“I’d like to write a book someday.”
Like many writers, I said this for years before finally deciding to commit to the long and grueling process of publishing my first book, which is about personal finance.
Most authors would probably agree that writing a book is one of the most difficult challenges of their careers. You spend your summer inside writing while your friends post photos of their beach vacations on Instagram. Once your book is published, the work is far from over: You must now sell it like your career depends on it, because it kind of does. Failure is a constant fear, and impostor syndrome can feel overwhelming. But more often than not, it’s also completely worth it.
Before you write your first word, ask yourself: Do I have an audience? And, most important: Does my idea actually appeal to readers?
“My most common recommendation for people who want to write a book is, ‘Don’t — not yet,’” said Ramit Sethi, the author of “I Will Teach You to Be Rich.” “Build a large audience first.” Mr. Sethi, whose nonfiction personal finance book started as a blog with the same title, was able to amass hundreds of thousands of readers before he landed a book deal.
Building an audience isn’t a prerequisite, of course, and it’s certainly not easy, but publishers like authors who come with a built-in market.
Many aspiring authors assume that getting started means cranking out tens of thousands of words before you approach an agent or publisher, but it might depend on the book. If you have an idea for a nonfiction book, it’s better to write a couple of chapters and then pitch a book proposal. That way, you can see if there’s any interest before you churn out 80,000 words on a given topic.
Even though you might not need to write the entire book before pitching it, it’s likely that if an agent or potential publisher likes the idea, they’ll still want to see at least two sample chapters. In any case, you’re going to want to fully flesh out your idea and write up those sample chapters before reaching out to agents, or, if you’re still building an audience, a few blog posts on your topic. Doing so will give you a deeper sense of what your book is about and what the rest of the writing process will be like — and this will also help you firm up your ideas of what the rest of the book will be like.
With traditional publishing, you’ll put together a book proposal, find an agent and then your agent will send your proposal to publishers. If those publishers like your idea, they could make you an offer. If multiple publishers like your idea your book might even go to auction, which could help you secure a more lucrative deal.
If a publisher buys your book, your advance from the publisher will likely be paid out in installments (typically two or three). How those payments are broken up varies widely, but one possible combination is a third paid on contract signing, another third on manuscript delivery, and the final third upon publication. (Though sometimes the advance is paid out in two sums, and, in some instances, four or more.) You won’t earn royalties from your book until you sell enough copies to outearn your advance.
Self-publishing means publishing your book on your own, or with the help of a self-publishing platform like Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing or CreateSpace, which is also owned by Amazon. Barnes & Noble also has a self-publishing platform.
“As a self-published author, you have more control of your work because you have more control of your deadlines and budget,” said Nailah Harvey, author of “Look Better in Writing.” “Some people do not work well with the pressure of third-party deadlines, so self-publishing may be a better fit for their personality.” You also have full creative control over your work, Ms. Harvey said, whereas with a publisher, you may have to bend to their ideas for your book title, cover and content.
Mr. Sethi, both a traditionally published and self-published author, said your choice will partly depend on what’s more important to you: profit or credibility. Traditional publishing lends you the latter, while self-publishing can be more profitable because you won’t have to give a percentage of sales to an agent and publisher. On the other hand, an agent and publisher might be able to help increase your reach to make those sales.
Self-publishing also means your book will be available on only the platform you publish with, and it likely will never get on shelves in physical bookstores or libraries.
If you opt to self-publish, Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing, an online publishing platform for digital books and paperbacks, is an ideal place to start. The site includes manuscript templates you can download and follow. You’ll write, edit, proofread and format the book before uploading it for approval.
Self-publishing means you have to do all of the work, like designing a cover and proofreading, yourself (or hire people to help).
While an agent will likely want to see the completed manuscript of a novel, a nonfiction book typically requires a proposal, which is a detailed outline of what your book is and why it matters. Rather than thinking of your proposal as an introduction to the book, think of it as a business case for why it’s worth a publisher’s time and investment.
You’ll make the case for your book’s marketability in this proposal, so you’ll want to include sections on your target audience, competitive titles, a table of contents and an outline. You can find downloadable book proposal templates online. For example, the publishing platform Reedsy includes detailed explanations of what’s included in a book proposal on their blog, along with a template you can download. The literary agent Ted Weinstein shares a simple nonfiction template on his website. And Jane Friedman, a Publisher’s Weekly columnist, includes a brief outline and introduction to writing a book proposal on her website.
