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When Christopher Clearfield and András Tilcsik were wondering how to write a book based on their ideas about how to prevent crises becoming catastrophes, they decided to practise what they preach. They first imagined that their plan for publication had been a disastrous failure, then worked back to decide what might have gone wrong.
The “pre-mortem” paid off. Penguin has just agreed to publish Meltdown, based on a book proposal by Mr Clearfield, a consultant at System Logic, and Prof Tilcsik, an academic at Rotman School of Management, that won last year’s Bracken Bower Prize.
The £15,000 prize, backed by the FT and McKinsey, the consultancy, goes to the best proposal for a business book about the challenges and opportunities of growth, by an author or authors under 35. The contest to find this year’s winner opens on Monday.
Last year’s other finalists have also found success.
Irene Yuan Sun’s proposal for a book about China’s radical development, engagement and investment strategy in Africa has been picked up by Harvard Business Review Press with a tentative title of The Next Factory of the World, to be published next year. Jonathan Hillman — whose shortlisted proposal The Fog of More was about the counterintuitive value of quitting projects, investments and jobs — has just signed with the Washington DC-based agency Javelin.
The initial spur to produce the proposals came from the prize, the authors say. “It was an idea we had been working on and researching,” says Mr Clearfield. “The submission deadline helped force us to get organised.” Without “this external deadline, I would have had no sense of urgency”, agrees Ms Sun, who is completing a joint MBA and Masters in Public Policy at Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School.
Entering the prize also led to a publishing deal for Saadia Zahidi, the inaugural Bracken Bower winner in 2014. In September 2015, Nation Books acquired the book based on her proposal, Womenomics in the Muslim World.
The 2015 finalists say they all benefited from the opportunity to meet other agents, editors and publishers at the dinner in New York to hand out the prize and the FT and McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award. “For an unknown author, even with professional and academic credentials, to have this sort of publicity, profile and networking opportunity is unbelievably valuable,” says Ms Sun.
At the time, one of last year’s judges, London Business School professor Lynda Gratton, praised the “incredibly impressive shortlist” for its “knockout ideas”. But in fact, the hard work had only just begun — and will now continue for many months.
For example, with the help of their agent, Kristina Moore at The Wylie Agency, the authors of Meltdown realised that to make their proposal attractive to publishers, they needed to change the proposed title, the structure and even some of the tone of the original submission.
The book will add more anecdotes to the analytical research that underpinned the Bracken Bower proposal. The authors hope that will open up to a more general audience its insights about catastrophic systemic risk — such as the Deepwater Horizon disaster — and how to minimise it. “You won’t need to be a CEO or have a million-dollar budget to implement [our] solutions,” says Prof Tilcsik.
The authors, who have also sold the rights for mainland China, hope to have completed a first full version of the book in 12 months, with a view to publication in spring 2018.
Ms Sun says her agent Howard Yoon’s insight was that the book should start by emphasising the potential catalyst that Chinese investment could provide for African development. She expects to work on the book this summer, after finishing her graduate programme and before returning to work at McKinsey. (Current employees of the consultancy are ineligible to participate in the prize.)
Mr Clearfield and Prof Tilcsik advise this year’s potential entrants to get “feedback from trusted friends” before submitting their proposal. “The first version was nowhere near, in quality, polish or depth of ideas,” says Prof Tilcsik. Again, Mr Clearfield says they were applying their own solutions, such as “using outsiders and having designated sceptics” to critique the draft submission.
The prize can be a “huge accelerator” for ideas, adds Ms Sun. The best approach is for writers to “believe that it can happen”, she says, and adopt the mindset that the prize really could be “a step to getting a book published”.
Excerpts from last year’s shortlisted proposals can be read at ft.com/brackenbower