Ten Reasons To Write A Book — And Five Reasons Not To

I’ve recently watched a friend — practically fainting with excitement as her dream finally came true after two years of hard work on a non-fiction proposal — sell her book to a major New York publisher. Editors were vying for it!

There are few moments in life as sweet and fulfilling as selling your book, especially your first book, as you cross that threshold into becoming a published author.

Another friend is slowly tooling away on what might become a memoir, but she is much more ambivalent, not at all sure this is what she wants to do with her time, wisely aware — knowing many authors as she does — that after that initial burst of joy and relief there’s a lot of hard work ahead.

She’s wise; here’s a powerful, truthful (if deeply depressing!) blog post from a multiply-published best-selling author about the true vagaries of this weird business.

And here’s a thought-provoking post from Kristen Lamb’s blog on how much luck plays a part in any author’s success.

I’ve so far published two non-fiction books, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns” (Pocket Books, 2004) and “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” (Portfolio, 2011) and am working on the proposal for what I hope will soon become my third, also non-fiction.

Like giving birth (although I am not a Mom), it gets a little easier the second time because everything is familiar. You know the lingo — “foul matter”, for example — and that your advance payments will never come as quickly as you hope or need. I’ve learned to keep at least three months’ savings ready at the end to pay for the time I will have to spend on revisions.

As I shared the first friend’s nervous excitement and my other friend’s lack of it, I realized a few things about why I — and others — should be trying to write and sell a book in the first place.

Here are ten reasons to write and publish a book, (and five reasons not to!):

1) You become an “author”, not just another journalist or would-be writer amongst the many thousands who have not yet achieved this goal. You did it, and you did it well, and you have a complete 60,000 to 100,000 word manuscript to prove it. This will set you apart. (Kristen Lamb estimates — !! — only 5 percent of wannabe authors actually achieve that goal.)

2) Intellectual challenge. Writing a non-fiction book after cranking out even thousands of 1,000 or even 5,000-word articles is like shifting from a slow jog to a marathon. You’re immersed in your subject for a year or more, crafting a narrative arc, and must pull readers through 80,000 to 100,000+ words. A book is conceived, structured and written very differently than every day journalism. If you want a new challenge, this is it!
3) Telling a compelling story in the length and depth and breadth it truly demands. Some stories simply can’t be jammed into a 1,200 or 4,000 word magazine story and very few outlets today offer the chance to write long. There are new websites that are commissioning 10,000 word pieces, but a book allows you a much larger canvas and a lot more time to dig deeply and write thoughtfully.
4) You find and create an audience. I find this deeply satisfying, emotionally and intellectually. I’ve received many, many emails from readers who’ve loved “Malled”, some truly fervent in their appreciation. No check is big enough to offer this specific sense of having shared a great story.
5) Growth, both emotional and intellectual. Writing a book will force you to up your game in ways you may never have done before, which  is a little terrifying. What if you can’t pull it off? You never know until you try.
6)  Fun. I enjoy writing books because of the reason above. I enjoy writing articles, but most are quickly forgotten. A good book has a life of its own. My first book “Blown Away”, on the timeless subject of women and guns, is still finding new readers, seven years after publication.

7) You create new networks and constituencies. I’ve been humbled and delighted by the people I’ve gotten to know and the communities I’ve been invited into since “Malled” came out, only seven months ago, from being the closing keynote at  major retail conference to speaking out in Manhattan in favor of the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act, working with non-profits, academics and union officials. Once people know you care as deeply about an issue as they, and understand its complexities, alliances form that can lead you in new directions.

8) Expertise. After you’ve immersed yourself in your subject, you’re an official expert in it, and media attention will follow as journalists always need someone smart, succinct and available to help them explain your issue. I’ve been interviewed by Glamour magazine and a friend appeared on the Sundance channel thanks to his book — and expertise on….vampires.

