Episode 406 – Talking business books with Meredith Norwich

Meredith Norwich‘For an academic book, you are looking to demonstrate that you stand on the shoulders of giants. For a practitioner book, you ARE the giant… But you’re not the first giant.’

Meredith Norwich is a senior acquisitions editor at Routledge, part of Taylor and Francis Publishing, and she has seen a LOT of business book proposals. What makes a proposal stand out for her? You might be surprised…

Packed with valuable insights for first-time authors and behind-the-scenes glimpses into the publishing industry, this is essential listening for anyone contemplating writing a business book. 

AUDIO

VIDEO

Routledge site: https://www.routledge.com/

Meredith on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mlnorwich/

Alison on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/the-alison-jones/

The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge: http://proposalchallenge.com/

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Substack: https://extraordinarybusinessbooks.substack.com/

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

Write with me! https://alisonjones.com/writing/

Alison Jones: I’m here today with Meredith Norwich, who is a Senior Acquisitions Editor with Routledge, which is part of Taylor & Francis, publishing business books that help professionals do their jobs better. Over more than 15 years in publishing she’s worked across subjects such as art history and political science, as well as business, and in roles in editorial, marketing, and sales for both indie and corporate publishers, and for a university press.

She holds a Masters in Writing and Publishing from Portland State University and an MBA from Warwick Business School.

So first of all, hello Meredith, it’s lovely to have you here.

Meredith Norwich: Hello Alison, it is lovely to be here.

Alison Jones: It’s really good to see you. We go back quite a long way, don’t we?

Meredith Norwich: Oh my gosh, yes. Back to, yes, I feel like we had some sort of communication before this, but actually when I was doing the MBA at Warwick, it was when I was working at an indie academic publisher in sort of a sales and marketing role, which had led me to even want to pursue the MBA.

And partway through that process, the company was acquired and we were all laid off, which was interesting.

Alison Jones: Not uncommon in publishing, of course.

Meredith Norwich: It is not, and I had actually been working with my employer on my MBA dissertation project. And of course that kind of went poof. So, at that point I was thinking about it and I know I had at least come across your work, if we hadn’t actually spoken. And I thought, you know, What the heck? I’m just going to reach out to this Alison Jones person, who seems pretty cool, and I’m going to see if she’d be willing to help me with this. And as you know, you were.

And so we worked on the dissertation, and I think I called it, Where Do the Business Books Go?

Alison Jones: That’s right.

Meredith Norwich: Yes, and it was just looking at what books can do for an author in terms of their platform.

Where do they sit? Are they still a thing? You know, in all of this, because this was a few years ago, but you certainly already had podcasts and blogs, et cetera.

And, as you will remember, the results were not exactly earth shattering, but it did prove that yes, indeed books very much have a place in an author platform, even in print, to this day.

Alison Jones: Yes and here we are still, you know, but also what was really fascinating was, I think you really demonstrated that the economics of books are rather different to business people. They look at them very differently to many other forms of publishing, which I thought was fascinating.

Meredith Norwich: Yes.

Alison Jones: So I’m so glad you reached out. It was really fun working with you on that.

Meredith Norwich: Yes, definitely. And then we got to meet in person when you were on this side of the pond. That was very fun.

Alison Jones: Yes, that’s right. I was doing some work with the University of Michigan Press and you were working there and that was time I met you in person. That was brilliant.

Let’s talk more broadly about publishing. It’s a funny old industry, isn’t it? Why are you here, Meredith? What drew you to it?

Meredith Norwich: Gosh, why am I here? Well, I mean, it’s really, to be honest, it’s a cliche because I have been a voracious reader since the dawn of time and reading the back of a cereal box at breakfast just to have something, that kind of thing, you know. But when, for whatever reason, when I was thinking about what to do for a living, it did not occur to me that I could do books for a living.

That just, I didn’t think of it. So I did other things and I ended up doing, as part of a career change plan, doing a master’s in technical writing. Or at least that was the plan at first, because as an elective, I took an intro to book publishing course and I was done. Switched the strand, went into the publishing program, did that.

