A lot of people ask me how I got into publishing and how I was able to get both books published by well known publishers. In the interest of transparency, and helping people, I wanted to give a first hand account of how I went about going from no deals to two deals before turning thirty years old. I hope this helps and if you have questions, please ask in the comments section.
The Me 2.0 Saga
I started working on my first book proposal back in 2007 after I was able to create the first social media position in a Fortune 200 company based on everything I was able to do in the personal branding field and a Fast Company profile that promoted it. I had no idea how to create a book proposal or how to go about getting a publishing deal. I was 23 years old at the time and I wanted to write the book to support millennials who were having trouble finding a job and to explain how everyone can use social media to build a personal brand. I found a book proposal template online that included sections like “target audience” and “competitive analysis”, both of which are sections in a traditional marketing or business plan. I filled both out and wrote two sample chapters for the book, originally called “Command Your Career”. I approached two publishers, who turned me down within a month of reviewing. Then, I was at a marketing event and I bumped into two different authors, one of which was Paul Gillan and the other one I can’t name (because he laughed at the fact that I was going to write a book).
Paul told me that it’s much easier to go through an agent so I went to a literary agent directory that I found online and pitched the proposal to seventy agents (that’s 70), all of whom either rejected it, didn’t respond or said to “come back when you’re famous.” This obviously didn’t stop me from trying to make the book a reality. I was doing research on education publishers and came across Kaplan Publishing, a division of Kaplan. I reviewed their website, downloaded their proposal template and submitted it blindly. A few weeks later, I received an email from an acquisition editor, who was interested in the concept and soon the publisher was interested too. In January 2008, I was on my lunch break at work and received “the call” that basically changed my life. I had received an offer for the book and took it immediately. The coincidence is that they were already looking for a similar book and so it was great timing. Their interns came up with the book title, Me 2.0, and since 2009 (when it came out) it’s sold tens of thousands of copies in 13 different languages, and with more than 1,000 media articles covering it.
The Promote Yourself Saga
Right now you’re thinking “it must have been easy to land your second publishing deal because of the success of your first book” but now, sadly life doesn’t always work like that especially in this industry. After Me 2.0 was published in April of 2009, I immediately wrote another book proposal. The idea I had was to write several books using the “2.0” moniker. The first proposal was for “Author 2.0”, which was focused on helping professionals publish a book and then using it for their career. It was going to be co-authored and I had an agent this time but every single publisher on earth rejected it because it was too niche. I ended up splitting ways with that agent and co-author and moved to the next concept, “We 2.0”. We 2.0 was going to be the top online networking book and based on my experience building a strong network. I had a new agent this time that tracked me down on Twitter and we worked together on a proposal for it, which was eventually rejected by every publisher on earth to my surprise. I was then told by my friend, who I can’t mention but is a very popular blogger in my space, to drop this agent and find an A-list agent because that would be the only way I could secure a deal. While I was trying to find a new agent, I wrote another proposal and a sample chapter and reached out to Marcus Buckingham, someone who I admired and had spoken with for a number of years. He had never written a foreword for a book before even despite his popularity but decided to pen one for my future book.
My speaking agency at the time connected me to an amazing woman, who is very well networked in the publishing world. She introduced me to three top NYC literary agents. After meeting all of them, I decided to go with Jim Levine at Levine Greenberg, who has a great stable of business authors including Patrick Lencioni, Martin Lindstrom and Jonah Berger. I chose Jim because when I sat down with him, he seemed to really believe in me and what I was trying to do. He made the connection so fast that I knew it was a good fit and so we proceeded.
We had to touch up the proposal several times, as well as the sample chapters but once that was done then it was my mission to get a sponsor for the research that I wanted in my book. I knew that the research would increase the odds of me getting a deal so I spent every day trying to convince a company to take it on. I ended up pitching approximately one hundred companies and some were interested but no deals. Jim said that he wanted to send the proposal to publishers in January of 2012 and held out for me until I could make a deal. In December, right before Christmas, American Express signed on to be the research partner. In January, the proposal went out and to my surprise (yet again), the big publishers were turning it down. At this point, I’m shocked because I had built a strong platform, had a Fortune 100 company on board and the proposal was strong because it went through months of editing with top consultants.
