Real thought leaders write books.
That’s the conventional wisdom, at least. If you want to be recognized as a true thought leader, you must have a published book to your name. This accepted logic is why so many thought leaders add “write a book” to their Asana lists.
Ever since mankind got the whole civilization thing going, books have been the most authoritative platform through which to communicate ideas and burnish reputations. Authorship cements expertise, boosts credibility, expands networks, generates leads, advances careers, and builds legacies. With centuries of proof to support these benefits, it’s no mystery why thought leaders often view book authorship as imperative. Books are the OG of content marketing.
But amidst a reconstituted publishing landscape, an explosion of digital communication platforms, and a radical shift in how we consume information, it’s time to reevaluate the assumption that writing a book is the proper aspiration for every thought leader.
The truth is, it’s not.
Weighing the benefits and challenges
Writing a book is, of course, a worthy goal, an accomplishment that can be personally and professionally rewarding and put thought leaders firmly on the map. Books are an especially promising gateway for the speaking circuit; many speaking opportunities simply aren’t obtainable without a book to your name.
But before rushing into a book project, thought leaders must clearly understand what they hope to achieve from the finished product and manage their expectations about the process.
The reality is that as self-publishing has accelerated and gained legitimacy, writing a book has become a wholly different enterprise. The good news: it’s easier than ever to get published. The bad news: it’s easier than ever to get published.
Even if you’re one of the lucky few to land a traditional publisher, expect to invest considerable effort in promoting and marketing your book. Sales prospects dim considerably with self or hybrid publishing, so strategic marketing is even more critical with these avenues.
The heavy lift of getting your book not just onto the page but out into the world is why Gotham Ghostwriters President Dan Gerstein advises would-be writers to approach this endeavor as a pop-up business. Just like any company, your pop-up business needs market research and a business plan. Why should you embark down this path? What are your goals with this book, and what does success look like for you? How will your book be written? How will it get noticed? What is your desired timing? Are you ready, willing, and able to take on this endeavor?
Bestselling author Josh Bernoff works with other authors to get business books written and published. He’s also a candid observer about the obfuscation that is endemic within business communication; I relish his daily, wry rants about the meaningless writing that surrounds us (and try to avoid being a culprit myself). Continuing with his mission to bring clarity to business writing, Bernoff recently conducted a survey of nonfiction authors to gauge the outcomes of their publishing efforts. What he found was that for every thought leader whose business book was successful, there was another thought leader who wrote off (literally) their book as an abject failure.
From his survey, Bernoff arrived at several conclusions about the top challenges that many thought leaders experience as authors.
If you’re a thought leader mulling a book project, ask yourself these critical questions:
Question 1: Am I overestimating the depth of my ideas?
Not every business perspective has the horsepower to fuel an entire book. Successful nonfiction books are driven by original ideas that have enough “there” there to drive a sustained narrative. Thought leaders who strain to overstretch modest ideas into the length of a book will end up with a trite product that doesn’t sell copies or enhance the author’s standing as a thought leader.
Question 2: Am I underestimating the time investment?
Writing a book is a substantial commitment; Bernoff suggests that a reasonable yardstick is 250 hours to generate a first draft. If you’re only looking at a book as a promotion vehicle, weigh how this time investment stacks up against alternatives.
Podcasting, guest posting, op-eds, speaking events, videos – there are many other promotional tools to consider, even if they don’t equal the gravitas of a book. It’s true that book authorship can increase the chances of your success with these additional communication channels, but the absence of a published book shouldn’t deter you from marketing your ideas in other ways.
Question 3: Is my idea time-sensitive?
If you created a book proposal at the start of 2021 and pitched it to traditional publishers, and if it was actually accepted by a publisher (a mighty big “if,”), your book would be published in late 2022.
Can you wait that long to get your ideas out into the world?
Thought leaders often want to create a more immediate impact, and their innovative perspectives may be time-sensitive. Going the route of self-publishing or with hybrid publishers may accelerate the time to market, but these paths decrease the potential of your impact and are still time-consuming.
Deciding on the right next steps for your book
The cottage industry of book writing and publishing support has expanded over the past decade, in tandem with the explosion of publishing options that has recast the authorial possibilities for thought leaders. If you have a killer book concept and the only thing holding you back is your busy schedule, consider hiring a ghostwriter or editor who can collaborate with you to bring your book to life. Don’t be fooled: the ghostwriting and editing process still takes time and requires your attention, but bringing in support will accelerate the journey from concept to publishing.
One of the less considered benefits of writing a book is that it forces you to deeply hone your ideas. Any kind of writing requires a discipline that sharpens your perspective, and the commitment of writing an entire book magnifies this rigor. The very process of writing a book becomes its own unique benefit to the development of your thought leadership. If you have a solid idea as a starting point, and if you’re prepared to put in the work needed to create and then promote a high-quality product, a book can be the best way to elevate you as a thought leader.