Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Skip the Line: How I Beat the System and Got Published

Much of my writing has been on fighting. I found a niche in writing about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and mixed martial arts, and the sport has been good to me. It’s given me a way of life, and it has supported me emotionally as well as financially. Living the sport has taught to me to view the world through a warrior lens, and I have realized that there are many fights outside of the cage worth writing about, and these are the sorts of fights we face every day.

These are the fights for rights, for business, for a better tomorrow.

An example of a fight outside of the cage: publishing a book. Thousands of people are aspiring writers, and agents and publishers are inundated with unsolicited manuscripts. This is the status quo, and this is why publishing a book is hard. When you submit a manuscript, you become just another stack of papers in an ever growing pile of papers. The trick is to get noticed. To get your one shot to prove to someone that matters that you have something worth publishing.

In my case, I sent out over 200 proposals to agents and publishers. Of 200 submitted proposals, I received zero rejection letters. Nothing. I was shoveling manuscripts into a black hole. With no feedback, I had no idea why my work was rejected. Was my writing sloppy? Was the story a bad fit for the publishers? Did I fail to clearly define the target market? I could not answer these questions, and thus, I could not intelligently readjust my strategy.

I continued on this road for two years, guessing at what agents and publishers wanted to see in a proposal. I never guessed correctly, and the build of frustration wore on me.

That frustration gave way to a fit of ruthless creativity. I was writing for at the time and had been for a few years. I pitched a month dedicated to the martial arts publishing industry, from authors to publishers. My boss agreed. I scheduled a batch of interviews, and at the end of each interview with someone working inside of the industry—after building a great deal of rapport—I brought up my book.

If you are an aspiring author or plan to apply this strategy to a different venture, your wording is important. Here is how I handled it:

“I actually have one more question, and asking it is a bit embarrassing, but I need your advice. I have this book, it’s about my time training at the BJ Penn Academy, and I’m not sure what to do next. Do you have any tips? Who should I talk to?”

Of the six people I lined up for interviews, every one of them was willing to offer some sort of advice. Two people—Sam Sheridan and Glen Cordoza, prominent martial arts authors—connected me directly with individuals in the industry that could either publish my book or direct me to someone that could publish my book. Two months later, Victory Belt Publishing called me (I had actually just finished filming the Lockflow Show, where drinking copious amounts of beer or liquor or, on one occasion, moonshine was mandatory) and offered to publish my book.

The lesson here is this: if a particular formula for success is not working for you, revise the formula. In my case, the formula was:

Write a Manuscript > Submit the Manuscript to an Agent > Agent Connects You to Publisher > Publisher Distributes Your Book to a Mass Audience.

Instead, I worked to skip the submission process, the front door where thousands of people trampled each other every day for a shot at getting noticed, and worked to get one-on-one time with a person of influence. The shift in strategy is not major, but it is significant. This is an example of outlook engineering at work, rethinking the problem to discover a new solution.

If you are trying to a publish a book, I suggest that you network anyway you can, get creative, but remain courteous and professional. Asking a total stranger for a favor is unlikely to result in them helping you. Also, before you think about selling anyone on your book, you should have the following already accomplished:

1. At least two or three sample chapters (a full manuscript may be necessary for your freshman effort).
2. An outline of your book.
3. A clearly defined target market.
4. A marketing plan.
5. A pitch that summarizes the book, provides a description of the target market and why they will buy your book, details your marketing plan, and justifies why you are a reliable source on this topic.

You can definitely make friends with other people in the industry without having the previous steps completed, but you should not start talking to them about your book if you are not prepared to give it the full attention that it deserves. Good luck!

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