For business leaders, publishing a book can mean greater credibility, bigger sales, lucrative speaking engagements, and other career and business benefits. But "getting a book deal" isn’t as simply as penning a manuscript and selling it. If you’re ready to put your message in a book, here are seven insights that will make you look less like a newbie as you navigate the road to landing a book deal.
"First and foremost, we really look for an exciting and commercial concept that is well-executed and well-written," says Jennifer Schuster, executive editor at Penguin Random House. Even though many books cover familiar territory, it’s essential to set yourself apart by bringing your unique experiences, voice, and brand to the topic, she says. A unique perspective can make a familiar topic seem new.
However, even the best idea is going to be a tough sell if the author doesn’t have a following or platform. It’s increasingly important, Schuster says. "It’s a very crowded and noisy marketplace, and really important for authors to bring to the table their own platform and channel for reaching potential readers," she says.
But platform means more than thousands of social media followers, although many publishers like to see those numbers in at least the five-figure range. Literary agent Joy Tutela with the David Black Literary Agency says the first thing she looks for in an author’s platform is his or her speaking schedule. When an author is regularly booked for speaking engagements about his or her topic, that represents a commitment to sharing the idea as well as an avenue for book sales, she says.
Schuster values a strong email newsletter program more than an unengaged social media following. But be prepared to show how you’re going to get the word out about your book to interested readers. It’s important to show that people are engaged.
A business author should think of his or her book as a new product launch, says Stephen S. Power, senior editor at business publisher Amacom. Scour bookshelves to see if there’s a hole in the market. What can your book add or improve upon in its subject area? Why will people choose your book rather than the other titles on the shelf? Tutela works with authors to help them understand how similar books have sold to prove that there is a market for the book. Nielsen Book Scan is a subscription service that reports book sales numbers.
It’s also important to notice what’s selling. Right now, Power is seeing books sell on engagement and retention. He predicts that Amacom’s forthcoming The 10 Laws of Trust by JetBlue CEO Joel Peterson "will be huge." Business books are typically prescriptive—a successful book will have solutions. Tutela says stories with a unique hero's journey—such as #Girlboss by Sophia Amoruso or New Rules of the Game: 10 Strategies for Women in the Workplace by HGTV cofounder Susan Packard—are perennial favorites. Schuster is seeing personalized business books do well, such as LaLa Anthony’s The Power Playbook.
A typical agent commission is 15% of your advance—the amount of money the publisher pays you to write the book—and royalties. However, he or she can be invaluable in finding the right editors to review your book, heading off contract issues, and helping you get the best deal possible. Power says it’s not necessary for all authors to have an agent—he reviews books from authors without them—but some publishing houses don’t take books from authors without representation, so having one expands your pool of potential publishers, Power says.
"If you're looking for a traditional book deal at a major publishing company, I do recommend working with an agent to find the best editors that are right for the book at the right imprint within the publishing company, and also to help advocate for the author and navigate the process," Schuster says.
How do you find the right agent? Tutela suggests looking in the acknowledgements section of favorite business books to see which agent is thanked, or to seek referrals from other authors. Publishers Marketplace is a subscription service that allows you to search for agents by subject matter expertise. When you find an agent you like, send a letter of introduction and offer to share your book proposal.
Nonfiction books are often sold through a proposal rather than a completed manuscript, so don’t feel like you have to dash off 60,000 or 70,000 words before you can sell your book. A proposal resembles a business plan and includes the overview of the book and its contents, as well as descriptions of competing books in the marketplace, information about the author’s platform and how he or she will promote the book, and other elements.
A good agent can help you work on the proposal and tweak the idea so that it’s compelling, Schuster says. The publisher may also have ideas on how to structure or change the book to make it more marketable.
If you have a great idea and platform, you may be able to land a good deal, but you’re not going to get J.K. Rowling money for it. Advances for first-time business authors vary greatly. At smaller publishers, the advance may be as little as a few thousand dollars.
Schuster says that she’s seen advances for business books rise in recent years, and it’s possible for an author with a strong, engaged platform to get an advance as high as the mid-six figures. However, what you can expect will vary tremendously based on the author, platform, potential market, publisher's budget, and other factors. Authors should also be prepared to be very involved in the sales, marketing, and promotion of the book, as publishing companies have so many competing titles and marketing resources may be stretched thin, she says. But business authors who can integrate a book into their business and are able to promote it regularly have an advantage that may translate to greater book sales, she says.