Episode 298 – The commissioning editor’s view with Eloise Cook

Eloise CookWhat DO commissioning editors look for in business book proposals? Eloise Cook is the publisher responsible for Pearson’s business list, and in this conversation she reveals what makes a proposal worth pursuing (and also what makes her quietly file it under B for Bin).

We also talk about the future for business books, and how authors extend their idea beyond the book to maximise engagement.

If you’re planning to pitch a business book proposal, this is pure gold.

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Eloise on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/eloisecook/

Eloise on Twitter: https://twitter.com/eloise_cook

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Alison Jones: I’m here today with Eloise Cook, who is the publisher of the trade, consumer and professional business publishing list at Pearson. She looks after The Financial Times Publishing and the Pearson Business imprints. She’s an engaged, hands-on editor who’s part author coach, part content editor, working with authors to help develop and shape their ideas from concept to publication and always on the hunt for practical, informative and engaging books that will help readers improve their personal and professional lives.

So welcome to the show Eloise. She’s going, Yes, that’s me. That’s me.

Eloise Cook: Yes, thanks Alison. Hi, it’s nice to be here.

Alison Jones: Really, really good to have you here and I’m looking forward to talking about, you know, publishing and trends and what you see in business books. But I want to start with you, just because I always think people’s publishing journeys are so interesting.

So what drew you into publishing in the first place and why do you stay here?

Eloise Cook: Yes, so I think it was sort of, kind of in my blood so to speak, my granddad was a university lecturer and a poet, and he had this lovely study in his house in Sheffield, that was just full of books. And we would just hang out together there when I was very young. And so I just knew I always wanted to be around books.

And so, any work experience was sort of a library or a small publisher, and I was fortunate enough to work at Borders, when it still existed. And I started at Routledge in my first job after university as an Editorial Assistant. So I think it’s fairly straightforward, but I think it’s getting harder and harder for new people in publishing now to do that same journey.

Alison Jones: Well, it’s interesting because you and I started in a similar way, Editorial Assistant and Assistant Editor, Editor, but you worked all the way up and I think, yes, I think that is getting harder.

But in another sense, there are other jobs that just didn’t exist. Well, certainly when I was starting my career and there’s sort of lots of ways in, from the technology side, from the marketing side, analytics, metadata and all that kind of stuff.

So, I do wonder where publishing will be… Well, do you know what, let’s go there. What do you see happening in publishing at the moment? Particularly as it pertains to business books, but I guess not exclusively.

Eloise Cook: Yes, so it’s really interesting being part of Pearson because we’re a very small team publishing business books, but I can sort of see what’s happening with textbooks and it’s all digital, digital, digital. But for business books, print is still sort of, you know, the vast majority of our sales. And so I see that continuing, I just think we need to sort of enhance the experience for readers.

And I think it’s what is that book-plus thing of, you know, what sits around the book? What helps people take the ideas further? Or, build a community and talk about things and, we’ve done some research very recently, sort of very small group of people, and part of that is connecting more with the author as well. So I think they don’t want the book to be a kind of static thing. And I think we’re going to see it more as a kind of evolving, kind of an ongoing conversation in the future, I think.

Alison Jones: You know, well, there’s loads there. So let’s pick up on the digital thing first. I think that’s really interesting.

You’re dead right that books have done a lot better than many of us thought they were going to do, didn’t they, in print? I remember sort of 10 years ago, just assuming that we were going to go the same way as music and everything will be digital. And actually the print book has done really well.

 I suspect that’s something to do with the fact that we spend so much time on screens, that the print book is actually welcome relief, lots of the time. But there’s also something about just the physicality, like being able to give somebody a book, gift it or if you’re in business, give it to people who are listening to your talk for example, there is something intrinsically valuable about the thing itself, isn’t there?

 And part of the problem is that eBooks are not terribly, well, you can’t gift them and they don’t seem to have much value. They’re just like reading a print book, but reading it on screen. So I’m really interested in what we can do digitally to accompany business books that isn’t just being able to read it as an ebook, which is quite a dull experience really.

