"The equivalent of lobbing a Molotov cocktail." That's how Business Week characterized the effects of the dot-com revolution on management style. As entirely new markets emerged, as fresh entrepreneurs seduced Wall Street, and acquisitions, spinoffs and startups accelerated, entrepreneurs at companies big and small faced new challenges when it came to managing people and resources.
Take Lisa Lillien, for example. After a successful stint as a producer at Nickelodeon, Lillien, in 2003, got herself on the dot-com train by launching Hungry Girl, an e-mail subscription service offering "tips & tricks for hungry chicks—survival strategies from a regular person's perspective." Although she describes herself as "a really casual person," Lillien says she feared that finally being the boss would call for a different skill set. Granted, she had only one employee, but she wanted to offer a performance evaluation "with a little structure." She picked up Richard L. Williams's Tell Me How I'm Doing: A Fable About the Importance of Giving Feedback (Amacom, 2004). "It served as a guide for just what kind of feedback I should be giving," says Lillien, adding, "It's not the type of book I would typically buy."
Richard Williams is a well-known public speaker and consultant who formerly managed more than 170,000 employees at American Stores Company. Thanks to articles about his views on "feedback," Williams came to Lillien's attention. This is the kind of connectivity publishers crave—an author with a platform and a book addressing an issue of increasing interest to a market. And in the business management category, it is the platform—be it an author's prominence as a CEO, entrepreneur, successful athlete or high-powered consultant—that is key to long-term success.
The Power of Backlist
The business management category—$845 million strong, according to BP Report's editor Michael Norris—sports a healthy mix of backlist standards, tried and true, and splashy frontlist each season, often supported by well-known or well-connected authors doing the seminar and talk show circuit. The key is getting the frontlist book to then become a backlist winner and, to do that, an active, visible author spreading his gospel is invaluable. As David Goehring, the director of Harvard Business School Press, says, "Backlist is our meat and potatoes."
Everyone wants the book that will have everybody talking—and paying—right out of the gate: a Jack Welch, a Donald Trump, a Jim Collins book. Their name recognition and track record is platform enough. But there are hardly enough of them to go around. Instead, editors look for authors who aren't necessarily high-profile at the start, but who have a strong approach and a winning style. Crown Business executive editor John Mahaney praises books that "may sell more modestly in the beginning, maybe not enough to make the Wall Street Journal list, but over the long term can be surprisingly robust." He cites Robert Cooper's The Other 90%, which has sold more than 100,000 copies since its 2001 publication. "If a book strikes a chord," he says, "it can sell by world of mouth for a very long time."
Seth Godin's Purple Cow, published by Portfolio, is another case in point. Will Weisser, associate publisher and marketing director, reports that the two-year-old title has more than 150,000 copies in print after 23 printings. It's driven mainly by word of mouth, he says, "as the book's message spreads from company to company and businesspeople recommend it to one another." This is not your old-fashioned word of mouth; Godin is a renowned speaker working the lecture circuit year-round, as is Cooper, whose Web site describes him simply as a "National Speaker."
Building a Platform
"It's all about platform—and finding more good authors who've got one," says Agate publisher Douglas Seibold. Dealing with an author who understands the importance of platform, he explains, makes the sales and marketing process much easier. "Unless you've got a book that's really the proverbial better mousetrap, it's a huge boon to work with authors whose platforms entail media appearances; speaking to large audiences of potential/likely readers; and, best of all, selling lots of nonreturnable books to locked-in affinity groups or major bulk customers."
At John Wiley, v-p and general manager Jeffrey Brown concurs with Seibold on the importance of platforms. "In a crowded marketplace for business books," he says, "It's all about getting noticed." Brown views author platforms—speaking engagements, opt-in e-mail lists, media contacts—as the natural extension of an author's credentials. "They demonstrate the author's authority and the proven ability to command an audience. They can jumpstart a book's sales momentum and, eventually, this kind of buzz gets a book noticed by an audience beyond the original platform."
