This is now Part III—the last of the postings devoted to choosing a publisher.
Let’s take a moment to recap where we are: you have several publishing offers and have now completed your meetings with all prospective suitors. You have met with editors, marketing people, publicity-types, in some cases, you have met with a few of the presidents of the publishing imprint (that’s one way to know the publisher is taking your project very seriously).
I suggest that you keep something of a diary of your meetings. You need to know—and keep track of— the following questions:
* Which publisher had a vision for the book that most closely resembled your own? That’s key. You want to be sure—first and foremost—that you and the publisher are on the same page.
* Which editor did you click with the most? Which did you feel would devote the most vision, time, energy, and hours to your book? (hopefully, they are the same person).
* Which publicist/marketing manager did you think would do the most for your book? Which publisher is committing to an extensive bound galley mailing and would leave no stone unturned in getting attention for your book?
* Which publisher was most enthusiastic about your book? This is critical. Over the years, I have had dozens of authors tell me that they were happy they selected me because I was the most enthusiastic about their project. There’s no substitute for passion and excitement.
* Which publishing house felt the most like “home?” Ideally, you will not do only one book, you will do several. It would be great to not only find the best house, but the best “home” as well.
A couple of caveats. Even though you have to select a publisher based on the [advance and the] current cast of characters, there is no guarantee that all the people you met will still be in the same position when your manuscript is completed or your book published. Someone can get promoted, switch imprints within the same company, get fired, etc. Publishing is notorious for people playing musical chairs with their careers. There is not much you can do about this, other than be aware of this possibility and meet as many people from the imprnt as possible.
OK, the moment has come. Remember, the advance is not unimportant. If one publisher offers you a $10,000 advance, and another a $50,000 advance, you know which one you have to take (unless there is something really repulsive about that company). They see your book as a much bigger book. But if one offers $35,000 and another $50,000, that’s close enough for all of the intangibles we have discussed to be taken into account.
In the end, make sure that your final decision is not at odds with your gut. There is a lot to say about going with your gut…especially, should all else be equal.
In the last post I might have pushed the envelope when I compared the author advance to the amount guaranteed in a prenuptial agreement (if you haven’t read it please do. It’s not quite as crazy as it seems). I was trying to make a point. And that was this: selecting a publisher solely on money makes no sense, especially if you have not met or spoken to the people who would be working with you to develop your manuscript and bring it to market.
As author and editorial director, I am fortunate to know the realities of publishing from both sides of the transaction. So of course money counts. It is naive to say otherwise. But it shouldn’t [mindlessly] trump everything. I like to think there is more to publishing than an ebay auction! Returning to last week’s premise, if you did have multiple offers to publish your book, then I suggest trying the following:
* Set up meetings with each of the publishers expressing interest in your book
* Respectfully request that these meetings be as broadly attended as possible (meaning that in addition to your prospective editor, ask that publicity and marketing attend as well)
* Get in the habit of asking the right questions: what is the publisher’s vision for the book (you should of course have one also and be prepared to discuss it)? How do they plan to promote it? Will they be printing and sending bound galleys to the press? If so, how many bound galleys do they intend to print? How many copies of the book do they expect to “advance” to bookstores? That’s the number of orders they expect to rack up prior to the first print run (from Barnes & Noble, Borders, Amazon, etc., etc.).
If, for any reason, you can’t do the above in person, request conference calls with the same cast of characters. It’s not as good as in person, but it’s the next best thing.
If you do the above you will have a leg up on 95 percent of authors. In the post coming up on Wednesday I will help you to process the information in the aforementioned questions.
For the purpose of this posting, and the ones that will follow next week, we will assume that you have written an amazing business book proposal on a very timely topic and as a result, no fewer than five publishers are interested in your book. If you did indeed receive five offers for your book, the first thing you should do is break out the champagne. That’s a rare feat, indeed. The very next thing to do is figure out which publisher to go with. That’s what we will cover here and in the posts next week.
Of course, the 800-pound gorilla in the room is money. Cold hard cash. If you have a literary agent, the chances are quite strong that they he or she will recommend that you take the highest $$ offer. That makes sense. That’s how they get paid. They traditionally get ten or fifteen percent of what you get. However, as in any industry, there are some exceptional agents that will look past the money (as long as the other offer is in the same $$ ballpark), to other factors, such as editorial fit, marketing muscle, quality of the publishing house, etc. Those non-cash factors are what we will deal with next week. Today we stick with money.
