So You Want to Write a Book? Part I
"Everyone has a book in them, which, in most cases, is where it should stay." -- Various
Some witticisms have more than one father (or mother). The one above is usually attributed to Christopher Hitchens, who passed in 2011, although there are variations going back to the 19th Century. It certainly has the biting charm of Hitchens, whose own bon mots could fill a book (they do). Regardless, nearly everyone who works in the book-writing profession knows the quote (or sentiment) or would at least laugh knowingly once they heard it.
Since my day job is helping those with a vision for a book get it on the page, I would never dissuade anyone from pursuing their publishing dreams. (Unless they chose a different writer, in which case I tell you now that your dreams will meet a gruesome end. Think Ramsey Bolton's death scene in Game of Thrones.) However, I would add a few pointers; some things to keep in mind before setting off on the publishing paths blazed by such titans as Dale Carnegie, Malcolm Gladwell, Sheryl Sandberg, and Snooki. (Don't laugh: Snooki has published five books. What have you done with your life?)
The first thing to do is ask yourself: "Why do I want to write a book?" At a certain level, the answer is similar to mountaineer George Mallory's explanation for why he climbed mountains: "because it's there." Whether you're a writer or not, everyone loves a good story and the desire to tell those stories is one of those basic human traits that separates us from the apes. It doesn't need further explanation; it just is. But at another level -- also known as the level where writing is a tortuous, seemingly endless process that will leave you broken and depressed without any hope of seeing your book in print -- the "why" is of paramount importance.
Bookshelves are engorged with redundant, derivative slop. And these are the ones that have been published -- imagine the thousands publishers have rejected. But each one of those thousands took someone weeks, months, sometimes years to write. Those are hours you could better spend doing something with a bit more ROI than writing a book -- like selling lemonade on the sidewalk, which, no joke, would produce greater profits. The point is that if you're going to write a book, you don't want to waste your time.
This book-writing stuff is no weekend activity.
So, do you want to promote yourself, your company, or your brand? Do you want to quit your day job and live like Hemingway (minus the shotgun). Or do you want to become a thought-leader and join the speaking circuit? In general, there are three main reasons for why you would want to write a book. I hasten to add that none are better than the others; indeed, the best books are a combination of all three. But identifying the motive behind your desire will go a long way toward understanding whether publishing a book is a realistic goal, worthy of your time and money.
Marketing: Also known as the vanity project. You want to write a book because you think it will help build your business, your brand, or yourself. There is nothing wrong with vanity projects. In fact, if you have a hang-up about promoting yourself, then you shouldn't write a book at all. The notion that what you have to say is worth something to someone else is entirely a vanity endeavor. Some would-be authors have a problem with admitting this; they prefer to wrap their book dreams in a veil of good-doerism. But unless you can see that reward -- the payoff -- at the end of the journey, your self-effacement will lead to a very poor book or no book at all.
System: Timothy Ferriss sold a million (and counting) books telling people they only had to work four hours a week. Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People" was first published in 1936, and its 1998 edition is currently a Top 50 book on Amazon. Readers LOVE system books -- e.g., do this, don't do that, and make millions! Publishers know this, which is why they continue publishing system books at a stupendous clip, and would-be authors are clawing over each other to get their system book published. And in this instance, it's not a bad thing to follow the herd. Some system books are even disguised as memoirs or autobiographies, such as a successful entrepreneur writing about how he or she made it. Sandberg's monumentally successful "Lean In" is, at heart, a system book. Knowing you want to write a system book, even if you prefer to cloak it, will help clarify your half-baked "success story" book into something that might actually sell.
Story: Then there are those books which tell a story really well. Yes, all books should do this, no matter what type of book you are writing. But you must be careful about crossing the streams -- don't write a story when what you want to do is sell a system and don't force a system on a good story. Pick one and focus on it, even if elements of the other seep in from time to time. A good story is its own raison d'etre. What separates a story book from, say, a vanity/marketing book is the presence of narrative. By this I mean your book will have the basic story arc of rising action, climax, and resolution. In the writing, you might find a system or a plug for your business, but these are secondary considerations. Let's also remember that a story book doesn't necessarily mean your story. Perhaps you want to write about the rise of your industry or profile a trend or thought-leader. These are all stories, and regardless of topic, they are all narrative-driven.
Now say you want to write a book about how you built your business. Such a book could be any of the three we've discussed, but knowing which one is the best -- or the one you want to write-- will help you determine if it's a project worth your blood, sweat, and tears. For all the cynicism expressed up top, the world needs more good books. The one inside you might be one of the good ones.
In the second part of this series, I'll tackle the next steps, such as putting together a proposal, identifying your marketing channels, and -- oh right -- the actual writing.