The ultimate guide to writing an amazing business book

Arif Harbott
Arif Harbott

Everything you need to know when writing your first business book

This article documents the entire process of writing my first business book, The HERO Transformation Playbook, along with all of the hard lessons, pain, frustration and creativity, I’ve had along the way. And now I want to share them with you and offer a guide to help you write your business book more effectively and efficiently than I did!

In this article, I cover:

  1. Understand your motives for writing a book
  2. Decide on your book content
  3. Pick a book style
  4. Choose your publishing mechanism 
  5. Assemble your writing dream team
  6. Choosing your audience
  7. Understand the book writing process
  8. Launch your book
  9. 10 things I wish I had known before I started

The original title for this article was going to be How to Write a Book in 60 Days, however, the reality was that the process actually took closer to 5 years! 

The story begins with a fortuitous meeting in 2015

Of course, I could have completed the book in less than five years, but I wanted to balance my desire to be an author with my professional and family commitments in a pragmatic way. 

Anyway, what’s the rush? The process takes as long as it takes, so I decided to relax and go with it.

I had wanted to write a book for as long as I can remember, but it had never been the right time. Either, I had too much on professionally and personally, or my studies had got in the way. I had started (and never finished) many drafts over the years and I was starting to think I would never write a book until a chance meeting in 2015… 

… I had just started my role as Chief Digital and Information Officer at the Ministry of Justice (read more about one of my best jobs ever!). I needed some change consultants to help me and my brother, put me in contact with a couple of experts. One of them was Cuan Mulligan, who I ended up co-writing the book with. That chance meeting kicked off the five year process of debating, honing, and creation that culminated in the writing of The HERO Transformation Playbook.

Understand your motives for writing a book

Before we started the process, we needed to get clear why we wanted to write a book. 

We quickly realised that there is no money in writing books (unless you are a celebrity or until you are a mega successful author), the retailer takes 50% of the list price, and then you have the publisher’s share, so there is little left for the authors. But luckily, that was not our motivation.

If you are writing a book to make money - then don’t! You might as well go and play the lottery as your odds might be better!

Both myself and Cuan were looking to create something amazingly creative that would help organisations change and reach their full potential. We passionately believe that if we can help others learn how to deliver successful transformations, it will make organizations all over the world better and more resilient. Ultimately, this would improve the world of work for everyone, especially future generations.

Our secondary reasons were to position us as experts in our field and to have a calling card when talking to new clients.

If you do not have aligned motives with your co-author, then that is likely to spell disaster down the road, so make sure you check and agree from the outset.

There are many other reasons you might want to write a book:

  • Because you like writing
  • To leave a legacy for your children
  • For use as a business development tool
  • To help you sell other services or products; such as training or software

Whatever your reasons, keep them visible, as you are going to need to remind yourself of them during the dark times in the writing process. 

If your reason is not compelling enough, then you will not complete the book-writing marathon process!

Decide on your book content 

Once you know why you want to write a book, the next hurdle is to choose a subject to write it on.

When we were thinking about the potential content, we used the following criteria: 

It needed to be:

  1. A topic that we both loved to discuss and talk about
  2. Something we were deep experts in, but still wanted to learn more about
  3. An underdeveloped area, i.e. there was not much content already in the space
  4. An area that we had an unfair advantage in, i.e. where we had knowledge, contacts or experience that most people didn’t
  5. A subject growing in importance, i.e. something that was in demand and would continue to be so over the next 5–10 years
  6. Something that we could create software to support - we both have a passion for digital software.

This gave us a very short list, so it didn’t take us long to decide on the topic of transformation.

We had both led large transformations and were experts in the field. We also had a lot of ‘war stories’ and had seen the good and the bad. We also found that there were few books in the space already. Those that we did find were very high level and superficial, so we wanted our niche to be a really detailed step-by-step guide to transformation.

We realised that if we could come up with a transformation framework then not only would that differentiate the book, it meant we could create some cool software that would support transformations (learn more about this here).

Before you decide on your book content - come up with your own criteria to evaluate any potential ideas.

Pick a book style

There are many different choices you have when picking a style of book. They all need different skills and create workload during the writing process. In my opinion, the two most important dimensions to decide on are:

Design heavy versus text heavy

You can choose between a book that has a lot of images and is highly visual, or a book that is mostly text with few images.

We really wanted to create a beautiful visual book, something that people would want to pick up and read, with lots of images and a strong visual identity. We ended up with over a book that had over 150 images and we designed with seven different expert designers, throughout the process.

A design heavy book is much harder to create, more expensive to print and more expensive to develop. It means that your book will need a much higher price as the cost to print it goes up a lot when there are a lot of colour images. 

