“Unless you have a way to differentiate, then you don’t really have any sort of justification for putting out yet another book.”
There’s not much Josh Bernoff doesn’t know about writing business books. And he knows that differentiation is everything. Whether it’s your unique perspective or a groundbreaking solution, finding your distinctive edge makes all the difference.
He also encourages authors to think of their book as a pivotal part of a larger ecosystem – and to create a sense of immediacy right up front to capture engagement.
This conversation is a treasure trove of actionable advice and profound insights, a must-listen for anyone aspiring to write a business book that makes a difference.
Josh’s blog: https://bernoff.com/blog
Build a Better Business Book site: https://bernoff.com/books
Josh on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/joshbernoff/
Alison on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/the-alison-jones/
The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge: http://proposalchallenge.com/
The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Substack: https://extraordinarybusinessbooks.substack.com/
‘Kickstart Your Writing’ Workshop January 2024: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/666359076937
WriteBrained: A 28-day exploratory writing adventure: https://pi-q.learnworlds.com/course?courseid=writebrainedcourse
The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/
Alison Jones: I’m here today with Josh Bernoff, who is an expert on business books and how they can propel thinkers to prominence. His own books include Writing Without Bullshit, brilliantly named, the Business Week bestseller Groundswell: Winning in a world transformed by social technologies, and most recently, and the one I’d love to focus on today, if that’s all right with you, Josh, is Build a Better Business Book: How to plan, write, and promote a book that matters: A comprehensive guide for business authors.
So first of all, welcome to the show.
Josh Bernoff: Thanks. It’s great to be here. And I’m really excited to be part of this.
Alison Jones: I don’t know that you’ll ever have been on a podcast which is more beautifully attuned the topic of your book, quite honestly.
Josh Bernoff: I suppose, yes.
Alison Jones: Well, I mean, first of all, I’d love, I was fascinated by your own story, which combines business and writing and ends up business books as I think many of us in the field do.
Just tell us a little bit about how you got here.
Josh Bernoff: Okay. Well, I actually was trained originally as a mathematician. And when I realized that my success as a graduate level mathematician would mean that 11 people would know what I was working on.
Alison Jones: If that.
Josh Bernoff: Then I need to find a way to take advantage of the thing I like as much as math, which is writing.
So after 14 years in startup companies I went to work for Forrester Research as an analyst and halfway through the 20 years that I spent there, I said, all right, if I don’t write a book by the time I’m 50 years old, who am I kidding? I really want to do this. So I attempted to quit and failed. Because when I told the CEO, who I had a very good relationship with, that I wanted to leave and write books, he said, why don’t you write books for us?
Alison Jones: Stay and write books.
Josh Bernoff: And since I had had a conversation with the brilliant Charlene Lee about writing a book about social media, another analyst there, I said, well, Charlene and I could write a book on social media. And he said, great.
So, for the next 10 years of my career at Forrester, I was involved with producing books there. The first one, Groundswell, was about social media, was a huge bestseller. And I thought, oh, I know how to write a bestselling book. And it would have been more accurate to say, I know how to write a really good book and had excellent timing. Because that’s what makes all the difference.
But that’s really what swallowed up my passion, was working on books. In the eight years since I left Forrester in 2015, I have worked exclusively with business authors on writing, editing, idea development, coaching, basically everything that’s involved with helping business authors to be successful and there’s nothing I love more than doing that.
Alison Jones: It is, it is fantastic. Now, I want to go on to the things that you talk about in your book because it’s so practical and so helpful and I will be recommending it to pretty much everybody I meet on the street, anywhere really, but I’m just interested by your CEO’s response at Forrester’s, that enlightened sort of, actually, having our people write books is a really good use of their time, because I’m guessing many CEOs wouldn’t say that, would they? What do you think was behind that?
Josh Bernoff: Well this wouldn’t have been the first book that Forrester produced, a woman named Mary Modal there who had been a vice president, had written one before me. But I think George Colony, the CEO, and I had a great relationship because Forrester in many ways is a company that’s about ideas.
And I loved working on ideas and that excited me. And I think he really valued the idea of having me continue to be around and work on ideas. And he recognized that our ability to stake out influence in a new space – and in 2008, when we published Groundswell, social media was considered a toy, people didn’t realize you could use it for corporate purposes – he realized that could help us. I mean the sales team at Forrester probably gave out, I’m guessing, a thousand copies of that. And it established the company as a leader in the area of social media. And they produced five books, including that, during the time I was there, that enabled them to show their leadership in places like customer experience or management or mobile technology.
