September 20, 2018 • Adam Nemmett
With hundreds of books and other publications to our credit over the past 40 years, History Factory is uniquely positioned to share insights on what you need to consider when thinking about commissioning or writing a company history book. Here’s my top 10 “things you need to know”—based on my experience as an author—that will hopefully make your company history book journey easier and more efficient.
There are plenty of great reasons to write a book about your company’s history. “It’s our anniversary and my boss thinks we should have a book” may not be a great reason on the surface, but it’s pretty common. Whatever the case, start with your goals and then see if a book is the logical route to pursue.
If your goal is to use history to galvanize a larger social media following, perhaps your story is better told as a video series or in a mobile app, with a book providing a deeper dive for the truly engaged followers.
Maybe you’re trying to elevate your brand in the marketplace by creating a definitive portrait of decades of accomplishments. A book is an excellent option, but consider producing video content to complement the book.
Maybe you want to excite and educate your workforce and plan to give book copies to new hires on their first day. A book is an ideal keepsake, but consider pairing the book with high-impact onboarding programs that leverage some of the authentic content contained in the publication.
Or maybe you want to establish your CEO as a thought leader and a book seems like the best option. It’s a great tool, but look at the wider goal and consider the book as one important piece of a broader thought leadership campaign that includes articles placed with influencers, speaking engagements at conferences, podcasts, and webinars.
The bottom line: Don’t create a book just for the sake of creating a book. Have clear goals in mind.
It’s important to have a target audience. A great publication can engage a wide range of readers, but a commemorative pictorial history for customers is different than a comprehensive academic text aimed at scientific researchers or engineering students.
Does this book make sense displayed on a coffee table, or does it belong in a briefcase, easy to take along on trips? Do you envision it on a shelf in a reference library or on the “New & Noteworthy” rack in front of Barnes & Noble?
It’s entirely possible that your opinion differs from your colleague’s, your supervisor’s, your CEO’s. If the CMO envisions a gorgeous, image-heavy coffee-table book but the COO is counting on a text-only business manifesto, you’ve got some work to do before committing words to the page. It’s certainly possible to find a middle ground—perhaps an authoritative book that melds a compelling story with eye-catching visuals—but all stakeholders need to have a shared concept of the book, or else you risk some unpleasant surprises down the road.
We’ve covered the “what” and the “why.” Now let’s talk about how a book is written and read.
If you’re going to undertake the bold task of writing a book, make it count. A book-length piece of superficial marketing spin is basically an expensive and time-consuming doorstop that people will put down after reading the first page. Have the guts to write the substantial, authentic story—with all its ups and downs, all its compelling human drama—and you may have a winner.
Even if the subject is highly technical or scientific, don’t forget the human element. Find your characters—individuals and teams alike—and bring them to the fore. People love reading real stories about other people trying to do difficult things and occasionally failing. Truth and transparency are always respected, and customers gravitate toward brands and companies that are authentic.
Nobody wants to read hundreds of meandering pages full of disconnected anecdotes. The obvious way to structure your narrative is to craft a chronological history, but think about how you want to divide up eras. Are chapters organized strictly decade by decade, or can some major turning points serve as more natural chapter breaks, complete with cliffhangers?
Alternatively, consider building chapters using themes or audiences (Our Customers, Our Products, Our Communities) that resonate and have evolved throughout your organizational history.
Where you’re headed should guide how you write about the past. It’s the cornerstone of our business and our “Start with the Future and Work Back” philosophy. Your company history, even in book form, doesn’t technically have an “end.” You’re just setting up readers for the sequel, the next chapter, the next book in the series, the next 100 years.
It’s vital that some of the messages that power your future are evocative of the themes from your past. It should feel like a natural evolution. Draw forward the relevant pieces of your history that speak to your future communication goals.
Unless your book is explicitly intended to be text only, don’t skimp on the images. They don’t have to be only photographs, and they certainly don’t need to be all black-and-white “historical” photos. Your company’s “history” includes yesterday and this morning, so look at all the assets in your inventory of experience. Consider your artifacts, notes and other documents as fodder you can scan or photograph to add visual interest.
You may be so close to your own company story that you no longer see what’s special about it. Part of crafting a good corporate publication is choosing the right moments and characters to highlight, but another part is writing in a way that reaches the widest possible audience. Don’t dumb it down. Just use plain English and avoid corporate-speak and industry jargon. Someone outside the company who is enlisted to craft the story can look objectively at what happened—where you’ve been and where you’re going—and work with the reader in mind.
A typical timeline for producing a publication involves months or years, not weeks.
Factor in the amount of history you’re dealing with—100 years is a bit tougher than 10.
Bear in mind the kind of book you want to create—a short, image-driven book may be simpler to produce than an exhaustive 300-page publication.
Account for the complexity of your internal approval process and working team. Is it a lean team of aligned decision-makers or a sprawling, ever-changing group of stakeholders with competing priorities? We’ve seen both and can testify that a lean team can get a manuscript to the publisher significantly faster.
Working with a proven team can accelerate the process. However, a good book is not a cookie-cutter endeavor. A qualified partner will tailor the process and help energize everyone involved, as well as set up some guardrails to ensure that development of your centennial publication doesn’t drag on until your bicentennial.
Experienced authors can create a compelling story and help you avoid ending up with a self-promoting yarn or a dull-as-dishwater yawner. Make sure your partner has the chops to get your book project over the finish line. When you’re holding the finished product in your hands, you’ll know that all the effort was worthwhile.