See also Part 4: Publishers of Business Books.
So far, I pretended not knowing much about the publishing sector, but if you've read my posts well, you've already noticed that this was merely a pose. I am a published author. I wrote two technical books for Manning Publications, selling thousands and thousands of copies to an audience of software developers. In the past two years, a handful of my short stories made the selection of short fiction anthologies published by Dutch publishers such as Godijn Publishing and LetterRijn. I also self-published several other books, e.g. on LeanPub.
On September 18, the day before I started my search for a literary agent for my book "The Accidental Entrepreneur", I contacted Michael Stephens, the Associate Publisher at my previous publisher Manning Publications. I told him that I had written a business book, and I asked him for advice on how to proceed. Since it was about building a business, not building software, I didn't expect him to show any interest in the book. I was surprised when he replied: "We might also consider publishing it. The ToC, while generally interesting as a business book, still has a tech-oriented appeal."
When you browse the catalog of books published by Manning, you won't find any business books. If Manning decided to publish my new book, they would be making an exception. I shared an early version of the full manuscript with Michael, explaining that I would let the manuscript rest for at least two months after which I would touch base with him again. In the next review rounds, I intended to "kill some darlings". That's easier to achieve if there's some distance —read: time— between myself and what I wrote.
I used those two months mainly to find a literary agent or a business book publisher as you could read in the previous parts of this series. When it became clear that my efforts wouldn't amount to anything, Michael's reply started making more and more sense. My book isn't technical, but a large part of my target audience consists of technical people who dream of building their own business. It might not be a bad idea to present such a book to an audience of publishers of technical books.
I looked at the web sites of two other publishers competing with Manning Publications, and I discovered that they already explored this idea.
I had met people from Apress in India during the Great Indian Developer Summit, and I used that angle to contact Shivangi Ramachandran who is responsible for the business book proposals at Apress. I received a quick reply, informing me that I would receive an answer within a week. When three weeks passed, I sent a gentle reminder.
I received an immediate reply: "Apologies for the delay – we’ve received an influx of proposals in the last few weeks that we’re reviewing. While we would love to work with you on a book, this one may not be a good fit for Apress. We try to publish practical books, and this one seems to be a recount/memoir of your experiences. We don’t publish many first-person stories; so, while this is interesting, we might not be the best team to bring your idea to fruition. I appreciate all the effort that has gone into this proposal. I think the book is strong, and may fit another publisher’s list better than ours. If you have another book ideas that you think could fit Apress, I would love to discuss them further with you."
These are nice words, despite the verdict being negative. The argument not to publish, makes sense. I fully understand the decision.
IPragmatic Publishers was recommended to me by the CEO of Saltmarch, Dilip Thomas. Dilip had read a couple of sample chapters and he wrote: "The material you shared from your book makes for a great read and also a bit heartbreaking to know that, while you achieved professional and commercial success, your having to leave the company was a sad affair. Being an entrepreneur is a lonely and stressful experience. Even more so, when you run it together as a family as Indu and I have realized. I would assume your book would make for an insightful read for wannabe and budding entrepreneurs, so they are better aware of the pitfalls of bringing investors on board. In short, it is a difficult thing to navigate and hearing lessons learnt by experience very much helps."
I submitted a proposal, and within two days I was informed that the proposal would be presented to a committee, but also that Pragmatic Publishers usually doesn't publish books like the one I proposed.
I talked about this feedback with Andrew Binstock, former Editor-in-Chief at Dr. Dobb's Journal and Oracle's Java Magazine. He told me that he knew the Publisher, and he was kind enough to write a review for the committee: "Bruno offers a detailed account of how he built his company from an FOSS package (iText--the Java PDF library) into a company that, at the time he sold it, had 30+ employees and offices on three continents —and was entirely self-funded. Not a penny of VC money or angel investment. What makes this book different from others —and why I like the manuscript— is that instead of dispensing advice like a thousand other books do, it actually discusses the constant navigation of small decisions that an entrepreneur has to make to go from a free product to a thriving, sellable business. It gives a developer a sort of over-the-shoulder look at the building of a company (including the mistakes and false starts). The second reason I like it is that it describes an attainable success. Everyone wants to found a unicorn, but for every unicorn, there are dozens of smaller businesses that successfully grow and are sold. This book describes the path to that success. And because it didn't rely on VC money, it presents a progression that many developers will understand."
