How to work with publishers and agents: The Public Words Speaker Forum 2010
As I’ve blogged before, professional speakers need books in order to sustain a career over the long term. And that means books published by traditional publishing houses for the most part, though there are exceptions. The exceptions are speakers who already have a strong market for their speeches and can sell the books ‘in the back of the house’.
But for most speakers, the book helps generate the speaking, and so traditional publishing is important. At the Public Words Speaker Forum 2010 last week, two speakers held forth on how publishing is changing, what function agents perform, and how to navigate your way through the publishing maze. Once again, guest blogger Sarah Morgan gives us the scoop.
Writers often imagine a published book as the end of a long journey. After years of work, finally you’ve handed your masterpiece over to a prestigious publisher, and now all you have to do is sit back and wait for them to organize your book tour and your interview with Oprah. But if that model ever worked – and that is doubtful – it certainly doesn’t work now, Harvard Business Press editor Jeff Kehoe said at the Public Words Speaker Forum.
Harvard Business itself is adapting to this new reality, Kehoe said – combining the magazine, book publishing, and website divisions of the organization into a unified Harvard Business Review Group that takes a more platform-agnostic approach to working with writers and thought leaders. Writers, too, should think of a book as just one of a “constellation” of ways to get their ideas out, Kehoe said. “It’s a fundamentally instrumental view of the book,” he said.
Speakers have an advantage in this shifting publishing landscape, said Esmond Harmsworth, a literary agent with Zachary Shuster Harmsworth, because they’re already thinking about their audience and honing their message. But for some speakers who’ve built a strong relationship with an audience, self-publishing may actually be a better choice than working with a traditional, mainstream publisher, Harmsworth said. Bulk sales earn lower royalties, so a speaker who’s out selling his book on his own could be penalized in a traditional publishing deal. And authors who see a large portion of book sales from Amazon may be offered smaller advances for future books.
Kehoe, too, stressed that for an entrepreneurial author who will drive a lot of sales herself, self-publishing might be the best choice. But both said the traditional publishers still enjoy a reach and an access to a mainstream marketplace that nobody else can match.
If you decide your book needs to reach that mainstream audience, start with a simple 3 to 5 page proposal that includes 3 key points: (1) an explanation of your idea and its value, (2) your intended audience and (3) how you plan to reach them.
If you’re looking to work with a large, brand-name publisher, look for a literary agent first, Harmsworth said. “My job is almost like being a matchmaker,” Harmsworth said. He looks for a publisher that can supplement the author’s skills and provide the guidance that a particular writer really needs, whether it’s close editing or marketing savvy. And then, of course, comes the stage where the publishers “throw clouds of Monopoly money into the air,” as Harmsworth put it. (Sadly, that’s a joke, not a promise – Harmsworth actually noted that advances have fallen about 25% as a result of the recession.)
Authors should be looking for a publisher who’s willing to engage in a partnership, Kehoe said. You’ll want to build a relationship that’s based on trust and two-way communication so you can work with the publisher to create a customized plan for how to sell the book and promote your ideas.
As the e-book landscape heats up, authors should start thinking now about how their work could take advantage of what will soon be a much more dynamic format, with the ability to offer customized versions of a book for different audiences, or revise a work to reflect new developments or incorporate audience feedback. We’re just now starting t o see e-books enhanced with audio-visual content – another area to watch, Harmsworth said. (Check out the “Alice in Wonderland” iPad app for an example of what’s already possible.)