The ultimate guide to writing a business book

Arif Harbott
Arif Harbott

Everything you need to know when writing a business book

This article documents the entire process of writing a business book. I’ll be outlining the hard lessons, pain, and frustration I personally experienced along my creative journey.

In sharing them with you, I hope to offer a guide that can be used to help you write a business book as effectively and efficiently as I did.

Rather ironically, the original title for this article was going to be “How to Write a Business Book in 60 Days,” but the reality was that the process took closer to 5 years.

In this article, I cover:

  1. Understand your motives for writing a business 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 ultimate guide to writing a business book

The story of writing a business book begins with a chance meeting

I could have completed writing a business book in less than five years, but I wanted to balance my desire to be an author with my professional and family commitments. 

Rather than rushing, I acknowledged that the process takes as long as it takes, so I decided to relax and go with it.

I always wanted to write a business book,  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. After years of writing, most of my work and drafts were left unfinished, and I was starting to think I would never finish or publish a book.

That was 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.

In short, that chance meeting kicked off the five-year process of debating, honing, and creation that culminated in the writing of our book.

Understand your motivation for writing a business book

Before you start writing a book, you need to properly understand the reason you want to write. Ask yourself what your goal is.

When Cuan and I underwent this internal reflection, we quickly realised there is no money in writing books. After all, the retailer takes 50% of the list price, and the publisher’s take a large share, so that leaves little room for the authors.

But luckily, that wasn’t our motivation for writing.

You won’t make money writing a book, and if that’s your motivation for writing, then you might as well go and play the lottery as your odds might be better.

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

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

Having misaligned motivations between you and your co-author could spell disaster, so make sure they’re in sync from the get-go.

There are many other reasons you might want to write a business 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 difficult times in your writing process. 

If your reason is not compelling enough, then you won’t complete the marathon that is the book-writing process.

Decide on your business book’s content 

Once you know why you want to write a business book, the next hurdle is choosing 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 in the next 5–10 years
  6. Something we could create software to support, as  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 we wanted to write about.

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. There were few books in the space already, and those that we did find were very high level and superficial, so we wanted our niche to be a detailed step-by-step guide to transformation.

We realised that if we could come up with a transformation framework – it would differentiate the book, and could create some cool software that would support innovative transformations.

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 when picking a style of book to write. They all require different skills and create workload during the writing process.

In my opinion, the two most important dimensions to decide are:

Design heavy versus text heavy

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

We wanted to create a 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 them with seven different expert designers.

design heavy book is much harder to create, more expensive to print, and more expensive to develop. It means that your book costs much more, as the cost to print it goes up drastically 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 text-based book is significantly 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 synthesise and have a unique viewpoint around an existing topic

We chose to develop a new concept. We developed The HERO Transformation Framework. The advantage of this is that we did not have to do a lot of research, or 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 it’s much easier from a content creation point of view. Of course, the downside is it will require a lot 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 writing a business book, that we would self-publish. But, over time, we started to realise that it might be easier, and more beneficial to use a publisher.

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 explore the different publishing options.

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 and ongoing royalties in return.

The publisher then handles all the editing, production, and marketing of your book. This means it is the lowest upfront cost option for the author. Of course, 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 self-publishing route has come to fruition since the growth of the internet and technology. It has allowed authors to take more control over their books. 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 the 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 on a  hybrid publishing route, as it gave us all of the control we wanted, while also giving us a  lot of help with editing and distribution. After looking at lots of potential companies, we went with 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, then I would certainly use them again.

