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How Author Indecision Leads to Missed Opportunities

Thoughts on the downsides of dithering while writing a topical business book—or paying someone to do it for you.

Going All Obscure

Kierkegaard once said, “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”

I was thinking of the Danish philosopher’s timeless quote the other day when a new book dropped. Unlike most new releases, I was especially interested because I played a role in it—sort of.

As COVID-19 was getting real last March, I was working on ghostwriting project. To be blunt, it was not going well. (I detailed some of the particulars of that writing project here.) 

Despite months of back-and-forth of gentle suggestions and recommendations, James—a pseudonym—couldn’t decide on the type of book we were writing. (Memoir? Company biography? Prescriptive business book?) As the project progressed, things started getting testy. James, the publisher, and I had had several come-to-Jesus discussions. I thought that we had finally turned the corner.

I soon hit a key project milestone and turned in a near-final chapter of about 5,000 words. In a Groundhog Day moment, James once again vacillated on the overall direction, title, synopsis, audience, and overall tone of the book. You know, little things. If you think that trying to hit an amorphous target frustrates ghostwriters and creative types in general, trust your instincts.

Part of me wanted to unleash my inner Don Draper on him, but I held off. #maturity

Still, in a move that surprised exactly no one at that tense point, I invoked the termination clause in our contract. During our regular Monday morning call, I politely told the publisher and James that they should find someone else.1

Not to worry, though. I promised to spend the next two days combing through my inbox. I would then forward dozens of e-mails and attachments to my eventual replacement. (Yes, I’m joking. I insisted from the get-go that we use Slack so that future project members could view all content and correspondence.)

18 Months Later …

I’m a bit surprised that the book has seen the light of day. I haven’t read it, but I saw its cover, title, description, and table of contents. From those elements, I deduced the following six things:

  • Despite a clunky subtitle, the end product appears to be very professional. (Given what James was spending on the project, I expected nothing less.)
  • The book’s genre, subject, and structure don’t resemble the fourth and “final” outline on which we had agreed last March before I pulled the plug. No shocker here.
  • At some point, James stopped dithering and landed on a final concept.
  • James’s last-minute idea to add a coda about managing during the pandemic morphed into the book’s fulcrum.
  • Some of the foundational work that I did with him miraculously survived myriad edits and made it into print.
  • To be sure, I have encountered plenty of tricky writing clients over the years. Nonetheless, I would have lost my marbles if I had continued working with James.

A few weeks ago, I sent James a quick congratulatory note. If he is satisfied with the final product, then nothing else matters. Maybe he needed to burn through a ghostwriter or three to finally land on the core message of the book. I can draw strong parallels here with my days as enterprise-system consultant, but that’s a post for another day.

From what I gathered, the core message behind James’s book seems pretty anodyne. Its title is identical to another book launched this past February. Also, its cover imagery apes that of a bestselling book on remote work from nearly a decade ago. I’d bet that the publisher noticed each these problems but, after a 24-month pregnancy, just wanted to give birth.

Say, however, that you ignore those three facts. The odds that book sales will exceed the average of 250-300 copies for non-fiction titles in its first year are remote. (#tipyourwaitress)

Books with “remote work” in title on Amazon as October 4, 2021

Simon Says: The costs of inaction and indecision are real.

Of this much I am certain: Thanks to James’s dillydallying, his debut is late to the party. The idea of a book on the topic isn’t exactly rare these days. Some authors of these books even appeared on Conversations About Collaboration. As a result, I’d wager on each of the following:

  • At least half of the books on remote work arrived in the past year. It’s a reasonable guess: Twenty percent of them dropped in the last 90 days.
  • All things being equal, newer titles on the subject will sell worse than seasoned ones because the former face stiffer competition. That goes double if, like James, the author just joined the author club.
  • Amazon ads for books on remote work and related keywords cost more than they did a year ago.

Brass tacks: Despite these realities, James’s title could still blow up. If he was more decisive, however, his book would have launched a year ago. As such, his odds of selling oodles of copies would be far greater than they are today.


  1. A prime example of how, when delivering a difficult message, the medium matters as much as the message.

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