The most unexpected growth strategy you will read about this week.

Many organizations set out to create a book about their history because it will boost their brand in the marketplace. It can frankly be a way of stroking the ego, too. But a considered, well-crafted book can do so much more than that.

When his family celebrated 125 years in business, Fred Mouawad (one of three sons who share leadership of the Mouawad jewelry, diamond and watch empire) set out to interview uncles, brothers, cousins, and his mother and father. His intention was to create a book about their family enterprise.

The Mouawads produced a book that is both beautiful – showcasing the gems and jewelry that have made them famous – and full of insights into an enduring family enterprise. There are tales of adventure and sacrifice, generosity and perfectionism. Chapter by chapter, the book details the way in which this business grew from its roots in a simple workshop in Beirut to become a global leader in jewelry and gemstones; how Fred’s great-grandfather brought back watchmaking skills from the United States before the First World War; why his grandfather risked everything to move the business to Saudi Arabia; and how one brother came to be an unexpected leader in the third generation.

Over the course of a year, the project offered unexpected benefits for Fred as a business leader.

“Creating a book … has been a deeply valuable exercise in digging into our roots, identifying our core values across generations, and documenting our heritage for future generations. By better understanding our history we were able to set a better trajectory into the future.”

Through working with Fred and with other family businesses on their stories, I’ve come to believe that the very process of writing a book can deepen the qualities that have ensured their success, and that can apply to other kinds of businesses too.

  1. Handing on core values. Members of successful family enterprises not only understand why they are in business together, they are able to articulate those reasons. Typically these values are stable but not static, being redefined in a unique way by each succeeding generation. Writing a book about the business history demands an analysis of how those values play out over time.
  2. Unity within the organization. In the face of fierce competition and financial fluctuations, the business family’s first loyalty is to each other. As they hand over control to a new team of leaders, business leaders of all kinds can ensure their successors have a personal connection to their history by writing down their story.
  3. Actively seeking and fostering talent for future leadership. In family businesses that succeed through many decades and even centuries, there is a strong sense of stewardship: of preserving something for future family members. The same can be true of any organization, whether family owned or not. Handing a well-defined and considered story to future leaders is a clear way to ensure their mission is communicated clearly and openly.
  4. Commitment to long-term sustainability. An in-depth written account will bring to light the kind of sacrifices made by founders; it will also evaluate their role as stewards ofthe business, and relate that to the leaders of the future.

Shared values, unity, fostering talent, commitment to the long term. If you could capture those four qualities and bottle them for your own organization, wouldn’t you want to? The process of conceptualizing and writing a business book allows you to do just that.

Creating a good book takes time and contemplation. As you develop the plan for your book, you will be forced to scrutinize the key turning points for your organization: what sacrifices were made, what trade-offs permitted? When conflict loomed between co-founders, did loyalty win out? How did a retiring business leader identify leadership qualities in their successor, sometimes against prevailing opinion?

For a business with the courage to ask the difficult questions about their past and a vision for stepping into the future, writing and producing their story can be a growth strategy that transcends every expectation.

This article is adapted from this piece I wrote for Medium.

One of the questions I get asked most is, “how can I find the best ghostwriter [or co-writer] for me?” An excellent question, and one that I will address in a future post.

But what about you – are you ready to launch into the writing process? Have you got all your ducks in a row? Are you ready to be the perfect client for your ideal ghostwriter?

Here are five qualities of the ideal client:

  • A clear vision
  • A realistic schedule
  • Availability
  • Good feedback
  • Compatibility

As part of your vision for your book, you could put together a sample chapter. Or you could assemble a mood board – Pinterest is a great tool for that. Include book jackets, photos of writers or thought leaders, article headlines, magazine covers, and film stills that capture an element of the voice you want to convey, or an attitude or style that you feel aligned with. Mood boards are traditionally visual, but you could also write your ideas in a brainstorm-style list. For this kind of thinking, I find a large sheet of blank paper and a set of colored pens takes me places a computer rarely goes.

