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Book Editors Alliance

Is Book Authorship For You?

A Guide for Business People and Others (Part Two)




Authorship Is a Team Sport


As a business executive, you are accustomed to (and presumably skilled at) delegating tasks, managing teams, communicating an agenda--in short, accomplishing things with and through other people. But the titles, roles, and tribal customs of the various members of the typical publishing team are probably unfamiliar to you and may strike you as arcane and arbitrary. To get you started on mastering this new game, here's a scorecard listing the key players.


The Author. This is you--the person whose name and picture appears on the jacket. Nowadays, an author may or may not write the book; publishers often use the verb 'to author' to refer to the act of putting one's name on a book, accepting responsibility for it in the media, and receiving royalty checks.


The Agent. The literary agent works on behalf of the author and is responsible primarily for marketing the book to potential publishers. A good agent knows the leading editors at the major publishing houses (and most of the minor ones), and has a talent for both old-fashioned salesmanship and tough-minded negotiating. In return for her efforts, she receives a percentage of the author's income from the book--usually 15% off the top.


There are several ways to find an agent. Networking is probably the best. Ask friends who've authored books: Who was your agent? Were you happy with the service you received? Editors, publishers, and others in the publishing industry will share names of agents they respect. Agents' organizations, most notably the Association of Authors' Representatives, publish directories of their members. And you can always read the acknowledgement pages of books you admire, where the agent is generally mentioned.


Note that not all agents like or understand business books. Be sure to ask a prospective agent whether she has represented business authors, and talk with her enough to feel sure that she can explain you and your book accurately and enthusiastically.


The Writer. Most business books today are written in collaboration with an experienced writer. His role may include any or all of the following:


  • Interviewing the author to gather ideas and information for the book

  • Researching the story using company archives or published sources

  • Writing the book proposal, to be used by the agent in marketing the book to publishers

  • Writing a first draft of the book manuscript for the author to review or revise

  • Rewriting or 'doctoring' a draft manuscript written by the author himself 


A writer who is not only a skillful communicator but who also understands you and with whom you're comfortable working can make the authorship process truly creative and fun. A writer who's wrong for the job--well, let's just say that he can have the opposite effect.


A close friend of mine--I'll call him Charlie--once undertook to ghostwrite a memoir for a famous Wall Street tycoon. An incident early in their relationship should have warned him of trouble ahead. The pair attended a luncheon with General Colin Powell, who'd recently published his own hugly popular memoir, AN AMERICAN JOURNEY. Powell sang the praises of his writer, Joe Persico, saying, "Joe challenged me every step of the way, forcing me to explain and sharpen my ideas." With a sharp glance at his writer, the tycoon interrupted: "Fortunately," he declared, "Charlie isn't like that at all!" The line got a laugh; but perhaps Charlie should have sensed that the team wasn't fated to succeed. Several months later, the tycoon decided he didn't want to write a memoir after all. (He still hasn't.)


The business arrangements between authors and writers vary widely. Most writers receive both a percentage of the author's income from the book (usually between 25 and 50 percent) as well as an up-front payment in advance.


Another consideration is the credit the writer receives. Some are given "coauthorship" status, in a form like this: "How I Clawed My Way to the Top by Howard Bigwig, with Gary Scribbler." (Gary's name will probably be in smaller type.) Others are merely thanked on the acknowledgements page, where their efforts may be variously described: "Thanks to Gary Scribbler, my talented writer," or "editor," or "researcher," or "writing coach and mentor," or what-have-you.


Writers sometimes trade stories about their author clients, much like waiters swapping tales about generous and stingy tippers. A minor tempest erupted in publishing circles when Hillary Clinton completely failed to acknowledge the ghostwriter on her best-seller IT TAKES A VILLAGE (a very bright and talented woman I happen to know). This thoughtless omission hurt the Clintons' reputation among the media elite far more than the Monica Lewinsky scandal.


It's best to discuss in advance what sort of credit your writer will receive when the book is published to avoid misunderstandings--and unpleasant gossip.


The Publisher. This word names both an organization (The Penguin Group, for example) and an individual executive (Ann Godoff). I'll use the term in a hybrid sense, to designate both the company that will publish your book and the individual staffers involved.


Publisher-author relations are a vexed topic because the interests of the two parties are aligned in one sense, opposed in another. They're aligned in that, like you, the publisher of your book wants it to be widely read and extravagantly praised and to sell tens of thousands of copies. They're opposed in that your publisher markets dozens or even hundreds of books every year, while you may write only one book in your entire life.


The resulting conflict is a little like the one between a child's schoolteacher and his parents. No teacher can ever love and appreciate Tommy as much as his Mom and Dad do. Similarly, no matter how conscientious, supportive, and intelligent your publisher is, he can never care about your book quite as much as you do.

Thus, it usually appears to the author that the publisher is indifferent or incompetent, especially when it comes to marketing and promoting the book. The fact that this is sometimes true doesn't help matters.


How to avoid the worst clashes between author and publisher? Enlist your agent as a supporter; she speaks the language of publishing and can serve as a useful go-between without alienating either party. Be prepared to spend time, energy, and perhaps money of your own on keeping the marketing and publicity plans on track. Try to treat the publishing staff with courtesy and gratitude, even when you find them slow, inexperienced, or uncaring. And ask for help--persistently, if need be--rather than demanding it. You'll probably find that you'll get at least a good portion of what you request, though not all of it.


The Bottom Line


Who, then, ought to write a book? The person who must--the one who feels so compelled by the importance of his story or the urgency of his message that he will willingly devote the endless hours of hard mental (and sometimes physical) work required to create a manuscript, and then subject himself to the sometimes silly hucksterism involved in modern book marketing. If there's a book in you that must come out, let it!


The truth is that there's a continuing need for good books on business. Every generation needs to learn anew the lessons of creativity, entrepreneurship, management, self-discipline, intelligence, and service . . . and each new era in business demands a new language for these old truths. So if there's a really good business book in you, the chances are excellent that it can be published successfully.

Karl Weber is president of Karl Weber Literary, a book development firm that specializes in general non-fiction, including business, memoirs, current affairs, politics, and self-help. The authors he has worked with include CEOs, financiers, journalists, diplomats, members of Congress, a former U.S. President, and two winners of the Nobel Peace Prize.  He may be contacted at






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