In Defense of Real Books

In Defense of Real Books

It’s very trendy to publish a book these days. Last year, 300,000 books were published traditionally, and more than 700,000 books were self-published. That’s right: over a million new books were unleashed on readers in 2016 alone.

Fiction writing has always been a popular creative pursuit, but it’s nonfiction that has recently exploded among new authors. Being a published author is now a necessity for any professional who takes their career seriously. Virtually every unpublished life coach, business consultant, advisor, therapist, spiritual leader, trainer, teacher or researcher is either writing a book now, thinking about writing a book, or feeling bad that they haven’t yet written a book. And it’s not only those in consultative positions who want to publish. Many entrepreneurs, executives, and leaders feel an urgent need to write a book that will act as an ambassador for their corporate or personal brand.

The rise of professional public speaking has greatly accelerated this trend. Those who wish to establish themself as a thought leader in their field knows that having their name on a New York Times bestseller is still the very best way to get there. Of course, not every aspiring author will get within striking range of that vaunted list. But even those at the back of the pack feel an urgent need to publish a book, setting their sights on Amazon rankings instead.

Self-publishing makes it possible for anyone to put out a book any time they are ready, even if their material is not. Sadly, novice authors who rush to publish inevitably wind up with an underdeveloped, poorly executed book that few people will buy and even fewer will read and recommend. If they have a nagging feeling that the work they’ve produced does not read or look like a “real book,” they are probably not sure why.

It’s no wonder there is confusion. The popular definition of a book has changed in recent years, especially in that blurry space between self-publishing and content marketing. Essays and white papers of just a few thousand words, richly padded with white space and graphics, are routinely promoted as “books” offered free to download from websites as an enticement to join a mailing list. Is this a real book? If not, what is?

I was recently asked that question: “What is a real book?” My immediate answer was that a real book puts the needs and interests of the reader above those of the author. More specifically, a real book is one whose ideas are well developed, and whose writing is engaging, clear, and persuasive or entertaining. A real book is well researched and its sources carefully cited. A real book contains front and back matter that conforms to publishing industry standards, a well-designed jacket and interior, and appropriate cover copy. If it has an index, that index is professionally produced. A real book is free of typographic errors (or close to it). Above all, a real book provides something substantial, new, and consequential. It has a big idea at its center. A real book makes a lasting impact on its readers. It is enduring, not ephemeral.

These are the hallmarks of a real book, and they are very difficult for a self-publishing author to execute well. The fault lies not with self-publishing as a model. The problem is that self-publishing yields poor results when authors undertake it alone and unsupported, or when amateur advisors counsel them to make bad decisions.

Authors who are pursuing a traditional publishing arrangement face many of the same challenges, especially those to do with editorial and marketing. Long before a publisher agrees to back their book, even before their book proposal is written, they must work out what their book should be about, how it ought to be structured, who its intended readers are, and how best to sell it to them. And then they have to write a blindingly good sample chapter.

Humbled by the size of the task ahead and their lack of publishing expertise, many first-time authors look for guidance on the Internet, where there is no shortage of courses, webinars, and publishing consultants competing for their attention and money. A few months ago, I downloaded a free “book” claiming to offer such publishing advice in the name of research. It was substantial, in a sense. At more than 150 PDF pages in extent, it chewed through most of a toner cartridge in my home office. However, it was laughably flimsy in terms of its content. Every 8-1/2 x 11 page featured several 24-point headlines, bold pull-quotes, an array of colour blocks and bands, and a scant 200 words of text. An entire page near the beginning was given over to acknowledging a particular intern who had helped “pull the content together” (complete with a full-bleed image of her). Several more pages were dedicated to pushing the author’s online coaching programs.

The title of this document was “How Not to Suck at Writing Your First Book”. Let’s all just take a moment to absorb that.

This “book” promises readers that they will finish writing their full-length nonfiction manuscripts in just thirty days — a masterful feat for even the most seasoned professional writer. In fact, it reassures us, it’s easy to “turn your daily conversations and knowledge into a high-quality book in record time”  — just a few hours! — by speaking extemporaneously into a voice-to-text dictation program.