You know, textbooks have always had companion websites and so on. What do you see emerging digitally as a complement to business books?

Eloise Cook: Well I don’t know whether it’s sort of extra value content, you know, videos, downloadable templates, stuff to use alongside the book. I mean, of course it depends on the sort of topic and the approach, but it could also be that kind of seamless experience that people want. So, are they reading the print book, but maybe they’ve got the ebook as well, or maybe they’ll listen to the audio book when they’re outside?

But I think it’s finding out what those pieces of content are that are valuable to people and what keeps them coming back and keeps them engaged.

Alison Jones: And you mentioned audio there, I think that is increasingly important for business books, isn’t it? I think increasingly people, now that we are commuting again, but even during the pandemic audio did well, didn’t it, as streaming services pick up on them

Eloise Cook: It did, it did, and every author wants to have an audio book now. I think that’s the big trend I see in terms of what they want.

Alison Jones: And tell me why that’s sometimes quite tough.

Eloise Cook: And so, we are sort of finalizing our deal with Audible. And we, at Pearson, we hope to have that soon, but I think, you know, there’s a sort of gap between author expectation of what they want and what they see in the market and making that a reality.

So in terms of audiobooks I think authors see them doing well, they hear about them, but there’s, at Pearson at least, we’re not there yet. We don’t have the capability to produce fantastic audio books yet. So we’re sort of relying on partnerships with other companies and, you know, we want one of them to be Amazon Audible, for sure. We’re just not there yet.

Alison Jones: Yes, it’s an expensive business, isn’t it, basically, producing audio books for quite an uncertain revenue stream still.

Eloise Cook: Yes, yes

Alison Jones: Because of the credit model and the streaming, yes.

Eloise Cook: And I do think that people think that they’re selling more than they are. I think what the reality is that people are really evangelical audio book listeners, but I still think that’s a much smaller audience than people who are buying print books.

Alison Jones: Yes. It’s very interesting, whenever you see the industry reports, you always see, you know, startling, double-digit growth for audio books, and then you look closely at the absolute figures, it’s just actually how small a proportion as a whole it still is.

Yes, but it is growing fast, there’s no doubt about it.

It’s interesting, talking about author expectations and just more generally, when an author submits proposal to you, because this is where everybody’s going to be sitting up and listening: what is it that you’re looking for? What’s the X factor when it comes to business book proposals for you?

Eloise Cook: Yes, so I think for me, I’ve kind of got to get it and it’s got to grab me instantly, and I realize everyone’s going to say that, but I receive so many proposals and sometimes I don’t even understand what the book is. I have to sort of scroll such a long way down to understand who it’s for, what it’s like inside that really, I just need a very short synopsis that sort of makes sense, is valuable and is something that I could see Pearson publishing.

So it is kind of like that analogy of when people see a CV, it takes three seconds to decide and you’ve kind of got to make a quick decision due to the sort of volume that I’m receiving. And if it’s not working on paper, unless there’s something, you know, some small nugget that I think I see some value in, it’s not probably going to work as a book, because if you imagine that’s your jacket blurb, your pitch that a reader might see, if I don’t get it then they certainly won’t, and it won’t be bought and ultimately won’t be successful.

Alison Jones: And that sounds really brutal in a sense, to get it like that, but actually that’s the reality of the time a reader’s got, you know, we’ve got so much coming at us, we’ve got nanoseconds in which we make a decision about whether we’re going to give our attention to something or not.

Eloise Cook: Yes, it sounds really cutthroat, but at the end of the day, I can only publish 20 or so books a year. So there are only so many that make it through and it’s got to stand out initially in order to be commercially successful.

Alison Jones: So that’s kind of tip number one in a sense, get your synopsis or your summary. And it really is, it’s like one or two sentence summary, isn’t it?

It’s just, you have to be able to sort of summarize what this book is about, which is really hard if this is your life’s work and you, you know, you’re so precious about the nuance of it and everything, but you really, really have to do that.

Anything else that authors can do to give a better than average chance of their proposal at least being read?

