People have often asked me what is the best month(s) to publish a business book? For as long as I can remember, my answer has been the same: September and January. I never did any in-depth research to find out if they truly were, but naturally accepted it to be true.
September is strong because it is the back-to-school month. And ever since we were kids, we are accustomed to learning new things in September. It is also after the three-month summer break, a time that for a very long time was known as months not to publish business books. Most executives are on vacation in the summer, and they don’t want to take Jack Welch and the 4E’s of Leadership to the beach! (that’s not true anymore. Today, books published in summer months often do very well).
January is a great month for business books because it is New Year’s resolution month, the time people promise themselves to lose weight, stop imbibing, and to become better and more educated at what they do. Booksellers like January, too, and often do big promotions for New Year’s resolution-type books, like personal finance books. People often make resolutions to improve their financial lives in the year ahead, so what better months for books to help them get going?
So there is no misunderstanding, months around September and January are also strong for business books.
But I wanted to find a way to prove—or if not prove, at least back up with some data— that books published in September and January performed better than books published in other months. So I went to Nielsen Bookscan (who keeps the most in-depth sales data) to see what I could find. Here is what the numbers tell us:
46 percent of the top 50 books (paperback and hardcover) were published in September or January. That includes all business books, some published years ago, like Who Moved My Cheese, published in September of 1998, and not just frontlist or new books.
When you narrow the list to books published in the last 12 months the picture changes dramatically:
Only 12 percent of the top 50 books (published in last 12 months) were published in September or January. That means that when you look at the frontlist bestsellers, the number of books published in either of those two months came down by almost a factor of four. Put another way, when you enlarge the universe to all business books published in years past—including books published more than a decade ago—the percentage of books published in either September or January were almost 400 percent higher than books published in the last 12 months. So what does this tell us?
It tells us, probably first and foremost, that business has emerged as such a critical book category that today, business books are bought in big numbers all-year-round. Even in the summer (but we might see slightly lower numbers during those months because of the vacation factor).
It also tells us that today, publishing companies are run far more like traditional businesses. And traditional businesses want an even stream of revenues—well, if not even, they don’t want revenues in only two months of the year. By publishing an equal number of books each month, publishers even out their streams of revenue. And most important, they are not doing any harm to their authors as bestselling titles are now published all-year-round.
So are September and January great months to publish books? Sure. But so are the other months. My bestselling books were published in March and April respectively. My advice to authors: don’t worry about when your book is published. Worry about what you are publishing and leave the rest to your publisher.
The best reason to write any book is passion—passion for writing and passion for the subject of your book. I have found the best books come from authors who possess that kind of a fire-in-the-belly excitement for their work. These authors are less concerned with their royalty income and far more concerned with writing a book that fills a need that is currently unmet in the marketplace. When motivated authors focus on the right things, a funny thing often happens: the book that was ignited by passion and written with conviction takes off. The book sells in the tens of thousands of copies. I have seen it happen literally hundreds of times over 26 years.
In addition to the potentially significant royalty income (which the passionate author views as gravy), there are several other great things that can happen to a successful author. For example, you become recognized as an expert on that particular business topic. What does that do? Consider the following:
* It raises your national profile: any book that sells really well almost always sells well nationally and even internationally (more international sales for books with global themes and less international sales for those books that are U.S. centric, such as personal finance). Suddenly your name is recognized by tens of thousands of people who never heard of you before your book became a hit. This would help you to do new things, such as start a blog so that you keep the message of your book alive with new postings that will be read by book buyers and non book buyers alike (although you must have some patience with a Website and a blog, as it could take months or even longer to reach a mass audience). But certainly a bestselling book could help get your blog off the ground far faster than most anything else.
* Media opportunities suddenly open up: If your topic is the right one at the right time, you might be invited on to business shows on CNBC, CNN, or Bloomberg. You might also become a “point person” so that newspaper columnists and writers call you for a quote on a topic that is related to the subject of your book. And the higher profile your book, the more likely your book will be reviewed in prominent places. But all of these things depend on having a compelling, pertinent topic that resonates with a large audience and lends itself to this level of media treatment.
