In the last post I talked about how most business book editors don’t edit books anymore. After reflection I think I was too hard on my colleagues. After all, for more than two decades, I was one of those over-worked editors I described, turning out some 25 books a year for a large publishing company/imprint.
While it is true that there wasn’t much time for editing (I was too busy searching for viable authors and book projects), I always managed to find time for those books that really got my juices flowing. Whether it was in five a.m. sessions or on weekends, I line edited the books that had the most potential and needed the most work (in that order).
I remember, for example, seven consecutive weekends one winter, donning a winter coat in unheated publishing offices to rewrite a book on Jack Welch that was badly in need of an overhaul (it was worth it–it ultimately sold 175,000 copies). The point is that if I could find time to edit, so could dozens of other over-worked business book editors who are no less dedicated to their craft than I am. I certainly have no monpoly on hard work or dilligence, but when I worked for those companies—the ones turning out books by the boatload—the demands of the job did force me to pick and choose which books I would spend the most time on.
I guess when push comes to shove, you need to sit down with your editor—or prospective editor—and have a candid, one-on-one talk about what he or she is willing to bring to the book from an editorial perspective. Perhaps you need to think of it like marriage. You know how they say when you marry a person you marry his or her whole family? The same is true in publishing. When you “marry” an editor, you marry the whole family, so make sure you are comfortable with the other people in the organization, and not only in editorial, but in marketing and publicity as well. This entails requesting a meeting with these key folks before you sign the publishing contract. If, for any reason, your editor, cannot or will not set up a meeting with key individuals in other departments that’s not a good sign. The best publishing organizations are only too happy to open its doors and set up a meeting with key members of editorial, publicity and marketing. If your publisher won’t be as open you may opt to select another publisher.
One of the biggest complaints authors have about their publisher is that “no one edits anymore. I turned in my manuscript and they published it pretty much as is.” Given the current state of business book publishing, it is no wonder. Remember that there are more than 10,000 business books published each year. This means that the majority of business book editors are forced to sign (mean, commit authors to a contract) 20+ books per year. Even if these very busy editors had the requisite talent to edit every line of a manuscript, where would he or she get the time to do it? If they do find the time, these editors are forced to focus on just a few of the “biggest” books of the year.
The concept of editors not editing, quite naturally, confuses authors. However, part of this can be cleared up by clarifying our terms. The editors that business book authors work with are actually “acquisition editors.” The chief goal for an acquiring editors is to identify and sign a certain number of authors/books each year. It is in publishing houses that publish hundreds of business books per year that editors are the most taxed (acquire 20+ books each year).
In top tier publishing companies/imprints, the overall approach and publishing strategy of the house is opposite of those houses churning out hundreds of titles per year. At top tier houses editors usually are asked to publish about a dozen books per year (or one a month). That’s a world of difference than 20+ books because it allows editors at these houses to work closer with authors to develop, edit and help shape a manuscript. Speaking from experience, I have spent up to six weeks editing, line by line, word by word, a single key book. But all of the books we publish (and books published at other top tier houses) are edited in similar fashion. So we don’t just acquire, we also edit books to make sure they meet key standards and also have the chance to “break out” (they also receive top tier marketing, but I will leave that for a future posting).
So if you are searching for a publisher, two great questions to ask your editor are these:
1. How many business books does your house publish each year?
2. How many books do you (meaning the editor) acquire each year?
If the first answer is in the hundreds, and the second more than twenty, then you may want to search for another publishing house where you can be assured that your book will get the attention it so richly deserves.
In the last post I gave step-by-step instructions on preparing a book proposal that could impress even the most skeptical business book editor (if executed to precision). There are many layers to this process and many small things that can make a huge difference in the eyes of a publisher. Here are more tips, in no strategic order, that have made a difference in the many hundreds of book proposals that I have evaluated over the years:
* Letterhead: this could seem to be the most trivial thing in the world. However, proposals that come to me on plain white paper with no letterhead have short lives. The same is true for cheap-looking letterhead. Many of the best business proposals come from authors who occupy high positions in their firms and the letterhead is the first indicator of that. Even if sent via email, it is best to get a high-quality, visual letterhead even if it is only going to be scanned into your electronic proposal. I can’t tell you the number of proposals that were ultimately rejected after eyeballing that first, hapless page.
* Your cover letter: this sets the tone for the proposal. You want to really pique the editor’s intetest by writing a brief letter (1 to 2 pages) describing the book “package.” The package refers to everything—the theme(s) of the book, the author’s profile, the hook of the book—everything that makes the offering viable. You should outline—point by point—each and every key item that makes the book publishable (that’s not a real word, but it should be). Use bold to emphasize the book’s title, your previous successful books and their respective sales numbers. But do not go overboard. I distrust overwrought cover letters emblazoned with line after line of italicized and bolded words.