Eloise Cook: Yes. The other thing I see a lot is that they’re kind of mysterious, you know, they’ll talk about a framework which they don’t explain or give any details about, or they’ll just be sort of mysterious about the whole concept. And I might go back and ask more questions, but maybe I won’t if it’s not intriguing me enough.

And I think I understand that, they might feel protective and not want to give away too much information. But when I take something to the editorial board, I have to be confident in knowing how to explain how it works, what is the value for people? So, yes, don’t be mysterious, just tell me what it is.

Alison Jones: Yes, it’s such a good point. And I think there is a little bit of anxiety sometimes about intellectual property. You know, this fear of telling the whole idea in case somebody else takes it and steals it and what if you then go and publish a book about it.

Publishers deal with intellectual property, this is what we do. So you’re right, we have absolute respect for intellectual property, so we’re not going to steal your idea and get somebody else to write it. But also, unless we really understand the idea, we can’t make an informed decision about the book.

Eloise Cook: Absolutely. Yes. Yes.

Alison Jones: And in terms of what’s coming and the sorts of things that you’re on the look for, at the moment, what sort of trends do you see as you start to commission into 2022-23?

Eloise Cook: So at Pearson, we’ve not actually published anything specifically on the pandemic because we want longevity and we want to see books that keep selling year after year. And let’s hope this sort of does settle down soon, but I think there’s definitely more to come on leadership and teamwork, across locations and in office or remote working or wherever it is.

So it’s sort of the principles that we’ll use more generally, that aren’t pandemic related, but will just be happening as a result in the future. And I think tied into that is this question of work-life balance and resilience because you know these are the topics that are coming up time and time again.

And I think even though it’s been sort of difficult the last 18 months or so, with everything that’s gone on with COVID-19, and I think this thing’s here to stay and we need to be able to deal better with these things sort of personally, to help us advance in our professional lives.

Alison Jones: It’s really interesting that you use that, well you use the dichotomy of personal/professional, but you use it to say that actually they’re colliding.

Eloise Cook: Yes

Alison Jones: The difference between them is so much less, you used to have books about self-development, books about professional development, and it’s really eroded now, hasn’t it? And well-being at work and your human wellbeing is understood as part of your professional efficiency.

Eloise Cook: Definitely, definitely. And, I definitely feel that from the companies that we’re talking to as well, I think they understand that wellbeing is really important. You know, Pearson has a global wellbeing week each year now and I think they realize that employees need sort of nurturing and caring for.

So I think it’s good. And I think, yes, that divide doesn’t feel so relevant anymore.

Alison Jones: Yes, it’s interesting, I think people have had a taste of what it might be like not to go to work every day. And I think companies are going to have to work a little bit harder to keep them coming through the door in the future. Yes, really interesting.

And the post-pandemic thing is, you made the point about not wanting things to date, it’s a broader point as well that, isn’t it? That it’s quite a challenge to write a book that is topical, but also will backlist. Any tips on how to do that well?

Eloise Cook: Yes. I think what I would usually suggest is, you know, software is a good example. So if we had a book about Agile, then we would sort of keep any sort of instructions on the sort of software or programs that someone might use to a minimum. So if it goes into a new addition down the line, then that can easily be updated.

But I think the way to keep things topical, not topical, but to give them longevity, is to think about the principles or mindset that you would need in this subject area, whatever is happening. So, those are the kinds of things that I would be asking authors to include, rather than just what to do now this Tuesday in November.

Alison Jones: And we are speaking on a Tuesday in November, just for context.

Yes, and that’s I think interesting when you think about the book as part of something bigger as well, isn’t it? The book is an opportunity to draw out the principles to go deeper. And then on top of that, you might have a blog, you might have a newsletter where you can be more topical. You can be more reactive, more responsive, more in the moment.

So just thinking about the whole kind of universe of content forms that are out there and how the book fits within that is an interesting challenge I think for business authors, most of whom are doing other stuff. And actually, do you know what, we should talk about that, shouldn’t we? Because if somebody comes to you and doesn’t have any kind of following, doesn’t particularly have any kind of visibility in their professional world, I’m guessing that’s going to be an issue for you as well?

