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Welcome to Season 2 of The Book Marketing Action Podcast with Becky Robinson, where we give you information that you can immediately implement to increase your influence and market your books more successfully. In this episode, we are joined by Neal Maillet—Editorial Director at Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
About Neal Maillet
Becky: I’m so excited that today I have with me, Neal Maillet from Berrett-Koehler publishers, he happens to be my editor. I’m going to let Neal tell you a little bit about his work as an editor over the years. And then we’re going to talk some about my author journey, like I said, in hopes that you’ll get a glimpse into what it’s like to partner with a traditional publisher and today specifically, the role that an editor plays on that journey. Welcome, Neal!
Neal: Thanks for having me. Wonderful to be working with you and talk about books, which is my favorite topic. I think yours too. I pretty much have had only one job in my life after college, which is working in book publishing. I’m not sure that I know about anything else, frankly. But luckily, I’ve been able to fight off imposter syndrome for 30 some odd years and work on books. I’ve always worked in nonfiction. I’ve always worked in editorial. I kind of stumbled my way into working on business books or books about career, business. It wasn’t my first choice honestly, I wanted to work on novels. I wanted to go have, like, Martini lunches at the Algonquin hotel and discuss great matters of intellectual weight. And then I ended up doing books on building mail order businesses and consulting. That was my first editing job at Wiley and I realized I loved that. I loved how clear it was whether a book was helping people or not, when you were working on books that were about things like that.
So that’s pretty much been where I’ve been. My life as an editor, I’ve moved on to Jossey Bass Inc. in San Francisco, working there for many years. And a lot of the people I worked with at Jossey-Bass Inc. have made their way to Berrett-Koehler. So that’s kind of how I made my way to Berrett-Koehler, which is another nonfiction-only press, not just doing business titles, we also do books kind of in progressive current events. Also some personal growth books. So they kind of run the gamut of self-improvement. Our mission is creating a world that works for all. So all of our books have to have some positive change that happens when you read the book. And I also find that, again, kind of reassuring and fun to know that any book we work on has a clear kind of benefit at the end of it. You come out the other end of the book, possibly as a writer and as the author, and you have specific changes that you’re gonna make, and so that’s sort of what I do. I help authors just get clear on that and I love my job.
How many books do you work on in any given year?
Becky: Very cool. So I’m curious how many books do you work on in any given year, Neal?
Neal: Yeah, I took over the editorial department last year, and so my number went down. But it’s been pretty consistent over my career where I’ve been working on about 16 to 20 books a year. Of course, that means I’m signing up to 16 to 20 and then I’m also editing the books that I signed up the previous year. So really, it’s more at any given time, juggling probably close to 30 titles or topics, which I think is good for authors to know. It means that sometimes I may seem like I’m not super focused on your book. I worry sometimes that authors feel like I’m not invested in their book if I’m like really, really deep into somebody else’s author crisis. So the way that it tends to work is we segment our time pretty carefully. So once I’m working on somebody’s manuscript, I’m 100% focused on that. So it’s kind of episodic that way. But that’s a way to kind of keep so many books kind of going through the system and keeping the company’s doors open.
How do you balance the author books you’re currently working on and the proposals in your email?
Becky: How do you balance the need to give attention to the authors whose books you’re currently working to bring to publication, and then the many proposals that probably land in your email?
Neal: Yeah, this is something I’ve mentioned to some other author groups and talks. I think often, sometimes people get a little bit surprised by this. But for me, even though the most important job that I have is selecting the books that will publish in terms of time, the time that gets kind of pushed down to the bottom is considering new proposal ideas, because I’m usually having to make sure that once the book gets signed up, it’s on a train schedule. We can’t miss the schedule, or some bad things happen later. So that’s always going to trump other things. So what ends up happening sometimes, is the proposals kind of pile up a little bit, and then I have to slam through them, reading them. I might read 20 proposals in an hour, or something like that, really kind of going through, so that probably horrifies authors who are working so hard on their proposals. The thing that I would tell authors who might be listening to this, and wanting to get an editor’s attention, it just kind of proves how much of a premium there is on your introduction, your cover letter. You kind of have to win me over in the first few paragraphs of your proposal, and that’s probably it. So what ends up happening is I scan them, and then once that kind of jump out is possibly promising, they get kind of set aside and then I might spend some more time on them. So that’s just kind of the hard facts about this business.