9) Speaking engagements. I’ve earned income this year from speaking about the issues in “Malled” to audiences locally and across the country. Once you’ve done a few of these (and made good videos of yourself doing so), you assemble a video press kit and can solicit more of this work.
10) Ancillary income. You’re not just writing a book. You are creating content, and must guard your intellectual property ferociously. In an era of cable, e-books, television, web TV, PDFs, film, documentary, radio, podcasts…your material can mutate into many different forms, any one of which can earn you additional income, possibly for much more than the book from which it came. (Think film and television rights and residuals.)
But there are lousy reasons to write a book:
1) Fame. As if!  There are 200,000 books published each year in the U.S. and you, missy/mister, are but one tiny drop in a heaving ocean of competing material. If you’re very lucky, (and can afford the $5,000 a month for a skilled and aggressive publicist), and/or are super-connected on the web, you can carve out a niche for yourself. But do not count on it.
2) Fortune. Surely you jest! The average book advance for a first-timer is usually less than $25,000…paid out in four installments, the last of which can come a year after publication. You pay your agent 15 percent and taxes take their bite. You will also be paying for all your own marketing and promotion, including the creation and maintenance of your website(s), travel, liability insurance, etc.
3) Adulation. Buy some Kevlar. The toughest part of being an author — and I’ve been chastened by some of the horrendous “reviews” of “Malled” — is putting your work into the public eye. And some people are absolutely vicious in their assessments of your efforts. People will love it. But some will be so scathing it will make your toes curl and your fists clench. If your book is a memoir, and you decide to share some of yourself, be prepared to be wildly and roundly attacked — not for the book’s content — but who you are as a person.
Many readers are simply unable to understand that a book is heavily edited and the writer’s persona is carefully chosen. The “me” in any memoir is not 100 percent of who you are! Readers can be both literal and deeply judgmental. I blogged here about the insane reactions to Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling memoir “Eat, Pray, Love.”
4) Hitting the best-seller list. The odds against this are enormous. Focus instead on slow, steady, ongoing sales.
5) Selling your next book (more) easily. If your sales aren’t great, this can hurt your chances of selling the next one. No pressure!
Anything I’ve left out?

13 thoughts on “Ten Reasons To Write A Book — And Five Reasons Not To

    1. That’s really up to you and your agent…depends on the subject, I would think. I’m deemed “expert” in retail (or some aspects of it) having spent 27 months doing it. But there are people who know far more about the industry than I possibly could…

  1. I think a lot of writers have fantastical ideas with being published and being turned into an ‘author’, but I also know it is a LOT of hard work and dedication with it. I’ve submitted my works in a lot of contests and have failed, or gotten honorable mentions. it’s kind of discouraging after a while, but you gotta push through if you really want it.

  2. Great post! People who think writing will lead them to fame/fortune really do get their dreams dashed, so it’s good to get the word out that’s not likely to happen..

    Thanks for including Ruth Harris’s piece on my blog about the “heartbreak of being published” with a big publisher. Of course, she was talking about one person’s experience–and she’s now very happily self-publishing, so even though some of what she says is depressing, there’s always an alternative. Lots of established authors are doing that. The politics and hassles of the corporate publishing world are just too much. I’ll have a guest in a few weeks who’s had a good experience with Big Six publishing. Sounds as if you have too.

    1. It’s such an individual experience…great for some, not so great for others.

      The challenge is that so many wish it was fantastic, somehow expect it to be so — and are crushed and surprised when it is not. Better to lower one’s expectations and be pleased by whatever you get.
      I did enjoy my experience with Portfolio and hope to work with them again on my next book.

  3. You forgot travel Caitlin!!

    Especially if you go the self-publishing route. You can’t sell a book without getting out there with it…Yes, you do make a point about speaking engagements, but what if your audience/reader is gazillions of miles away from you AND the group you speak to ‘has no money’ (common refrain)?

    I once had a very well heeled group throw me the ‘no money’ line (false of course) with the added insult that they would set up a donation box at the door. (This prompted a friend to joke I better take a monkey and organ grinder on that lecture tour and let the monkey shill for me… 🙂

    Sadly, every time I think now of writing another book (and I’ve written many as you know but for a niche audience) I sit down until the feeling passes.

    1. I have turned people down who refused — even a 40-minute drive from my home — to either guarantee sales or pay me an honorarium. My local library, all of five minutes from home, paid me $50 for my time and effort. They get it.

      I’ve gotten tougher and more selective in my old age. People don’t understand value until or unless you make it clear to them — plumbers and carpenters don’t show up for free. Why should we?

  4. Christa

    Hi Caitlin,
    Thanks so much for this post. I wrote an e-book about a year ago based on a newspaper column I wrote and have now just started to contact agents who have requested full proposals for my next book. Though I’ve been a freelance writer for a few years, I absolutely agree that putting a book together is a much different process. And I’m loving it, which is my biggest reason for writing in an form.

  5. Pingback: About « Broadside | Four Blue Hills (A repository, of sorts)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s