I recently announced on LinkedIn that my third book is coming out this year. I’ve gotten so many questions from folks interested in publishing their own books that I thought it might help to shed some light on the things I’ve learned (and am still learning) on the journey of becoming a published author, now with two different premier book publishers (Penguin Random House and Berrett-Koehler Publishers).
Before I jump into the 10 things I’ve learned, let me share this slide that I presented in my Author Day lunchtime presentation this past week, which is a really cool event put on by Berrett-Koehler, in which the author gets to present their book to the entire team involved in its production, including editorial, marketing, design, sales, and others. In that session, I shared this quote from Richard Branson that perfectly sums up why I write.
Life is short. Sharing what I learn with others is important to me, so that what I’ve taken the time to learn and absorb isn’t confined just to one person. Some people accomplish this in other ways, such as teaching, serving as a mentor, and so on. Writing is one of the best ways I’ve found to share what I’ve learned, at scale, in order to reach more people at a time.
1. You must care deeply about the subject matter
There’s no point in writing a book if you don’t care deeply about the topic. Unless you’re a celebrity or can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on publicity, you’ll have to sustain your individual passion for the topic for many years to get the book into the hands of enough people to make a real impact. My underlying motivation for all three books I’ve written has been the same: connecting people across barriers of culture, language, and geography. I love helping people, and organizations (which can often make a broader impact), accomplish that.
You need to be a bit of a dreamer to publish a book. For example, within my area of passion, I believe there’s no good reason for people not to be able to overcome what I see largely as surmountable communication barriers. I believe it’s up to us to solve this problem. If technology is all that stands in our way, let’s fix that. If language is the only barrier, let’s intermediate that. But bringing people closer together in this world, for me, is simply a must. It’s the calling for this topic that fuels me to make every move I’ve made in my career, and accordingly, each book I’ve written too. So, make sure what you write about actually maps to the core things that motivate you, and drive you, as a human being.
2. Take every “no” as a “not yet”
Timing is everything. And it’s tricky to get right. Knowing when to publish a book and “meet the moment” where there is general interest in a topic is critical. But this might mean it can take many years before your pitch is prime-time enough for your idea to stick.
My prior book, Found in Translation, was published by Perigee, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Prior to that, my agent had pitched the idea for many years to no avail, and I faced dozens of rejections. Some rejections were less kind than others. That agent and I eventually agreed to part ways, and I let the concept keep percolating. Several years later, I mentioned the idea to Jost Zetzsche, an industry expert and great writer, who fortunately became my co-author. His enthusiasm for collaborating on such a project really reinvigorated my interest in pitching it again. He had a ton of great ideas that made the entire concept better, so when I did start proposing it to publishers again, my timing was better, but the pitch was also enhanced (two heads are usually better than one!) All in all, that book took about a decade, and several incarnations, to see the light of day.
Similarly, my newest book, Take Your Company Global, has taken many years to “land” in the right place with a publisher. My agent and I began talking with publishers a few years before the pandemic hit, to no avail. Back then, the topic wasn’t pressing. It was still a world where “remote first” was not yet at the forefront of anyone’s thinking, let alone “global first.” But, as soon as the pandemic hit, companies began to shift their old ways of thinking on topics like remote work, and digitization accelerated even faster than it had already been moving. Suddenly, the topic of going global in the digital age began to really strike a chord.
3. Social media is vital to your platform as an author
For Found in Translation, once I got my pitching mojo back, I knew I would have to get creative. I pitched an editor directly with an InMail on LinkedIn (you can read about that on the official LinkedIn blog here). Yes, it’s an out-of-the-box approach, but it worked. My editor told me many years later that even though it was well publicized that this tactic worked for my book, she still hardly ever receives pitches that way. My InMail message was concise and polite (I hope), but full of passion for the topic. I had studied all of her social media accounts carefully, especially Twitter, and I knew she enjoyed quirky topics, fun authors, and had a great sense of humor. I knew she would probably gel with me and my co-author. And I was right!
Bolstered with not only my own platform, but my co-author’s too (Jost had a huge newsletter subscriber list back then for his Translator’s Toolbox, and it’s even more popular today), I knew we would have a stronger chance of getting interest from a publisher. Book publishers have to de-risk the books they invest in to make money, after all. The larger your platform, the better, which is why Jost’s impressive following in the translation space, and my traction in the interpreting space (back then) made us somewhat of a natural dream team of co-authors. Not only did we know the topic. We had audiences who knew that we knew the topic. The latter is, in many ways, just as important as the former, if you seek to land a deal with a major publisher.
