Why might a professional services firm write a book about its area of expertise?
- A saleable product
- A way to differentiate the firm as a leading-edge thinker in its field
- A way to reward and retain its most highly skilled professionals
- A particularly effective business card
How about “all of the above”?
The common expression “We wrote the book on that,” indicates the respect many people hold for authors of books. Much of this is due to the difficulty of accumulating enough information on a subject to write a book, perhaps 50,000 words or more.
I don’t mean the illustrated coffee-table books of projects, or their history, that many architecture firms produce. I mean an authoritative and informative book that showcases a firm’s expertise in a particular field. For an architecture firm, that might mean environmentally friendly construction, or barrier-free design, or the latest in mixed-use developments. An environmental sciences firm might write about a specific aspect of sustainability; an IP law firm about patent strategy. It might be written by a single individual or by a group of specialists, each contributing a chapter. It could be intended as a textbook at the college or professional development level.
These books can generate revenue or perhaps just handed out to clients and prospects – and unlike a brochure, it ends up on the recipient’s bookshelf rather than their recycling bin. The good news is that technological developments over the past ten years have made book publishing increasingly affordable and practical for professional services firms.
Know your publishing options
There is a wide range of options for publishing a book.
Traditional publishers lend a level of cachet and can provide copy-editing, design and promotion services. They may pay an advance and royalties. The challenge, as my colleague Ken Lizotte of emerson consulting group inc. points out in his 2008 book “The Expert’s Edge” (which was published by a traditional publisher, McGraw Hill), is that it’s hard for a new author to get the attention of a traditional publisher. These companies need to turn a profit, and as such are reluctant to take a chance on a new author unless that person has a truly compelling subject. Increasingly, they also ask whether the author has a “platform” – frequent speaking engagements, a steady flow of magazine articles and other tools that will help to sell the book.
Lizotte says that in many cases, there is little chance that a traditional publisher will provide an advance, aggressively promote the book, make sure that it gets space in bookstores, or even keep the book in circulation long enough for it to find an audience.
Given the amount of time and effort needed to shop a manuscript around to various publishers and agents, the other options start to look better and better.
Association or academic publishing can be a kinder, gentler alternative. It was for me – my first book, “The Fame Game,” was published by the Society for Marketing Professional Services in 2002. SMPS is, like many professional associations, interested in providing content relevant to their readers, and do not face the same ROI pressures of traditional publishers.
Colleges and universities may also be more willing to accept a book on its informational merits, partly because they may already have a built-in market for the book as a textbook. If your topic lends itself to this type of publishing, it can be an attractive option – bearing in mind that these publishers can only accept a limited number of titles each year.
Self-publishing is, for these reasons, increasingly the default option. It comes in two main varieties, which I call “offset” and “digital.”
The Offset model is really just a print-shop and bindery that will take your manuscript and other elements such as cover art and inside graphics, do the print preparation and then print (generally using offset printing using a traditional printing press, hence my name for this option), bind the pages and add a cover.
The firm gets a stack of boxes full of books, with an invoice. It’s up to you and your firm to promote and sell the books. This is a tradition that likely dates back to Gutenberg, and is generally called “vanity publishing.”
Despite the name, this can be an attractive option if you don’t need any help in developing the manuscript, copy-editing it, designing the book and then selling and distributing it. It works best if you order several thousand copies, because then the setup charges are spread out over more copies. Because the cost per copy can be low and the quality high (depending on the printer and how much you pay), it can be a good option for some.
Offset is useful if you plan to use the book as I use my books -- as a particularly effective business card. In a meeting, I’ll often hand over a copy of my book -- and since they don’t cost much to print, it’s well worth it in the added impact that the book generates.
Some business professionals who give a lot of presentations or courses arrange to have the cost of a book copy included in the fee for the program, so each attendee gets a copy. This helps build the presenter’s personal brand or that of their firm.
New opportunities through digital publishing
While the Offset model hasn’t changed much over the past few decades, it’s in the Digital model where the greatest advances have occurred. These companies use a basket of new technologies to support authors.
Each of these companies has a different service offering. In most cases, you e-mail your manuscript to them, and a web-based interface for you to upload your graphics and choose your cover design and the other elements of how the book will appear. You key in your credit card number for an amount ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. They then store the book on their servers until someone orders a copy, at which time they will print out a copy digitally, glue one side of the pages and put a cover on it to produce a perfect-bound book, and ship it. This is often called Print on Demand, or POD. In many cases, the author gets a royalty check.
The digital publisher will likely make your firm's book available through online retailers such as Amazon, and arrange so that customers can buy a copy through most bookstores, as well as ordering it through the company’s own website. My second book, which I unimaginatively titled “Writing Magazine Articles,” was published through a digital company, Xlibris Inc. in 2003.
Digital is a reasonably hassle-free option that is good for small quantities.
It is important that would-be authors pay good attention to editing the manuscript. Depending on one’s skills as a writer, there may be a need for “substantive editing” which may involve re-arranging the text in a more logical flow, or all that may be needed is copy-editing or proofreading.
With the rise of dedicated e-readers such as the Kindle, as well as tablets, there is much more information transferred by e-books. Some publishers of technical books report that their sales volume from downloads greatly exceeds their print sales.