I must forewarn you that I am an optimist at heart and always will be. However, I am also a pragmatist and have learned that “facing reality” is one of the most important business philosophies if one is to succeed. That said, I believe 2010 is going to be a very good year for business books.
2009 was anything but.
Many publishers were forced to scale back their programs, lay off scores of good editors, marketing people, and other professionals—all while combining and reorganizing various imprints. They did all of this against an ugly backdrop of an awful economy and a liquidity and housing crisis that sunk the Dow to multi-year lows in March of 2009. If you are wondering what the Dow has to do with business book publishing, the answer is “everything.”
Sales of business books—all business books, not just investing and finance titles—are very much dependent upon a strong stock market. Now that the Dow is over 10,000 once again and consumer confidence is up for the second month in a row, sales of business books will likely improve in the first quarter of 2010. However, we are not out of the woods yet. We are still seeing publishers continuing to cut positions and reorganize publishing divisions. But I believe that we are in the seventh inning on that—much nearer to the end than the beginning. Those publishers that do not cut back so sharply will fare the best when things turn around. Some publishers are positioning themselves to come out on top by continuing to aggressively acquire new titles to be published in 2010 and 2011. Of course, a great deal depends on the books and publishing programs of various houses. Unfortunately, several topics have already been over-published—think Bernie Madoff and the Liquidity crisis— and that trend will continue (publishers always follow trends and tend to saturate markets very quickly).
However, there are many great business editors out there who are acquiring and publishing original and compelling books. These innovators will be the ones most amply rewarded when the economy comes back. And the economy and the financial markets always come back…eventually. I happen to be one of those who believe that it will be sooner rather than later.
The most common question I get from first time (0r even second time) authors focuses on how the publishing process works: How do I get started? How do we make sure that publishers will be interested in my book ideas? How do I set my work apart from the pack? These are good questions, and the answer to them are all the same.
It all starts with a killer book proposal.
Much to many authors’ surprise, it is a rare event that a publisher gets an entire manuscript in the mail. Instead, publishers get book proposals to review. And while no two proposals are constructed exactly the same way, the best of them contain the same elements—those key segments that all editors look for. The purpose of this posting is to give you an idea of exactly what needs to be included in every business book proposal. For those “big” books—one that you feel could break out and make a bestseller list—your proposal should run about 50 pages in length. That’s what is required to give editors and publishers a complete, three-dimensional picture of your book. As to what should be included, consider the following:
* A 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 overview of the book should not only paint a vivid picture of your book, it should also be written to draw readers in. This first critical section of the proposal should run about four to six pages but could be longer or shorter depending on the book topic, what you intend to write in other parts of the proposal, etc.
* 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? This could be part of the synopsis of the book or could be written as a separate—albeit brief—section of the proposal. The key here is to make your book sound like a “must have,” rather than a “nice to have.”
* 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? If it is a leadership book, is it for “C suite” executives? Or is it for most anyone who sits in a cubicle? This section can be written in a couple of paragraphs, but is nonetheless important.
* Competing books:tell us what books are closest in content to your book. However, this is a bit tricky. The key is to include books that are not only similar to yours, but have also sold well. You may not know which books are successful, so this is one key area for your literary agent to step in and help. Most agents subscribe to a service which includes the sales records of all books published in the U.S. One additional note of caution: you should not include books that have sold hundreds of thousands of books, especially if you are a first time author or someone with anything less than a spectacular track record. Including blockbusters as competitors will make editors think you have unrealistic expectations or even a bit delusional.
* 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 should be included. Is this a 150-page book or a 350-page book? This is the section that gives editors real insight into the length and level of the book you intend to write.
* A chapter-by-chapter summary: These are crucial, and should run one-to-two pages in length. This is where you put the meat on the bone and give editors real detail on the content of the book. Make sure you include a table of contents first, and then list every chapter title followed by a detailed description of all of the key topics to be included in the book. This is the longest part of the proposal. If you have, say, a fifteen chapter book, then this section should run about 20-30 pages.
* One complete chapter: This is particularly important, especially if you are a first-time author. This shows publishers how talented you are as a writer, while also providing the most amount of detail on one particular topic in the book. Make sure you select a chapter that really is pivotal to the book, and one that you know very well. It should also be one of the most interesting chapters in the book.
* Your bio and platform: This is yet another critical—and usually the final—part of the book proposal. However, your platform—those things that you do that will help sell copies of the book, re: seminars, speeches, TV appearances, social networking presence, etc.—is so important that I usually ask authors to include aspects of the author platform throughout the proposal. For example, if you are an author that appears three times a week on a cable news channel, then you might even lead with that way back in beginning, in the synopsis of the book. The key here is to use your judgment, and remember that the author platform is one of the most important determinants of whether or not a publisher (or multiple publishers) will make an offer on your book.
Many of the best books that I have worked on over the years have had a ghost writer. There is absolutely nothing wrong with bringing on a professional writer to help you to repair or write your book from scratch. I have always believed that if you’re not a “natural” scribe, then bringing someone on board to help transform your idea into a reality makes perfect sense.
I am also of the school of thought that it is best to hire a writer at the beginning of the process—not in the middle or the end. I learned this lesson the hard way. Once a project goes off the wheels, it is a difficult task to get it back on track. Starting out with the correct writer gives you the best chance of success—and will help you to complete the job much faster than if you have to find a “book doctor” months down the road (I have worked on scores of books at all points of completion and have produced the best books when facing blank pages at the project’s birth).