It was really such a great experience because I think it’s still unique in the US, the program that I did: the students run a press in house, so it’s like having an internship without having to have an internship, and I was able to work on editorial and marketing and design and really get a sense of the whole shebang which was just fantastic.

And what really drew me to it that, I mean, even those first couple of days in that intro course was, okay, here’s a way to, first of all, help people make their ideas better, and also to then get those ideas into a marketable format, get it to the marketplace, and then see what happens.

It’s not about censorship. It’s not about, of course, there’s some steering, you know, in terms of promotion and that kind of thing, but I was just entranced by this, being able to get stuff out there. And then on a little bit more selfish angle, I get paid to learn stuff, which is just, you know, over the course of my career, I’ve been able to learn about topics, I’d be spending thousands of dollars and hours of time to learn about it.

 And it’s just all coming to me. And every proposal is a new little education. And that’s just really what keeps me going.

Alison Jones: Oh, I love that. And it’s so true, isn’t it? And it’s that curiosity, I think, as a publisher, it’s so rewarding. We make great pub quiz buddies, if you ever…

Meredith Norwich: oh my gosh, we do! We do.

Alison Jones: We may not be so hot on naming songs and celebrity culture, but, you know, we have an extraordinary general knowledge.

Meredith Norwich: Yes. Yes, absolutely. That is a good point.

Alison Jones: That’s hilarious.

And, I mean, obviously publishing, like every industry, I guess, but I always think ours is special, has had massive disruption. What’s most exciting to you about where we are right now?

And I guess what’s most frustrating as well?

Meredith Norwich: Yes, I mean, I think we’re still in this position where we can get interesting ideas out in a respected format, if you see what I’m saying. Obviously, all things digital have been around for a while now, but there is still something about that book, you know, that container. And so I think we’re able to marry something that’s centuries old and something that’s still cutting edge in terms of the topics that we’re dealing with.

And then of course, I would be remiss not to say something about AI. I know you had an episode not that long ago talking about AI within publishing. I don’t know if I’m excited or terrified.

Alison Jones: Yes, well, I think that was Sara’s line as well, really.

Meredith Norwich: Yes, yes, exactly.

I mean, but it’s interesting in terms of what’s frustrating to me, I have to say, for an industry that’s all about disseminating ideas and knowledge and stories, it can be oddly conservative. And particularly when it comes to diversity, I think we have so much work to do as an industry, which, as you’ll know, is still overwhelmingly white, middle class, upper middle class. There are so many roadblocks to people from different backgrounds getting in. I think that’s true on both, you know, in the U. S. and in the U. K. It’s big.

And then also the books, for my part in my little corner, I’m trying to increase the diversity of my author pool as well, because, let’s face it, you’re still seeing a lot of these business books. It’s mature, white men, and of course they have good things to say, but so do a lot of other people. And that’s where I think we really need to work a little bit harder. And it’s frustrating to me that there isn’t more being done.

Alison Jones: Yes, it is systemic, isn’t it? It goes all the way through, there’s just so much interesting research done on the response to women pitching proposals, which can be pitched under a man’s name and get a very different treatment, all the way through the commissioning through to actually men typically buying books by men and not women.

So it’s just invidious. It’s all the way through the thing. It’s systemic and yes, you’re right. It’s very, very frustrating. And I think weirdly, one of the reasons that publishing is so poor in its diversity in a way is that it’s quite low margin. It doesn’t pay well.

And so, there’s been this kind of tradition of internships, unpaid internships, as your way into publishing and who can afford to do that unless they’ve got, you know, mum or dad helping them out with the costs.

Meredith Norwich: Oh, absolutely. And I think, another thing, that actually the assistant that I’m working with now, she is based in a town outside of Glasgow in Scotland. She, because of when she was hired, she didn’t have to move to London. She was able to stay near her home, in a more affordable location and get her career going.

And I’m disappointed to see that it looks like some places are actually backing off from that and going back to office or hybrid arrangements where if you don’t live in London or New York. Tough, you can’t work here.