I mean, it really, for a company that’s about ideas, this is a great way to establish what people call Thought Leadership.
Alison Jones: Yes, at a corporate level, yes, that is really fascinating and it ties in beautifully with one of the themes of the book that really spoke to me, which was your kind of exuberant enthusiasm for just the intrinsic value of the writing, the way that it allows you to engage with, wrestle with, research, dive into, master, and develop an idea, which I loved, and you express it so beautifully.
I’m guessing that’s not the thing that most people who come to you think about as the primary benefit when they start.
Josh Bernoff: Well, anyone who comes to me talking about the primary benefit is probably, they probably shouldn’t do a book because the primary benefit is to get your ideas out in the world. When I surveyed people, and there’s a survey of over 200 authors in the book, the number one reason that they cited for why they did a book was to share the things that I’d learn.
So… If you’re passionate about taking what you’ve learned and helping other people to understand and benefit from it, then absolutely the enormous amount of effort involved in creating an excellent book is worth it. If you’re thinking, Oh, this is going to be my new business card and it’ll allow me to get leads.
Well, that’s fine for you, but I’m uninterested in you and there’s no way you’re ever going to appear on the excellent business book podcast either.
Alison Jones: But that point about, I want to get what I’ve learned out into the world, I think I have found, I’m sure you’ve found this too, that many people think I’ve got this huge amount of expertise, I’m going to tell people about it, without realising that in the process of writing the book, that expertise is going to deepen and enrich and take them perhaps in directions they hadn’t even seen, so that you actually come out yourself in a different place than when you started.
It’s not just about saying what you’ve already learned.
Josh Bernoff: Well, it’s absolutely true, and I think it starts from this idea that you’re going to write about what you know, okay? So first I did this, and then I learned this, then I learned this, and I did this, and I know this is the best way, and this is… That’s going to get…
Alison Jones: pretty dull.
Josh Bernoff: …tiresome after a while. So to deepen that, you need to do research, you need to interview people, you need to develop case studies, work with your clients or people that you read about, and when you start to do that sort of externally focused research, you begin to really become an expert on what you’re talking about as opposed to becoming an expert in the things you did for the last 12 months before writing the book.
Alison Jones: Yes, and that point you make about stories and this is how you get the stories; I think we probably all know it at a head level that we have to have stories in books because they connect, yada, yada, yada.
You have this wonderful expression that it’s not just enough to have the stories in the book. The book has to be a story.
Could you tell us a little bit more about that? Because that was a real kind of eye opening moment for me.
Josh Bernoff: Well, I first want to just comment a little bit on the idea of collecting stories for the book. When I start with people and they’re like, I want you to edit my book. I’m like, Oh, you don’t have enough case studies. It’s fatal, because it’s time consuming to produce them. I recently spoke with a very accomplished person who I may be working with to edit his book, and he said, Oh, I have 30 case studies already, and they’re all written up. I’m like, okay, you’re going to succeed, because you have what you need.
Now, that’s not enough just to have the stories. The book has to pull you through. We’ve all experienced these books, which was where we were like, Why is this next? Oh, they’re talking about the same thing over and over again. Whereas the story of the book should basically be a sequence of questions that you answer for the reader.
Why? What’s the big idea? Why is this important? What are the elements of this idea? How does it apply in management? How does it apply in marketing? You know, the questions are different for every book, but if they go through a natural sequence, then you draw people in chapter to chapter to chapter, and by the time they get to chapter nine, they’re like, wow, there’s so much great stuff in here, as opposed to, what am I doing wasting my time on this?
Alison Jones: And that point about storytelling as well, storytelling is a craft and, you know, you might be filled with joy when somebody says, I have 30 case studies already. And then you might read them and then you might want to kill yourself. How do you move from having a story to telling a story well?
Josh Bernoff: You know, it’s interesting that you ask that question, because it’s one thing that I encountered in working with these analysts at Forrester, who were then writing books, because they were used to doing research, they were excellent at doing research, and the net result of their research was usually a bullet in a research report that said, for example you know, Wells Fargo Bank did this, and then they learned this, and that’s the result.
But that’s not a story, that’s a bullet point.
Alison Jones: I don’t really care about Wells Fargo Bank as an institution.