What if you have no agent…should you go with the highest cash offer? Maybe. Maybe not. Remember, the money you get up front is the advance, meaning an advance against future royalties. If the book does really well, depending on the size of your advance and the royalty rate, your book will probably earn more than the original advance. And as an author, I can tell you that it feels great to get a five-figure royalty check one or two years after your book is published.
There is one situation, however, in which money almost always rules the day. And that’s when an agent, who has multiple parties intersted in a project, auctions it off to the highest bidder. In 26 years as editor and publisher, I have been involved with many book auctions. I have won some and I have lost some.
Of the latter, I have lost 99 percent of those because I was outbid (on $$$). I have tried to follow the progress of those books a year or so later when they are published. A few became national bestsellers. Some came out great because there are some great business book editors in the industry. But as often as not, the books appeared to be hastily put together, published with little editorial input, and…then…nothing. The book was either dead on arrival—because of a poor package or insufficient distribution—or lived a short life for a couple of months and then died.
Given my travel patterns, I see most of these books at O’Hare Airport. When I look at some of these, I think to myself how different the book would have turned out had I had a chance to publish it. Title, subtitle, jacket design, approach, table of contents, organization—all of these things determine the fate of a book (not to mention whether there is a market for the book in the first place, but we are assuming here that there is). It all comes down to execution. And don’t get me wrong. I can’t do half of these things myself. It’s having a really strong team around you to come up with world class ideas, titles, jackets, etc. that’s most important.
Your relationship with a publisher is something like a marriage, so it is important that you know what you are getting yourself into before signing on the bottom line. In a marriage, you would certainly meet your partner first, as well as other members of the family (even in an arranged marriage!). But in business book publishing, there are instances in which the author never meets—or even talks to—the editor on the phone (not to mention other people in the company, in marketing, publicity, etc.). Keeping with the analogy, even though it may seem like a bit of a stretch, the advance might be viewed like the money agreed to in a prenuptial agreement. If the book (marriage) does not work out, that’s the (least amount of) money you are guaranteed. What’s more important? The money, or the choice of the partner you will work with to produce your work?
More on choosing a publisher next week!
Not a day goes by without an author pitching me on one book idea or another. That’s the cost of admission in the life of an editor, and I would be lying if I didn’t say how much I love hashing out book ideas with highly imaginitive authors. As I have said in prior posts, it’s not only the idea that gets the once over, it’s how to package and position the idea into a viable business book. Title, subtitle, approach, the book architecture (i.e. table of contents and organization), the book’s tone and voice, first person vs. third person—getting these elements right is one of the keys to a strong-selling book, and their importance cannot be overemphasized. Talking all of this through with a seasoned editor is a critical early step in the publishing process.
However, there must come a time that an author has to put pen to paper and describe the book in detail in a full blown proposal or at least a “mini-proposal” (see previous posting). There is no way around this part of the process, which is the pivotal step prior to producing the manuscript. If a prospective author is a first-time author, the proposal is the first clue a publisher gets about an author’s ability to write a book.
But, some prospective authors have argued, “I have written white papers, op ed pieces for the New York Times and Wall Street Journal…surely I can write a business book.” Not necessarily. Articles and books are different animals. I have seen journalists from a leading business magazine not be able to put a cohesive and well structured book together.
It is also in the author’s best interest to start the process with a strong proposal. While a publisher is pleased to receive a well articulated proposal, it is the author that benefits the most from the submission. First, if really well executed, that proposal should garner an offer to publish the book. Also, when that proposal is circulated internally, as it invariably is, great word of mouth can create early buzz within the house, something that will pay handsome dividends down the road for that project. For example, that proposal is used to prepare other important documents such as ”tipsheets” or ”book briefs,” which are executive summaries read by sales reps and other key people such as international rights managers charged with the responsibility of selling the foreign rights of your book. And a book brief is only as good as the source used to write it.
Lastly, no matter how articulate you are, when that book is ultimately published and sitting on a store shelf, you will not be there when a prospective buyer picks it up and gives it the thumb test. There, where it matters most, it is only the written word that counts. All the great talk in the world won’t help sell the book then.
Worth checking out: One author we recently signed—thanks to our own author and superblogger—Seth Godin, is Hugh MacLeod’s Gapingvoid ”cartoons drawn on the back of business cards” (book proposal 657). Hugh takes the lighter side of what it takes to write a business book proposal, and is unique in his use of cartoons to convey his message. His work is legendary, and he helps to illustrate some of Seth’s works. Here is a Q&A put to Seth after Hugh completed work on The Dip, and then read Meatball Sundae. Seth’s answers form the basis of an interesting book proposal.