Likewise, with Take Your Company Global, social media is already proving to be powerful (connect with me here). With just one LinkedIn post pre-announcing the book, I saw 300 reactions, 100+ comments, 11,000+ impressions. Many kind people also volunteered to be part of my “launch squad” to help promote the book when it comes out this fall. (If you’d also like to participate, contact me here.)
4. Writing the book is only a fraction of the work
I love to write. If writing were all I had to do, I could write a book a couple of times each year! Sadly, those books would hardly have any impact, because publishing a book entails so much more than just writing it. Writing is in some ways, just the foundation of a book. Then there’s editing it, typesetting it, proofreading it, packaging it, designing it, printing it, creating ebook and audio versions of it, distributing it, marketing it, promoting it, publicizing it, selling the rights for it, and so much more. Taking a book to market is not for the faint of heart. It’s a process. There is a lot to learn!
And when it comes to promoting a book, even though I’m a veteran marketer in the tech space, where things evolve pretty rapidly, the highly specialized niche of book marketing has also transformed in recent years, and keeps changing before our eyes. This is glaringly apparent for me as an author. Even though I had published a “real” book with a “real” publisher before, fast forward ten years, and everything has changed in terms of how you promote a book! With my last book, I did dozens and dozens of radio interviews (including live visits to the studios for sessions that aired on NPR, Radiolab and more). While radio is still alive and well, that isn’t the primary strategy most authors would use today for marketing their book, even though I leaned into it heavily last time.
For Found in Translation, we also did a self-organized launch tour that included nearly 20 events over the course of a month, including book signings, keynotes, luncheons, university talks, and so on. From Boston to Atlanta, from Chicago to San Diego, and many spots in between, we traveled far and wide to promote the book and spread the word across more than 10 cities in the months following publication. It was good for me to have a visible presence at those events for the company I was working for at the time, because it helped promote their brand too. But even so, multi-city tours with live events and signings are not a strategy most authors use a lot these days. Everything has changed in the past ten years!
5. Every publisher is different
The publisher you work with can make a very big difference on not only the outcome of your book, but also, how you feel about the process as an author. Some publishers choose the title of the book and the cover art, and the author has zero say in the matter. In other cases, publishers connect the design team with the author, to ensure they are happy with the artwork and feel that it actually conveys the overall sentiment of the book as well.
With some publishers, authors are left in the dark on a lot of details, such as whether or not the supply chain will support hardback editions or not, how the supply chain is structured and whether or not they can even guarantee ethical practices are being followed globally in actually producing your book. For example, an author might never know if an indigenous group was forced to move off their ancestral lands in order to plant trees from which the paper is derived that is sourced for your book, or whether fair and safe labor conditions were arranged for the people involved in producing your book. This depends greatly on your publisher, how much they actually care about such things, and whether or not they’re transparent with you.
6. You’ll almost certainly need an agent
I cannot recommend working with an agent highly enough, so long as you get a good one you can trust! What’s odd in my case with Found in Translation was that I didn’t have an agent and “cold pitched” an editor via InMail. But once I started reading details of subsidiary rights and “earning back advances” and other book trade legalese, I realized I wasn’t fluent in any of that, and didn’t have time to become an expert on it either. That’s how I reached my agent, a reputable literary agent based in New York City who had longstanding relationships with most major publishers. He helped us navigate the contract for Found in Translation, knew what terms were typical and could be flexed toward the author’s advantage, and negotiated a better deal for us.
7. Being an author isn’t glamorous
I think that when people imagine writing a book, they romanticize it quite a bit. They probably don’t think about how annoying it can be to check each reference to ensure it’s in the perfect Chicago Manual of Style format when you’re red-eyed and bleary, words blurring on the screen, long after your kids fell asleep. They probably don’t know what it’s like to do a book signing where you sign books until the joints in your fingers hurt, and in which most people just want to tell you their life story, as you ask polite questions of them, while nervously eyeing the long line of people behind them waiting. They probably have no idea how hard it is to build up the nerve to reach out to people to ask for endorsements for the back cover, not really knowing what to offer them in exchange other than your sincere gratitude.
