So You're An Innovation Leader. Should You Write A Book?
I'm often asked if writing a book is the right path for many, so wanted to share my thoughts
This piece was first published on my Forbes column here.
Many innovation leaders – entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and ecosystem builders – voraciously consume books to understand emerging best practice and apply it to their work. In their own careers, they are developing their insights and philosophies, and may also aspire to share their own story or lessons.
Last year I wrote my debut non-fiction book: Out-Innovate: How Global Entrepreneurs - from Delhi to Detroit - Are Rewriting the Rules of Silicon Valley with Harvard Business Review Press.
I am often asked why I wrote the book, and whether other aspiring writers in the entrepreneurial community should do the same.
The answer: it depends. Let me tell you why.
1. Is a book the right medium for me?
You have a unique story to tell. How to tell it?
A book is one medium to share your story. There are of course many other ways to get your story out there. Blogs and newsletters can help you build an audience, release content with more regularity and have greater editorial control. Podcasts can offer an opportunity for dynamic interviews with your guests. Platforms like Twitter and TikTok allow much shorter form content but with much higher frequency.
A book is a unique medium. The long-form format allows you to tell your story in full, and dive into crucial elements with more nuance, in ways that more bite-sized content cannot. And, as you write the book, it can become a powerful calling card to meet people, or even launch other platforms like newsletters or podcasts. And if you like writing (like I do), it can be incredibly rewarding.
But you should know book math. Books are a little bit like startups: the vast majority don’t scale. Less than 2% of books sell over 5,000 copies. The average book sold 500 copies. Total. There is a real chance that only a small handful of people might read it in full. Without sugar coating, it is exceedingly difficult to make a living on just book sales. On top of that, they take a long time to get to market, often over 18 months. Your revenue per hour quickly asymptotes towards zero given the herculean effort it takes to publish.
Therefore, the questions you should ask yourself:
Are you okay if no one besides you reads it? Do you enjoy writing for its own sake?
Does the book offer ancillary benefits that would be hard to obtain otherwise? For instance, the credibility to get other media benefits or a platform to accelerate your core business?
Do you depend on the income from the time invested or is this a bonus project?
Perhaps most importantly: does it seem like a fun project in of itself?
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2. How should I publish my book?
It used to be that to publish a book you had one option: have your book acquired by a major publication house, that would support everything from editing through distribution. Today there is a much wider world of choices for you to make.
Option 1: Traditional route to market with publisher:
The traditional route involves partnering with a major publication house. In my case, that was with Harvard Business Review Press.
Publication houses are in many ways like venture capitalists. They win big when something works, and are out there looking for the next Marie Condo. But they also have a big portfolio so can make a series of ‘bets’ on promising new (and unproven) ideas.
Major houses can help get broader distribution (think those books at the airport), improve the book (through deep editorial support), market the book (with journalist connections), and design it (with professional copy and cover).
They don’t take every book. Because of the business model, each book needs to have large enough market appeal so niche tech books won’t work. It is also a slow process. Because of the traditional physical book distribution process, time to market can take over a year (from final manuscript to book in shelves).
Option 2: Self-publish
Self-publication has become a powerful force in the industry over the last few decades. There is today a whole range of services built around self-publication that were once unavailable which cover many of the historical advantages of traditional publication houses, from editorial support and professional cover design to global distribution. Accelerated by the growth of ecommerce players like Amazon, anyone can upload a book – traditional publisher or individual – and reach the same audience.
So which should you choose? This depends on what you value the most:
Probability of success: in the past a major publication house brought large distribution advantages and thus arguably increased the probability of success. But if you have a large preexisting platform, this may benefit you less.
Control: With self-publication you have more control on the process and the writing style. But at the same time, you have more responsibility on the quality of the product and hitting milestones. No one will be checking in on you if you’re self-publishing.
Risk: with a traditional publication house there is a lower risk your book will not get to market. Effectively, when you sign, they are committing to bring the book to market if you deliver the manuscript.
Timeline: The traditional publication process is slow. But if you have an idea that is incredibly timely and want it out, self-publication can be much faster.
Financial: with a traditional publication house, you receive an advance in exchange for your writing of the manuscript. This shifts payments upfront and offers you a budget to write the book. But, if you self publish, the margins are higher, so if the book is a runaway success, it will be far more lucrative for you.
The choice is a personal decision and revolves around your own optimization function.
For me, presented with the opportunity of working with a publisher, and given the mass market ambition of the book, I took it. The analogy in startup-land is that generally, if you can raise from Sequoia, you probably should. A great venture capitalist can help improve the product, accelerate the business and offer a platform to scale (or at least that’s what I tell myself!). The same is true with great publishers. Therefore, if I got a book deal from one of the top houses (e.g. Penguin) or specialized presses (e.g. Harvard Business Review), I was going to take it. But of course, like startups, venture capital is not appropriate for everyone, and nor is a traditional funding house. So that is really a personal decision.
I would also gladly have self-published. But “self” is misleading: I would have surrounded myself with a team to replicate many of the services a publication house offers.
3. Build your book team
While many books have a single author, they are never a solo effort.
For me, the first member of my team was my agent. An agent in many ways is like a venture capitalist without the money. They don’t fund the book, but can help shape and sharpen your book idea (and your book proposal, more on that soon below). They offer their extensive rolodex to introduce you to publishers and depending who you have offer social proof on the idea.
