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The Journey of a First Time Author - How Book Publishing Works (Part 1 of 4)

Posted on June 24, 2021 at 10:45 AM

I decided to try to publish my first book in 2014. That book, Lead Inside the Box: How Smart Leaders Guide their Teams to Exceptional Results (Career Press, 2015), has done quite well, including:


  • hitting the Top 20 bestseller list in three categories - Leadership, Management, and Teams - in the Amazon Kindle store in 2020
  • gone on to be a Top 10 all-time bestseller for its publisher, 
  • been released in English, Chinese, and Korean versions, and 
  • is stocked in public libraries across the US and around the world in every continent except Antarctica. 


The journey to get there was quite long and arduous. I kept a journal of my experience as a first-time author in real time. I am republishig that journal here now to help other first time, wannabe authors.

Why I am Starting this Blog (Jan. 3, 2014)

I've got to fess up to a serious addiction - I am totally hooked on conquering long-distance hiking and biking trails. I've bicycled from Pittsburgh to Washington DC, from Montreal to Quebec, across the state of New York along the Erie Canal, and across most of Europe along the Danube River. Last summer that addiction began to spread to hiking with a month long month long hike across Spain along the Camino de Santiago. My adventures keep getting longer and a bit crazier.

Now, to feed my adventure addiction, I am doing something much, much more terrifying and difficult: I'm writing my first book. It's a non-fiction business book I have been kicking around for a while and finally decided I had to get it out of my head. Don't worry, it's not a memoir or anything like that - I don't think even I would find it interesting enough to buy. It's about a leadership style I have learned over the years that has worked pretty well for me. I'm told the journey for a first time author is as long and hard as the chances of success are remote. It will make the physical challenges of hiking and biking hundreds of miles seem relaxing I think.

When I did my hike and bike across Europe last year, I Facebook blogged everyday to my friends and many seemed to enjoy it. I know the feedback they gave me every day helped push me on through the sore muscles, twisted ankle, and blisters.

So I figure I need all the help I can get with this first time author journey, so I am going to live blog this as well. Hopefully I get some luck and make it to the finish line. Come join me!

Sharing the Book Idea for the First Time (Jan. 11, 2014)

My career has centered on doing two basic activities (1) analyzing things and (2) leading people. Over time, the two have blended in with each other. As I had more and more experience leading people, my analyst self looked for patterns and root causes in the situations I found myself facing as a leader. My inner voice started a conversation with itself: "This difficult situation I am facing with leading Joe right now reminds me of a situation I faced with leading Jane two years ago. If I apply the lessons I learned in leading Jane to this difficult situation with Joe, that would be a lot better than starting from scratch." "And if I can figure out what makes these two situations so similar, I can more easily identify similar situations like that in the future so I could apply the right lessons learned." "And if I could identify what these root causes are and look for those in other team members, I could probably anticipate problems and apply those lessons learned ahead of time."

So I set about to identifying these common root causes and organizing them into a framework. I started with a simple picture that soon found its way into PowerPoint. Then the PowerPoint turned into a Word document to fit all the words around the picture describing the concept. By the time the Word document turned into ten pages or so, I figured I might actually have an outline of a book. Wow, how did that happen?

Just one problem - I had no idea what a book idea looks like or how you turn it into an actual book. But luckily I had a trusted friend and colleague who did by the name of Mike. Mike had published his first book a couple of years ago and had found quite a bit of success and learned a lot of lessons along the way. I sent him the outline with an introduction along the lines of "this is probably nothing, but do you think there is a book here and, if so, want to help me?" That was three days ago, and now I just got back the reply I was hoping to hear -- "Yes and yes."

So a journey begins. Hopefully both a book and I emerge on the other side.

Learning How Book Publishing Works (Jan. 15, 2014)

Mike and I found some time to chat about the book today. My starting question was "how does this work?" He told me to buckle in for a few minutes while he walked through the whole experience. Here is what I caught from the fire hose of information that followed through the phone.

(1) The process starts with a literary agent. There are a relatively small set (maybe a dozen or so) of literary agents in this niche of the business book world that hold the keys to the publishing kingdom. They have become experts at knowing what the publishers are looking for and being able to quickly tell if they see it. Because they have built a reputation for doing just that, publishers rely on them as gatekeepers between them and aspiring authors. If you can't get an agent interested in your concept, it will never even get in front of a publisher. For that service, agents typically take 15% of the money an author gets.

(2) The pitch to publishers comes in the form of a Proposal, which has several parts.

(3) First is the Precis, a word so new to me I can't even figure out how to type the foreign symbol on one of its letters. The Precis is a fancy name for a very short summary (one page) of the core concept of the book and why it is useful. The next part is a description of the author and the platform they can use to market the book once it does get printed. Could the author prove to readers that they know what they are writing about? And can the author advertise the book to a lot of people to help drive sales? Basically, their way of saying ?I need to know that you can both chop down the tree and there will be people there to hear it fall before I give your lumberjack-wannabe butt a lift to the forest.?

(4) The next part is the chapter outline. You number and title each chapter and write a brief description of what they contain. This is the bulk of the work because you not only have to have your concept fully developed but you have to get the flow of the story right too in smaller pieces.

(5) Finally, the last part is the writing sample. This is typically one full chapter of the book to show that you can actually write well.

(6) Once your literary agent has a complete proposal, they present it around to the publishing houses they know are most likely interested in your topic. In the ideal world, one or more come back with an offer to pick it up that includes an advance on royalties, deadlines and other financial terms.

(7) Financial terms center on royalty rates, which are set on wholesale, not list, price and are typically tiered based on volume. The first 5000 copies earn the author 15% of wholesale price, the next 5000 copies 17% and runs above that pay out 20%. You should note that your agent?s 15% cut comes out of all of those, so author?s net take is 12.75%, 14.45%, and 17%, respectively. And remember that the advance you get, maybe $10-20K or so is called an advance because it is just pre-payment of royalties you earn. If you don?t sell enough books, you won?t see any more. To sum up ? don?t quit your day job.

Once you sign an agreement, the real writing work actually begins and you will be on deadline. A whole new slew of people will be ripping apart your work ? the acquiring editor, the copy editor and at least one other type of editor whose label I cant read from my notes because Mike was talking so fast. This whole process took about 14 months for Mike with his book, which is pretty fast, and he signed with an elite publishing house.

It took me a moment to notice that the fire hose of information had finally stopped. My hand was cramped from writing and my head was spinning. What exactly am I signing up for? Am I really up for this? Do you have to be crazy to do this? "Hello. You still there?" Mike's voice on the other end of the phone snapped me out of my stupor. I hesitated a moment and replied, "Well, we better get started."

Categories: Publishing a Book, Communication Skills, Book Writing / Publishing / Author Process