Pat Lencioni was quietly consulting to a handful of clients before he wrote "The Five Temptations of a CEO" in 1998. Now, with nine bestsellers and three million copies of his books sold, Lencioni is a bona fide business celebrity, and the glow all accrues to his consulting firm, the Table Group.
Chris Brogan was a successful but relatively anonymous blogger before he co-wrote "Trust Agents." It hit the New York Times bestseller list, and now his marketing agency, New Marketing Labs, benefits from his celebrity every time Brogan tweets his status.
Fortunately, you don't need an established writing career to write a business book. But you do need a good idea and the right format for it. Here are five common formats to choose from:
Jim Collins is arguably the most famous user of the research-centric format. "Built to Last," "Good to Great" and "How the Mighty Fall" were spawned from his research lab in Boulder, Colorado.
The raw material for this format is a piece of research you have done that renders a counterintuitive result that the world needs to know about. Marcus Buckingham and his colleagues at the Gallup Organization surveyed thousands of organizations and managers and discovered that, instead of correcting weaknesses, the most effective leaders focus on the strengths of their direct reports. This research insight led to the bestseller "Now, Discover Your Strengths."
Caution: Research-centric books can be costly and time-consuming to produce since you actually have to underwrite the cost of the research and analysis in order to develop a manuscript.
Pat Lencioni's books are all fictional stories that provide guidance for real-life business problems. The beauty of writing a parable is that you don't have to let the mundane details of real life get in the way of a good story. You can keep the pace moving and make the characters be and do whatever you want to communicate your message.
Caution: Some people are turned off by parables and find the stories too squishy and superficial, so make sure your tale has a practical message at its core. You may also want to consider a nonfiction how-to section at the back.
"The 4-Hour Workweek," arguably the most successful nonfiction book of the millennium, was written by Timothy Ferriss as a how-to book on "lifestyle design." The book reads like an instruction manual for creating a better life and is complete with very tactical ideas (e.g., how to use an auto-responding email to buy yourself more travel time). It doesn't pretend to be an academic tome or literary masterpiece, but it is packed with actionable tips, scripts and advice.
Caution: Unless, like Ferriss, you're talking about how to finance a swashbuckling travel schedule, the how-to format can come off as a boring textbook if your theme is too dry or writing style too academic.
In "Losing My Virginity," Richard Branson tells the story of how he dropped out of school at age 16 to create the magazine Student only to see it fail. Branson describes how he picked himself back up, built and sold his record label and started an airline, all the while indulging in all of life's pleasures and adventures.
Caution: It's fun to get inside the head of someone famous through an autobiography, but you'd better have a life story like Richard Branson's to hold people's attention through 300 pages.
Rants and musings
"Rework," one of the bestselling books of 2010, is a collection of philosophies and opinions of the authors, 37signals founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson. Each rant is short -- maybe 500 to 800 words -- and the rants are strung together in a series of thematic chapters.
Caution: Rants can be fun to read but can also make a reader feel as though they're being talked at and preached to. It's a delicate balance to write a rant book without turning off readers.
I've written two books. My first, "Drilling for Gold: How Corporations Can Successfully Market to Small Business" (Wiley 2002), is a research-centric book that was designed to build credibility for my consulting practice at the time. Although it took three years to accumulate the research, the book worked, and we became known as the "company who wrote the book on marketing to small business." The book contributed to our winning clients like Apple, American Express and Google.
This year I wrote a second book, "Built to Sell: Turn Your Business into One You Can Sell," using the parable technique. I found the story format a lot more fun and faster to write -- it took about eight weeks to create the manuscript. Built to Sell has found a larger audience than my first book, contributing to Penguin's decision to release a new edition with a complete implementation guide next spring.
Readers, I want to hear from you: What's your favorite business book? Are you working on a book to boost your company's profile? Which format are you using? What other formats have you seen work for nonfiction writing?
More from Built to Sell:
- What Would Warren Buffett Find If He Bought Your Company?
- 9 Ways to Make Your Company More Valuable in 2011
- How to Pick a Mentor: Take a Cue From Steve Jobs and Eric Schmidt
- Why You Need To Sell Less Stuff To More People
John Warrillow is the author of Built to Sell: Turn Your Business into One You Can Sell. He has started and exited four companies and was named one of America's most influential marketers by BtoB Magazine in 2008. Think you can sell your business? Take the Sellability Index Quiz. Follow him on Twitter @JohnWarrillow Become a fan on Facebook