I couldn't have described my book in a better way. Alas, despite this excellent review, Pragmatic Publishers replied (15 days after the proposal was submitted): "While the story of iText was interesting to the committee, they did not feel that The Pragmatic Bookshelf was the right place for your story. Even with the practical nuggets of wisdom offered, it is not typical of what we publish. The committee was concerned that we wouldn't be able to deliver the size of audience that either you or we would be happy with."
"Always stick to your core business" is a nugget of advice I give in my book. That advice is reflected in Pragmatic Publishers' answer. I appreciate their response. That leaves Manning Publications as my last chance at finding a publisher for "The Accidental Entrepreneur", but I am well aware that it would be the first autobiographic business book in their catalog. Chances are that Manning will give me the same answer I received from Apress.
These are some observations I made during my quest to find a publisher:
- Only three out of seven literary agents replied to my inquiry, of which only one provided proof that she had actually read my proposal.
- The same was more or less true for the publishers of business books. Only three out of six replied, but only one did a serious effort, having the proposal reviewed by three different readers —I assume they've even read the full manuscript.
- That's quite a contrast with the publishers of technical books where three out of three replied. One reason could be that technical publishers know of my reputation in the development community, whereas the other publishers don't have a clue about who I am. Personally, I like to believe that the technical publishers have better manners than half of the other publishers and literary agents.
I pinged Manning right before Thanksgiving. I'll ping them again next week to make sure that they didn't forget me. Of course, they will have full disclosure about my failed efforts trying to get a book deal from other publishers. I can certainly live with the argument that "The Accidental Entrepreneur" isn't technical enough. I don't accept the lame excuse that it's too technical, but there's very little I can do to change the mind of publishers of business books.
On December 3, 2020, Michael Stephens, Associate Publisher at Manning Publications, wrote:
"After long conversations, we've concluded that we should not pursue publishing it. This is no reflection on the book itself and more a question of whether we would be able to successfully sell it. The conclusion was that we do not have the right “network” in place to give the book the distribution and marketing support it would need beyond a purely technical channel.
On the positive side, we really like the title and the premise of the book. There’s a universal appeal to the idea of unexpectedly finding yourself in the position of going from technologist to business person, especially as the stakes increase as they do in your story. I’d encourage you to look for a publisher with stronger confessions to the business publishing world.
I’ve enjoyed reading the book and reconnecting with you, and I wish you the best in finding a good home for it."
I replied that I've tried "finding a publisher with stronger confessions to the publishing world" and that it's probably not going to happen. My main problem is timing. The Belgian Allied Author Agency added the following important message to its web site::
"We are not exactly revealing any secrets when we state that 2020 turned out to be a catastrophic year, due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. Together with all other aspects of culture, the ‘book world’, in which we have been active for all these years, has been severely hurt by the impact. There were NO Paris, London or Frankfurt Book Fairs, thus not a single face to face meeting in a year, just plenty email, phone & Skype conversations. Plus the fact that virtually ALL of the publishing houses – large or small – whom we work with have had to cut down massively on new or planned titles. In all, it made 2020 turn into a sort of ‘forced sabbatical’, due to a near total lack of new top material on offer & next to no new sales that could be signed.
Possibly worst of all though is that at least the first half of 2021 does not look any better at all… We are and have always been known to be ‘the optimistic kind’, with a most positive outlook on life and our job, but… Just look at the new, late autumn 2020, wave of the pandemic, leading to lock-downs throughout Europe and near equally severe measures overseas. Doing that, one cannot be expected to believe that the 2021 Spring Fairs can possibly take place, given that a vaccine will not be rolled out by then yet.
Let’s face it… we’ll be lucky if the general situation takes a definite positive turn soon enough to allow a positive outlook on the autumn of 2021. So here’s hoping that things will indeed turn out that way… That publishers can once again publish in a more ‘normal’ way, and Frankfurt Fair happens. We will of course fight the lethargic situation which currently rules. With all our might. But as literary agency we highly depend on ‘the market’. In closing, we would say: come visit again here anytime throughout 2021…"
Because of this message, I didn't do any effort reaching out to this agency.
You could argue that my selection of literary agents and publishers was too limited. If I really want to be successful, I should contact more people. Maybe you're right, but what is true for the Belgian Allied Author Agency, is probably also true for US agents and publishers. There's no need to torture myself —nor agents or publishers— much longer.