Alison Jones: Or if you’re someone with caring responsibilities or a disability. Yes, it feels like we are in danger of losing all those fantastic diversity gains that we made or potential diversity gains that we made in COVID. Yes.

Meredith Norwich: Yes. I agree. I agree. Absolutely.

Alison Jones: I want to talk about what you look for as well, because obviously for people listening I mean, I don’t know if we’re doing a very good job or not of selling publishing as a career.

It’s brilliant people, honestly.

Meredith Norwich: It is! It is!

Alison Jones: It’s not flawless, but it’s brilliant.

But many of them will be much more interested in actually, you know, how do I pitch to you, Meredith? And you do a terrific job on LinkedIn of sort of demystifying this.

I love the stuff you’re doing on there, the videos, here’s what’s happening, here’s what’s a commissioning meeting, you know, all that kind of great stuff. And I’ll put the link to your profile up on the show notes.

But for those who haven’t seen it yet, when you get proposals through, and I don’t know how many you get a week, you might want to share that terrifying figure with us, if you want, what is it that first catches your eye? When do you get excited and your spidey senses start tingling?

Meredith Norwich: Oh, gosh. I mean, you know, it really varies in terms of how many I get. Sometimes I’ll get internal referrals from some editors. Of course, I do have a lot of people approaching me on LinkedIn. So it really varies numerically.

In terms of what I’m looking for, what gets me excited: first of all, it’s definitely the uniqueness of the idea. And I’ve seen a lot and it’s also worth noting I think, I’m thinking about first-time authors here, that there is nothing new under the sun at this point. If you’re writing leadership strategy, HR, there are books about it. What’s unique is what you bring to it. And that’s what I’m looking for. And I’m also looking for some idea of some level of research, you know, how are you backing this up without it being overly academic. It still needs to be a very conversational, practitioner oriented kind of project. I’m also looking for, so the idea is what makes me go, ooh, then I’m like, okay, well, let me dig a little deeper.

So then I’m looking to see, does the author have a good sense of the market? And by that, I mean, where does their book sit in the landscape? Again, they’re going to be competitive titles. If there aren’t, actually, you need to think about that, because either you haven’t looked hard enough. Or there’s no market for your book as you’ve presented it. And so that’s to be reflected upon.

But once the author has shown market awareness, then I’m also looking at their own platform because there are so many books and blogs and podcasts and LinkedIn posts and et cetera, so much content coming all the time. It is highly unlikely if you don’t already have some kind of platform as an author that people are going to find your book.

So I’m looking to see what have you done to already develop a presence. Are you a speaker? Are you a teacher? Are you a consultant? And, you know, this is not like, are you Brene Brown? Do you have 10 million followers? No, it’s in your niche. Do people know who you are? Would they want to, quite frankly, hand over cold, hard cash to read more of what you have to say?

Alison Jones: And that, I mean, it’s not much, is it? The price of a book is so low, but the barrier to purchasing one is extraordinarily high. People don’t like to spend money on a book unless they are 100 percent confident that it’s going to deliver value to them.

Meredith Norwich: Absolutely, yes. I mean, I think it’s because there is so much out there for free.

Alison Jones: Right.

Meredith Norwich: We’ve gotten used to that.

Alison Jones: I think it’s also that, you know, a book-sized attention demand is a lot and…

Meredith Norwich: That’s a good point too.

Alison Jones: Yes, so you can read a blog post, and if it’s no value, you’ve only wasted a couple of minutes. If you buy a book, it’s not just the money you’re handing over, it’s the commitment of time that that represents and attention.

Those are your really scarce resources, aren’t they?

Meredith Norwich: Yes, that’s an excellent point, yes. I struggle sometimes to find time to read for pleasure myself, you know, so I yes…

Alison Jones: Busman’s holiday, I know.

Meredith Norwich: Right? yes.

Alison Jones: You were talking about that dance between the sort of the academic and the practitioner. Let’s just dig into that because business I think is one of those fascinating areas where, and I know Routledge, and Taylor and Francis in general publish an awful lot of monographs of books that really are squarely targeted at the academic market.

Meredith Norwich: Yes.

