Why write a (nother) non-fiction book?

By Caitlin Kelly

New Paperback Non-Fiction - Really?! 07/366/20...
New Paperback Non-Fiction – Really?! 07/366/2012 #366project (Photo credit: pgcummings)

From American business author/blogger Seth Godin:

The goal in blogging/business/inspiring non-fiction is to share a truth, or at least
a truth as the writer sees it. To not just share it, but to spread it and to cause change to happen. You can do that in at least three ways: with research (your own or reporting on others), by building and describing conceptual structures, or with stories that resonate…

A more heavily-researched approach to writing [is] exhausting, but the work is its own reward…

The biggest takeaway for anyone seeking to write is this: don’t go looking for the way other authors do their work. You won’t find many who are consistent enough to copy, and there are enough variations in approach that it’s obvious that it’s not like hitting home runs or swinging a golf club. There isn’t a standard approach, there’s only what works for you (and what doesn’t).

I read Godin’s blog every day. His advice here is spot-on.

I’ve written, and published commercially with two major NYC houses, two well-reviewed works of non-fiction.

“Malled: My Unintentional Career in Journalism” was just published in China, which is pretty cool, and a first for me. Now I’m seeking someone to read it and compare it to my original to see if they censored my section about appalling labor conditions in Shenzhen, China where they make parts for Apple and others at Foxconn.

After two books published by major commercial houses, I’ve lost my innocence about how bare-knuckled a business publishing is, that’s for sure. I have no illusions — which manyย  yet-to-be-published writers naively and deeply cherish — like the publisher will: 1) be my new BFF; 2) that they will pick up the costs of designing and maintaining my website; 3) send me on a book tour.

The only way I got my own book from China was having it sent by a photographer there my husband knows, who did us a personal favor and Fed-Exed two copies; my publisher still hasn’t sent me any.

But I still really love the process of writing books, if not the selling of books. Trying to tell any truly complex story in an article is like trying to shoe-horn an elephant into a matchbox — articles are too short, too shallow and pay poorly.

You can’t dive deeply or widely enough, even in a 5,000-word+ story, (which very few people assign now).

You need to write a book.

This week I finally sent in the proposal for my third non-fiction book to my agent. I’m nervous as hell. I hope she likes it. I hope she doesn’t require more work on it as I’ve already spent about a year creating it (in addition to all my other paid work.); it’s about 10,000 words.

The real challenge will be finding a publisher to pay me enough to actually make writing it worth my time financially. Let’s say — hah! — I got a $100,000 advance, a sum extremely difficult to attain.

If I did, and if we could negotiate it into three payments, (also difficult now) — on signing the contract, on my delivery of the manuscript and publication — I’d get about $28,000 to start out with, (after the agent’s 15 percent cut, always taken off the top.)

From that, I also have to fund all travel costs and research; (I’ve already started looking for researchers.)

Many non-fiction writers have full-time jobs and/or teach as well. Few writers can actually support themselves, and their families, only by writing books.

So….why write another?

Surely the world is full of books already?

Not this one!

Cross your fingers, please.

36 thoughts on “Why write a (nother) non-fiction book?

  1. Good for you! I have both your books sitting on my bookshelf at the moment and despite that nearly everything else in my apartment came crashing to the ground this weekend with all the earthquakes we’ve had here, neither of your books moved! I don’t know what that means, but I think it’s a good sign. ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Thanks.

      It’s also a way to stave off boredom and burnout. I find most of the journalism I am producing these days (to maintain a steady revenue stream) is just not sufficiently challenging for me. Hasn’t been for many years. Income is great, and necessary. But so is my own growth and challenge!

      So writing books is a selfish pursuit in that respect.

      1. Not at all selfish, Caitlin. Pursuing new work is necessary for the well-being of creatives. I keep going, making plans, coming up with new ideas. The years pass too quickly for all the work to be done that needs to be done. If something inside you says it needs more, then it does.

  2. I can only echo the sentiments of your other readers and wish you the very best of luck with your proposal. I am very interested to read your insights into journalism, publishing and writing in general. Although I have written and ‘noodled’ for years, my blog, which is barely 6 months old, is my first real foray into putting my writing out there into the public domain albeit in the strange, varied and unregulated universe that is the blogosphere.