"I'm always telling my clients that the name of the game in publishing is, 'Ask not what your publisher can do for you, but what you can do for your publisher,' " says James Levine of Levine Greenberg Literary Agency. Nevertheless, his commitment to great content means that he's willing to work with less-established authors. When marketing strategist Bob Gordman came to Levine with The Must Have Customer, "he didn't have a big platform," Levine explains, "but I think he's onto something important." The book was eventually sold to Truman Talley Books for a spring 2006 release, and Levine is now working with Gordman to develop "a killer launch plan" to elevate his platform.
For Gordman, as for most successful business authors, the plan will likely entail spending a lot of time on the road. When PW spoke with author David Allen, for example, he was waiting at Boston's Logan International Airport for a flight home. Before Allen wrote his first book on task management, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (Viking, 2001), he already had a successful career as a one-on-one coach and corporate instructor. Most of the ideas in that book and its sequel, Ready for Anything: 52 Productivity Principles for Work and Life (Viking, 2003), were honed as he developed his two-day seminars: "I wanted something where if I ran out of time at a seminar, I could tell people, 'Go read the book.' "
San Francisco—based "life hacker" Merlin Mann read Getting Things Done without having been to Allen's seminars and was instantly impressed. "You immediately pick up that [Allen] has a sensible approach to knowing where everything in your life needs to go," says Mann, who launched 43folders.com, a Web site dedicated to exploring productivity-enhancing techniques such as those developed by Allen. The blog has become especially popular among self-described technology geeks, and can eventually serve as Mann's own platform when he and Danny O'Brien, who co-write a column for Make magazine, complete a book they've contracted to write for O'Reilly's Hacks series.
Marcus Buckingham received valuable assistance in establishing his platform. When he co-wrote First, Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently (S&S, 1999) with Curt Coffman, the two were global practice leaders at the Gallup Organization, which would send them out to make presentations to client companies. "You didn't have to read the book to come to the program, but you kind of did," Buckingham recalls. A sequel, Now, Discover Your Strengths, followed in 2001 (written with Donald Clifton, another Gallup researcher), by which time Buckingham was making 40 speeches a year and turning down three times as many engagements.
A desire to focus solely on writing and speaking, as opposed to client acquisition, led to an amicable split with Gallup, and now Buckingham is promoting his latest, The One Thing You Need to Know (Free Press, Mar.), on his own. Sustaining and growing his platform isn't always easy, Buckingham admits. "Both of the previous books started slow and then built and built, and I'm thinking the same thing is going to happen with this one. I just have to see this as a marathon for the next year."
Bulk orders have already helped put One Thing on the New York Times business bestseller list, and Buckingham readily advises tying such sales to speaking engagements. "If you're going to have a platform of speeches, don't go do the speech and then hope that people will buy the book," he recommends. "Instead, make buying the book part of the speaking engagement. If you have opportunities as a writer to go out and make presentations, I would strongly encourage taking a cut in your speaking fee to make sure that everyone coming has to buy the book. "
Tom Gegax, the former CEO of Tires Plus, has come up with another twist on bulk orders to sell By the Seat of Your Pants: The No-Nonsense Business Management Guide. Sam's Club, Wal-Mart's warehouse retail division, pre-ordered 55,000 copies in exchange for logo placement on the front cover and spine, an opportunity made possible through Gegax's decision to work with an independent publisher (Expert Publishing) to produce and distribute a book he hints is too packed with information for mainstream business publishers. "Comprehensive isn't sexy," he says. "I wanted to do a comprehensive, complete guide to every aspect of running a business, and they wanted 10 things about this, eight rules for that." Gegax, too, wants to link book sales to his other professional work—but instead of using speeches and consulting gigs as a platform for a steady stream of books, he plans for this one book to be the centerpiece around which he can run a consulting service for small and medium-sized businesses.
