It's been a good year for Jack Welch, CEO of the world's largest company. The 64-year-old boss of the US conglomerate General Electric postponed his retirement and capped his career by gazumping rival United Technologies to strike a record-breaking dollars 45 billion deal with Honeywell, the industrial controls giant. Then he went back to his plans for retirement.
Perhaps not so widely known was the personal deal that 'Neutron Jack' struck with Warner Books for his autobiography - dollars 7.1 million (about pounds 5 million), a record sum for a one-off non-fiction book. It caused one US publisher to remark: 'Advances in excess of dollars 5 million used to be reserved for the Oval Office. Now they are going to the corner office.'
Welch has the task of a lifetime ahead of him. To earn that advance he has to shift 1.6 million copies, which means sales on a par with such UK fiction bestsellers as Captain Corelli's Mandolin or Bridget Jones's Diary. Now, Welch is every non-fiction editor's dream: the rags-to-riches story of a railway conductor's son who became the eighth-highest-paid executive in America. Renowned for his energy and his zeal for deals, he lists 'competing' as one of his hobbies. However, Richard Stagg, editor-in-chief at Financial Times Prentice Hall, says: 'I'd be surprised if even Jack Welch could move 1.6 million, with or without corporate buybacks. That's one hell of a loaded gun for someone who isn't a household name.'
Welch didn't stop there; he signed publishing deals across the world. Could his be the most exciting business biography since those of Sir John Harvey-Jones (ICI) and Lee Iacocca (Chrysler) hit the bestseller lists? 'I cannot see it being that big a book over here,' says Nicholas Clee, editor of The Bookseller magazine. 'Certainly,' counter the editors at Headline, which took the UK and Commonwealth rights to Welch's autobiography for a 'substantial six-figure sum' (although less, they point out, than the rumoured pounds 400,000). Heather Holden-Brown, non-fiction publishing director, has no doubts about Welch's marketability: 'It is incredibly exciting. It will make a mark on British publishing and will have wide appeal outside the usual business market. After all, we are all involved in business now on one level or another.'
There is little doubt the business book market is booming on both sides of the Atlantic. Observes Clare Smith, publishing director for Random House Business Books: 'Business figures in the US are seen as heroes. That wasn't the case over here, but it changed with the dot.com explosion. The pioneering spirit, the anyone-can-make-it attitude has arrived and business books are increasing in popularity.' Smith has just closed a 'big purchase' with the founders of boo.com, Ernst Malmsten and Kajsa Leander, who she says encapsulate that feeling of 'we can do anything we want, we can rule the world'. And one might add as a subtitle: 'How to burn your way through pounds 80 million in the process'.
Stagg, who is working on a title about the BMW-Rover debacle and recently published The Internet Entrepreneurs, adds: 'There is an increasing appetite for business books of the kind that feature personalities and stories, rather than bullet-point 'how to' guides.' But whereas some publishers are racing to sign up web whiz-kids, others are cautious. Says one: 'You could be signing up a big name and before the book came out the company could have crashed. Internet time is fast, while book publishing is relatively slow.'
Both editors and literary agents are coy about whose name might be on the cover of the next big business biography or autobiography. Publishers always have their eye on one or two personalities, but to tip their hand would only push up the already competitive bidding. But certain principles apply, whether the story is success or failure, from the old or new economy.
'To create a bestselling autobiography,' says Clee, 'the author needs to have appeal beyond the market in which they operate. If they are not a household name, they need to strike a chord with a wide readership - tell a story of rags to riches, of success against all odds.'
A few hard-core business readers might buy a book by a fellow manager but, according to Clee, this represents 'a small specialised group and not the kind of market that would make a book a bestseller like Lee Iacocca's.
They need to reach the wider audience and have popular appeal'. One should have a really good story to tell and have a recognisable name or product.
The power of product was demonstrated by James Dyson's autobiography Against the Odds, which was undoubtedly bought by business people, would-be inventors and people with vacuum cleaners.
But why write an autobiography? Fame and fortune? You can forget the latter. Editors and booksellers agree that we are unlikely to see business book deals of the Welch magnitude on this side of the pond. America has a bigger home market, an established culture of celebrating success and many businesses with global recognition. In addition, a business in the US is personified by its CEO, as opposed to the traditional European style of leadership by a board of 'suits'. Jack Welch is GE and GE is Jack Welch.
The most obvious UK equivalents of this phenomenon are Virgin boss Richard Branson and Body Shop's Anita Roddick - both of whom have recently published their autobiographies, respectively Losing My Virginity and Business as Unusual.
Whether for reasons of time or clarity, Branson, like most business figures, had his autobiography ghost-written. Julian Richer of Richer Sounds wrote his 'autobiographical-style' business books The Richer Way and Richer on Leadership with journalist Kate Miller. He says: 'We would sit down and plan the structure together, chapter-by-chapter. I would dictate on tape, she would ask clarifying questions, and then she would type it up. Her help was invaluable, saving me time and effort in writing it myself long-hand, because I can't type.' Richer felt that straight autobiography was pompous and conventional business books were patronising, so he opted instead to relate his life experiences to business lessons.
Branson has been the subject of at least five biographies in the past seven years. So which sells better: the biography or autobiography? 'With contemporary figures, the autobiography will almost always sell better and will certainly command the larger advance,' says Clee. There are exceptions - for example, when the biographer quotes sources 'so close that, in effect, it is seen as a memoir', as in the case of Andrew Morton's book about Diana, Princess of Wales. Or when a biography is 'most definitely' unauthorised and promises information the subject might not want to reveal, as with Michael Crick on Jeffrey Archer or Tom Bower on Branson.
Branson's earlier autobiography had the benefit of newspaper serialisation starting in The Times and the Sun the week before publication - a move that Humphrey Price, editorial director at Virgin Publishing, called 'absolutely vital'. Besides publicity it means added cash. One Sunday newspaper is reported to have paid pounds 60,000 for the rights to serialise Jonathan Aitken's memoirs.
Publishers are careful to control both the amount and the content of serialised extracts, so as not to give away all the surprises. MP and businessman Geoffrey Robinson, who sold the Daily Mail a serialisation of his autobiography The Unconventional Minister, wrote: 'The book may seem to have little in common with what has appeared in the Daily Mail. It was inevitable that the paper would concentrate initially on my loan to Peter Mandelson, and that the rest of the media would take it up in a big way. That would have happened wherever the book had been serialised. But why the Mail? The answer is quite simply that, with 4.5 million readers, it provided the best platform for getting my side of the story across.'
The true entrepreneur might want to dispense with publishers and go it alone. Richer, whose first book was published by Emap, published the second himself. 'Don't go to a publisher. Just publish the book yourself, go to a printer and then set up a distribution contract. It is much, much more lucrative,' he enthuses. This also dispenses with the need for an agent. Says Richer: 'The first time, I did employ an agent - because, although I am an entrepreneur, I knew nothing about the book trade. Having done it the first time though, I certainly didn't need to do it the second time.'
A literary agent, however, can add value and save time on deals by taking the proposal to an editor who they know will pay highly to add it to his/her portfolio. For instance, the agent for the boo.com founders took their manuscript to three editors to find a suitably large advance but also a professional with whom they felt they could work. Agents can also add value by negotiating serialisations, TV and film rights and foreign deals. But as one literary agent says: 'We are not magicians. No agent has so much clout that he can force an editor to publish a bad manuscript.'
Then there is the cost: agents take anything from 15% to 20% of the deal. For Welch's New York agent, that's a cool million.