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Business by the Book

Every entrepreneur has heard the advice: If you want to stand out from the competition, write a book. But does becoming an author really pay off for small business owners? How does having a book affect a firm's bottom line? How important is it to hire professionals such as book agents, ghostwriters, and publicists? Mike Schultz, principal of the Wellesley Hills Group, of Framingham, Mass., decided to find out.

His firm, a marketing consultancy for professional service providers, recently released the results of a survey of 200 business-book authors. He discussed the highlights of the report, The Business Impact of Writing A Book, recently with Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.

What got you interested in this topic?

Our clients are always looking for ways to build their companies or practices. That means establishing themselves as thought-leaders, increasing their intellectual capital, and building trust in the community. Like everyone, we had heard that having the business leader publish a book was a great way to do all that, but I could not find any specific data to prove it. And I looked, as they say in Boston, wicked hard to find it! Finally, we decided to do the research ourselves.

You sent surveys to 1,000 U.S. authors of business books currently in print and received replies from 200 whose books had been published between 1974 and 2006. What was the bottom line?

The vast majority of the authors we surveyed -- 96% -- said they did realize a significant positive impact on their businesses from writing a book and would recommend the practice.

Most of them, however, said that the indirect benefits -- generating more leads, closing more deals, charging higher fees, and getting better speaking engagements -- far outweighed the direct benefits of book publishing. Even if a business book sells 15,000 copies -- which is considered quite good -- an author getting royalties of $1 per book, minus percentages for book agents and ghostwriters, is not going to make much, considering the time they devote to the process.

What are some of the major findings of your survey?

It may sound obvious, but the biggest finding was that authors who sold more than 10,000 copies of their books were much more satisfied with how the effort paid off than were those who sold fewer than 10,000. Those who sold 20,000 copies or higher were off the charts in their enthusiasm. So, more than anything else we measured, the number of books sold was the biggest factor contributing to the project's success.

We also found out that people who self-published, didn't use an literary agent or hire a PR firm, and didn't do a lot of public speaking, sold fewer books and were much less pleased with the process. For instance, authors who checked "strong" or "very strong" in terms of their ability to generate new clients after their books were published sold more than twice as many books as did the authors who checked "some," "a little," or "no" improvement in getting new clients. The same thing was true when we asked about whether writing the book allowed the author to generate better speaking engagements, charge higher fees, and improve their brands.

So if a business person is going to write a book, it's important to do whatever it takes to sell as many copies as possible?

Absolutely. And often, that involves significant investment -- both up front and after the book comes out. Writing a book takes at least nine months or a year and it's quite a difficult creative undertaking. Our survey showed that 51% of authors invested personal funds in marketing their books. The amount they invested ranged from under $1,000 up to $150,000. The median amount was $4,500.

What was that money spent on?

Well, after a book is published -- even if a major publisher is involved -- the author can't rely on the publisher to do the marketing. He or she will have to make appearances, generate media interest, and do substantial public speaking and Internet marketing in order to sell books. We did find that authors who hired PR or marketing firms to get the word out about their books generated substantially higher royalties than did those who went it alone. Even first-time authors sold more copies if they had literary agents or publicity firms helping.

Have a question about your business? Ask our small-business experts. Send us an e-mail at Smart Answers, or write to Smart Answers, BW Online, 45th Floor, 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, N.Y. 10020. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information; only your initials and city will be printed. Because of the volume of mail, we won't be able to respond to all questions personally.

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