Its author is the creator of a successful online self-publishing course, which he founded in 2014 shortly after dropping out of college at the age of 19. His is just one of the thousands of online programs marketed to would-be authors desperate for useful advice. The express goal of many of these programs is to squeeze long-form pieces of writing out of people’s heads as quickly and easily as possible. They encourage students to overcome self-doubt with “empowering” phrases such as “You don’t have to be an expert to add value.”

For these guys, the Facebook maxim “done is better than perfect” is a winning formula for success. And maybe they’re right, if their goal is to hack through the chore of content creation for marketing purposes. What it is not is a formula for a real book.

This shortcut attitude bothers me. Not only because I care about books, but because I care about ideas. Expertise is under assault in the age of “alternative facts” and intellectual relativism. We are in danger of losing our ability to distinguish between what is real and what is phony, and I consider this a threat to enlightened society.

It is in this spirit that I am writing How to Write a Real Book: A Guide to Publishing Great Nonfiction for Authors Who Aren’t Writers. I’ve chosen to address this group — “authors who aren’t writers” — for two reasons. First, because career writers, from journalists to novelists, are already very well served. There are plenty of books out there to help professional or creative writers hone their craft. Second, because I believe that this other group — people who are serious specialists in a discipline other than writing — have the greatest need for sound advice. They are also the most worthy of support, and most at risk of squandering their own potential by being drawn in by low-bar programs aimed at the most impatient and least competent.

It’s true that not everyone who wants to write a book has a book-worthy idea, but there are a great many knowledgeable experts whose work deserves to be shared with the public. They’re capable of writing books worth buying, reading, and recommending. They just aren’t going to do it in thirty days under the misdirection of a self-appointed “publishing expert” who believes that true expertise is unimportant.

Writing a real nonfiction book is not a simple or intuitive undertaking for most people. But it’s also not impossibly hard. Aspiring authors need candid, unbiased advice from smart and experienced publishing professionals who understand their particular needs and objectives, and who want to see them succeed in making a positive contribution to the world with their books.

And let’s not lose sight of the ultimate beneficiaries of their expertise: readers. If people who are seeking specialist advice have enjoyable, mind-opening experiences with books, they will turn back to them, again and again, for support, instruction and inspiration. Our modern world offers plenty of ways to access knowledge and insight, but it still holds true that books — real books — deliver value that few other communication forms can match, and I believe that their continued place in our society is worth preserving and promoting.

New Guidelines in the Chicago Manual of Style are an Enlightened Step Forward

New Guidelines in the Chicago Manual of Style are an Enlightened Step Forward

This week the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) announced the changes that will be made to its upcoming new edition, which comes out in September. As an editor, a publisher, and a progressive idealist, I am applauding one of those changes in particular: approval of the use of the singular pronoun they.

The English language is one of the most shape-shifting languages in the world. Every year, English speakers add new words to the lexicon and repurpose old ones. Some of these innovations are widely adopted and become part of the language; others fall by the wayside. There are lots of grey areas along the way, between variant spellings, optional punctuation conventions, and good old slang.

This makes life tough for editors, guardians of language whose job is to make sure that writers follow the rules. But what happens when the rules are incomplete, contradictory or agnostic, as is so often the case in our rapidly evolving tongue? That’s where style guides like CMOS come in to provide consistent guidelines on word use, grammar and punctuation that almost every book editor follows, whether or not they agree with all of its points.

See what I did there? Until this week, the CMOS and most English teachers would insist the sentence I just wrote is wrong, and more properly should be: “…to provide consistent guidelines on word use, grammar and punctuation that almost every book editor follows, whether or not he agrees with all of its points.”

Remember when the world was male by default? The human race was known as man, married women called themselves Mrs. Joe Blow, and any person not specifically identified as female was always referred to as he, even if his gender was not known. Doesn’t that sound archaic now? Humankind has evolved since then. Most editors and writers now opt to use the cumbersome phrase he or she when referring to an unknown or hypothetical person, but the “generic he” is still a thing, at least in formal writing.

Speech is different. In conversation, people often use they or their as a generic pronoun. Think of the sentence: “Every attendee must have their own ticket,” or “If a stranger comes to the door, don’t let them in.” The practice is so common, some editors and language experts have argued for years that the singular they should be officially embraced in written English too. The debate has gained more energy and urgency with the rising numbers of individuals who are transgender or non-binary, many of whom prefer they as their personal pronoun of choice (a usage the new edition of the CMOS fully accepts).

