Getting Published. My road to publishing contract.
The short answer is that I was incredibly lucky. I wrote and shared something on Linkedin last November that caught the eye of an editor who wrote back. Two calls, eight emails and six months later I had signed a publishing contract and shipped a 673 page text book to Palgrave Macmillan.
But that is not how it really happened. There is a back story and a longer answer, slightly more complicated. Hence the post and the two alternate versions.
Getting Published. The summarized version
- Find a specialty. Master it by practicing, learning, reading and teaching.
- Get acknowledged as a guru in the field by no less than a hundred practitioners.
- Write and teach for two decade across multiple countries and regions.
- Test your materials on unsuspecting students and audiences.
- Self publish if you can and if you think it would be worthwhile.
- Try all the cheapest (read: free) mediums for recognition and praise.
- Build a documented platform with students, followers, fans, readers and customers.
- Yes Linkedin and Linkedin Groups is a documented platform.
- Become an entertainer and substitute teaching with show business and vice versa.
- Shamelessly seek opportunities to self promote yourself and your ideas.
- Invest in revised editions and new content for your teaching notes and articles.
- Practice the art of writing, presenting, convincing, persuading and influencing. Don’t be in a rush.
- Be patient and wait to be discovered. Follow rule number (12) while you wait.
- Don’t expect to make your first million with your first contract or your first title.
- Belay that. Don’t expect anything. Just keep on writing.
- Watch out for the post manuscript shipment author burn out and brain freeze.
- Extended exposure to chocolate, coffee and greenery helps cure writers block. But you have to be patient.
- For the curious it took two years to earn the author advance and the first post publication royalty check.
- No, you can’t feed yourself or your family on royalty checks so don’t quit your day job.
- Handing over a copy of your book as part of pre-sales meetings and board presentations just kills it. Every single time.
- The two books that made the biggest difference in my writing style – Elements of Style and Stephen King on writing.
Getting Published. The bedtime edition.
“So why are you here, this January?”.
We were all sitting together grabbing a quick bite at the cafeteria during a break in the orientation program for the J term. I am not sure if it was Christi Lowin or Elizabeth Khuse, but one of them asked me the question and off I went…
“I always wanted to do a play on Broadway, run the New York marathon and write a book. Columbia leases the cheapest two bedroom apartments on Riverside”.
I guess that afternoon in Uris Hall was the first time that I publicly admitted in front of perfect strangers that it would be nice to have a few million copies floating around with my name on them. Subject, context, topic, genre, I had no idea but that conversation was the beginning.
While New York and Columbia would have been a perfect launch pad for an aspiring writer, the only problem was inspiration. I had taken a start with a weekly column for Bottom line, the school’s student newspaper but then used all of my creative quota to launch an online training startup, end of first term. While I was writing a few hundred pages every week, I didn’t think they were worthy of an audience. Other than short notes and updates to my classmates in cluster X, the only prose I was producing was heading straight to our training pages, investor updates or to our business plan.
Fast forward three years. The startup is dead, the economy has tanked, New York is a memory and I am on the flight back home on Swissair with (finally) a story to tell. The problem now is convincing myself to write it. In Karachi there are interviews and a living that needs to be earned; school for our eldest and shipping containers that need to be cleared. What little bandwidth is left is consumed by taxes, exemptions and refunds.
The convincing bit takes three years and I end up with a two hundred page draft that represents everything but a book. The good news is that I have a table of content, a sample chapter and an outline that could be shared with an editor or an agent, whoever comes first.
Since this is 2006 and the internet is still young, the sum of collective wisdom and knowledge for a 35 year old can be found on Amazon.com. All you need is a master card. I buy everything I can find on writing a book proposal and finding an agent and closing that elusive book contract. The quest to put my name on a million hard copies of my story is on.
Like my book on the failed startup in Southern California, the quest for a publishing contract also botches up the happy ending. A few million emails and no responses later I figure out that the books on publishing don’t tell the whole story. Just like the books on raising funding and starting up missed out on a few crucial details. I am reliving the “everyone else in the world but you will find funding for your dream, dream”, except this time the dream is a book on failure, the pitch is for a publishing contract and the audience is just as responsive to my petitions as they are to a cold call from an insurance salesman.
There are a few exceptions. Paul Brown at Publishing Confidential and Robert Ferrigno a NYT bestselling author. Both strike up a conversation with a fan in Karachi and suggest a few alternate ideas. Stephen King pens “On Writing” and the book becomes a permanent bedside companion.
Luckily the same internet that gave us Amazon and online shipping, also created a market for e-books. Dazzled by the potential for self publishing and distributing it to millions of clamoring readers, I experiment with the new template. I rope in a few willing friends as editors. The loving wife does a read and shares a thumbs up. Parents and in-laws are not too disappointed. Friend don’t run and hide in terror when I show up with a manuscript (the exception being Amir who promptly faints whenever I bring the topic of his review around). These are all encouraging signs and sufficient justification to risk a thousand dollars on a copy editor on elance. Kris promptly tears the book apart in a nice way and shows the way to sanity and something consumable by an audience broader than my immediate family.
Somewhere in 2006 the agony ends and the book is shipped to Ingram Micro for onward distribution on Amazon as an ebook. It breaks all personal records over the next two years for an ebook written by a living relative and sells, wait for it, two hundred electronic copies. At 7 dollars a pop, it is the most difficult hundred and forty dollars I have ever made. The five years it took to write the book convert to an average income of twenty eight dollars a year.
And that is before Amazon summarily terminates its ebook distribution agreement with Ingram, making my sole claim to fame as being the author of the three hundred and forty five millionth most popular text listed for sale on these hallowed shelves of learning, invalid. Heartbreak Hotel, indeed.
