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Blazing a trail from prize to publication

The Financial Times/McKinsey Bracken Bower Prize, awarded for the best book proposal by an author under 35, has quickly established itself as a stepping stone—nay, springboard—to publication. With 2 months to go until the closing date for 2016 entries, we caught up with three of last year's finalists to check on their progress from proposal, to manuscript, to business book.

Chris Clearfield and András Tilcsik took top honors in the 2015 competition with their proposal for a book about how to understand systemic risk and prevent catastrophic failures in business and beyond. The Bracken Bower judges were not alone in taking a shine to the idea. “A publisher saw an excerpt [from our proposal] on the Financial Times website and got in touch the day after the prize dinner,” recalls András, a professor at the Rotman School of Management.

Instead of taking the first offer, however, Chris and András worked with their agent to sharpen the proposal. Says Chris: “We’ve spent a lot of time revising our proposal to serve a broader audience. We’re looking for a way to share the ideas as widely as we can.” In March, they signed with Penguin to publish Meltdown in the US and Canada, and have since struck deals to publish in China, Korea, the UK, and elsewhere. Follow their blog to learn more.

The two friends had long been looking for an opportunity to collaborate, a relationship that allowed them to push each other through the writing process. “Once Chris wrote 1,000 words, I had to do the same,” recalls András. The Bracken Bower deadline was a motivating force.

“It is always hard to do something on top of work. I never really considered quitting, but that’s of course the irony of this whole thing. Writing a book on quitting takes a lot of persistence.”–Jonathan Hillman, 2015 Bracken Bower Finalist

Any tips for people thinking of entering this year? “Get input from trusted friends who are willing to give honest feedback. Our first draft was worlds away from the proposal that we submitted,” said Chris a former Wall Street trader and founder of risk consulting firm System Logic.

“Start early,” advises András, who studies how organizations make decisions. “So you can revise and revise and revise.”

We caught up with Irene Sun as she returned from several weeks of seclusion in rural Massachusetts working on a manuscript. Irene found an agent soon after being announced as a Bracken Bower finalist. Her book proposal focused on China’s increasing presence in Africa. The final manuscript of The Next Factory of the World is due with her publisher, Harvard Business Review Press, this fall.

The idea for the book arose from Irene's personal experience living and working in Africa. “I am Chinese, so Chinese people would come up to me and ask ‘What are you doing?’ In return, I would ask what they were doing. They were building railways, dams, roads, or opening businesses. I could see this was going to really change Africa.”

Her advice for future Bracken Bower applicants? “It's a proposal, not a finished book. You don’t have to have it all figured out.” After submitting her manuscript, Irene is joining McKinsey in Washington DC, although we should point out that current employees of McKinsey or the FT aren’t eligible to apply for the prize.

Jonathan Hillman's shortlisted book proposal, The Fog of More, dealt with the value of strategically quitting jobs, investments, and projects. Earlier this year Jonathan signed with Javelin, an agency based in Washington DC, and this month submitted a revised proposal to publishers. “When you are just starting out as an author, you don’t really have much to point to, so I think [being shortlisted] made a huge difference,” he says. “It validated what I'd like to do for this next period of my life, which is to do my own research and writing.”

Jonathan recently started a new job as a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where he directs a project on infrastructure in Eurasia. This highlights a challenge common to many aspiring writers: finding the time and energy to write while also working full time.

While the book remains a work in progress, he’s already enjoying seeing his ideas in print. Financial Times columnist Andrew Hill recently wrote about the virtue of knowing “when to pull the plug on a failed project,” citing Jonathan’s Bracken Bower proposal.