I’m as much of a stickler for linguistic correctness as the next editor, but on this issue, I am firmly in the pro-they camp. I believe that one of the greatest strengths and delights of the English language is that it is constantly evolving to better reflect the lives and times of its speakers. Like gender, it is fluid.

Having said that, we have avoided using the singular they in most of the books we’ve published at LifeTree. Aside from breaking with CMOS convention, it can have an odd ring to it, so some readers would likely be put off or confused. But in our newest title, The Sacred Path of the Soulmate by Gerald Sze, we enthusiastically employed theythem and their throughout the book, and included an editors’ note explaining our decision.

“When your lover shows you unconditional kindness, they empower you to love and respect yourself.”

A treatise on the spiritual purpose of true romantic love, the book is filled with candid stories of the intimate side of life, as well as relationship advice for lovers of every stripe. The editorial team and the author agreed that using “he or she” every time we mentioned “your partner” would be intolerably unwieldy. We could have chosen to alternate between he and she from one anecdote to the next, a very common way to make a text more inclusive, but we felt strongly that this could introduce gender-bias into the subtext of the situational examples given, especially those to do with childrearing, money, sexual attraction, and housework. In other words, almost every aspect of romantic relationships!

In the end, the thing that pushed us to take the linguistically controversial plunge was a desire to be inclusive to all people, in all sorts of partnerships. Consider this passage from the book.

Love is when you lose your breast to cancer and your partner kisses the surgical scar and says you will always be the most beautiful person in the world to them.

Love is when the family is getting bigger and your partner suddenly loses their appetite for pricey Starbucks coffee and takes on a second, part-time job because they have too much free time.

Love is when your partner cuts your hair for you for 40 years because you’ve never found anyone who cuts it as well as they do.

This language might sound a little clunky to some people, but you can see how using he or she anywhere in the above examples would risk reinforcing gender stereotypes that don’t reflect the breadth of human diversity.

By contrast, the pronoun they makes no assumptions about who the reader is, who they love, or how either person in the relationship is expected to behave. We feel that this is an enlightened ideal worth pushing the boundaries of the English language for. This week, the editors of the Chicago Manual of Style agreed, and brought us one step closer to that ideal.

Here’s Why So Many Women Are in Agony Over the Election of Donald Trump

Here’s Why So Many Women Are in Agony Over the Election of Donald Trump

I woke up crying the morning after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States.

It happened because I’d been crying in my dream, of course. I was at Hillary Clinton’s campaign headquarters with some close friends and other women, watching Trump’s numbers climb. How could this be happening? She was ahead in virtually all the polls. She’s the most qualified presidential candidate the US has ever seen. She’s so much better, smarter, more trustworthy, principled and experienced than her opponent, even senior Republicans were switching teams to support her. But as the inevitability of Hillary’s defeat became clear, we packed up the room somberly, taking down posters and stacking chairs, hugging each other, and crying. I woke up with tears on my pillow.

The fact that I am devastated by the outcome this election might seem odd to some, since I’m not American and Hillary Clinton was never going to be my president. But the pain I’m feeling isn’t about my personal circumstances, or whether the US election will affect my daily life. This is gender pain, and millions of women are reeling from it now.

A good friend remarked this morning that he didn’t see gender as a major factor in Hillary’s loss, pointing instead to anger and disruption, and the loss of grand American ideals. He said that we should be crying for all Americans, not just for women and men who are disappointed by a still-intact glass ceiling. He’s not wrong. There are so many people to cry for right now, and so much to cry about. The problem with a situation like Trump’s victory is that it has so many overlapping seriously upsetting implications, it is difficult to know which of them to mourn first, loudest and longest.

