Episode 85 – The Publisher’s View with Donya Dickerson

Donya DickersonDonya Dickerson is Editorial Director with responsibility for business books for McGraw Hill in New York. So what does she look for when a proposal crosses her desk? And what kind of authors is she keen to get onto the list?

A fascinating insight into the publisher’s perspective of the partnership that is publishing a business book, and how you can position yourself for the best chance of success when you pitch.


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Alison Jones:                        Hello and welcome to the Extraordinary Business Book Club and I’m thrilled to be here today with Donya Dickerson who is the editorial director in the business and finance group of McGraw Hill in New York. She and her team have got an amazing record of acquiring and publishing hugely successful business books including several New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestsellers. Welcome to the club Donya.

Donya Dickerson:             Thank you so much. I’m happy to be here.

Alison Jones:                        Oh, it’s lovely to have you here. Now just a little bit of background on you. What drew you into business publishing in the first place?

Donya Dickerson:             Sure, absolutely. I’ve been in my position at McGraw Hill for fifteen years. I’ve been lucky enough that I … I started out as an associate editor and I have been able to work my way up to my current position, which is leading a group of editors to focus on business books. I was young and it was a great job because it was a field I could really wrap my head around. I could understand what the audience wanted and I also felt like I was helping people be more successful and helping them acquire the skills that they needed to be better at their jobs or to start their own business or to do whatever they needed to do to be more successful. It just seemed like a great use of my editorial skills.

Alison Jones:                        Yeah, I know exactly what you mean. When you are producing these books and you know that they are going to actually have an impact in the world and they are going to improve people’s lives and they are going to make the economy better. It is quite satisfying, isn’t it?

Donya Dickerson:             Exactly.

Alison Jones:                        That’s really good. What changes do you think you have seen over the last, well fifteen years I guess, in the business book sector? Where are business books going and what’s been the big trends?

Donya Dickerson:             There are a lot of changes in the fifteen years. I think that there’s a couple of different trends I could talk on. I think one is a content trend and the other is the idea of the book itself. I think that in terms of content, we’ve really seen a shift in the kind of information that people are looking for especially in the leadership and management space. When I started it was very much the Jack Welch idea of management and I think that there’s been a lot of resistance towards that and people have moved much more to the idea of people centred organisation. How to make it a much more human place. I think flex time has become a big thing. Telecommuting and lots of different solutions for people to get great people on your team but also to make them happy and keep them engaged and keep them in the best employee that they can be. Because of that, we’ve seen a lot of books really focusing on building a culture around your people and building a great place to work.

I think there still needs to be books on this kind of more hard management skills but we’ve definitely seen a balance with books that fifteen years ago people might have thought were too soft to succeed in the market place.

In terms of trends in general around the book itself, I’ve seen a lot of changes there. When I started in publishing over twenty years ago, the e-book was just becoming a thing. Nowadays it’s a big part of everyone’s strategy and they try to think about digital solutions and beyond the e-book what kind of digital things we can offer our customers.

There’s also big boom in our audio business as we’ve been able to do audio digitally as well. The simple ability to … instead of having to get CDs that you play in your car or something, but instead being able to download an audio version of the book digitally has been a big game changer for us. So, I think as publishers we’ve stopped thinking of ourselves necessarily as a book provider but more as a content provider. Yes, print books are still the biggest part of our business but it’s about trying to figure out how to get content to our customers and ways that they want to read it. Whether it’s a print book or an e-book or an audio book or whatever is next.

Alison Jones:                        Well exactly, I wonder what is next.

Donya Dickerson:             Yeah.

Alison Jones:                        Yeah, the digital audio I think is fascinating and I think particularly strong in business books, well actually it’s strong across the board, isn’t it? It’s the big success story of …

Donya Dickerson:             Yeah …

Alison Jones:                        ….if there is growth in publishing, that’s where it is: it’s in digital audio. I guess for business books in particular, you’ve got people that are on the road a lot and it’s such a great way to consume the… Do you think it’s a new audience or do you think that people are migrating to audio from the book?

Donya Dickerson:             I think that the boom in podcasts has made people realise that “I really like listening to interviews. I like listening to people talking and I can now listen to things,” I think that all the different devices there are out there on the market have made it a lot easier for people to do that. I think that that’s been a big part of it. Once they are set up to listen to things, then it just becomes really easy to listen to a book.

Alison Jones:                        The smartphone of course has helped hugely in that, hasn’t it?

Donya Dickerson:             Yeah, I mean that’s …

Alison Jones:                        Everybody has got a way of listening to anything from the internet at any point.

