The book sales keep rolling in more than 25 years after Benj Gallander wrote The Canadian Small Business Survival Guide, a 260-page tome that covers everything from drafting a business plan to analyzing cash flow.
Now in its third edition and 12th printing, Mr. Gallander’s first book has sold more than 30,000 copies and spawned editions for markets in the U.S., China and the Czech Republic.
“I never thought that 25 years later this book would still be out there,” says Mr. Gallander, who is also a playwright and co-owner of Contra The Heard, an investment newsletter. “Business books today come and go, this one just keeps going.”
Mr. Gallander’s success as a small business book author is an impressive feat at any time. But these days it’s a a remarkable achievement.
With the rise of vanity presses and social media sites where anyone with an idea and an Internet connection can build a community, it’s easier than ever to become an author. Moreover, traditional publishers and self-publishing outfits churn out thousands of business books each year – significantly more than they did a decade ago. In the U.S. alone, an estimated 11,000 business books are published annually.
For authors like Mr. Gallander, this means more competitors battling for the top spot in the reading pile. So how does a business book make its way onto the bestsellers list? And why is it that some books, like Mr. Gallander’s, have enduring appeal while others are more ephemeral?
Shannon Vargo, executive editor at John Wiley & Sons, Inc., a leading business book publisher in Hoboken, N.J., points to a key characteristic shared by all successful small business books: they offer solutions to the three most urgent problems for entrepreneurs; namely, the shortage of funding, time and resources.
“What I think and what the market has proven is that any business book that can deliver a solution to these problems – that can show how businesses can get things done faster, more affordably and more efficiently – those are the books that we see time and again enjoying great numbers,” she says. “The best books offer you tools and strategies, not just theory, to help you cope with your business challenges.”
There are, of course, several books that offer solutions to these problems. But what makes readers reach for one title over another is how these solutions are presented.
“Small business owners are looking for inspiration, for stories that tell them ‘you’re not in it alone,’ and that’s what these books give them,” she says.
Sean Neville, owner of Toronto-based online retailer Books for Business, agrees. He likens good business books to good friends; they commiserate, share experiences and offer lessons that can be applied to the problem at hand. He points to books such as Delivering Happiness by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, Jessica Livingston’s Founders at Work, and Jim Collins’ Good to Great.
“They’re wrapped in real-life stories that an entrepreneur can easily relate to,” says Mr. Neville. “Being in a small business can be lonely, especially if you don’t have a strong management team. In these business books, you can find solace in knowing that the things you’re struggling with now are similar to what perhaps Google went through in its early days, and look where they are now.”
The power of stories to inspire and instruct entrepreneurs was something investment banker and former Dragons’ Den investor Brett Wilson kept in mind as he worked on his book, Redefining Success. In the book, Mr. Wilson opens up about how his drive to succeed eventually led to the breakup of his marriage, the alienation of his children, and the deterioration of his health. He also retraces the journey he took to build a successful, high-profit company that baked philanthropy into its business plan.
“The book doesn’t fit the genre of bio or motivation or self-help,” says Mr. Wilson, who adds that he’s already sold more copies than those released by other Dragons. “I tried to stay away from ‘this is how you should do it’ and instead focused on ‘this is how I did it’ and let people take away what they want out of that.”
Ms. Vargo of Wiley says the business books that have succeeded are those by authors with a strong voice who have a unique way of telling a story. She points to Canadian author Scott Stratten, who combines boundary-pushing humour with plenty of graphics and quirky layouts.
For instance, Mr. Stratten’s The Book of Business Awesome / UnAwesome is a flip book. When readers finish the first half of the book – the so-called ‘awesome’ part – they turn the book around and read the second half from the back. Mr. Stratten’s latest book, QR Codes Kill Kittens, includes close to 200 giggle-inducing pictures and pages of hilarious writing that includes the occasional four-letter word.
“The best compliment I’ve gotten repeatedly is that it feels like I’m sitting down having a conversation over coffee with the reader instead of talking above them,” says Mr. Stratten. “I write like I talk – it’s very casual, conversational and sarcastic.”
As a small business owner himself, Mr. Stratten says he organizes his books into bite-sized chunks that can be read quickly and not necessarily in any particular order.
“A small business owner plays every role in their company, so I wanted to write books that you can open at any point, read a few pages and put down.”
Like Mr. Stratten, Mr. Gallander thought about how a small business owner might approach his book. He figured that if he started with the quantitative stuff – such as breakeven calculations and accounting – he could quickly lose his audience.
So he eased in with chapters that focus on topics such as the pros and cons of operating your own business, the key ingredients for business success, and the top reasons businesses fail. The rest of the book, however, moves readers through an information-packed crash course on starting and running business, numbers and all.
“I started with the simple and then moved into the complex,” says Mr. Gallander. “I think that’s one of the things that has made this book so successful: it’s easy to read and understand even though it does require the reader to do a bit of work.”