How to write a Sustainability book
I’ve written five books on business and Sustainability, all of which I’m pretty proud of, and I know first hand how much effort goes in to putting a book together. I’m constantly on the lookout for new books on the subject to expand my thinking, open up new possibilities and inspire me. And every so often, a publisher will get in touch to ask whether I’d review a new book for them.
The problem is, many of these are pretty crap.
I generally take the line that, unless a review is adding something to your knowledge (you, the reader of this blog), then its not worth my time to rip apart someone else’s work for the sake of it. Yes, I will argue against ideas I disagree with – that’s all part of the great Sustainability debate, but when a volume is just downright poor, I just tell the publisher I won’t be reviewing it after all.
Having made this decision after wading through 4 uninspiring chapters of such a book last week on holiday, I thought I’d share some ideas for putative authors:
- Have something new to say: there are loads of Sustainability books out there – why is yours going to stand out? Do you have a new technique (like my Green Jujitsu), a new model (e.g. Doughnut Economics) or is there a genuine gap in the market (my Building a Sustainable Supply Chain)? Just sharing your experience is probably not going to hold anyone’s attention unless you have something new to say.
- Stick to the premise of that core idea. One of the biggest disappointments for me was John Elkington’s Zeronauts – a great concept, but between the covers it’s a bog standard Sustainability book, quickly losing focus on the power of ‘zero’ as a target. In fact the only section really digging into the whole ‘zero’ concept was written by somebody else. I had the same problem with Frugal Innovation – nice idea but the ‘frugal’ bit quickly got lost amongst the usual case study suspects. Such divergence really pisses me off.
- Do some research! One of the reasons I gave up on the latest review book was that so many sections were waaaaaay behind the curve of Sustainability thinking. If you still think Sustainability is ‘a balance between people, profit and planet’ then you need to go back to school, because that ship sailed a long time ago. You need to be up to date and understand that some concepts (e.g. the circular economy, product-service systems) are more fundamental than many commentators give credit for, so make sure you explore them properly. If you are quoting case studies, check whether they are still successful – some apparently great ideas die an early death.
- Write for the reader. It doesn’t matter how great your idea is, if you can’t communicate it, it ain’t worth jack. One book I refused to review purported to introduce a new concept, but the author didn’t bother to define it until 4/5ths of the way through leaving me baffled as I ploughed through badly-written chapter after badly-written chapter trying to work out what it all meant. Be prepared to do at least one major restructure to straighten out the narrative. If you can’t get a paragraph to work, select the whole thing and hit delete. Try reading tricky sections out loud. Let somebody else have a read through and flag up where they get lost.
- Respect the reader. As well as sticking to your chosen topic, don’t mess around with the reader. A jocular tone can grate. Jokes are very hard to pull off and best avoided – as are tricks. I once was given a book whose first line admitted that the book’s title was nonsense, saying it was just a lure to get the reader to read it (ha bloody ha, plonk). Don’t sneer at others (especially the general public), or assume that the reader will share your political outlook. Be generous and thoughtful.
Glad to get all that off my chest!