Entrepreneur and Jericho Writers alumna Jan Cavelle is phenomenally successful, having grown her own 20-year-strong business from scratch and published a book of expert insights into growing a business, ‘Scale for Success’, with Bloomsbury in 2021. Whether it’s a business or a book, the journey is never easy – and Jan kindly shares her experience of non-fiction publishing with us here.
January 2020 seems a different world away for all of us. I was paying little attention to tales of an old lady dying of some unknown disease in remote China. In fact, I had gone off-grid, telling no one what I was doing. It was too big, too heart-stoppingly important to me.
One chilly day that January, I hauled myself upright at around three in the morning and drove to London, terrified of missing my appointment. I spent most of the four-hour wait in a tourist hotel pushing congealed eggs around my plate and wondering just how many cups of tea it was possible to drink. Finally, I walked around the corner to the hallowed offices in Bloomsbury Square to stare in awe at the Harry Potters on display in reception.
I had gone off-grid, telling no one what I was doing. It was too big, too heart-stoppingly important to me.
But let me take you back a little. My childhood dream was to write a book, but life and, as a single parent, an abrupt need to make a living took over. I started a business on a shelf under the stairs in our tiny Victorian cottage and, from non-auspicious beginnings, grew it to something mid-size. Single parenthood and solo-entrepreneurship are both a recipe for isolation, so it would be years before I met other entrepreneurs.
Entrepreneurs are an interesting bunch. They come from all sorts of backgrounds and work in virtually every sector. They are hugely driven, often obsessive, yet the majority are far less judgemental, far less worried about who they are talking to, and more interested in the quality of what is being said. Most – definitely not all, but most – are highly intelligent and have great stories to tell.
By chance, I saw a business publication advertising for a blog writer. Remembering my writing dreams, I answered, and thus started a decade of writing for a digital publication called Real Business. I also joined Jericho Writers.
When I finally parted company with the business, my first thought was retirement. It took about two weeks for me to miss writing.
I went back to writing articles, but the dream of a book still niggled. I started working my way through the Jericho Writers resources, focussing on the merits of attempting either self- or traditional publishing.
It took about two weeks for me to miss writing.
I had decided to write about sales, my strength – and with the confidence I gained from the articles, I was somewhat cavalier about the writing. However, to play safe, I submitted my first draft to be assessed by one of the Jericho Writers team. My editors had always been rather nice to me, so I was unworried when it came to the feedback phone call.
By five minutes in, I was having to ask for a couple of minute’s break because I was crying so hard that I couldn’t actually hear. The expert tore it to shreds. The concept was wrong, the writing careless on fact and atrocious on style.
It was the very definition of tough love. It says much for my love of writing that I kept going, and much for his judgment that when I re-visited the manuscript a few months later, I was beyond appalled that I had even considered anyone reading it.
Chastened, I wrote another manuscript. I followed all the instructions on the Jericho Writers website and researched likely agents and publishers. I treasured the reply that told me it was well written (but not for them). Elsewhere it was silent.
Relaxing in the glorious summer of 2019, I had another idea. People often advise you to write about what you know, and what I know best is how hard it is to scale a business. I also knew that it is a business stage that many people struggle with. Suddenly, I realized I had a subject that could potentially be of genuine use to a reader, unlike my somewhat self-interested previous attempts.
My problem was that I was no expert. But I did know other people who had achieved the leap successfully. I started off by attempting to interview friends and get their expertise. Not an easy experience, with both parties in unfamiliar roles and keen to get back to the usual bottle of wine.
I dug out old contacts, people who I barely knew. I trawled the net endlessly for businesses that looked on an upward curve. A massive hulk of a book, going from start-up through scale-up, started to take shape.
People often advise you to write about what you know… Suddenly, I realized I had a subject that could potentially be of genuine use to a reader.
At around three-quarters of the way in, I realized that I had forgotten the trad vs self-publishing quandary, and worse, I now had an obligation to do something with this thing to the people who had kindly given their time.
Back to my Jericho Writers knowledge bank, I went. I knew that many of the people interviewed would be less than impressed unless it was traditionally published. Old school, perhaps. I spent a month putting together three submissions. The one to Bloomsbury bounced back on my email.
That bouncing email was the wild piece of luck that we all need from time to time. Tired and frustrated, I sent a quick tweet off to Bloomsbury to tell them the email was down. It was just before Christmas, so perhaps it was the festive spirit, but I received a charming reply suggesting I send a brief outline of what I had been trying to send through to the respondee’s personal email.
I thought no more about it. Other publishers, too, were notably silent. I was dumbfounded over Christmas to receive an invitation to come into Bloomsbury’s offices. Hence finding myself pushing around the congealed egg in January.
The initial meeting was held in a room full of would-be writers, all of them having the weaknesses of their proposals pointed out to them by the editors. The size of my project was demolished as being far too broad and my use of UK entrepreneurs was no use to a global publishing house. I argued – I can split it. I can get other entrepreneurs.
I was packed off to the country to form a submission. Luckily I could still draw upon Jericho for it. I muttered “possibly for Bloomsbury” into the ears of overseas entrepreneurs and found it a magic key to get them talking.
Hearing back is not a quick process. The book had to be approved by several layers of international hierarchy. At each stage, I was genuinely stunned and delighted to have got that far. Finally, however, a contract was offered, and I was on my way to being (magic words) a published author.
I muttered “possibly for Bloomsbury” into the ears of overseas entrepreneurs and found it a magic key to get them talking.
‘Scale for Success’ came out in February 2021 in the UK and July in Australia and America. It contains the stories and wisdom of 30 genuinely amazing people from across the globe. I didn’t want to go for the Bransons or the Musks (not that they would have talked to me either), but I wanted relatable people, and I am still stunned by their stories.
Working with a range of people meant a vast amount of extra work. They all had to be found, convinced that the idea was good, interviewed, and their approval of what I had written obtained. If I hadn’t so loved hearing their stories, it would have been a nightmare.
Non-fiction is unbelievably overcrowded. The self-publishing market has gone wild under the “a book is your business card” mantra. Looking for a backup plan, I spoke to a few of the publishing coaches who take a fat fee for helping you self-publish. All were confused by my expressed desire to write “a good book.”
Entrepreneurs of decidedly mixed-level writing skills are employing hugely expensive PR companies to tout them as the next Tolstoy. There is little chance to compete in the sunshine with that if you are writing for the love. Reviews on Amazon are so precious – I can read the stars but haven’t got the nerve to read the words.
As for the future, I am having a bit of a ‘what-now’ moment. I produce a stream of business interviews and articles for my website and other publications, but I would love to do another book. Whether Bloomsbury or any other publishing house would love me to do another book is something for the future.
Jan Cavelle is a writer and entrepreneur who successfully grew and ran her own business for over 20 years. She was chosen as one of the first 50 Female Entrepreneurial Ambassadors to represent the UK in Europe and has been invited to speak on Newsnight. Jan contributed to Real Business for many years and her first book, ‘Scale for Success’, was published by Bloomsbury and cited by publications such as Elite Business, Irish Tech News, Medium, and the Undercover Recruiter.
Find out more about Jan here.
Buy ‘Scale for Success’ from Bookshop.org here.
Interested in Creative Non-Fiction? We offer a six-week crash course that could be the perfect way in to your new project, taught by Galley Beggar Press’ Sam Jordison. Find out more here.
Read about finding an agent for your non-fiction here.
Learn how to write a non-fiction book proposal here.
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