Episode 88 – The art of the business book with Nigel Wilcockson

Random House Business BooksMatt Watkinson described Nigel Wilcockson, publishing director at Random House Business Books and his own editor, as the brains behind many of the best business books he’d ever read. Nigel is more modest about his role: ‘a good editor is more like a mentor… there in the background to offer advice’.

But that advice can make all the difference. Business book authors are busy people, and while they may be used to writing blog posts or sales copy, a full-length book is a very different animal. Nigel helps his authors tackle issues such as structure and what he describes as ‘short-breathedness’, getting all your ideas across as quickly as possible.

This is a fascinating insight into the hard work that goes into making the world’s best business books so deceptively easy to read. There are also invaluable tips for anyone thinking about pitching themselves and their book to the top business book publishers.


Random House Business Books: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.co.uk/publishers/cornerstone/random-house-businessbooks/

Alison on Twitter (say hi!): https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

Alison Jones:                        Hello and welcome to the Extraordinary Business Book Club. Today with me is Nigel Wilcockson who is publishing director at Random House business books and a guiding genius behind many in fact of the very books discussed on this podcast, including Matt Watkinson’s The Grid, and of course it was Matt Watkinson who recommended you. Nigel, welcome to the show.

Nigel Wilcockson:             Thank you very much.

Alison Jones:                        Lovely to have you here. Now, he described you as ‘the brains behind so many of the best business books in the world’. How do you see the role of an editor working on business books specifically?

Nigel Wilcockson:             Well, I think I’d have to say ‘the brains’ is probably stating it far too high, I would say a good editor is more like a mentor, ‘the brains’ is the author. What I try to do is to help the author shape their thoughts so that they can get them across in the best, most accessible way. Just to take one aspect of a book – I think one of the hardest things for authors is getting the structure of their book right, it’s very hard to sustain an argument across 90 or 100,000 words and that’s somewhere where I think the editor can come in and help because we’ve worked on a lot of books. That’s not, I hasten to say, the same thing as being the brains of the book, we’re simply offering advice. If something strikes me that I’ve read in another book I think an author might be interested I might mention that but ultimately I believe very, very strongly a book is the author’s book and the editor is there in the background to offer advice but should not be heard too loudly.

Alison Jones:                        I do think, as an editor who’s worked in non-fiction stuff all her life, I think that’s one of the lovely things about this field, isn’t it? You become more of a partner because you do have that expertise in structure and so on, a novelist might not necessarily need that to the same extent.

Nigel Wilcockson:             Yes, I agree. I find my job fascinating and at its best it is a creative job, you’re working very closely with creative people which is incredibly exciting. At the same time, I suppose, the other great joy of it is that you’re a little bit like the critic delivering their view but you’re delivering your view at the time when something can actually be done about it.

Alison Jones:                        Which is so much more useful, yeah.

Nigel Wilcockson:             Frankly when a critic comes in later and says well actually that wasn’t very good it’s a bit late.

Alison Jones:                        When you talk about structure and obviously 90,000 words is a lot of text, that’s a big book, what’s the common problems that you see authors struggling with?

Nigel Wilcockson:             I think one of the most common problems is kind of I would call short-breathedness, that is that you’re so anxious to get all your ideas over as quickly as possible that you garble them in the first chapter and then for the next five chapters you keep returning to things that you’ve already picked up. I would argue that whereas for example a journalist is engaged in sprints, book authors are engaged in marathons and you have to pace yourself accordingly. So quite often I find myself saying, ‘That’s great, you said that on page five and then you picked it up again on page 360, why don’t we try and bring those two things together?’

Alison Jones:                        How interesting and I like the idea of short-breathedness, that’s a vivid image of exactl, ‘Oh, and this, and that and the other.’ You’re right that many people write these days in sprints, they write in blog posts, they’re writing articles and it’s a very different scale at which to write, isn’t it? It’s a very different discipline.

Nigel Wilcockson:             Yes, it’s an incredibly difficult thing to do and I have huge admiration for authors because I think particularly on their first book they probably get half way through and think why on earth did I ever think this was a good idea? It’s a very, very hard slog and it’s a real skill. When you read a book by a non-fiction author who’s at the top of their game it’s an astonishingly impressive thing to do and it seems so effortless but the amount of work that’s going on behind the scenes is extraordinary.

Alison Jones:                        Yes, that’s so true and it’s like anything, isn’t it? When you watch somebody do it well you think oh, that must be easy. Ironically, I think the best writing is the simplest but it’s so damn hard to make it simple.