Any amount of colour in a book quadruples the printing cost, so if you are going to use any, use a lot.

A predominantly text-based book is MUCH easier to develop and will be a lot faster to write.

The Transformation Bridge
The Transformation Bridge is just one of over 150 images we have in our book (The Transformation Playbook)

New topic versus existing topic

You can choose to write about an entirely new concept, or synthesize or have a viewpoint around an existing topic

We chose to develop a totally new concept. We developed The HERO Transformation Framework. The advantage of this is that we did not have to do lots of research, and review the existing literature. The downside of this is that it takes much longer to develop as you are building everything from scratch.

Early HERO Framework Model
One of the early full versions of The HERO Framework (c.2015)

If you write about an existing topic, then this is much easier from a content creation point of view. The downside is that it will require a ton of research and citations. You also need to have a unique or novel point of view, otherwise, there will be little reason for people to read your book.

HERO Transformation Framework
Final version of The HERO Transformation Framework (2020)

Choose your publishing mechanism 

We were adamant, when we started the writing process, that we would self-publish. However, over time, we really started to see the benefits in a publisher but we did not want to go the full, traditional publishing house route. Luckily, in this day and age, there are now more options than ever.

Let’s talk about the different publishing options and what they mean:

Traditional Publishing

Before the year 2000, traditional publishing was the only way to get your book published. In this option, the author sells publication rights to a publishing house, and receives an advance payment (generally, if they are a tried and tested author or celebrity) and possibly royalty payments in return.

The publisher will then handles all of the editing, production, and marketing of your book. This means that it is the lowest upfront cost option to the author. The downside is that if the book does well, then the publisher has the most to gain, and you have little control over the book process and timelines.

Self Publishing

The growth of the Internet enabled the self-publishing model, which has allowed authors to take much more control over their book. This is a great option for authors who already have a strong profile or a large social following.

In this model, you retain ownership of your book, but are responsible for managing and controlling the entire process; from writing and editing to cover design and distribution.

Hybrid Publishing

In this model, you can combine benefits of self-publishing, like control and ownership, with the distribution power and quality of traditional publishing houses.

Most hybrids require authors to pay up-front costs for high-quality publishing services, but afford authors a more collaborative experience and a much higher royalty structure.

In the end, we decided to go the hybrid publishing route, as it gave us all of the control we wanted but with a lot of help with editing and distribution. After looking at lots of potential companies, we went with the superb Practical Inspiration Publishing. The whole team were amazing and helped us navigate the complicated process of publishing a book. If I were going to write another book (which I am not!), then I would certainly use them again.

Comparison of publishing options

Assemble your writing dream team

Writing is a team sport, there is very little chance that you will create something you are proud of all by yourself.

Through A LOT of trial and error we found an incredible team of people who helped us realise our vision.

At a bare minimum, you will need:

  1. Beta readers  -  friends or colleagues who feedback on early versions
  2. Development editor  -  helps with structure, story and flow of the book
  3. Copy editor  –  does the major clean-up of spelling, grammar, and punctuation 
  4. Typesetter  –  takes your draft and puts it into book format
  5. Proofreader  –  takes the typeset book and identifies any final, small errors
  6. Publisher  -  to publish, print and distribute, if you are not going the self-publishing route

In my opinion you will also need the following, if you have aspirations of creating something incredible:

  1. Cover designer – designs a striking book cover that will stand out
  2. Layout designer  -  sets the book style, page layouts, and visual identity 
  3. Illustrator  -  creates the images, diagrams and illustrations 
  4. Project manager  –  brings everything together and tracks deadlines
  5. Co-author  –  writes with you and keeps you going when you feel like giving up…it is a lot easier writing with someone, than by yourself!
  6. PR/ Marketeer   - raises awareness of the book, during the launch phase (see below)
  7. Endorsers  -  publicly endorses your book
A selection of some early book cover concepts
A selection of some early book cover concepts

Choose your audience carefully

You are writing for your readers, not yourself. This seems so obvious but, in reality, it is really hard to keep focused on your target audience.

But what does it really mean? In my opinion, this means you need to be able to answer:

  1. Who is your target reader? Ideally, down to the job title level
  2. How big is your target market? Gives you an idea of the opportunity size
  3. What problems do they have? Know their pain points so you can solve them
  4. What is their level of knowledge of your topic? Allows you to decide on how much jargon to use
  5. How much time do they have? Are they executives with little time? If so, you might need a short book, or structure your book into small sections
  6. Why is your book worthwhile to them? Understand why they would spend money on your book
  7. How can you reach your audience? Familiarise yourself with which websites, blogs, podcasts and print media they are they likely to use

Remember you are not writing for yourself. You are writing for a specific audience - so you need to be crystal clear on who they are and what they care about.

