I just got a contract with an established publisher to write my first book. Yes, I will receive a cash advance. Yes, I will receive royalties. I can’t share too many other details about the book yet because I need to verify with the publisher how much I can talk about it at this point (sign up for email updates on the right if you want to stay in the loop) but I can tell you exactly how I got to this point. I’ll share the backstory of how and why I ended up here, the breaks that came along, how one idea led to a surprise opportunity, and how, within a few weeks, I went from having an idea for a book to signing a contract to write a different book.
Foundation and Backstory
I’ve always enjoyed reading, and writing. I wrote little books and stories when I was in elementary school. I tried to write larger books when I was in high school, but lacked the instruction I needed at the time. But I still enjoyed writing. I started this blog you’re reading back around 2000, and posted here hundreds of times over the years. It was my business diary of sorts. I didn’t write to generate leads for my business. I didn’t write to impress anyone or accomplish anything in particular, which is probably why my blog has never been terribly popular. I wrote because I enjoyed writing. It helped me think things through. Whenever someone would say “Hey, I enjoyed your blog post on such and such…” I would think “Wow, people actually read that stuff? And care?”
In 2013 I wanted to try and build some credibility for my company. I thought if I could write an article here or there for various publications, then I could put “As seen in…” on our website and that would help. I was able to write an article for Fast Company, which thrilled me. It was the first time I had written for a publication with a national/global audience. Then I was talking with my friend Cheryl Conner and asked her about her writing for Forbes. I was just curious how she got that gig. It seemed like a big deal. She explained how Forbes had hundreds of unpaid contributors, and then she said “The editor for the entrepreneurship section is coming to Utah next month to speak at Weber State. Make sure you come, and I’ll introduce you to him and you can pitch him on writing for Forbes yourself.” This was more than I had expected. The crazy thing is I remember at the time thinking “I don’t have time for this,” but then, thankfully, that was followed up with the thought “But this would be such a great opportunity.”
I went to the event and Cheryl introduced me to Tom Post, then-editor for the entrepreneurship section of Forbes. I didn’t expect him to know anything about me, but then he said “I read your article in Fast Company. I wish you had written that for Forbes. I’ve also been reading your blog. We’d like you to write the same stuff for Forbes.” Apparently Cheryl had already introduced me to Tom beforehand. I didn’t even have a chance to give him my pitch. It was a done deal and I started writing for Forbes soon after. I was thrilled. But I had no idea how big of a break this really was.
In 2013, around the same time I began writing for Forbes, I came across Michael Hyatt’s book Platform. It wasn’t until I read that book that I began to realize what I had. I was writing articles that were being published on Forbes, for goodness’ sake. As a new contributor I was very hesitant to self-promote in any way on Forbes, but I realized even if I never said a single self-promotional thing in my writing, just the fact my name was on each article was huge. And by writing about others I would be helping them, but at the same time benefits would flow back to me. The more I wrote, the more I’d win, the more Forbes would win, and everybody I wrote about would win. Win-win-win. I could see that Forbes could be part of my platform for…well, whatever I wanted to do with it. I wasn’t exactly sure what that was at the time, I just knew it was larger than what I had previously understood. Potentially a LOT larger.
Writing for Forbes led to other opportunities. Because of that I was able to have my writing published in Entrepreneur, Time, VentureBeat, South China Morning Post, and a host of other places. I gave a TEDx talk (which I was not as well prepared for as I would have liked). I was invited to co-direct Startup Grind in Hong Kong. I got on national TV in the US and radio.
A lot of this was nerve-wracking. I wouldn’t say I’m entirely comfortable in front of an audience. Being on the TV program and in front of 1,000 people at TEDx made my body start doing things I couldn’t control. I was even more uncomfortable in situations where I felt like I was promoting myself, or I was uncomfortable that people would think I was promoting myself, when I was just trying to get a message out. I was excited by the opportunities, but definitely not yet at-ease with being under public scrutiny. Still, I couldn’t deny these were amazing opportunities that would lead to good things, even if I didn’t know exactly what those good things would be.
I’ve thought about writing books for years. The most serious I’ve gotten in the past was that I started putting together a manuscript for a book entitled You Might Be An Entrepreneur If… which would essentially compile all my blog posts I wrote years ago under that heading, complete the other ones, and talk about the darker, real side of being an entrepreneur, while still staying positive about it overall. I hoped to publish that book in 2014, but had no idea what I was doing, got busy with the business, and let it sit. I’d like to come back to it someday.
