So You Want to Write a Book (Chief Executive, 2002)
Tom Kelley has had a year to get used to the phenomenon, and he’s still bemused by it. “I feel that the whole world looks at me slightly differently,” says the general manager of IDEO, the Palo Alto, Calif.-based industrial design firm known for creating the Apple mouse, the Palm handheld devices and Crest Neat Squeeze toothpaste tubes. “People project wisdom onto me. They ask my advice on things I don’t know anything about. They offer to let me in on their venture capital funds and invite me to join their boards because they think I’m smarter than I was a year ago.”
Kelley didn’t earn these accolades by inventing a whizzy new widget. Instead, he did something people have done for thousands of years. He wrote a book.
Published in January, 2001, The Art of Innovation: Lessons in Creativity from IDEO, America’s Leading Design Firm spent four months on the BusinessWeek best-seller list and turned its author from a self-described “guy who was traveling less than once a month” into a hot number at a national speakers bureau.
As the saying goes, it should only happen to you. The question is, can it?
The market for best-selling books by executives first showed its potential in 1963 with My Years with General Motors, Alfred P. Sloan’s story of how he took over a corporate icon on the brink of ruin and turned it into a success. Twenty-one years later, another automotive executive wrote another blockbuster account of pulling victory from the jaws of defeat. Iacocca, published in 1984, was followed by Donald Trump’s Art of the Deal in 1987 and Thomas J. Watson Jr.’s Father, Son & Co.: My Life at IBM and Beyond in 1990.
After a pause for the early 1990s recession, business – and books by business leaders – picked up again big time. “CEOs were the gurus of modern society,” recalls Roger Scholl, executive editor of Currency Books, Doubleday’s business imprint. “They were celebrities, and there was the sense on the part of publishers that if you signed up the right CEO at the right moment, you could enjoy strong commercial success.”
CEO books have since lost a lot of their luster, however, victims of the dot-com crash, the recession and the events following September’s attacks. “I think CEO books are waning, unless you have incredible names,” says Arnold Goodman, a New York-based literary agent.
Even top names no longer automatically open wallets. Almost no one in the publishing world thinks that’s Jack Welch’s memoir, Jack: Straight from the Gut, has the proverbial snowball’s chance of earning back even half of its record $7 million advance. Of names that once would have been a shoo-in for frenzied auctions and seven-figure contracts – names like John Chambers and Scott McNealy – Scholl muses, “I’m not so sure anymore.”
No one, however, thinks that the entire market has evaporated. Editors may be more cautious but they’re still in the game. “I’m much more focused on what a book offers to readers,” says Adrian Zackheim, publisher of Portfolio, Penguin Putnam’s new business imprint, and the editor of best-sellers like Good to Great, Giants of Enterprise and The HP Way.
While there are fewer sitting CEOs who can sell a “how I did it” memoir of their success, there are plenty of other paths to the best-seller list. Two that have worked for Zackheim are how-to books about a particular company’s services or a dramatic product launch. “I think there’s always room for a book that sheds light on new thinking, a new way of doing business, a new way of getting ahead, and they may not necessarily be by CEOs who are in the news,” notes Scholl.
Turning a good idea into a good book
When he was the CEO of AlliedSignal, Larry Bossidy had been frustrated with the lack of execution in some company divisions and thought of writing a book on the topic. But, he says, “I had in-depth experience with only two companies and didn’t think that was the right mindset to write this book.” He was familiar with the work of Ram Charan, a business consultant and author of What the CEO Wants You to Know, and thought a partnership had potential. “Ram was a mile wide and an inch deep, and I was two inches wide and a mile deep,” Bossidy recalls. “So I called him.”
Charan, in turn, called his former editor at Crown Publishing, and the three struck a deal. Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done will be published this June.
It’s rare, however, for a CEO to initiate the effort to write a proposal and hunt down a publisher. “Most of the big books are generated by an agent or editor coming to the CEO,” explains Goodman.
A more typical experience was the one that resulted in Direct from Dell: Strategies that Revolutionized an Industry. “The idea [of writing a book] had been circling around as the company rose to greater prominence and as the business model became a focus of attention,” recalls Michael Dell. “We knew that when the company’s business model was explained, it did a lot for marketing our products and services. There was also a greater desire to build the brand and expose the company to broader audiences. And there was the thought that the book would be translated into different languages and that would help us with our international expansion. I was also, quite frankly, a bit scared that if I didn’t tell the story, somebody else would and invariably they’d get it wrong.”
A HarperBusiness editor had the same idea and approached Dell in 1997. The deal was finalized and the book was published in early 1999.
