need to inspire you and your organization to new heights in a time you can really use the help.
Real Gross Domestic Product. The Consumer Price Index. The “Beige Book.” The Jobs Loss Report.” The Survey of Consumer Sentiment. Productivity and Related Data. Corporate Profits. New Construction. The reality is that there are dozens of economic indicators that are supposed to tell us how the U.S. economy is faring.
I have always trusted a far less scientific source to tell me what is really going on behind all of the noise and dueling economic indicators. That source: taxi and sedan drivers. These are the people that can tell you if business is getting better or worse, or just stagnating in a bad place.
This week I was in New York, and the economic picture would have been far murkier if one did not know what was taking place that day. Traffic in Manhattan was the worst I have seen it in a very long time. But that wasn’t because business is starting to boom again; the gridlock that existed from the East Village to the Upper East Side to Queens Boulevard was brought on by the events at the United Nations. I happened to be in New York on Wednesday (September 23rd), the very same day that President Obama addressed the United Nations, which was enough to wreak havoc on the traffic situation all across the tri-state area.
But what about the economy? According to the oracles I spoke with—taxi and sedan drivers—business has not picked up at all. This came as a real surprise. After all, the stock market is up over 50% from its March lows—quite a bounce-back. But it has been said that the financial markets are a leading economic indicator, often predicting what the economy will do six to eight months down the line. So perhaps we are looking at a turnaround that is just around the corner. Or, what may be more realistic, is the jobless recovery that some of the most pessimistic economists have predicted. I am a half full kind of guy, but a jobless recovery seems quite possible, if not probable. Some companies have layed off so many thousands (GM) that they are learning to do more with less. Other firms, particularly financial companies, have disappeared altogether (Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, etc.). We know those jobs are not coming back.
So there is nothing to do but wait. Well, that’s not quite right. Sometimes waiting is the worst thing one can do. I didn’t wait. I left corporate America, started my own business and I thank my lucky stars that I did. Business is brisk. The moral of the story: listen to pundits less and if you happen to be unemployed or “under-employed,” consider your alternatives. After almost three decades I learned that not only is there life after corporate America, but there could be a very good life. But only if one has the courage to step back and take a substantial risk. You can’t do this on a whim – you have to have a plan. However, with the right strategy, who knows how far you can go? You may be able to make liars out of those taxi drivers after all.
I often get asked “when is the best time to publish a business book?” It’s a great question. Every author wants to exploit any advantage the marketplace allows. However, while I do not think there are any real silver bullets when it comes to timing publication of a business book, most of the assumptions about the best month to publish have endured for decades.
For as long as I can remember publishers have chosen the fall to publish their biggest business books—particularly in September and October. For example, Jack Welch’s Memoir, Jack: Straight from the Gut, was published in September (unbelievably, it was published on September 11, 2001). Jim Collins multi-million bestseller, Good to Great, was published in October of 2001, just a few weeks after the Welch book. So, too, was the $7- million Warren Buffett book published in October of 2008 (The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business Of Life).
Not all fall months are great publication months. Late November and December are often bad months for business books, since Thanksgiving and Christmas can derail the effective distribution of a business book. That’s because most business books are not regarded as gift or Christmas books. Coffee table books, new best-selling fiction or big biographies are much better candidates for the holiday season. There are of course exceptions: big personality books in business can see a big spike in sales in December, as can other business books that appeal to a certain segment of a market (avid investors like day traders may find a trading book under the tree on December 25th).
The other great month for business books is January, and for similar reasons that make September so desirable. People make New Year’s resolutions in January that often involves money, which makes January a good month for personal finance books. Similarly, September is strong because of the whole back-to-school mentality in which people return from their summer vacations eager to learn and enhance their skill sets.
Lastly, summer was always regarded as the worst time to publish a business book. But that is becoming more myth than reality, particularly in this tough market environment. Few managers take long vacations these days and when they do, they might take a business book to the beach. However, most executives are still far more likely to read Tom Clancy than Tom Peters on those rare vacations far away from the home office.