Donya Dickerson:             Exactly. Exactly.

Alison Jones:                        And it’s much less demanding than video; I actually much prefer audio as a means of consuming content because I can be doing it on a run, I can be doing it when I’m driving…

Donya Dickerson:             Yeah.

Alison Jones:                        It’s just friendlier.

Donya Dickerson:             I listen to podcasts when I make dinner and it’s a great way to do something that’s kind of a chore and I actually enjoy it because I’m listening to something that’s interesting. Sometimes I find my self just standing there listening instead of cutting vegetables like I should be doing.

Alison Jones:                        And with business book audio as well … non-fiction generally obviously, the trend is much more for the author to read their own book rather than have it voiced by a professional narrator because in fiction you’ve got this demands for lots of different character voices and really creating the drama. But, actually there’s an authenticity when the author reads their own, isn’t it? Or do you find it’s easier not to have the author reading it?

Donya Dickerson:             It depends, I think that … We actually work with a group that hires professional actors. So, we tend to be more towards that way. That said, I would say some of our authors have had that kind of audio recording experience and when they do, then we can work with them on it.

Alison Jones:                        It is a big job, isn’t it? If you are not used to that, the stamina required to read your book over a period of days, it can be pretty grim. Going back …

Donya Dickerson:             Yeah, yeah.

Alison Jones:                        Yeah. Going back to your first point about the trends in the content, editorial trends if you like, obviously that’s reflecting a lot of the management theory, a lot of the primary research that is going on and the popular psychology and so on. One thing that is interesting in that as well is the fact that women authors have come out. Because I remember fifteen, twenty years ago, you’d be hard pushed to find a woman writing business books at all really, wouldn’t you?

Donya Dickerson:             Yeah, that’s true. At McGraw Hill we’ve always published a number of women. But, that’s interesting, I might have to go back over our list for the past fifteen years and see if there’s been a trend in the number of books that we’ve published by women. I will say that I think the books for women have definitely become more popular in the past few years. This isn’t our book but Lean In, I think is probably one of the ones that everyone knows. There’s more books for women that want something that’s specifically for them.

Alison Jones:                        Yeah, which is interesting. I think also probably to be fair there are more women leaders than there were fifteen, twenty years ago…

Donya Dickerson:             Well, yeah, yeah. That’s a very good point. Hopefully that’s something that continues to change as more women get executive overall positions.

Alison Jones:                        Absolutely. Yeah. Where do you think business books are going? What do you think is the next trend that we are going to be seeing?

Donya Dickerson:             That’s a tough question …

Alison Jones:                        I know.

Donya Dickerson:             That’s a bit ‘we’ll know it when we see it’. I think it’s going to continue to move towards the idea of people being in charge of their workplace and how the workplace itself is going to evolve. I think there’s a lot of these startup companies that are really impacting business in a lot of ways. That’s definitely something that is being written on now. We actually have a book that’s launching on October that covers the topic of “Changing how you lead in this world.” People want the “uber job” where they can do this and that and move around. It really shakes up this idea of leadership. I think that’s going to be the big trend.

Alison Jones:                        How to herd cats.

Donya Dickerson:             Well, yeah. Or maybe instead of thinking of it that way like it’s so much a choice for organisations like how to rethink your organisation in a way that people haven’t really thought about it before. A workplace that’s constantly evolving and that’s something that you embrace.

Alison Jones:                        I agree. I think the workplace stuff is so interesting. It’s really a hot topic. Obviously this is part of your job. You are continually looking, “what’s the next trend? What’s getting hot? How do we commission books in that to be our future best sellers?” I know that you will do some active commissioning going out talking to people. But, when you get a proposal that lands on your desk and it’s from an author that you don’t know, what are you looking for in that? What is the mental checklist that you are going through when you are looking at the proposal?

Donya Dickerson:             Sure. We look at two things equally and in my opinion they have equal weight. First of all, what is the idea? Is it something that’s fresh for the business reader, something exciting, is it something that we think that there’s a marketplace for. A lot of books… When people submit to a publisher, they really should look at what’s popular right now because a publisher wants to know “look, there is an audience for this topic. People are going to want to read more and this is a fresh approach to that or this really breaks the mould in that category.” So, first and foremost it needs to be a book that is well thought out and for the McGraw Hill business list specifically we really want something that’s going to help people be more successful in whatever they are doing, whether it’s a sales job, or a marketing job, or a real estate, or finance, or general management, or even as an entrepreneur, to something that is much more prescriptive. That’s the first part that we look at. Is there really a great book here?