Getting an agent is not trivial. The advice I give to entrepreneurs to find a venture capitalist is ask other founders for introductions to their favorite. The same is true for aspiring authors. Go meet other authors. Ask about their own writing journeys. And ask to be introduced to their agents. This was a challenge for me when I started – my author rolodex was zero friends deep. But I explored ways to deepen my connections. For instance, I applied to the Bracken Bower prize, the FT & McKinsey’s prize for the best new proposals in business for authors <35 (I remember those days of my youth blissfully). Out-Innovate was selected as one of the three finalists. The competition gave me the opportunity to attend an awards dinner and meet people in the industry. I encourage you to experiment with other vectors. Go to meetups. Reach out to authors in your field. And in turn, meet agents if there is a fit.
An agent is not always needed even for the traditional process. You can get a publisher by yourself. Mechanically, selling the book in a traditional route involves shopping the proposal. Depending on your book’s topic this will be a wider or narrower list. This isn’t just about getting the maximum advance; it is about getting the right partner.
That’s why choosing your publisher is a big decision. In startup terms, the publisher is like the venture capitalist with money, but also the acquirer in terms of distribution channel. They will have a huge impact on how your book comes out, and how well it ultimately sells via its distribution network.
I often tell my students that the average venture relationship is longer than the average American marriage. So pick wisely. The same is true about a publisher. Though duration is shorter (often 1-2 years to write the book, plus the years it will be for sale), the importance of the commitment is no less important.
HBR for instance was not the highest advance offer I received. I chose them because of their specialization in business books and innovation, a personal connection with my editor and the team, and an intangible sense of fit.
If you’re taking destiny into your own hands through self-publishing, you want to assemble a team that can help you, and you might want to look at mimicking the structure in a publishing house and its process. Finding an editor can make all the difference. At the very least, hire a copyeditor to proofread your work. Product design is also important. Finding someone to design the interior and exterior (they’re two separate things!) is also critical. You also need to look at what marketing and distribution services are available. If you only put your book on Amazon, you are limiting your market.
4. Actually writing the thing
Part 1. Get the idea down on paper
The first part of writing a book is figuring out what the book is about.
This is where a book proposal comes in. In short, it is a business plan for the book. It outlines everything from what the idea of the book is, the structure of the book (chapter by chapter outlines), why someone would buy it, who the audience is, what the competition looks like, and why you should be the one to write it.
At first, I was skeptical about this step. But this ended up being the hardest part of the book process. Figuring out what the book said, why it was unique, and why someone would buy it ultimately shaped what I wrote, and increased my conviction I should write it.
As a venture capitalist, advice I give entrepreneurs is to sequence their effort and commitment to a new idea. Start by interviewing customers. Eventually build a minimum viable product to test key hypotheses. Only over time, and as your conviction grows, should you start investing meaningfully more time and effort into the venture. The same is true in book writing. The book proposal is a forcing function to explore who else has written about the book, define your target customer and why they would read your book, why you are uniquely positioned to speak about it and what the story arch will be. While the book proposal is integral for the traditional publication process, I strongly recommend it for everyone before diving into a project.
Part 2: Write
The beauty of the book proposal process I described above is that you can de-risk the project before you have to write the first line of the book. And for those in the traditional process, you will have already received an advance and a commitment to bring the book to manuscript when completed.
Ultimately, for me, writing the book was a gargantuan exercise, but it was also just that: an exercise. The core thinking was already completed via the book proposal phase. I still had to go out and interview hundreds of founders, compile their thoughts and write the manuscript. Hard but for me, not the hardest part.
I cannot overstate the importance of getting feedback during the writing process. Don’t wait until the end – like a monk who disappears for a year and emerges with a complete product. It is critical to get feedback along the way. The iteration will improve your idea and sharpen your writing. This of course starts with your editor (traditional or self-published, you should work closely with them) to whom I emailed draft chapters monthly. I recommend developing a small group – think of them as an advisory board for the book – that you can regularly share chapters with and updates. My wife, who was also my biggest supporter, was also my biggest thought partner.
With HBR, we also formalized a structured feedback process. When the manuscript was finished, we sent it to nearly ten readers who gave detailed, often line by line feedback on the manuscript. Fortunately for me this did not result in a re-write, but it did sharpen my thinking tremendously on a few pieces of the book.
Ultimately, you’re trying to get feedback from people to make sure it is the best work product you can produce and the market will value. If you have product market fit, it’s time to get it to market.
Part 3: Launch the book
These days, books sell not just based on the quality of the writing (which is critical) but also on author platform. So throughout the process of writing the book, an author should focus on building their platform.
For me, it was building my newsletter subscriber base [99%Tech] but also writing op-eds (e.g. including right here with Forbes!) and guest speaking in podcasts. I wrote over 25 op-eds before and during launch and featured in over 50 podcasts.
Ultimately, writing a book can be a rewarding experience. It was unequivocally the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but one of the things outside of parenthood and husbandhood I’m most proud of.
It has also opened up a lot of doors, some of which expected but many unexpected. For me, I invested in three startups as a result of meetings, thinking and learning that is directly attributable to the book. But I also made a number of new friends, developed an idea for a second book (more to come) and discovered how much I loved to write. My life has honestly changed as a result, and for the better.
What will you write about?