101: Writing a Business Book...Why and How? Part 2

By George Merlis Wednesday, June 30, 2010

In our series on writing a business book, let’s pick up where we left off last week.  I wrote that there are two ways to get your book into print: sell it to a publisher or self-publish. This week, let’s explore finding a publisher.  A publisher will pay you an advance against the book’s earnings, edit and print it and distribute your work to bookstores and online booksellers.

In 2002, after two decades of conducting media training workshops, I decided to write a book that expanded on what I taught.  I wanted to create a comprehensive take-away for clients that went beyond the 20- to 22-page customized workbook I create for every media training session. Also, I felt a book would validate my expertise to prospective clients and yield more business.  Coincidentally, I hoped to create a modest revenue stream.  Well, make that a revenue trickle because I knew publishing was growing every more parsimonious.  For example, a how-to book on energy saving I co-wrote in the 1970s earned a then-generous $15,000 advance.  McGraw-Hill, the nation’s largest business book publisher, bought my proposed media training book in 2003 for a $10,000 advance.  Today, just seven years later, that would be considered a generous advance.  An agent I interviewed said $5,000 is a typical business book advance now.

Out of the advance, your agent collects a 15 percent commission, up in recent years from the traditional ten percent.  And you will need an agent because many publishers no longer accept unsolicited proposals directly from an author. Publishers used to have armies of recent college graduate readers poring through unsolicited material. Today they save money by outsourcing that job agents.)

One way to find an agent is through the web site www.publishersmarketplace.com

There are also some useful books: “2010 Guide to Literary Agents” by Chuck Sambuchino,  “Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors and Literary Agents 2010” (both $20 on Amazon.com), and “Literary Marketplace, 2010” (this one costs $300 so you might want to look for it in the library).  Securing an agent is tough; agents are inundated with proposals and manuscripts.  The agent I interviewed requested anonymity because he doesn’t want to receive any more than the 30 proposals he receives every day.

Don’t write your whole book and then go hunting for an agent.  It’s better to prepare a proposal; agents and publishers both prefer this.  Your proposal should be an essay of up to eight pages explaining the premise of the book, your credentials, a survey of competing books now on the market, and a detailed chapter-by-chapter outline.  Also the proposal should have one or two sample chapters; agent and publisher need to know you have the necessary writing skills. Finally describe your promotional campaign for the book: the publicist you intend to hire, the speeches you intend to make, the media you intend to do and the book signings you are going to line up.

Book promotion used to be the publisher’s job, but they’ve outsourced this job, too -- to authors.  A publisher is much more disposed to buy a book from an author who pledges to hire a competent book publicist than from an author who has no promotional ideas or budget. Publishers and agents can recommend the right publicist, just be aware that a publicist will cost $1,500 to $2,500 a month.

So let’s do the math:  Your advance is $5,000. Subtract the agent’s commission of $750 and two months of a publicist at $1,500/month.  That leaves you with $1,250. You can’t count on future book sales to change the picture very much. Many books don’t “clear” their advance -- that is, they never sell enough copies for the author to earn any royalties over and above the initial advance.

But even with only $1,200, you’re still ahead and you do have a book to drive business to your company or to burnish your image.  In effect, the publisher is financing your business promotion effort.  Up to a point.  It all depends on how many books you’re going to need. In my case I used close to 1,000 over the first two and a half years after publication -- some for sales promotion, others as take-aways to participants in training workshops.

Publishers don’t give you an unlimited supply of your own book -- you have to buy copies after the first 25 or 50. In my case, McGraw-Hill had a $16.95 price on my media training book and sold me copies at the discounted price of $8.00.  Here is how the numbers worked out for me: Advance: $10,000, agent’s commission: $1,500, publicist:$2,000, books purchased: $8,000. I was, in theory, $1,000 in the red.  In practice this wasn’t the case because the book yielded new clients and I incorporated the $8.00 book price into my media training fees.

If you have never written a book before, if you don’t really have the time to write one or if you doubt that you have the necessary skills, you may want or need a collaborator (i.e. a ghost writer).  Your agent can find one for you. How much will this cost?  It varies.  Some collaborators take an up-front fee.  Some work on a percentage of the advance, some on a percentage of all earnings. In no case should the collaborator receive more than a 50/50 split.

For my media training book, I wrote the proposal and the book myself. I called it “How to Master the Media,” but McGraw-Hill insisted that I re-title it, “How to Make the Most of Every Media Appearance” because they thought my title was too confrontational (It was, by design!).  In vain I pointed out that it was impossible to work their mouthful of a title into interviews, while “How to Master the Media” was practically a soundbite in and of itself.

I had three problems with the publisher: the title, which I felt was wimpy, the inability to do running revisions (new behavioral science validated some of my training techniques and I wanted to insert that validation into the book), and the cost of buying my own book.  If the book had been selling 500 to 1,000 copies a month in bookstores and on Amazon.com, I would not have been troubled by any of this.  But, like most business books, my store, online and e-book sales were modest, so I researched self-publishing.  When I discovered that each copy would cost me significantly less than $4.00 and that “print on demand,” meant I could make changes whenever I wanted, I decided to get the rights back from McGraw-Hill, revise the book, put its original title back on it, and self-publish.  Next time I’ll write about the self-publishing option.

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