Other ideas? I’d like to write a book about hustle. Not hustling–there are plenty of books about that, but about hustle itself. What it is, why some people have it and others don’t, and how those who don’t have it can get it. Before that, I’d like to write a book on hustlers. Those people who seem to get more done than a human should be able to do. Think Ghandi, Jesus Christ, Hitler, etc. Wait, did he say Hitler? Yeah, I’m going to include evil people in the book. What better revenge is there than to take lessons from how an evil person did something and use it for good? But these are all just ideas with little work behind them at this point other than some outlines and notes.
Let’s Do This
More recently, our business team started talking about buyer personas. We decided that one of the people we want to market our services to is chief marketing officers, or CMOs. I went to my team and asked “How about if I write a book about what CMOs need to know about digital marketing?” Everyone thought it would be great. And I committed to make it happen. The difference this time was that I wasn’t just thinking about writing a book on my own, it was a work project with a defined objective. I began collecting information and doing my research.
As part of my research, I recalled that I had read a series of books about entrepreneurs, CTOs, venture capitalists, etc. I’m deliberately not naming the series at this point, but if you’ve read any of these books you’ll know what I’m talking about. These books contain interviews with famous/accomplished professionals. What better way to learn about what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur than to read the founding stories from 30 of the most famous ones? I loved these books, so when I started researching CMOs I thought “Well, this publisher has published a book about every other executive title, I’ll just go find the CMO book and read that one.” The only problem? Nobody had written the CMO book for this series yet.
On the publisher’s website there was a note saying “Write for us.” The idea struck me that what better research could I do for my “Digital Marketing for CMOs” book than to go out and write the definitive book about CMOs and interview 20-40 CMOs in the process? Not only would this force me to become a real expert on CMOs, I would then be in touch with a lot of CMOs who I could reach out to for quotes and feedback for the digital marketing book. By writing and marketing the first book, I would get to know all the CMO events, the CMO publications, which would only help when marketing the second book. The publisher would win, because my motivation isn’t just to write the book and make a quick buck, but to a great job writing THE book on CMOs and help it sell like crazy. The CMOs I interviewed would win, because they’d get publicity from being in the book. Great PR for their employers, as well. Readers would win. Marketing partners would win. Everybody wins! Win-win-win-win…etc.
I emailed the publisher with a short pitch on why I should be the one to write this book. I explained I had worked with various CMOs during the 15 years I had been running a marketing agency. That my own background is in marketing. That I write for Forbes and other business pubs, so I’m not exactly a complete amateur when it comes to writing. And that through Forbes, Startup Grind, etc. I had experience interviewing high profile people like Sunita Kaur from Spotify, Mikkel Svane of Zendesk, and the legendary VC Tim Draper.
The publisher responded on Friday, June 19th, 2015, thanking me for my interest, and included an outline of what I would be expected to do if I were granted the contract to write this book. Included in the initial requirements was:
Design and generate a spreadsheet for a redundant A-list of eminent and articulate interviewees whom you would select to best represent the full spectrum of the profession, with an eye to exemplifying in a balanced fashion the diversity of its corporate settings, professional approaches, personal qualities and achievements, and gender, ethnic, and international variations.
On Tuesday, June 23rd, I sent the publisher back my list. It looked like this:
I had over 100 CMOs listed on the spreadsheet, compiled from online sources with the help of my trusty web researcher Cynthia who I hired from the Philippines via UpWork. I went through and quickly rated them from 4 (low) to 1 (high) according to how interesting I felt each one would be to the target audience, whether they were high-profile or not, and whether their business was “hot” right now. Airbnb? Hot. Allstate Insurance? Not quite as hot. No offense guys. I sent this back to the publisher and on Wednesday, June 24th received this response:
Thanks for compiling so promptly that stellar list of >100 candidates, 23 of whom you know personally and 45 of whom you consider high-profile. Its redundant size ensures plenty of depth, scope, diversity, and fallback in your roster. Not all interview subjects need be high-profile, of course.
My contact also sent me a proposal form to fill out.
I attach the 2-page … proposal template and invite you to fill it out at your convenience. … The TOC will be 15 or 16 interview subjects winnowed from your list of >100 candidates, with a short paragraph locating each subject in the spectrum of types described in the book description. …
The initial proposal you provided me might be sufficient to put before the board as-is for a decision within a few days. Or it might take a few iterations between you, me, and the board to knead it into acceptable shape.
