How to get a publishing deal for your business book – 10 lessons learned

Heather Townsend is going to be a published author. She has recently been signed by FT Prentice Hall to write ‘The FT Guide to Business Networking’. This is a major coup: FT Prentice Hall is a real heavyweight in the world of business publishing. Part of international publishing group Pearson they publish many of the best-selling books on business and management each year. Their backing gives Heather the support of an experienced production and distribution team and immediate credibility as an author. They cover all costs and take the risk. She even has a paid advance.

I worked as Heather’s book coach and editor through the process. In this article we share what worked and what didn’t on the journey to getting that publishing deal.  I hope this will be useful insider information for you if you are thinking of writing a book some time in your career.

Lesson 1:  Don’t contact a publisher until you are good and ready

Publishers receive thousands of enquiries from hopeful authors every year. If you are going to stand a chance of getting their attention you’ve really got to put some effort in. It’s no good sending them a brief email and a few hastily prepared pages of your manuscript. One publisher I spoke to has on average 100 requests in her inbox at any one time (and lives with a permanent feeling of guilt for not being able to pay close attention to them all). If you want to stand out from the crowd like Heather did spend time and effort getting your proposal just right before you get it in front of a publisher.

Heather: “Being prepared with a strong proposal, before you approach a publisher, is just one of the ways you can lessen the likelihood of rejection.”

Lesson 2: Don’t start writing straight away – plan first

You are an expert on your subject and you’re probably desperate to get your ideas out of your head and into book format. It is tempting to pick up your pen and dive right in to the writing in the rush to getting your expertise down on paper. But if you are going to write a carefully constructed book that reads well you’ll need to plan your argument carefully first.

Heather: “Writing a 500 word blog post is relatively easy. Pretty much anyone can do this with practice. Scaling this up to an 80,000 word document, with a consistent flow and structure is a completely different ball game. It is impossible to write ‘in the moment’ every time you sit down to write your book – you’ll never get it written this way. You need a clear plan and structure  to help you keep the momentum going.”

Create a ‘writing frame’ for your content to keep you on track. Set out the sections and chapters and show the publisher how your argument flows.

Lesson 3: Get your pitch right

Heather: “Whether you want to get published or self-publish and sell the books yourself you need to approach your book as a commercial proposition. Yes, of course your book is your baby, but any publisher is going to be more concerned about whether it will sell rather than how beautifully written it is. For a book to sell, it is going to need an audience with a compelling reason to buy it.”

One of the most common reasons why publishers turn down a book proposal is that it answers a question that no one has asked – it suffers the all-too-prevalent ‘content in search of an audience’ syndrome. Avoid this by showing how your book delivers real benefit to real people. Know who your readers are and what particular business problem or issue your book solves for them. Pay careful attention to how you communicate this in your pitch.

Lesson 4. Do your research

Make sure you carefully research the market for your book. Where will it sit on the shelf of a bookshop? What area or discipline does it fall into? Pitch your book against existing books in this category. State what makes this book different and better.

Heather: “Your reader, and publisher, will want to know why your book is different. Copycat books don’t sell. As boring as it may sound, being knowledgeable about the ten best selling competitor books in your field is one of the best ways to endear yourself to a publisher. Why? They will need to take your proposal and pitch it to their internal publishing board. If you do this for them it saves them a job…”

Lesson 5: Write the book  you are passionate about

Writing a book takes time, thought and an awful lot of effort. It’s not a task for the faint-hearted however much support you get along the way. Make sure that the book you are writing is the right one for you.

Heather: “Your book is going to distract you from all the things you love and need to do – family, friends, business. This takes time, dedication and focus. The whole process of writing a book just gets tougher each step of the way. The tenth re-write of your proposal is going to take fortitude, but this is nothing compared to the effort required to actually write and sell your book. This focus and effort is only going to happen if  you are intrinsically interested and passionate about the subject matter.”

Lesson 6: Start marketing immediately

You can build immediate credibility for yourself and your business by communicating that you are writing a book. Don’t miss out on this opportunity – start marketing yourself as an author straight away. If you want to sell your book at volume, you’ve got to go some in terms of marketing activity.  Even with a reputable publisher behind you, it is down to you to do the majority of the promotion and marketing that drives book sales.

Heather: “Celebrities and prominent people sell books. Snagging Tony Blair’s memoires was a major coup for Cornerstone and they paid millions of pounds for the privilege. But let’s be honest, you and I are not Katie Price or Tony Blair. The sort of profile which sells books takes time to generate – so the sooner you start the better.”

A publisher will expect to see that you have a plan for marketing your book. Having a website and interested community of followers for your book from an early stage really helps.  As Charlie Green advises: promote, promote, promote!

Lesson 7: Social media and blogging helps spread the word

The Internet has given first time authors a fantastic opportunity to spread the word more widely and much more quickly than was ever possible before. Grasp this opportunity – set up a blog and post articles on issues around your subject. Use social media such as Twitter and LinkedIn to engage a community of people interested in your ideas.

