Happy New Year, Friends and Colleagues!
As a reminder, this is a 12-month series on “things people ask me.” In my nearly three decades in the learning industry — as product developer, R&D executive, consultant, speaker, and author — I’ve been asked for advice on a lot of things. Some of that advice is worth sharing, I think.
So, I’m offering up one Q&A per month, plus News and Events (scroll down). I hope you find it useful. If you don’t, feel free to click the Unsubscribe link at the bottom. And see JocelynRDavis.com for past issues.
PEOPLE ASK ME
How does a non-famous individual sell a nonfiction book to a publisher?
With my third book under contract, I feel I’ve learned a lot about what it takes to sell a nonfiction book. (And yes, you have to sell it every time — unless you’re a name brand on the level of a Jim Collins or a Marshall Goldsmith, which I’m not, and you’re probably not either, or you wouldn’t be reading this.)
These days, of course, we non-famous authors have many options. Self-publishing and hybrid publishing (whereby you and a publisher share the costs of publication) are increasingly viable methods. If you have a mystery, a romance, a sci-fi novel, or any other kind of genre fiction, or if you have a very tactical self-help book aimed at a niche audience (20th-century Vespa Repair for the Mechanically Inept), self-publishing could well be the way to go. Those authors can do extremely well on Amazon, mostly using e-book formats. And with self-publishing, you get to keep about 70% of the take, rather than the 10-15% in royalties you’ll get from a traditional publisher.
But for a business book (or any nonfiction book) with a broad target audience and a fairly serious message, a traditional publisher is still likely to be your best bet. What publishers have (and we don’t) are three things:
- Distribution: Publishers have sales forces with access to and knowledge of the many channels out to readers, including (very important, IMO) global channels.
- Book expertise: Publishers know how to shape, edit, design, position, package, and produce books. These are big deals; no matter how great a writer you are, you need that help.
- Prestige: Business and nonfiction readers still value the stamp of approval–the assurance, if you will–that comes with a book from an established publisher.
So, suppose you’ve decided to try for a traditional publisher. I won’t go into the process here; the best source of information on that is AgentQuery.com, which offers tons of detailed advice on how to find a literary agent (through whom you approach the Big 5 publishers) and/or an independent publisher (of which there are many and which can be approached directly).
Bottom line: Like any sales process, it’s a numbers game, and the key is to work the numbers and be insanely persistent. That said, you can increase your chances of a sale if you understand that the one thing publishers want above all else is evidence that you can and will create demand for the book.
“Huh?” you say. “Isn’t it their job to create demand?”
Not the way they see it. Publishers are producers and distributors, not demand-creators or marketers. For one thing, they don’t have time. For another, it’s just not their area. They are going to look to you, the author, to be the lead marketer for your book.
Here are the top 5 ways to show them you can and will be that marketer:
- List your speaking engagements. Speakers sell books, and publishers know it. Maybe you’re not a speaker, but a professor, teacher, or workshop facilitator; that’s just as good. Maybe you do webinars; that’s almost as good. Maybe you don’t get paid for these gigs; that’s fine. The more people you’re in front of each year, paid or not, the more publishers will like you.
- Demonstrate impressive expertise. If you’re not famous, your “platform” is your expertise. Say you’ve spent 25 years teaching negotiation skills; that’s a great platform for a book about negotiation. Trot out all your titles past and present, all your degrees, all your published writings, all your association and board and university affiliations, and all your testimonials. You are themaven on this stuff. Say it loud and proud.
- List contacts you can target for bulk sales. The holy grail for business and how-to books is the bulk sale, whether to a corporation, an educational institution, a nonprofit, or an association. Show the publisher you can bring them lots of valuable leads for a bulk-sales strategy, and their ears will perk up.
- Write well (or find a co-author who does). You may have heard that writing quality doesn’t matter. That’s not true. For non-famous authors, especially, writing quality is critical and may be what seals the deal. Editors want to bring strong, engaging, insightful writing to an audience. They need to count on you to get that manuscript done, and done well, without much help from them. They also want and need great reviews for their books–and great writing is what earns great reviews.
- Signal your interest in buying books. Business publishers in the US have perfected the model of having companies author books and buy a whole bunch, thereby guaranteeing their ROI. If you are a sole proprietor who can’t afford to buy a thousand copies of your book, you are, quite frankly, at a disadvantage. But all is not lost. Hit the mark on the other four tips and be willing to buy at least some books (for your workshops, to give to contacts, etc.), and you’ll be fine.
One more thing: Publishers will ask you to talk about social media activity in your proposal. It’s important to show presence in the form of a website, activity on major platforms (I do mostly Twitter and Facebook, plus some LinkedIn), a blog or newsletter, and articles you’ve had published in trade journals and such. But unless this stuff has led to major media attention–like an interview on CNN, an op-ed in the WSJ, an appearance on Oprah–it’s just price of admission. Don’t count on it to sell your book. The five points above matter a lot more.
I’m always happy to share advice with aspiring nonfiction authors! Please email me if you’d like to chat: JocelynRDavis@gmail.com
news and events
- Have we been asking the wrong question about leadership? Check out this video clip of my recent talk at the Culture Ambassadors Retreat in Santa Fe.
- I’m thrilled to be working again with my dream business partner, Dr. Maggie Walsh, on a brand-new career workshop for college students. Now What? The Career Workshop teaches how to turn your unique strengths into short- and long-term professional success. Our first pilot is being sponsored by the career development team at St John’s College, Santa Fe, on February 17.
- My next book, The Art of Quiet Influence: Eastern Wisdom and Mindfulness for Everyday Work, will be out in May 2019 from Nicholas Brealey Publishing. I’m about halfway through the manuscript and chugging along. Watch this space for further updates.