In your schedule for the book-writing process, build in time up front for the writer to digest your ideas and materials, and time at the end for the manuscript to “percolate”. Don’t expect a first chapter to hit your in-tray days after you start working together. At the end of the process, I always recommend that writers put their manuscript in a drawer for a month before reviewing it one last time and submitting it to a publisher (or an editor if you are self-publishing). I try to abide by that principle myself: sometimes my month shrinks to a week, but even that much “percolating time” makes a huge difference to the maturity of the final work.

Just because you sign up a ghostwriter for your book, doesn’t mean you can lock the door and go on vacation (or even go back to running your business). You won’t have to dedicate many months of your time (as your writer will have to do), but you will need to be available on a regular basis throughout the process. Your ghostwriter needs you: this will be a collaborative, iterative process, with plenty of back and forth and exchange of ideas and information.

When you give feedback to your writer, avoid the temptation to be ironic or prove that you are smarter than them. Questions and suggestions work well: “I think this paragraph would read better if it started with xxx, what do you think?” is constructive and collaborative. “This section is boring” doesn’t give your writer much to go on.

When you consider your working style, think about your weaknesses. In choosing your ghostwriter, you have an opportunity to balance those flaws. Are you unable to let go of a project? Find someone who is clear and decisive. Do you have a tendency to rush things? Look for a writer who is meticulous and careful. Remember, though, that polar opposites can be uncomfortable, so make sure there is enough common ground between you to make the partnership work.

Put all of this together and it could be a match made in heaven.

 

Time for the book experts?

If you have seen their “angry beaver” TV commercials, you will know what the Duluth Trading Company is all about: tough, durable gear presented with humor. Everything they produce solves a problem. One of my favorites is their Armachillo range of clothing, which has cooling technology thanks to microscopic jade embedded in the fabric. (That’s cool in all kinds of ways!) The most excellent Armachillo commercial shows a gentleman inserting flaming marshmallows in his underpants, then by way of contrast constructing an ice swan around his middle. That’s solving a problem, right there.

It’s easy to think that Duluth products are for tradesmen, with their Longtail Ts banishing plumber’s butt and their sweat-wicking Dry on the Fly workpants. In fact, most Duluth customers are weekend warriors, chopping wood, tinkering with their car engine, repairing a shed. They may not be doing these things for a living, but they still want gear that works well for them every time they put it on.

These past couple of months I’ve been doing some writing for Duluth Trading Company, helping them to tell the story of their brand. I can see a lot of parallels between me and Duluth gear. We’re both professional-grade, but you don’t have to be an expert to benefit. Here’s what I mean. If you’re looking to create a book fast and cheap – the literary equivalent of a front porch held together with duct tape – I’m not what you need. On the other hand, if you want to create a book that is high quality, innovative and enduring, I can help you achieve that.

It used to be the case that you needed to work with a trade publisher to end up with a professional quality book in your hands with your name on the cover. With the array of self-publishing options that now exist, that is no longer true. But you do need the right tools and knowhow to achieve the quality you are looking for.

[A side note here. Some people don’t need pro level. A family tale that is just for your nearest and dearest might be more charming with a homespun feel. A lead generator book for your business may just need to present the right message – design panache may not be so important.]

How can I help you make your book the best it can be? Well, that depends. I can be your writing coach, or your co-writer. I can be your editor along the way, or I can step in when the writing is done to manage the production process. The best way to figure out how I can help you is for us to have a chat. Use the contact form to set up a time for us to talk soon.

Do you need a wrangler for your self-published book?

Today I held in my hands an advance copy of a book for which I was executive producer. It was a proud moment: the cover was eye-catching and beautifully designed, on the back cover was a glowing endorsement from a prominent business leader, the pages were typeset in an elegant font, little graphics through the book made it very appealing to look at. I called the author and told her to prepare to be delighted.

Three months ago, I couldn’t have imagined this would be possible. The author (let’s call her Kathy) is founder of an organization specializing in applying brain science to organizational teams, and she had hit the wall with writing her manuscript. It was in pretty good shape, but it needed finessing to bring out the human element of her method. But here’s the kicker: Kathy needed printed books for a conference in May.

