The Mini-Proposal

In recent days I have talked with several impressive author candidates who I had contacted to see if they had an interest in writing a book. Two of these people, who were constantly on the move (flying from meeting to meeting), were interested and had definite ideas on the books they wanted to write. The problem was that they simply didn’t have the time to write the kind of full-length proposal that I have posted on my home page. That’s when I thought of the pre-proposal (or mini-proposal).

Rather than wait the many weeks it would require to write a full length proposal, the pre-proposal would allow an author who is under the gun to put something together in a few hours. It would convey the essence of the book—its theme, approach, unique selling proposition, etc. It would consist of a few pages, but would provide enough information for the publisher to say yes, “I want to see more,” or no, “that’s not for us.” That’s the goal of the mini, or pre-proposal: It tells a publisher if there is a fit between author and publisher. Ideally, a mini-proposal would include: 

* A brief synopsis of the book, describing the book as vividly as possible. Make it sound compelling. Draw a picture of what the final book—the finish line—will look like. This can be done in a single page. 

* The primary benefit of the book: also known as the USP, or unique selling proposition; what will readers get out of your book that they can’t get elsewhere?

* A quick description of the target audience: this is important, since it will tell us who you are trying to reach. Is it a general Wall Street Journal audience, or higher level, such as financial professionals?

* Competing books: tell us of published books, or books that will soon be published, if you are aware of any, that would be in the same ballpark as yours.   

* Books specifications: all relevant specs—the length of the book, number of tables, graphs or other pieces of art, and how long it will take you to write the book.  

We are in the process of testing these mini-proposals, so I will report back on how well they worked. Want to get another perspective on putting together a book proposal? Please go to Tim Bete’s blog, whose work has been featured in the Christian Science Monitor:

How is the economy? Ask a taxi driver!

Last week I gave a state of the state of the publishing industry as seen through the eyes of literary agents. Today I want to enlarge the scope of my reporting to discuss the state of the New York City economy. Spending most of a week in NY tells you a great deal about the economy there, and New York City is definitely a great indicator about how business is doing across the country.

Whenever I am in NY City I ask the cab drivers “How is business?” The simple three-word question usually sets off a torrent of information that follows is more helpful than all of the white papers and blogs that I read from financial professionals. Sometimes I can understand the driver, sometimes I can’t. Part of it is the thick partition between us and the other part is the accents of the drivers that come from any one of 60 countries.

The biggest message I got is that business stinks, and it has for some time. One driver explained that around Christmas, he usually can’t get anywhere because of all of the congestion. But this past Christmas, New York was just not the same. He said he could get anywhere quickly, as if NY City was a ghost town. And business has been slow since. I never waited more than 30 seconds for a taxi, which tells you something about the taxi industry. 

As for other indicators: New York City hotel prices have dropped from the truly audacious to the just-about affordable. For example, I stayed at a W Hotel that had slashed its prices in half, to around $279 per night. I asked for a corner room in advance and they upgraded me for free to a truly spectacular view of Times Square (and I have no status or club membership in W Hotels). 

As for other signs of the times, all of the layoffs in the financial sector and other industries have really taken their toll. To encourage foreign companies to come to his city to set up shop, Mayor Bloomberg announced an international campaign designed to lure financial companies (e.g. insurance and commercial banks) to New York. The campaign is aimed at the countries that we are supposed to be afraid of because they are stealing our jobs: China, India, and other developing countries.

The upshot of the story: this is actually a great time to visit NY. You will be able to get cheap air fares (mine was around $239 round trip from Chicago), a great price on a hotel, a taxi whenever you want, a reservation in most any restaurant, and a quick ticket to your favorite Broadway show. You and your family will have a great time and you will be helping the economy at the same time. Lastly, one cab driver summarized it nicely when he said that we will “come out of this” and business will boom again. He explained that he has been driving a cab in NY for 27 years and that “we always come out of it, and almost always stronger than before.”    

