How I Got My Book Deal, and the Lessons I Learned

This post by Dorie Clark first appeared at Contrarian Consulting, back in August 2011.

In June 2011, I signed a book deal with Harvard Business Review Press. Because the process of landing a book contract can be so opaque and discouraging, I wanted to share the story of how I did it.

In 2009, I got serious: early in the year, I drafted two book proposals (I figured more was better, though I’ve later come to learn that publishers get freaked out if your focus appears to be scattered, so stick with one). My kind mystery writer friend hooked me up with her agent, who plunged into pitching the book/s.

Though friends assured me that the hard part was landing an agent, and I’d surely get a deal soon, none was forthcoming. The pundits­ (aka acquisitions editors) claimed to love my writing style but deemed one proposal  “too narrow” and the other one “not differentiated enough.” Oh, and I wasn’t famous. One editor said he regrettably had to decline, because Ivanka Trump was publishing a book on a similar topic.

By the following summer, we’d exhausted most of the usual publishing suspects. But I had a brainstorm: a friend of mine used to share office space with a small international publishing house that might be a fit. Sure enough, my agent sent it over and they quickly responded, calling me in for a meeting with their full staff. I was on the cusp of a contract, I felt sure, when they asked me to revise my proposal to add more international examples (I spent a week furiously researching). But mysteriously, the process dragged on and on. We eventually surmised that the American editor liked it, but the boss in England didn’t–and he ruled the day. After two months of foot-dragging, they finally called off the courtship. No contract.

Discouraged (and agentless, after we mutually agreed she’d exhausted her contacts), I realized the only way to break through the clutter was to work on the “famous” thing. So I made it my mission to reach out to prominent business publications and see if I could blog for them. This wasn’t too much of a stretch, I thought, because in my pre-consulting life I’d been a professional journalist and had won awards for my reporting. You might think online business editors would like good content for free–but you’d be wrong.

I thought I’d have an inside edge with one publication, where I was friends with a regular monthly columnist. With her permission, I emailed the blog editor and declared in the subject line, “[Columnist] suggested I contact you.” No word. I waited a few weeks and tried again, but still nothing. Finally, it was my good luck to meet the editor-at-large for this publication, and I explained my predicament. He told me I could use his name, so I emailed my target again: “[Editor at large] and [Columnist] suggested I contact you.” That seemed to work quite well, and within minutes, he emailed me back and asked to hear my blog ideas. I researched them feverishly and the next day, responded with well-thought-out pitches. To no avail. Once again, he went dark, and I never heard from him again.

I knew plenty of people who blogged for another major business magazine. It turned out (amazingly!) that until last year, literally anyone could sign up to blog for them. It was my bad luck, then, that I literally missed the cutoff by days; they had just decided to start vetting bloggers. No problem, I thought–except that their online editor (who did OK my pitch and invited me to submit several articles) would let months go by before responding, leaving me pathetically to send “follow-up” inquiries. Eventually I stopped hearing from him, too.

That might have been the end of it if I hadn’t wanted to sell my bike, a gorgeous Cannondale I no longer needed. Enter the woman who ended up buying it on Craig’s List (and who, quite pragmatically, researched me online beforehand to ensure I was legit).

“I see you’re a business consultant,” she said. Then the magic words: “You know, I work at the Harvard Business Review.”

It took time, and a few follow-ups, but she agreed to show my proposed blog post to an editor there–and he liked it. Several posts later, one caught the eye of a bigwig, and they hunted me down in Costa Rica over Christmas and asked me to expand it into a piece for the magazine. Once the magazine piece hit (on “Reinventing Your Personal Brand”), everything changed. Three agents contacted me out of the blue seeking to represent me, and one of them actually used to run Harvard Business Publishing. I figured that was a good sign, so I turned the article into a proposal and in less than a month, we received an offer.

These days, I’m blogging for the Harvard Business Review (thank you, my bicycle-buying friend!) and the Huffington Post, and guest-blogging for many other outlets. My book What’s Next: The Art of Reinventing Your Personal Brand is coming out next year from Harvard Business Review Press. And I learned the following lessons in my quest to land a book deal:

  • Work with an agent who specializes in business books. As with the rest of life, it’s about personal connections (specifically, which editors they have a track record of selling to).
  • Blogging is a terrific way to build your platform. Seek out places to feature your work, and don’t let jerky online editors get you down. If you persist, you will find a place that seeks out and values your work (at a minimum, you can create your own blog to get started).
  • Look (and prepare) for opportunities. It was sheer luck I sold my bike to an HBR staffer, but I was already prepared with blog ideas and pitches thanks to my initial work reaching out to other publications.
  • Brand matters. By now, I’ve written for lots of media outlets, but the response you get from a piece in the Harvard Business Review outshines them all.

What are your best strategies for building your profile and/or winning a book deal?

Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. Learn more about her book Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press) and follow her on Twitter.