Not every publisher is convinced that author platforms are the key to driving sales. Timothy C. Moore strives to run the Pearson Publishing Group's three business imprints for which he is editor-in-chief, including Wharton School Publishing, on a brand-based model like that pioneered by O'Reilly & Associates in the computer book industry—gaining the customer's trust by consistently delivering products of reliable quality. Moore compares his efforts to those of other business publishers, such as Wiley or Harvard Business School Press. "Those publishers have made it easier for people without a ready-made platform to succeed," he notes. "The rest of this industry is running around spending a tremendous amount of money on acquisition costs to find the next Jim Collins. Well, there's only one Jim Collins, and he didn't start out being Jim Collins, if you follow my drift."
Goehring agrees that HBSP's reputation for editorial excellence and its multiple channels of content distribution—which include newsletters and conferences as well as books—create a situation in which the house doesn't have to rely too heavily on an author's star power. For others without that level of brand-name recognition, especially the business divisions of larger publishing companies, the search for business writers with strong platforms continues.
In June, for example, Workman will publish Copy This! Lessons from a Hyperactive Dyslexic Who Turned a Bright Idea into One of America's Best Companies, a management guide from former Kinko CEO Paul Orfalea, while Chamberlain Bros. has already released Business Lunchatations: How an Everyday Guy Became One of America's Most Colorful CEOs... and How You Can, Too!, which offers networking advice from Bo Dietl, a former NYPD officer who now runs his own corporate security firm. Out this month from Portfolio is Think Big, Act Small: How America's Best-Performing Companies Keep the Start-up Spirit Alive, from bestselling consultant and keynote speaker Jason Jennings.
Sometimes the writer's platform can come from outside the business world. Random House sends legendary quarterback Joe Montana onto the field to promote The Winning Spirit (Sept.), and UCLA basketball coach John Wooden supplies McGraw-Hill with Wooden on Leadership (June). And California's Entrepreneur Press proves that an author doesn't even have to be alive to have a viable platform: Ben Franklin: America's Original Entrepreneur (Sept.) is a "modern translation" (read: streamlining) by Blaine McCormick of the Founding Father's 18th-century autobiography
Perhaps Lisa Lillien, who a year into her Hungry-girl.com business has added another employee, might find time for a book about the great Franklin. Or perhaps she's busy building a platform.
Amazon.com Top 10 Management and Leadership Books
(as of May 10, 2005)
|1. Blink (2005)||Malcolm Gladwell||Little, Brown||6||Author of the bestselling The Tipping Point (more than one million copies in print)|
|2. Winning (2005)||Jack Welch||HarperBusiness||11||Legendary former CEO of General Electric.|
|3. Good to Great (2001)||Jim Collins||HarperBusiness||17||Co-author of bestseller Built to Last, known for his research on how organizations attain greatness|
|4. Now, Discover Your Strengths (2001)||Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton||Free Press||50||See First, Break All the Rules, below.|
|5. Secrets of the Millionaire Mind (2005)||T. Harv Eker||HarperBusiness||108||Eker runs a thriving "success-seminar business," Peak Potentials.|
|6. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (2002)||Patrick M. Lencioni||Jossey-Bass||92||Lencioni is president of The Table Group, a San Francisco Bay area management consulting firm.|
|7. Getting to Yes (1991)||Roger Fisher and William Ury||Penguin||183||This "classic book on negotiating," says Penguin publicity director Maureen Donnelly, has 2.5 million copies in print after 38 printings.|
|8. Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done (2002)||Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan||Crown Business||167||Bossidy is chairman of Honeywell International.|
|9. Blue Ocean Strategy (2005)||W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne||Harvard Business School Press||153||Both authors, who are at INSEAD, have active speaking schedules and major consulting clients.|
|10. First, Break All the Rules (1999)||Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman||S&S||190||Buckingham is a popular speaker and co-author of First, Break All the Rules and Now, Discover Your Strengths, which have an in-print total of over 1.8 million copies.|