Top Literary Agents still Doing Well, But…

This week I had an amazing time meeting with many of the top literary agents in business book publishing (although they all deal in other areas as well, such as fiction and poetry). What impressed me the most was that these agents—who really were among the top agents in publishing—are still selling their books to publishing companies and garnering big bucks for the best projects. Speaking to them you would think that there is no recession. But I probed further by asking them this question:

“Has the recession hurt your business?”

And their responses were almost all identical. They say that while they are still selling top projects to the biggest and best publishers, there are fewer editors and publishing houses to sell their books to, and as a result, they are indeed feeling the effects of recession. Many of them, with sadness, named editors who they had relationships with who are now without jobs.

So what is the bottom line? If you are one of the industry’s top agents you will always do well. This is reminiscent of former GE CEO Jack Welch’s rule: if you are #1 or #2 in your market, then you will always do well. But if you are number five or six, watch out. If you are #5 in your market you will catch pneumonia when #1 catches a cold. In business book publishing you don’t have to be #1 or #2, just one of the industry’s top tier agents. That’s because regardless of what happens with the damned economy, there will always be publishers hungry for top notch authors and projects.   



Books on How to Achieve Greatness Sell Well



Since the post-1982 business book boom, one category—one business book niche—has continued to sell very well in good times and bad: books that purport to tell people how to be turn themselves from ordinary to extraordinary. 

In 1986, Charles Garfield, who worked on the Apollo 11 mission that put the first man on the moon, published Peak Performers: The New Heroes of American Business. It was a Time Magazine bestseller (when Time kept track of these things) and made a big splash in the marketplace.

In 2003 Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz published The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, is the Key To High Performance and Personal Renewal. That book, which focuses on the physical and energy portion of one’s life, also sold hundreds of thousand of copies (although I do take exception with the subtitle: who thought time was the key to high performance)?

The two best books on the topic, however, were published in the last few months. One, published by Portfolio and released in October 2008, was written by Fortune Magazine’s brilliant Geoffrey Colvin, entitled: Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers From Everybody Else .  It conjures up some great examples—like former football great Jerry Rice—to show how ten years of “deliberate” and grueling practice can turn people with little natural born talent into world class performers.

Then, the following month, bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell of Tipping Point  fame published Outliers: The Story of Success. By coincidence, it hits on many of the identical themes of Talent is Overrated. Gladwell has some surprising and interesting examples as well, including Bill Gates and The Beatles.

The strong sales of these books prove that people are constantly looking for ways to boost their own performance, always searching for that magic pill. However, we now know that there is no magic pill. You must have the stamina to practice for hours, days, weeks, and years. And you have to be willing to make a commitment, and stick with it — to choose something that you are truly passionate about, and put up with disappointing results for a very long time.  That’s how one transforms themselves from the ordinary to the extraordinary.          



When Idealism Meets Pragmatism

Barack Obama came to Washington with a significant mandate, having won more votes and states than any presidential contender since Clinton beat Dole. Of course, Obama’s victory was historic, which we are reminded of this week, the 200-year birthday of Abraham Lincoln. To Obama’s credit, despite the historic proportions of his win, he knew he would have no honeymoon. The worst recession in decades guaranteed that. “That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood, asserted Obama in his inaugural address, adding “Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time.” 

The newly minted president knew that he had one huge priority that would take precedence above all others, and that was trying to stop the hemorrhaging of money and jobs.    

But in only 25 days, many of the hopes and dreams of our 44th president have met the stark reality of…well, reality. Here are a few examples:

* After talking about the most bi-partisan presidency of modern times, not a single Republican voted for his stimulus package the first time it came up for a vote in the house, and only three Republicans voted for it in the senate. Republicans seem determined to fight Obama at every turn, despite all of the rhetoric from the right side of the aisle promising their own version of bipartisanship. 

* He has had a rocky time with nominees: One of two-tax-troubled appointees had no choice but to fall on his sword (Tom Daschle). His other under-tax-paying nominee, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, the man without a plan, was laughed off Wall Street this week when his presentation rang hollow. But few were laughing when his vacuous ideas sent the Dow plumetting almost 400 points. Then yesterday, with no notice, Obama’s second choice to become commerce secretary—fiscal conservative Republican Judd Gregg—quit without a fight, embarassing the administration one more time (Governor Richardson also withdrew for the same post).   