Eloise Cook: Yes, I think it would have to be an exceptional book for us to commission it if they had no profile or any marketing plan. It’s just so much more important these days than it ever used to be before. And so we have a questionnaire for people to fill in and I’m sort of looking at it and vetting it in terms of what their profile looks like now, and how we might be able to help build on that together and as a publishing partnership.

But, you know, we do need to see some social media activity, some corporate connections, just someone who is proactive and enthusiastic and wants to spread the message about their book, because relying just on the sort of traditional and online channels that we’re very familiar with, isn’t enough anymore. And so that again is kind of fairly brutal. And I have said to some authors, I love the book idea, but I don’t think you’re ready yet, if you could try and build up your profile and come back to me then we’ll talk again.

Alison Jones: Which, I mean, it does feel a bit chicken and egg, if you are the author, so if you publish the book and then that’ll improve my profile. So yes, there is a sort of… and I think also remember if you’re in this position, that the researching of a book is a really great way to build your connections and build your relationships, you start talking about your ideas. So actually the process of writing, if you’re happy to extend it out, can be a really, really valuable part of the process of building your platform as well, and you get that lovely kind of synergy.

Eloise Cook: Yes, yes, absolutely. I mean, the majority of authors I work with are usually first time authors and it’s their passion project. It’s the topic of their company or it’s the training that they do. So you would hope that they would already have these kinds of connections and things.

You know, I think gone are the days where we have authors who are just writers for hire, you know, we don’t do that anymore, we want people who are sort of specialists, who can have a following in this area. And I think that’s the difference.

Alison Jones: Yes, and going back to the idea of what’s coming down the line in terms of business books. You do entrepreneurship and leadership sort of, you know, corporate. Do you see again convergence there, or do you see one is becoming more important than the other? What’s the sort of balance for you between the people who are running their own business and the people who are managing teams in a bigger business?

Eloise Cook: Yes, I think there’s definitely overlap. I think, if we do any sort of starting a business book, obviously that’s very specifically for the beginning entrepreneurial audience, but there are so many sort of methods or skills that cross over between. And, we hope that would work for whether you have one person you’re working with or hundreds. That we’re hoping that the sort of value of this knowledge is transferrable between these audiences. And, I don’t know if intrapreneurial is a very favoured word at the moment, but lots of companies are wanting to be a bit more agile and quick thinking like entrepreneurs.

So we kind of want to bring that mindset as well.

Alison Jones: Yes, that’s a really great point, isn’t it? Actually, all entrepreneurs are really about is seeing and exploiting opportunities. And you want your people in your companies to be doing that as well.

So again like the personal/professional, maybe there’s less of a distinction between entrepreneurial and corporate than they used to be.

 And if you were to give a tip for a first time author… so particularly in the case of submitting a proposal perhaps, what’s the one thing that you would advise somebody listening to think about?

Eloise Cook: Yes, we used to have a set of proposal guidelines and they are over 10 pages long and I think it’s just too much work to do initially as a sort of initial concept to a publisher. So I would say just keep it really short and sweet and just answer the basic questions. I think I’ve listed some of these on my LinkedIn profile because I have 10 questions that I ask of all new book ideas, and it’s just an easy way of gauging the temperature of things.

And then, if it sounds good, we would move on to develop the proposal. So I think just make sure it’s really clear, sort of simple and obvious what the book is, in a sort of one pager or something and then you’ll also get a quicker answer from the publisher because they won’t have to read your whole manuscript.

Alison Jones: Yes. Yes. You do get an awful lot of paperwork through your inbox.

Eloise Cook: Yes. I mean the number of people who will just send me a whole manuscript expecting me to read it, is just astronomical. And I do not have time for that. And, you know, I appreciate the sentiment, but just less information is better. It’s kind of how the buying decision would be made by the reader.

So, you know, they’re not going to read the whole book in Waterstones. They’re going to look at the cover and make a decision based on that. So if it doesn’t work in that sense, then it’s not going to work as a whole book.

Alison Jones: And I think the proposal is really interesting because it’s kind of a microcosm, isn’t it, of what we can expect from you as an author. So if you aren’t able to put it across clearly and tell me what I need to know up front, you’re probably not going to be doing that in the manuscript.

