Brand Before Book: Lessons on Writing, Editing, and Designing Your Next Best-Seller
Writing books is not just for the career authors of the world. For many, it’s part of a bigger strategy: business- and brand-building, making connections, putting ideas out there.
But if getting a coveted book deal from a big-five publisher sounds daunting—or simply uninteresting—there are other ways to get your book on the shelves of bookstores all over.
Deciding to forgo the traditional publishing route doesn't mean going out alone. Opting for self- of hybrid-publishing means taking a greater role in all aspects of the production process: not just the writing, but also the design, printing, distribution, and marketing of your book. It also means you get the final say on who contributes to this process and how your book propels your bigger business strategy.
For three-time author Jenny Blake, choosing to hybrid-publish her latest book was her most brilliant brand move yet. After publishing her first two books Life After College (Running Press) and Pivot: The Only Move that Matters is Your Next One (Penguin Random House) through traditional publishing houses, she decided to re-imagine how she brought her next book into the world.
And we were honored to be part of this project. We started by helping Jenny develop the brand strategy and design for her new entrepreneurial platform. Then we joined forces with her publishing team at IdeaPress, diving into the developmental editing of the manuscript as well as book cover and interior design.
As the first edition of Free Time: Lose the Busywork, Love Your Business went to press, we sat down with Jenny for a candid debrief on this whirlwind experience. Here are the top takeaways about bringing a (nonfiction) book into this world: from conception, to publishing strategy, to the bigger business ecosystem.
Brand Before Book: Lessons on Writing, Editing, and Designing Your Next Best-Seller
Treat your book as an engine for your business.
While Jenny’s primary sources of revenue have been her coaching, speaking, workshops, and private communities over the years—her books have acted as the springboards for this growth.
Jenny says: “Books are the main driver of new business for me. And they have been for over 10 years. I don’t do any outbound sales. Zero. Instead, I pour everything I have into a book that becomes the bet that I place on the next five years, and all new connections—readers, podcast listeners, clients—result from the book.
And if you’re a thought leader, there’s this nice flywheel that you can create. If you have things like a podcast, book, newsletter, speaking—then all your public original thinking feeds this engine. The more people find out about the book, the more listen to the podcast. The more listeners to the podcast, the more hire me to speak. It’s a nice eco-system to create.”
Start with your brand strategy—even before writing your book.
Always two steps ahead, Jenny came to the Together team months before even starting the first draft of Free Time. She had been developing her ideas for a while, and when she hit upon her next book, she knew her first step was to get a brand strategy in place for this next era for her business.
“A pro for me in doing the brand strategy before working on the book proposal and then the book, is that we clarified the ideas so much, like the creative brand idea and who it’s for...All of the brand strategy feeds into the proposal, because it’s all about proving why you, why now, why this book.”
Understand the economics and limitations of each publishing approach.
With experience across traditional and hybrid publishing, Jenny knows first-hand how to navigate the investment of finances, time, energy, and patience with presses big and small.
When it comes to finances, Jenny explains: “My first book had a $10,000 advance. My second book had a $150,000 advance. But divide that by four [for each payment installation], take out taxes, take out the agent’s 15%. And it’s not like that $150k goes so far. You end up putting all that money back into the brand strategy, your team, keeping the business afloat. And then on the other side of that, I still haven’t earned out my advance. You’re earning a dollar or two royalties per book, and it takes forever to earn out the advance.
The main thing that a traditional publisher does, which is really nice, is pay for the printing of the books, pay for the storage, pay for shipping to media, and they have media connections. But most opportunities that come from the books result from word-of-mouth and your own efforts, not because a publicist at Penguin sent a press release.
With hybrid publishing, you have much more control over the process and you’re partnering with a group that knows how to distribute the book into bookstores. They do take a royalty percentage, but the difference is that I’m funding it all upfront. So with hybrid you really have to have strong reserves.”
Jenny’s #1 advice for choosing a publisher: “Make sure that you talk to a minimum of three authors who have worked with that publisher recently, and that goes for both hybrid and traditional.”
No matter what, expect to do your own heavy lifting.
“Everyone thinks that traditional is going to help you market your book, and they do a little bit in terms of PR and outreach. If you’re lucky, you get assigned to a really talented editor who has vision and supports the project.”
But that isn’t always the case.
“I published my first book with a smaller press—I wasn’t a big fish for them, so I didn’t get much attention. So with my first book, I had to bring in my own rigor, my own editors...No matter how you publish, this is 95% on you. I always think: I am the CEO of this book I am creating. There is nobody who is going to care more or do better than I do, about any aspect along this process.”
It pays to maintain creative control.
When we asked Jenny how she would approach publishing her fourth book, the answer was hybrid without hesitation.
“I do hybrid now because I’m so entrepreneurial. With hybrid, you move so much faster, you have more control, you can do more creative things, and you get more of the sale. I like having a publisher who is savvy about this process, and who has built a network of freelancers and distributors.”
Bring in your A-players. And stay hyper-organized.
A core theme of Free Time is setting up work systems and processes, and getting your team in place. Of course, Jenny naturally brought that mindset to the process of writing this book.
“I started with three trusted advisors that I ran the idea by,” Jenny explains. “Then I hired you guys [Together] for the brand strategy and design system. My dad and my agent helped edit the proposal, and I signed on with IdeaPress. I met with their core team, and then the main freelancers that are hired both on my end and theirs—so, developmental editors, copy editors, and a typesetter. So many rounds of each. At every stage, too, I had some friends—ideal readers—read the book.”
Jenny herself played the role of author and “book project manager”—a crucial part of steering this project to completion.
“That is a brilliant job title that should exist. Technically with a big publisher with a skilled editor, they are taking on that role. But for entrepreneurs going through self- or hybrid-publishing, having a project manager would be such a helpful role. A book is just so highly complex, and there’s quotes, stories, facts to check, and references, original ideas. You need a tremendous amount of structure and organization to hold all that, to manage all the moving parts. And it would be really tough for those who are not inclined that way.”
Prepare for the unexpected — and build in extra time.
“I got surprised by a lot of the supply chain and timeline delays. And I don’t think there’s anything I could have done, with the pandemic and all. But one thing I’m proud of is that I built in a ton of margin into the timeline. I like to pre-crastinate. I like to get things done abundantly early. I hate scrambling at the last minute. So for every stage, give yourself double the time you think you need.”
Differentiate your book through quality and care.
Jenny offered one last word of wisdom to other thought leaders out there: “A book is a great credibility indicator, if it’s done well. But why is that? It’s not just because a book exists with your name on it. It’s because of all the work that goes into sharpening the ideas over and over and over. And making them translatable, and making them accessible, and visualizing them. People get distracted thinking it’s the book, but it’s also the confidence you get from honing it into such a compact takeaway.”
Jenny Blake’s Free Time: Lose the Busywork, Love Your Business launches March 22, 2022. Grab your copy here and check out the behind-the-scenes of designing the Free Time brand and book.