Heather: “Social media has given ordinary people like you and I the chance to grab our place in the limelight – without the need to strip off or run the country. BEFORE you even think about writing a proposal, set up a blog and build your credibility as an expert in your field. These blog posts can even help to form the basis of your book. This is also one of the best ways to get ‘found as an author’ (it worked for me!) and create a buzz even before you start selling your book.”

Lesson 8: Ensure you have a strong personal brand

If a publisher or potential buyer of your book Googles your name what will they find? Can they see why you are credible as an author of the book? If you are going to pick up a publisher or sell lots of books it is really important to pay attention to your personal brand – your public profile and how this is reflected across the web. Make sure you are positioned as a credible authority in your field.

Heather: “Publishers will always ask you ‘why are you qualified to write this book?’ You’ll need to back this up and ensure that you are positioned accordingly.”

Lesson 9: Make the publisher’s job easier

Heather: “A publisher may have 25-50 books and authors on their list at any one time. That’s a lot of projects, books and people. You may think that your publisher is misguided and ignorant when they reject your proposal. But ultimately, if they don’t get the commercial (yes, commercial) promise of the book, then how are they going to convince the publishing board, retailers and general public that this is the most amazing book that just has to be commissioned, distributed and bought?”

Make it easy for your publisher to see the commercial value in taking your book on. Follow their submission process, do your homework, research the competition – give them the information they’ll need to sell your idea up to their publishing board, their sales team, retail book buyers and ultimately to your readers. Show them that you’ll be good to work with along the way. Getting a publishing deal is a sales challenge. Make the publishers job easy and you’ll smooth the way to the sale.

Lesson 10: Don’t give up!

It’s hard this book writing game. Your confidence will ebb and flow along the way. Stand firm. Remember why you are doing this – the fantastic benefits it will bring for you for you and your business. Muster support around you to help you complete the task.

Heather: “Getting a book written and published is a series of marathons rather than a sprint relay race.  At times it will feel as if you have multiple blisters on your feet and can’t face another race but this isn’t the time to give in. Make sure you have a good support team around you to pick you up and dust off the dirt and get you back up and writing again.”

Writing a business book is a fantastic way to boost your credibility and be seen as an authority in your specialist field. If you’ve got a book in you (and I know a lot of you have) I hope Heather’s experience and the lessons she learned along the way will help to set you on that path.

Further reading and advice:

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  1. Sharon Tanton

    This is really useful stuff, Sonja and Heather. Shows also the value of having a book coach, someone to keep you focused with an eye on the big picture as well as on the details. As Heather says, ‘it’s a series of marathons,’ so an expert coach/advisor/someone cheering you on is a very worthwhile investment.

  2. Lee Frederiksen

    Very good tips that have the ring of truth. As usual you have a way of really capturing what it takes to succeed. I especially like your points around the importance of actively marketing your book. My observation is that no author can prosper without being an active participant in marketing. Thanks…lwf

  3. sonja

    Thanks Sharon and Lee. How was the book launch for your new book Lee? Hope sales go really well and tell me when I can get my hands on a copy. Sonja

  4. Ian Brodie

    Hi Sonja – this was really helpful.

    I’ve been mulling over doing ‘the book” for a while now and have been recently spurred on by being asked to contribute a chapter to the bestselling compilation Mastering the World of Selling. That all happened through my blog and social media “fame” btw so your tips there are spot on.

    My stumbling block is how niche to go. I created an ebook last year that was very well received – but I feel the subject area (“how to get clients for consultants and coaches” has been done before). My other area of expertise is how consultants and coaches can get clients online. Not seen anything on that in the real world book arena – but is there a big enough audience?



  5. sonja

    Hi Ian,

    Congratulations on being asked to contribute to the book on Selling. That’s fantastic news. If you are going to write your own book this will certainly boost your personal brand as a credible author.

    The subject of niche is an interesting one with regard to books. As consultants selling services we know that ‘niche’ is very useful sales tool – it makes it easy for us to become known as an expert in a specialist area (I’m sure you’ll cover that in your book).

    A book is a product. A publisher will want to be sure that the book will sell to as wide an audience as possible, therefore going too niche can put them off. Heather was originally thinking of producing a book on networking specifically for busy female professionals. Publishers wanted this widened.

    Whether you are going down the publish or self-publish route the key, as you rightly suggest, is to make sure there is a big enough audience for your book.

    This relates to your objectives – why you want to write the book in the first place – what you want it to do for you and your business. How many do you want to sell? Is this purely a marketing exercise to your niche audience (in which case self-publishing could be an option for you and you can be as niche as you like). Or do you want to attract a publisher to add instant credibility and take the risk? If you do some careful research (point no. 4) this will help you to clearly define the market for the book to show how wide the audience really is.

    I hope this helps (I do go on a bit – my longest comment to date!). My next article will be on whether to publish or self-publish when I’ll go through some of this in more detail.

    Speak soon,


  6. Ian Brodie

    That was indeed helpful Sonja. The marketing to niche vs credibility of big publisher decision sounds like it comes first. That gives a steer as to how broad/narrow you need to go.



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