Like many CEO books, Direct from Dell was written with the help of a collaborator. (Full disclosure: I was the collaborator on Direct from Dell, as well as Only the Paranoid Survive and Swimming Across, both by Intel CEO and Chairman Andy Grove.) “I almost always suggest a collaborator, even if they’re planning to write or are even capable of writing the book themselves,” says Zackheim.
When you need a collaborator
Most CEOs agree. After writing two well-received business books on his own, Intel CEO and Chairman Andy Grove called on a collaborator for his two most recent, Only the Paranoid Survive and Swimming Across. The reason: “Laziness,” he explains. “It is an incredible amount of work to write a book, and any amount of help you can get with that process lowers the barrier you have to overcome to finish it.”
Probably the most high-profile helper right now is John A. Byrne, whose name comes right after Jack Welch’s on Jack: Straight from the Gut. Byrne hit the jackpot – depending on his or her experience, a collaborator can command a sizable percentage of the author’s advance, as well as a portion of the royalties – as the result of his day job as a BusinessWeek senior writer. He met Welch while researching a cover story called “How Jack Welch Runs GE.” They hit it off, and as Byrne recalls, “about a year and a half after that, we were having lunch and he asked me if I would be interested in doing the book with him. I said, ‘Of course.’”
Like many collaborators, Byrne’s role combined writing and shaping the book. “In the beginning, he wanted to write a book about his mistakes. But it was clear to me that to do so would appear disingenuous.” It soon became apparent to Welch, too, and he changed his approach.
Other executives choose a writer from a list of names suggested by their editor or literary agent. “Roger [Scholl] offered three or four names,” recalls Bob Davis, former CEO of Lycos and author of Speed is Life, published in May 2001. “I met with them and it was all about whom I felt best with.” Tom Kelley worked his way through a list of seven names provided by his agent.
Putting in the time
Having someone to help with the writing doesn’t mean that the CEO can sit back and dispense pearls of wisdom here and there. “The quality of the book is almost invariably in direct proportion to the amount of time and energy they put in,” says Zackheim.
Editors, agents and writers all insist that they attempt to explain the demands involved in writing a book. Producing a ready-for-publication manuscript alone usually takes eight months to a year.
When John Byrne helped then-Apple CEO John Sculley write Odyssey, Scully took a week’s vacation, Byrne moved into his home and the two spent seven days together, stopping only to sleep. “We’d go jogging together at 4:30 in the morning, then go to the Apple campus and from 7 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon, I did nothing but interview him with a court reporter in the room” to produce an immediate transcript, Byrne recalls. Byrne estimates he spent close to 100 hours with Sculley, then another 100 hours interviewing other people to get enough material to write the first draft.
For Jack: Straight from the Gut, Byrne spent close to 1,200 hours over the course of a year with Welch. “I’d interview him, interview a whole bunch of people, go off and write something, and then show it to him. He’d go through it with me and we’d amplify things – some detail put on the page would refresh his memory and that process would lead to more stories, more insights, more of everything,” Byrne remembers. “Some chapters went through more than 20 revisions.”
Most CEOs are stunned by how much the process takes out of them. Bob Davis says flatly, “I underestimated the time by a factor of about 10.”
Grove, who wrote Only the Paranoid Survive while still CEO of Intel, fit in the time by scheduling three-hour telephone sessions every week, although “a week” could be anything from one to 14 days. Kelley recalls devoting 10 hours every Saturday for the eight months it took him to write the initial manuscript, then every Saturday and Sunday during five months of revision. His editor “wrecked my summer vacation in a big way.”
Giving it legs
When the book is finally published, another personal push is required to get it off the ground. “Anyone who says you don’t have to show up in person to market your own book is lying,” says Zackheim. Grove compares a book launch to a product launch. He allocates a few weeks for media interviews and book signings to get awareness for it. “Then it either has legs or it doesn’t,” he says.
In any case, don’t look to your publisher’s publicity department to add much stamina. Many executives hire their own publicity agents. “Doubleday was pretty helpful, but I was always conscious of the fact that the guy who was helping me had 100 other books to do,” recalls Kelley. It was his freelance publicist – “a goddess” – who was responsible for the big win: nine appearances on National Public Radio, including an hour with the uber interviewer Terry Gross on “Fresh Air.” “I was No. 1 in Amazon’s ‘Movers & Shakers’ the day I was on Terry Gross,” Kelley remembers. “I was right up there with Harry Potter.”
Looking back, Kelley is enthusiastic about the experience, despite the working weekends. “I think it is a huge missed opportunity if a CEO does not write a book, if they think they have something to share. This way, it becomes part of your legacy.”
So is he about to call his editor anytime soon with a new proposal? “Nope! I’m definitely going to take a break.”
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