So today, I am crying about the hideous racism, hatred and division this man unleashes and legitimizes. I am crying about the threat a Republican majority government poses to the environment. (Good God, the Arctic!) I am crying about Trump’s disdain for American democratic institutions and processes. I am crying about the Supreme Court and the rollback of human rights that we are likely to see there under Trump, especially the hard-won right of women to control what happens to our own bodies. I am crying about his inhumane stance on immigration and refugee asylum. I am crying about the destabilizing effect he may have on NATO. I am crying about the fuel that his victory gives to xenophobic, extreme-right groups in other countries. Any one of these things is well worth crying about. But we also really need to cry about the undeniable role that misogyny has played in putting this monster, and all the potential monstrosities he brings with him, into the White House.

Yes, we women are disappointed that our horse lost the race, especially since she was the favourite, but that is not the source of our anguish. The far greater tragedy from a feminist perspective is that she lost to a grossly indecent misogynistic bully and sexual predator. That her almost comically high stack of qualifications were somehow trounced by his complete absence of them. That so many men (and, most profoundly distressing, so many women) in America feel ok enough about his hostility and boorishness to cheer him on all the way to the Oval Office.

We have watched him mock, ridicule, menace, invalidate and otherwise bully women all the way through the campaign, from Rosie O’Donnell, Alicia Machado and Megyn Kelly to Hillary herself. We watched him brag about grabbing women’s genitals and putting his mouth on theirs (let’s not call it kissing, please) without their consent, and then we watched him denounce and threaten to sue nearly a dozen women who came forward to tell us that his alarming boasts were not empty words. We watched him parade the women who accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct before the media in an attempt to leverage their suffering for his own gain. We read about the charges against him of allegedly raping a 13-year old girl.

While all of this turned our stomachs, it also stiffened our resolve. Hang in there, sister, we thought. Keep your head high while he digs his own grave, and your day (our day!) will come. Hillary’s victory would be womankind’s vindication for his abuse, and by extension for the abuse and indignities that all woman have suffered at the hands of men who are not running for president. His defeat would send a clear signal that the days when bullies can expect to get away with this shit are over.

And then the unthinkable happened: The bully got away with it. In fact, he was rewarded for it with power and prestige that he doesn’t deserve, and a leadership position for which he is completely unqualified. Through his words and actions, Trump declared that women’s rights don’t matter or aren’t real, and, to our horror, the American public backed him up on that. This is quite enough to cry about all on its own, so let us have our moment of mourning, for crying out loud.


maggie langrick
Founder and Publisher, LifeTree Media


Maggie Langrick is the President and Publisher at LifeTree Media, a publishing company specializing in nonfiction books and ebooks that help, heal and inspire. Before founding LifeTree in 2013, Maggie was Arts and Life editor for the Vancouver Sun newspaper. In June 2016 she was shortlisted for the Tom Fairley Award for Editorial Excellence, Canada's only national peer-reviewed editing prize, for her work on Shell, by Michelle Stewart. She is the author of the forthcoming book Bold, Deep and High: How to Write Your Best Book. Maggie calls herself "an optimistic cheerleader for the human race", and thrives on a balanced diet of yoga and ribald humour.

How I Discovered the Art of Entrepreneurship

How I Discovered the Art of Entrepreneurship

In 2004 a casual acquaintance made an audacious statement to me.

A music producer with a chinstrap beard that was way ahead of its time, Dave was the father of one of my daughter’s friends. I was chatting with him by the school gates and fretting about my upcoming move away from London, where I had a fun job at a cool magazine, back to my hometown Vancouver, where there were virtually no print media jobs. How would I find work as an editor? He flapped his hand at me. “You’ll be fine! You’ll do something cool and entrepreneurial.”

His words hit me like a sharp smack on the rump; startling and presumptuous. Where does this hipster dad get off dismissing my employment concerns on the grounds that I’m going to do something “cool and entrepreneurial”?!

His remark really got under my skin. You’ve got me all wrong, Dave! I’m not interested in business. I’m creative. For one thing, I hate doing things I don’t want to do, and as far as I could tell, businesspeople have to do a lot of things that I wouldn’t ever want to do, like wearing conservative clothes and pretending not to have emotions. They have to value money more than people. They have to be ruthlessly competitive. They have to be utterly obsessed, neglecting their health and their families in order to get ahead. They have to “eat stress for breakfast!” I wouldn’t want to care that much about anything, let alone a line of t-shirts / pasta sauces / dog grooming services.