What is the reality of the amount of traffic there is for traditional publishing?
Becky: Well, I find it fascinating. I know prior to having my own proposal accepted by Berrett-Koehler publishers, I was definitely aware that you get hundreds, if not thousands of proposals every year. So can you talk a little bit about that, for those who might be listening, to give them a reality check on the amount of traffic there is for traditional publishing?
Neal: So I’ve counted up mine, I get anywhere from 400 to 500 proposals that come directly to me. Keep in mind that we have an email address that’s generally available email@example.com and bkconnection.com. That is kind of vetted by our assistant editor who’s responsible for doing kind of the same thing I’ve just been describing to you. But she’s doing it more on the associate level, screening things and then maybe passing them on to me. She’s getting several a day, and she might give me like one every week or two, to look over, like, “Hey, this might be interesting to you.” So I’m seeing some of those, and then some that come directly to me. So I’m getting at least one proposal a day, probably more like two or three. And then I’m usually going to try to carve out time on Friday.
What ends up happening is I get through the week, I’m putting out fires, things are happening, and then, like, I haven’t looked at any proposals this week. And it is true that there’s a time factor with proposals, too. I don’t want to find out that I had the proposal for the next Good to Great, or The 4-Hour Workweek and if I had only gotten back to that author or agent earlier, that might have been my book. So I’m not happy about maybe having to put off reading them. But it’s kind of a risk I guess I run. So on Friday, I’ll usually end up doing it on Fridays when things tend to quiet down, and then I just kind of power through the proposals that week, and it is a little bit a triage thing sometimes. I mean the truth is, again, I’m giving you some of the dirty underbelly of our business. I will kind of read the first paragraph and if you get me in that first paragraph or two of the proposal, I immediately jump to the author’s bio. I want to see, who is this person? Are people listening to them? Is this person a thought leader? If you have a great book idea, and this is obviously why you’re in business, Becky, and nobody knows you’re there or alive, that great book idea is gonna probably not go too far. So I do have to see that people are already following you. It’s a long haul, as you try to tell your authors.
And then the third place I go to is the marketing plan. Do you know how to sell yourself? Do you have stuff online? So then I go back and then I really start to dig into the kind of editorial ideas, because I don’t want to have to use my brain cells to really figure out if your book idea is good until I know that you have the engine to sell it. So that’s kind of my thought process reading through proposals. I think authors would be horrified. But, one thing when I was an editorial assistant, I started at Bantam Books and I was there when they were publishing authors, like Tom Wolfe and Nathaniel Branden. I think like some other big names, Louise Erdrich, she was one of the authors that my editor worked with. The proposals all came in with 8 by 10 glossies of the authors, which horrified me. I thought, “this is disgraceful.” But they were in the entertainment business, we’re talking about one of the big New York corporate publishers, and they did take into account how good of a glossy picture the author’s gonna have. I still don’t exactly agree with that, and that does not happen with me, but it just shows you that publishers look at your book as it’s a business proposal. It’s a business investment. Publishers are going to think about how much risk there is of me getting my money back if I spend $30,000 to $50,000, which is about the average investment. So anyways, I don’t know why I brought that weird thing up.
Becky: Oh, that’s funny. I love that insider view. I think you’ve probably seen and done a lot of things that our listeners would find interesting. So we might have to circle back on some of those publishing stories.
Once you have a good idea, can you sell the book?
Becky: So we’ve talked a little bit about your process in vetting proposals, but I want to make sure that I emphasize what you said, which is that editors are looking at each proposal as a business decision and a business investment and, maybe more important, once you have a good idea, is can you sell the book?
Neal: I think, as the editor, maybe I’m presuming too much, but I think I have a certain amount of persuasion and sway inside the company that this is a good book idea, this is an author worth listening to. So I usually get those points for that, as a given. The part that I really need to start selling to my colleagues, because I don’t just make the decision, “Oh, we’re going to publish it.” I decided, like, “Hey, this is a good decision, this is a good investment. I like this author. I think this is a good title.” Now I have to convince sales and marketing, that they’re going to be able to sell it.