Nigel Wilcockson:             Yes, I mean one of my great heroes, I very fortunate to publish him, is Jim Collins, author of Good to Great. What Jim is absolutely brilliant at is being remorseless at kind of crunching of information to create a book, there’s a huge amount of research that goes into it, but he’s also incredibly good at making it seem effortless, his books just read beautifully. If you look at a book like How the Mighty Fall which was his book that came out after the 2007, 2008 crash it seems he makes it seem so easy and yet there’s a huge amount of thought that’s gone into it.

Alison Jones:                        I’m laughing because I’m actually reading Good to Great at the moment and you’re absolutely right. I read William Zinsser’s On Writing recently and I think Jim read that too because there’s no fluff in there, it reads beautifully, it’s not terse, just every word is doing its job, there’s no fat.

Nigel Wilcockson:             Yes, the man’s a genius I think.

Alison Jones:                        It’s wonderful. Now, not obviously not every author is a Jim Collins but when you looking to commission to acquire books what do you look for? Are you looking for a particular thing about the author? Is it the concept? Is it the quality of the proposal? What matters to you?

Nigel Wilcockson:             Well, I think it’s all those things. Very, very crudely I would say there are three types of business books. There is the kind of management strategy book which is what people think of straight away when they think of business books. Where the number of completely new ideas is not that great, it often comes down to I suppose what Alexander Pope would have described as ‘what so oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed’, so you’re trying to get across ideas that may be relatively common currency but you’re finding a fresh way of putting them across. Then there’s that category of books which are looking at the Zeitgeist, and they are books that might be dealing with, a few years ago it was the banking crisis then big data was the next big thing, AI I would say is the thing at the moment, and here what I’m looking for is someone who has a fresh take on it. There is no point simply repeating what other people have said.

Then the third category, and this is what I think makes business books so fascinating, are those books are coming at it from a slightly different angle. A lot of people talking at the moment about behavioural economics, for example; I think behavioural economists have a lot to teach us in the business world about how customers tick, how people in organisations tick and so on and there you are looking for freshness of ideas, lots of new things bubbling up and it’s a very exciting field.

Alison Jones:                        Yes, absolutely and when you’re thinking about what’s hot and what’s not what kind of research do you do yourself? Do you immerse yourself in this world and see what’s coming out and think, ‘Ah, we don’t have a book on this, we need to find someone who can write for us’ or do you have so many coming in that you just take from those?

Nigel Wilcockson:             Well, it’s a mix of things. We do approach people to write books for us quite often, for example business leaders who have an interesting story, they are obvious people to approach. A lot of books come to us as submissions and then it’s a winnowing process going through trying to work out is this something fresh and new, have I seen this before, does this author have the right kind of profile and so on.

Alison Jones:                        Let’s talk a little about author profile because that is very much on… for most people who are listening to this podcast, it will be very much on their minds. When you say profile what are you looking for in terms of the author’s platform and so on?

Nigel Wilcockson:             Well, again, it depends, I like to feel, perhaps I’m being a little idealistic here, that if someone has a great idea or a great thought that will out, it will just emerge into the ether and people will pick it up, not as easy as it sounds so we’re often looking for authors who already have some kind of a platform from which they can preach as it were. Now, obviously if it’s a business leader this is someone who is well known in their field, that’s a relatively straightforward project to get other people engaged with, but you’ll find that a lot of the successful authors at the moment they may well be on the speaker circuits, they probably advise to big companies, they kind of have a community. I suppose this leads into this whole thing of how much do you expect an author to do for a book. It’s basically very unfair for an author thinking I’ve written the damn thing and now you’re expecting me to help sell it as well but of course …

Alison Jones:                        Is this a conversation you’ve had before, perhaps?

Nigel Wilcockson:             Put it this way, as a publisher I feel acutely aware of it but particularly ever since my younger daughter asked me what publishers actually did and after I explained to her she said, ‘I don’t really see that that’s a job.’

Alison Jones:                        Oh, harsh.

Nigel Wilcockson:             Harsh, yes, possibly true… I’m very aware with authors, obviously we have our publicist who will reach out to media and so on and are fantastically switched on with some of the things to go online, talk to communities but there is no doubt that a good author also knows how to speak to community. If I think of a book I published earlier this year, we published a book by an economist called Kate Raworth called Doughnut Economics which has done very well. Kate not only wrote an incredibly book but she’s absolutely brilliant at proselytising. She has a website, she goes on Twitter all the time and she does it wholeheartedly. I suppose just a word of warning for would be authors who think ‘Oh, I suppose I better go on Twitter’, if you do it reluctantly or cynically people will pick up on that very, very quickly, you have to be prepared to engage with the community who you want to buy into your ideas.