 * His stimulus plan has been stripped of billions in green jobs, health care, and other things Obama promised:In their place were put more tax cuts for the wealthy. One of the factors that led to the serious revisions was Obama’a decision to allow members of Congress to draw up the original legislation. Had the While House kept control over it from the outset, many argue that the president would have been able to keep much more of what he wanted by doing more effective horse trading. The result was a study in “amateurism,” insisted one critic.

Now that Obama’s administration has come up against forces and events greater than it anticipated, will we have a less idealistic president? I think so. The kind of challenges that Obama has already confronted—and those yet to come—have a way of clarifying the mind and shifting priorities. For example, going into the stimulus plan, Obama had hoped to get more than 80 votes in the senate, and surely more than the zero he received the first time out in the House. 

However, while I am a big believer in idealism, I am an even bigger believer in pragmatism. Especially in these incredibly difficult times. We simply cannot afford idealism at a time when our own president has designated the state of our global economy as the greatest threat to our national security.    


Five More Ways to Impress a Business Book Editor

Earlier I gave some tips on how to get your business book published. Since this remains one of the most asked-for information areas, I racked my brain to come up with five more ideas on how to impress a business book editor or publisher. These are more subtle than the earlier ones, but probably more important:

*Be counterintuitive: This is a real key to capturing the attention of a book editor. Many of the bestselling business books are ones that have counter intuitive titles and take that approach in the book and title. Talent is Overrated  by Fortune’s Geoffrey Colvin is one great example. 

*Have mounds of “actionable” research: Many of the bestselling books are built on multi-year studies that have produced tons of data/research. Good to Great is the most visible example in the business category, based on a six-year research study. Portfolio’s Judgment: How Winning Leaders Make Great Calls by Noel Tichy and Warren Bennis is another terrific example. That book is based on dozens of interviews in the field with people like Jack Welch (former CEO, GE) and Jim McNerney (CEO, Boeing). The key is that the data be prescriptive. Data for data’s sake is useless.   

*Become a super-blogger (or the best friend of one): The best bloggers have incredible traffic on their websites. My new favorite site, our own Hugh MacLeod’s (ingenious cartoons), gets thousands of unique visitors per day. There are few things as powerful as having a big, fat email list. These are folks who know who you are, believe in you, and are likely to be interested in any book you produce.      

*Use language that brings your ideas alive: I can’t tell you how many proposals I have seen that are dead on arrival—not because the idea is hopeless (although that happens often, too), but because the words used to describe the book concept make it sound ordinary, academic, dry—you get the idea. If you can’t get passionate about your ideas from the start (e.g. a great table of contents), and inspire that in the people who read your stuff, you won’t get any editor enthusiastic about publishing your work.

*Target a bestselling book in the marketplace: On occasion we get an author who tells us: “The competitor’s book has sold 300,000 copies but it doesn’t do all of the things that my book does. My book will be better because it has all of that and more.”  Sometimes going after a market leader can work, but the new book has to do so many things right, and probably appeal to a slightly different segment of the market. For example, in 1998 there was The Electronic Day Trader. Six months later came How to Get Started in Electronic Day Trading. The second book was slightly down market and actually sold more copies than the first one. How you position a book in the market can be everything.   

Those are the five. I am sure I will have more in the future. I do realize that some of these are far easier said than done. For example, it can take years to become a super-blogger, but there are many blohggers out there who started with little more than an idea. Arnold Kim, for example (who was just featured in a New York Times story), has a site called (yes, he blogs about Apple Computer). He now gets tens of millions of hits and left his medical practice to blog full time. “It can all be boiled down to one simple accomplishment,” he told The New York Times. “If you have a site that attracts a lot of visitors, you will be able to make money. On the internet, traffic equals power, which subsequently equals money, ” he stated authoritatively. 

If you have some more tips to add, please send me a note. I would love to hear from you.