Alison Jones: And then you’ve got the practitioner market and there’s a really blurry line, isn’t there? Because there’s so many chief execs are doing executive programs and so many wannabe leaders are doing MBA programs. So just tell me a little bit more about how that sort of, Venn diagram plays out with book proposals.

When is something academic, when is it practitioner, and what’s the sort of sweet spot in between?

Meredith Norwich: The sweet spot is what we call in house ‘pracademic’. So that means somebody who is, has one foot in each world or has had, maybe not right at the moment, but they’ve had some academic experience. They’ve had some maybe consulting or, private sector experience and they’re able to marry those.

What I’m looking at, actually, I’m just thinking of a proposal I just was reviewing that I needed to speak with the author about changing it up a little bit because he had too many references, too much of a literature review, which makes it very academic. And for an academic book, you are looking to demonstrate that you stand on the shoulders of giants.

For a practitioner book, you are the giant. And so it’s that you have to shift.

Alison Jones: That’s a great way of saying it.

Meredith Norwich: But you’re not the first giant.

Alison Jones: Right.

It’s crediting ideas, you’re still building on those, but you’re allowed to have an opinion.

Meredith Norwich: Yes, exactly. You are the expert. You don’t have to back it up quite as much. But where we differ from some other publishers that are doing a little bit, still great, but maybe breezier books, is that we still want that solid foundation of some kind of research.

There’s going to be some citations going on. You know, I’m not interested in memoir, which some business books can tend to veer into. Stories and case studies are essential to making the book a good read, but it needs to be more than just a yarn. You know, it has to have something backing it up.

Alison Jones: Yes. And my heart always sinks slightly when someone says, ‘it’s sort of a memoir of my time… You know, just so many people have said you should write a book…’ and these are not necessarily good reasons, but yes, what’s in it for the reader. Brilliant.

And you mentioned then you’ve been reviewing a proposal. I mean, you and I know this is sort of self evident, but just so, in case anybody’s wondering, Meredith, should somebody write their manuscript and submit it to you?

Meredith Norwich: No, please don’t.

Alison Jones: What should they do instead?

Meredith Norwich: They should send me a proposal, if they’ve already got one, or they should query me, just email me and ask me what they should send me. That’s the best thing to do. And then I can send them, we have, sort of preprinted proposal guidelines that they can just fill in and I can supply that.

And that’s where we start.

Unsolicited manuscripts are a no.

Alison Jones: No, don’t do that, don’t do that.

And you might have picked up what Meredith was saying about adapting the approach to it. And that’s one of the reasons, isn’t it? Is that as business book editors, you are partnering with the author in crystallizing that idea, but also in taking it to market. And that’s a partnership.

Meredith Norwich: Oh, absolutely. And I think that, and that’s actually, I’m glad you brought that up because it’s another thing that I look at in the proposal and then in my interactions with authors is, of course, they’re the expert on what they’re writing about, but, and especially a first time author won’t have done this before, so they’re not an expert. That’s why we’re here to help out.

But are they open to feedback? Are they open to understanding that this is a team sport? That we’re all here, more in the background, you know, they’re the star, but that we are here to help them make things better.

And so exactly, yes, if they sort of just thump a giant tome and say, here you go, it’s all done. That’s great, but that might not be what we’re really looking for. So exactly, if I’ve got the proposal, we can work from a more sort of nitty gritty level on what this book could be.

Alison Jones: Yes, and I think if you are an author just seeing that you are entering into a partnership is so important.

Meredith Norwich: It is.

Alison Jones: I guess, I mean it’s a sort of an obvious question, but I’m going to ask it anyway. What do you see as the most interesting stuff that’s happening right now? So what are the sort of trends for business books in 2024?

I know we’ve all been predicting the death of the book for about three decades now, but where do you see business books going?

Meredith Norwich: Actually, it’s longer than that. I hadn’t been in publishing that long when somebody told me there’s this running joke that the second book published after the Gutenberg Bible was the death of publishing.

Alison Jones: It’s so true. We’ve all been lurching from, you know, crisis to crisis, and somehow here we all still are.

Meredith Norwich: Here we are.