Alison Jones:                        Yes, absolutely, it’s a conversation, isn’t it? You can’t just stand there and shout at people.

Nigel Wilcockson:             Yes and I think when it works well it’s absolutely wonderful. A while back, this is one of my first encounters with it, we published Chris Anderson who was formerly editor of Wired whose I suppose most famous book was The Long Tail and he was sitting in my office one morning and he noticed that someone online had had a pop at him about some idea he had. He immediately engaged this guy online who was first of all so flattered that the author was prepared to talk to him and then prepared to be persuaded by him that by the end of a five-minute stint he was then tweeting all his friends saying this guy, Chris Anderson, he’s amazing! So you have a lot of power, you have a lot of responsibility but you have a lot of power if you engage with your social media in the right way.

Alison Jones:                        That’s a great story, love that. In terms of marketing give us some other examples of things that authors have been able to do that you as a publisher have just received as a gift in terms of marketing the book. What really works?

Nigel Wilcockson:             Well, I think people who are on the speaker circuit. This is something that is probably more mature in the US than it is here but people who can talk about their books compellingly, there are now a lot of venues for them to do that and of course from the crudely commercial point of view of the publisher you sell books at these events, it’s a very helpful thing to do.

Alison Jones:                        And you sell books at a very good profit margin which is important because retail, not so much.

Nigel Wilcockson:             Well, yes, won’t go into all the economics of it but yes, it’s a very good way to sell extra books and of course every person you sell a book to, if they like the book, they then tend to proselytise for it. It’s one of the things that’s always struck me about the people who read business books is they read voraciously and it’s again what makes that community such a fantastic community to publish towards because if you give them a good book they will run with it.

Alison Jones:                        Yes, that’s so true and it’s one of the lovely things about this community as well is that the people who are listening to this podcast, many of them are writing their business books, but they’re all voracious readers of them as well and love commenting on them and experimenting with them. Yes, you’re right, it’s a really highly engaged readership and they’re not people who are passively consuming, these are people who are running businesses, who are out there in the field and they’re kind of taking things and trying them out and feeding back and… yeah, it’s a really interesting conversation.

Nigel Wilcockson:             Yeah, absolutely. When it works well there is something … It kind of forms a virtuous circle I suppose and you’ll find readers feeding back ideas to authors that they may well then pick up in their next book and so it goes on.

Alison Jones:                        Yeah and that is lovely actually. Twitter is a particularly great example of how, and the Chris Anderson story illustrates it perfectly, how you have got this directness between the reader and the author which is great. I want to talk more broadly about the industry as well because I love talking about the publishing industry, I’m really sorry for anybody whose going to switch off now but where do you see the industry developing, what’s happening in the business space that you think is really exciting for the future?

Nigel Wilcockson:             If we’re talking about the kind of topics that are now coming up, it’s always fatal to look into a crystal ball because normally all you see is your face but if I had to hazard a guess I think one of the big growth areas in the subjects that people look at is going to be the role of ethics in business. I was very struck, I went to a I think 50 event on Monday and a lecturer in business ethics from the US said rather rudely that whenever he says what he, the course that he teaches to other people they say that must be the shortest course on record but actually I think there are things coming from all sorts of directions that is going to make that element of ethics in business incredibly important. We know that there is controversy about taxes that are paid, off the banking crisis there are concerns about the personal integrity about some of the people involved, in particular businesses. There is a whole issue over what role business has in society as a whole so I think this is going to be something that becomes of ever more concern.

This will actually become central. This is not something where I think business will say look, we’ll have an ethics officer who will just basically cover that off for us and then we don’t have to worry about it, I think it will become core to what they do. If you look at some of really fine entrepreneurs out there, someone like say Julian Richer at Richer Sounds, he has made the ethical side of business absolutely core to what he does and I think the benefits are obvious. Again, it’s another one that essentially forms a kind of vitreous circle. I think what he’s demonstrated is that if you behave well to other people they will behave well to you. There’s a very interesting bit actually in the book we published by Robert Cialdini called Presuasion. Bob’s first really famous book was a book called Influence which was about how influence actually works on people. Presuasion is a book about what goes on in those few moments before you have actually persuaded someone because the signals that you send out are very, very powerful.

Now, his research shows that companies that, for example, encourage sight sharp practise among their employees, will tend to be cheated by those very employees. It’s fascinating, they’ve done a lot of research on that so it’s not just that you should behave well because you should behave well, but actually it’s also in your interest to behave well. It’s something that Robert Cialdini looks at so brilliantly in Presuasion.