Then, we finally heard from two publishers, Penguin and St. Martin’s Press. St. Martin’s Press was interested and we had a call but since Penguin expressed interest first (and I knew all their authors), my mind was on that publisher instead. This was a horrible move, of course, and I had a bad attitude during that call, which almost cost me everything. I really thought Penguin would come through, but after speaking to the publisher they ended up turning me down. At this point, I had to clean my act up and present myself better to St. Martin’s. They were on the fence with me at this point, but at the same time, I was launching my first major research PR campaign and it exploded with over seventy media hits. The success of that campaign pushed the publisher over the edge and the deal was made. For me, it was the end of years of struggling to get a book deal and the beginning of the “real work” of writing and marketing.
While some might take a vacation or throw a party after securing a book deal, I immediately had my head down executing on my marketing plan. I started doing more research study campaigns (five total on top of the American Express study before the book came out), media interviews, networking with fellow authors and journalists and publishing everywhere, from Forbes to TIME. I started promoting the book before the subtitle was even agreed upon, which was “The New Art of Getting Ahead” before it was later changed to “The New Rules For Career Success”. The purpose was to build the brand of the book and constantly remind my agent and the publisher that I was executing on the plan that I agreed upon, and then exceeding expectations. My mantra was “no one will invest in you, unless you invest in yourself first” and in this case, I knew that they wouldn’t promote my book unless I promoted it first.
Aside from having American Express sponsor the study that coincided with the book, I had another lofty goal. I wanted to get another company to sponsor an entire book tour. I pitched over one hundred companies again and everyone said no to fifteen to thirty cities. EY reached back to me and suggested that they sponsor the New York City book launch after several months. In addition to this event sponsorship, we used a company called Shindig to make it a virtual event and after five months, I got one thousand people to sign up globally for it.
In April 2013, I called a meeting with the publisher to see how we can better align our efforts in supporting the book. Little did I know what a magical day that would be for me in my career. I walked into a room with over a dozen people, from the publisher all the way down. I had brought a presentation to show what I’ve done and plan to do but that wasn’t the topic of the conversation. My agent goes “I’ve never seen any author do this much work before” and the publisher commended me. From there, my editor took me to a restaurant and we had lunch. Towards the end of the conversation he goes “we are upgrading this to a hardcover book”. I almost started crying because a hardcover book means that the publisher is investing more in the author and it’s what I had always wanted. I later learned that the publicist from Penguin who I used to speak to when I wanted to interview her authors for Forbes made the call because she trusted me and liked me as a person.
While I was marketing the book, I was simultaneously writing it. I had five phases of book writing: 1) I created a very strong outline that broke down every aspect of every chapter. 2) The American Express survey questions connected to each individual question so when the results came back I write them in the outline. 3) I did 110 phone call interviews millennials, managers and executives that related to the survey questions, and thus the chapters of the book. After the results came back, I stuck the best quotes in the chapters where they fit best. 4) I wrote down my observations, conclusions, ideas and strategies under each topic outline. 5) I weaves my writing along with the interviews and research to create the book. The entire process took approximately eight months before the publisher edited it.
My marketing strategy included pitching to speak at several HR focused conferences, such as SHRM and ATD, all of which I ended up speaking at in 2013 to promote the book. In addition, I conducted twenty-three webinars with associations and companies and wrote twenty-five bylines. Each byline was published in a different national media outlet and I incorporated one finding from the American Express research for each one to make it more compelling and to also promote the study and Amex. In addition, I contacted my network and received over twenty endorsements from the likes of Daymond John, Patti Stanger, Gretchen Rubin, and Daniel Pink. I created a college campaign, getting career service directors at school nationwide to promote the book and then sold the book directly to classes so they could use it as a textbook. Knowing that bulk sales were important, I created a book package sheet and sold thousands of books to major corporations. Knowing that individual sales were also important, I gathered exclusive content from my network and sold packages to my email list, pushing them to Amazon.com to pre-order the books.
In August 2013, I rounded up all of my blogging connections to secure guest posts and reviews. I reached out to podcasters to get on their shows. I pitched the Amex research to over two hundred journalists and producers. I also reached out to mega influencers like Tim Ferriss for tweets and Facebook post promotions. Basically, my goal was to set up my publishing week of September 3rd for success. I had an entire spreadsheet with several tabs managing every aspect of the book campaign, executing each piece in every hour that I had.