* You—and your company—will be regarded as a thought leader in a specific field: many authors write books for this particular reason, especially authors who work for a large company trying to position themselves as thought leaders in a particular field. And this is nothing new. For example, a dozen years ago I worked with an author team that wanted to position a newly formed division of their firm, Price Waterhouse, as thought leaders in change management. The two books they published to help achieve that goal were entitled Better Change and The Paradox Principles. Both books helped that division get its message out more successfully than anything else they could have done. They sent copies of the book to thousands of clients and potential clients of the firm. The same kind of thought leadership could be achieved by consultants hoping to raise their profile and position their small practice as a thought leader in a particular field.
* It paves the way for your next book: success breeds success. If the first book you write sells, say 75,000 copies, you will find your publisher very receptive to your next idea (assuming it is a viable one). Better yet, the people who buy your book at places like Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Borders, etc. will be far more likely to order more copies of your second book. That is huge, as distribution is a vital ingredient in making a book successful. Conversely, the publishing industry can be unforgiving. If your first book tanks, those same people will have a far different attitude toward your second book. “You are only as good as your last book” is an oft used phrase in publishing (meaning your previous book, not your final book), so it is important that you choose a great topic for your debut as an author.
There are more good things that can happen as a direct result of a successful book, but those are the broad strokes.
In the last two postings, in the backward vs. forward debate, I laid out a few of the things that a business book editor does to help authors prepare their manuscript. To reiterate, an editor will help with tone and style, contents, book structure/architecture, wording and placement of subheads, and more. All of this is to help an author to reach the first finish line. I say first because there are actually several finish lines that must be crossed before a manuscript can be deemed “acceptable” and ready to go into production.
The first finish line is producing a first draft of the manuscript, an important achievement for any writer (and one that happens much faster for forward writers than backward ones).
As you might imagine, authors produce manuscripts that vary wildly in quality. Some arrive in great shape, well written, nicely organized and well executed. Others are in decent shape, but need some real work in one area or another: the writing may not be up to snuff, it might be too long or too short, or the book may not quite live up to the title and subtitle of the book. Obviously, the more effective the editor, the better the first draft of the book, since he or she will be working with that author throughout the development of the book.
Inevitably a manuscript hits our desk that can be characterized a disaster. But even most disasters can be fixed, as long as we have an open-minded author with a fire-in-the-belly, willing to put in the many dozens—more likely hundreds—of hours necessary to fix the book.
If the first finish line is the first draft of the book, you may be wondering about the second finish line. That line is reached after an editor edits the book and the author responds effectively to all of the edits and queries posed by the editor. If you haven’t written a book, you may be unfamiliar with what an editor really does to turn a draft manuscript into a polished one. Yes, an editor rewrites portions of the manuscript, adds subheads, etc. However, it may surprise you that perhaps the most important task an editor does is ask the author questions (or queries). Since most editors I know edit electronically (on-line), those queries are added in the Microsoft edit program specifically designed for this purpose. They appear right in the margin next to the queried text. What kind of questions do editors ask? Here are some actual samples:
* Awkward sentence: please fix as I am not sure what you are trying to say here.
* Mega-run-on sentence: I can’t untangle. Please clarify by turning this into 2-3 sentences.
* This entire section seems out of place here. Can you put it nearer to the beginning of the chapter?
* Way too much detail here. You will lose the reader with this section. Suggest removing.
As you can tell, these are many issues that must be worked out by the author and the editor working together. For example, in the last query above, an editor should not remove a big chunk of manuscript without getting buy-in from the author. How many queries might an editor pose in say, a 250-page book? The numbers vary quite a bit, but in some manuscripts that number approaches 100 or more.