Every so often a business book comes out that surprises the publishing world by breaking out and selling millions of copies. In Search of Excellence (1982), the book that launched the business book boom revolution, was such a book. The first printing for that book was around 7,500 copies, yet it went on to sell about 8 million copies.
There is one downside to publishing such an incredibly successful book. It is impossible to match. That’s why I have called books like Excellence “phenomenon” books. Others include Reengineering the Corporation, The One-Minute Manager, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Good to Great—you get the idea. Whenever an author tells me he is writing “the next Good to Great” or next “In Search of Excellence” I run as fast as I can away from the project. That’s because there is no next 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Sure, the author can do The 8th Habit, but it will never come close to the sales of the original phenomenon book.
This reality—the follow-up book only sells a fraction of the original book—creates a real problem for the publisher. When an author hits one out of the park and achieves phenomenon status, the agent selling the next book always looks for a huge pay day that dwarfs the [author] advance paid for the original book. In some cases, the agent/author look for a pay-day that could be five or ten times the original advance, even though the follow-up book is doomed to sell far fewer copies. I have a name for this—“The Sister Act II” phenomenon, named for the movie sequel of the early 1990s.
In 1992 Disney/Touchstone released Sister Act starring Whoopi Goldberg, a movie that lit up the box office to the tune of $140 million domestically and another $90 million overseas. Whoopi Goldberg received a relatively modest fee for that role. However, for Sister Act II, released the next year, Whoopi Goldberg received something like $12 million, at the time, the richest payday for any actress up to that point. And how did the movie do? Well, it was not a flop, but only brought in about $57 million, far less than the original. Hence the term “The Sister II Act phenomenon.”
What is the moral of the story? First of all, if you ever are fortunate to have a genuine runaway hit, reach down and find a little humility. Don’t punish the people who helped you produce that hit by holding them up for a Brink’s truck load of money. Instead work with them, not against them. Remember, these are the people who helped put you on the map in the first place.
Recently an author with whom I had worked congratulated me on getting him published even though he had never been published before. He was writing to me because he was ready to write his next (second) book. “It should be much easier to get me published now,” the author said, ” I mean, I had no track record before.”
What this author missed is the reality and unforgiving nature of the business book market. One failure, and the book buyers from various national chains—such as Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Borders, etc.—will decrease their order for your next book. Once again, it is not rocket science. Everyone loves winners and few people want to be associated with losers (not that you are a loser if you wrote a book that did not sell, but you get the idea). Unless the publisher can convince the buyer that the previous failure was a fluke or due to something out of the ordinary, the distribution of your next book will be limited.
In other words, it is better to have NO track record than a losing one, because your poor track record will follow you and be used against you, especially since there never has been more accurate ways to measure the actual bookstore and online sales of a book (through the bookstore’s own records and a service that started in 2001—Nielsen Bookscan).
So if you are a first time author, lead with your best idea for your first book. If you are a proven author whose last book sold well, congratulations. However, that is no time to sit on yor laurels. Because in the publishing business you are only as good as your last book.
Like a defendant who represents himself at trial, representing yourself [as an author] ensures that you, too, have a fool for a client.
In today’s turbulent, hyper-competitive publishing world, authors should not try to navigate the ins and outs of it all without the benefit of a literary agent. A competent agent can help an author from the idea stage to finished book. This includes everything from drafting the book proposal through the negotiations with various publishers to the preparation of the manuscript itself. And these are just the obvious contributions.
As someone with editor, publisher, author and agent on his resume, I have had a front row seat to the literary world from every vantage point. As an author, I can honestly say that I would never write a book without the benefit of an agent. This isn’t rocket science – just good sense. In addition to all of the aforementioned, an agent handles the thornier things that can possibly derail the relationship between author and editor.
So the next time you think of handling your own business book project by contacting publishers directly, stop and reconsider. Chances are you will be glad you did.
