If someone named the achievements of legendary copywriter Bob Bly, they would seem utterly fantastical:
Ninety-six published books (and counting), dozens of high-profile presentations with just as many corporate trainings, nods as “America’s Top Copywriter” from publishing giant McGraw-Hill, nearly four decades of experience in writing and copywriting, and consultancy credentials with business behemoths like Digital Marketer and Weiss Research. In addition to his battalion of books, Bly has also published myriad case studies, newsletters, e-mail campaigns, briefs, op-eds, essays, catalogs, and ads.
Did we mention that he’s a self-made millionaire?
There’s little doubt that Bob Bly is a polestar in copywriting, but he’s also an untapped resource for entrepreneurs who need guidance on how to write their first, foundational book.
Many of these ambitious entrepreneurs have the same problem: They want to write a book, but don’t know where to start.
That’s why I hooked Bob Bly to chat with me about the ins and outs of the process (one he’s more or less perfected), all in an effort to give ETR readers a springboard for ideation and action.
If you’re ready for your first book-writing credit, read on…
What do you think about the assertion that writing a book is one of the most effective ways for an entrepreneur to establish authority or expertise?
Although books serve that purpose, I don’t write books for that reason. I write them because whenever I learn something—and learn it well—I feel compelled to pass that knowledge along to others.
I’m also motivated to write books because I see a lack in certain area. For example, my first job out of college was as a technical copywriter for Westinghouse. At the time, the only resource I had to use for style was Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style.” But that didn’t serve technical writers very well. So, I went to McGraw-Hill and suggested the idea of a style guide for technical writers. They loved the idea. So I worked on it and they published it in 1982. That book has sold over 150,000 copies to date.
Impressive! And a fantastic start—a reference guide like that has staying power if it’s done well. Did you start by publishing some of your technical style concepts in articles before pitching the book?
I did publish a few—mostly in marketing trade journals. I enjoyed that, but I thought that a book would be a better way to educate people. As it turns out, it was also good for my consulting business. That wasn’t my plan when I first considered it, but it definitely worked out that way.
I do wonder about how you approached McGraw-Hill. I have to imagine that’s not an effective way to pitch an idea to a publisher these days.
You’re right—and I actually misspoke. I hired a literary agent and they sold the idea to McGraw-Hill. If I had approached them directly, they never would have talked to me.
That makes sense. So how do you go about finding the right literary agent? They specialize in certain genres, right?
A lot of literary agents will cover multiple genres, but generally, yes, if you’re a business author and you’re looking to publish business-related content, then you should be looking for an agent with that kind of experience. There are several directories of agents online (Writer’s Market is a good place to start), so start looking for them there. These directories will give you information on the kind of material they work with and how you can connect with them.
Also, a quick warning. A real agent will never take money from you. They don’t ask for reading fees or anything upfront. When you publish your book, they get paid—usually 10-15% of the advance and 10-15% of royalties.
Good advice. Okay, let’s talk about your process. How do you come up with your thesis, and when do you know you have a “critical mass” of information that calls for the writing of a book?
I’m not sure there’s a formula, but there is usually a moment when I realize that I’ve learned a lot about a subject and I know I want to pass that along. The sheer volume of information I have on it is usually enough to write a book, so I create a thesis around that.
How do you take that to a literary agent? Do you offer a formal proposal?
Well, first it depends on whether you’re self-publishing or aim to work with a traditional publisher. There are pros and cons to both, but I prefer working with a traditional publisher.
So, I usually write a one or two-page synopsis of the book and share it with my agent. If he likes it, then I put together a formal book proposal.
Part of this process is creating a very detailed table of contents. This is the tipping point—if I can’t create one, then I know I don’t have enough information to write a book.
Would you consider collaborating with another author in that case?
I have done that on at least a dozen occasions, and sure, that sometimes makes sense. But when I consider a book proposal, I typically approach it as a standalone author. If you’re co-authoring a book, it’s best to know that at the outset.
How do you go about finding the right publisher for your work? This has been my pitfall many times—sending my work to an inappropriate publisher.
Well, the literary agent should be able to push your content to the right publishers. They’re the ones keeping up with the publishing industry, so they know what will work and what won’t.
Having said that, it’s not a bad idea to take a look at books you enjoy in bookstores to see who the publisher is. Then, send them a letter referencing that book and suggest your own book as a great addition to their portfolio. I’ve done that several times.
Back to self-publishing, since that seems to be a very popular choice for up-and-coming authors these days. What are the advantages and disadvantages here?
If you want to publish a book for a very narrow audience—teaching business success principles to people in the self-storage industry, for instance—you probably want to self-publish. There’s just no room in a traditional publisher’s portfolio for something like that.
