I would venture to guess that on a survey of bucket lists, publishing a book would rank at the top 10%, somewhere near running a marathon and exotic travel. I’m a new author, so people regularly share their own publishing dreams with me and ask for advice. Many of us have an inner drive to impart our ideas, and though I can’t say with certainty what a magic formula to publishing a book is, I can say what worked for me. Hope it can work for you too.
Two weeks ago, my book Power of Presence: Unlock Your Potential to Influence and Engage Others officially released. I started the process about two years ago nearly to the day. Way back, I floated the idea by a seasoned author and he asked me, “what are you trying to get out of your system?” I thought it odd at the time, but now I can see that any idea you commit that much time and energy to expressing should be one that you’re willing to keep top of mind for years. In some ways, writing a book is part research practicum and personal exorcism.
Tip #1: Make sure you care about the topic, and care a lot.
My book is about cultivating leadership presence, which has been my personal Rubik’s Cube. I’ve been studying it, advising on it, confounded by it, and tweaking it since I was old enough to realize its great power. I can think of nothing else so meaningful in our lives yet harder to get a personal handle on. We’re all presence voyeurs. We notice it immediately in others yet it’s extremely difficult to understand about ourselves.
When your presence is working for you, it opens doors, makes careers, lands the job, closes the deal, and propels you to your goals.
When it’s working against you, it holds you back in every way.
As a working class kid with nothing to fall back on and zero connections, I learned early that I needed to develop a presence that made others invest in me. I often relied on the kindness of strangers to open doors. This is partly a gift, because it taught me self-reliance and how to cultivate confidence at an early age. I’ve had a wonderful career starting in national politics, then founding and running companies, and now advising at the highest echelons of corporations.
I believe with every fiber of my being that my presence has created those opportunities for me. To say I’m passionate about helping others find and strengthen their best presence is an understatement.
Tip #2: Have an authentic voice.
As you circulate a book idea to agents and publishers, you’ll start hearing about the author’s voice. This took me awhile to get. I worked on a book proposal five years ago about working mothers, and couldn’t get traction for it. Looking back, my voice wasn’t authentic. I was writing what I thought others wanted to hear, including me, rather than what I truly believed.
This time around, I wrote as real and honestly as I could. I shared openly about my own struggles and mistakes in cultivating presence personally and coaching others to do so. I was sincere about what works as well, what’s hard no matter what, and how others can adopt straightforward practices to become more influential and engaging.
As part of being authentic, I was unafraid to take issue with the cultural norms (and many books supporting it), that to be influential you need to exhibit a perfect, calculating, Trump-like alpha presence. That simply does not feel natural to most people, nor do we seek it in others. My experience with clients who have been through a typical “command and control” communications training is that it can create more anxiety and discomfort than it solves. I based my approach on what I have repeatedly seen to create sustained behavior change. You can build stature without cutting your true self down.
Tip #3: Find others who believe in your idea, and watch out for cynicism.
There is a lot of cynicism in the publishing industry, and people who pride themselves on letting you know how low an author’s odds are. I certainly get it — the industry is experiencing a seismic shift and the business fundamentals are in flux. And it was already an industry where there are far more ideas than buyers. Many authors opt out and decide to self-publish, but I chose to stick with the traditional route for the expertise and support from a publisher.
All this is to say, it will take some thick skin to find an agent (recommended) or publisher to sign you. (For a step-by-step process of the proposal process, check out Paul B. Brown’s Publishing Confidential. A must read.) Agents work on commission so they increasingly serve as gatekeepers to understaffed acquisition editors sifting through heaps of proposals.
Most of us don’t have a network of agents or editors to bounce our ideas off, so we need to seek out people likely to be supportive of what we have to say. I reached out to authors who had written like-minded books for their suggestions and introductions. I spoke with several agents. Some were encouraging, others were lukewarm, and one told me, “mark my words, this will not be published.”
Here’s how it played out for me. I spoke on a panel with an author who believed in my message. He introduced me to his agent, she saw promise, and we clicked personally. She secured meetings with several publishers, both large and niche, with a good amount of interest. In the end, we went with AMACOM, a publisher who believes in and supports practical business books. It’s a great fit.
There are plenty of voices dying to tell you why your idea isn’t worthy of publication. But if you believe in it, then adjust when the advice is constructive, and keep on keeping on.
Tip #4: Be ready to put pen to paper.
Chances are, when you get a contract from a publisher, you’ll have about six months to write the book. This may feel like a good amount of time, but it goes very quickly, especially when you’re also working your day job. For me, it meant writing on average a chapter a week. That’s a hustle! (Some people opt to have a ghostwriter for this reason; I enjoy writing so elected to write it myself.)
I could manage it because I had all the content, and a good bit of the research, already complete. My book is centered on an executive presence methodology called I-Presence, which helps leaders be more intentional, individually connected, and inspirational. I developed the program several years ago and have fine-tuned it since having applied it to numerous coaching situations and workshops. I had research, anecdotes, stories, and results at my fingertips. While it had to be written in a book form, the thesis was fully baked.
From what I’ve heard, the days of having years to write a business book are gone. So the closer you are to having your book conceptualized and the content established, you’ll save yourself stress and produce a better result. Also consider early what authors or experts you want to quote, as the permissions process is lengthy.
Lastly, know that for many publishers, they want you to drop off a complete manuscript before editing begins. While you can call and ask questions, it’s not a roll up your sleeves, months-long working session with an editor. Again, it’s another reason to go into this with a thesis you’ve long considered, and perhaps even edited content.
Tip #5: Be a shameless promoter of your ideas, not yourself.
Even as someone with a communications background, I had to adjust to the sheer amount of promotion that’s involved with a book, starting well before it’s published. There’s social media, speaking, Internet marketing, traditional media, and on and on. It’s continuous, as authors need to build and sustain communities. For most of us, promoting ourselves is not how we want to spend our time, and there are cautionary tales everywhere of “professional promoters” who we fear we’ll be compared to. Getting comfortable with it requires reframing. I wrote about my experience in Forbes, suggesting that instead of self-promotion we should consider idea promotion instead.
Authors do have it easier than most because we’ve written (or seek to write) a book about an idea that we care about deeply. If I could do it again, I would have started earlier on social media pushing those ideas out into the world with the purpose of helpful sharing. It’s turned out to be one of the parts of being an author that I enjoy the most — this discussion and debate of ideas. It doesn’t have to be about me, and frankly it’s better when it’s not. I’ll gladly take an opportunity to promote the life-altering concepts in my book, many of which are paid forward from others, because I have seen their impact on careers and lives. I’m happy to be the conduit, and let the ideas take center stage.
My final piece of advice is to take the risk, and try. Yes, the odds aren’t favorable. And yes, 11,000 business books get published each year. Why not yours?
This column also appears on Forbes.com.