Coming at the book backward

Kelly Pietrangeli had a brilliant idea for a book. She and her friends had discovered a powerful way of managing the chaos and anxiety that seems an inevitable part of bringing up children today with a set of tools around life balance, productivity and goal setting. They’d been using the tools themselves with great success, and the next obvious step seemed to Kelly to write a book. Full of enthusiasm, she and a friend got started.

But then:

‘It just occurred to me one day, how are we going to get a book deal on this book called Project Me, when we have no website, no social media platform whatsoever, like, who are we, you know? We’re just a couple of mothers who are writing this book and I suddenly lost confidence in the idea.’

That’s where many book ideas start and end. Or Kelly could have decided to opt instead for self-publishing.

‘But then it occurred to me, well, we could kind of do things backwards here and set up a website, and take the chapters we’ve written so far and turn them into blog posts.’

Her friend and co-author was initially horrified. ‘What, we’re just going to take all this stuff we’ve been working on and just put it for free on a website so anybody can get it? Why would anybody later want to buy a book if it’s already there on the website?’

But Kelly convinced her it was worth the risk. They launched ProjectMe for Busy Mothers, first as a blog, then gradually as a suite of resources, online course, workshops, coaching and ultimately a community, and the book itself was forgotten. Until one day a member of that community, who happened to be a literary agent, said: ‘Kelly, there’s a book in this.’

And so the book was born, back to front. Instead of pitching the idea to publishers in the hope that they’d be the means of getting the word out and building her profile, Kelly found herself sitting at a table with publishers falling over themselves to sign her up.

She’d done the work. She’d build a following, proved her idea resonated with her target market, and created a back-end that would power the sales. (You can hear the full story here.)

Sometimes it seems like a particularly cruel Catch 22: you can only get a publishing deal if you’re already famous; if you’re already famous, you don’t need a publishing deal. But in fact it makes all kinds of sense for nonfiction.

As Adrian Zackheim, publisher at Portfolio, Penguin Random House, said when I interviewed him for the podcast recently (episode not yet broadcast):

‘There are so many tools at our disposal for communication and for building a following… anybody who is a compelling thinker and communicator who has been completely unable to build any sort of following or to even create a ripple of interest in the media world, when they come to us with their book proposal, we have to consider it with some suspicion, because how come nothing has happened around this idea set so far?… Particularly if you are now coming to us and saying, “I am dying to get this idea in front of a large community. You need to help me because this idea is so important, but I really have not been able to attract a single follower.”’

The next challenge is for publishers to go beyond seeing authors’ platforms and communities as simply a green light to take a risk on a book, to develop tools and expertise to support their authors to build their platform or business even further through the book. And as Mike Shatzkin pointed out on Book Machine last year, no publisher has this right yet.

membership economyAlison Jones (@bookstothesky) is a publishing partner for businesses and organizations writing world-changing books. She also provides executive coaching, consultancy and training services to publishers. www.alisonjones.com

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