I can’t help it. I am starting to feel more optimistic about things than I have in years. Sure, there are still huge problems with the economy—banks are still in trouble, unemployment is still at a multi-decade high and likely to go higher, and the global economy is still in the throes of a deep recession. But with the Dow now above 9,000 again, I can’t help but feel things are going to get better across the board. That’s because 9,000 feels like only a stone’s throw away from 10,000— which represents a huge psychological barrier that may bring back even shell shocked investors.
What does this have to do with business book sales? Plenty.
Some years ago, one of the business book buyers of one of the big chains told me if you want to know how business book sales are doing, watch the Dow. I corrected him by saying that he must be talking about investing books, but he corrected me right back and said “no, Jeffrey, all business books move with the Dow.” That buyer worked for Border’s Bookstore, and even that store represents a reason for optimism. Border’s got itself into huge financial bind late last year and at one point this year its stock traded for 34 cents a share! Incredible, considering it is the third most important account for business book sales (behind Barnes & Noble and Amazon). Today the stock has increased more than 1,000 percent from its low, giving us all hope that the company will survive.
I never like to say I told you so, but when the Dow was at 6,500 I proclaimed, on this site, that this represented an incredible buying opportunity in the stock market. Unless we see the Dow lose a few thousand points, my prediction, made in the first quarter of this year, will prove to be an auspicious one. As the Dow continues to rise, I believe we will see sales of business books pick up real steam as we head into the fall. But this prediction is dependent on so many factors out of any one’s control. Still, I stick by it. After all—all we need is another thousand points in the Dow— something I believe we will get by late 2009 or early 2010.
In the last post I talked about how to make sure you are describing the competition accurately—and how to ensure that it casts your book in the best possible light. It is also critical for you to accurately describe the audience that you are attempting to reach as well.
For example, let’s say you are writing a management book that is appropriate for most any manager or aspiring manager. It is important to spell that out, and offer a well-articulated explanation of why you feel that your book has such broad appeal. Conversely, if your book is only for a slice of the market, say senior management, then it is important to say that as well. In the case of the latter —a niche book—it is even more important to explain why top executives will see your book as an important one that will help them run their organizations. That’s because there are far fewer potential buyers for this book than the one written for [all] managers. As such, you need a really compelling “package” in order to attract that high level audience.
The same principle holds true in virtually all business disciplines. For example, in the financial world, there are several sub-categories within the overall category of finance or investing: the lowest level is personal finance. These books are for people who know little (or nothing) about investing. Suze Orman generally writes for this large audience—the most basic level of investing. Then there are books for people who have their own brokerage accounts and routinely make their own investment decisions. They may have $100,000 or more in these self-directed accounts. This category is known generally as “investing.” And then there is the book written for investment/financial professionals, a market which has shrunken considerably as a result of the great mortgage meltdown of the last two years. This is known as professional finance and other names that begin with the word “professional.” It is, of course, the smallest segment of the financial bookshelf. (that’s why publishers are delighted when they sell a couple thousand copies of a $75 book).
If you are not exactly sure of your intended audience, it may indicate an even bigger problem. In that case, I urge you to speak to your literary agent who should be able to help you to clarify things and get that part—and all parts—of the proposal right.
One vital aspect of any good book proposal involves a thorough analysis of your book vs. the competition. The books you designate as potential competitors to yours will help the publisher to better understand and position your book. Execute this part well and you may very well convince an editor to take a closer look at your book. However, the opposite is true as well. Choose a bad array of books and you can easily turn off many an editor.
There are certain rules you should follow when compiling this important part of the proposal:
* When identifying potential competitors, include only books that performed at least reasonably well. This is the biggest mistake authors make. The majority of authors include books that closely resemble their book in content, regardless of how well that book performed. That’s an unforced error. In these challenging times you cannot afford to include books that were dead on arrival when they hit bookstore shelves.
* Conversely, be very careful not to select books that sold millions of copies: In the early 1980s, after In Search of Excellence was published, every book proposal that came to me claimed to be the “next In Search of Excellence.” There is no such thing. “Phenomenon books” (my term)—like Excellence, The One Minute Manager, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Good to Great, Who Moved my Cheese—are impossible to duplicate. Unless you have incredible credentials, you need to designate competitors that fall between “dead on arrival” and mega-national bestseller.
* Look for books that sold 15,000 – 30,000 copies the first year: That’s about the sweet spot for first time authors. These are typically books that you have heard of before, but are not household names. How can you find such titles? Your literary agent can help you here. If he or she knows the business category, they should have no problem helping you to finalize the books you choose to include in your packet of materials.
