Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Right and Wrong Reasons to Write a Book

by Eric Nelson

As an agent, I receive a couple of unsolicited proposals every day, and some of them come from people I can see looked at my LinkedIn profile. I say no to nearly all of them. The nonfiction pitches I see are almost all the product of smart thinking by an accomplished person. Where they've gone wrong most of the time, however, is that they've chosen to write this book for the wrong reason.
When I meet with potential clients, I like to ask them a few hard questions. I'm going to give you four of these questions. If you're thinking of writing a book, I encourage you to actually write out the answers to these questions. Having the answers handy is going to help you stay focused the rest of the way.
HOW DOES A BOOK FIT INTO YOUR CAREER GOALS? If the answer is "because my current readers are demanding I write one," then your success is almost guaranteed. The agent and editor can help you create the book that will turn your fans into evangelists. If the answer is some form of "to impress the people who already know my work," you're probably still on the right track. If the answer is, "to introduce my work to a wider audience," you're in trouble. A book is a way to capitalize on your fame, not create it. Do I know where my first 3000 readers will come from? If your answer is “the publisher will take care of this,” then you’re living in 1993, and I need you to take a look around for a Young MC album I lost there. The best answer to this is: “from the X0,000 fans I have built up nationally through my Twitter/Facebook/blog/column/speaking/broadcast appearances.” If you’re a non-fiction writer and you can’t answer in that manner, you should probably set aside the proposal and write up a plan for getting more famous first. A good rule of thumb is that a book publisher can probably sell twice what you could sell by self-publishing. Right reason: professional calling card and audience satisfaction. Wrong reason: to get more famous.
WHAT ARE THE LAST TEN BOOKS YOUR IDEAL READER HAS BOUGHT? This is hard for many writers because of the focus on “last.” You want books that have come out in the last three years. Making this list is something I’m happy to help all my authors with, because it’s essentially market research and that’s what editors and agents are for. These books don’t have to be on your exact topic; just aimed at your exact audience. Knowing which if these has been more successful will paint a picture of your market size, and give you some clues on what those readers seem to prefer. (You can get a rough guess at what books have sold by reading this.) Do you write for The Nation? You should probably have some books by other Nation writers on your list. Is your book about social media for business, you had better know what the ten bestselling books about social media for business are. If you make your list and you haven’t read any of these books, set aside your proposal and START READING. Right reason: I know what my readers want from me. Wrong reason: The world needs to correcting, and I'm the person to correct it.
WHAT EIGHT WRITERS DO YOU DREAM OF HAVING AS PEERS? Picture your Amazon page, and that "Customers Also Bought Items By" list. Who's on it? It's okay to be aspirational; these writers can be outside of your field and dead. This list will act as a compass, making sure you never head in the wrong direction. Not having a list like this is the #1 reason writers sign a contract and then don’t write the book. If you find all your favorite books are historical, and you’re writing a book of advice on retirement planning because it seems potentially lucrative, you’re making a mistake. Even if retirement planning is your day job. Your agent or editor should be helping you figure out where the Venn diagram of “what I like,” “what I know,” and “what people buy” lines up. Writing a book is like getting a tattoo. It's painful and it will be with you forever. Don't do it if it's not what you like. If all your favorite books are narratives about one person, middle grade dragon fiction, or oral histories of rock bands, you shouldn’t be writing an investigation of the CIA drone program. Right reason:This will help me be more like my idols. Wrong Reason: This book will make money.
WHAT ARE YOU OBSESSED WITH? What question drives you? If curiosity gets you out of bed in the morning, what are you most curious about? If you're going to write a book, you need a question that you're going to want to keep asking yourself for months and months. It needs to be nearly metaphysical and possibly unanswerable. Even if it doesn't end up in your subtitle or back cover copy, what keeps you going is just as important as what everyone else wants to know. It may seem like a great idea to take only what you already know and dump it all into a book so others can learn your wisdom, but you know all the answers before you write the first word, you're going. Right reason: So someone will pay me to satisfy my curiosity. Wrong reason: So someone will pay me to satisfy their curiosity.
(This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.)


Alice G said...

This is great. But I'm left curious. What was the last sentence supposed to say? "you're going.. " to do what?

Gayle Keck said...

Great words of wisdom - thank you!