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.

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Trusting Me

Solving a problemI was chatting with a colleague about the nature of trust, and he made a statement that brought me up short. He said that most people overlook self trust as an extremely important concept in life.

I had to admit that in all my years of studying trust in people and organizations, I had not spent much time dealing with self trust. This article is an attempt to remedy that.

Self trust is kind of a spooky business. We tend to rationalize the things we do that may be marginal in terms of being right, either for us or for others.

If we do something that we know deep down is just wrong, we think about the reasons that drove us to do that and give ourselves a pass on the transaction.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized how hard it really is to determine one’s…

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Classic Leadership Wisdom: Quote of the Week

In his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides gives an account of a famous negotiation between two Greek states. On one side, the Athenians, who have sailed their impressive fleet of warships to the island of Melos to demand surrender. On the other side, the Melians, current allies of Lacedaemon, aka Sparta (Athens’ chief enemy) and possessors of a not-so-impressive army.

The Athenians offer to let Melos alone to run their affairs in peace if they will come over to Athens’ side and pay a reasonable annual tribute. All the other small islands in the area have already acquiesced, but the Melians don’t think they should have to. They argue that a) their allies the Lacedaemonians will help them, and b) what the Athenians propose is unjust. What they don’t seem to grasp are some of the principles of negotiation with which many leaders are familiar today; they clearly haven’t, for example, figured out their BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement).

The exchange has become known as the “Melian Dialogue.” Here is one of the key passages:

Melians: “But we believe that [the Lacedaemonians] would be more likely to face even danger for our sake, and with more confidence than for others, as our nearness to the Peloponnese makes it easier for them to act, and our common blood ensures our fidelity.”

Athenians: “Yes, but what an intending ally trusts to, is not the goodwill of those who ask his aid, but a decided superiority of power for action; and the Lacedaemonians look to this even more than others … it is only with numerous allies that they attack a neighbor; now is it likely that while we are masters of the sea they will cross over to an island?”

Melians: “But they would have others to send …”

Athenians: ” …we are struck by the fact, that after saying you would consult for the safety of your country, in all this discussion you have mentioned nothing which men might trust to and think to be saved by. Your strongest arguments depend upon hope and the future, and your actual resources are too scanty, as compared with those arrayed against you, for you to come out victorious.”


Nevertheless, the Melians refuse to bend. The Athenians leave, but eventually return; Lacedaemon does not, in fact, send help; and the Athenian force wipes the island out, slaughtering or enslaving all the inhabitants. Later that year Euripides, the Greek playwright, came out with his tragedy The Trojan Women — which, though it ostensibly portrays the brutal aftermath of the Greek conquest of Troy, was known by its audience to be a commentary on what happened to Melos.


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Stretching the Cube: Getting Leaders to Think Broader, Deeper, Higher


It seems a lot of leaders are sitting in tiny cubes.

In the past few months I’ve had conversations about leadership with  1) a VP of Learning and Development for a Fortune 100 company; 2) a consultant who designs leadership training programs for companies of all sizes; and 3) a CEO of a fast-growing midsize technology firm.

I asked each of them what leaders at their company (or client companies) needed to do in order to be more effective, prepare themselves for more senior roles, and contribute to the firm’s success. Their replies sounded like this:

“Most of these folks are too stuck in their own little areas. We need them to pick their heads up and take a larger view. We need them to think beyond their function or business unit, beyond the day-to-day details and firefighting, and beyond tactical issues to strategic issues.”

Of course, they each phrased it a bit differently. The Learning and Development VP talked about diversity of thought and expanded perspectives. The consultant talked about complexity and tolerance of ambiguity. The CEO talked about wanting his executive team to have “a 360-degree view, not 180 or 270.”

But these three experts, at bottom, have the same worry.

Leaders at all levels of their organization, they feel, are thinking too narrow, too shallow, and too low. It’s as if each leader is sitting cramped in a small box, and they want each one to—no, not think outside the box—but make the box bigger along three dimensions: broader, deeper, and higher.

The other thing I asked these three individuals was: What type of leadership education or training had their people received in the past, and why hadn’t it resulted in the kind of broader, deeper, and higher perspectives they were hoping for? They all said something like this:

“Some of our leaders have an MBA, but all that gives them is financial and basic business knowledge. A lot of them have gone through our own management training program(s), and they come out of there knowing our performance management process and maybe with some better coaching and feedback skills. And last year we did a whole big push around [insert name of latest business fad]; we brought in [insert name of hot business guru] to do a series of workshops.  It’s all been useful, but nobody really seems to be thinking differently.”

