Why Forbes is backing book publishing to save the news media

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

Why Forbes is backing book publishing to save the news media

As we await next month’s inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States, the potential power of the personal brand has never been so startlingly obvious.

The key vehicle for Brand Trump, the Midas-like persona that has propelled the property developer to the White House, was a 372-page document printed and bound by Random House. Filled with popular catchphrases such as “Think Big”, “Use Your Leverage” and “Have Fun”, The Art of the Deal was marketed as an 11-part formula to business success.

Published in 1987, it became a New York Times number 1 best-seller and established its subject (the book was ghost-written by journalist Tony Schwartz) as an influencer and an American icon, someone who was not content with the crude personal branding strategy of slapping his name on a Fifth Avenue skyscraper (he finished Trump Tower in 1983).

The Art of the Deal was serialised in New York magazine and translated into a dozen languages. It cleared the path for Trump’s reality show The Apprentice. And during the presidential election campaign this year he told voters that it is “the number 1 selling business book of all time”. That claim is dubious but the book is certainly among the most popular in the category.

Three decades after The Art of the Deal came out, the traditional book publishing world is in a parlous state. And yet in a world dominated by digital products and digital entrepreneurs it would be wrong to write off the printed hardback, just as it was wrong to write off Trump. Furthermore, it has the capacity to be a significant earner for the news industry.

A magazine money-spinner?

Forbes Media has recognised this by launching the ForbesBooks imprint as a new revenue generator. It is a bet based not on the traditional model of championing titles that shift units at retail. Rather, it speaks to the very modern phenomenon of using a book as a personal branding tool. In today’s world of business, anyone who is anyone has a book.

ForbesBooks will produce titles that the authors pay for themselves. A business figure might pay (US) $70,000 or more for the prestige of having the endorsement of Forbes on a handsome hardback that he or she can distribute among their network. Half of that sum would typically be spent on producing the product and the other half on marketing and promotion.

“The vision is that a ForbesBooks author would be a CEO, a senior executive, an entrepreneur… someone who has a significant body of work in a particular field [and who] has enough to say to make a quality book,” says Nina La France, senior vice president in consumer marketing and business development at Forbes Media, owners of Forbes magazine, which has its centenary next year.

The first three book titles will be published on 15 January. The business is being launched in the US but – with Forbes publishing its magazine in 37 countries – there is an expectation that it will be a global operation. “Forbes sees adding a book imprint to its business as a unique growth opportunity in the marketplace, “ says Mike Federle, President and chief operating officer at Forbes Media. “This expansion is in line with our strategy to diversify revenue streams and expand our global reach.”

If Forbes can make a success of book publishing there will be opportunities for other news media brands, most obviously those with strong credentials in business journalism but also those with reputations in other specialist fields with a wealthy clientele seeking a presence on the bookshelf.

The ForbesBooks imprint is a partnership with the US-based publisher Advantage Books, which already has an 11-year track record in publishing titles for business leaders if they are willing to pay upfront.

“We are the first ones to say that the worst way to make money as an author is by selling copies of your book in a book store,” says Adam Witty, chief executive of Advantage Media Group. “The way to really make money off of a book is to use it for authority positioning; to use it as a platform to be invited to speak; to use it to attract media and publicity attention for yourself and for your business.”

From zero to hero

Advantage has published 1,000 authors in 40 US states and 13 countries outside America. Witty says that 78 per cent of Advantage authors come to the publisher with no manuscript but simply an “idea” or a “body of knowledge” from their business career. “We help you go from zero to hero. We help you take an idea and turn it into a 200-page beautifully-published book.”

The Advantage business model is based on “fundamentally recognising that the book is a marketing tool to help them build their authority status”, he says.

Having the Forbes name attached will dramatically increase the power of that marketing tool. But Forbes has its own brand reputation to consider. It cannot set the bar so low that just anyone can pay their money and have the famous name on the spine of their book. Witty says the qualifications for a ForbesBooks author will be “far more stringent” than those applied to Advantage writers. Every title will be “reviewed and approved by Forbes” to ensure that the material is “consistent with the quality of content you would find in Forbes magazine or on Forbes.com”. A Forbes deal will also cost significantly more.

“The typical Advantage author will invest about $30-35,000 in having a book created and then they will typically invest about that same amount in a variety of marketing services,” says Witty.

The money might be spent on a ghost-writing team and a “Talk Your Book” programme that simply requires the author to give 10 hours of interview time. “We interview the thought leader and turn those interviews into a manuscript,” says Witty. “Of course we do all of the interior design and lay out and handle all the print management. We get the books available to all online distributors and some visible retail outlets as well.”

It is no good creating such a product and “forgetting to tell people about it”, he says. So there are also marketing services including the creation of a website, a video book trailer and an audio book. The books are additionally offered in all digital formats (Kindle, iBooks, Nook etc) but Witty says that it is the physical print product that is all-important. “As the cost for digital publishing drops to near zero, physical print publishing I believe actually creates a barometer of quality,” he says. “The amount of energy and effort and certainly money that someone has to invest in creating a physical book is now a much higher barrier.”

For their considerable outlay, the authors get a highly favourable share of royalties if they manage to find an audience. This rights ownership appeals to business leaders. They also tend to be impatient and like the fact that this form of publishing is far quicker than the traditional model (six months compared to 18 months).

The first three ForbesBooks titles to be published will be Hyper Sales Growth by sales expert Jack Daly, The Second Decision by former nuclear submarine officer and entrepreneur Randy H. Nelson and Make Big Happen by life coach Mark Moses. All three have previously worked with Advantage and are effectively setting a blueprint for the quality and approach expected for ForbesBooks authors.

La France says that some ForbesBooks writers will have opportunities to “amplify” their voice by contributing to author blogs on the Forbes website, which has a monthly audience of 50 million. “Their reach [would be] exponentially larger than it otherwise might have been,” she says.

It is possible that, as the ForbesBooks project grows, some of its authors will be offered opportunities to contribute at live events, she says. Forbes has a ForbesLive arm, which stages events around the world, and a Forbes BrandVoice content marketing platform, which is focused on thought leadership.

The ForbesBooks deal prevents Advantage from working with other business media brands but the potential attraction for other news organisations is clear. Traditional book publishing based on identifying best-sellers at retail is like “going to Las Vegas and playing the video poker machine”, says Witty. But, by getting the author to pay, “we are profitable on every book”.

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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