So, the second finish line is reached when an author gets back the “edited” manuscript, goes through it carefully checking edits, but more important, addresses all of those queries by doing what the editor has asked (Unless the author disagrees with something—then he writes back his response to that query) . This part of the process can take weeks, but when that happens, the books’ entire schedule may be jeopardized. But first and foremost, the book has to be right. The schedule must take a backseat to the book’s development, for it is better to publish the right book late than the wrong book on time. Don’t get me wrong, late books raise all sorts of serious problems, with customers, booksellers, foreign publishers who have licensed the book, etc. However, since the book is a reflection of the publisher, the book’s imprint, the author, editor, etc, there is simply no excuse for a publisher to knowingly publish a bad book.
After the author goes over the book as outlined above, he or she returns the book to the editor. Then the editor (or perhaps another member of the editorial team) goes through the manuscript to review the author’s responses to all the edits and queries. Most authors do a very fine job here, when they see their editor has done so much to enhance the quality of the book. Still, there is often one more back and forth between the author and editor. When the author completes that second and [usually] final round of edits, she has crossed the third finish line.
Believe it or not, once the book goes into production, there are several new finish lines for the author. But we will save those for another day.
In the last post I spoke of backward writers vs. forward writers. Backward writers are never happy with their work and have a tendency to rewrite every chapter a dozen times. It occurred to me that there is a very real consequence of backward writing that I had not thought of: they may never get to work with the kind of professionals that could take their project to the next level.
That’s because the backward writer is never happy with his work. He would rather die than show it to a single soul. That’s a shame, but a shame I can readily identify with. I have written countless things that I felt were not ready for prime time. But much of this misses the big picture.
Often the difference between a fair work and a good one has to do with the help one gets along the way. With business books, some authors are proactive enough to share manuscripts (and partial manuscripts) with colleagues or acquaintances in the same field of expertise. These ”peer reviews” can be incredibly helpful since these reviewers are often experts in that field and can make important suggestions on content and structure. Any helpful suggestions they offer on the tone or writing style is gravy.
Then there is all the help you can get from your publisher (if you have one). There is of course your book editor, who is chiefly responsible for working with you to produce the best possible manuscript. However, in top tier houses, you may also get feedbackfrom marketing, publicity and sales folks, not to mention the head of the imprint. This can happen at different stages of the process. It may start as early as a year before the book is published, when we are trying to come up with the perfect title for the book. The best books are often the result of a collaboration that involves many people with different perspectives.
But, ultimately, it is your editor who is your collaborator-in-chief. It is up to him or her to help you with the book’s table of contents/structure (the book’s architecture), the writing (sentence structure, sentence meter), the wording of subheads, part titles, etc. One of the biggest complaints I hear is that editors do not do enough editing. However, if you push your editor for help, it is more than likely that you will get it.
But you will never get there unless you are willing to share your work with the people that can offer the most help. So please keep that in mind—especially if you are a writer that fiddles with chapters to death and then hides manuscripts away in some drawer for no one to see.
Several previous postings have examined the specifics of the way people approach the task of writing. Being an editor and writer makes one a process guy. That means I spend a great deal of time thinking about the best, most efficient ways of getting things accomplished.
In this piece we examine how one goes about the process of writing: are you the sort of writer who writes a chapter then goes back to perfect it before moving on? I used to be that kind of writer. I used to write paragraphs, then go back and reread, reshape, rewrite, massage, tweak, edit—do anything that would enhance my perception of those paragraphs. Unless they were good enough, gosh darn it, I was not moving on. For what good is it when you have nothing but crap on the page? How can you build a house if the foundation is full of holes, muck and mold? That’s how I felt about it and nobody was going to change my mind. I was a “backward writer.” I spent far more time turning the pages back than forward.
There’s only one thing wrong with a backward writer (there is actually many things wrong but we’ll leave that for another day). They never finish anything. I remember my first book (which ended up being my fourth book for a variety of reasons). I spent days and weeks, even months on every chapter, making sure I was happy with it before proceeding on to the next. The worst part was that when I went back to read those “perfected” chapters much later I didn’t like them very much. Not only had I spent all that time regurgitating the same material but I had deluded myself into thinking that the chapters were actually good. This is why more experienced writers are “forward writers.”
