Before You Write That Book . . .
Everyone has a book in them, at least everyone who writes to me seems to have a story waiting to be packaged between hard covers and peddled on Amazon: The mother trying to support an autistic child on $6.50 an hour, the army medic who’s seen how military health care goes wrong way before Walter Reed, the inner-city school teacher who digs into his own pocket to pay for pencils and glue. These are all potentially great stories, but I have one piece of advice: Don’t write a book. At least not yet.
I’m not saying this because I want to keep the wildly lucrative business of book-writing to myself. First, it isn’t wildly lucrative; most of the royalty statements I’ve received over the course of my career have been in the negative numbers. I consider a book — or an article — a success if it earns just enough to allow me to go on to the next one.
More to the point, most books don’t start as books. They evolve from humbler efforts such as magazine articles, doctoral dissertations, even op-eds or blogs. If you find yourself saying “I could write about a book about it,” start by writing something far shorter. If you can’t get that published — as an op-ed, for example — you’re not ready for a book. Correction: you may be ready, but an agent or editor isn’t going to pay much attention to an entirely unpublished writer.
Nor do I warn you away out of some desire to mystify the writing process. Maybe, in some cases, there’s a “gift” involved, but most of us writers are just skilled craftspersons. We don’t sit down at the computer and watch elegant sentences float onto the screen by themselves. We research, we outline, we agonize, we draft and re-draft and go through countless revisions. If we do a good job, it’s because we’ve been doing it week after week, year after year, and because we’re always open to another revision or even another round of research.
It’s an odd way of life, often fatal to relationships and day jobs. You go to bed wondering if you’ve boxed yourself in with a digression or a point that should come later on. You wake up at 4 AM to scratch out a solution on scrap paper. Sometimes you’re elated; more often you’re convinced you’ve produced a pile of unsalvageable crap. If you want to be a writer, prepare to be bipolar, paranoid (that’s when everything in the world seems to be part of your theme), and, a lot of the time, solitary, sleepless and poor.
And we haven’t even gotten to the publishing part. These days, most publishers file unsolicited manuscripts under “recycling.” Once, in the distant past, I’m told, they paid low-level assistant editors to skim the manuscripts that came their way, but now publishing houses depend on agents to do the screening for them. The agent will read your proposal, decide whether it’s worth pursuing, and, in return for finding you a publisher and negotiating a contract, take 15 percent of any money your earn.
But first you have to find an agent. You start by writing a book proposal (about 20 double-spaced pages for a first-time author, or drafts of several chapters) and send it off, with cover letter and clips (of articles you have already published) to someone listed as a “literary agent” in the yellow pages. (There are 164 literary agents listed in New York City, the nation’s publishing capital.) You follow up with phone calls and, depending on your theological outlook, prayer or animal sacrifice.
My first agent let my book — which has recently been re-issued as For Her Own Good: 200 Years of the Experts’ Advice to Women, co-authored by Deirdre English — serve as a desktop ornament for nine months. Fortunately, we had one of those inside connections that is all too common in the publishing world. Deirdre’s father, who worked for a university press, knew an editor at Doubleday whom we could approach directly. We did; she took it; and the agent proceeded to sue us successfully for her unearned 15 percent of our tiny advance.
Now suppose you do land a publisher; you finish your book; it’s accepted and finally lands in your mail box — a beautiful tome of extraordinary relevance, a monumental work that will change the course of human history. Stroke its glossy cover, admire the font, savor your brilliant last paragraph, display it on your coffee table. Because — and here’s the tragic part — chances are that no one else will. About 200,000 books are published each year in the United States, and few are even reviewed. In fact, the venues for book reviews are shrinking: fewer daily newspapers bother with them, and the flagship New York Times Book Review gets more emaciated every year.
Which is why I say: start small. Write a letter to the editor, a 700-word op-ed piece, or try pitching an article to a local weekly. Get used to rejection (there’s even a website for rejected letters to the editor). And if you’re tired of rejection, can’t find an agent or a publisher, and don’t have a trust fund to keep you going — hey, you can always write a blog.