You can choose to write a book for a very large group of people with wide appeal. However, for a new author this throws up a lot of problems. The larger the audience the harder it is to pinpoint exactly who they are; how to reach them; and what would compel them to read your book.

We took the opposite approach. We targeted a very small niche audience; one that we understood; and one that we hoped would really need what we were writing about. We wanted a small number of very engaged people, rather than a huge number of somewhat engaged people (read the article 1,000 True Fans below for the reasons why we did this).

We decided that our niche target audiences would be:

  1. Change management leaders - transformation leads, programme managers and project managers responsible for delivering large-scale change
  2. Change sponsors - board sponsors, executives, senior managers and transformation stakeholders
  3. Consultants - either within existing consultancies or independent consultants looking to differentiate themselves

These are very small markets to target. There is not a huge amount of these people, so this book was never going to be a best-seller. But remember, that was not our core motivation for writing this book.

By knowing our audience, it meant that we could write a very technical book and assume a good understanding of change and project management.

It also allowed us to clearly research the books in our market and work out how ours would be different(more on marketing and launching your book later on).

Understand the book writing process

The book writing process was completely alien to us. We literally knew nothing about it. What we know now is that it takes a lot longer than you think, unless you commit to writing almost full time.

If you are trying to write, work and raise a family, then give yourself a break and accept that it is going to be a multi-year process, if you want to keep your sanity… and your relationships intact!

Step 1: The dirty first draft 

Your first draft should be really raw: don’t worry about punctuation, spelling, layout, or format. Just write and keep writing until you have nothing left. This first phase is to get all of your ideas out and to get the rough content for each chapter if you can.

Get the first draft out really quickly it should be raw and almost in strawman format

At this stage, we naively thought that we could now outsource the whole process to a ghost writer. How wrong we were! 

We spent a lot of time and money working with copywriters and ghost writers only to come to the realisation that we were the only ones that could write the book. We wasted at least a year spinning wheels with copywriters.

Only you can write the book - don’t try and outsource the content at this stage

Step 2: The endless re-writes

After the first draft, we must have re-written the book at least five times, honing it, softening the edges and padding it out

Our first draft was very brutalistic - half sentences, poor structure and it was very hard to understand. Your re-writes need to get you to the stage where you can start getting people to read a draft and give you feedback.

When you think you are done – you are probably only halfway there

After so many revisions, we felt very pleased with ourselves thinking we were done. Little did we know, we were only halfway there! 

It was around this time that a lot of people give up. So many people I have spoken to falter at this stage. Honestly, we did too. We left the draft on the shelf, in its unfinished state for about nine months while we decided what to do next.

Step 3: Development editing

A development editor will help you with the structure, story and flow of the book. 

The development editing process took about three months and we were lucky that we worked with a ‘dev editor’ who understood our topic area. The dev editor challenged our structure, called out areas that did not make sense and added a fresh set of eyes into the process.

The way this worked was that the dev editor came up with a long list of questions and recommendations. We then debated them together and decided which ones made sense and which ones did not.

After that, we made a lot of changes to the content and the flow of the book which made a massive difference on the quality of the draft.

Step 4: Beta readers

It was at this point we were ready to unleash the draft on friends and family to get user feedback. End to end, this part of the process took 2 months. 

Every time someone read the draft, they left comments and opinions on what to improve or areas that did not make sense. We debated each of these at length and decided which ones made sense and which ones we would ignore.

We are eternally grateful to all the people who took the time to read the draft and give us feedback.

Step 5: Copy editing

This is the the final manuscript stage when our book did not change that much from here on in. There were some small inconsistencies and layout changes that we made but they were fairly minor.

The copy edit process can take anywhere from 3–8 weeks.

The copy editor corrected any spelling, grammar and content issues, but did not make material changes to the draft; they are mostly cleaning up the final mistakes.

Step 6: Typesetting

This is where the book really started to come to life. We could see light at the end of the tunnel!

The typesetter takes your copy-edited manuscript and puts it into the final print book format.

Depending on the complexity of the design, this can take anywhere from 1–4 weeks.
This is where all of our hard work paid off. If you use designers and spent time working hard you see all of your creativity come together into your final print version. It was an amazing experience.

Step 7: Proofreading

The final step is one final review of the typeset version of the book to check through it for obvious mistakes in the text. 

These should be incredibly minor changes and we were really grateful to know the book had been checked so thoroughly. It may seem like overkill that your book is being checked again but this is your last chance to make changes before printing.

