Publishing Your First Book

Last year, Omari Bouknight (OA), a classmate and friend of mine, took upon an exhilarating journey of publishing his first book. He and Scott Shrum, who some of you might have met during the first admit weekend in 2002 and who eventually ended up going to Kellogg, had decided to write a book on the MBA admissions process. Their book, Your MBA Game Plan, hit the shelves in August, just in time for the 2003 application process. I sat down with Omari and asked him a few questions about his first publishing experience.

The Harbus: Please describe your project.

Bouknight:About two years ago I had gone through the application process myself and used all the materials that are out there. It is essential that before your write a book you know the topic very well.

Being the kind of obsessive-compulsive personality that I am, I knew the application process in and out. I was impressed with the books that I used during my application process, but felt that I could bring something else to the market. It was also a good opportunity to try myself as an entrepreneur with very little risk. So I gathered all the data on how to publish a book and how you go about it and I connected with a friend of mine, Scott Shrum at Kellogg, who was also interested in writing. We then put together a business plan – a book proposal – around the idea of applying to business schools.

The Harbus: Had you had any publishing experience prior to this?

Bouknight:I started a couple of newsletters at work and undergraduate school, and have some experience writing poetry, but nothing formally.

The Harbus: What is your motivation behind writing this book?

Bouknight:Trying something entrepreneurial was my motivating factor. Potential economic benefit that can come from the project is small, so that wasn’t much of a factor. It was also an opportunity to try out writing skills and build foundation for my writing career.

The Harbus: Please describe the creative process. How did you manage it given that both of you are full-time MBA students?

Bouknight:Scott and I didn’t see each other at all during the writing process, which went from September to April. We had a very detailed outline and we had responsibility for writing portions of the book. After a piece was written, we exchanged our writing and made edits and suggestions to each other. To help us write, we decided to work in blocks of time, so we had to be disciplined.

The Harbus: How many hours did you guys spend on writing the book and how long is the book?

Bouknight:Two of us spent about 1,000 hours on the entire process. The book is 240 pages.

The Harbus: Please describe the business side of publishing a book. What challenges did you face?

Bouknight:The business side of publishing was interesting to me. There are two sides to it: selling the idea to publishers before writing; and selling the idea to customers after the book is published. The first part is very difficult when you don’t have much experience. You have very little power with publishers. You either need to go to them through an agent or have a very strong idea to capture their attention. We decided to go to smaller publishers for this project, which gave us more creative control. We also have to carry most of the marketing and business aspects on our own shoulders. In terms of actual process, you finish your book proposal, and you send that out to publishers and see if they are interested. You can also send the material to agents. We did both. We then got good feedback from the publishers and tweaked our proposal. Once you get publisher’s interest, you go into negotiations process. We didn’t really have a BATNA with our publisher and it was very difficult to negotiate. Our compensation is comprised of royalty fees, but writers also get an advance on those royalties once the contract is signed and before the book is published. For us, it was difficult to get a good advance.

The Harbus: Who is your target audience and how do you market the book?

Bouknight:This part of the business side is easier, because our market is defined – it is those people who are applying to business schools. Specifically, we focused on top 30 programs. To get the word out, we found our web site to be a very valuable tool. There we provide advice and tools for people who are interested in applying. We get our traffic primarily through BusinessWeek’s online discussion boards. We are also using other avenues, such as making presentations, going out to bookstores and trying to reach people that way. We are hoping to get the critical mass of books out there and then the word of mouth will hopefully push the book. We also target large companies that send many people to school every year by providing free seminars. In terms of competition, there are three other books that are our major competitors. We are trying to differentiate ourselves by content – we have developed a comprehensive framework that we individually apply to top 30 schools. None of our competition does that. And the last point of differentiation is price. Our book is a little bit cheaper.

The Harbus: How helpful was the first year curriculum in the process?

Bouknight:Strategy course and everything that Professor Joe Badaracco shared with us – the tools and principles of strategy – were very helpful. Marketing class was also useful. And, finally, our Negotiations class helped us talk to the publishers and come up with tactics for negotiations.

The Harbus: What would you like to do after school?

Bouknight:I would like to try out another writing project in the next couple of years. I also would like to do something entrepreneurial although not right after I graduate.

The Harbus: What advice would you give to people who want to write a book?

Bouknight:Know the topic very well. Know the publishers very well, because you need to have them as your partner. Publishers usually specialize in certain areas and you might waste a lot of time if you send out your book proposal to publishers who don’t specialize in your area. Also work with smaller publishers because you will get in front them faster than you would with the big guys.

The Harbus: Is there anything that you would have done differently?

Bouknight:Charge more for the book. Price is determined by the publisher, unfortunately.

The Harbus: Anything else that we forgot to discuss?

Bouknight:No, not really. People can pop by The Coop and pick up a copy of the book.