Can women write successful business books?

On its face, this is an absurd question. But my friends are hearing this question and wondering about bias in the publishing industry. Today I’d like to explode those myths.

The impetus for this post was the testimony of a female author I know who is trying to sell her next book. She has asked to remain anonymous. Here’s what she wrote on Facebook about what’s she’s hearing from publishers like Wiley and McGraw Hill:

Two fairly consistent things several publishers have said to me:

1. Men don’t buy many business books (not counting textbooks) written by women (there are fewer written by women, too, and that’s part of it);
2. Women don’t buy business books written by women for women (self-help books are different. One exception was Sandberg’s Lean In).

So let’s take that apart.

Does it really matter if the author is female?

Generalizations about the gender of authors are a priori false. What matters is not the gender of the author, but the content of the book.

Let’s take this apart category by category in business books.

Lots of business books are how-to books. Does the gender matter here?

Which of these would you be more likely to buy?

Web Analytics for Retail by Jeremy Smith

Web Analytics for Retail by Sarah Jones

Can we agree that what matters is whether Smith or Jones have relevant experience and something useful to say? Anyone doing web analytics doesn’t care about the gender of the author. The same would apply to any other “how to do it” book.

What about strategy books?

There are fewer women strategists and strategy authors than men because of all sorts of factors in the broader environment (for example, fewer women went to business school or fewer women got a senior management position). But the ones that have published strategy books do just fine. Here are a few obvious examples:

  • Rosabeth Moss Kanter, HBS Professor, author of 18 books.
  • Charlene Li, coauthor of the bestseller Groundswell (with me) and author of the New York Times bestselling Open Leadership
  • Denise Lee Yohn, author of the bestselling What Great Brands Do and Fusion
  • Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In (4 million copies sold) and coauthor, with Adam Grant, of Option B
  • Cathy O’Neil, author of Weapons of Math Destruction

There are plenty of other examples; here’s a great list by Rachel Happe.

Does it matter that these authors are women? I don’t think so. A strategy book succeeds on insight and promotion. If a woman has insight and a good promotional platform, people will buy her book. Strategy depends on what you do, not who wrote it — if you’re interested in strategy but don’t buy a strategy book based on the gender of the author, you’re just being ignorant. Someone else will outsmart you because you shut yourself off from the best ideas.

What about a business memoir? This is not my area of expertise, but my opinion is, if the memoir is memorable, the public will buy it. A book about the inside story of the rise and fall of GM, or the inside story at Theranos, would sell regardless of the gender of the author.

And there is the self-help book. Here, there are lots of categories. There is the “how to be productive” book like Getting Things Done. There are books on how to write better, like Write to the Topby Deborah Dumaine. Again, for these books, there’s no indication that the gender of the author matters.

Finally, there are the “how to be a woman in business” books. There are a glut of these, and it’s very hard to get to the top of this heap. Furthermore, I’d argue that to be successful with such a book, you already need to be well-known, as Sheryl Sandberg was. There are thousands of successful businesswomen, and most of them are not capable of writing a book that will motivate women to read about and follow them. This is not a criticism of women. It’s no different from the fact that there are thousands of successful male managers, most of whom are not capable of motivating people or getting followers. Most of us are ordinary, regardless of gender, and it’s very hard to write a successful book.

Do women buy business books?

I don’t have evidence here. I have not conducted surveys.

But based on the women I have worked with, I think women businesspeople buy books that can help them, just as men do.

If a woman is doing web analytics, she is going to buy the book on web analytics, regardless of the gender of the author.

If a woman is setting strategy for her startup, she is going to buy a book on startup strategy, regardless of the gender of the author.

Is a woman going to buy a book on how to be successful as a woman in business? I don’t know. But I suspect it would have to be very good and well differentiated, since there is so much generic advice out there.

What it takes to succeed with a book

There is bias against women in business. There is bias against women attaining positions of leadership, including thought leadership. This is real. It thins the ranks of those who are in a position to write books, and that is the main reason there are fewer women business book authors than men.

But if you are a woman and you want to write a book, here is my advice to you:

First, identify what you know that is based on experience and differentiated. What do you have to say that is unique and powerful? Unless you figure that out, you have no chance of standing out.

Second, build a promotional platform. Find ways to get your word out. Start a podcast, write a blog, write on Medium, write on LinkedIn, start an Instagram, get a column in a publication, build up a mailing list and write a newsletter, start speaking at conferences. A platform takes years to build. But publishers won’t become interested unless you have a platform.

Yes, this is the same advice I would give to men. It’s tough out there to make an impact with a book. You need a point of differentiation and a promotional platform. That’s the hard truth, regardless of gender.

I think this advice applies equally well if you are writing a book about how to be a woman in business. You will need a hell of a platform and an awesome point of differentiation. What do you have to say about women in business that’s never been said as well before, and how will you get people to hear it?

Pay attention to how publishers say no

Publishers get 20 pitches for every book they can publish. They need to say no a lot.

Sure, publishers play the numbers. These publishers may cite the “women don’t buy business books” argument. But what they may actually be saying is “I don’t think this book is so outstanding that it will stand out.” Any publisher who said (or thought) “We don’t publish women authors” is just being stupid, and some other publisher will snap up their best prospects.

Publishing is a hits business. Of the books they publish, publishers will lose money on 80% and make up the rest on the remaining books that sell like mad. (You know, like movies or venture capital.) It used to be true that 70% of books don’t earn out their advance. It’s gotten worse in the last five years — publishing is drying up.

So here’s what’s really going through the publishers mind.

They are looking at your book proposal and they are looking at you and your platform.

They are asking, is there a 20% chance that this could be a huge hit? That would only happen if (say it with me now) the idea is outstanding and the author has a great promotional platform.

If not, they need to say no.

But just like VCs, publishers don’t like to say no in a mean way, because they know you might be back with a better book in the future.

So they may tell you that women don’t buy business books, or that no one is buying leadership books right now, or that there are too many books on AI out there.

These are excuses. What they are really saying is “this book is not sufficiently differentiated, and your platform is not big enough.”

Bias is real. But get the differentiated idea and the platform, and you’ll get there. They’ll have to say yes.

3 responses to “Can women write successful business books?

  1. Josh, I usually agree with your logic, but in this instance, I don’t. Your argument is more about whether readers will read a woman’s book, not about whether publishers will publish it, and you’re making the assumption that publishers wouldn’t turn down a good book and author based on gender, because that wouldn’t be logical. We both know that bias can throw logic out the window in a split second.

    Given that they receive 20 book submissions (at least) for every one they publish, it’s quite possible that some publishers believe they can still find enough hits without having to publish a realistic proportion of books by women. Listing some women business authors who have succeeded doesn’t tell us how many of the unknown number submitted were of equal worth for knowledge shared, but were never published.

    My natural inclination is to believe there is still some bias, but I don’t know that based on evidence. I also don’t know that there isn’t bias, based on the evidence you provided here.

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