So a lot of my energy internally in the company is more focused on that side of it. And again, I don’t think authors are completely aware that most of the discussion inside the company is going to be about that sales and marketing piece and publicity. Most of your conversations with your editor, one hopes, is about the content, the quality, the ideas, you’re going to get all that. But that’s kind of like a one-on-one thing with your editor. Most of the work that is for the publisher is around, “How do we sell this thing?” and “Is the author going to be the chief marketing and sales officer?” Because if the author is just going to sit around and wait for the publisher to figure it out, it’s not going to work.
Becky: That’s really powerful.
How did you evaluate my book proposal?
Becky: So for a minute, let’s talk a little bit about how I got here to having a book contract with Berrett-Koehler publishers. I remember Neal, when you called me to offer me the contract, I was wishing that we had recorded it because I thought it would have been a really helpful conversation for others to hear.
So I’m not asking for you to like sing my praises or anything right now, but I do think it would be interesting for you to share for a minute about how you evaluated my proposal. And just before we go there, for everyone who’s listening, if you haven’t read some of the blog posts that I’ve been writing about my author journey, I brought several ideas to Neal over the years before I got him to say yes to one. And when I did finally craft an entire proposal, it was the first time, but it was only because Neal said no. And then in July, I think it was, we had a call and I shared my latest idea with you. And you said, “yes, I’d look at a proposal for that.” It only took me about six months probably to get it in your inbox. So let’s pick up the story there.
Neal: I think what’s fun about this book and you is that it’s kind of a weird synchronicity of your message to your clients and to people who hire you. You’ve eaten your own cooking because you’ve gone through that same process personally, and you’re writing a book and you’ve been rejected and told no early on. It really was kind of that same, you had really good book ideas probably, when I first met you, when we first started discussing books, but you didn’t have the brand yet that made me feel confident. Like, “Oh, this is going to be a great investment.” And then interestingly by the time you circled around with this last book idea, and I’ve kind of known you the past few years, it suddenly just hit me like, she’s a brand. She’s not the same Becky Robinson I spoke to in 2012 where you had a certain email list, and you were building your business. It hit me kind of as like a thunderclap like, oh, this is a completely different kind of book discussion now. So you had the great book idea, which is kind of why the conversation got started in the first place, but then it kind of hit me all of a sudden, that you have the marketing engine now that is kind of at the top of your class.
It’s funny, when I sent you the email when I got a yes from my colleagues, you got through the meeting, I had a picture of that scene in Bull Durham, when the phone call comes through, I can’t remember if Tim Robbins is the actor who plays that, luckily, you’re a much better book figure than he was as a pitcher. But it’s like, you’re going to the show, and that was exactly what it seemed like to me. You’re definitely in the major league kind of echelon now, as somebody who’s really earned your stripes and kind of did the hard work of building your platform and your brand. But without a great book idea, it’s a really weird balance. If you had had all of that, and your book idea is like, it’s okay, that wouldn’t work. If you have an amazing book idea, which I’m sure some of your book ideas were probably great when I first started talking to you, but there’s this kind of balance between the two. That’s why you’re writing a book right now and not probably spending as much time with your kids as you should.
Becky: Haha! Well, for those who might be listening, like what I really feel and I want to emphasize what you said, it’s not only about having a platform, you also have to have a great idea. And it’s not only about having a great idea, you also have to have a platform. Thanks, thanks so much. It’s so fun to share this journey with you and with the rest of the team at BK.
What is your role as an editor? Where do you give your attention along the journey?
Becky: So Neal, this has been such a fun conversation to reflect on all the different things that came together for me to be doing a book now. What I want to do now is give our listeners a glimpse about the role of an editor once you get to this point. So you mentioned 500 proposals that you see every year, 16 to 20, you offer a contract to based on feedback from the rest of the publication board. So then you’re really journeying with those 16 to 20 authors a year from the initial idea and concept in the proposal to the publication of the book, which in my case from signing, the contract is going to be about 14 months. So talk about the role that you have as an editor and what the different places are, because you explain that you kind of have different moments that you step in. You’re not necessarily giving an author all of your attention all the time. So what are the key places along the journey?