Josh Bernoff: Well, well…
Alison Jones: I care about people.
Josh Bernoff: Right. And so the case study stories, it’s funny, they’re sort of formulaic, but you know, it starts with Ellen was a Senior Vice President at Wells Fargo and the challenge that they had was that they were wasting too much time answering the same questions over and over again in their customer service.
And then she tried this and it didn’t work. And she tried this other thing and then she learned something. And then she tried this other thing and it did work. And what she learned from this is… and people are like, okay, they lived happily ever after, although in some cases, the end of the story is, and there was a disaster and something terrible happened. Right?
But, the amazing thing about that is that because of the way humans are wired, once you’ve told that case study story, whatever you say in the two sentences after that, people will believe. You say, and the lesson we can learn from this is this and this and this, and people are like, oh yes. Well, you may not have proof, but you’ve been very convincing there. And in many ways, that’s more convincing than a statistic would be, for example.
Alison Jones: It’s so funny. It gets underneath our kind of rational guard, doesn’t it? It goes straight to our kind of emotional core when we’re engaging imaginatively in a story,
Josh Bernoff: And it’s funny because you’d think in business books, it’s like, Oh, you know, we’re business people, we work based on data and logic. And yet this is how people communicate. And especially if you’re in an early market, I mean, like a book about AI in 2023 is not going to have a bunch of statistics about, you know, 27 percent of business people have used AI to improve their product development. It’s just too early.
So the best you can do is to say, this is what they did at Ford Motor Company. And you’re like, okay, well, I wonder if I could do that. What can I learn from their experience?
Alison Jones: One of the other points that you talk about in the book which really resonated with me as a publisher and as a book coach, was the point about how business books work a bit differently from most books in that they tend not to work in isolation.
And you talk about the whole kind of ecosystem of how the book works. I just thought was really, you express it very well. Just talk to me a little bit about that.
Josh Bernoff: Well, this relates to why bother doing this. So unless it’s your hobby, which for business books, it usually isn’t, you want to get some sort of a benefit from that. It’s worth mentioning here that unless you do the book promotion that follows publishing the book, then you don’t have the chance to get these benefits, but if you do, you might develop a speaking career, or you might be able to generate leads for your consulting business, or you might establish your company as a thought leader in a given space.
And every author who’s writing a business book has to consider where they fit and where they’re going to profit from things. The other thing that’s bizarre for business people to understand is that there is no competition. Yes.
So you have a great book on what business authors should do. And I have a book on what business authors should do. And I’m not sitting here saying, Oh, I have to do better than Alison. No, because if they read your book, they probably want to read my book.
Alison Jones: They’re not like fridges, are they?
Josh Bernoff: Yes.
Alison Jones: need more and more books on a topic.
Josh Bernoff: Right, yes, you probably have more than one. And that’s in general the way things are with authors. Authors help other authors because they really rarely compete with each other.
Alison Jones: Yes, which I love about it. And you see authors blurbing the books of their competitors, because we’re all in the ideas space, but we’re all doing a slightly different version of it because we bring a different pile of expertise and interests and fascination and approaches.
Josh Bernoff: Well, also, right, you’re going to be appearing on the same stages at the same events.
Alison Jones: There’s no point in annoying…
Josh Bernoff: And you alienate people for no good reason, it’s going to be very lonely.
Alison Jones: It is going to be awkward on that stage.
Going back to the point about the ecosystem though, you produced a, you have a copy of a picture that Joe Pulizzi of the Content Marketing Institute produced. Oh my goodness. I genuinely sat up and went, that is genius. Just talk us a little bit through, because he just, the strategy behind it and the way he based it on the Disney model, I think. Amazing.
Josh Bernoff: I really worked as hard as I could to get permission to put the Disney picture into the book. But I wasn’t allowed, Disney would not permit it, but this was Disney’s original concept, you know, you can just imagine the picture, the movies and the theme parks, you know, Disneyland and the television shows and the music and the books, the comic books, they all basically reinforce each other.
Alison Jones: Sort of mapping the synergies between them.
Josh Bernoff: And I mean, most business authors are not, it’s not just a book all by itself. You have a podcast or you have a blog, or you have an online community that you’re a part of. So that idea that you basically take those people who you have influenced and move them around and have all these different touch points. That makes a lot of sense.
And frankly, if they read the book and they learn from the book and then they never contact you again. That’s a lost opportunity. You could have been working with or connecting with this person over a much longer period of time.