* Highlight the research/findings (if you have any): within your description, or in a separate section (depending upon how significant your research is), describe your findings. Some of the best business books of all time—from In Search of Excellence—to Good to Great—were based on extensive research studies conducted over years, not months. This kind of material can lend great credibility to your proposal. If you have it, flaunt it, and don’t bury it so an editor has to search for it.
* Press clippings and media hits: remember with 300,000 books published each year and more than 10,000 business books, the hardest task for a publisher is to garner attention for any book. This is especially true in the electronic, you-tube era, in which books (which take more than six months to produce) must battle electronic media where the flow of information is immediate. Anything you can send to a publisher that demonstrates your news-worthinesss—or the news-worthiness of your book topic—will make an enormous difference. However, it will work against you if the articles are old, from say, the 1980s (I have even received clipppings from the Nixon years). You need to demonstrate your relevance today, so articles or TV appearances (via DVD or tape) must be from the last five years or so. If you have some powerful ones, like an op ed in The New York Times or Wall Street Journal, put those items up near the front of your submission. Editors love this stuff and for good reason.
* Titling your submission: I mentioned this before but it is worth emphasizing again. We in publishing agonize over titles and subtitles for days and nights on end. A truly compelling, thought-provoking title can make a huge difference. Think about some of the best-selling business books of all time, like: The One Minute Manager, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, or The Millionaire Next Door. I doubt that most of these proposals came in with these titles, but imagine how persuasive they would be if they did. If you are having trouble titling your book, go to Amazon.com and pull up business best-sellers (double-click on best-sellers and then hit business). This may help you to come up with the right title for your book, even if it doesn’t end up being the final title.
* Stay focused: It’s really important that you tell us what the book is about right at the outset and stay on message. I have seen countless proposals that either rambled (leaving me to search for the point of the book), or started out strong before going straight off the rails by straying from the main theme of the book. Like a high-priced attorney, you need to be constantly building a convincing case. You must pile evidence upon evidence on why your book will succeed while the majority of business books do not.
* Your bio: this is another important opportunity that many authors throw away. Your bio should be limited to no more than half a page in length. Just the highlights, please. Three-page vitaes are death. A muIti-page bio makes any author look like too much of an academic (because a long resume often includes descriptions of published journal articles and the minutia about various teaching assignments) or someone who is insecure because he lists every job he ever had since college. Highlight only key positions (COO of IBM is perfect); your best-selling books or better-selling books (if there are any); and just major highlights of your academic career (if they are impressive and pertinent).
I hope this helps. If you have any specific questions on any of this, please don’t be afraid to write to me. Also let me know if there are any specific topics you want to see covered in future posts.
On occasion a prospective author comes to me while he or she is in the middle of writing a business book. These prospective authors almosts always ask the same question: “should I finish writing the book before sending it to you?” My answer is always the same: “No, send me the preface, table of contents and three of your favorite chapters, and I will review that.”
When a top tier business publisher receives a complete manuscript from an author, it is most often rejected Not always. But most times. And it isn’t because the sender is a bad writer. The quality of writing is of course important, but when it comes to business books, it isn’t the critical factor. That’s because poor writing can be improved through a myriad of ways (which will be the topic of a future posting). The key is the selection of the topic, the book architecture (outline or table of contents), how the book is positioned, titled, and executed.
Business books are consumer products, and to be successful they have to meet some need in the marketplace, whether that need is perceived or not. Business books can also create a need where there wasn’t any. For example, what need was met when The Four-Hour Workweek (Tim Ferriss, Crown), or Wikinomics (Don Tapscott, Portfolio) was published? The key is that these books deal with some very real and vital changes taking place in our world, and more specifically, in the way we work.
The key is to write on a compelling and/or informative subject in which you have some special insider knowledge or expertise. However, by working closely with an experienced book editor from the outset, you substantially increase your chances of success. That’s because a talented editor can:
* Come up with a great publishing idea for you
* Help mold an unworkable book idea into a viable one
* Rewrite your notes or a draft proposal into a final one
* Closely collaborate with you throughout the writing process—sometimes chapter-by-chapter
* Help you to find your “voice” in tone, style and level
And those are only for starters. The sooner you get to work with a business editor the better your chances of not only coming up with a viable project, but one that has the chance to make a real impact in a crowded marketplace.
Many people wonder what it takes to get published. Is it harder to get a business book published today—than say, ten or twenty years ago? That’s a tough question. On one hand, a business author needs a bigger platform than ever to make a book successful.