On September 3rd my book came out, as well as all the byline articles, several podcast appearances, media reviews and quotes. On September 10th, I had my EY book launch in Times Square NYC with about a hundred people and 1,000 people listening from around the world. My friends came from Boston, Atlanta and Florida to watch my big moment. It was the accumulation of over six years of relentless effort and I was very proud to also have my parents there.
The next day I woke up to get a call from my publisher that I hit the New York Times bestsellers list and no I didn’t pay any firms that game the system. The following day, I found out that I also made the Wall Street Journal bestsellers list and then that Saturday I turned thirty years old. It was a pretty remarkable series of events that I encountered over those six years, going from being an employee to becoming an entrepreneur and moving from an unknown author to a best-selling one. I hope that this story inspires you to follow your dreams and to not give up on yourself, even when times are stressful and challenging.
My Top 3 Pieces of Advice For Future Authors
Based on these two stories, you’ve probably learned a lot about the approach to getting your own book deal but I’m going to boil it down for you into a few tips.
1. Get an agent. If you don’t have an agent, it’s almost impossible to get a deal, especially in today’s book world. All agents take 15% of everything and it’s well worth it because of all the battles they have to fight for you along the way. You can find your own agent by going to Publishers Marketplace or by getting a recommendation from another author.
2. Write a business plan, not a proposal. If I were to start this process over, I would create a business plan instead of a traditional book proposal. Publishers are really venture capitalists in disguise. They invest in ideas and people who can make them money. If you don’t have a market platform and a lot of money to spend on your campaign, you probably won’t get a deal. You need to prove that the book will be successful even before you start writing it. You need to get a successful person to write the foreword, endorsements and convince websites and magazines to commit to promotion. You need to get companies to commit to buying bulk book orders. If you do all of this, you lower their perceived risk and increase the chances of success. Remember that they are a business and they are looking for a return on their investment.
3. Start marketing the book before you finish writing it. The best piece of advice I got was from David Meerman Scott, who told me that you need to start marketing the book at least a year in advance and to not rely on the publisher to do it for you. As a marketer, I was up for the challenge and started getting publications to talk about the books early. I also blogged almost daily to build the readership and the buzz. In this industry, I’ve learned that you have to constantly come up with new ideas and get them out there through articles and speaking. If you don’t, you lose relevancy and opportunities.
Buy Dan Schawbel’s best-selling book,
Promote Yourself: The New Rules For Career Success.
Barbara Schawbel Solomon says
So proud of your accomplishments!
Karin Bellantoni says
@ Barbara Schwabel Solomon I am so proud and I am not related! You should be proud he is a light guiding many and an example of the new world business.
Actually it warmed my heart to see you first in comments! Have a great weekend!
Jay Baer says
Great post, Dan. I completely agree, especially about point #3. Many publishers still believe that you have to keep quiet about the book until right before launch. That’s yesterday’s playbook, and no longer true. Congrats on the success!
Phil Simon says
Yes! It’s a common first-time mistake. I’m less certain about the need for an agent. They can certainly help, but they’re certainly not prerequisites.
Good post. The journey was enlightening. I believe that most would-be authors really don’t want to do all of the scrambling that you did, Dan.
Peter Sterlacci says
Dan, you really are an inspiration and to read about how you went about doing this for these books really does prove just how committed you are to your work. Kick ass brother! Well done.
Marco Kpeglo LeRoc says
Your story is amazing, and full of determination. Your hard work will definitely pay off .Thanks for inspiring the rest of us. Congrats
Kathryn Hall says
With 35 years of publicity under my belt I have never seen a new author with this kind of drive, Dan. You are one of a kind. It’s generous and kind of you to share your story with aspiring authors–both to help them see what they are stepping into and to lay the groundwork for them to set their own sites. Well done. You are an inspiration.
Danny Rubin says
Great insight, Dan. You show just how much effort it takes to make the dream happen.
I appreciate how you lay everything out step by step. Very helpful!
Mark Cummuta says
Well done, Dan!! I enjoyed working with you on your first book; you inspired me to pursue writing my first book (“Finding Your Career Passion”). Congrats on hitting it outta the park!