Once you establish the point that you need a ghost writer, it is best to find someone who speaks in your tongue. An example: when I worked at Portfolio (Penguin), I signed an author who told me he decided to publish with us because I spoke the language of finance/investing. That worked out very well, as it allowed us to collaborate much more closely than would have been possible with the publisher he eschewed in favor of us. That book ultimately garnered incredible reviews and sold close to 100,000 copies.
History and experience are the keys to finding the right author. I have been investing in the stock market since I was 13, and held the title of Publisher of Investing and Finance unit when at McGraw-Hill. It was at McGraw that I worked with investment titans Jack Bogle, Jeremy Siegel and Charlie Ellis.
So if you are writing a management book, make sure that the writer speaks management, a finance book needs someone who knows investing, and so on. You may have to pay more for the right author, but this is not the place to be stingy. Good business authors are in very short supply; that is why they are expensive, and exceptional authors even more so. But remember, this is a book that has your good name on it—one that you will have to live with for many years to come.
I talk to dozens of authors who have written one book without the benefit of an agent who realize the error of their ways, and search out an agent for book number two. That makes perfect sense. They tried doing everything themselves first time around, so they look for professional help for their next outing. However, in the majority of these cases, Book 1 did not sell well, and might have even been an outright bomb. That usually makes the next conversation with that author a difficult one.
But isn’t the mere experience of writing a book and getting it published something that editors like?
The answer is an unequivocal no—if that first book bombed.
In this difficult sales environment—or any sales environment—you are only as good as your last book. That’s why it is better to have zero track record, a clean slate, than to have a poor track record. And it does not matter why the first book failed. Publishers and booksellers don’t care why a book failed, just that it did. That’s why it is so important to make sure that you put your best foot forward in Book 1, and not “experiment” with a marginal idea. Here is where a good literary agent can really help. An experienced business book editor has a pretty good idea of what kind of business book has a reasonable chance of success. So the moral of the story: get a literary agent as early in your book writing career as possible. If a book writing career is important to you, securing an agent may save you years of heartache down the line.
If you have worked for a large company for any length of time, chances are that your firm has been involved in multiple mergers and/or acquisitions. This phenomenon has become a more prominent part of big company life since the 1980s, and the publishing industry has been a prime example of the kind of consolidation I am talking about.
In fact, almost every company I ever worked with was either acquired or was a frequent “acquirer.” After starting at Prentice-Hall in 1982, Simon & Schuster purchased Prentice-Hall in 1984, in one of the first major major publishing acquisitions. Later I worked for a small division of a larger [textbook] publisher—Dow Jones-Irwin—a tiny publisher of financial books for professionals. All of Irwin and Dow Jones-Irwin was soon sold to Times Mirror (publisher of the Los Angeles Times). Less than a decade later, the company was sold again to publishing giant McGraw-Hill.
Overall, Hollywood has not done a great job depicting mergers or acquisitions on the big screen. Wall Street—released in 1987, directed by Oliver Stone and starring Michael Douglas and Charlie Sheen—is probably the best example of showing how Wall Street actually operates. The line in the movie uttered by Douglas’ character, Gordon Gekko, “Greed is good,” was actually taken from the playbook of former Wall Street inside trader Ivan Boesky (who spent years in prison for insider trading).
Barbarians at the Gate (based on the bestselling book), starring James Garner—released in 1993 on HBO—did a great job of depicting the greed-gone-wild decade of the 1980s, at least in a campy way. It gave people a behind-the-scenes look at the wheeling and dealing on a multi-billion-dollar scale and what people will do when there is that much blood in the water. However, neither of the aforementioned movies showed what it was really like to be one of the employees or managers of a company about to be taken over. At least, they didn’t make you feel it.
That’s where the AMC show Mad Men comes into play. Set in the 1960s, this award-winning show about the early years of advertising and Madison Avenue is known for its authenticity and strong writing. Its third season finale gave people a real feel for what it is like to be taken over by what one character called a “sausage factory.”
This exchange tells the tale: the often unsympathetic but always interesting Don Draper blasts this out to the head of his soon-to-be-acquired-for-the-second-time-in-a- year-company—Bert Cooper:
“Who the hell’s in charge? Accountants that want to turn a dollar into a dollar-ten? I want to work. I want to build something of my own.”
That brief excerpt sums up the frustration of the millions of employees and managers that have been swept up in the merger mania of the last 25 years. People want to work and build things, and in the U.S. we have sometimes forgotten that. Instead, we have moved trillions of dollars and made a mess of the financial system and in turn the economy as a whole. In other words, we have created a culture in which making and moving money has replaced making and moving real goods.
In that Mad Men finale, the managers of the business find a way to get out of their contracts and start their own company—Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. While that show was terrific and genuine for its time, that could not happen today. That’s because lawyers have gotten much more involved in corporations over the last decades, and today, almost all company contracts contain non-compete clauses. Still, I urge people to get their hands on that last episode of the third season, just to feel what it is like when your company goes from one “John’s bed to another,” which is the way the fictional character Roger Sterling summed up what was about to happen to the company he worked so hard to build.