Think a book would build your brand, fire up your employees, wow your peers? Here's the memo that one publishing insider sends to people like you.

The E-mail excerpted below was not written for publication in this or any magazine. It was written by Paul B. Brown, a professional coauthor and ghostwriter, as a standard reply to the numerous CEOs who ask him, How do I turn my ideas (my management wisdom or my company-building story or my insights about the future) into a book? Think of it as a kind of FAQ memo for anyone who's decided it might be useful to bind his or her thoughts between two covers. Why would that be useful? For reasons as varied as ego gratification, personal or company branding, or employee indoctrination, says Brown, who's heard them all. (Brown, an Inc contributor and longtime business-book collaborator, has been either the bylined author or the ghostwriter of more than two dozen titles. His biggest seller so far is Customers for Life, written with auto retailer Carl Sewell, which has sold 1 million copies.) So, want to be an author but don't know how? Here's some of the advice (abridged for space) that Paul Brown would send you if you asked.

To: Dear Reader

From: Paul B. Brown

Re: How to get your book published

1. WHAT YOU ARE TRYING TO DO. You are not trying to write a book. Millions of people -- including my teenagers -- have written books that no one besides some family member has ever seen. What you're trying to do is get a book published, and published well -- that is, with a large first printing, advertising support from the publisher, an OK advance, and a multicity book tour.

Let me say this as bluntly as I can: I think it's a bad idea to begin writing a book unless you know that someone is going to publish it (though that someone could be you, as we'll discuss). It's demoralizing as hell, not to mention a huge waste of time, to devote a substantial part of your life creating 300 or 500 double-spaced pages, only to discover that no one wants to pay for what you've written. Can you find out if you have an audience before you invest that time? Thankfully, yes.

2. "LET ME SEE A PROPOSAL." OK, you have this idea, and you've somehow managed to get face-to-face with an editor. (See point #3.) If you're Stephen Covey, or if you had a huge success with a previous book and are proposing to write a sequel, you can sometimes receive an offer on the spot. However, 99.9% of the time, one of two things will happen when you connect with an editor. He or she will dismiss (politely) your idea out of hand. Or you'll hear something like, "Gee, that sounds interesting. Send me a proposal."

Why a proposal? Because the editing business, like every other industry, has had to downsize. As a result, nonfiction editors now must produce about 20 finished books a year. That's one every two and a half weeks. And while they're doing that, they're also searching for the 20 books they're going to publish next year. It's a pretty heavy workload. They don't have time to read the full version of unsolicited manuscripts.

A proposal is basically an outline of the book and a trilevel marketing document. It's a vehicle for you to explain what the book is about, why you're the best person to write it, and why the publisher is destined to make lots of money by bringing it to market. In other words, you're trying to hook the editor.

But the proposal also serves as the marketing document that the editor will use to get the approval of his or her editorial board. Plus, it's the "battle plan" that the publisher's marketing department will use to get you on the best-seller list. All that explains why proposals can easily be 50 pages long.

3. EVEN BEFORE THE PROPOSAL IS COMPLETE, YOU SHOULD CULTIVATE SOME INTEREST. One way to get attention early is to schedule lunches with the top nonfiction editors at the major publishing houses. (I can help, or your agent can. See #4.) Lunch is your chance to explain what the book is about and how big the potential audience is -- not to mention to showcase your smarts and charm.The second way of generating interest is to hire an agent.

4. AGENTS. The bad news is that most agents are adequate at best, and all are expensive. Nonfiction agents now take 15% of all money generated by a book project, including payments from the sale of paperback rights, magazine excerpts, audio recordings, and CD-ROMs. The good news? There are good agents. (I can give you a list.)

The good ones have an ongoing relationship with editors -- meaning they can get their phone calls returned before you can. And perhaps most important from our point of view, they can free you from many of the administrative headaches that come with writing a book, such as contract haggling and the inevitable battles that ensue when your publisher goes off track. Wouldn't you pay 15% to make all that go away?

5. OK, THE PROPOSAL IS FINISHED. WHO SEES IT? There are two ways to sell a book. In one, you meet with editors one by one, get them interested, send them your proposal, and eventually one of them decides to buy the book.

The second approach is to make what they call in the trade "multiple submissions" of the proposal. It's an auction. You or your agent send the same proposal to 5 or 10 (or more) editors simultaneously. The proposal comes with a cover note informing the editors that you're auctioning your prospective book in, typically, three or four weeks. High bidder gets the book.

Do I have a recommendation about which approach to take? No. The nice thing about dealing with just one editor is that the courtship process is a lot less nerve-racking. There's only one lunch where you can't drool, plus you can tailor your proposal to fit that editor's particular needs. Auctioning the book is more wearing on the nerves, but when it's over, you'll know you got the best possible price.

6. SO GET TO THE GOOD STUFF. HOW DO YOU GET PAID? You'll get some money up front, called an advance, which is short for advance against royalties. Here's how royalties work. You get a fixed percentage of the suggested cover price for each copy sold. Usually, you get 10% of the first 10,000 copies, and the percentage increases from there until it reaches 15%.