Picking up where we left off Monday, it will come as little surprise that we (Portfolio) ended up making a very fast bid on the Nice Guys book (the book forever became known as the “nice guys book” within our company). We worked for weeks, perhaps months on perfecting the title (it took less time to edit the book!). The final title we all agreed was best for the books was:
Eight Strategies for Winning in Business without Being a Jerk
That title really tells the story of the book. It is important to be nice, but managers have to draw lines, establish acceptable levels of performance, etc. The key is finding the balance between being nice and not being an ass____. That title says all of that. The book also received some strong endorsements, inlcuding one from Stephen R. Covey, author of the 15-million copy seller, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. When you get an endorsement in that league, you put it on the cover of the book (with the endorser’s approval), as we did with this book.
The book will be published in two weeks, and will help answer the question: does a great business book proposal translate into a great book? And how about book sales? We will have those answers in a few months and I will keep you posted. No one is more vested in the success of this book as I am, not counting, of course, my favorite authors from the firm of Edelman, Hiltabiddle and Manz.
One more thing: before this became a book it was an article in The Harvard Business Review. That’s a great way to establish a foundation for a book—and that was how the authors were able to paint such a vivid picture of the finish line. They already conducted a great deal of research. However, not all articles are books. Some articles are just articles and it is the job of the editor to discern the difference. HBR, though, is in a class of its own. Many of the pieces published there turn into books. But it isn’t only HBR that can help give birth to a book.
The first book I ever wrote was inspired by a single sentence that appeared in an Op Ed piece that I wrote for The Wall Street Journal, commenting on Jack Welch’s selection of Jeff Immelt as a successor (that book was called The Jack Welch Lexicon of Leadership). I had written “Jack Welch had done more to advance the leadership body of knowledge, he had created his own lexicon.” That prompted my boss to come running into my office declaring “there’s a book there.”
A new feature on the site: I have been doing more pre-dawn surfing, when I do my best work, actively looking for more publishing Websites that appeal to the same kind of people that read this site. First up: Joe Wikert’s 2020 publishing blog, subtitled: A Book Publisher’s Future Visions of Print, Online, Video, and all Media Formats Not Yet Invented. He has some great stuff on what it is like to be an author and ghostwriter and other cool links to great “inside-publishing” pieces.
There is no such thing as a perfect book proposal. However, not long ago I received one that captured my attention immmediately, despite its somewhat repetitive title. It was called:
NICE GUY STRATEGIES: NICE IS NOT ENOUGH-NICE GUY STRATEGIES FOR BUSINESS SUCCESS by Edelman, Hiltabiddle, and Manz (which sounded more like a law firm than an author team).
The proposal started with this:
“Myth or reality…Do nice guys really “finish last”? Can nice guys succeed in business? Must one surrender one’s “niceness” in order to secure the coveted corner office and a rich compensation package? What does “nice” really mean? More pointedly, does success in business come at the cost of being nice?”
Those first few sentences resonated with me immediately, since I always wondered if my being too nice made me a less effective manager. Did I avoid confrontation at the cost of performance? Did I let some people get away with things I shouldn’t have? Did I run a tight enough ship?
But it wasn’t the subject matter that made this such a terrific proposal, although that helped. It was the way the authors had thought out the entire book, and, like a skilled courtroom litigator, had laid out the case for the book step by step.
Since so many people ask me how to write a really good book proposal I thought it important to have a model that prospective authors could refer to whenever they wanted. To view it, go to the home page of this site and scroll down, and click on the “Stand Out” button.
Take some time to see how the authors put it together. This is a lengthy one so keep in mind that yours does not have to be nearly as long. To find out exactly what we did when we received this proposal-come back Wednesday. That’s when you will find out:
- If we won the publishing rights to the book,
- What the final title turned out to be,
- And when the book is going to be published.
