The Business Of Business Books
Entrepreneur|April 2017

Every entrepreneur today seems to have written a book. But here’s what they might not tell you: The book wasn’t really written to be read. And they didn’t always do any writing.

Jennifer Miller

Sebastian Rusk always wanted to be a professional speaker. “That’s why I was put on this planet,” he says. “To impact thousands of people.” He hadn’t reached his goal yet, but he had lived the kind of inspirational life that makes for great talks. He’d lost everything in the recession and, with only $80 in his pocket, founded a successful social media consultancy called SocialBuzzTV.com in southern Florida. But that next step—the one onto the stage—eluded him, which is why, in July 2013, he attended the annual National Speakers Association Conference in Philadelphia.

On the conference room floor, Rusk got to chatting with Adam Witty, CEO of a publishing company called Advantage Media Group. And Witty told Rusk that he was missing a crucial step in his path to keynote success.

“Have you ever considered writing a book?” Witty asked.

Rusk laughed. “I think about it every day,” he said. “But I’d rather wake up and eat my pillow.” For the past year, the social media consultant had labored to write a table of contents and some bullet points, but he just couldn’t get any further than that.

Witty knew this problem well. He’d come to the conference precisely to find folks like Rusk—which, as he defines them, are entrepreneurs with a message but no bullhorn. And he knew exactly what they wanted to hear. “What if you didn’t have to write?” the publisher asked Rusk. “What if you could write a book just by talking?” Then he laid out his publishing company’s process: Rusk would spend between 10 and 12 hours being interviewed over the phone by an Advantage editor, and those interviews would then be transcribed and molded into a series of chapters. Rusk would work with the editor to refine the manuscript, and Advantage would design the book and publish it.

From start to finish, the entire process would take about 30 hours and cost roughly $25,000. Rusk would have a book, which he could use to help position himself as a thought leader worthy of stage time—because this, Witty said, is why business books are written.

Witty didn’t invent this model, but he’s become a major player in it. He’s part of a booming industry called hybrid publishing—a loose, gray area between self-publishing and traditional get-a-deal-with-Random-House–style publishing—in which authors pay to have their books written, designed, and sold. Many, if not most, of these authors are people seeking to establish themselves as thought leaders in business, and the industry has rapidly grown to serve them. The number of self- and hybrid-published business books has more than doubled in the past four years—from 9,839 in 2012 to 20,499 in 2016, according to the research firm ProQuest. At the same time, the number of traditionally published business books has plummeted, from a high of 66,508 in 2013 to 35,233 last year.

If this trend continues, it won’t be long before hybrid titles outnumber the traditional ones. “We’ve opened the floodgates to let books come into the marketplace way more easily,” says Todd Sattersten, coauthor of The 100 Best Business Books of All Time and owner of a hybrid publisher called Biz Book Lab. And that, in turn, has begun changing what a business book is. Want speaking gigs? Pay to create a book. Trying to impress potential clients? Send them your book. Want media attention, or invitations to appear on television? Publicize your book. The book, in other words, has become a tool of legitimacy—and available to anyone with ideas and the cash to promote them.

But as hybrid publishing grows, some skeptics wonder if the industry may be forced to reckon with the results of its own success: a market flooded with forgettable books created by companies for hire. “If you could buy an Oscar, it wouldn’t mean anything to be an Oscar-winning actor,” says David Moldawer, a longtime editor at Penguin and St. Martin’s Press, who now (brace yourself) owns his own book development company. “Publishers”—by which he means traditional publishers—“have gravitas. There’s this very smart person wearing a tweed jacket, which they sometimes do wear, who looks through all these manuscripts and decides that your book is the one.”

Rusk wasn’t concerned about any of this at the speakers’ conference. Witty’s pitch had intrigued him, and, he reasoned, it was the only reliable way to produce a book full of his own ideas. “We inked the deal in October, and the first set of books was on my doorstep in March,” Rusk said. “You can’t put a price on convenience. It’s like the express lane.” His book was called Social Media Sucks! (If you don’t know what you’re doing), and it came out in 2014. Then he set out to see how useful his book could really be.

IN THE POPULAR CONSCIOUSNESS, writers spend years laboring over their manuscripts, honing their ideas, and then struggle to be noticed. Traditional publishing is a slog—find an agent, pitch a book, and if it’s picked up by a publisher, sign away the rights to your work, then spend years doing edits and waiting for the book to slot into a publishing schedule—and the majority of these people don’t score a deal, because most entrepreneurs “aren’t in a position to be commercially published,” says Sattersten.

That’s because traditional publishers’ business model forces them to be ultra-picky. Every book is essentially a financial bet. A publisher pays the author an advance, which could be anywhere from a few thousand to a few hundred thousand dollars, and then invests an enormous amount of resources in producing and marketing the book without any guarantee that it will sell. To hedge their bets, traditional publishers want to work mostly with authors who have a well-established platform—a major social media following, a track record of successful books, a regular TV appearance schedule, and so on. A facility with language doesn’t hurt, either.

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