My first reaction on hearing that I had been selected as winner of the inaugural FT / McKinsey Bracken Bower Prize for my book proposal Womenomics in the Muslim World was surprise. After all, I had only decided to submit the proposal three days before the deadline and I was in no way convinced that I would be able to capture the judges’ imagination, or persuade them there was even enough material for a book in the first place.
But then I realised I had been writing this book subconsciously for most of my life; from growing up in Pakistan and seeing first-hand the potential of “womenomics” to my current work at the World Economic Forum leading gender, education and employment initiatives.
All those years in between of research, brainstorming and project work provided the background to the work I did in those three days. So my second emotion was pride. Not only did winning the prize provide valuable funding for the project, it also validated the idea itself and gave me the confidence to devote time to seeing it through to completion.
I’ve been reflecting on this a lot as I near the end of the writing process, and as prospective authors reach out for advice. As somebody that can lay no claim on being either a professional journalist, academic or author (on the contrary I love my day job and agonise whenever I take time off from it) the best advice I have been able to give is to rely on one’s passion and knowledge to get through those inevitable hard days when the task at hand has felt insurmountable.
My journey has been one of great learning from a world of agents, publishers and editors that I hadn’t previously known existed and from 200-plus interviews to help make sense of the data. I’ve also learned the value of the kindness of friends, mentors and strangers, without whose support I may well have lost sight of the bigger prize: that my book may one day, in its own small way, help women in the Muslim world transform their lives and the lives of others.
Saadia Zahidi’s book, Forty Million Rising, will be launched in January 2018, published by Nation Books.
- Saadia Zahidi, 2014 Winner
Every writer craves two things: an idea worth sharing and an audience willing to listen. Comparatively speaking, the idea is the easy part. Big ideas spring from disasters, triumphs, and everyday events. They’re discovered through personal experience, conversations with colleagues, and fresh looks at the past. But good audiences are not so easily found. This is particularly true for young writers, who in the stampede for attention, are often the first to get trampled.
That’s why the Bracken Bower Prize is the rarest of invitations. Your audience is an expert panel that’s forgotten more about business, writing, and the business of writing, than most of us will ever know. Making it to the shortlist brings credibility to your idea, and with it, the opportunity for other audiences. As a finalist, you meet leaders at FT and McKinsey who are genuinely interested in giving young writers a shot. For aspiring writers, the potential upside is not simply a springboard, but a rocket ship.
It’s been a remarkable ride since last year’s contest. Andrew Hill generously mentioned my proposal in his column on strategic quitting. FT readers sent notes of encouragement and insight. A talented team at Javelin, an agency in Washington, DC, helped me sharpen the proposal. And two days ago, my idea reached an entirely new audience: publishers. Whatever comes next, the contest has already delivered more than I could have expected.
- Jonathan Hillman, 2015 Finalist
A year ago, publishing a book was still one of my pipe dreams: a furtive idea I hesitated to share beyond my family and a handful of close friends. I was an aspiring first time author, with no name recognition, no ‘platform’ (as they say in the industry), no agent, and no publisher.
I still don’t have the first two, but the Bracken Bower Prize did a lot to get me the latter two. As one editor I met put it, “Recognition by the FT is literally the best thing that could happen to you” as an unknown first-time author.
When I emailed agents with the news that I was a Bracken Bower Prize finalist, all of a sudden, multiple agents read my proposal within the next three days. The night of the Bracken Bower Prize ceremony, I met Howard Yoon, who was attending because he was the agent for one of the FT-McKinsey Business Books of the Year finalists. He instinctively understood what I was trying to do with my book, and I liked that he was as demanding about the quality of my writing as the quality of my ideas.
I spent the next few months reworking the proposal with Howard’s help. When we submitted to publishers, Harvard Business Review Press stood out. The editor there, Jeff Kehoe, not only ‘got it’ from the ideas standpoint, but also was enthusiastic about elevating the quality of ideas out there about Africa, China, and the non-Western world more generally. HBRP’s core audience was exactly the one that I am trying to reach, and I was also drawn to its strength across multiple media types.
The months following have been filled with writing, researching, rewriting, and more rewriting. Most days, I still don’t feel like I know what I’m doing. But now I have an amazing editor and agent by my side, and for that, I have the Bracken Bower Prize to thank.
- Irene Sun, 2015 Finalist