Here is Part II of the Kryptonite piece—book topics that are mostly avoided by seasoned business book editors. To reiterate, I am not saying that there have not been bestsellers in these areas—there have been; it’s just that these topics—as well as the ones discussed in Part I of this posting—have proven to be over-published, tired, or just difficult to package (e.g. right title, cover, etc.). Still, there are many books published in these categories year in and year out, by optimistic editors hoping to buck the trend. Perhaps the most published area is the first one below:
* Books on creativity or innovation: Every so often one of these books hit a home run, although it is far more difficult today than it was say, a decade ago. Drucker wrote the first book on innovation in 1985: Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Clay Christensen published the huge bestseller The Innovator’s Dilemma in 1997. Since then, it has been downhill for innovation books. Yet publishers and authors continue to toss their hat into this ring. Type in “innovation” at Amazon and one gets more than 248,000 hits. There is no doubt that innovation is the key to any firm’s future. But, like ethics, managers probably consider themselves to be fine innovators, and don’t need a book to teach them what they already know. That’s why the vast majority of creativity or innovation books disappoint their publishers.
* Advertising and Branding books: For some reason, publishers love books on branding. Maybe because they feel like they are in the branding business: publishing 100 books is like creating 100 new brands each season. But the reality is that there aren’t enough people out there buying books on branding to make the category robust. We get tons of proposals on branding as do all business book publishers, I am sure. The reality is that the entire sales and marketing shelf is smaller than the management/leadership bookshelf, and by quite a bit. That’s why buyers of business books for the largest retailers are wary of branding books. They seldom go out in big enough numbers to turn them into bestsellers. But there are exceptions. Portfolio’s Seth Godin publishes hit after hit in books on marketing and branding—but the super-blogger is in a class of his own.
* Day Trading Books: In the mid-1998 the electronic day trader was born (with a book with the same name). I was publisher of McGraw-Hill’s finance publishing program when we published the first two books on day trading. We forecasted that we would sell 7,500 copies of the first book on the topic, which was fewer than 200 pages and a whopping $35. The Electronic Day Trader went on to sell more than 150,000 copies, as did the second book, How to Get Started in Electronic Day Trading. Within 18 months there were more than fifty books published on the topic from two dozen different publishers trying to cash in on the biggest craze in years. Then came the NASDAQ crash of 2000. Since 90 percent of the stocks that day-traders bought and sold were NASDAQ stocks, that wiped out tens of thousands of day traders and sunk the field. Like so many other instances (e.g. such as microcomputer books in the early 1980s), publishers over-published the field, and were left holding the bag when the party came crashing down.
* Business Books for Gen-Xers: A few of these have sold well. One great example is Quarterlife Crisis. But it really is one out of a thousand of these books in this area that makes it. The truth is that people in their twenties are not avid business book buyers. But when one comes along that really speaks to them, they will turn out in numbers to buy them. Quarterlife Crisis sold about 150,000 copies, which is a business book bestseller by most any standard (by the way, who knew that they so many people have a crisis that early in their lives?).
* 401k books: Hardly anyone thinks they need a book on 401ks. They are probably right. Most companies offer a small menu of funds and people think they can figure it out for themselves. However, the average breadwinner between the ages of 62 and 65 has only a little more than $100,000 in 401k money. (Maybe they needed a book after all). One book that is bucking the trend in this category is Daniel Solin’s The Smartest 401k Book You’ll Ever Read. That book is published by Perigree, a division of Penguin (the publisher I work for and write for).
That’s it for this two-parter. For all aspiring authors in search of their first book idea, you may be well advised to avoid these ten areas. Questions or comments? Please send them along and I will answer them.
In Monday’s post I discussed how even brand-name CEOs don’t sell books like they used to. That got me thinking. There are a whole host of topics that usually don’t sell anymore. I present these subjects in general terms, meaning that the chances of launching a new break-out book in any of these categories is not great. That does not mean that there haven’t been bestsellers in these areas over the years—or that there won’t be in the future. Nor does it mean that these are not subjects that people aren’t intensely interested in. It just means that these book topics sound a lot better than they sell. Here they are, in no apparent order. I will include five today—and five more on Friday:
* Business Books on Work/Life Balance: People don’t want to have to buy a book to achieve balance in life. Most people think they can have balance by working less and leaving the Blackberry out of the dining room at dinner time. Also, this is an area that publishers burnt out all by themselves. Too many books in the 1990s and early 2000s promised readers to teach them how to balance their checkbooks and their lives at the same time. Now business book buyers from the big chains are looking for something else—anything else. One current stong selling titie that touches on this topic and bucks this trend is Portfolio’s Juggling Elephants: An Easier Way to Get Your Most Important Things Done— Now, by Jones Loflin and Todd Musig.