Who—in your Organization—Controls Your Future?

What follows is a rough excerpt from my new book, coming out in the fall—about how some managers get promoted while others fail to survive. I look forward to your feedback. 

In an earlier post, I talked about how being a strong #2 to your boss can be a great work strategy to get ahead. I have approached my job with that mindset for many years and it has worked well for me. However, what if your boss does not control your future?

Being a strong #2 assumes that you have a strong boss, meaning that that he or she is smart at setting priorities, knows how to hire, fire, delegate, manage up, manage down etc. But what if you have an incompetent boss or worse, a toxic one? Someone who beats up on his people, uses employees as pawns, has a bad temper, and never seeks out the opinion of his direct reports? In this case, it is very difficult being a strong #2, and in any event, who wants to work for such a person, never mind helping him to succeed?

But let’s take a step back and get a broader view of your entire workplace. You need to know who the real decision-maker is, who makes the real calls on your future. In sports there are referees and line judges. In the world of work, things are often far murkier. 

It may be that your boss has no power at all, having no real power or ability to make a decision. Your boss could simply be clueless, someone who got promoted because of a technical expertise, not out of any managerial know-how (that’s why there are so many ineffective managers out there). Or it could be that his boss is a micro-manager, using your boss as no more than a puppet.

The key is to figure out who the real “decider” is, and to do that, you need to find out who holds the greatest influence over your boss. In several companies I worked for, my boss’s boss was the one who made the greatest decisions affecting my life—and the life of my direct reports.  And often you do not figure this out until something happens, some event that causes your boss to show his cards, so to speak, where you can get a more complete picture of what is really going on inside your organization.     

Or, your boss might indeed make the call, but listens to people that would shock you. I’ve worked for managers who listened to their peers (which makes sense in many instances), but also to people levels below them. That could be a positive development, but not if the boss is playing one person off of another, causing one manager to bad-mouth his peers. I have seen situations in which back-biting, turf wars, and petty politics are permitted to triumph over what should take center stage: competence, loyalty, and the ability to put company goals above personal goals.

If your company more closely resembles the back-biting one with petty politics, then you might want to seriously consider a move to a different company. That’s because an organization which permits such God-awful behavior is much like a dead fish—it stinks from its head. In my experience companies that have such managers not only tolerate such behavior, they know about it and are complicit in it. You probably cannot make a move now, in the midst of such a serious recession. But when things look like they are turning around, get ready to make a move. I know is is difficult to ponder such a huge change, but it is necessary. Have your resume in order and compile a short list of organizations that you would like to work for. Believe me, there isn’t much of a future in turf wars and pettiness.        

The Death of the Printed Word is Grossly Exaggerated

There is no doubt that the print media is having a tough time during this deep recession. When I interviewed Peter Drucker in the final days of 2003, he had some very interesting observations about the print media. In this recession, three years after Drucker’s death, newspapers are suffering the most.,. Electronic media continues to make greater inroads, making newspapers obsolete by the time they hit your driveway at 6 a.m. That explains, in part, why Sam Zell, the colorful and profane owner of the Tribune Company, has declared bankruptcy. (The Tribune Company owns both The Chicago Tribune, my hometown paper, as well as the Los Angeles Times).

But when we were together Drucker took a big picture view of the print media. He also wrote a great deal about this topic, and really put things in perspective. Here he does just that in Management Challenges for the 21st Century:

“It is generally believed that the leading “high-tech” companies—IBM in the sixties and seventies, Microsoft since 1980—have been the fastest growing businesses in the post-World War II period. But the world’s two leading print companies have grown at least as fast. One is German-based Bertelsmann Group. A small publisher of Protestant prayer books before Hitler, Bertelsmann was suppressed by the Nazis. It was revived after WWII…is now the world’s number one publisher and distributor of printed materials (other than daily papers) in most countries of the world (except in China and Russia) through its ownership of publishing firms (Random House in the U.S.), of book clubs and of magazines (France’s leading business magazine, Capital). Equally fast has been the growth of the empire of the Australian-born Murdoch . Starting as publisher of two small provincial Australian papers, Murdoch now owns newspapers throughout the English speaking world, leading English-language book publishers and magazines—but also a large company in another pre-computer ‘information’ medium, the movies.” Murdoch, of course, now owns The Wall Street Journal, a huge property in many respects, and one he had eyed for many years.       