Here’s where most MBA and corporate leadership programs falter:  they don’t talk explicitly about the need to think bigger in three dimensions, let alone show leaders how to do it. True, you’ll emerge from such a program having encountered a number of new concepts and tools, maybe improved a skill or two, but your personal cube—your mindset and outlook as a leader—won’t have grown much larger.

Here’s the sort of learning leaders need if we want them to think broader, deeper, and higher:

  • Broader:  Situations in which they not only are exposed to the perspectives of different functions, regions, and roles, but also are asked to analyze and solve problems from those diverse points of view.
  • Deeper:  Opportunities for them to immerse in, discuss, and apply a range of essential leadership concepts—big ideas such as change, justice, dilemmas, competition, decisions, vision, and motivation.
  • Higher:  Instruction in the levels of leadership—not to be confused with rungs on the corporate ladder—so that they know exactly what it means and what it will take to increase their impact as leaders.

Think broader. Think deeper. Think higher. That’s what my three friends were trying to say to leaders in their organization.

In other words:  Stretch the cube.


Next time I’ll go into more detail on the three dimensions and how to expand each one. Right now, I’d love to know what you think: Are leaders in your organization sitting in too-small cubes? How would you describe the different kind of thinking that’s required? What does “broader, deeper, higher” mean to you?

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Classic Leadership Wisdom: Are Leaders Born or Made?

Are leaders born or made?

The question is at least two thousand years old and still being debated today. Plutarch, the first-century historian and biographer, came down firmly on the side of “made.” In his essay “On Education,” he argues persuasively that moral excellence–what today we might call leadership character–is about nurture more than nature, learning more than innate ability.

Learning to lead, however, is not the work of an hour or two. A drop of water will wear away a rock, but it takes ten years, twenty years … even a lifetime.  

“To speak generally, what we are wont to say about the arts and sciences is true of moral excellence, for to its perfect development three things must meet together: natural ability, theory, and practice. (By theory I mean training, and by practice working at one’s craft.) … Happy at any rate and dear to the gods is he to whom any deity has vouchsafed all these elements! But if anyone thinks that those who have not good natural ability cannot to some extent make up for the deficiencies of nature by right training and practice, let such a one know that he is very wide of the mark, if not out of it altogether … The wonderful efficacy and power of long and continuous labor you may see indeed every day in the world around you. Thus water continually dropping wears away rocks: and iron and steel are moulded by the hands of the artificer: and chariot wheels bent by strain can never recover their original symmetry: and the crooked staves of actors can never be made straight. But by toil, what is contrary to nature becomes stronger than even nature itself.”

-Plutarch, Moralia, “On Education”

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On Ice Cream, Mushrooms, and the Three Ages of Leadership

Are you a new leader, a rising leader, or a tenured leader? And do you know what you should be focusing on at this stage of the game?

Check out my latest post on the Linked2Leadership blog to find out …


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Classic Leadership Wisdom: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

If I had to prescribe one novel for all leaders to read, it would probably be Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

If you’re picturing the Hollywood movies of the same name, you’ll think it an odd choice. But Shelley’s book bears little relation to the films. Her “monster” (who is not named Frankenstein, by the way; that’s the name of the scientist who creates him) is an articulate and sensitive creature who wants to love and be loved. He teaches himself to speak, read, and write by observing a human family and, after waiting patiently for the right time, tries to make friends with them. It’s only when his overtures are viciously and violently rejected that he realizes the hopelessness of his situation and vows revenge on his creator.

Dr. Frankenstein, on the other hand, is merely a coward. Having brought his creature to life, he decides on the spot that he is a “fiend” and a “wretch,” abandons him, and flees the country. Perhaps like some leaders you know, Frankenstein talks big and has big ambitions, but when the time comes to take responsibility for what he has put in motion, he’s not up to it. When he finds he can’t control the thing he’s brought to life, he has a choice: to try to understand and care for it anyway, or to shun it and hope it disappears. He chooses the latter.

When Frankenstein meets up with his creation a year later, he is surprised to find that what the creature desires above all is not to kill him, but to tell his story. The “fiend” importunes Frankenstein with the following words, a cry from the heart for understanding:

“Let your compassion be moved, and do not disdain me. Listen to my tale; when you have heard that, abandon or commiserate me, as you shall judge that I deserve. But hear me. The guilty are allowed by human laws, bloody as they are, to speak in their own defense before they are condemned. Listen to me, Frankenstein. You accuse me of murder, and yet you would, with a satisfied conscience, destroy your own creature … Yet I ask you not to spare me; listen to me, and then, if you can, and if you will, destroy the work of your hands.”

–Frankenstein, by Mary W. Shelley

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