* Managing Teams: This was a huge topic in the 1990s. Individualism was dead. Teams were the rage. How to manage them, lead them, organize them, settle conflicts. Anything and everything related to teams was hot. One of the hottest books of them all was The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High Performance Organization, by John Katzenbach and Douglas Smith (Harvard Business School Press), which came out in late 1992. Other publishers cashed in by bringing out their own teams books (publishers often pile on when something works). Today, at least when it comes to business books, teams are dead. Long live the individual. One exception: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable. (although the title tells you something about what’s happened to the category).
* ”Global” investing books: Let me be clear—I do not mean books on globalization (e.g. Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat). I mean books that tell you how to invest overseas. I have probably received more than a hundred proposals on this topic over the years. Most business book publishers have tried to publish at least one global investing book, sold a dismal thousand copies before vowing not to touch this area again. Most investors feel that owning one international fund in their 401k has them covered on the topic (more on 401ks in the next posting).
* Books on negotiating: Again, there are exceptions here, but overall, negotiating books do not sell very well. Most people think they are either fantastic negotiators or awful negotiators—beyond help. There is no middle ground at all. That means that people in both camps feel that a book won’t help them hone their skills. Getting to Yes, by Roger Fisher and William Ury (Penguin paperback) is still the king of the negotiating books. It really tells you something about a category when its bestseller can be traced back so many years. The original hardcover of the book was published more than a quarter century ago, in 1981, the year before In Search of Excellence was published.
* Anything with “ethics” or ”values,” in its title: these are important topics, and they should be chapters in other books (all of my books have a section or a chapter on values). But almost everyone feels that they don’t need to be taught anything on ethics, thank you very much. Most people feel that they are ethical and they have values and don’t need to buy a book on the topic. However, people still feel an intense need to write on this topic. I get tons of book propoals that fall into this category.
Stay tuned: Part II comes out on Friday with five more book topics that people aren’t that interested in anymore.
We have quietly entered a new era in the world of business book publishing—one in which a robust category of business book publishing has all but disappeared. While business book sales continue to hold up fairly well despite a housing bubble and $140+ per barrel oil, the Enron era intervened and revealed to the world the feet of clay of many chief executives. As a result, celebrity CEOs—who a decade ago were one of the surest things in the industry –have gone the way of rotary phones and the Selectric typewriter.
Brand name chief executives have left the building—literally and figuratively. As a result, business book publishers can no longer put names like “Gates” (Microsoft) and ”Welch” (GE), “Kelleher” (Southwest Airlines) and “Ellison” (Oracle) on books and wait for the money to roll in. Those good times might be gone forever…or at least, a long while.
Ironically, 60 years ago Peter Drucker wrote that no organization could survive if it depended on a CEO superman to run the place. However in 1990s, larger-than-life figures celebrity CEOs like Michael Dell, Andy Grove, and especially Jack Welch emerged as the super-class—marquee names that guaranteed strong “box office” sales in bookstores. Jack Welch was the king, inspiring two dozen books with combined sales of roughly two million copies translated into some two dozen languages (I wrote three of them and edited six others).
When Welch finally wrote his own book, Jack: Straight from the Gut, it sold about a million copies. Even Welch’s friend and #2 at GE, Larry Bossidy, who is certainly not a household name, also sold most of a million copies of the book he co-authored with Ram Charan, Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done. Those books were published in 2001 and 2002 respectively.
Now, half a dozen years later, we have run out of the kind of CEOs capable of delivering sales in the tens and hundreds of thousands. There are a few exceptions, but they are few and far between. Steve Jobs is a compelling figure, but you can’t do a book on him without hearing from some legal department (even if the book is a mostly positive portrayal of the Apple founder, like Portfolio’s Inside Steve’s Brain). Warren Buffett is another exception. But he costs a fortune. When word got out that former Morgan Stanley analyst Alice Schroeder was writing a Buffett book with his complete cooperation, Bantam paid an incredible $7 million for the book (strangely titled The Snowball. We countered with Even Buffett isn’t Perfect by Forbes’ Vahan Janjigian). A $7 million advance, which was roughly the same Welch received for his first book, was unprecedented for a mere mortal/writer. One could understand the advance if it was Buffett himself writing the book, but he is only cooperating with the author. The fact that a publisher is willing to pay so much for someone with access to a celebrity CEO only proves the point that an authentic celebrity CEO with big box office appeal is an incredibly rare commodity these days.