Last, don’t be lazy by just listing the books and their authors. Tell us in the proposal how your book will differ from the competitors, and how your book will stand out in an incredibly crowded market.
One of the chief activities of my new company will be to ghostwrite books for first rate authors who haven’t the time, patience, or inclination to write entire books on their own. As an editor/publisher of nearly three decades, I can honestly say that I have ghost written scores of books; however, in most instances we didn’t call it ghostwriting.
Sometimes there is a fine line between thoroughly editing a book and ghostwriting one, and sometimes the difference is so great you can drive a truck through it. It all depends on the starting point. Are you starting out with a manuscript that is in decent shape but may require some organizing and rewriting? That’s probably an edit. Or, are you starting with a manuscript that needs help from the table of contents to the last page? Or something in between? The truth is, it doesn’t matter what you call it. I have always had a passion for helping authors to get their books just right. In doing so, I have identified a few rules which should be observed if you are going to get the [ghostwriting] job done—and done well:
* Always remember that it is not your book—it is the author’s—and you’re not him. That means you must abandon your writing style in order to get the author’s voice down just right. Remember, this is not your book so your voice doesn’t matter.
* Spend enough time—on the phone or in person—with the author to understand her needs and her goals. Once again, you must put your personal goals aside in favor of the author’s. Find out from the start what the author is trying to accomplish with the book, his or her key goals, priorities, etc.
* Experiment with different techniques to get the content and the tone just right. For example, I found that interviewing the author by speaker phone with a good tape recorder at hand is a great way to ensure that you are getting the right content and prioritizing the right topics, etc.
* Treat each project as if it was your last, because it just might be. Publishing is a relatively small industry. Everyone knows everyone and your reputation will likely precede you. So give each project your all. It is absolutely critical that you please both of your clients—the author and the editor/publisher. Leave nothing on the court or in the locker room.
In my new position as head of my own literary agency, I am reaching out and beginning to work with several top notch, first time authors. I am urging these budding authors to make sure that their first book really counts, that is, to make sure that they go with an idea that has a high probability of success (which is no easy feat, especially in these tough times).
Why is it so important that your first book succeed?
It is critical because your first book will “brand” you as an author. If your first book is a standout hit, and sells, say, 25,000 copies its first year, the buyers from Barnes & Noble, Border’s, and other book buyers will see you as a genuine success. When it comes to making key decisions on your next book, they are far more likely to purchase many more copies of Book II, and might place them in better locations around the store (e.g. “New in Business”). Success breeds success is certainly a truism in business book publishing.
Of course, the opposite is also true, and therein lies the rub. If your first book tanks (and sells, say, 2,000 copies), then those same stores are far more likely to take far fewer copies of your next book. And they are far less likely to want to put that book in a [publisher paid] promotion that would guarantee better store placement.
So make sure you lead with your very best idea, one that you are really passionate about, and one that has a unique selling proposition that will capture the hearts and minds of an increasingly skeptical business book consumer.
Since our economy has fallen off a cliff (not quite, but just about), risk has become a 4-letter word. After all, it was by taking on terribly risky investments (mortgage-backed securities) that our nation’s banks got into so much trouble. As a result, our financial markets plummeted—creating an entire new generation that associates risk with disaster.
That is a most unfortunate turn of events.
From a historical perspective, our entire global economy is based on risk. Had our forefathers not risked everything to found a free nation, there would have been no fourth of July (not to mention a United States). Also, every great company started as a risky endeavor. That’s why, ironically, the avoidance of risk may be the riskiest move of all, as individuals, and as a nation as a whole. Let’s start with the latter.
Given the turbulence that still exists in our economy, just about everybody is afraid to do anything. Few senior managers are making bold moves. Employers do not want to take a risk and hire new people. Individuals—afraid for their jobs and their futures—are not spending money on big ticket items, so once strong companies like General Motors and Circuit City are in bankruptcy. Unemployment is nearing 10%, and it could easily go higher. As a result of all of the “non-spending,” our economy is contracting, keeping us mired in a deep recession with no quick fix or easy way out in sight.
While it is difficult to blame people for saving more in this uncertain economy, it is worth noting that it has almost always been the American consumer which has come to the rescue and helped to make the nation’s economic trains run on time. On the business front, entrepreneurs have been, and will continue to be, the lifeblood of our economy. Having just taken the plunge by starting a new company, I can tell you that it feels damned good to take a risk of this magnitude. So the next time you come to a crossroads, consider taking the road least taken. No risk, no reward. I am not advocating betting the house at every turn, but don’t put your money—or your life—under the proverbial mattress.