A forward writer (as opposed to a “foreword” writer—one who writes a book’s foreword) is somebody that is forward-looking. He or she does his best on a chapter and then moves on to the next. While they may spend some time making the chapter right, they don’t let themselves get bogged down in the minutia. They realize that the key to writing a book on a deadline is to keep the book moving in the right direction. Like a great running back who always keeps his legs pumping and moving toward the opponent’s goal line, the forward writer is always cognizant that putting chapters on the scoreboard is the only way to finish the book on time. The forward writer is no less interested in quality than the backwards writer. She just has different ideas on how to achieve that goal.
The forward writer will revisit all of those chapters—-but, and this is the big one— not until she finishes the first draft of the book. Once a draft is in hand the writer has a much more complete picture of the things. She will know what needs to be done to polish and refine the book. She will know which chapters are better than others, which require the most work, etc. There is also one other great advantage to being a forward writer. She does not have to brave it alone at that point. With a draft in hand, the writer can work with her editor (or perhaps someone else, such as an expert in that field) to enhance the quality of the book.
Do you find yourself falling more into the backward writer’s camp? Then consider doing the following:
* Don’t look back: This may be the best cure. Write the chapters as best you can, and then move on. Don’t look back and re-read any chapter until the book is done. At least this way you will end up with something of a working draft.
* Map out the chapters ahead of time: The more detailed your outline the better the end product will be. Write out a specific, descriptive plan before you begin to write.
* Make liberal use of subheads: Subheads break up the chapters while providing signposts to help readers navigate their way through them. It also helps business readers to read smaller chunks of material at a time.
By following this advice you just might break the backwards writer’s syndrome and finish the book that has been sitting on your desk for years.
Since this is the last day of my summer vacation, I thought it no better time to indulge myself by reflecting back on the jobs I had before the one I have now. I mean, look all the way back. It will also give us a chance to look at some of the first jobs held by some of the CEOs I have chronicled over the years as well.
It is, of course, the biggest cliche in the business, but the first job I can recall was delivering newspapers. Not in small town America, but in the furthest thing from it—the Bronx. And not just any newspaper, but the 13th oldest U.S. newspaper and the one founded by Alexander Hamilton in 1801—the New York Post.
Delivering newspapers in a big city is different than anywhere else. That’s because almost of the deliveries are made in apartment buildings. You don’t throw newspapers, you drop them. The other thing I remember is that people love you when you bring them their newspapers but treat you like a thief in the night when you come around to collect the weekly subscription fees.
Forgive me, but I can’t leave this topic without telling the Ross Perot story.
Two years before he ran for president, I published a biography of Ross Perot (Perot, An Unauthorized Biography, Dow Jones-Irwin, 1990). Althouth it was largely a positive portrait, there was one part of the book that ignited a year-long, but one-sided battle with the Texas billionaire.
Perot reportedly held many childhood jobs, including: selling Christmas cards, breaking horses, and selling garden seeds. But the source of our battle, if one could believe it, was his job as paper boy. Perot had long since held that as a child he had delivered newpapers on a horse. That story made it into a book Perot cooperated with, Ken Follett’s On Wings of Eagles. Perot held that as a small boy he delivered those newspapers on horseback. The author of the book I edited, Todd Mason, had interviewed the man Perot bought his bicycle from and claimed that the young Perot delivered newspapers—not on a horse—but on a bicycle. Horse or bike? Who cares? Perot did, and a great deal. After the book was published he called me many times to discuss the matter, one call more agitated than the last. He sent me letters elaborating on the matter, and even had his sister send me a letter, corroborating the horse story (also telling me that the horse’s name was “Bee”). ”I did deliver papers on a horse,” Perot insisted urgently. The last thing Perot sent me was a poster-size map with his delivery routes marked off in magic marker. The entire imbroglio made it into a June 30th Time Magazine cover story and a front-page, above-the-fold Chicago Tribune piece in 1992.
Who figured the job of newspaper delivery boy could possibly be so controversial?