And I mean, again, like I mentioned earlier, you know, AI is certainly huge. It’s a trend, in a way, in both the industry in terms of what do we do with AI generated content? Do we publish it? You don’t have copyright, etc. Thorny, thorny thing.

Alison Jones: Massive questions.

Meredith Norwich: Massive.

And then also, what about the books that are being written on it?

Just earlier this month, I published a book that’s about it, but it isn’t getting into, and here’s what’s important, I think, is if you try to do a book that’s on a super hot topic like this, where it’s moving fast, we can’t publish the book fast enough, and we can’t come out with new editions fast enough to keep up with what’s going on.

So that’s, the specifics of apps and this sort of thing, that’s blog posts or articles, you know, that’s where you need to go with that. If you’re thinking about a book on that sort of hot topic, it needs to be, I think, stepping back a little bit and actually looking more at the human side of it because that’s something that isn’t going to change.

And that’s exactly what this book does, is it’s, okay, how do we as humans work with the machines to create this super intelligence as an organization. They’re not talking about the specifics of which version of Chat GPT you’re using, you know, so this is going to last longer. And I think that’s the thing that with trends, it’s easy to get caught up in, Oh, I have to write about this too, because everybody’s talking about it.

Either no or yes, but you need to do it in a way that ensures the book is going to have a shelf life of longer than a week.

Alison Jones: Yes, because I mean, it’s not just the fact that by the time it’s printed and published, it’s out of date if it’s like that, but it’s also you need a period of time in which to sell a book to make it financially viable. It goes beyond that as well. Yes, absolutely.

So I guess, I know you’re not coming from the point of view of an author, although you are actually a writer as well, but what would be your absolute best tip for somebody who is at the start of this journey, who’s maybe in the early stages of writing their first business book?

What would you tell them?

Meredith Norwich: I’m actually going to be cheeky and put two together. So…

Alison Jones: This has never happened on the podcast before.

Meredith Norwich: Never, never. So the first part is, these do work together, the first part is that, like I said, as a first time author, it’s on the tin, you’ve never done this before. You are an expert in what you’re doing. And so when you’re looking at this cascade of books and you ask yourself, well, why, oh, wait, why me? How do I dare, you know, write a new book? What new do I have to say? You have something new to say because you’re you. That’s it, because that’s the only justification you need.

But, second bit, the book isn’t about you. The book is about the reader. You need to have a lot of yourself in there to make the book entertaining and to make it yours, but it needs to be about what solutions are you offering to the reader. Always have them in mind.

So, you need to stand firm in your experience and confidence, but you need to always be thinking about who’s going to be at the other end.

Alison Jones: It’s a beautifully articulated way of doing it. And I always think that the editor is almost like the ambassador for the reader as well, because not just about taking the self indulgentness that can creep in out of it. It’s also about, you know, just kind of countering the curse of knowledge, because the author almost knows too much and they can’t imagine what it’s like not to know this.

So that’s one of the reasons the partnership is so valuable, isn’t it?

Meredith Norwich: Definitely, definitely.

Alison Jones: Well, that was much more concise than most people’s two. So I’m really impressed. You squeezed that into most people…

Meredith Norwich: Okay.

Alison Jones: …in less time than most people say their one. Brilliant.

I’m going to ask you for a recommendation as well and this is going to be painful because which of your babies are you going to showcase?

Meredith Norwich: Well, none of them. I decided, I can’t be that mom. I can’t be choosing a favourite. I can’t do it. So if anyone, any of my authors are listening to this, I love you all, but, you’re not in the running because I can’t do it.

So I’m actually going to recommend one that I know it came out a while ago, but I just read it and it’s called Unreasonable Hospitality. It’s by Will Guidara.

I was drawn to it because I don’t have restaurant experience, which is, he came up in the very fine dining scene in New York. And I don’t have that experience, but before I was in publishing, I was actually in luxury retail for a number of years. And the lessons that I learned there about customer service, about how to treat people, whether they’re clients or colleagues, have stayed with me to this day. Absolutely.

