By Stuart Roberts on September 06, 2016

How to write a business book: Top tips from the experts

“Write a book, seriously?

I haven’t got time to sit down, let alone add novelist to my job title.”

We hear you, we really do. But let us make our case.

Books are great marketing assets for many reasons—building authority, personal branding, increasing your visibility—and writing one might sound daunting. But like most projects, it’s easy when you break it down into manageable chunks.

This year we’ve been asking our clients to think about what book they could write with authority: What would the title be? What part of their industry can they take ownership of? What about the individual chapters?

Break those chapters down, and hey presto: you’ve got a shed load of blog content along a cohesive theme. Months worth of blog content, plus an incredible marketing asset at the end of it? What’s not to like?

That’s why we caught up with people who have walked that particular walk. Let’s meet them and find out how to write a business book.

Margaret HeffernanMargaret Heffernan, Author, businesswoman, entrepreneur

Ex-TV producer, TED talker, entrepreneur, CEO and much, much more, Margaret Heffernan has been lauded across the board for her business acumen, writing and lobbying. She’s written five business books, the third of which, Willful Blindness, was named one of the "best business books of the decade” by the Financial Times in 2014.

Future Content: Firstly, what drew you to writing a book, business reasons or personal? Was there one particular moment which inspired you, or was there a grand plan all along?

Margaret Heffernan: I started writing because I kept reading business books that were rubbish: simplistic, fatuous and unreal. The academic ones were written by people who’d never run so much as a lemonade stand. The personal ones were self-aggrandizing sales tools. Neither was inspiring or credible.

FC: As a businesswoman first and author second, what advice would you give to businesses looking to write a book? Or even, should they write a book in the first place?

MH: Have something you want to say that is true to you and fresh. Otherwise don’t bother. The world is awash with books that are trite and full of clichés. We don’t need any more.

FC: Does every business have a book in them?

MH: No. Most people don’t have a book in them which is why most people don’t write books. Many people want to have written a book but don’t want to do the hard intellectual and emotional work involved - nor the grind!

FC: What are the best parts and hardest parts about writing a book?

MH: Best parts are having the opportunity or demand to think, keep thinking, think hard and discover something you didn’t know before. It’s also a wonderful excuse to interview amazing people.

"Have something you want to say that is true to you and fresh. Otherwise don’t bother"

The hardest part? There’s always one chapter that won’t behave or stick to your schedule. It makes you doubt yourself as a writer and as a thinker. It’s hard not to panic. That is always the one that ends up being a revelation because it’s forced you to learn something new.

FC: Are there any business books you’d recommend yourself?

MH: The best business book by a business person I’ve read in a long time is Creativity Inc., by Ed Catmull of Pixar. He has something to say. He knows how to say it. No bullshit. No self-promotion. No clichés. Just experience, clarity, humility.

Sonia Jefferson Valuable ContentSharon Tanton Valuable ContentSonja Jefferson and Sharon Tanton, Valuable Content
The marketers

After a chance meeting in the school yard (picking their children up, they didn’t conspire a marketing business at playtime), Sonja and Sharon found kindred spirits in each other: both had a passion for great content and a desire to help businesses. Their book, Valuable Content Marketing was released in 2013 and the second edition was released last year. Valuable Content the company continues as a content consultancy.

Future Content: Do all brands have a book in them? If so, what should businesses write about? How do they decide on the best topic?

Sharon Tanton: I think every business has something to say, but I don't think every brand necessarily has a book in them—you have to really want to write a book, to go through the book writing process, to take it on. If you do want to write one, a good place to start is with the questions your clients want answered, like we did. But that's not the only way.

We saw Bob Mytton of branding agency Mytton Williams talking earlier in the year about his Jazz Types project, which turned into a book. That was a purely creative project, not written with any clients in mind, but wonderful and inspiring, and aligned to what he’s all about—creativity. It’s done wonders for his business.

Sonja Jefferson: I do think every business has a book in them, if they choose to write one. But as Sharon says, writing one is a hard slog. A decision not to be taken lightly, but with massive benefits to the business if you choose to take up the challenge.

I’d start by asking yourselves the questions—what is the change you are looking to make to your client or customer’s world? The same question applies to the rest of your content. Unearth this golden thread that runs through all that you do—find your business’s sweet spot and story—and from books to blogs you’ll have loads to say.

FC: Having published yourselves, why did you decide to produce a physical book rather than offering something digital?

ST: I love writing, and love books. I relished the challenge of writing a book. I like having the book alongside all the digital content; it serves a different purpose.