    I really like what Seth Godin said in the last paragraph you quoted as I strongly believe in an artist’s right to ‘own’ their voice. As an actor I always thought that comparing yourself to others was completely pointless as ultimately what the audience received was you, not someone else. As an aspiring author/writer I feel the same way – if I don’t believe in the validity of my own voice, who the hell will?

    I am still trying to decide whether I have a book in me, non-fiction or otherwise. A lot of authors don’t seem to have had this thought as part of their process and they still managed to get published! It seems in all creative/artistic careers, commerce is both the facilitator and killer of your art/product.

    Here’s to the facilitation (and future success) of yours.

    1. The problem of “having a book in you” is getting it out.

      Much as I enjoy writing a book, you have to come into it with a VERY clear idea of what you want to say, to whom, in what voice, why now and why you? The proposal is a shitload of unpaid spec work and it includes a TOC — table of contents and chapter titles and descriptions and an overview…it’s a lot of work but it is also an intellectual blueprint for what you hope to build. Selling the proposal to an agent and editor means conveying it very clearly to total strangers, (even if you’ve been obsessing about it for months or years already), and persuading them you have the skills to actually produce it…some books are rejected, when finished, as “unpublishable.”

      1. I am glad I appear to be asking myself the right questions because you have articulated my concerns to perfection! Those same questions are why it took me so long to start blogging and they are going to be at the forefront of my mind for some time to come while I work out the answers in relation to the possibility of a book and ‘getting it out’.
        Thanks as always for putting it like it is. I love it!

      2. Don’t be offended, pls., but MANY people are persuaded that writing a book is dead easy…”if only I had time” because it does not seem to demand specialized skills, or skills at all. So (with all due respect) if you have never studied writing or done it professionally before, have you acquired the requisite skills?

        I would not (to continue your point) assume I could effectively teach high school students or act…

      3. At no point have I suggested I think it’s easy, far from it. No offence taken, it’s a fair point but I’m afraid I haven’t seen enough examples of specific education/training producing great writers, actors, teachers etc. to believe it is all about that.

        I’ve known plenty of highly qualified people who were appalling teachers. You are a writer and a journalist but it is clear from your blog that you have done a lot of teaching/lecturing/coaching/mentoring. I suspect you would be a very good teacher of high school students. About your acting potential, I couldn’t possibly comment…

        I am in no doubt that I would benefit enormously from a writing program. Nor do I question how mammoth a task writing a book would be. No presumptions, no illusions, just the fact that I have worked with language almost my entire working life and have a facility for expression in written and spoken word. I call it a start but nothing more than that.

      4. I actually agree with you that formal training and education does NOT per se produce excellence. Often, a predictable and fashionable replica of what is expected, instead. I’ve never ever studied journalism, or writing — I was an English major in university and it was a damn hard school! Then I’ve just been pounding this stuff out since 1978, for a living.

        I think the single key element of great writing (truly great) is a way of thinking about the world and your place in it. It only comes from really clear, fresh thinking…and getting clarity on anything is difficult. So that’s the hard part. Both of my books (and this third one) are insanely huge, national topics — guns/low-wage labor and work. No pressure! I would very much like an ambition-ectomy, and want to do something small and cute and EASY for a change! ๐Ÿ™‚

        The largest challenge is framing and shaping “reality” into some sort of compelling, cohesive narrative. I find writing easy. The shape of a book part is much more difficult; “Malled” benefited hugely from the hands-on work a very smart, very tough editor (who is now [sigh] editing at the publisher of a competing book so I can’t work with her.) I had to revise 10 of 12 chapters. Holy shit that was terrifying!

  3. Good luck! Fingers crossed. I am well familiar with the angst of waiting on an agent or publisher consideration of a proposal. All the very best for success – and a great book to follow.

    I agree about cavalier publisher โ€˜tude. Itโ€™s getting worse as the marketing paradigm changes and their margins fall.

  4. Good luck with this. As someone working on a non-fiction book who has received a lot of feedback that is less than encouraging, my fingers & toes are crossed as well. Thanks for sharing

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