It shouldn’t take more than a couple of weeks to do these and get them amended in the typeset version.

And there you have it, our book was now ready to publish!

HERO Transformation Playbook Cover
Final Book Cover Design

Launch the book

Once your book has been typeset, the writing journey ends and the launching phase begins.

There is normally 3–6 months between having your book typeset and your book being available for purchase. You need to use this time to start building momentum and interest in your book.

Remember that if no one reads your book all of your hard would will have been for nothing!

Some people do not like to promote their book as it can feel uncomfortable and there can be a negative association with “selling”. 

The way I think about this is, if you truly believe that your target audience will get value from your book, then it is not selling. It is merely making them aware of your book and letting them decide if it is valuable or not.

Think about what assets you have that you can leverage: relationships, existing expertise platforms, capital, networks, etc.

Pick out the 3–4 ‘killer’ features of your book and present as bullet points. These are particularly useful for sales reps and in catalogue copy.

Research your market 

The first thing you need to know is which books are competing in your space.
Search Amazon for all the top selling books in your book category (for us that was “Change Management”). 

List and summarize the major competitive titles and explain why yours is different from each. You are seeking to demonstrate there is an audience for your book by providing examples of earlier, successful books on a similar subject, while at the same time making it clear how yours is different enough to compel those readers - and others - to buy it.

Book website 

Although this is not strictly speaking necessary, in my opinion you need a place to send your audience to so they can learn more about your book.

Here are my top tips for a book website:

  1. Keep it simple - it should not be more than a couple of pages because you don’t want to overwhelm your readers
  2. Make it valuable - add videos, downloadable resources or any other content that is not suitable for your book, but you want to make easily available to readers and prospective readers
  3. Add a lead magnet - in exchange for your readers giving you their email address, give them something with huge value, like extra chapters that did not make the cut or a special report
  4. Make it obvious how to buy your book - in case they find your website before purchasing your book, give visitors direct instructions on how to get their hands on what you have worked so hard on!

Make your website really valuable for your readers and try and build interactive content that could not go in the book

The first version of our dedicated book microsite (www.herotransformation.com)
The first version of our dedicated book microsite (www.herotransformation.com)

Endorsements

Which ‘big names’ would be willing to contribute an endorsement, or even write a foreword? While this will not have a huge impact on the sales of your book, it can add social proof for potential buyers.

When you are looking for endorsements, it is obviously easier to approach people you already know, so crack open your address book and get creative. Review your LinkedIn connections and there are bound to be people that you know that can help endorse your book.

The earlier you do this the better, so that good quotes can be included on the book cover and in the prelims, as well as in pre-order marketing material.

PR and Promotion

Finally, make a clear plan about how you will actively promote the book. Consider:

  • What are the websites, magazines and other media outlets that your target audience pays attention to?
  • Where should you and your publisher aim to get the book reviewed?
  • What speaker and media interview opportunities could you have? Does your book or your prior experience give you credentials to speak on any current topics?
  • How you can exploit your social media profile and activity? Your online presence is key in promotion, so identify how you can utilise these communities. 
  • What additional promotional opportunities can you pursue? For example, workshops, tours, events, conferences, your own mailing list.

10 things I wish I had known before I started

  1. From idea to published book takes at least 2 years , unless you are doing it almost full time.
  2. Write your book yourself - no-one can write your book but you.
  3. Find a co-author especially if this is your first book - it is a lot more fun to share the highs and lows with someone in my opinion.
  4. Start the process with a contents page - this will allow you to structure the story of the book early on and save a lot of rework later on
  5. Create pragmatic deadlines - this will keep you focused on moving through the process and not letting the daily grind get in the way
  6. Make sure your development editor is an expert, or at the very least, understands your subject matter   - this will save you a ton of time
  7. Choose your book title as early as you can in the process - if not, this is going be a huge mental and time drain later on
  8. Ensure your book cover reflects your vision - the cover is such an emotive decision. Listen to your gut and back yourself to make the right decision
  9. Promote your book asap - it’s never too early to start talking about your book. If you have not started, then start now!
  10. Writing is a skill - you get better at it the more you do and the more you learn about the mechanics of writing

Now, over to you!

It’s now over to you to start the process of creating your writing masterpiece! If you have any questions, please drop me a note and I will do my best to answer them.

If you are interested in learning more about our book, you can check it out here: 
The HERO Transformation Playbook - The step by step guide for delivering large-scale change using the HERO Transformation Framework

Finally, a huge thanks to everyone who helped us during the writing process. Without your support and generosity, we would not have been able to publish a book that we are incredibly proud of.

The ultimate guide to writing an amazing business book
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