Drucker’s point is well taken: when everyone thought that tech-companies like Microsoft and IBM were the winners of the tech-talk-laden 1990’s, publishing companies (like our own, Pearson—owner of Penguin, Prentice-Hall and the Financial Times), were growing as fast or faster than those companies. That’s a rather remarkable reality when one considers how technology and the first years of the Internet were growing (in 1995 the Internet was growing at something like 2,300 percent per year, so said Jeff Bezos, the founder of

Today all companies are feeling the effects of this deep recession–including publishing companies–but they are hanging in there. You don’t hear of many thousands of employees being laid off at publishing houses. People are still reading books and students are still going to college. Who knows? When the dust clears, it may be the book publishers that fare the best of all.        

Consistency: A Key to Leadership (a.k.a. beware of exceptions)

Most great leaders understand intuitively that consistency is an important part of leadership. That’s because the most effective leaders know that in order to be perceived as a strong leader they must maintain a strong set of values, live by a certain code of conduct, effectively communicate these to different constituencies, and then lead by example. One cannot appear to be one thing to one group of people and something else to a different set—there needs to be one “you” if you are to be viewed as an stalwart leader.

“The final requirement of a leader is to earn trust,” Peter Drucker once said. “Trust is the conviction that the leader means whet he says…a leader’s actions and a leader’s professed beliefs must be congruent, or at least compatible. Effective leadership—-and again this is very old wisdom—is not based on being clever; it is based primarily on being consistent.”      

This is why President Obama is in danger of losing real credibility as a leader. On his first day as president Obama signed new legislation that amounted to new ethics laws. He said he would be the most transparent or “open” president ever, and that he would freeze salaries on all staffers making $100,000 or more. He also vowed to keep lobbyists out of top management posts. 

During the campaign, Obama pledged that “no political appointees in an Obama-Biden administration will be permitted to work on regulations or contracts directly and substantially related to their prior employer for two years. And no political appointees will be able to lobby the executive branch after leaving government service during the remainder of the administration,” according to

However, on January 23rd the White House issued a statement that its new, harsher ethics rules won’t apply to filling the number two position at the Pentagon, candidate for deputy Defense secretary, William Lynn. That’s because Lynn was a lobbyist for the defense contractor Raytheon through January 15th, 2009 (right, 2009, not 2008 or 2007).   

Obama, who has called for a new level of integrity in government (“change you can believe in”), also has two strikes against him for another matter—the number of cabinet choices who have suffered from tax problems, or more specifically, “not paying-taxes” problems.

First, there was Timothy Geithner, who has since been confirmed as Treasury Secretary by the slimmest percentage of victory of any Obama appointee (60-34). He had failed to report $34,000 in taxes. Then comes word that Obama’s choice for Health and Human Services Secretary, former senator Tom Daschle, failed to pay $128,000 that he owed in taxes. Both men had excuses, yet both failed to pass the smell test. 

After all, Geithner, a darling of Wall Street, now has the highest money job in the land—and he didn’t know that he had to pay back taxes?  

Leadership, or more precisely, effective leadership, has a price, and it has to be more than the price of expediency. Obama insists that these men could not be replaced, that they are simply too important to drop, but something has got to give. The unfortunate reality is that a leader cannot simply make these sorts of exceptions when it is convenient to do so. In other words, one more iffy candidate could tip the scales against Obama’s perception as a strong leader, causing his huge popularity to nosedive.    




Book Proposal Secrets

In earlier posts we talked about how to get published, but in general terms. The goal of this entry is to get more specific—to help you to cast your potential project in the best possible light and to put together a package that can capture both the attention and imagination of a book editor at a top tier publisher.

