The business of publishing: on writing a book live

Business books

You’d think that publishers would be in the perfect position to turn their hand to writing a book, wouldn’t you? Especially one who actually began her career – back in the Cretaceous Period – as a writer: my first gig fresh out of university in 1991 was to write a dictionary of saints’ lives for W & R Chambers. (I’d turned up for a speculative interview on the day they’d been let down by an author. In publishing, as in life, it’s all about putting yourself in the way of opportunities then grabbing them with both hands.)

But actually, publishing and writing are wildly different skill sets. As a publisher you take a big-picture view, creating a commercially focused commissioning strategy, putting in place systems and processes to optimize throughput of titles. You’re out there networking at conferences or lunching agents, getting sales reps fired up about your latest acquisition, planning a new campaign with your marketing team. You’re taking what the authors give you and making it fly. It’s creative alright, but it’s a special type of creativity: collaborative, coordinating, commercial.

As a writer, you’re typically sitting alone at your keyboard for days at a time. You’re immersed deep, deep in your subject; there are probably only a handful of people in the world with your level of expertise and you’re too worried about them stealing or rubbishing your ideas to talk to them about your book. Whereas your editor has a stake in many titles simultaneously, you’re completely invested in this one. It can be a lonely business. You need deep reserves of self-belief and stickability to build a sustained, original narrative from a blank page.

It took a conversation with my friend Sue, herself a powerful coach, to make me see that I’m naturally a publisher, not a writer: I’m an extrovert, I get my energy from connecting and engaging with others, not sitting alone with a keyboard. The interesting thing is that this holds true for many people, particularly entrepreneurs, many of whom have fascinating books inside them that will probably never get out if they don’t find a new way to write, one that suits their busy, multitasking lives and extrovert personalities.

And in any case, why should a business book be created as something apart from the business? Can’t it be created dynamically from its day-to-day activities, becoming an intrinsic part of the business itself? I’ve spent my career at the forefront of innovation in the publishing industry, so it seemed logical to treat this business book challenge as a live experiment in the book business.

So earlier this month I launched The Extraordinary Business Book Club, a weekly podcast featuring a wide range of high-profile authors, gurus, futurists, publishers and business and writing experts all exploring what it means to write and publish a business book today, and giving their views and experience on the best approaches, techniques and tools to get the job done. And that’s exactly what I’ll be doing: trying out their ideas and writing my own business book live, week by week, reporting on my progress and discoveries, and encouraging others to do the same.

I’ll be blogging weekly for BookMachine on what comes up from the publishing perspective – the way the self-publishing and hybrid markets are evolving, the emergence of new services and tools (as I write, I’m just about to record an interview on the emergence of social selling), the role of agents, how authors can work alongside publishers on promotion, and so on.

If you have something interesting to say about the future of business books – or authors with interesting stories to tell about the writing of their books and how they work alongside their business – I’d love to hear from you: drop me a line on And why not subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or at

Most authors have just one publisher checking on their progress and holding them accountable: I feel simultaneously privileged and terrified to have the entire BookMachine community on my back.

Alison Jones (@bookstothesky) is a publishing partner for businesses and organizations writing world-changing books. She also provides executive coaching, consultancy and training services to publishers. 

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