Alison Jones:                        That’s absolutely fascinating and also very heartening I think. I guess it falls out of the digital disruption and transparency and just the fact that reputation is so apparent and so obvious and so immediate these days in a way that it never used to be.

Nigel Wilcockson:             Yes, when you go back to the famous Ratner story in the, I suppose that must have been the 1980s when he made that slightly off-the-cuff remark that didn’t play terribly well, I think that’s magnified 100 times now and again, I was talking about authenticity on Twitter, I think this is true for businesses as well, I think you will get caught out. If you think of some of the recent scandals that have happened in big business like the CO2 emissions in the car industry and so on, you will get found out, there is no doubt about it and you shouldn’t be ethical simply because you’re worried about being caught out, that would be a worrying mindset, but you should certainly be aware of the fact that behaving well is good for you as well as the right thing to do.

Alison Jones:                        That’s what really interests me about what you’re saying, it’s not just about reputation management, it’s not just about, as you say, good business practice, it’s actually well, what do you mean by ethics? There’s something deeper in there, isn’t it? So how to be an ethical company and still a profitable company because those two have often been seen as in tension, so if anybody’s thinking about their topic, there you go, there’s an interesting one, really interesting. In terms of the industry more broadly in developments, just touch briefly for me on digital. I know we’ve sort of stopped talking about e-books now because they seem to have got a bit less interesting but obviously digital audio is huge, do you see any other interesting developments in the digital space for business books?

Nigel Wilcockson:             What always fascinated me about the digital aspect of certainly business book publishing was I think we had assumed that because so many business people travel a lot e-books would be huge. In fact, what seems to be the case is that those books which operate at the softer end of business, the inspirational books, often their e-book sales are quite high but on other business books the physical sale has held up very strongly and I suspect this is because these are books that people keep returning to and they want it on their shelf to keep referring to. You mentioned audio and audio is a huge growth area and I find that again, very exciting. It’s obvious, I think, why audio should be so successful, you’re sitting in your car, you want to listen to the thing.

The sales can be very impressive indeed, particularly if someone really knows how to get their message across, I think if someone … I did a book with Alastair Campbell a couple of years ago called Winners where he interviewed lots of very, very successful people, the audio version of that book was fantastically successful from day one and that obviously goes into the overall mix of his audience.

Alison Jones:                        Did he actually have the original audio, the interviews with the people he’d been speaking to, as part of the audio book?

Nigel Wilcockson:             No, it was actually straight reading. I’m no expert on audio but we obviously have, we have a whole team doing that, I think they would probably have argued that too many voices in a book like that might actually have been slightly confusing so that I think it’s read straight, but obviously there are things you can do with audio to bring it to life in a slightly different way and I think audio is going to be an increasingly important part of what we do.

Alison Jones:                        Yes, I agree, I love it, obviously I do a podcast, I’m a big fan of audio, it’s so interesting. I think for business books particularly there’s a connection with the author. When you read a book you always feel that kind of intellectual connection with an author and hopefully with their tone of voice you sort of feel like you got to know them but when you’re actually listening to them for seven, eight hours at a time they’re practically a best buddy by the end of it, aren’t they?

Nigel Wilcockson:             Yes, again, it’s all part of this forming communities I think and I think audio does it particularly effectively.

Alison Jones:                        Yes, there’s real authenticity there to use that buzz word again. Now, if there’s people listening and thinking oh, you know I’d love it if you picked my book, let’s give them a headstart, what would be your one best tip for somebody whose writing their first business book?

Nigel Wilcockson:             Oh God.

Alison Jones:                        I know, sorry, sorry.

Nigel Wilcockson:             Well, obviously there are lots of practical tips one could offer. The thing I would suggest which perhaps people don’t immediately think of is, be a storyteller. I think business people sometimes assume that all you have to do is to get the facts across but what I would suggest is the fact that you can get people in a business to sit in a room while the CEO talks to them is not quite the same as doing a book. The fact is if the CEO calls you in to give you a talk and he or she is colossally boring there is nowhere you can go but as far as I’m aware it’s illegal for publishers to lock you in a room and say you may not leave until you’ve bought and read this book.

Alison Jones:                        Ooh, you might have something there actually.

Nigel Wilcockson:             Well, we might try that. I think making your book compelling to read is not some kind of little candyfloss that you add at the end, it’s an absolutely essential part of what you do, the way you communicate with people is very, very important. Often actually it will make your idea live more and be more concrete. I mentioned Jim Collins a little earlier but just to try give one example what I mean, we all know that there is danger in business that if you hit a good stretch you go slightly berserk, you overextend yourself, you go for frantic growth and then of course either your systems aren’t up to it or something untoward, perhaps external happens and you come crashing down.

