In this episode

Cynthia Zigmund is founding president of Second City Publishing based in Madison, Wisconsin. She represents business authors and works with them through the all phases of the publishing process. Her firm has sold a number of business bestsellers, and is a leading publisher of business books.

Listen to Cynthia’s beginnings as at John, Wiley & Sons and how she fostered her love of business books to eventually found her own literary agency and work with some of today’s leading business authors.

Download the show notes for highlights; read the audio transcript.

Season 1 Episode 4: Literary Agent Cynthia Zigmund on What Today’s Authors Need for Publishing Success

Tell us about your work at Second City Publishing

We currently manage authors in most genres of non-fiction as well as fiction (mystery only) and provide editorial services to authors and organizations that want to self-publish.

What’s changed in business book buying from the time you first walked through the doors for John Wiley to today whenever you’re an agent?

Technology now plays a big role in publishing, from online stores to audio books, and author platforms. And although it was always a complex business, it’s become even more complex with all the mergers, acquisitions, the ability to get books out more quickly, and also with social media. There’s a lot more information out there, so a publisher wants books that readers will be interested in twelve months from now or will they have read all about it already on the Internet or on Facebook or wherever it is they’re getting their information.

Can a business author who’s had some professional success still land a traditional publisher?

It’s slim to none, frankly. There’s so much being published now and self-publishing has become elevated –authors who are taking it seriously are doing a really nice job on their own.

It’s important for an author to be able to differentiate himself. It’s just not good enough anymore to have the best book written on sales or leadership or innovation. The author also has to have a way to help the publisher get the word out there, whether through a strong network of followers, corporate clients that they can approach to help, professional speaking. Whatever it is, successful publishing today is about more than just having a really good idea and credentials.

To publish successfully, you need more than a good idea and credentials; you need a platform Tweet:

Let’s get into the details. How would you explain what you do to a group of aspiring authors?

An agent is the publisher’s advocate. Just like you wouldn’t enter any other agreement without some kind of advocate whether it’s an attorney, a real estate agent, whoever it is, you want somebody that knows the ins and outs of that business and can help you navigate it. An agent works with an author before the book is presented to a publisher:

  • They troubleshoot proposals and tell you what publishers are and aren’t interested in.
  • They’ll tell you whether or not your idea, however great it may be, is commercially viable.
  • They get your proposal and your project in front of a publisher because most publishers don’t accept unsolicited projects.
  • They ensure your proposal is ready for submission: complete, properly formatted, edited, etc.
  • They negotiate a deal including contract terms, royalties, advances, due date, and whether or not you should give a publisher the option for your next work

Agents know what can and cannot be negotiated, that’s who publishers want to work with.

Don’t sign away all your rights – hire a literary agent to guide and protect you through the process Tweet:

What should authors expect and not expect when negotiating royalties?

Royalties can fall anywhere from a few percent up to 25 or perhaps even 50%. What authors need to understand is that publishers invest in time-consuming and labor-intensive work: book development, editing, typesetting, formatting, promotion, distribution, and they’ll shop around international rights. That’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work that some authors don’t always realize. So although a royalty percentage may seem small, they have to remember that the publisher takes on many responsibilities.

How do agents get paid?

It’s a commission based on the author’s royalties. For example, if you get a 15% royalty, your agent may be getting 15% or 20% of that. The agent gets paid when the book is placed. When the author’s advance earns out, the agent will get 15% of whatever royalties start coming in.

What are publishers looking for these days?

  • Books that are going to break out, and/or will be here for 10, 20, 30 years
  • Evergreen books that just sell and sell and sell
  • Every time a publisher signs a contract, they’re going into it with the expectation that they’re going to get two or three more books out of you. When you’re thinking about your project, think about books two and three.

What things pique your interest in a query letter or proposal?

The first thing that I look for is something that is really unique and interesting.

Once the proposal catches my attention, I check the author’s marketing plan which is the platform. If there’s not a strong marketing plan and I don’t see what I want to see there, occasionally I may go back to the author and ask them to re-submit when they have stronger marketing plan. But generally, it goes into the slush pile. Getting the right match is really important and authors need to think of their proposal as their business plan for the book.

What can authors do to increase their chances of landing an agent?

  • Do your homework. Don’t do generic, blanket submissions. Pay attention to the publisher’s guidelines and that the requirements are there in some form.
  • Build a platform to show publishers that you’ve done some of the marketing legwork and that you’re building an audience.
  • Remember is that publishing is a business. At the end of the day, publishers are here to make money. If they think they can make money on your book, they’re going to offer you an agreement.

Publishing is a business. Your idea, platform, #mktg and submission savvy all play a part in getting a deal Tweet:

Recommend a book for aspiring business authors

Books by Malcom Gladwell, Freakonomics and The Business Book Bible.

Recommend a book that you think that everybody should read.

Blink by Malcom Gladwell

Here’s where you can learn more about Cynthia:

Episode references

What Color is Your Parachute?

The 4-Hour Work Week



The Business Book Bible