SJ: A physical book is a great souvenir in an increasingly digital world—the perfect gift for our clients and prospects. Like Sharon, I still like to read real books—I love the ability to dip in and out of them, to scribble notes in them, to go back to them again for inspiration over time. A physical book is a great teaching tool, alongside digital options. We want to get the valuable content message out widely so many more businesses can flourish. A real book with a good publisher helps us to do that.

FC: What have been the biggest benefits of writing a business book (or two), personally and businesswise?

ST: Opportunities definitely come your way when you write a book. New clients, invitations to speak at events, interviews, PR that kind of thing. It makes fun things happen in your life!

SJ: Totally agree. We’ve met some amazing people because of the book. We’ve been asked to speak in Lanzarote and Chicago and some amazing events in the UK. That’s been a lot of fun. We’ve won work because of the book too—it’s helped more people to know about us, and trust us, so selling becomes easier.

"Writing a book forces you to codify what you do"

A book changes things for your business. Writing a book forces you to codify what you do. One of the biggest benefits of this is that it forces you to look again at your business model. We have an opportunity to change things here at Valuable Content because we’ve written books—from projects to a more sustainable business based on training.

FC: How much time did it take to write Valuable Content? And where did you start?

ST: About six months I think (you forget the pain, like childbirth). There were two of us writing so I guess a year for one person. I wrote early morning, Sonja wrote late at night. We took Fridays off for the last couple of months of writing the second edition. It's a lot of work to fit around running a business and having a life.

SJ: Where do you start? Start with some soul searching into the biggest question you are answering for your clients/customers. We started in the wrong place with our first book if I’m honest. We started by bunging all our blogs into a big Google Doc and hoping that was a book. It wasn’t! So we stepped back. It’s interesting, I like to start with structure; Sharon likes to write her way into clarity. It’s a good mix actually.

FC: Anything else to add?

ST: You'll know if the idea thrills you, and if it does, go for it. You won't regret it.

SJ: Books really are the most valuable content of all. You will get great benefit if you choose this route but plan it in carefully. It takes work so give yourself head space and time. We’ve written articles on book writing, including one that gives you a few questions to kick off the process.

Giles Colborne cxpartnersGiles Colborne, cxpartners
Business owner and accidental author

Giles founded cxpartners with Richard Caddick in 2004. His book, 'Simple and usable' was released in 2010, focusing on simplicity in design. Giles speaks at design conferences around the world.

Future Content: Hi Giles. How did you come to write a book?

Giles Colborne: Not long after I had set up the business [cxpartners], I was at a conference watching one of the speakers. A client of ours happened to be at the same conference and said, “you can do better than this”. I’d never really thought of being a conference speaker until then, which these days is a huge part of what I do.

So, I thought about what I was interested in and what I would want to talk about, and the idea of simplicity in design was something I kept coming back to: it has been a theme for me across a large part of my career. That turned out to be a really sensible idea, because I went on to present a talk around that theme at a large conference the following year. The audience reaction was great and that’s when I started thinking there might be a book in it, too.

I spoke then to a friend of mine, a guy called Steve Krug who wrote the bestselling book in the UX field of all time, Don’t Make Me Think, and asked for his advice which he kindly gave me.

The proposal wasn’t that hard: I picked a topic which was something that had appealed to me and meant a lot to me over a long period of time, and was woven into my business, too. I had a clear vision of what the book was about already.

Once written, I simply downloaded the submission forms for two publishers which I admired most. They both got back to me and said yes they’d like to publish it. I was lucky in the sense that the topic is timeless. I was writing about design fundamentals and, you know, the book continues to sell extremely well.

FC: You say that quite nonchalantly—“I went to a talk, I thought I could do better and then I wrote a book and now I’ve got a book”. The process can’t have been quite that straightforward. Have you always had designs on writing a book? Is writing something that you’ve always had a passion for? How organic was it?

GC: Sort of. It had been in my mind. But I’d always thought I’ll do it in a year’s time, or I’ll do it once I’ve finished this project, or when I’m good enough—it kept getting pushed back. But I get it’s not a natural thing for everyone to be drawn to.

Some people want to communicate in that way, and some people don’t. I could say to everyone ‘go write a blog’, but some people would find it the most horrible experience. There are some people, though, who naturally want to share ideas and communicate, it’s their personality.

With this interview, you’re talking about brands producing books, really, so I think the important thing is recognising that you or somebody in your organisation is that type of communicator. Since I wrote my own book, a lot of people in my business have gone off to write books, too. And you can predict which ones will say “I’ll have a crack at that.”

FC: Was there a business reason for writing your books, or did you consider it a passion project?

