19 No’s and a Yes: How to Sell Your Leadership Book (Part I)

I started trying to sell my book at the same time I started writing it.  It took two years to accomplish both goals.

The Greats on Leadership is my second book. The first was Strategic Speed. Both are business books—or really, leadership books, since they’re aimed at leaders of all stripes (not just executives of for-profit enterprises, the standard audience for “business books”).

Strategic Speed was published by Harvard Business Press in 2010. I wrote it when I was an employee of The Forum Corporation, a global training and consulting firm. I had no trouble getting Harvard to take it, and it did pretty well once it came out. So, when I set out to sell my next book, I was confident I was “in.” If Harvard doesn’t take this book, I thought, I’ll simply contact a few other publishers and someone else will snap it up, right?


By June 2013 I’d created an outline and a proposal. In the nonfiction world that’s all you need to approach publishers, and generally, the earlier the better. Proud of myself for being on top of the marketing side of things, I began reaching out: not to the Big 5, because without a literary agent you can’t talk to those guys, but to large independent publishers I could reach via my industry contacts.

I quickly realized that I was, in fact, far from in. I was now on my own, no longer an executive of a well-established training company with a substantial marketing budget and client list. I lacked, as they say in the book biz, a platform. That meant I was out.

Harvard, my first prospect, turned me down. My former editor there was encouraging, actually, and said she would have loved to take the book, but they had a somewhat similar title in their catalog already; sorry, and good luck.

I moved on undaunted, but the next editor got straight to the point: “Your project has many interesting aspects, but unfortunately we don’t see enough in the way of a client base or speaking engagements in order to ensure demand for the book.” In other words: No platform.

I’d been put in touch with that editor by a mutual acquaintance, a prolific writer on education topics. When I told her of the rejection and asked for advice, she was even more direct: “Quite honestly, no publishers are taking on new authors. Books are not a lucrative business anymore.” (Pause; wipe cold water off face.) She then suggested I look into self-publishing, noting that she knew some people who had had great success with that route.

I did look into self-publishing. I also approached four more publishers and was rejected by each.  I then decided to seek an agent. I sent queries to dozens of prospects, got dozens of rejections, got six requests-for-proposal, revised my proposal, sent it, and ultimately landed someone to represent me.

Once again: “I’m in!”

Once again: Wrong.

My agent was enthusiastic. He worked with me to upgrade the proposal and sent it to about a dozen imprints of the Big 5 plus several academic/trade publishers. Here’s what happened:

“No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.” (I now had 16 no’s, not counting all the ones from agents.)

“I love it, but no.” (17)

“I thought I was going to love it, but turns out it sucks, so— no.” (18)

“Yes, we’re very interested.”

Oh, boy!

Wait two months for reviewer comments.

Agree to make numerous revisions.

Wait another month …

“Sorry, no.” (19)

According to the feedback we received, the book was “too smart” for the trade and “too colloquial” for the academics. One of the latter compared it, disparagingly, to Aesop’s Fables. I wanted to ask him if that meant my vivid, concise prose would be remembered and quoted worldwide for 2500 years … but I refrained.

Finally, my agent threw in the towel: “Looks like we aren’t going to be successful with this one. Why don’t you look into hybrid publishers?” We parted ways, amicably.

As I sat at my laptop the next morning, Googling hybrid publishers, self-publishers, indie publishers, business publishers, academic publishers, Santa Fe publishers, innovative publishers, and “what to do if my agent didn’t sell my book”—my husband wandered by and asked what I was doing.

“Continuing to beat my head against the wall,” I said.

By that time, however, I had finished the manuscript. I sent it to a much-respected colleague—no pushover—who read it and phoned with a rave review.

I decided that it was all okay. The book was done. It was good. And I would get it out there, one way or another.

The day after the no-pushover’s call, I sent out new queries to two independent publishers. Almost immediately, I received two requests for proposal. The next week I was in conversation with the two editors. One month later, I signed a contract with Nicholas Brealey Publishing. And a couple days after that, NB Publishing was bought by Hachette—one of the Big 5.

Nineteen no’s and one yes … as a prospecting percentage (5 percent), I guess that’s not bad.

Next week, in Part II, I’ll share my five lessons learned.


About Jocelyn R Davis

Jocelyn Davis is Principal of Seven Learning, a leadership development firm that creates a lasting lift in leaders' effectiveness using classic books, films, and stories.
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