But then, just as important, we really need an author who is going to help partner with us to market the book. It’s a competitive landscape and there’s a lot of business books out there so we need someone who’s got a great platform, who’s going to be able to drive traffic to the store. We work with our retail accounts. They are looking at what the author is doing and they are basing their order on if the author is out speaking a lot, or if the author is getting a tonne of media hits, or if the author has a huge social following, or they have an influence, or influential network that’s going to be spreading the word about the book. All those thing come together for the platform and it really needs to be in place before the book comes out.

I think one mistake that authors make is they think once they have the book they can grow the platform. But, there needs to be a platform in place and then ideally the book just helps them grow it to a much bigger level.

Alison Jones:                        That’s a really good way of articulating it. We talk about this a lot on the proposal challenges. A lot of people create a proposal thinking, “great I’m going to get this book and then that will catapult me into having a platform.” It doesn’t work like that. I don’t think it ever did really that it suddenly doesn’t now.

Donya Dickerson:             I think this has got more and more important.

Alison Jones:                        I couldn’t agree more. There are so many tools at any author’s disposal these days. You have to have a good reason not to have started getting your message out there in some other way. I guess you are looking at a potential author as a potential business partner really, aren’t you? You are kind of doing a joint venture together.

Donya Dickerson:             That’s true. We’re both taking on a lot of risk and obviously there’s expense involved in publishing and distributing a book. We need someone that we can count on to really help be an advocate for their own book.

Alison Jones:                        And also the relationship between the author and the editor. I mean you are going to be working together for quite a long time on this book. It can be a really … quite a special relationship, can’t it? Its interesting talking to a lot of the authors in the Extraordinary Business Book Club who talk about the impact that their editor had on their book. What do you think a good editor brings to the party in terms of making business books even better?

Donya Dickerson:             Well, I’m glad you bring up the relationship because I do think that that is extremely important. For me, I’m hoping it’s a long term relationship. I’ve had several authors that I have published multiple books with and have enjoyed working with over the years. I think that an editor is going to do a couple of things. First of all, they are going to make it the best book it can be and make it the most marketable book. They might give feedback in terms of, this book is going to reach a broader audience if you do this, or this book is going to get more attention of certain heads of media if you address this topic. So, it’s really looking at that big picture. “How this is going to work in the market place” idea. Editors are also really the person that makes everything run smoothly.

A big part of my role is project management. So, I’m making sure that the author is staying focused on writing the book and then when it’s in the production department, making sure that that’s moving along smoothly and that there’s no concerns of the author that’s not being addressed. Equally, making sure that they are in communication with our marketing team and that all the details around the marketing and the launch of the book are being shared with our sales team. So, it’s making sure all the communication channels are in place and that the information is getting to the people that it’s to be. For example, a lot of our authors have international businesses where they travel and speak internationally. So, it’s making sure that our international counterparts are also being informed about the book or any travel that the author is doing.

Alison Jones:                        Absolutely. What does the author do you think bring to that? When this relationship works at its absolute best, what does the author bring to the party?

Donya Dickerson:             Well, obviously they are bringing their great ideas and their network. I think that the best authors that I’ve worked with over the years have been very open to feedback and making sure that … Like I said, we are all working together to make it the best possible book for the market place.

Alison Jones:                        There is no room for ego here really, is there?

Donya Dickerson:             Well, everybody has that. I think on both sides, but, I think the best relationship is really when you try to understand where the process is coming from.

Alison Jones:                        I have to say, one of the reasons that I’ve loved working in non-fiction throughout my editorial career is that I think it is more of a partnership between editor and author.

Donya Dickerson:             Yeah.

Alison Jones:                        Obviously I’ve never worked in fiction so I’m only saying this second hand but I remember talking to a very famous fiction author who was also doing some non-fiction stuff with me and she actually volunteered the information that the relationship with me was completely different to that with her fiction editor, who she said was more of a counsellor-cum-confidant-cum-drinking partner. She had to encourage her and support her when she phoned with some crisis about the book. She said the relationship with me was much more like a professional business partnership, which I thought sounded much better deal for me, frankly.

Donya Dickerson:             Well, it’s true. I think that … a very nice part of the job is that you work with people who are professionals and they get that having a book out is not only good in terms that it’s helping other people learn the skills they have, but it’s also very good for the author’s business. I think that they understand that if they work together and this is a partnership, it’s going to help them grow their business as well.

