When I was a newly minted Wharton MBA, I had a vague goal to write a book someday. Fast-forward two decades, and I will finally check that box off my bucket list when my first book, Lead Inside the Box: How Smart Leaders Guide their Teams to Exceptional Results, is released in July. While the book is in the nonfiction business genre, the story of the ups and downs through the Byzantine world of publishing was a drama. Since fellow alums may be thinking about writing a book, I thought I would share my story here.
I decided to write the book about what happens when two forces converge—content and capitalism. I came up with ”content,” a unique approach to leading teams that I developed over two decades at work, which I thought could be worthy of sharing. The capitalism piece came from my decision to launch my own strategy consulting business.
Writing a book is a huge investment of time and few authors make enough money from their royalties to merit the investment. Authors need to have some other revenue source for which the book opens doors. For me, every book would be an introduction to a potential client, and it would just take a few new clients to make it a worthwhile investment.
The process for a first-time author is about navigating through the gateways between an idea in your head and that idea living on bookshelves. My first book experience will end up taking about 18 months from initial idea to publication.
The first gateway was to get my core idea down on paper. I started with a simple hand-drawn framework that soon found its way into PowerPoint form. Then the PowerPoint turned into a Word document to fit all the words around the framework. After a couple of weeks, the Word document was about 10 pages long, so I figured I might actually have an outline of a book.
The next gateway was to get an independent, expert opinion on the outline. I shared it with a friend, Mike Figliuolo, who is a successful author, to see if it had book potential. He confirmed that the idea was worth pursuing. Even better, he joined me as a co-author.
Next was finding a literary agent. There are relatively few literary agents in this “leadership of people at work” niche. They are experts at knowing what publishers are looking for. Publishers rely on them as gatekeepers, and for that service, agents typically take 15 percent of the author’s takes. If you can’t generate agent interest in your concept, it will probably never get in front of a publisher. We sent our outline to the literary agent who represented Figliuolo on his previous book. The agent said he would love to represent us. After one month from the first spark of an idea, we were moving fast.
The next step was to expand our outline into several parts that was a publisher-ready proposal.
Part one was the precis, a one-page summary of the core concept of the book and why the book is useful. The next part was a description of us as authors, why we are qualified to write on this topic and of our “platforms”—the networks, customer base and contacts to whom we can market the book. After that, we had to deliver the chapter outline, which contained a title and brief description of each chapter. This required the bulk of the work at this stage because we had to develop our concept to get the flow of the story right. The last part was the writing sample. That was the first chapter of the book to prove we could actually write prose well.
After a fast start, fleshing out the outline into a proposal was a slow, tough slog. We stepped away from the project for a few weeks, and we decided we either needed to continue forward or quit and cut our losses. After rereading it with fresh eyes, we fell in love with it again. We got a second wind, and 45 pages and four months later, we had a finished proposal.
Once our literary agent got our proposal, he presented it to the publishers he knew would be most interested. We spent four months waiting for and in conversations with several big-name publishers. This was a roller-coaster time of sorting through a few “no thank yous” and a couple “yes, if you agree to really bad economic terms.” For a while, I thought all of our work to date was in vain and we wouldn’t get published at all. I was deflated. Finally, a good deal came through from a publisher, and we signed. I was elated.
Then the real writing work actually began. We had four months to turn our proposal into a publishable manuscript of 50,000 to 60,000 words. Figliuolo and I divided the work and set up an online system to share files and track our progress. We finished a draft manuscript two weeks ahead of our Jan. 31, 2015, deadline. After a lot of self-editing, we turned in a well-scrubbed 52,221-word manuscript to the publisher with a day to spare.
Once the manuscript was in hand, our publisher reiterated that they control any and all changes to the book from that point. After two months, we learned that our manuscript passed this “macro edit” where the developmental editor checks that our manuscript fulfilled all our contractual obligations and steered clear of potential liabilities such as plagiarism and libel. The manuscript is now on its way to the line editor, who will spend the next six weeks working with us to improve it for consistency, clarity, cogency, conciseness and coherence.
The “downtime” between manuscript submission and publication has been anything but downtime. Once the draft was done, we were busy engaged in the “capitalism” around a book launch: testing book cover design options with our networks; chasing down endorsement quotes for the book jacket; setting up our book website and our Amazon, Goodreads and other author pages; and planning our public relations campaign.
In summary, writing a book is about 50 percent authorship and 50 percent “othership.” What does this mean? I will cover more of that in my next blog post.