Jim talked about this in his book Great By Choice and a parable he gives is of Scott and Amundsen’s race to the pole. Cut very short, Amundsen tried to make sure that his men marched precisely the same distance each day regardless of the weather. What Scott was if it was a good day they went for broke then they were exhausted and if it was a bad day they just gave up. Well, we know who won that one. I would argue that the way Jim puts it there it makes it incredibly concrete and visual and so something that might go in one ear and out the other suddenly becomes a very concrete take-away piece of advice.

Just to give, sorry I’m just giving one other example because it always amused me when I read it. We published a while back a book by Allan Leighton, who at that stage was with the Royal Mail, is now at The Co-op, and he gives a wonderful story about, again, something you often see as a bullet point in a book which is, talk to the people on the factory floor, at the cutting edge of everything you’re doing, the people who are actually facing the public and so on. And again there was a danger that it would go in one ear and out the other.

He gives this wonderful story that when he was a trainee at Mars he had a humiliating first day where he was taken down the factory floor, handed a broom and they said to him, right, you sweep up any Maltesers that come off the conveyor belt. And he said what followed was the three most embarrassing hours of his life as he chased these flipping Maltesers around the factory floor. And eventually one of the old lags came up to him, presumably with kind of a raised eyebrow and said, “This is what you do.” And he simply put his foot down on the Malteser and he said, ‘You squash them first, then you sweep them up.’

Alison Jones:                        ‘You squashes them, and then you sweeps them.’

Nigel Wilcockson:             As Allan said, when someone says that to you it is so obvious, you’re going to be throwing these things away anyway so there’s no point trying to preserve them. It’s a brilliant… I defy anyone once they’ve heard that story to forget it.

Alison Jones:                        That’s wonderful.

Nigel Wilcockson:             Going back to the question you raised, I would say however good your ideas are do think very carefully how you are going to present them because if you’ve got a telling metaphor or a good story to wrap something around it makes a massive amount of difference.

Alison Jones:                        That is awesome advice and I also love, I don’t know if you did it deliberately but I like the way that you picked two examples there that highlight the fact it can come from your own experience, which is always really compelling, or it can be something that’s pulled in from the wider world. So reading widely and curiously is a really good discipline, I think, if you’re writing a business book because if you pull in ideas from different areas you can really illustrate your points effectively.

Nigel Wilcockson:             Yes, absolutely, and again, it says a lot, I think, for the people who read business books how widely they will read: we know that people read books on military strategy or on sports or on aspects of politics because they know that there are experiences in other areas of life that just tell us a lot about the way humans tick and therefore about how businesses tick.

Alison Jones:                        Absolutely, so keep that open, curious mind if you’re writing because you’ll find things in the world that reflect back in. Yes, wonderful. Now, I always ask my guests to recommend another guest onto the show – which of course is how you’re here – so who do you think has something interesting to say about the business of business books who would be a great guest for this podcast?

Nigel Wilcockson:             Well, I mentioned him earlier, I think Robert Cialdini is one of the greats, as I say his book Influence has quite rightly influenced a lot of people, he’s a very thoughtful person, his books, I think, demonstrate all the virtues that I talked about, they’re beautifully written, they have fantastic stories, they are based on deep, deep knowledge. I think he would be, if he was prepared to be, a fantastic guest.

Alison Jones:                        Well I’ll certainly give it a go. He’s absolutely one of my idols in terms of business books and I love the way also he creates the principles, so he doesn’t just write the book he actually hangs it all off this really solid research, doesn’t he? He’s terrific.

Nigel Wilcockson:             Absolutely, yes.

Alison Jones:                        Wonderful. Right, thank you so much Nigel, that was absolutely amazing. If people want to find out more about Penguin Random House business, is it Penguin Random House business books or are you sticking with Random House business books?

Nigel Wilcockson:             Well, Penguin Random House actually publishes various business books in various lists, my bit is called Random House Business Books but there are lots of good business books coming out of other parts so I think if someone wanted to look in general it’s probably best to go onto the Penguin website and see the sort of books that are coming out.

Alison Jones:                        Yeah but you know what, this is your interview, where should they go for your books?

Nigel Wilcockson:             Well, if you go onto www.pengium.com you will find the Random House Business Books section in there as well.

Alison Jones:                        Fantastic, and I will put that link up on the show notes as well. Thank you so much for your time today Nigel, I thoroughly enjoyed talking to you.

Nigel Wilcockson:             Not at all, thank you.

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