This is just one more reality of the business book market: from management to personal finance, from leadership to real estate, every business book market is over-crowded. This comes as no surprise to business book editors and publishers, who know intuitively that this is simply a given. Nonetheless, it makes the job of a literary agent or editor all the more complex.
For acquisition editors, most of which have a quota to fill (e.g. acquire 20 books per year), this reality makes their lives truly difficult. The same is true for agents, who also hope to thread the needle with each book project by putting a new spin on a topic that has likely been covered to death. I am not saying that there are no new ideas under the sun—of course there are. However, discovering those niches becomes increasingly difficult with each passing publishing season.
That’s why the author platform (the author’s ability to help sell his or her book) has emerged as one of the two top criteria editors use in evaluating the viability of business book projects (the other is the quality of the idea). Those authors who are hugely successful bloggers, give dozens of speeches per year, do extensive consulting, appear often on cable news channels, etc., will always be looked upon far more favorably than those authors who do not have these things going for them.
But this isn’t all bad, as it forces authors to not only think outside the box but to throw the box out altogether. This means coming up with new research areas, new concepts (even if that entails putting a new spin on an “old” idea), marketing themselves in new ways and more. The good news is that this is happening and people are buying good business books in fairly robust numbers, even during this last disastrous recession.
So rather than be intimidated by the glut of books out there, use it to sharpen your ideas, become far more aggressive in your efforts to be published (and in marketing your book later), and don’t let anyone ever talk you out of pursuing your passion. For it is passion that often separates the old ideas from the new and exciting concepts that can catapult your next book on to the bestseller list.
Writing for the money is almost always a losing proposition. At least that has been my experience, and I say that as an editor, publisher, literary agent and writer. Don’t get me wrong. Writers of course have to eat. But the best books always seem to come from people who are on a mission—a mission to spread whatever gospel they feel needs to be heard by the masses. Put another way, it is the most passionate of authors who have the best chance of capturing the hearts and minds of readers. And the financials seldom favor the business book author.
Since the average business book sells fewer than 2,500 copies its first year (and far fewer in subsequent years), the hundreds of hours necessary to write one means that the author earns little more than minimum wage. There are of course the breakout books that earn the most gifted authors hundreds of thousands of dollars—even millions—but the Malcolm Gladwell’s and Jim Collins’ of the world are a very rare breed indeed.
So what’s the moral of the story? Once you discover what you are most passionate amount, write about that. If you are truly fortunate, then what turns you on the most will also turn on a substantial enough audience to make you a genuine success.
Not finishing manuscripts by due date is one of the realities that all first-time authors must confront head on. They need to accept this so that they can counter it and take measures to either finish on time or let their publisher know the “real” date the book will be finished and delivered. Even professional writers who pen for magazines, newspapers, professional journals, or any other media—other than books—underestimate the amount of time needed to finish a book.
Why do first time authors get the timing so wrong?
I think it has a lot to do with the medium itself. Writing a book is obviously not the same as writing an article. The average business book contains more than 70,000 words. But length isn’t the only culprit. Books must be carefully organized, strike the correct writing style and tone throughout, contain new, original material/research, and that’s just for starters. The other factor seldom talked about is the “connective tissue” that must be used throughout the book to hold the entire contraption together. That connective tissue must connect words to sentences, sentences to paragraphs, paragraphs to chapters, and so on. It is this reality that trips up so many authors. They write great chapters but when they read the entire first draft is simply does not read like a single, cohesive work in which style and content flow smoothly.
To solve this—work with your agent, editor, or some other peer reviewer early on. Ask him or her to read early chapters and drafts and to be on the lookout for anything that might derail the book. Confronting these realities from the outset is the best way to ensure that you do not fall into the classic traps that trip up first-time authors.
1. Writing your first book always takes longer than you think.
2. Writing for the money is always a losing proposition.
3. Every business category is overcrowded and over-published.
4. Authors that have no time to write books write the best ones.
5. No author should entrust her publisher with 100 percent of the marketing of her book. It’s more like 50-50, with the author responsible for half of her own promotional campaign.
6. Authors who fall in love with their own words write the most boring books.
7. Like a trial attorney who represents himself at trial, representing yourself [as an author] ensures that you, too, have a fool for a client.
I expect to elaborate on some of these in the days and weeks ahead. Please come back often as I will be blogging three times a week in the near future (I have been posting twice a week) .
Here is a common scenario: an author writes a business book proposal and sends it to one or two publishing houses. One publisher expresses interest and asks the author how much he was thinking in terms of royalties and advance money. It is at that time that the author realizes he is over his head: he has no idea how much his book is worth, or what she should be asking for in terms of royalties. He now knows he needs help in the form of a literary agent.
Is it too late to bring in an agent at that moment in time?
The answer is no.
As long as you haven’t discussed the money and royalty part of the deal, it is certainly not too late to bring in an agent. This happens all of the time. But once you reach some “handshake agreement” with a publisher, then there is little a literary agent can do to help you. At least, not in the financial arena. But that isn’t all bad. One of the greatest things about the publishing business is that a handshake is still a handshake. Sure, a lawyer or two might tell you that until you have a written agreement, you don’t really have a deal. But I will never do business that way (nor would most agents). A handshake—in person or via email or phone— has always been as ironclad as a contract in my book, and should be in yours as well.
