I walked into my local bookstore, Powell’s, recently and found a copy of The 100 Best Business Books of All Time on the shelf. I always appreciated the happy coincidence that since my co-author’s last name was Covert, the book was shelved between Jim Collins’ Good to Great and Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I like to think our book’s popular location helped its sales over the years.
This paperback copy had a small black mark on bottom face denoting its remaindered status. Powell’s had bought the copy from a company that specialized in overstock inventory. Publishers printing too many copies and selling off the excess might bother some authors, but for me, I always saw an opportunity. Not the first time, I tracked down the company and bought up all the copies I could find. At three dollars a piece, remaindered copies work great as gifts, marketing tokens, or a 300-page business card.
The existence of extra inventory might give you the impression the book didn’t do well. In the sum of its many forms – hardcover, digital, paperback and audio – The 100 Best sold over 45,000 copies. In foreign markets, we sold eleven deals for translation rights. In the first year, we earned back the six figure advance we had been paid and started earning money for both the publisher and ourselves.
The book is five years old now and it is hard to think of another project that had a larger effect on my life. Professionally, my career as an editor, an agent, a literary scout, and now a publisher, all materialized around the expertise shown in writing The 100 Best. People still marvel at how quickly Jack and I chose of the books (it took about 24 hours). They still measure themselves against the list, counting the titles they have read (the record is 92).
The first lesson I learned was that book concepts have to be simple. Our initial proposal was titled “Monday Morning: An Executive Guide to The Business Ideas That Matter.” The project was ambitious. Neither Jack and I were writers, so brought in a writer to develop the concept. The idea was to construct a series of chapter length essays that examined a topic like time management or customer relationship by a method of compare and contrast. We wanted to see if we could put Peter Drucker, Stephen Covey and David Allen in a mixer and say something interesting about results. When we completed the proposal and shared it with one of the top literary agents in the business books, his answer was very clear, “I don’t get it.”
We were pretty disappointed, I more than Jack. From the start, he thought the concept was too complicated. From the man who had been reviewing business books since 1981, I should have listened more closely to those early hesitations.
To be more accurate, I was devastated. I had put a lot of work into the proposal and put even more hope into the possibilities the project would open up. It took more than a year before we returned again to the idea of a book.
In December 2006, we gathered a wonderful group of authors and publishing professionals at 800-CEO-READ’s first Author Pow-Wow. Over dinner, I told Will Weisser, the associate publisher at Portfolio, about our crazy idea to write a book and asked him if he would read the proposal. He wasn’t sure about the concept either, but he agreed.
The holidays passed and Will came back with a familiar sentiment – “I don’t get it,” but he followed with a better question – “Why don’t you just do the 100 best business books of all time?”
I groaned aloud as I read his email. My response was “That’s already been done, multiple times.”
Will wrote back, “You are right, but almost all books have been done before. Just remember the iPod wasn’t the first mp3 player. If you get it right, you get to own the category.” I felt like the gauntlet had been thrown down.
We could do a book on the best business books but it was going to have to be different and interesting. The book would be based around reviews but the richness would come from connecting the books to one another. We would recommend books beyond the list of 100 books. There was be a choose your own adventure feature when you got to the end of each review. There would be “easter eggs” with suggestions for movies, novels and events that readers would also be interested. The book would more resemble a magazine more than a book with multiple points of entry for the reviews. I think it worked. The compliment we received over and over again was “This is better than I thought it would be.”
The 100 Best also showed me a hidden love for writing. In college, I prided myself on only taking two English classes enroute to getting my engineering degree. Looking back, I missed an opportunity to learn to express myself, to share my ideas, to determine what I believed. I would find my way to blogging almost ten years later as the way to finally start writing and that would lead to my job at 800-CEO-READ.
I was a hack though. I didn’t appreciate active verbs, the rhythm of a finely constructed sentence, or the drafts it takes to create good writing. We were so fortunate to have Sally, a wonderful editor, on staff who helped Jack and I through the dozens of reviews that needed to be written and rewritten. In the book’s acknowledgements, we described Sally’s multifaceted role as “editor, cheerleader, psychologist, humorist, and referee.” I would add “teacher” to that list. I am not the writer I am today with the book project or Sally’s involvement in it.
The most common question I get asked now is whether I would change anything. I tell people who ask I wouldn’t change a thing. I know they are asking about the list of books but I like to pretend that they see the bigger picture – the sweat, the missteps, and the joy that come from having created something that helps people just a little.