Alison Jones: Well, I have to say there’s so much I’ve taken from your book, it’s pure gold. I mean, I thoroughly recommend it to anybody who’s writing a business book, but that visualization almost of the different elements of your ecosystem and how they relate to each other. I don’t know, it never occurred to me to draw that out in that way. And I think it’s absolute genius.
Josh Bernoff: Well, it’s, we should talk for just a half a second about Joe Pulizzi because…
Alison Jones: He’s been on this podcast.
Josh Bernoff: Okay. Well, I think one of the interesting things about him is that he designed that, not to put books at the center, but because that’s how content marketing works. And if you start to think about your book, right, if you start to say, okay, what is this? This is not just a book. This is a big lump of content marketing. So what is content marketing? That’s, we’re going to use content that helps people to connect to those people and then eventually to do business with those people. And that’s not a bad way to think about what you’re trying to do with a business book.
Alison Jones: It’s a very challenging idea for publishers to get their head around because publishers have traditionally made their money out of the sale of books. They don’t see it as content marketing. They see it as product. And I think that that has been a sticking point for authors and publishers of business books over the last 15 years or so.
Josh Bernoff: Ah, screw the publishers. I mean, let’s be fair here. Okay. It’s true, if you decide you want to go to a traditional publisher you’re going to have to make the case that you can sell a lot of books. And that means you have to talk about all this marketing you’re going to do to sell books.
But most business authors, that’s not how they’re making their money. And if you look at the people who are making hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars from selling books. They’re still making more money from speaking than they are from selling books. That’s why they’re rich.
Alison Jones: Right.
Josh Bernoff: So, yes, you know, if you look just in a few weeks leading up to this podcast. McGraw Hill Educations decided to stop acquiring new business books, and Simon & Schuster, the huge publisher, was agreed to be sold by Paramount to private equity, which does not bode well for the future of Simon & Schuster. So, I think the traditional publishing, especially for business books, is becoming narrower, and that means that authors need to look at hybrid publishing and self publishing alternatives that will still allow them to accomplish their goals without this huge focus on selling business books.
Alison Jones: And there’s no blame in that because if your model is selling books, you’ve got to do what you need to do. But I think it’s also, you know, I’ve noticed a push towards more academic books, which can be sold to libraries, which have budgets, at higher prices, which doesn’t necessarily fit with your goals as a publisher, as an author.
I remember speaking to Daniel Priestley on the podcast as well. He had a lovely phrase. He said something like ‘publishers are very big on the idea that you as the author should go out and sell the book. I’ve always thought that the book is something that should go out and sell the author.’
Josh Bernoff: I love that. What a beautiful way to put things. I’m just going to mention here, okay, so my publisher is Amplify and that is a hybrid publisher. So I paid money to have the book published, but Naren Aryal, who is the CEO of Amplify and I developed a partnership.
Now, this is not just words. He recognized that this book, because it was for authors, would be useful to him to make connections with authors that might want to work with him. And as a result, he’s not focused 100 percent on the sale of the book, he’s focused on what can this book do for him, and for me, as we connect with authors.
And that kind of enlightened attitude will never ever happen at a traditional publisher.
Alison Jones: It’s not transaction based anymore. It’s relationship based. It’s idea based. Yes, absolutely. Love that. I’ve been so greedy and I’ve pumped you for so many sort of tips here, but I’m still going to ask you, you know, if I had you up against a wall and said, what’s your one best tip for a business book writer?
I’m a bit nervous because you’ve got so many, but what would you say?
Josh Bernoff: All right, well, I’m not going to stick with one, strictly speaking.
Alison Jones: Thought you might not.
Josh Bernoff: So my main tip is don’t do it. If I say to someone, don’t do it, and they’re like, okay, I guess I won’t do it, then you weren’t committed enough, and hey, I just saved you an enormous amount of trouble.
Alison Jones: Unless they’re my daughter. If you said to my daughter, don’t do it, for that reason alone, she would go ahead and do it. But okay, that’s the flaw in your plan.
Josh Bernoff: Okay. So the other thing is I say, all right, let’s focus on four things. One is, who is your audience? The second is, what is the problem that you’re solving for that audience? The third is, what’s the story that you’re going to tell about solving that problem? And the fourth, more important than the other three, is what is your differentiation?
