Why Books Are The Ultimate New Business Card

Books are no longer simply books, they are branding devices and credibility signals—not to mention the reason their authors command large speaking or consulting fees.

"You don’t understand," the three-time, big-six published author told me. "Books aren’t designed for you, the customer. Today, non-fiction books are business cards—for speaking, consulting, and deals."

I was meeting this friend for dinner in New York City and had mentioned a trend I had noticed in nearly every book I’d seen in the last year: They never say what they’re about. Almost as a rule, hardcover books (and increasingly e-books) favor laudatory "blurbs" over descriptions—opting for short quotes from important authors, CEOs, celebrities, or media outlets to make their case.

At the time, I was in the middle of designing the back cover of my own book, and being somewhat new to the game, I could not understand the benefits of doing this. Wouldn’t it be better to use that space to describe the contents of the book? Isn’t that what "customers" would want? Why bury the content on the inside?

I was missing a fundamental change that has occurred in the publishing business, particularly for authors. Faced with declining sales and the disappearance of book retailers like Borders, authors have diversified their income streams, and many make substantially more money through new business generated by a book, rather than from it.

Today, authors are in the idea-making business, not the book business. In short, this means that publishing a book is less about sales and much more about creating a brand. The real customers of books are no longer just readers but now include speaking agents, CEOs, investors, and startups.

I spoke to Andrew Keen, best-selling author of The Cult of the Amateur and more recently Digital Vertigo, about this trend. Though Andrew’s books have sold well, the majority of his "book" income is actually is derived from speaking, not advances or royalties. During the last six months alone, he’s crossed the globe countless times, giving well-received keynotes in London, Belgium, Napa, Lisbon, Amsterdam, Dublin, São Paulo, Aspen, and Edinburgh. In some respects, Keen is the model for the new economics of publishing.

"Authors have to be entrepreneurial and write books which generate revenue in other areas outside book sales," he told me. "I've been successful in the speaking market, which is much more lucrative than writing."

Consider the controversy around Niall Ferguson’s Newsweek cover story in August. Some accused him of writing his anti-Obama story with an eye toward impressing conservative and business groups willing to pay his $50,000-$75,000 fee to come speak to their members. Regardless of Ferguson’s intent in that instance, his best-selling books face the same incentives: The money they generate pales in comparison to what he can make working just a handful of events each year.

Patrick de Laive and Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten, founders of The Next Web Conference,
explained it to me from the perspective of a popular international event. A conference like theirs looks for authors with interesting ideas to spice up their events. "We love to invite writers because they are born storytellers," they said to me in a joint email. "And that is what works really well at a conference. If you can get a mix of people who are very technical or famous and combine that with writers...you get a great show."

For an author looking to break into this market, it wouldn’t be about courting critics or seeking award nominations. Rather, their book needs to prove that they are an interesting or attractive storyteller with relevant ideas.

Many authors I spoke with were discovering similar niches. For instance, in Silicon Valley, authors have parlayed books into gigs as advisors to startups that need their expertise in certain areas. The author takes a small equity stake in the company in exchange for this advice—an arrangement that likely would not have come about if not for their status as a prominent author. After publishing my own book about marketing and media manipulation in July, I began receiving similar calls soliciting my time for consulting projects. Few of these inquiries were motivated by book sales, and sometimes barely by the content of the book itself (one told me that their business only works with the best, and if I wrote this book, I must be the best).

As Esquire put it, books and articles for writers of the 21st century have become "billboards for the messengers." This equation profoundly changes the publishing game, from the way books are designed to the way they are written—and who writes them.

It explains the figure commonly thrown around in publishing that close to half of all books are ghostwritten (if that seems high to you, consider that a recent survey found that 42% of academic medical papers are ghostwritten). It also explains why books have blurbs instead of descriptions. It’s far better to brand a book with names like Peter Thiel, Seth Godin, or Malcolm Gladwell via positive blurbs than with a rousing or intriguing summary. Most importantly, it explains why authors will spend tens of thousands of dollars buying copies of their own books to hit various best-seller lists.

Call it a business card, a resume, a billboard, or whatever you choose, but the short of it is that books are no longer just books. They are branding devices and credibility signals.

To lovers of books, I’m sure this will all sound like bad news. But to non-fiction authors, it’s a reality. In some ways, it’s also a bit of a relief and an opportunity. No one is asking you to write the Great American Novel. Nor do you need to sell a million copies. You just need to own and present an interesting idea to the right people.

In this new market, anyone can be a successful author because the definition of success has changed. Readers are no longer the sole "buyers." In fact, they may be the least important type.

Is the term "best-selling author" worth anything anymore? Tell us what you think in the comments.

[Image: Flickr user Threthny]

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  • Agreed! The business card isn't dead, but the best business card today is your own book. True, everyone doesn't have a great book in them. Then again, many do. I've presented a popular and very practical 2-part book publishing seminar at conferences and colleges across the U.S. and in Canada. I would be happy to send the handouts from that seminar to any reader. Just send me a quick note at mailto:dsanford@corban.edu. You can check out my professional credentials at http://www.linkedin.com/in/drsanford

  • I found your article informative and instructive. I've been blogging for 5 years as Timberwolf at TimberwolfHQ, a dot com website I own. I was approached last year to write a chapter for a compilation book that included thought leaders and is part of a worldwide best-selling series. I had to make a decision to write under my own name, Scott Bull, which I eventually decided to do. I'm now a published author and am looking forward to getting further recognition from my new "business card". Anyone interested in the book is welcome to visit my website and review the article I wrote about it.