Eloise Cook: Yes and that’s not to say that I don’t do a lot of work with authors to help shape and develop the proposal, because it is extremely rare that we would publish anything as it comes in initially. So I’m definitely interested in sort of spending the time and doing the work on an idea, but I think you get to sense very quickly whether it’s worth exploring or not.

And so I think you just have to try and put your best foot forward as an author at the start.

Alison Jones: And I’m going to be, I think this is really interesting to ask you this question, because it’s going to be difficult for you to answer given how many authors you have published: would you like to recommend a business book for us? Just the one.

Eloise Cook: Yes, I knew you were going to ask this so I’ve decided not to recommend anything I’ve published.

Alison Jones: Yeah, very wise, very wise.

Eloise Cook: Because I thought that would be playing favourites.

Alison Jones: Just asking for trouble, isn’t it?

Eloise Cook: Yes, so I think the book that always springs to mind when I think about stuff like this is Frugal Innovation, by Radjou and Prabhu, and I know it won the CMI award in 2016, but we were going through a big restructure at Pearson. I was reading it at the same time and it was probably one of the first books where I’ve sort of said, I’ve got to email the whole team, this book is amazing, and I sent them this email: these are the seven things you need to know about this book, you know, we can really change what we’re doing here.

So I think that’s the one because it was very simple, clear, and applicable to whatever kind of organization you have. So I think that’s my pick.

Alison Jones: Do you know, that’s really interesting. I’ve not read it. It’s one of those that’s kind of on my radar, but I’ve never read it. So that’s a great recommendation. I’m going to add that to the list.

Yes, the to-read pile is hitting the ceiling now but never mind. It’s all good.

Actually just as a sort of, before we go, I wanted to ask just one more question of you, which is about when you go into bookshops: are you happy with the amount of space given over to business books?

That’s a very leading question. I’m hoping you’re going to get the same answer as me.

Eloise Cook: No, no.

Alison Jones: Yes. Good.

Eloise Cook: Yes, it’s really difficult when, you know, I worked in Borders, things were very different when we had as many bookshops as we used to and, you know we sell a lot of books through WH Smith Travel, which are the ones in airports and train stations. And, I understand that chocolate bars and bottles of water might make more money for them, but it kind of does sort of hurt you a little bit inside when you see the sections getting smaller and smaller.

And it’s just difficult for the authors really, because I think it will be a long time before people change their attitude. You know, they want to go into a bookshop and see their book, but you cannot promise that in every case, it’s just not realistic. So until people expect to just see their book on Amazon or wherever it is. I think there’s just some sort of careful explanation there of what it is that these sorts of retailers and bookshops are looking for and what drives their sales.

 But yes, in an ideal world, I’d love to see a much bigger business book department.

Alison Jones: And do you know what I think if every single person listening to this marches into their bookshop tomorrow and demands that, why have we only got one drop, three shelves, whatever it is for business, business is really important, why can’t we have more books? I think, you know, we need to start agitating. We need to start the revolution.

Eloise Cook: Well…

Alison Jones: There’s so many more people doing business and entrepreneurs and so on. So I think they’re missing a trick there.

Eloise, thank you so much. If people want to find out more about you, obviously more about Pearson, but also, as you mentioned, I know you’ve got some great stuff on your LinkedIn profile: where can people find you?

Eloise Cook: Yes, I think, yes, my LinkedIn profile’s probably the best place. I’ve just started a newsletter, so you can sign up to that and I’m only doing them fortnightly, so don’t worry you won’t get inundated. But you’ll find links to all the articles there and you can send me a message if you want to get in touch and discuss any ideas.

Alison Jones: Fantastic. Well, I’ll put the link to your LinkedIn profile up on the show notes at extraordinarybusinessbooks.com, along with obviously the transcript of this conversation for anyone who wants to go back and read it as well as listening or watching it.

But thank you so much for your time today, it’s been fantastic and great to geek out with you too about the future of business books.

Eloise Cook: Yes. Yes. Thank you Alison, it’s been really good fun.

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