Back to my jobs. The next most memorable job of mine, aside from summer odd jobs mowing lawns and three summers as chief lifeguard, was the college summer job that helped pay much of my college tuition. A company named Southwestern (not the textbook company) hired young college students to travel to a different part of the country to sell encyclopedic-type books door-to-door. Yes, I was a door-to-door salesman and worse yet, I was very good at it. In the summer of 1979, I finished among the top 25 kids (out of some 6,000) and made enough money to pay for close to three years of college tuition. That allowed me to pay back my dad, who had sent all three of his children to college on the money he earned at his kosher butcher shop on Kingsbridge Road in the Bronx.
In case you are thinking that door-to-door sales is the worst job imaginable, think again. That honor might go go to a job held by former GE chairman Jack Welch. When he was in college he had a job with game-maker Parker. That sounds like fun, but it was anything but. Welch’s job was to work on a game called “Dig.” His only job was to drill a hole in a cork, take the newly drilled cork and drop it into a seemngless botomless bin. Hole after hole, cork after cork. hour-after-hour. That was all he did. He called it a “mind-numbing job,” which explains why he quit in short order.
Other jobs help by exceptional CEOs include:
* Michael Dell earned a whopping $2,000 by advertising “Dell’s stamps” in Linn’s Stamps Journal (The stamp magazine at the time). Michael got all the kids in the neighborhood to give Dell their stamps on consignment. Young Michael turned what is a hobby to all other kids into childhood riches. That helps to explain how he became the youngest CEO among the Fortune 500 after Dell went public.
* Lee Iacocca worked 16-hour days in a fruit market. He would awake before sunrise so that he could get to the wholesale market early enough to buy all the produce for the day. He was paid the princely sum of $2.00 a day and all the fruit he could drag home after putting in such grueling days. :
* Park Avenue-born Michael Eisner worked as a page at NBC one summer when he was in college. He got the job because his father knew David Sarnoff, the son of the founder of RCA, which owned NBC. He answered phones for The Tonight Show, ran errands, and even worked on the sets of such game shows as The Price is Right. That’s when he fell in love with show business.
* Intel co-founder Andy Grove took a job at the Stauffer Chemical Company in Richmond, California before starting graduate school at Berkeley. Grove recalls the job as “depressing” and “rundown,” according to biographer Richard Tedlow’s book, Andy Grove: The Life and Times of an American Icon (Portfolio, 2008), Grove came to hate summer jobs, thinking of them as boring and tedious.
In retrospect, I consider myself quite fortunate. My summer jobs at least had something to do with the written word. And the door-to-door sales job taught me a lot about humility, in my mind, the most underrated leadership quality of all. The most important thing is that I ended up doing what I loved. I love to edit books, and work with authors to help shape their works. The fact that I can also write books in such a supportive atmosphere as Penguin is icing on the cake. And how many other folks can say they stared down Ross Perot, sold books door-to-door, and still ended up with a better summer job that Jack Welch?
The longer you write the more you learn. My newest book, the yet-to-be-published Drucker book, taught me an important lesson about something that writers don’t talk much about: the stuff that ends up on the cutting room floor. Writing this book—over a five year period—taught me that what doesn’t get included can be as important as what does.
I have always believed that it is the responsibility of the author to make his or her point in as few words as possible. People are far too busy these days to waste their time. Achieving the aims of your book with an economy of words should always be your goal. It is also an excellent exercise in writing. So I carve as I write my own works, always trimming a few words here or a sentence there. Or better yet, cut entire chapters because they do not fit with the tone and/or level of the rest of the work.
In Inside Drucker’s Brain, more than a dozen chapters of the book ended up on the cutting room floor. I have more than ten versions of the introduction since I had various ideas on how to start the book. But when my agent (uber-agent Margret McBride—co-author of The 4th Secret of the One Minute Manager ) read the proposal, she had new ideas about how to begin the book. They turned out to be brilliant. Even after I executed the changes, almost no editors out there saw enough to warrant publication of the book, despite the strong track record of my first five books. The new introduction personalized Peter Drucker in a way that no book had done before. Only one editor, my boss, Adrian Zackheim (who has a phenomenal track record), saw enough in my proposal to warrant a contract offer to publish the book. How fitting it was, since Adrian worked with Peter Drucker as his editor years earlier.
