Lessons from picking a “Writing Without Bullshit” publisher

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Graphic: Google Image Search

I spent the last month pitching publishers. I spent Monday biting my nails and weighing offers. Today I announce the results and share what I’ve learned.

HarperBusiness will publish Writing Without Bullshit in September 2016. My editor will be the estimable Hollis Heimbouch, who in an ironic twist was the editor in charge of acquiring Groundswell for Harvard Business Press in 2007. Everything comes around.

HarperBusiness is an elite publisher that releases 15 to 18 influential business books per year. I’m delighted to be in the company of authors like Thomas Davenport, Gary Vaynerchuk, Geoffrey Moore, Jack Welch, and yes, Donald Trump.

I learned a lot in the last few weeks. Here are a few insights:

  • Editors care and your proposal matters. My proposal was 64 pages long with five sample chapters and an extensive promotion section. You might think that’s overkill for an experienced author, but this is a new topic and I am no longer part of Forrester. I met with nine editors, all of whom had clearly read the proposal in detail and had comments and suggestions regarding content, marketing, and how the book fit with their imprint. The economics of publishing have squeezed a lot of talent out of the business, but those who remain — based on my interactions with them — are top-notch, thoughtful editors.
  • Editors love good writing, so they liked my idea. All the editors complained about bullshit from authors and wanted to send them my book. Many said they were self-conscious writing emails after reading my proposal. I think that’s a good sign.
  • The pitching process refines the book. Is Writing Without Bullshit a manual on writing? A how-to book? A big-idea business book? Well, it’s all of those, but different editors found different elements attractive. My choice of HarperBusiness reflects our compatible vision for the book; if I had chosen a different editor, you might see a very different book.
  • Agents pay off. My agency Kneerim & Williams got me serious consideration from an impressive list of editors. They also set up the editorial interviews and auction rules to maximize my choices and advance. They’re going to make good money on this project and they deserve it based on the value they have created.
  • There are a lot of non-traditional publishing options now. I heard from low- and no-advance publishers like Ben Bella Books, Bibliomotion, and Ideapress Publishing. They give more generous royalty splits and offer more of a partnership. If you’re trying to maximize your total revenues from your business, rather than the advance or book sales, consider these publishers.
  • Write well and you will get what you deserve. I wanted to keep my title, release the book in Fall of 2016, and get an economic deal I could live with. Nobody balked at the title or the pub date and I got good offers. Why? Because the proposal made a great case for doing things that way.
  • Understand the pace of the book business. Publishers are finalizing and preparing their fall 2016 lists now. To get a September 2016 pub date, I needed to commit to deliver the manuscript in January. I could self-publish faster, but would have left all that distribution and marketing muscle behind. I chose traditional publishing and accepted this schedule to maximize the chance of a hit.

Finally, I want to thank you, my dear blog readers. There is no way I could have reached this point without your attention, your faith, and your suggestions. You’re my beta testers and I’ll always be grateful.

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    1. Agents typically take 15% of whatever you make from publishing deals they arrange. You don’t get paid, they don’t get paid. The challenge is not paying them (and any agent that asks to get paid up front is not reputable). The challenge is that if your proposal isn’t good enough, they won’t work with you.

      It’s tough to even get a read by a good agent without a referral.

      In fact, my current agent has actually rejected one of my past proposals. It was the right decision, too — I had proposed a book they couldn’t sell.

  1. Perfect illustration of some of the mechanics and decisions in this process. Thanks for the name dropping and direct message. It helps to understand what you were sorting out and who was at the table in your evaluation. I know a lot of people would be interested in your 64 page proposal as a case study and learning tool.

  2. I wonder how much risk still remains about using “Bullshit” in the title? Is it contracted that they will use the title? Are there more parties within the imprint that still might veto it?

  3. It’s interesting and informative to hear about your journey, Josh. Glad you are getting benefit from our feedback, because I’m certainly getting benefit from reading your publishing journey posts!

  4. Congratulations! You’re an inspiration, Josh, and I look forward to reading your book. Although my blog readers have told me to keep the bullshit coming, I hope the WRITING itself is not bullshit. Best wishes to you!