One of the things about writing for small businesses is that so much of the advice is timeless and has been repeated endlessly over the years with very few changes.
A few months ago, I was approached by a publisher I’d worked with before about co-authoring updates to one of their prestigious Business Start-Up Guides that was first published over 30 years ago. In many ways it was similar to the book I was commissioned to co-author in 2015 so we all thought this would be a good fit.
The commissioning editor explained that the book had been updated every couple of years and was aiming for a “light edit” and stressed that it was important to stay with the original format. The original author had to be consulted and agree to all the updates. The editorial board had to approve the expenditure.
After reading all 450 pages of the start up guide it was clear that although some parts had been updated over the years, a lot of it hadn’t and I ended up with 17 pages of suggested updates.
It seemed obvious to me that we couldn’t talk about “manning the office” or about using cash and cheques and printing invoices as though that was normal when most business banking is now done via mobile apps. The book still had a definite flavour of the internet being a new thing.
The more I spoke to the publisher the more it became clear that we were on different paths. Updating the facts would have been easy but the real challenge was the tone and the language of the original which I felt was very patronising, outdated and out of touch with today’s world.
The phrase “Many people regard salespeople as liars cheats and commercial vultures”, didn’t feel at all helpful when many small businesses need to get over their fear of selling. “It often requires an unreasonable owner to dragoon unwilling employees to produce the impossible”, doesn’t reflect most people’s view of good leadership these days and suggesting that offering employees a bicycle instead of a pay rise might be a good incentive just seems bizarre.
After many discussions, with me giving more and more detail of the changes I felt were necessary, we eventually agreed we weren’t a good fit after all and parted company.
In some ways the advice about setting up a business hasn’t changed but the world has. The book was written at a time when Equity, Sustainability and Governance were not in the language of start up businesses. Diversity, Equality, Inclusion and Belonging were only a vague reference to discrimination laws in recruitment. The huge switch to on-line working, cyber security and data protection weren’t a thing, and the impact of AI couldn’t have been imagined.
I suppose I could have done a light edit, updated the facts, and got my name on a prestigious book but it didn’t feel right to ignore so many issues that I know are important to the business owners I work with every day.
The wider moral and ethical issues that I know many business owners are passionate about — and in many cases why they start their own businesses — affect everything from choosing a sustainable web site hosting company to ethical banking options, not to mention the enormous implications of using social media, when the divisive impact they have had on the world is all financed by businesses that choose to advertise on those platforms.
In one way (my ego!) I was sorry to let it go but now I’m wondering if those 17 pages of notes could be the start of a different type of book …