Potential authors often come to me and ask: “I have an idea for a busines book but I don’t know the first thing about how to get started.”  Your chances of getting a book contract lives or dies—not only by the quality of the idea, and yes, your platform—but also by the quality of your book proposal. The proposal is what editors and publishers review to make a “yea” or “nay” publishing decision.  I have seen well-executed proposals make fair ideas seem like great ideas, and I have seen the opposite happen as well. A poorly executed proposal can make a potentially great idea seem dull and commonplace.   

So what are the elements of a great business book proposal?  

* Title and subtitle: The title indicated by the author on the proposal seldom ends up being the actual final title of the book. But, and this is key, publishers take note of the title and subtititle (if there is  a subtitle). It’s the first thing we see. A great title can garner attention right up front (and the opposite can happen with an awful title). Spend time coming up with something that shows you have imagination.   

* Preface or book description: This is the key piece that could make or break the project. In this frontpiece explain exactly what the book is, who it is for, why it is needed, and what makes it unique. Why will a business person spend $25 on it and choose it over proven best-sellers on a crowded bookshelf? If you don’t grab the editor’s attention right away the project will almost assuredly be rejected.

* The book specifications: How big is the book? Is it a short, 175-page book (which are increasingly popular) or a 300-page book? Express the length in number of words as well, if you can (figure about 300-350 words to an actual, typeset book page). Also, how long will it take for you to complete the manuscript?  

* The outline or table of contents: Even if the book is just an idea, you should be able to put together a rough outline. Each and every chapter title is an opportunity to make the book sound compelling. If you are having problems here (or with the preface or description above) go directly to and search “Inside the Book” of business bestsellers such as Good to Great (Collins/Collins), Now Discover Your Strenths (Buckingham & Clifton/S&S), or Free Lunch (Johnston/Portfolio). All of these have cool chapter titles and intros that could inspire you to come up with some great ones on your own.

* A brief analysis of the audience: Even though this is mentioned in the description, it pays to break it out and show that you have a firm grip on who the book is for. For instance, if it is an investing book of some sophistication, it might be for investors who have more than $100,000 in investable income and make their own investing decisions in an on-line account like E*TRADE or Ameritrade.     

* A thorough analysis of the competition: Don’t tell us there is nothing at all like your book. There has got to be something in the same arena, that would be housed on the same shelf as your book (e.g. investing, marketing, management). Tell us why your book is different and better than the rival books. Be specific. Show editors that you know the market and you know the best-selling books in your market.  Again, if you need help, spend time at the biggest bookstore in your neighborhood as well as on-line stores like and 

* One to three sample chapters: they do not need to be the first two. It is more important that they are among the most compelling and informative. One idea might be to send the intro or chapter one (so we get more specific about what the book is), plus one or two of your favorite chapter(s) in the book.  

* Great press items/clippings: When trying to get published, think of yourself as an attorney making your best case to a judge and jury. Exhibits help. Press about you and your company, especially in national magazines, newspapers, etc. can be a huge help. These could be articles or op ed pieces by you or articles in which you are widely quoted. These give you and the project credibility. The same is true for endorsements, but they need to be from people good enough to go on the back of the book jacket.   

* What not to include: Blurbs (endorsements) from middle managers no one ever heard of. That works against you, since it makes it appear that top notch endorsers are beyond your reach. Press pieces from newspapers with tiny subscriber levels (the same is not true for specialty magazines in your field of expertise, those could help). Bad photos of yourself (you would be surprised how many of those we get).

How do you send it? Electronically, via email, is now the most common way to submit a proposal. It allows us to read or skim the proposal whenever and wherever we want, and share more easily with colleages in marketing, publicity and sales. Be sure to include a compelling cover letter in addition to the attachments. Everyone in publishing has a blackberry, so even if traveling or on the move, they will get a sense of your project without having to open an attached file.

If you have any questions about any of this, don’t be afraid to fire off a question to me.   

  • Find It

  • Sign up!

    Enter your e-mail address to receive notifications in your inbox when there are new posts

  • The Unforced Error

      The Unforced Error

  • Sneak Peek - Chapter One!

    Source Notes