13 tips for thriving as an author within a company

Groundswell social media research team at Forrester. Photo (c) 2008 by Jeremiah Owyang.

When you write a book about ideas, it reflects well on both you and your company. Or at least it ought to. As with all corporate politics, the devil is in the details.

I learned much of what you’re about to read while coauthoring three books and editing two others at Forrester Research. Since leaving, I’ve helped or collaborated with many other authors working on books within companies. These authors were CEOs, CMOs, vice presidents, and analysts. While it seems obvious that a book like that will bring prestige to the organization, but there are a lot of potential pitfalls if you don’t manage the process carefully.

The key is to release the information about what you’re doing carefully and deliberately in a way that maximizes the support and resources you get while minimizing people’s desire to meddle with your content. That’s a fundamentally political task. To help you, here are 13 tips that help you navigate the process, organized chronologically to parallel the book development process.

1. No secrets; don’t surprise your management.

If you’re halfway through writing a book before you tell your boss, trouble will follow. Books are visible; companies want to be aware of them and know how they will affect your role and the organization. So early in the process, when you’re developing the ideas, tell your management. What follows can be a difficult conversation, but waiting only makes it harder. Nobody in management wants to feel that your book plans have backed them into a corner. They’re entirely capable of telling you to either drop the book or quit, but they’re less likely to do that if you approach the book process as a collaborative effort.

2. Settle intellectual property issues early.

Who owns the content? This is a crucial issue. Forrester is a company based on its analysts’ ideas, so the analysts’ contracts specify that all intellectual property that they create belongs to the company. As a result, Forrester owned the copyright on all the books that I and its other analysts wrote. Perhaps it’s the same for you, so check your employment contract. Assuming that you will own your book is imprudent. If you think you’re allowed to write a book and own the I.P. in it, you’ll still want to negotiate details with your company, since you’ll likely be using some corporate time and resources to complete your effort. If you get to own the I.P., can the company use it as well? Settle these issues, in writing, before moving forward.

3. Settle financial issues, too.

Who gets the advance? Who gets the royalties? Who is liable if the book includes an error and you get sued? If you give a paid speech, who gets the money? If you distribute author copies to spread influence, who pays for those? I’ve seen arrangements where the author keeps all the book-related payments, some where the company keeps everything, and others where the company gets paid but the author gets a percentage or bonus based on those payments. Figure this out well before you start pitching publishers.

4. Get the time you need to write.

You’re going to write a book in your spare time? Good luck with that. While some incredibly disciplined people can carve out book time on nights and weekends, in most cases the company will need to allow you to spend part of your work time on the book. (At Forrester, writing the books was my full-time job; my coauthors told me that working on the books at the same time as doing the analyst job was the hardest thing they’d ever done.) It’s not just a question of sitting down and writing. You’re going to need to do brainstorming sessions, conduct interviews, collaborate with coauthors, and block off hours or days to concentrate on writing. Negotiate that time or you will end up miserable. And prepare your family, too, because if you’re that busy, they’ll be suffering along with you.

5. Line up corporate resources.

Your company may have editors, copy editors, designers, illustrators, technical experts, researchers, project managers, or administrative staff who can help you complete your goal. When you and company have aligned your promotional and financial interests, they’ll be much more likely to agree to help with these resources. Don’t assume anything; negotiate with the resource owners to get access to these professionals. The good news is that books are exciting projects; in my experience, professionals like copy editors and designers are psyched to work on them. Be effusively grateful in return.

6. Involve your public relations people in your promotional plan.

While P.R. is a corporate resource like the others I just mentioned, you’ll need a lot more extended help from your corporate P.R. folks. Depending on your company’s commitment to the book, you may get access to the full effort of your P.R. department, or you may need to hire your own resources and get their approval. (The publisher’s publicity team alone is unlikely to be sufficient.) Start by collaborating on a publicity plan to include in your book proposal.

7. Decide on your book title with as few “helpers” as possible.

If you already have a title settled, great. If not, you’ll want to work with a few people — your boss, your CMO, and your publisher — on a title. You might want to include your most creative colleague in a brainstorm. But keep the circle small. For my second book, Empowered, I figured out at one point that there were eight people — two authors, three people at Forrester, and three people at my publisher — all of whom could say “no” to a title, and nobody who could say “yes.” I called that experience “title hell.”

Why not crowdsource the title development? Don’t do it. Large groups of people generate lots of word combinations, but they don’t “get” your real idea, and they’ll settle on something lame if they settle at all. Crowdsourcing within your company is even worse, since it creates a group of dozens of people who will feel free to meddle in the fundamental aspects of your book. (However, once you’ve narrowed it down to two equally good alternatives, polling internal or external groups can help you make decision.)

Empowered8. Keep the cover design process intimate.

Like titles, covers are emotional, and the more people who can meddle and say “I don’t like green” or “Sans-serif fonts look childish,” the more trouble you will have. So tell your designer the title and subtitle along with the emotional qualities you are seeking, and when you get an alternative you like, show it to the few people whose approval is required and get their signoff. As with titles, crowdsourcing covers is a disaster, but polling can help. For Empowered, Ted Schadler and I had two cover ideas we liked, so I walked them around the office and got about 150 people to share their preferences. That’s how I found out that half of the women were unhappy with a superhero cartoon flying across the page in his underwear, so we picked the other cover.

9. Post your table of contents as publicly as possible.

Once the title is settled, the table of contents is worth sharing widely to help promote the book. It helps answer the question “what are you creating?” And you may get suggestions on people who can help with specific pieces, like a chapter on legal consequences or technical details.

10. Invite colleagues to help you with chapter content, technical information, and contacts.

Some people within your organization have specialized knowledge that will help you. They may be experts on marketing, knowledgeable about China, or just helpful at untangling a poorly organized chapter. Most importantly, some people (like sales folks) have contacts that will generate great interview material for your book. Reach out to these colleagues and ask for their help. They’ll not only make the content better, they’ll become allies when you launch the book.

11. Socialize the final manuscript.

Once the text is done, you can use it to impress colleagues. It’s relatively cheap to have the manuscript printed and bound at your local copy shop. A bound manuscript copy suggests two things: (1) this is a major piece of work and (2) this is not subject to change. Distribute these bound copies to folks in your company who can help promote the book internally and externally once it’s ready to go.

12. Promote your company along with your book.

Because you’ve lined up your corporate P.R. in step 6, the launch will be a collaborative effort. You’re about to be famous. Don’t forget who got you there. You want to get some subtle promotion for your company into every bylined article and speech, including identifying yourself by title and company. By this time, the powers that be at your organization will be wondering if all this effort was worth it, so you must prove that your book launch will benefit them.

13. Be profuse with thanks and signed copies.

You think you’re done? You’re not. Make a list of people within your company who helped you; this might be 20 people or more. Now sign a copy for each one with a grateful message and, if possible, hand it to them personally. It’s the least you can do after all the help they gave you, and they’ll appreciate the gesture.

Creating a book within a company is a fundamentally political process. But if you follow these steps and involve the company in your success, you’re a lot more likely to have a successful outcome and a rise in prestige within your organization. And that will get you to the ultimate prize: the ability to write more books.

One response to “13 tips for thriving as an author within a company

  1. Interesting post, Josh. It seems like this would apply in academia as well.

    I followed a similar process with ASU for my new one. I asked for permission, not forgiveness. I ensured that the overall book and the ASU case study in particular didn’t shock anyone. It turns out that ASU is particular about things such as use of its logo. Better to ask permission than forgiveness, I suppose.

    #13 really struck home with me. I distributed a bunch of copies to the dean of our business school, my department chair, and my colleagues.

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