People who haven’t published a book probably dream of being on bestseller lists too, until they realize that these too can be a bit of a mirage, and that some authors actually hack the system by paying for dodgy black market companies to ship large quantities around to random people, just to make it look like they actually had real book sales and pull a fast one on the bestseller lists. (No reputable publisher will likely ever work with you again if you do that, and the telltale sales patterns are quite obvious to anyone who knows what to look for in Bookscan.)
The point is, being an author is often more grunge than glamour. There is nothing leisurely or luxurious about getting out there and work hard to promote your book the old-fashioned way. If anything, it takes a lot of hustle and persistence. But that’s the only thing that truly delivers results! There are no shortcuts. My co-author and I put a lot of time and effort into promoting Found in Translation, but because of our tireless efforts (on top of our day jobs), that book sold within the top 1% of titles in its category. That didn’t come easy. It required thousands of small individual actions over the course of years.
8. Most non-fiction authors don’t make a living writing books
Typical royalties on a new paperback might only be a little over one dollar per copy for an author, and bulk discounts and returns can really complicate things further. There are of course some authors, usually fiction writers, who craft bestseller after bestseller. But if you’re writing non-fiction, chances are your book will be a gateway to something else you want to do someday. For example, many non-fiction writers use their book to gain speaking gigs, consulting projects, and other work that is higher-paid.
The reason I mention this is because in spite of all the work that goes into writing, publishing, and promoting a book, people are generally surprised to learn there simply isn’t much money in it for authors, especially if they invest anything themselves in promoting it.
9. Get ready to defer to the experts
Publishing is a business. The publishers are the experts in this business; the authors are not. Authors can be more like creatives or artists, and can understandably become very emotionally invested in their work. Publishers know what sells, and what doesn’t, but many authors won’t listen to well-meaning advice, because they want everything done their way, on their terms. Sometimes, people can get overly passionate about their topics to the point of being unreasonable and inflexible. Lots of authors (even those who don’t have much of a fan base or following) can behave like divas, to put it mildly. No publisher wants to work with authors who have a bad attitude, or won’t listen to expert input.
To be a highly-valued professional in any business setting, you need to get really good at processing, internalizing, and quickly accepting feedback from people (and even soliciting more of it!) If you want to be a stand-out author, it’s amazing how much a bit of humility will be valued when you work with your publisher. I am very comfortable deferring to my publisher on many decisions, because they are the experts in selling books! I’m only the expert in the message I want to share. I also welcome suggestions from an editor, who I’m sure can put the reader’s hat on much better than I can. I’m just the writer!
10. You never know who your book will reach
My last major insight from publishing a book with a major publisher is that the international rights for a book might just surprise you. And this is, at least for me, the most fun part of the entire process! With Found in Translation, we were surprised to see the foreign language rights sell in Norway, and Norwegian was actually the first non-English edition of the book, followed unexpectedly by further editions in Greek and Russian. If you would have asked me which languages that particular book would sell in first, these would not have been high on my list of guesses, but you just never know when your own book will surprise you!
You also never know who your book will reach, or what those readers will end up doing with their lives after you’ve reached them. For example, I recently reached out to a person I’ve known of for many years now, and have always admired. Today, she is a VP at one of the largest tech companies in the world, and I contacted her recently to ask her a question. I mentioned to her that I hoped to meet her someday. She responded rather quickly and told me, “Oh, you probably don’t remember this, but I did already meet you, at a book signing you did at Microsoft, for your prior book.” She was right. I had met dozens if not hundreds of people that day, and the memory of all of their names and faces had blurred over the course of a decade. But it was because of my book that she remembered me. Making those kinds of connections with people is really rewarding, and knowing that your work helped you make those connections in the first place.
All in all, the journey of publishing a book is a rewarding one, but like most things worth doing, it isn’t quick or easy. It’s a long-term, multi-year commitment, but the dividends it pays back, and more importantly, the impact you’ll see, can extend over the course of a career, a lifetime.
P.S. If this post was helpful to you, follow along here on Instagram where I’ll be sharing more on what goes into being an author with a major publisher, and what the journey is like.
I agree with Nataly Kelly that caring deeply about the subject matter and taking every “no” as a “not yet” are essential on the path to becoming a published author. It’s also important to recognize the significance of timing when publishing a book, and social media can be a valuable tool in promoting your work. Writing is a powerful way to share knowledge and help people overcome barriers, and it’s admirable to pursue publishing as a means of achieving this goal.