GC: Yeah, there was a bit of that element [business reasons]. Before we started the business, my business partner and I recognised that for me as a business consultant, having a profile in the industry was important. Part of that was speaking engagements, and the writing really spilled out of that. It wasn’t necessarily ‘I need to write a book for the good of the business’, more a push to build my own profile which publishing has been a massive part of.

FC: What have been the biggest benefits of writing a business book?

GC: Once you’re published, suddenly your life changes. I went from being somebody who had to ask to speak in places to somebody who was paid to speak: people were inviting me to talk at conferences. It was, and still is, a tremendous calling card.


Also, when you go into a pitch and you’re able to leave behind a copy of your book that’s really valuable. There are an awful lot of benefits to it.

FC: Why did you choose to publish a physical book rather than publish digitally?

GC: I think people place value in the physical.

I could just do the Kindle edition but it disappears, it’s not present on their desks, it’s not handed round and the office. Clients want pass it to somebody else, give it to their boss, give it to their colleague. So that’s the physical quality.

Also, the fact that it’s published by a “proper publisher” and they’re publishing it because they think it has value and that they can sell copies has been powerful. It’s not just me publishing and going, “right if I sink a bit of money into this I’ll have a nice book at the end of it.” It has the backing of a company who believes in the project and know the right channels of distribution.

FC: Okay, a pretty big question: How you write a book? Where do you begin? What’s the process and how do you know when you’ve finished?

GC: I wrote the book over a six to seven month period, and nothing that I wrote in that first three months is in the book; not a single word. In that first three months, I was learning how to write like me.

It’s funny: in that period I came across books by other people and tried to emulate them. One of them I particularly admired so I kept trying to write like this guy: he’s a bit of a dick and I just sounded like a real dick [laughs].

The point in which I started to let go of that and write like me was the point where I started getting material I could use. So, in months four and five I got about a third of the book done. The final month I wrote about two thirds of the book—it just flew by.

"Any business that has an ability to tell a story that shows the value of what they do has a book in them. Value is key"

I was lucky that I had a professional publisher involved, which meant I had a head of development, Margaret, who I used as a kind of therapist. I had a weekly Skype session with her and I talked about what I’d been doing over the last week: how terrible I felt about not writing enough that kind of thing. She was very willing and generous with her the time and it helped having that accountability and sounding board.

The other thing was thinking very hard about the format and the structure of the book. Because it was a book about simplicity and because it was a design book and I wanted to produce something clear and uncomplicated. I knew that when I wrote it people would be saying, “well that’s not simple,” if anything felt cluttered or messy. So, I really thought about look, structure, and flow before I started writing.

FC. You’ve talked about bouncing ideas off various people. Is it always worth having a sounding board?

GC: That was one of my mistakes actually: it took a long time before I showed anything I’d done to one of my peers. I was lucky that when I did show her, she thought I’d done a fantastic job, but I definitely held it too close to my chest for too long.

If I was doing it again I would be begin by doing more in-depth research, which is what she ended up doing for her own book. She went round to lots of offices, including our own, brought cake, and got people to sit around and talk about the content that she was interested in marketing.

She didn’t go and say “here are my ideas for my book”, she listened to people talk about their problems around the topic and she learnt a lot about what they needed. So, if I was doing it again I would open it up earlier.

FC: Is there anything else that you’d like to add for businesses who are in two minds about whether to write themselves?

GC: It’s a lot of hard work, but all of the hard work pays off and continues to pay off. Writing a book helps you punch above your weight; it builds your personal profile and your business’, and it helps you to go toe-to-toe with companies much bigger than your own. If you have the right person in the office, definitely write a business book.

Sure Richardson SRA BooksSue Richardson, SRA Books
The publisher

Specialising in B2B publishing, Sue Richardson has spent the last 20 years helping writers and business owners to produce books that look good, sell well and boost business for their authors. SRA Books deals with strategy, commercial opportunities, production and, of course, publishing.

FC: Sue, why are books so valuable to customers?

SR: I’ve got countless stories I can tell you about clients who haven’t expected to make masses of money through writing, but have quickly generated valuable leads and business through having a book.

There’s a certain magic to books: they create a credibility like no other piece of marketing. People think, “Oh gosh, they must know what they’re talking about”.

Secondly, the reach is powerful. You might be on a stage talking to a hundred people or even a thousand people and that’s great, but a book can potentially be in front of millions of people.

FC: In your experience, does every business have a book in them?

SR: I would say yes, but it has to be the right book. It’s really important for people to see clearly what the end point is: what is it they want to achieve from having that book out there in the world?

You need to give that book a job description. Does it exist because you want to diversify? Do you want to move into new markets? Do you want an international reputation? What is the thing at the heart of what you’re writing?