However, you don't see any royalties until the book has "earned out," as they say in the publishing business, meaning that it has recouped the advance the publisher has given you. Say you received a $100,000 advance for a book that has a cover price of $25, and say that the contract pays 10% of the cover price for the first 10,000 copies and 15% for each copy above that. On the first 10,000 copies sold, you will be credited with having earned $25,000 (10% x $25 x 10,000); the publisher keeps the money. The publisher will keep your cut of the next 20,000 copies, too (15% x $25 x 20,000 = $75,000). At that point, you will have earned out, or paid back, your advance. Starting with the sale of copy 30,001, you'll get $3.75 a book.

What happens if you don't earn out? Absolutely nothing. You get to keep the advance. Which explains why publishers try to pay advances that are as small as possible and authors try to get as much money as they can up front.

7. THE ACTUAL WRITING OF THE BOOK. Ironically, this can be the easiest part of the process. You're drawing on material you already have on hand and know intimately. The basic thing to keep in mind is that you will be acting as a surrogate reader. Stuff that may seem intuitively obvious to you may be totally new to the reader and will need to be explained completely. It's incumbent upon you to make the complex clear, if not simple.

8. HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE BEFORE YOU SEE THE BOOK ON BOOKSHELVES? Two years: three months to create and sell the proposal, a full year of actually writing the book, and nine months from manuscript delivery to publication. (To explain why the production process lasts nine months would require several pages and lots of expletives.) The fact that it takes so long to get a book published the traditional way is a big reason self-publishing is becoming increasingly popular.

9. SHOULD YOU CONSIDER SELF-PUBLISHING? Once upon a time, self-publishing was considered the last refuge for people who wrote books that (almost) no one wanted to read. That's still true more often than not. A vanity press is probably the only place to go if you want to write about your 28 uneventful years as a municipal clerk in Ohio.

But there can be compelling reasons to publish a book yourself, even if you get a nibble from a traditional publisher. You won't have to wait two years until the product is done: about a month after you get the book to the printer, you can have real, honest-to-goodness books in your hands. You can tailor the book to a narrow audience, if you like; unlike a major publishing house, you don't necessarily have to print and sell tens of thousands of copies. You don't have to share the profits with a publisher. (If you self-publish, you pay for the cost of printing the book -- about $5 or $6 a copy. If you sell it direct for $25, you will make $19 or $20 every time a book goes out the door.) And if your self-published work sells lots of copies, at some point one of the major publishers is going to be interested in talking to you. So being self-published can make a lot of sense.

Hope all this helps.


For a free copy of the complete memo, send an E-mail message to

My Life as an Author

Seth Godin, 41, founder and former president of Yoyodyne, an Internet direct-marketing company that was acquired by Yahoo. Current book: Survival Is Not Enough.

"I knew it was a long shot, but I wanted to be known as someone who could solve Internet marketing problems.

The advantage of having written a book is I can skip the first six sentences of a conversation. People know what I believe, and we can get right to what they want to talk about.

If you are going to write a book, you have to be willing to say something unpopular. People don't remember now, but when I said flashy graphics was not the way to sell on the Internet, I was hooted off the stage."

Carl Sewell, 58, chairman of Sewell Automotive Cos., a car retailer with 16 franchises and $850 million in 2000 revenues. Currently doing a revised edition of his book, Customers for Life, to be published in the fall of 2002. About 1 million copies of Customers have been sold.

"I wrote the book because Doubleday offered me $100,000 [back in 1989]. How could I turn that down? But writing it helped me clarify our [company's] philosophy not only for our associates but for me, too.

Obviously, the book has exceeded any of my expectations. There has been absolutely no downside to the experience. Oh, about once a month someone will quote the book to us when we screw up, page number and everything, to make their point. But I don't think that's a negative. I want people to hold our feet to the fire.

The book has brought lots of tangible benefits. I get to meet, and learn from, CEOs who never would have spent time with me if not for the book. It has made recruiting easier; some people who would never have thought about working for a car dealership have come aboard because of things we wrote.

Advice? Expect it'll be hard. It's important to stick with it and say exactly what you want to say. I remember being frustrated because it was taking me far more time than I'd expected and was taking me away from running the business -- and I mentioned that to Stanley Marcus [who wrote the afterword]. He told me to get back to work on the book. He said, 'Carl, don't you know this is the most important thing you'll ever do to show people what your company is all about? More people will judge you on the book than anything else.' That got my attention. And he was right."

Bob Rosen, 46, CEO of Healthy Cos. International, a consulting and education firm in Washington, D.C. Author of three books, including Leading People. Working on two more books right now.

"Learning is probably the first of the reasons I write. There is clearly a marketing benefit as well; the books help position me as an expert. Then there are the connections it helps me build. I have interviewed 250 CEOs in 30 countries in the process of writing my three books.

The downsides? The process always takes longer than I think. My friends say my social skills deteriorate during the process. And you are clearly putting yourself on the public stage, the end of the diving board. You need to be comfortable with that.

As for advice: Get yourself a good agent. Carve out the time you are going to need to do that. Only write if you have something to say. And keep control of the process. Marketing is 51% of writing a book. If you rely on your publisher, agent, or editor exclusively, you're going to be disappointed. The world is not going to beat a path to your door."

Copyright © 2002 Paul B. Brown

The Inc Life

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