“If it’s a big New York publishing house, they’re probably looking for an idea with relevancy or currency in the market, combined with an author who has a platform — visibility to the intended readership,” Ms. Friedman said.
Publishers also like to see numbers. Try to quantify your platform using metrics like your combined social media followers, newsletter subscribers or monthly page views on your blog.
“An agent is a near-requirement if you want to be published by one of the major New York publishing houses,” Ms. Friedman said. While you can approach smaller publishing houses and university presses directly, you’ll still need someone to look over your contract. If not an agent, you’ll need to hire a literary or intellectual property lawyer once you get to that step, she added.
Start your search for an agent using databases like AgentQuery and P & W’s Agents Database. You can also search Publishers Marketplace for their deals section (subscription required) and the Association of Authors’ Representatives. A lower-tech option: Look in the back of similar books to see who the author thanks in the acknowledgments.
You may have to query multiple agents about your idea. Ideally, one of them will bite and want to represent you. Then, you’ll have a helping hand through the rest of the process. The agent will pitch your book proposal or manuscript to publishers, which can lead to getting-to-know-you meetings with publishers and editors, or both. If a publisher loves your idea, your agent will then negotiate the contract and terms with input from you as needed. It sounds simple, but this can take much more time than many writers expect.
Start by establishing your writing habit. Don’t look at your book as a monster, 80,000-word project; view it as a collection of tiny goals and achievements you can knock off one at a time. (One way to structure this type of working: make micro-progress, or the smallest units of progress.)
“Since money can equal time in some ways, I used my steady paycheck to buy myself time to write,” said Paulette Perhach, author of “Welcome to the Writer’s Life.” “For instance, I outsourced the cleaning of my place once a month while I went and wrote for three hours in a coffee shop.”
Ms. Perhach said she gave herself a small goal to write for one hour per day, then shared that goal with loved ones. She also joined writing groups, which can be a helpful step for many writers who may find it hard to turn in work without a real deadline. A 2014 Stanford study found that working on a team makes you feel motivated, even if you’re really working alone. If you have friends who like to write, you could organize a writer accountability group with weekly or monthly deadlines.
There are also existing groups and organizations you can join. In November, NaNoWriMo (which stands for National Novel Writing Month) encourages writers from all over the world to sign up on its website and begin working on a goal of writing a 50,000-word novel by the end of the month. Many libraries and writing centers host regular writing groups as well.
You’ll want to organize your writing workflow so you’re encouraged to keep up with the habit every day.
First figure out how much time you have to write each week, then schedule that writing time into your day. Some writers like to get their words out at night, after everyone has gone to bed. Others prefer to write as their first task of the day. Experiment with different times to find what works for you.
Once your writing schedule is in place, you’ll have to decide what you want to write. Books are big — where do you dig in first? In a lecture at Columbia University that was later published in “Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays,” the novelist Zadie Smith said there are “macro planners” and “micro managers.”
“You will recognize a macro planner from his Post-Its, from those Moleskines he insists on buying. A macro planner makes notes, organizes material, configures a plot and creates a structure — all before he writes the title page. This structural security gives him a great deal of freedom of movement,” Ms. Smith said in her lecture. Micro managers, on the other hand, have no master plan for their writing and simply figure out the ending when they get there.
Again, a little trial and error works well. You can try to just start writing your first draft, and if you find yourself stuck, start again with the outline and work from there. Or you might just try to start writing about something that excites you.
If your writing system feels chaotic, there are tools that can help you corral the mess. Scrivener is a popular writing program designed to help authors organize and research their books. When writing my book, I used a simple Excel spreadsheet that included my table of contents, along with the tasks that went with it. Each chapter also had its own separate Excel sheet that included more detail about what I wanted to include in that chapter, like interviews, references and research.
The most common question aspiring authors asked when I finished my book: How long did it take? It’s hard to quantify how long it took, but writing a book is an exercise in patience.
When I started to get serious about my idea, I bought “How to Write a Book Proposal.” From there, it was two and a half years until I convinced an agent to represent my idea, and another year and a half before my book was on a shelf.
“I think you should plan for at least one year to write the first draft of a book, and a second year to rewrite it,” Ms. Perhach said. Of course, it can take much longer than this, but most writers can expect at least a couple of years to pen a book.
“Writing is like putting together Ikea furniture,” she added. “There’s a right way to do it, but nobody knows what it is.”
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