At first I told her it wasn’t possible to produce a quality book in that time. Unless I believe I can achieve the same standards as I would for a HarperCollins or a Simon & Schuster title, I won’t take it on.

But Kathy was desperate. She emailed me:

I have never published a book so I am completely in the dark about the process. I don’t want to sacrifice a compelling and quality end product for a deadline, but by the same token there are many things riding on its release. Would love any advice and help you can give.

I really liked the concept of the book and I could see how valuable it was going to be. And I had a good vibe about Kathy: I believed we would work well together. So I told her:

I totally understand that this is your first time creating a book, and I’d really like to handle the production for you if we can make it work. I would act as “executive producer”, setting up schedules and budgets with you then securing all the outside help. I have suppliers for everything from copy editing through to print briefing them, so I would commission them, check their work and generally make sure the wheels run smoothly (and quickly!).

Here’s what I said about that scary time frame:

12 weeks is do-able IF you are super dedicated to turning around approvals and somewhat pragmatic about letting go of any non-deal-breakers. The book has got to deliver great content, but if there is a minor typo on page 85 I don’t consider that a deal-breaker.

Kathy said she could be pragmatic and fast. So off we went.

Here is just a sampling of the questions Kathy and I worked through over the next 12 weeks:

  • I’m going bonkers trying to get these case studies right. Can you look at this approach and tell me if it works?
  • We have always this as our working title, but is it right for the final book?
  • Should the book have a sub-title too?
  • What author names should be on the cover – do I have to include two people who helped with early drafts?
  • How do I go about getting blurbs for the cover?
  • Should I get a big-name author to write a foreword?
  • Where should the acknowledgements go, at the front or the back?
  • Do we need an index?
  • Should I get an ISBN? A barcode? A separate one for print and ebook? How do I do that?
  • How do I figure out how many to print?
  • What about a hardback edition, can we do that too?
  • OMG, no one will be home to receive the printed books on Monday … Can the UPS driver leave the cartons on my doorstep?

Kathy is a smart woman. She could have figured all of that out on her own. But it would have taken a huge amount of time for her to consider all her options, research industry standards, and get second opinions.

Or she could ask me to navigate all of these things, because I’ve done it hundreds of times before.

Your executive producer does the work that, in a publishing house, would be handled by someone called a production editor or a project editor. Self-publishing authors usually don’t have one of those, so a colleague of mine came up with the term “executive producer” to describe this combination of project manager, freelancer wrangler, and general wave-smoother.

How much time does all this take? When I worked as a project editor at HarperCollins I would manage up to 15 titles a year, ranging from simple, text-only paperbacks to lavish coffee table books with photographs on every page. The simple books might take 15 days of my time to project manage, while the complex ones might consume 40 days, spread over many months.

If you are self-publishing your book, consider this. You could project-manage it yourself, the same as you could landscape your own garden or repair your washing machine. But what is your time worth? Do you want a duct-tape solution or a pro job?

An executive producer for your book might be just the thing you need to save your sanity and to ensure that in a few months from now, you too will hold in your hands a book that makes you proud.

The writer’s life can be a little lonely at times.

There’s an up side, though, as my fellow ghostwriter John Kador describes in his latest blog post. John and I are both members of a “community of ghostwriters”, and that cuts through the isolation. Read more about the writing life and community here.

I’d love to hear your stories of community in the midst of isolation – whether you’re a writer or not.

Sometimes the words that come out of my mouth don’t exactly match the meaning I had in mind. Pretty often, if I’m honest.
When you see a literal, accurate transcription of what someone said, it can be surprising how little sense it makes. Even when it is said by an extraordinarily wise person with a gift for articulating ideas.
In his blog The Actual Pastor, Steve Wiens includes a direct quote from Irish poet John O’Donohue taken from an interview shortly before his death in 2008:

And I love what my old friend Meister Eckhart, 14th-century German mystic wrote. One day I read in him and he said, “There is a place in the soul — there is a place in the soul that neither time, nor space, nor no created thing can touch.” And I really thought that was amazing, and if you cash it out, what it means is, that in — that your identity is not equivalent to your biography. And that there is a place in you where you have never been wounded, where there’s still a sureness in you, where there’s a seamlessness in you, and where there is a confidence and tranquility in you. And I think the intention of prayer and spirituality and love is now and again to visit that inner kind of sanctuary.