So what’s the takeaway? If you can, bring in an agent as early in the process as possible. And if you think you might bring in an agent at a later date, then do not make the mistake of talking money with editors/publishers prematurely.
I often come across gun shy authors who spend months toiling away at their great American business book and never show a page to a soul. They do this out of fear—fear that what they are writing isn’t good enough to share with anyone, or fearful that their best ideas will be stolen by the first unscrupulous individual who gets his dirty little hands on the work.
Not sharing drafts of chapters with experts or colleagues harms only the writer.
First, all of us who write business books should recognize that we are not Ernest Hemingway or Mark Twain—-we are not writing the great American novel. I can understand a novelist not wanting to share his manuscript until it is ready for prime time. But a business book is a different animal. I cannot recall any incident of an author telling me that his or her ideas were stolen by someone that read an early draft of a manuscript. That just doesn’t happen, especially since you get to choose who reads it.
As an editor, I was always pleased when an author told me that he had shared his manuscript with three or four colleagues at other business schools (when an author was a B-school professor). Similarly, I was delighted when a C-suite executive author told me that he had shared his manuscript with his five direct reports. This kind of early feedback can be extremely valuable and help an author to keep the book very much on track. It is easy for authors, particularly first time authors, to lose their way as early as page 1 of a book. By having outside peer reviewers, the chances of that happening go down dramatically.
If you are going to have an outside person read your draft (even if it is only a draft of a proposal or a few chapters), you will be well served by sending over a cover memo asking certain key questions of your readers. This way, you can direct their focus. Here are a few sample questions:
* Is the premise of the book crystal clear? If not, what can I add to the book to make it clearer?
* What are the strengths and weaknesses of the manuscript?
* What topics/chapters are missing from the book should be added, and what chapters or sections could be eliminated?
Those are just a few examples of what you might ask a reader/peer reviewer. The key is to get as much feedback as early in the process as possible, so when you do approach publishers, the work will be as polished and refined as possible.
In addition to the quality of the book proposal, the next most important factor in determining a publisher’s interest in a project involves the author’s “platform.” In fact, platform is now the most overused word in the publishing lexicon. It refers to all of the things that an author can do to help sell his or her own book. No author should ever entrust the entire job of selling and marketing his book to the publisher; that is a prescription for failure. In these hyper-competitive, turbulent times, the author’s marketing efforts often mean the difference between success and failure for a book.
So what are some of the key ingredients in an author platform? Here are some, in no particular order:
* How many speeches do you make in a year?: The most successful authors give as many as 80-100 speeches each year and make their book a mandatory part of the author “fee.”
* How many seminars and how much consulting do you do?: Once again, the best authors are very active in training and consulting so that when the book is published, he or she already has a built-in customer base.
* How many copies are you willing to buy: When the author is a C-suite executive in a medium-to-large sized business (or the head of their own small business), he or she will buy, say, 5,000 copies of his or her own book to give to clients/prospective clients. In doing so, an author uses the book as a sophisticated calling card to build the business.
* What is your Web presence?: Once again, the most successful authors, like super-blogger Seth Godin, have a great on-line following. And the sooner the author gets his website—geared to the book—up and running, the better. It often takes years to build traffic on a website. Twitter is also an important marketing tool and is getting hotter by the day.
* How did your last book do? This is also a critical element. If your last book sold, say, 40,000 copies, then booksellers are far more likely to place a big initial order for your new book. The number of copies a book “advances” – the number of pre-orders it garners or “laydown” – is another key to a book’s success.
These are just five keys to an author platform and are among the most important ones. In the weeks ahead I will add to this list and delve into some of the less obvious ones.
Two of the most important [initial] tasks of any good literary agent is to help authors develop winning ideas and assist them in constructing a proposal which captures the essence of that great idea. This is almost always easier ssaid than done because there is something of an art to writing persuasive business book proposals. One reason for that is there are few new ideas under the sun.
With more than 10,000 business books published each year in the United States, it is hard to write anything that seems fresh and new, let alone unique. The best proposals come from authors who work closely with someone who knows a great deal about the business book business—and, more often than not, that person will be his or her literary agent. These initial steps are so important that I suggest you find out just how much help your agent will provide for you before signing with that [or any] literary agency.
These first steps are all about process. In my experience the best proposals emerge from an iterative process in which the author and agent work on the “master” version of the proposal before sending it back to the other. This method ensures a process of continuous improvement. It also ensures that the strengths of the author and the agent will be reflected in the final version—which will in turn increase the chances that the project will garner one or multiple offers from the publishing community.
Once a publisher buys the book, then the editor enters the picture and the improvement process can continue (not only with the proposal and outline, but with chapters and the entire manuscript). Remember, no one has a monopoly on great ideas, so it is critical for the author to maintain an open mind throughout the entire book writing experience.