In print, finally. 2007 – 2009
It’s been eight years since the original New York conversation at the Business School cafeteria at Columbia. While the publishing world has been unforgiving and I have lost all touch with Christi and Elizabeth, the startup founded in Karachi is prospering. With the book and the upwardly mobile startup comes an opportunity to teach as an adjunct at an Indian management school in Dubai and Singapore.
After one of the classes in Singapore on a wet evening in December 2008 a student invites me to come see his office which is quite close to the campus on Alexandra and Depot. I find that Malick is the General Manager for the third largest printing press in Singapore. When he shows me his million dollar Mitsubishi and HP Digital printing presses I can’t help but ask him the question that has been nagging me for all these years. What would it take to do a print run for my ebook? Very little it seems since we have already done all the hard work. We complete the work on a second edition in record time and ship the electronic copy to Malick’s team to typeset. Our first order for the book being placed by the Indian School I have teaching at for the last two years.
Three months later in March 2009, a package arrives from Singapore with twenty printed copies of Reboot. The quest to see my name in print has finally ended.
There is no rainbow and for some reason I can’t find that promised pot of gold. But it feels nice and I can finally check off “go forth and write a book” of my list.
Book Two and beyond.
With a print connection in hand in Singapore, a captive audience of a few hundred students a year and teaching engagement in two cities, book two on risk management quickly comes about.
It took more than 7 years before Reboot, the 2nd edition, saw print. Risk Frameworks & Applications takes less than 12 months to cover the same ground. Within a year the first edition is followed by a second and the book becomes a regular feature in my Derivative Pricing and Risk Management courses both on campus as well as at Treasury training workshops for banking customers.
Post book two, there is no longer a desire to pursue an agent, an editor or a publisher. India is a huge market right next doors and the volume represented by Indian customers is always an attraction. But without a connection it remains a wishful dream.
Then we quickly discover all the issues with shipping and logistics. It is one thing to run a print on demand model sitting in North America. It’s another emulating it based in Karachi with your primary print facility in the Far East. Try making a margin after subtracting postage costs of lots of twenty copies dispatched from Singapore to New York, Virginia & Louisville Kentucky. After selling another two hundred print copies at cost and below, I start exploring digital options.
But here are a few points that you should remember from that tale.
- First if you own the content and also distribute it, if you have the platform and the following to make it work, the numbers add up quite quickly. Much faster than the traditional conventional model. Meyers and Zack’ original MIT paper on the design of information product is now available for free. Go ahead and read it. First published in 1996 it was the inspiration of my first startup. A full 17 years later it still remains relevant for the information design industry.
- You should not be reliant on just your platform or the platform of your publisher. Ideally the best approach is to use the two platforms to feed and supplement each other. This require careful thinking, some experimentation but very clear expectations.
The elusive publishing contract with Macmillan
It was an effort to promote the digital platform on Linkedin that got us noticed and lead to the formal publishing conversation with a real publisher. To some extent it was the already established platform as a business as well as an adjunct instructor, the tested content, and the specialist status that made the book proposal attractive to the other side. In two years we had already written a thousand pages on the topic in question (risk management). Extracting a 600 page text book out of these pages took a little time but was not as difficult as starting off with a clean slate. The platform was already attracting hundred and fifty thousand visitors in the digital world when we started. With the book in print the numbers would only grow larger.
From a pure monetary point of view the first offer to you as an author never makes rationale sense. Having traveled two decades to reach this goal, money stops being the primary motivator. The first book is a door opener, a solution for the credibility conundrum. It is only when you have moved successfully beyond it that you can book bigger bets.
By the way there is quite some distance to travel between a book contract and a manuscript submitted for review. And then between the submission and the proofs and the proofs and the book in print. By the time you are done you hate what you have produced and written and you can no longer read it because you have run the read, review, edit, submit review cycle too many times. For that particular chunk of text you are now legally blind. It is significantly more painful work that putting the original manuscript together – especially for text books. You want to double check everything you write and propose and are really really weary of embarrassing your teachers and professors.
The total author advance and the first royalty check two years later confirmed my suspicions. You can’t feed your family as an author, you need a side gig, a main gig, a bill paying gig. But the real surprise was the burnout. I shipped the second manuscript in the summer of 2015. I couldn’t write a word for the next 18 months. Blank, zip, zero, nadda, nyet, nil, none. For someone who grew up writing every alternate day, it was acutely painful.
And then one fine morning, I was back to writing again. I am slower now but post the two book deal I have made two book size contributions to the publishing industry. Same line of work. Banking, risk management, portfolio optimization. Teaching helps, smart students help and greenery helps. And yes chocolate and coffee do work, especially if you have been off both for a few years.
But seeing the book in print, receiving an email every now and then from a complete and total stranger, knowing the fact that unsuspecting strangers all over the world are actually paying to read what you one wrote – that makes it all worthwhile.
For the record no agent was involved in the deal. I was approach directly by an editor. An agent may have helped secure a better deal but in the last decade of trying no one had expressed any interest in working with an unknown, unpublished author from Karachi, Pakistan. They still don’t 🙂
By just writing 2,609 words about my publishing experience I have neither become an expert nor qualify as a guide. Each discovered author has his own story, his own path. A friend asked me to enumerate mine and I did. I hope it was useful.
There were two questions that always nagged me when I first started on this path. “Will they read what I write and like it?” and “When so many have failed, how do I know that I will be able to succeed?”. Later in the year of the cafeteria conversation at Columbia two professors that changed my life answered both questions for me. I think the answer is still applicable a decade and change later.
There is only one way to find out. Why not?