Although my contact offered to let the emails I had sent act as a proposal, I wanted to make sure this worked out, so I worked on the official proposal form. There were several emails back and forth to get clarification on various points. With some help from one of my copywriter teammates at my business who researched and collected information on the interview subjects I chose, I put it all together and sent it back on July 3rd, saying “Attached is the complete application form for CMOs at Work. Let me know where it can be improved. Thanks!” The same day I received this response:
Thanks, Josh. I’ll post this to our proposal platform today, although on account of the holiday the board’s response might not come till Monday. If I have any questions or suggestions, I won’t hesitate to put them to you, thanks.
I didn’t want to be pushy, so I waited a week to follow up. By July 10th I figured I could check in with a quick note, saying “Perhaps I missed an email but I haven’t received anything since this one so I wanted to make sure. Thanks!”
The same day I received a response that one of the board members who needed to be involved in the decision was out of town and it might take a few more days.
On the 14th I still hadn’t heard back, so I followed up once again, just to know what to expect. The response was that the board member who was out of town would be back on Thursday the 16th. And then, on Tuesday the 21st I received an email with this introduction:
I’m delighted to report that the … editorial board has accepted your proposal and authorized me to offer you the terms below in our standard agreement.
There were documents to sign, and questions back and forth. It was a relief to know I could really dive in. I had been doing preliminary research, expanding my list of potential interviewees, following every CMO I could find on Twitter, making a list of all the CMO-focused events (I was expecting perhaps 5-10, but I’ve already found 40), and I started reaching out to certain CMOs for Forbes articles I’m writing, figuring if I can get in touch with them right now for that, I can follow up to see if they’d like to participate in the book.
The first job is to do three interviews and submit them. That will let the publisher know that I can deliver. Once those are approved, then I go after the rest. For the first three I will be targeting the highest profile CMOs I can get to commit to a 60 minute interview within the next few weeks. Those first CMOs will be key because they’ll also help me bring big name CMOs on board with whom I have no direct connection, like Phil Shiller at Apple. Thankfully I have some great connections through the Forbes articles I’ve written, so I expect to be able to get some good names in the first batch.
The full set of interviews is due by December 15th, which gives me just a few months to contact CMOs, set up appointments, do the interviews, and hand them over for transcription. Given that I would like to have 30 CMOs profiled in this book, and I’ll have to go through 2-3 that many attempts in order to get 30 who have the time and willingness to commit, that’s going to keep me fairly busy over the next few months.
Could I have secured this book contract without having previously written for Forbes? Maybe. But I’m inclined to think probably not. I believe the fact I was able to mention Forbes and point to the hundreds of articles I had written there, many of them on marketing, was a large factor in getting signed up for this project. Without the contacts I’ve made through my Forbes writing I’m not sure I would have had the confidence to even apply for this project, because it’s on my shoulders to secure these interviews–the publisher won’t do it for me.
When I set out to write the book on digital marketing for CMOs, it never occurred to me to find a series like this and write a book for it first. But there are multiple opportunities like this out there. The “For Dummies” series is perhaps the most famous. Another option is to approach a published author and offer to write a book for them, based on their ideas but perhaps reworking it for a different audience, in exchange for co-authorship. The author gets another book to sell, and you get your name attached to that author, which you can leverage for your next writing opportunity.
There was a bit of hustle involved, but you don’t have to do it all yourself. The publisher doesn’t care if you do every bit of work yourself. Does the publisher care if I fill up a spreadsheet with details on CMOs myself, or hire someone for $50 to do it for me? Do they care if I have someone else compile all the CMO events into a spreadsheet? No, they care that I can deliver a great book, and then help sell it. How I get that done is up to me, within certain reasonable parameters. The fact I could show spreadsheets with my research clearly impressed the publisher, but what he was impressed by was that I got it done to the extent I did, and as quickly as I did–he doesn’t care if I looked up all their Twitter handles myself. To paraphrase the Jesuit Priest Father Strickland, “You can get a lot done if you don’t care who does the work.”
More to Come
I’ve been reading voraciously about book marketing. I’m not sure yet whether this book can be a bestseller within a certain niche or not. Regardless, I want it to sell as many copies as quickly as possible, and I’m getting my hands on every bit of information I can find to aid in that process. If you’re interested in book marketing, make sure and sign up for my emails on the right, because I’ll be sharing a lot of what I learn here.Liked it? Share it!