In editing more than 300 books and writing eight of my own, I have learned the importance of humility in the writing process. Writing a book is hard enough; writing a good book, let alone a great one, is a huge challenge. One of the ways not to get there is to fall in love with your own writing. Don’t misunderstand me. Every writer should take great pride in his or her own work. That’s essential if one is ever going to live up to one’s own potential. But that’s not what I am talking about here.
I am referring to those authors who view business books as a venue to include countless personal stories about themselves (stories that no one else cares about), or the author who inserts dozens of quotes by Plato or Aristotle or Adam Smith. The occasional allusion to an historical figure can, when used appropriately, add a nice touch to the text. But when an author really goes overboard, writing about business as if this was his great American novel [think Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway], then he has gone way off the tracks and needs some serious feedback if he is ever going to find his way back again.
There are also the authors who cannot help themselves: they put the quality of the writing ahead of the quality of the content. This, too, can be a fatal error. When it comes to business books, content is king. The writing is important, but only to the extent that it conveys some important lessons that can be of immediate use to managers, investors or whichever audience the author is attempting to reach. The other problem is that authors often are not accurate judges of their writing ability. Authors often write as they speak, which results in many run-on sentences, among other thorny problems.
The key takeaway: make sure that you have the right material, content, etc. before the writing is perfected. Editors and active agents can help with the writing and the words. But it is up to you to supply the right content.
Not entrusting the publisher with all of the promoti0n of your book is another key reality of the business book world. In today’s hyper-competitive book markets, it has never been more important for authors to use every weapon in their arsenal to attract attention and garner interest in their newly published works.
This is why the author’s “platform” is so closely scrutinized by the publisher before any deal is stuck. Editors search the author’s bio to see what the writer can bring to the marketing table. Specifically, publishers look for authors who do any combination of the following: give 75- 100 speeches per year or more, do tons of seminars, appear regularly on radio and TV, especially on the cable news networks, have a great website and blog, are followed by many thousands on Twitter, have an e-mail list of tens of thousands of names…well, you get the idea.
But—you might be thinking—isn’t marketing (promotion and publicity) the responsibility of the publisher? Yes and no. Of course, the publisher must play a huge role by doing all sorts of things for the author, depending on the book, its market, etc. For example, the publisher’s marketing team should be sending out dozens of book galleys to the press and other key “influencers” three to four months ahead of publication.
If the book has honest to goodness publicity potential, then the publisher’s marketing team should be pitching different media on the book, print, radio and television (although most business books won’t lend themselves to TV).
The publisher should help the author to develop his or her “social platform” by educating them on developing a book Website, blogging and Twittering, if the author is not already active in those areas.
One thing publishers should not be doing—except in rare instances—is buying advertising for the book. That almost never pays off. One can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on advertising and barely move the needle.
Ultimately, all activities must be coordinated between the author and publisher. This is key so that the author and publisher don’t cover the same ground. But the days of the publisher handling all of the promotion of a book is a long-forgotten relic of the past. And instead of authors getting upset about the new state of things, they should roll up their sleeves and get to work.
Like so much in publishing, this truism is something of a paradox. If one has no time to write books, how can they turn out any books, never mind the best ones? But this assertion—that the busiest authors are the best—is absolutely irrefutable.
Over the years I have edited hundreds of books by authors of evey kind and stripe. Almost without fail, the best books come from the authors with the most irons in the fire . You know the type. These authors lead Fortune 500 companies, they teach executive education in top B-schools, they blog, consult, put on seminars, conduct large scale research studies and more. These are the owners of the laptops which produce the best books.
To get their books written, these authors write everywhere, especially on planes. [One of my favorite authors, Simon Sinek, author of the upcoming book, Start with Why, would buy plane tickets on Delta Airlines just because he writes best on planes!].
There is one more key reason that the busiest authors are the best ones. Once the book is published, it is the authors with the frenzied schedules that will help their publishers to sell the book. All of the activities I listed above—consulting, putting on seminars, blogging, leading big companies—these authors naturally spark book sales. It is the idle author, who does little or few of these things, who do little to help their own cause. So my advice to aspiring authors? Fill your schedule to the brim and start writing!