what you need to know about writing and publishing a book
Last week marked the one-year anniversary of the launch of my book, What Great Brands Do: The Seven Brand-Building Principles That Separate the Best from the Rest (Jossey-Bass). Writing, publishing, and launching the book was extremely rewarding — it was also a learning experience. Since this was my first book, I learned a lot of lessons the hard way so I thought I’d share what I wish I had known before I started on the journey.
It’s important to note that my process involved working with a commercial publisher on a conventional hardcover business book (my book was also published as an e-book and audio book, but the format I focused on was the hardcover.) I’m sure the process would have been very different had I self-published; created a workbook, textbook, or other format; or written fiction, a fable, memoir, or other type of book. Also the publishing world is rapidly changing and these are lessons learned during the 2012-2014 timeframe.
There are a lot of terrific books and resources about book writing and publishing that are more much comprehensive (at the end of this post, I list a few). This post isn’t intended to be an exhaustive how-to. Rather, these are tips and notes from my experience:
1. Clarify your objectives for having a book. My primary objectives were building my speaking and consulting business and I also wanted national media coverage for my book. So I purposefully chose to work with an established commercial publisher to associate the credibility and quality of the publisher’s brand with my brand. You may have other objectives — some people write a book because they have a burning desire to get their ideas out there; others just want to be able to call themselves an author; still others want to engage in a creative exercise. Whatever your objectives are, be sure they’re clear — and then use them to drive all the decisions about your book, e.g., publishing options, format, writing style, length, etc. as well as to measure its success.
2. Start writing way before you start on your book. It’s probably no surprise that writing a book is a huge undertaking. What makes it easier and faster is if you have already been writing for years. Yes, years. I started my blog in 2008, nearly four years before I put pen to paper on my book. I also wrote a lot of bylined articles and newsletters for many years. This foundation of writing meant I had a ton of content that I could then adapt into the book, instead of having to develop brand new content. It also meant I had a ton of experience translating thoughts from my head to paper. It’s definitely an art and skill that takes awhile to hone (I’m still working on it!)
3. Your platform is just as important as your content. “Platform” is the term that Michael Hyatt uses for your “contacts, customers, prospects, followers, fans.” (If this is confusing, think about how a stage is a physical platform from which a speaker shares her ideas — for people like me, my network is the platform through which I share mine.) You need to have a platform to help you sell and promote your book — but even before that, if you want to be published by a commercial publisher, you need a platform to help sell your book proposal. Publishers want to know that you will be able to drive sales, so they look at how many and what kinds of clients you have (consulting, speaking, etc.), how many readers, followers, and/or subscribers you have, what media outlets have you established yourself through, etc. You may have the best ideas in the world, but if no one knows you, you won’t be able to get your book out there.
4. You may need an agent, you may not. I was blessed to be introduced to my publisher many years ago. I cultivated a great relationship with an editor there and so, when I finally had developed a solid book concept and proposal, I was able to share it with her and ultimately negotiate a deal. I suspect that my experience is unusual and I know agents can be very helpful not only in getting publishers to review your proposal, but also in optimizing your proposal in the first place, and then helping you negotiate the best contract. But commercial publishers do accept proposals from writers directly and there are other alternative publishing models that don’t involve agents. So do some research and figure out the best route for you.
5. You’re responsible for writing your book. I know this seems obvious but I thought my publisher would be more involved in helping me with my content. I did get some helpful suggestions in the beginning, but after that, I would have been pretty much on my own if I had not hired my own editor. I also wish I had asked more colleagues to review my book before I finalized the manuscript. I had thought I would be asking too much of people to do this for me, when I later found out that I could have asked more people to do more. (I am so grateful for the generosity of my friends and colleagues!)
6. You’re responsible for selling your book. This may be less obvious but it is the most important point. Publishers are great for producing a professional book and distributing it; they are not so great for publicizing and promoting your book. And the latter is what is really going to sell your book. I did a lot of work on my own (engaging my network, setting up online coverage, pitching media, booking speaking engagements, etc.), but I also engaged a publicity firm. Doing so was a significant investment and it definitely paid off. We met practically all of my media objectives and I got much more — and better — exposure than I could have ever secured on my own. Plus, they gave me great advice and support throughout the journey.
7. Start selling your book well before it is released. You want to build up as much anticipation as possible so that your first week of sales is strong, because a strong launch week makes a big difference on Amazon and in the media. Other authors have gotten great success with presales and teaser campaigns — I should have done these. One of the ways I did get ahead was by enlisting a special group of friends and colleagues, aka The Great Brand Society, to read preview copies of the book, give me feedback, start sharing it in their networks, and most importantly, to post reviews on Amazon (I asked them to be honest with their reviews and I believe they all were.) I’m indebted to the GBS for helping make my launch a success.
8. You’re not finished writing when your manuscript is complete. One of the best ways to get exposure for your book is to contribute bylined articles to media. In fact, most media don’t do book reviews these days, so the only way you’re going to get covered by them is to contribute content they can publish. So, once you’re finished with your manuscript, get started writing more article or blog post-style pieces that you’ll have at the ready when your book launches.
9. Figure out what’s next while you’re working on what’s now. I still remember the week before my book launched, someone asked me if I was working on my next book! That was the first clue that, even back then, I needed to be thinking about how to build off my book launch. Given how fast the news cycles run these days and how much content is published out there, I don’t think a single book will produce results for more than a couple of years. And since it can take a couple of years or more to write another book or to launch some other new product or campaign, you need to be preparing for what’s next now.
I hope this has been helpful. I know a lot of my readers have written their own books, so I’m hoping you will use the Comments to chime in with your own tips and advice. I would love to learn from you and I know others would too. Finally, here are just a few resources that I’ve found helpful in my book pursuits:
- How to Write a Book Proposal by Michael Larsen
- Michael Hyatt
- APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur | How to Publish a Book by Guy Kawasaki
- Book Proposals That Sell by Terry Whalin