Neal: Yeah, that’s a good question. Because I think it’s actually changed in the industry since I started editing. As an editor, I hate to say, my first publishing job was in 1987. So that kind of tells you how long I’ve been around. And at that time, actually, the pressure on the platform, it was there, but it wasn’t as heavy. More unknowns could kind of break out, because there was just a massive number of bookstores and the book industry was much bigger than it is now, frankly. So I spent a lot of my time my first years, doing what we call line editing. Going through, line by line, and really reworking the content and sending drafts back to the author.
Now, I’m caught, partly as a part of the workflow, but also part of the way that I think the book industry has changed, my time is more episodic. Meaning that, once I get a book signed up, as has happened in your case, a lot of effort goes into the concept at the start, and that’s one reason why we pick the title so early. It used to be really like, why would you pick a title until the book is done? How can you title something until you know what this thing is? Because it’s gonna come out a little differently than you expected. So that’s how, I’m looking back and kind of amazed to remember that it was like that. Now, we pretty much set the title, possibly before the author’s even started writing, and part of that is to help get the author clear on the concept that the book is selling. Like, what’s the message? Because the writing is going to go a lot better if that’s super clear up front, and then the author’s just doing variations on the theme, rather than going off into the wilderness and trying to figure out the plum of your soul and how do I put that on paper? So, there’s a lot of intense focus, when you get started.
Then I go away, unless you have a podcast, which was very clever of you to get me back and get some attention. But I go away, because I’m now doing that work with other authors, and then the author is kind of trying to fulfill that vision. We have reviewers at Berrett-Koehler who do most of that line work and kind of line-by-line commentary. We still provide that, but my work has to be more on the bigger picture of, “is that vision happening? Did the author really fulfill the plan?” And so, again, I’m looking more at the conceptual purity, if you will.
So when the manuscript comes in, I give another bunch of really concentrated time, where I’m thinking more of what I would call developmental editing versus line editing. I think people think of movies and stuff, where the editors got a big manuscript, and I’m project manager on like maybe 40 things at a given time. So I don’t have that. Maybe there was time in the business, at one time, for me to spend three days line editing a manuscript. I now have to kind of portion my time a little more to give that work more to the reviewers, and sometimes to other developmental editors, but I’m going through the reviews, and also figuring out what developmentally and subject wise is happening in the book. Then giving the author maybe some feedback on, “you’re writing a chapter on book marketing, but you forgot to mention the internet” or something. So that’s kind of where I’m coming from.
Then the author goes away for another month, and works on that. And then hopefully, the final manuscript comes in and is perfect. And, in our process at Berrett-Koehler, I think the way we do that, we very, very rarely get to the finish line, and the book isn’t really what we were hoping for, and ready to go into production. In other publishers, there’s often a train that derails at that point, like something just went wrong along the way. The author didn’t really get the support and feedback, and the whole book gets delayed. Sorry, it’s gonna have to come out six months later. So I think our process is pretty good. It’s not like constant attention, but it’s also a little more strategic. I don’t know if any of that made sense. It made sense to me.
What role does the publisher have in proofreading?
Becky: No, it definitely made sense. I think the one thing that’s not clear to me is what happens as it relates to the fine tune proofreading. Is that the responsibility of the author? What role does the publisher have?
Neal: So there’s a certain amount of just general fact checking and feedback that’s happening in the process of the first draft and the early drafts. I will go in and do some spot checks. Like my favorite pet peeve is every inspirational quote you’re gonna find on the internet from Gandhi or Mother Teresa is false. He never said those things and people put them in books because it sounds great. So one of my first things is just to kind of spot check some of the factual stuff and if it looks like the author’s being really careful then I relax my guard on that. So there’s a little bit of that point work that I do.
But what’s really called copy editing, where the person is going to go word by word through that book, happens after I’m out of the picture. So my job is to make sure the book makes sense, and it’s marketable and going to be something somebody wants to read. But it’s the copy editor, who’s probably going to spend upwards of 40-50 hours possibly going line by line and making sure everything is spelled properly, proper grammar, proper style and usage. Asking questions, saying “This doesn’t make sense.” So that happens after, when it’s in production, essentially. It’s very detailed, but it’s also a different part of the brain than I use. I would say that’s more like the left brain, very technical. Whereas I’m more the right brain, putting myself more in the shoes of the reader.
