How I Got Offered My First Book Contract: A Marketing Fluke De Force?

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How my online content spurred being ‘discovered’ and launched a writing career.

I once played guitar and sang at the Bluenote Cafe in Winnipeg, where a lot of famous musicians also played. It’s funny.

I was never discovered. Never offered a recording contract. Four songs and gone forever, and no invitation.

It didn’t work that way for my book contracts.

Call it luck. Call it skill, but I’ve never published a book with a major publishing company based on my pitch to them.

Each and every book I’ve published (McGraw-Hill, Alpha Idiot’s Guides) was INVITED.

It’s nuts.

Here’s the story of the power of content, in particular, content on the Internet.

The Beginning

During the years 1992–1997, I’d be making money by delivering training seminars, and doing some management consulting, PLUS selling some of my “self-published books”. My “books” consisted of photocopies of the books, with home laminated covers, and bound with my home made cerlox binding machine.

I made a “decent” living, but I have to say my wife did ask, somewhat occasionally, at what point I could deem the business a “failure”, and get a real job!

Since I had a lot of spare time in those days, and since I’d discovered the early Internet, I had created a website — primitive by any standards, to showcase my articles, which I was already writing for an in-print newsletter I distributed for free via fax to potential customers.

I also was exceedingly active, sometimes obnoxiously so, on a number of excellent quality professional discussion lists (often called listservs). One of the topics I wrote about on my own site and on the discussion forums was performance appraisals, and performance management.

The Call

So, I’m sitting in my home office, thinking about lord knows what and chain smoking (I don’t do that anymore!). I was probably trying to figure out what to do with the next ten minutes of my life. I can’t remember exactly.

The phone rang. In those days, that was good news. Or potential good news. Now it’s just spam marketers, but it was different then. Hope always springs eternal, despite the number of times the call wasn’t about hiring me.

I answered. It was a stranger. He introduced himself and told me he’d come across me on a specific training and development discussion group, and he’d checked out my web site.

And then he said:

Would you like to write a book about performance management for McGraw-Hill?

My first reaction was like — “Right, there has to be a catch to this“, so I said, “Well, that’s kind of out of the blue, so could you explain a little bit about what you need?”

And he did.

He told me about the format of the book, the length (about 230 pages), and explained the circumstances around the opportunity.

Apparently, someone who was contracted to do the book backed out of the contract unexpectedly, leaving everyone involved in the production of the book up the creek. No paddle.

And then he dropped the bombshell.

“We need the entire manuscript completed and in our hands in four weeks”

“Oh, says I. Sure I can do that.”

He said, “Fine” and we talked a bit about the nuts and bolts, the advance and royalty structure. It was done.

I got the contract, signed it, and that’s the story.

How It Worked Out

Well, great. The book got done, pretty much on time. It made money for everyone, and in fact it is still in print some nineteen years later. It’s now in its second edition, so I got to fix some of the things I wanted to address in the content.

It went so well, that I was offered, at regular intervals, opportunities to write other books for McGraw-Hill, plus several books in the Complete Idiots’ Guide Series.

The Power of Content to Leverage Business Results

You can read a lot about content marketing, and marketing content, and all the words and jargon that marketeers use. I don’t care about the meaning of those words.

Here’s some takes on this:

Was I lucky? Or was it that I was in the right place at the right time because I was in a “lot of places”? I don’t know. What’s clear is that the more exposure people have to your excellent content, the more likely good things will happen.

Focus is important with content. I see a lot of people writing online about whatever strikes their fancy, without having any coherent strategy that matches up with business goals. I got this first contract because someone came away with the idea I was a worthwhile expert on performance management. Not that I was knowledgeable about other things where I had an interest.

They needed something specific. They saw my content and saw a fit. The content was specific. Their need was specific.

Quality and fresh ideas win. Writing what anyone else can write doesn’t convince people that you are the real deal. Writing things in a different way, or from a different slant impresses people.

Your best work can lose its value if it’s accompanied by a lot of your lesser work. CONSISTENT quality is key.

Over twenty five years, the overwhelming majority of my business has been generated by pure content. That is, while some has come from various marketing campaigns, the value has been relatively small.

The content that has worked for me is almost completely free of self-promotion. That content is written to help people accomplish something in the real world. It’s not theoretical per se. It’s practical.

I think this may be an essential key. Indulge your philosophical bent if you choose in your writing, but be aware that there’s not much of a market for a modern day Plato.

Be of value. Be useful. Offer up your ideas without strings.

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