I have a sin to atone for. To my eternal regret, I wrote an article for Fast Company a few years back saying that business books were the new business cards. I didn’t invent the phrase, but I did help push it along, and like the proverbial scientist who mocked the gods, I now look back in horror at what followed.
As Entrepreneur magazine observed in a recent article about the book industry, we now have a “market flooded with forgettable books created by companies for hire.” Need proof? Scan the web: There is no shortage of articles touting the benefits of a book as a business card -- and expensive packages, products and courses designed to help entrepreneurs write their own.
Which strikes me as interesting, because if you think about it, people hate business cards.
Take one such book from back in 2012 (which I won't name or link to, for reasons about to be made clear): That self-help tome promised to “walk you through the simple steps of creating an exceptional marketing tool to thrust you ahead of the competition.” The author claimed to be a “book coach, award-winning author [and] motivational speaker” and offered five-week workshops teaching buyers "how to write a book in thirty days."
Fast-forward to today: The book hasn't got a single review on Amazon and has sold so few copies, it doesn’t rank on Amazon rank. The website no longer offers those courses, either; it’s just a landing page that links to popular books for affiliate revenue. Some "businesscard."
So, can a book ever be a business card? Yes, sometimes.
To be clear, a book can be a business card. Ray Dalio’s new book, Principles, is an example. It’s rocketing up the charts and will certainly encourage investors to explore putting money into his funds. In my own life, my first book, Trust Me, I’m Lying, was intended as an expose of the media system. I thought I was effectively destroying my marketing career by writing it, but I ended up signing a slew of marketing clients when the book got attention and sold well.
In both Dalio's and my cases, the benefits we enjoyed came about precisely because neither of us had set out to get clients, only to help people (and sell books, of course). So, what we wrote worked as books, first and foremost.
What is a business card?
That’s exactly my point: Anything that genuinely and authentically establishes your expertise and gets you attention can be a business card. But so can asking a great question at a conference can be a business card.
Leading the board of an important nonprofit in your community can be business card, too. Winning a mention in the media can be a business card. The most effective business card of all? Doing really great work.
Bringing it back to books: We have to value books as a valuable and essential cultural medium that deserves respect. So, setting out to create a book-as-business card is often at odds with making a good impression, let alone creating a book worth reading.
An author who sets out to write a book as a lead-gen device for marketing clients is by definition a lousy marketer. Similarly, a life coach needn't write a book, either. The way this person lives life should be proof of his or her acumen; and raving clients should be what brings in more customers, not a book
Nor, for that matter, should business experts need to write a book to look smart . . . they can just, you know, be smart. So it’s no surprise that most of the books “business-card” seekers create are forgettable time-wasters.
What you should put into a book
Maybe I’m crazy, because I think that if you want to write a book, you have to put something in to get something out. You should create that book, I think, because you can’t not write it. The question shouldn’t be: “What can a book do for me?” but, “What can I do for people with this book?” It shouldn’t be “What is this going to cost (in dollars)?” but, “What am I willing to sacrifice to produce this?”
As my editor at Penguin told me, "It’s not what a book is, it’s what a book does.” For the reader. She wanted me to stop focusing on superficialities and make sure my book solved real problems. By definition, one of the things traditional publishing weeds out is people doing books only for themselves. No editor is going to acquire a book like that because it's never going to make money.
And, consider: More than 300,000 books are published per year. As someone who works with my fair share of them, I can tell you nobody is waiting with bated breath for another unknown author to put out another phoned-in book. A self-published book is not a media event. There are no reporters waiting to interview the author of the 576th book on career growth, social media marketing or a formula for living well.
George Orwell said that writing a book "is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness." The reason books matter is because for most of history, not everyone was willing to endure such illness. But after hundreds of years when being a published author meant something, today, anyone with time or money can release one. So, exploiting that fact is shortsighted. There are many better ways to make money and impress people.
Just as you wouldn’t take shortcuts with your business, you shouldn't take shortcuts in making a great book. You can’t even pay someone to do it for you. You might be able to pay someone to do it with you, but nobody farms out a masterpiece.
No, the real reason to write a book is because there is something you have to explore that you think readers want to learn about, not because you think putting “author” on your LinkedIn profile is smart. It’s like a college degree -- doing it for the paper is silly. (There's an SNL skit where cast members joke that the best thing you’ll learn at a fake internet college . . . is to not tell people that’s where you went.)
People who look for shortcuts on the big things in life never fare well. If the consequences of "books as a business card" only came back to them, we could leave them to it. Sadly, those consequences don’t. The average reader reads just 12 books a year and half the population reads zero -- do you want to live on a planet where those precious few books that are read are "Sally Smith" guides to tricking you into becoming her client?
Being an entrepreneur is hard enough. And building a reputation doesn’t come from books; it comes from building great things.
The best thing you can do for your business, then, is to do great work and market it. That’s the ultimate calling card. Deeds are better than words (and books are, by definition, words).
But . . . do you want to write a book because you have something truly special and important to say? Well, then, please do it. Just don't pretend it's a business card.