 It was a great training ground, painful in some ways, but also very helpful. And I was curious to see what he would have to say. And indeed, he’s talking about taking this hospitality orientation to any type of work, that when people know how much you care about them that just changes the whole dynamic and that you’re willing to go the extra mile.

It doesn’t have to be about a lot of money. It just needs to be about thought and also not be, I love this about it too, he talks so much about not being afraid to care too much about your own work. You know, there’s a lot of people can get kind of jaded and he’s like, no, no. Again, that will not only make you a happier person, but it will also carry over into your business.

And trusting your team, if you’re a leader, letting them, sharing that, so that they, you know, it’s infectious and they care so much too, that they’re actually to take on more before they’re ready in any kind of a tenure sense. And one other specific thing that he says that I just loved is, you’ll know, there’s so much about being present and mindfulness and et cetera, et cetera.

But he defines being present as caring so much about what it is you’re doing at that moment that all the other moments to come and those that have come before disappear. All you are doing is what you’re caring about in that moment. And I thought, you know, there’s plenty of, if you want to sit on a cushion and meditate and whatever, that’s fine.

But in terms of like, improving your professional life, I think that definition of being present is just so helpful.

So yes, I got a lot out of it.

Alison Jones: It’s beautiful. It reminds me of Csikszentmihalyi as well and that idea of flow, and flow isn’t a passive thing, it’s when you are actively engaged in something that you care about and that’s stretching you, but not so far that it’s overwhelming you. And yes, that’s a beautiful image.

And what a great illustration as well of a book that is about one sector shedding light on other areas. And it’s one of the great, it’s one of the great arguments for reading, isn’t it?

Meredith Norwich: Absolutely. Yes, and just broadening horizons. I mean, I honestly, when I was thinking about what book to recommend, I almost didn’t recommend a business book because that’s the other thing, I tend to read a lot of nonfiction history anyway. And I learn so much from that, that then, just about people and, you know, obviously it’s about people, isn’t it?

So yes, that having this sort of wider net can be super helpful. Again, you sort of step back and you don’t get overly focused and you never know what influence might help you.

Alison Jones: And it can help that range, that sort of exposure to other ideas helps you understand your own topic better, but it also helps you explain it better to other people, because you’ve got that kind of… you’ve got a richer well, richer well, that’s the wrong phrase, but you know what I mean, you’ve got a richer sort of pool of metaphors you can draw from and analogies to make, which are super helpful.

Brilliant. I don’t know the book, sounds amazing. I’m going to go and read it immediately.

Meredith Norwich: It’s quite good, yes.

And it’s got a lot of fun stories too, because it’s, you know, restaurant critics and back of house, this and that. And so it’s just fun to learn about the industry too.

Alison Jones: I can already imagine the TV series from it. Brilliant.

And Meredith, obviously, we can put the links to Taylor and Francis, to Routledge, we can put the links to your LinkedIn.

The reason I would go and seek Meredith out on LinkedIn is not because just to pitch your idea at her, but also tell us a little bit about what you’ve been doing on LinkedIn for authors, the video series and so on.

Meredith Norwich: Oh, sure.

So I guess probably about a year ago, I just decided, you know what, I’m going to do a little introductory video and say hi, and it went so well that I decided to start a series of posts. I started doing videos, I actually did a poll, and most people preferred text, which surprised me.

So I’m doing more text posts now, but it’s a collection of just sort of tips and thoughts about this is book publishing. I’ve actually collected, so if we connect on my profile, you’ll see, I’ve collected the posts that I did that go through each step of the process from proposal on through publication.

So I’ve gathered those together and I try to post relatively consistently about, you know, most recently, I was talking about how many images to include. And if you’re not doing images, what else you can do to sort of guide the reader through your book.

Alison Jones: Brilliant. So really, really worth checking out.

And I think it’s such a great thing because editors often almost hide away from authors. So I think it’s brilliant that you’re out there demystifying it, making connections. It’s absolutely brilliant.

Such a pleasure to talk to you today, Meredith.

Thank you so much for your time.

Meredith Norwich: Oh, thank you for having me. It’s been terrific.

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