Platform is a word used ad nauseum in the business book industry to denote an author’s ability to make a book a hit. Someone who gives zillions of speeches and has email lists of millions of clents has a great platform to sell his or her book. So do the Malcolm Gladwells (The Tipping Point, Blink) and the Michael Lewis’ (Liars Poker, Moneyball) of the world. Editors would gladly offer millions for the next book by one of these authors, even without a proposal.
But I think publishers are getting too caught up on the platform and not enough on the quality of the idea. It’s a bit like the movie industry where sequels run rampant because the studios don’t want to take risks so they take the path of least resistance and go with proven brands (Pirates of the Caribbean, Raiders of the Lost Ark—even with a near 66-year-old Harrison Ford, see indianajones.com).
Those of us fortunate enough to be in the publishing field, work—and live—in an industry that surrounds us with new and compelling concepts. It is not an overstatement to say that we are in the idea business, the extent of which continues to surprise me to this day.
The quality of an idea can, and often does, rule the day. In other words, you don’t need to be Jim Cramer and have a stock-picking TV program to write a credible book on investing. And you don’t need to be Jack Welch—the former near-legendary CEO of GE— to write a management book. But you do need the proper credentials, and you do need a fresh, new idea. How can you tell if your idea is fresh enough?
You have to do the legwork.
Spend time studying the business books in the biggest bookstore in your neighborhood. Go on-line, to places like Amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com. Type in key words that describe your book idea, and see what comes up. If there are many similar books to yours already published, or soon-to-be- published, do not depair. That could be a good thing. There are some topics that are very popular and can support many books on the same topic (as long as you take a new and unique angle on the subject).
On the other hand, If you find nothing at all that resembles your topic, that could be good or bad. Perhaps you came up with something no one has ever thought to write about, or, more likely, your topic might be too much of a niche —or a niche of a niche—to be viable. Talking to a seasoned business book editor can help you figure out which is most likely.
Lastly, and perhaps more important, write about something that inspires you. If you write about a topic that you are passionate about, you are sure to produce a better book. I am passionate about Peter Drucker. That’s because I know he came up with most of the best business ideas of the last century. Almost all of the best business books of the last 25 years owe their provenance to Peter Drucker in one way or another, whether the authors realize it or not.
if you follow your passion you won’t lose your way. And working side-by-side with the publisher to actively sell and promote the book is key. Like my boss at Portfolio (Adrian Zackheim) likes to say, no author should do anything so foolish as leave the entire marketing campaign to their publisher. Best selling authors work closely with their publishers to promote their book. They give speeches on the book, making purchase of it mandatory for all audience attendees, tell all their clients about the book, develop websites like this one (Portfolio author Seth Godin is king of the book-selling-bloggers, see sethgodin.com). Some even hire their own outside publicist to hype the heck out of the thing. All of these activities helps garner the book the attention it deserves. Remember, there are almost 300,000 books published each year in this country, and it takes quite a bit for a book to break out (see my blog “Business Books by the Numbers,” Part I and Part II below for more on this).
In the last post I gave some perspective on how big the business category is vs. other non-fiction categories, like art or self-help. Let’s take a step back and look at the bigger picture, the publishing industry as a whole.
In the “old days” of say, the late 1980’s and 1990s, I would explain to some authors that there were “55,000 books published each year in the U.S., and less than a quarter of those ever make it into a bookstore.” (That was a canned speech I used to give to irrationally exuberant authors so they would know what they were up against). This number included the kitchen sink of books (including Teaming a Product and a Global Market: A Canadian Marconi Company Success Story—Library of Flight Series); every title imaginable, including those self-published books that you might find advertised in the back of specialty publications like “Gun and Ammo” magazine https://store.intermediaoutdoors.com/shop/Default.aspx.
Somewhere along the line, say, around the year 2000, we learned that the 55,000 number was a low-ball figure. The actual number of books published each year was a whopping 175,000 books (and you can imagine what percentage of those make it into your local bookstore).
Now comes news that even the 175,000 book number is way low. According to Publisher’s Weekly, the actual number is closer to 300,000 books published annually in the U.S. How many of those are business books? Probably more than 10,000, and once again, that figure includes all self-published works (see http://www.lulu.com/), of which, only a fraction ever darken the doorstep of a bookstore (especially the coveted airport booksores, most of which can’t handle more than a hundred or two business titles).
This explains, at least in part, why it is so difficult to create a break-out book business book. There is so much noise and din and books that slice the pie so narrowly, that it takes something pretty spectacular to rise above it all. That’s why the top tier business book imprints publish fewer books than many other publishers. By focusing all of their marketing and publicity resources on say, just 2-4 books per month, top tier imprints can maximize the chances that those books will garner the attention they so desperately need to distinguish themselves in today’s hyper-competitive marketplace.