Gone are the times that business book readers will tolerate poorly written 400-page tomes with excess baggage. In order to avoid this, please observe the following tips:
* Never fall in love with your own writing;
* If it isn’t informative, important, or interesting—take it out;
* Try not to include names of people no one knows or cares about (instead, use footnotes to recognize people when the situation calls for it).
These three rules alone can help turn a pretty good book into a first rate book. The key lesson is don’t wait for your editor to do the cutting.
I should tell you that I am on vacation this week from my editorial job (not my writing job), and this always brings out the more philosophical side of myself.
The last post was about compiling the research for your book. Once you have built a solid enough of a foundation, it is of course time to start (or continue) to write the book. Depending upon a whole host of factors, this could be the best— or the worst of times for you.
Since I work with so many super-intelligent, first time writers, I will assume, as usual, that most of you fall into that category. Since the first book is always the hardest to churn out, appealing to this group makes perfect sense. And for those of you that have written that first book, you can attest to the extent of the pain and challenge.
Some years back, after 20 years editing everybody else’s books, I decided that I had what it took to become a writer. I was wrong. I didn’t have the rhythm and I didn’t have the reason. I would write at all hours of the day and night, and in different places, including my local library. I did not even have a solid outline to follow.
And I didn’t have the one thing that transforms writers into authors: a deadline. Not some kind of self-imposed, New Year’s resolution-soft-deadline. But one that sits squarely on a publishing contract so that there are honest-to-goodness consequences to missing it.
My learning process, like yours, was a personal one. I learned that editing even the most mangled prose did not qualify me to write a book. The blank page, especially a book page, is a different animal than a page full of run-on sentences. Nor is the magazine writer or blogger automatically a book author. The only way to become an authentic writer of business books is to write one. And a successful one at that. For what good is it to write a book that nobody reads? Wait…I take that back. Writing a book can be enormously helpful to a budding author, even if only the person’s mother and best friend read the thing. But I am getting a bit off topic.
First you have to find your own rhythm. Are you a 5 a.m. writer—like me— who works best in the living room with a PC on his lap? Or do you do your best work writing on airplanes? (I have one writer who swears by the 33,000 feet writing method). Or can you write at all times—whenever you get a free moment—and have everything turn out all right? I am a combination writer.
I am definitely the 5 a.m. guy but can also do some at night and at all “free” hours on the weekends (remember I have twin four -year-old boys). I certainly didn’t start there. I grew into that writer. First I gained the discipline. I never missed a day of writing, even if it was just a few paragraphs. I never missed a deadline—no matter how aggressive—and I never missed a day of work because of my writing.
As I work on book #7, I now have the rhythm and the reason. You can get it, too. Much of it comes down to how badly you want it, what you are willing to sacrifice to get it, and the level of support you’ll get from the people around you. I am a lucky soul. My family is squarely behind me. My wife, Nancy, reads every blog post before it goes out, and always helps me to find the time and the place to write (bless her soul). When you have kids with unlimited amounts of energy, it helps to write “where they ain’t.” Finding that place is easier said than done.
In the last post we discussed the importance of meeting with your editor to establish certain things about the book up front: to make sure the outline is on target, the rest of the book architecture works (elements like use of call-out quotes, end of chapter summaries, etc.), the approach and focus of the book is appropriate, and to establish a mutually beneficial timeline and a method of operation, e.g. will the author submit book chapter-by-chapter, in chapter clusters, or just as a final book?
What happens next is just as important. Once you meet with the editor, share a meal, and bid goodbye, then there is a whole new set of priorities that takes center stage. In this posting, we will deal with the research part of the process:
* Research: Most business books, especially good ones, have something new to say that is based on new and original research. This can include interviews with key people related to your book or secondary research that you would find in articles, online, or at the library. The best business books are based on original and counter-intuitive research from extensive multi-year studies involving tens of thousands (or many more) participants. Books such as Now Discover Your Strengths by Buckingham and Clifton (Free Press, 2001) is an example of such a book. Some books are built on the backs of decades of research based on one’s reporting career. A great example of this is Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense, the New York Times bestseller by David Cay Johnston (Portfolio, 2008). Johnston spent more than four decades revealing the shocking relationship between government officials and certain private sector entities—as the rich got richer…and you know the rest.
