(Photo: Louis du Mont/2Create/Flickr)

There is no end of coaches, agencies and columnists urging you to build your brand. But before the Internet, telling your business's story was hard: you could only buy ads in mass media or print a brochure. Then came a flood of digital marketing channels-from eBay and Facebook to blogging and Twitter. With these almost free or pay-on-performance tools, it now- for the first time, really-makes sense for SMEs to develop their own brand profiles, to create compelling and cost-effective messages for customers, prospects and others.

But now, let's take it to the next level. All the work you've been doing with branding, social media and storytelling leads to a daring next step: writing a book. Just as social media reinvigorated branding, the one-two punch of new technology and innovative models now puts book publishing within reach of even the smallest businesses.

Why a book? Because people who write books are authors , not shills. Books are tangible signs that you know what you're talking about, and that you or your team have the skills and discipline to prove it.

Before you say, "But I could never be an author," consider this: books are not a singular thing. With new print-on-demand systems from companies such as Trafford, Blurb and Lulu bringing affordable, one-off book printing to the masses, creative individuals and businesses are reinventing the nature of books. Here are a few examples:

  • A sponsor of the 2010 Winter Olympics commissioned its own book on the Games for key contacts, customers and employees.
  • A Brooklyn dry cleaner promoted itself to corporate clients through a book of photo essays called Permission to Get Dirty .
  • Companies have always sponsored corporate histories; now, they can publish books on niche topics, such as the completion of a new building.
  • A marketing firm celebrated its 10th anniversary by producing a coffee-table book of its best design innovations; clients loved displaying the book in their lobbies, which gave valuable exposure.
  • A U.K. creative agency urged friends and clients to submit names of companies and products they admire. Using this "crowd-sourced" content, it produced a contemporary handbook on innovation.
  • Instead of carrying around a loose-leaf portfolio of work, artists now publish glossy oversized books to show potential clients.
  • A chef printed up a book of his favourite fish recipes. • There's the photographer who inserted his shots of tropical beaches into a generic calendar template to create a personalized planner for clients and friends; he even makes money selling copies through a third-party print-on-demand site.
  • And then there are e-books, which are a no-cost way of distributing your company's white papers, case studies, product descriptions and staff bios.

Clearly, books are now anything you want them to be. Ebooks, for instance, have created a new market for the 40-page book-a size that old-line publishers shun. This emerging convention allows business people with some content-but not a whole book's worth-to package up what they know and sell it (or give it away) as a respectable package.

What can a book do for you? It's a prestigious souvenir to share with clients, a door-opener to send to prospects, a keepsake to share with your staff and a bragging point you can slip into conversations for years.

Few people know how cheap it really is to publish today. Self-publishing used to require you to buy 50 to 100 books to get to a doable price. No more. Blurb.com, a San Francisco-based publisher that fulfills Canadian orders through a printing company in Calgary, provides free software to help you design your book, then charges just $4.95 to print up one 20-page "pocketbook" or $24 for a 120-page hardcover with dust jacket (plus taxes and shipping-but no inventory risk!). Volume discounts apply, too. As Blurb senior vice-president Robin Goldberg notes, "This enables anyone with content to be able to put it into a book and tell their stories."

As more web-powered businesses learn to communicate better and more often, I believe they will amass huge content archives that could yield multiple books, impressing customers and prospects who still think book publishing is hard . Peter McCann, a turnaround expert in Hamilton, Ont., has self-published two books in the past 10 years. While together they've sold less than 2,000 copies, he says, they have helped raise his reputation and credibility. McCann's books don't tend to win him business, but they do help him to close the gap with bigger competitors by getting him in front of the right people more often.

Still, says McCann, creating a book is less about self-promotion than it is about self-knowledge. "I believe the most powerful impact is on the writer/entrepreneur," he says. "You're forced to examine your values, your beliefs and the basis of your behaviours." McCann says his soul-searching has helped him approach turnarounds in a more holistic way, being more mindful of their potential impact on people, jobs and families.

McCann's advice to entrepreneurs considering a book: "just do it. Sit down and start writing. You have a unique set of insights and experiences that the world, and potential readers, will never access unless you do it." Plus, the economics have never been better.

Information is current as of the original date of publication.

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