All those spare “and”s, the backtracking and reframing – it’s typical of how we all speak. On the page, it’s not pretty. That’s why the sensitive editing of spoken words when they are to be used in written form is so important.
Many journalists would be horrified by the idea of tampering with a direct quote. As a book editor, I’ve had numerous battles about that. My view is that when you write a book (as opposed to an ephemeral news report), there is an expectation from your interview subject and your reader that the words will be polished to render them both clear and pleasant to read, without altering substance or style.
What’s your take on it?

Some days I need a pedantic friend with a touch of obsessive behavior to read through my work.

Most times I don’t have one to hand, though, and that’s where a program like Grammarly can come in handy. This week I took it for a spin to see whether it would be a useful tool for me to use – either as a final check on the manuscripts I edit, or as a second pair of eyes to help polish my writing before I hand it off to a publisher.

Grammarly is like Microsoft Office’s spelling and grammar check on steroids: it will be very strict with you, sometimes too much so, but you might be surprised how many flaws it finds. If you’re at all wobbly on aspects of grammar, word choice or punctuation, Grammarly might be the pedantic friend you need.

I tried out Grammarly on extracts from manuscripts in various stages of polishing. The first obstacle I encountered was that when you use Grammarly online you can only check 20 pages at a time, though if you use the Microsoft Office plug-in there is no limitation.  So I broke my manuscript into chunks and fed it through bit by bit.

Grammarly offers different modes: general, business, academic, technical creative, casual, depending on the style of writing you are aiming for. It is important to master these modes, though you will need to do that by trial and error as Grammarly refuses to explain what the types mean.  In their FAQ section, they say, “Each review style is based on a specific set of checks. (We can’t disclose what those are because it’s intellectual property.)” That seems a mite neurotic and not terribly helpful.

The first extract I fed into Grammarly was full of direct quotes that could not be changed, so many of its suggestions were less than useful. Once I shifted from general mode to casual mode, though, we got along better. There were some good pick-ups on run-on sentences and comma use. Overall, only about 10 or 20 percent of the queries and suggestions were useful: most were overly pedantic or not appropriate in the context. It’s easy to ignore the suggestions you don’t want to apply, though.

Casual mode was so super-casual it didn’t query a two-word non-sentence like “Every time.” It also turned a blind eye to the use of double hyphens for dashes (“just like all her recipes–wet ingredients and dry ingredients”). I was surprised that those two things didn’t ring alarm bells.

The robotic nature of a program like Grammarly comes through when it tries to correct use of a singular verb with any noun ending with “s”, such as “Childs was a leading investor…” It also dislikes the use of “could” without a verb following it. Grammarly is not a fan of foreign phrases, either: über and maître d’ were both stumbling blocks.

Some of the suggestions to replace often-misused words seemed off-key. “Seated” was offered as a replacement for “sweated”, “while” instead of “whale”, and “to late” for “too late”.

You can select to check through only one category of queries at a time: subject and verb agreement, for instance, or capitalization. That could be handy if you have a particular area that you need help with. For me, the most useful checks were split infinitives (I don’t mind the occasional one, but Grammarly caught some nasties), redundancies (“exact same”) and passive voice.

Would I keep using Grammarly on a regular basis? Yes, I probably would. I ran the program on this blog post, and found two out of its nine suggestions useful (remembering that this article does include words such as über that I know will ring Grammarly’s alarm bells). It took just a minute or two, so I’d count that as a worthwhile check.

Can Grammarly take the place of an intelligent copy editor or proofreading? Not on your life. Think of it as the literary equivalent of feeding some coins into a massage chair versus booking a session with a good massage therapist. The chair’s going to pummel out some knots, but the therapist will deliver that deep healing experience.