Publishing options for writing a business book
Comparison of publishing options

Assemble your writing dream team

Writing is a business book 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 achieve 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, to create something you are proud of, you will also need a:

  1. Cover designer – to design a striking book cover that will stand out
  2. Layout designer  -  to set the book style, page layouts, and visual identity 
  3. Illustrator  -  to create images, diagrams, and illustrations 
  4. Project manager  –  to bring everything together and track deadlines
  5. Co-author  –  to  write with you and keeps you going when you feel like giving up…after all, it is a lot easier writing with someone, rather than by yourself
  6. PR/ Marketeer   – who raises awareness of the book during the launch phase
  7. Endorsers  -  who will  publicly endorse your book
A selection of some early book cover concepts for writing a business book
A selection of some early book cover concepts

Choose your audience carefully

You are writing for your readers, not yourself. This might seem obvious but, in reality, it can often be really hard to stay focused on your target audience.

What does this really mean? In my opinion, staying focused on your audience means you should know:

  1. Who your target reader is. Ideally, down to the job title level.
  2. How big your target market is. Gives you an idea of the opportunity size.
  3. What problems the audience has. Know their pain points so you can solve them.
  4. What their level of knowledge of your topic is. This allows you to decide how much jargon to use.
  5. How much time 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 your book is worthwhile to them. Understand why they would spend money on your book.
  7. How you can 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, what they care about, and what they are likely to read.

You can choose to write a business book for a very large group of people with wide appeal. However, for a new author, this could cause 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 we hoped contained people in need of our book. We wanted a small number of very engaged people, rather than a huge number of somewhat engaged (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, program 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 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 process of writing a business book

The book writing process was completely alien to us. We 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 first draft 

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

Get the first draft out quickly – it should be raw and in straw man format

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

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

My biggest tip would be that only you can write the book, so 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 brutal:  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.

After multiple revisions, we felt pleased with ourselves and assumed we were done. Little did we know, we were only halfway there.

It was around this time that a lot of people give up, and 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.

When you think you are done writing the book – you are probably only halfway there

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. They challenged our structure, called out areas that didn’t 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 made sense and which did not.

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

Step 4: Beta readers

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

Every time someone reads the draft, they offered comments and opinions on what to improve or areas that needed work. We debated these comments at length and decided on which to work on, and which to ignore.

Of course. 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 final manuscript stage, and our book did not change that much after that stage. 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 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 its complexity, 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 grateful to know the book had been checked so thoroughly. It may seem like overkill that your book is being checked again, but this was our 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 a business book journey ends and the launching phase begins.

There are 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 work would have been for nothing!

Some people feel uncomfortable, and do not like to promote their book – as it can make others feel uncomfortable, and there can be negative connotations surrounding “selling”. 

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

Think about what assets you have you can leverage, think about your:

  • Relationships
  • Existing expertise platforms
  • Capital
  • Networks

Pick out the 3–4 ‘killer’ features of your book and present them as bullet points. These are particularly useful for sales reps and in a catalog 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 summarise 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 making it clear how yours is different enough to compel those readers  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 after initially hearing about your book.

Here are my top tips for a book website:

  1. Keep it simple  -  it shouldn’t 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 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 and exclusive chapters that didn’t 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 hard on.

Use your website to provide value that encourages readers to make a purchase, and try to 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 easier to approach people you already know, so crack open your address book and get creative. Review your LinkedIn connections –  there are bound to be people that you know that can help endorse your work.

The earlier you do this the better, so 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 websites, magazines, and other media outlets your target audience pays attention to.
  • Where you and your publisher aim to get the book reviewed.
  • What speaker and media interview opportunities you could 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 utilize these communities. 
  • What additional promotional opportunities you can pursue. For example, workshops, tours, events, conferences, your mailing list.

10 things I wish I had known about writing a business book

  1. Unless you are doing it full time, the process of writing a business book from idea to launch takes at least 2 years.
  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.
  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 as soon as possible - it’s never too early to start talking about your book. If you have not already started, start now.
  10. Writing is a skill - you get better with practice, so the more you do, the more you learn about the mechanics of writing.

Now, over to you to write a business book!

It’s now over to you to start the process of writing a business book. If you have any questions, feel free to drop 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.

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 we are incredibly proud of.

The ultimate guide to writing a business book
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