Any business that has an ability to tell a story that shows the value of what they do has a book in them. Value is key.

FC: Do people have to have writing experience before they tackle a book?

SR: Clearly it makes it easier, but we get people at all different stages approach us for help. And different stages need different support.

First you have the people who love writing and they write all the time.

Others, like a recent client, are really good writers, but have doubts about the idea itself. She was saying, “why would anybody be interested in what I have to say? What’s new about what I have to say?” Yet she knew that there was something to say and she needed to say it. What she needed was that bit of hand holding, almost like a comfort blanket to get her through the process.

Some people need a slightly heavier level of coaching. If they’re not natural writers or they’re really struggling, they need someone who holds their hand a bit tighter: like a cross between a book coach and an editor. So, you’re effectively working on the book together .

"Bore all your friends until you’re a pain. You are a published author so make the most of it"

The final option is a ghost writer. We’re doing one for an amazing entrepreneur at the moment who is absolutely brilliant but there is no way she can write a book: (a) she’s dyslexic, and (b) she hasn’t got five minutes spare.

She is doing an MBA at the same time as selling her business, and she’s writing a book so that she can go out with a big splash. But no way could she ever find the time or the energy to write it herself.

Everybody is different. You know, if writing is something that comes naturally to you do it your way, but whatever your level, I would always start with the structure.

FC: You’ve spoken before about publishing in ‘the right way’. What does that mean?

SR: The thing is, you can self-publish if you want, but if you are a business owner why would you go and spend all that time learning how to do something like creating a book properly? It isn’t that easy.

People have spent years and years learning the craft of publishing. It’s much better to go to those people in my opinion. I mean, I would say that, but it’s true. I’ve seen so many dreadful self-published books because why would you know how to do it?

FC: Does a business owner need a profile before they start writing a book? Or can you use the book as a way to build your name?

SR: Absolutely the latter. Use a book.

I think your profile matters more if you go the traditional publishing route. If your book gets picked up by a traditional publisher it’s likely down to the content and your profile—your networks, how often you get on stage to speak, those kind of things.

If you go down the independent route it doesn’t matter at all. If you’ve got the budget to do it, do it. It will help you grow your network, your profile and your credibility, absolutely, without any doubt.

FC: And what budget do you think we’ll need?

SR: Ah, good question. The words are one thing aren’t they? Then there’s obviously time...

It’s difficult to put a standard figure on it. I’ve just done a proposal for four cookery books for a big Italian food manufacturer and we’re talking thirty grand a piece because we’re going to have beautiful watercolour illustrations, loads of original photography.

But you could spend five or six grand on a more standard book with text, a few graphics and nothing much else.

FC: So, you’ve written your book. What now?

SR: Firstly, it’s fabulous. It’s a really great achievement, congratulations. You’ve got your book out there; you’ve done it. A lot of people, though, hold their hands up and say, “right, I’ve done it now”. And of course, they forget that a book actually is a product. and you’ve got to market it and you’ve got to sell it.

So PR is the biggest one. Without any doubt, PR and publishing go hand-in-hand really nicely. In a journalist’s mind they can have a quick look at the material, they’ve got tons of content, and they’ve got a way of kind of selling that author or selling the idea behind that work.

So it really works very well to do PR. And I would recommend PR starting a month or two before the publication of the book and going on for as long as the person has the budget to do it really, but at least six months.

"Any business that has an ability to tell a story that shows the value of what they do has a book in them. Value is key"

Speaking is another big one. At any stage, anyone can get an interview about what they do. They will find it easier to find publications to speak to if they’re a published author. But also once people see you speak they’ll go and buy the book, too. Especially if you’ve got them with you after a talk. If they liked your talk, they’re likely to want a souvenir.

The other thing is, say you’ve decided that a traditional publishing route is the best route and you’ve found yourself a deal. Eighteen months later, because it takes ages to get published that way, you’ve got your book and you think that the publishing company is going to do all the promotion work for you......Nope! [laughs]

You need to do it yourself. You need to promote the hell out of your book and be really proud of it and just never stop talking about it. Bore all your friends until you’re a pain. You are a published author so make the most of it.

FC: Fantastic, thank you, Sue. Anything else to add?

SR: I think that that’s the thing that I would say is that quite a lot of people, a lot of business people, probably wouldn’t necessarily recognise that they have a book in them.

But they should. Of all the marketing activity I’ve seen, in terms of getting to where you want to go as a business, a book just has that magic. If you think you can, do it.

Convinced? We help clients create books for their businesses. To find out how we can help you, get in touch

Published by Stuart Roberts September 6, 2016