  • Filip Danchev

    Books as business cards? Of course! It was always been like that - ask Einstein and his Theory of relativity. What a tour he did!

  • Natasa

    Like your title - that's why one of my businesses is all about that Ultimate 48 Hour Author - teaching business owners exactly that, I have now written 4 and the 1st one got my business off the ground - 100% true and it totally works, yet so many still don't follow through...

  • John Kremer

    Books have been considered business cards by speakers for over 30 years. Every speaker has been told they need a book, even two books, just to build their credibility. It was true 30 years ago. It's true today. - John Kremer, author of 1001 Ways to Market Your Books, which perhaps I should retitle to 1001 Ways to Market Your Business Cards.

  • Patrick Gant

    Best-selling is a relative concept now. It used to carry more weight when the local bookstore was your only source for new books and their list of what sold best could give you an indication of what was popular. But much like the music business, everything is fragmented now. What does matter is whether you have something useful to say, written in a compelling way. The demand for that talent is timeless. And in that sense, a book -- be it paper or digital --  can have a lasting impression on those whose attention you are seeking to catch. 

  • Jay

    This makes lot of sense since it is so competitive out there that by having a book increases your credibility and marketability.  You make it easier for someone to hire you without giving lot of thought.  If you have a book, you got to be good.  They never give a thought that perhaps that is what you are good at, writing book and going on a speaking tour.  

    I am convinced that those who do, do, and those who don't write books and go on speaking tour.  I read these books and I find there is nothing new in any of these books.  There are so many books on sales, marketing, social media, innovation, etc. that  say essentially the same thing. 

  • Kenneth UGBOAJA

    Day by Day Associates (London)
    Kenneth UGBOAJA.

    It is nothing but the truth, and I hoope that all writers should tailor their ideas to the needs of the present generation. We are passing this way but once. Change with the time is very essential.

  • Cathy Presland

    I agree that a book is a business card (not sure if that's new tho??!). The credibility and the admiration arehuge. And while the money may not be in the book it's certainly in what the book can lead to - whether that's more products or services sold, more speaking - thinking strategically can very easily position you ahead of your competitors.

  • Mindy Gibbins-Klein

    Our authors typically see an extra $100k from their books, but as the article suggests, direct income from books sales is not the major part of that!

    In this age of a book being a trendy thing to do, it is essential to write and publish a great book if you want to be seen as a real thought leader. A business card is one thing; a credibility-building, profile-raising, market-influencing book is something else! Sadly I see people slapping books together and whacking them up online, and then wondering why they are not successful.

    Here's to the real thought leaders out there, and to the social world in which they can become recognized faster and more widely for their insights.

  • Eric Sutherland

    Yes, like everything else the Internet has enabled leverage and finding people who have authored books on the chosen subject. It is turning Marketing on its head, since anybody can publish an e-Book using any of the self-publishing platforms.

  • Geoff Barbaro

    How very North American - to equate everything that is done to a "what's in it for me" approach. I suggest that with the large numbers of publications today, customers want to see third party endorsements, which adds credibility to authors, a necessary requirement in the non-fiction world where people have holding themselves out as, for example, "social media expert with more than two decades experience" to quote one famous case! The consequence of focusing on what customers want, credible sources of information, is that you gain the benefits that you have identified. Delighting the customers is always an effective approach.

  • Mark Mueller-Eberstein

    Interesting reflection on the (my) real life experience.
    As an author, I wrote my first book because the ideas presented were compelling for enough people to ask for a book (and Wiley published it).
    And "Yes", my last book is now out in 10 languages and well reviewed in leading business magazines internationally, but the royalty checks from UK, China or Germany haven't even come in, while speaking and consulting is in full swing. E.g. in October alone, I got invited to speak in places like NYC, Bangkok and at #SIC2012 in Seattle. Interesting world... ;)
    Nevertheless... working on the next book on organizational and leadership transformation to structure thoughts and comunicate broadly the insights collected with many very interesting people from acros the globe.

  • Dr Roy Foster

    Where do I start to get asked to speak to those who would love to discover the bio-mechanism of evil (not even in the Bible).  I am an author to a series: "Its All About Evil" using a pen name Dr Roy Foster.   I am a doctor of pharmacy, Can you get me out there. RF (818) 451-6612

  • Gail Woodard

    Business professionals, owners and entrepreneurs who want a book to use as a marketing tool, but don't have time or knowledge to produce an entire book themselves, have options that include multi-author books especially in Q&A format or ghost-written chapter based on focused interviews.  No writing required and a very reasonable investment.

  • Gail Woodard

    Business professionals, owners and entrepreneurs who want a book to use as a marketing tool, but don't have time or knowledge to produce an entire book themselves, have options that include multi-author books especially in Q&A format or ghost-written chapter based on focused interviews.  No writing required and a very reasonable investment.

  • Wendy Keller

     Except, of course, that the success or failure (most often the latter) of these "group books" can seriously damage any one author's potential of ever getting a real publishing deal.  I always advise my clients to avoid these "get rich and famous quick" schemes because I've noticed they do way, way more harm than good most of the time.

  • Alexis Grant

    Some great ideas here! Interesting point about the shift from book descriptions to endorsements. Made me think!

  • Rosanne Dausilio

    I couldn't agree more.  I've written 7 books, all non fiction business books (www.human-technologies.com) and I can't quit my day job.  However, it has added to my credibility and allowed me to consistently raise my consulting, coaching, and training fees.