So, if you’re writing a book on customer experience, we got lots of books on customer experience. Is this the first book on customer experience in retail? Or is this the first book on customer experience with actual… You know, graphics showing you how to do it on the internet. You know, I mean, there are a lot of ways to differentiate, but unless you have a way to differentiate, then you don’t really have any sort of justification for putting out yet another book about X or Y or Z.
Alison Jones: Do you know, that’s a really good way of looking at it because you are asking people to give you their most precious resource, their time to read it. So it better be worth it. You better give them a reason to do it. It’s a really great way of putting it. I think also just looping it back to what we were saying earlier, that point of differentiation, that’s got to be a strategic priority for you, right?
There’s no point you differentiating in a direction that’s actually of little interest to you strategically. It’s got to fit within that whole diagram of your ecosystem that you’ve created. How is that to let you speak in a particular sector, for example.
Josh Bernoff: Well, it relates to the thing that drives people to write these books. So you might say, for example, I’ve been doing customer experience for companies where all the people work in a hybrid way and none of them are in the office and that’s different and nobody realizes what’s different about it.
So that’s what gets you excited and people don’t generally get excited about the fact that they know the same thing everyone else knows.
Alison Jones: And actually we should finish with where you start, which is that, what does that first chapter have to do again?
Josh Bernoff: Ah,
Alison Jones: Love this.
Josh Bernoff: Okay. Yes. So chapter one of your business book is to scare the crap out of you. The person reading chapter one has to be scared. There are two ways to scare them, fear and greed. So fear is, Oh my gosh, if I don’t pay attention to what it says in this book, something bad will happen. So like a cybersecurity book, like you can have a data breach or greed is, Oh, if I don’t do the thing that this book says, then I’m going to fall behind and I lose the opportunity, you know, like a book about increasing revenue rapidly would be a greed book.
And you can do both, of course, but unless you get to fear and greed in chapter one, people don’t have the motivation they need to go and read the rest of the book.
Alison Jones: Genius. Scare the crap out of your readers. Perfect. Love it.
And I’m interested as well, if I ask you to recommend a book that everybody who’s listening should read, if they haven’t read it already, what would you suggest?
Josh Bernoff: Well I have a couple of books that I’m going to talk about. I’m intrigued, I’m not going to tell everyone they need to read this, but I’ve been intrigued by a book I’ve been reading lately called The Gutenberg Parenthesis by Jeff Jarvis.
Alison Jones: I’ve not heard of that.
Josh Bernoff: Well, he makes the point, he’s a journalism professor, and he makes the point that some unique things happen at the beginning of movable type in printing with Gutenberg, and that for 500 years we’ve had that as far as what we could do with books and other printed materials, and now we’re coming to the end of that period and back to the period where it’s many to many conversation like the internet.
And that’s, what a magisterial, powerful idea. It’s an academic book and it’s not necessarily easy to get through, but really will blow your mind.
Alison Jones: Oh, that sounds amazing.
Josh Bernoff: Yes. If you’re just talking about a more standard business book. The book I’d recommend to people is Outside In by Kerry Bodine and Harley Manning.
And so that’s a customer experience book, but it’s got great stories in it. It is really well organized and it’s full of practical advice for people who are interested in customer experience. And the thing I like about it is that that was published in 2012. And at this point, right, 11 years later, it is still every bit as relevant.
And man, it is hard to write a business book these days that has that kind of longevity.
Alison Jones: Longevity, yes, amazing. Brilliant recommendations. I mean, I would have expected nothing less Josh, obviously, but fantastic. Thank you so much.
And if people want to find out more about you, more about the work that you do, more about your books, where should they go?
Josh Bernoff: Well, people want to follow me. I do a daily blog post at bernoff.com/blog. That’s B E R N O F F dot com slash blog. And if they want to know about about my books, it’s bernoff.com/books. And that’s where you can get the information on how to get your copy of Build a Better Business Book.
Alison Jones: Which you absolutely should. It really is terrific. It’s, yes, absolutely one of the best books I’ve ever read on the topic, so, well done. Thank you.
Josh Bernoff: Here’s the book. There it is.
Alison Jones: There you go. If you’re looking at it on YouTube, you can see that. If not, you’re going to have to go to the show notes at extraordinarybusinessbooks.com and have a look at all those links and get your own copy.
Amazing. So good to talk to you, Josh. Thanks for your time today.
Josh Bernoff: Thanks. It was really great to be with you.