If a copy editor does a job well, the reader will never even know they were there. Because what they’re doing is more invisible in terms of making sure all the rules are followed, and then there’s another stage of proofreading the galleys. They’re not really galleys anymore, but when the copy edit is done, you’ve approved everything the copy editor suggests, it gets put into type, and then you’ll get it again to really double check that what you asked the copy editor to do happened, that something didn’t get skipped or missed that that was supposed to happen. So we do like it when the author spends some time on that proof going through it. We obviously proofread it ourselves. So there’s quite a bit of quality check down the road, but it’s not like rewriting at that point, it’s not like, “oh, I wanted to mention the afterlife,” or something like that.
What should authors expect with an editor?
Becky: Ha, that is awesome. So, Neil, what else should I know about working with an editor? Or What else should our listeners know if they choose to go the route of traditional publication? What to expect with an editor?
Neal: Yeah, I think we’re aware that there are arguments not to work with mainstream publishers. So we think a lot about what value we bring to an author, and I think what an editor does isn’t just provide his or her own feedback or opinion on your book. A good editor is a coach, project manager, team leader, advocate. I’m feeding feedback to the author from the book designer production, marketing department, my colleagues in editorial, it’s really kind of like it takes a village sort of approach. So working with a traditional publisher, like Berrett-Koehler, and working with an editor like me, it’s more that you’re getting a community built around your book. So you’re getting this real team approach and that’s something you’re just going to miss if you go through some other routes that may be quicker.
So along with that, is the knowledge that sometimes you have to be a bit open minded as an author as well. You’re going to hear feedback on something you thought was working, and four of the five people I asked are saying that doesn’t work, we even had a little bit of that with your title. I don’t know, maybe a sore topic, but we went through some rounds in the title, and titles that I thought would work and you thought would work got pushback, and we kind of had to really push through that. And you were really good. I would say doctors make the worst patients, but you were very good at realizing even though you were in a position of having to hear the advice, which is probably not usual for you. And it does mean you’re going to hear things that other people feel aren’t working. I think the authors who are able to hear that doesn’t mean you have to do everything people ask you to do in this process. Ultimately, that is the reason why you work with a publisher, because you’re gonna end up with a book you could never have done just on your own. You’re gonna get some objective help. The cool part about working with a traditional publisher, the pays in advance and all that, is you’re not paying for that. I mean, ultimately, you’re maybe getting less royalty on the other side than if you publish it yourself, but it, I think, is a pretty good business deal for most authors to get all of that labor into improving your book. You’re not paying them on the clock. It’s kind of their job at the publisher to invest in you that way.
Becky: Yeah, it’s incredible. In case you missed it, Neal did say that most book projects include about $30,000 to $50,000 of investment from the publisher, bringing that book to market. So that’s a huge investment, and I’m honored that Berrett-Koehler has faith in me to make that kind of investment in me and my book.
What’s the most important thing an author can do who’s aspiring to have a traditional publisher?
Becky: So any kind of parting advice for those who might be listening who are at the place of aspiring someday, and really saying, wow a traditional publisher sounds like what I might like. What’s the most important thing they can do? I know what I would tell them, but I’m curious what you would tell them.
Learn the business! If you’re in these topics, this may sound like weird advice, because I particularly mentioned a blog by the publisher Bard Press, Todd Sattersten, just because he talks a lot about what editors are looking for and what books are working. So learn the business. Don’t just go to his blog, per se, but listen to podcasts like this, try to learn the book of business as well as what you want to write, because you’ll begin to think a little differently about fulfilling your own vision for a book. But starting to learn how editors think, what publishers are looking for, and it’ll just kind of begin to change how you present your book. It won’t ultimately be working in your favor if your pitch is, “I’m so excited about my book, like my family wants me to publish this book.” It has to be, “I’ve studied other books like this, and my book is going to sell more, do more good, because I’m putting this into it.” So I think it’s just getting a mindset from really studying editors and thought leaders in whatever category you’re working in, so that you’re not just talking about your ideas.
- Learn more about Berrett-Koehler Publishers, here.
- Click here for Proposal Guidelines for Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
- Check out Bard Press’s blog, here.
- Connect with Berret Koehler on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
- Connect with Neal Maillet on LinkedIn.
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I am the owner of Weaving Influence and the leader of the Weaving Influence team. We help authors and thought leaders grow their online influence. I am also a wife and mom of three daughters, and I enjoy running, reading, writing, a good cup of coffee, and dark chocolate.