Alison Jones:                        Yeah, because it is mutually beneficial, isn’t it? You want them to be more successful so that they sell more books, and they obviously want to be successful, and they want the book to help … So, when it works, it’s a really good synergy.

Donya Dickerson:             Exactly.

Alison Jones:                        So, if I was to get your one best tip for a business author, there will be lots of people listening to this who are ploughing through their first business book, not yet sure if they got a deal. What one tip would you give them to help make them more successful?

Donya Dickerson:             At the proposal stage, you mean, or once they are …

Alison Jones:                        Well, I guess whatever stage they are at. Pre-submission, let’s say.

Donya Dickerson:             Oh, got you, got you. I definitely think that it’s making sure that your platform is where it needs to be and that you are honest about it. Unfortunately, sometimes it happens where we get a proposal where someone talks about all these different people in their network and all these different events that they plan to do and you realise oh, it’s just something they hope to do, it’s not actually in place. So, these contacts aren’t actually their contacts yet. You have to be honest and make sure that everything you are saying is something that is actually going to happen because you don’t want to be down the road where the publisher then comes to you and says, “Why haven’t you done any of these things?” and they are not going to happen.

The other thing too is that I think a lot of business professionals are very busy. So, sometimes if you need help from someone to polish up your proposal, that’s fine too. I think the cleaner it is, the better.

Alison Jones:                        That works for their manuscript as well of course, doesn’t it? There’s absolutely no shame in bringing on board a development editor or even a ghost writer because the whole point if you are a business book author is that you aren’t a professional writer, first and foremost, you are a business person.

Donya Dickerson:             Exactly.

Alison Jones:                        Yeah, fantastic. I think it’s really interesting that the day we are recording this is the day after we were working on the marketing plan in the 10-day business book proposal challenge. Very commonly in that proposal challenge (sorry Donya, this won’t make any sense to you; the regular listeners will know what I’m talking about) we go through this sort of thing – what publishers are looking for in a marketing plan in their proposal. So many people put in a wish list of things that they will start doing once the book is out. It’s just so interesting to hear this from your perspective as well. No, you start now. This is your to-do list for the next six months people…

Great. Now I always ask my guests to recommend someone else as a guest on to this show and of course it was Pam Didner who recommended you… So who would you think would be a really interesting guest in the Extraordinary Business Book Club? Someone with something interesting to say about the business of business books?

Donya Dickerson:             Sure, the person who I would recommend is actually an author I’ve worked with on several books. His name is Joe Pulizzi and he just had a book come out last month called “Killing Marketing.” He is the content marketing king and has this tremendous amounts of great information to share on how you can use your marketing to create a revenue stream. That’s what his new book “Killing Marketing” is about. That he wrote with Robert Rose. He also published a book a couple of years ago called “Content Inc” which is really about how you can use your content to build an audience and create a following. I think that’s something that a lot of business authors especially people who are trying to grow their own business would really benefit from.

Alison Jones:                        Yeah. That’d be terrific. I love Joe Pulizzi and of course having that mix of writing a book as part of your content strategy really is a marketing tool is a …

Donya Dickerson:             Yeah, yeah.

Alison Jones:                        Absolutely fascinating. I don’t think …

Donya Dickerson:             He addresses that for sure.

Alison Jones:                        Terrific. What a great recommendation. Thank you. I hope to have Joe on very soon. Now if people want to find out more about McGraw Hill business books, maybe even, whisper it, submit a proposal, where should they go?

Donya Dickerson:             Well, there is a couple of places that I would recommend. The first place is our overall website from McGraw Hill Education, which is just “mheducation.com”. If you go to that, you will see that there is a tab called “professional”. That’s where there is more information about business books. You can see there is all the different categories that we publish but business is one of them. Through that page, you can also go to our business blog. But, if you want to go there directly that’s “McGrawHillprofessionalbusinessblog.com”. That talks about a lot of … It’s got a lot of great articles by our authors covering a lot of different really great business topics. You can see some of the books that we publish there as well.

Alison Jones:                        That’s terrific. I love that you are doing content marketing because you’ve got such a terrific stable of authors working with you. Why would you not want to feature that content? That’s a great idea.

Donya Dickerson:             It’s a great blog so I think that would be a really useful way to see what types of books we publish.

Alison Jones:                        Yeah, brilliant. Of course always, always do your research before you submit to a publisher because there are so many proposals that just go straight in the bin because they are completely irrelevant.

Donya Dickerson:             That’s very good advice too.

Alison Jones:                        Fantastic. Really, really fascinating to talk to you Donya, thank you so much for your time today.

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