Most business books, even many of the good ones, are not based on that amount of research and don’t need to be. I have written six books and most were based on either a handful of interviews and/or a great deal of online and library research. The six-year research study involving a team of two dozen research people is more the exception than the rule. However, the best business book breaks new ground and therefore always reveals information or conclusions based on fresh and previously unpublished research.
This does not mean that the more “mundane” research can’t be incredibly helpful.
For example, one invaluable research tool that helps me immeasurably is Amazon.com. The function “Search Inside the Book” played a major role in helping me to pinpoint a portion of the quotes, ideas, and concepts featured in Inside Drucker’s Brain. However, there are no real short-cuts. What I mean is that before I used that function I took detailed notes from about two dozen of Drucker’s most prominent works. If I needed more data on a particular topic, I was able to go back to that book, key in “Search Inside the Book” and type in whatever topic or phrase or concept I was working on (e.g. build on strength, know what to abandon, etc.).
Since business books are based on whatever fountain of resesarch you are able to compile, this is a critial and work-intensive part of the book-writing experience. I recall many, middle-of-the-night sessions when I could not sleep and worked from 2-6 am. While I never fell asleep on my laptop, I came close (if you do fall asleep you know you are on the right track!). This was often the most tedious and painstaking part of the process, but know from the outset that how well one does this separates the fair books from the truly good ones. Ultimately, for me, the writing part was easier than the research part. But that’s me and every individual writer is different.
Of course, for the Drucker book, actually meeting with him at his home for a full day interview was, by far, the highlight of my book researching career.
More on what to do after you sign the contract next week!
That’s a question I get quite a bit from authors—what do I do now that I’ve signed the contract? One answer is obvious: keep writing—we need a manuscript in six months. However, I believe that the best thing an author can do right after signing the contract is to arrange for a meeting with his or her new editor.
It just so happens that an author we are about to sign, based in Texas, wants to meet with me for a day and requested said meeting. He is writing a book on a well known mogul (we have not announced the deal yet, so I can’t reveal the name). The author, Ben Johnson, is a seasoned reporter, editor and publisher, and the current director of American Airlines Publishing.
I asked Ben what he wanted to get out of the meeting with me, and here is how he responded:
1. He wanted to meet me in person
2. Verify that his outline is on target
3. Based on my experience, pick my brain about the book writing process (what works/what doesn’t)
Now, those might seem like obvious things that can be discussed on a phone call. Can we? Of course. Will it be as fruitful as a one-on-one discussion where we sit down, compare notes, and answer all of these questions and more? Of course not. An in-person meeting is also a great time for us to discuss the prologue of the book, which is so critical to a book’s success. After all, how many times have you picked up a book, looked at the first page, and then either bought it or rejected it? While that may be true in fiction, it is also true with business books.
And Ben identified only a few of the key issues: this is not really a full-blown biography of this media mogul, it’s more of a memoir or profile. This means that we will, for example, need to keep the subject’s earliest years to a minimum (unless there are really cool stories from his childhood/college years). A first-time author may tend to overwrite those formative years, thinking that he needs to include the kitchen sink. The key is to make the book a fantastic read. That will require a meeting of the minds between author and editor on any number of anecdotes, etc. And what about interviews with the subject? How many does the author meed to do? What if the subject says “I will give you the interviews and full access, but I need to review the manuscript before it is published?” Is that appropriate, or a devil’s bargain?
Much of this can all be worked out in that one important sit-down, face-to-face meeting. Yet so many business books are written in which the author never meets the editor. Don’t let that happen to you. It is up to the author to make that meeting happen. Editors have many authors, and are often too busy to think of it or place it high on their “to-do” list. It’s your book and you owe it to yourself to do everything and anything (within reason) to make your book a success.