Self-publishing is also a good option for people who want to get their book out fast and don’t want to go through the hassle of pitching it to mainstream publishers. The flexibility of self-publishing serves these people well.
If you are self-publishing digitally, is it important to have a “print on demand” option for customers?
I think it’s very important, and I’ll tell you why. Although most of my books are published by traditional publishers, some of my content is not anything that they would touch, and yet my readers still ask me for it.
For example, I publish a weekly e-newsletter with essays on business, copywriting, and the like. When I have 75 or 80 of these that I think are good and my readers really enjoy, I send them to a graphic designer who assembles them in book format and publishes the collection for me with Create Space and Kindle. These books are then sold to my readers or used for sales materials.
With both the digital and print formats, I have a broader reach and more sales options.
That actually brings to mind something you wrote in a recent blog post on your Amazon account. You tell the story of a friend handing you a “book” they got from a recent conference that was really just a saddle-stitched, 50-page pamphlet. You described it as little more than promotional material of a personal brand. This vaulted you into a tirade about certain books that shouldn’t be written. Can you elaborate on that?
Let me say this: I don’t like books like these in part because they have inferior content. Because of that, readers are not getting a lot of value for their money. You’ll often see “books” like these that are superficial, sloppily produced, or full of typos—sometimes all three. Also, the authors’ aim is not to educate, but to sell their products and services. Their “books” are little more than sales brochures.
But you’re also just getting LESS content. Sometimes, these “books” would be better as e-books covering a single topic—something that’s around 15,000 words. My books, conversely, are about 80,000 words or 200+ pages.
That said, if you take a shorter “book”—something that’s say, 10,000 words long—and publish it on Kindle, then quickly and easily publish five more of them, it looks like you’re an establish, prolific author. I can’t fault that approach—it works. It builds credibility.
Can you talk a little bit about originality in book-writing? I know many up-and-coming writers who are hesitant to publish anything that isn’t 100% original. And yet, their point of view is original. What’s your opinion?
Ray Bradbury said it best: “Don’t worry about originality because your experiences aren’t like anybody else’s on the planet.” Even if you’re writing about the same topic as other authors, the book you are creating will be different.
The only exception to this is plagiarism, but that’s an obvious no-no.
Let’s get into some of the meat of a good book and what it should deliver. Does it have to have a lot of ideation and innovative thinking? Actionable content? What are the most important elements of a good book?
It definitely has to have a lot of actionable content. You need to be able to put the book down when you’re done reading it and DO something. As I’ve often believed, reading a good business book doesn’t make you money; doing what’s in the book makes you money.
Now, in terms of ideation and originality, here’s the safety net. Most readers read as much for reinforcement as for learning. So, if 80-90% of your book is stuff they already know but stated in a fresh and compelling way, they won’t be disappointed. If you’re helping them understand it even better, then they’ll say, “This guy knows what he’s talking about!”
The rest of the book—the remaining 10-20%—should be new ideation or a new approach to known information.
Talk about what you do to get past dreaded writer’s block. You once wrote that the best way to conquer it is just to write—even if you don’t have much (or any) inspiration. Does that really work?
It does, actually, but you need a few things in place first. Start by making a table of contents, as I mentioned earlier. Make it as detailed as possible—with chapter titles and sub-chapter titles. The beefier the outline, the better.
Then, put this into a Word file and add space between your titles and subtitles. Now you have your organization, your major topics. All you have to do is dive into one of them—not necessarily in order—and write 500 words on it. You don’t have to wait for a prompt or inspiration because the chapter or sub-chapter title provides that.
This process is much less intimidating than sitting down to a blank document and telling yourself you need to write 50,000+ words on a broad topic.
I’ll have to try that—but first I need to find my golden premise. Speaking of which, you’ve been in the business/copywriting field for decades. What niches still need good content in your opinion?
There are a lot of narrow niches that people don’t explore because they’re too small—but there’s lots of opportunity there. For example, a guy I went to high school with just wrote a book on marketing for eye doctors. Another friend writes articles and books on how to improve audiology practices.
While it may seem that a broad niche is more worth your time—because you’ll hit more people, which means more sales and more money—that’s not always true. The reality is, the narrower your audience, the more they’ll pay for valuable content. And if you establish yourself as an authority in that niche, it’s much easier to turn a reader into a lead and a lead into a client or customer.
Last question, then I’ll let you get back to writing your next book: What’s the biggest key to business book-writing success in the 2018 marketplace?
I think the people who will have the most success writing business books will be those who enjoy reading them—and who enjoy writing in general. I’ve never understood people who become writers but moan about how they’re rather do this or that. There are plenty of other ways to make good money or build your brand.
So, like so many other things, if you don’t love the writing, it will show. Go do something else.
For more information on Bob Bly, visit bly.com.
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