Furthermore, Dave, if I were to live my life fixated on one narrow obsession, it would have to be something meaningful. It would have to be art! Artists are obsessed with their work too, but that’s different. Workaholic entrepreneurs were delusional slaves in a prison of their own making, but artists who lock themselves in their studios for weeks on end were my heroes.

The Artist’s Passion

I have wanted all my life to make meaningful art.

What better purpose could my life have than to touch the mind of another human being in a way that makes us both feel less alone? I had so much to say, and there were so many ways to say it. Films, music, painting, conceptual art, fashion, literary fiction, dance, theater… It was all so inspiring — and also paralyzing.

Trouble was, I couldn’t seem to muster the attention span necessary to master any particular art form, although I dabbled in them all. I’d had an on-screen film and television career in my teens and early 20s, but I didn’t love acting enough to, say, do non-equity theater. I liked painting, but was lazy about dragging out my brushes or my sketchbook. Pattern cutting courses. Piano lessons. Life drawing classes. Jewelry design. Sure, I was interested. But not obsessed.

I clearly wasn’t going to cut it as any kind of artist, so I figured I’d better just get a damn job so I could pay my bills. So that’s what I did. In fact, I managed to snag a damned good job, as Arts and Lifestyles editor for the Vancouver Sun newspaper. I threw myself into my career as a mid-level manager in mainstream media, covering the arts instead of contributing to them. But Dave’s prediction must have planted a seed. Ten years after that fateful conversation outside Fox Primary School, I did indeed do something cool and entrepreneurial.

The Birth of a Business

The newsroom was downsizing for the fifth time in eight years, and I wanted out. I was leaving what I considered to be the best editorial job in town, so there were no more rungs left to climb on that particular ladder. That’s when it became clear: if I wanted exciting new career opportunities, I was going to have to create them myself.

And so in 2013 I left the paper to found LifeTree Media, a hybrid book publishing company specializing in nonfiction books that help, heal and inspire. In the three years we’ve been in business we have published eleven books, and I am proud of every one. I am exhilarated by the challenges of running my own company, and by the freedom and responsibility that come with it. So it turns out that Dave was right, but what’s more important is that I was so, so wrong. Wrong about what it takes to be an entrepreneur. Wrong about my own suitability for the task. Most of all, I was wrong about the difference between business and art.

Start-Up Fever

Right after making the leap from secure employment into the uncertainty of an early-stage startup, I sat down and made a very long to-do list. It included fun, creative things like choose a name, have a logo designed, and write website copy. It included philosophical things like define our brand values and write a mission statement. And of course there were practical things: set up accounts, brush up on Excel, learn some bookkeeping fundamentals.

My workload was heavy but I felt light as air because, much to my surprise, I found every one of these tasks intensely absorbing. I spent hours on the weekend building a colour-coded project budget spreadsheet. I wrote sales kits for our service packages. If I woke up in the middle of the night unable to sleep, I was delighted to have a few extra hours to browse the internet for cool fonts. I even spent Mothers Day creating a brand guide, because that’s how I most wanted to indulge myself on my special day.

Somewhere in the midst of all this, I was hit by a pair of realizations.

Realization 1

I was officially obsessed — and loving it. Obsession, I discovered, isn’t draining, it’s energizing. It’s like a perpetual motion machine. The more I learned, the more I wanted to find out. The more systems and tools I created, the more excited I became as I watched the business take shape. And this triggered:

Realization 2

In my youthful ignorance, I had thought of business strictly as a soulless money-making exercise. And of course, it can be that for some people. It’s absolutely true in that every company’s business model must be designed to turn a profit, or it can’t survive. But that’s just what the business does. None of that describes what it is. What my business is, I discovered, is a vehicle for my personal self-expression and a tool with which I can make an impact on the world around me. It is the manifestation of my life purpose in action.

In other words, my business is an art project.

Business is My Creative Medium

Just like an artist, I get to decide what my company looks, sounds and feels like. What kind of people it’s for, and how it should affect them. What it stands for, and how it gets its point across. And I do this using every piece of me: my skills, talent, aesthetic sensibility, intuition and guts. Just like making a film, building a business is terrifying at times. I can’t completely control how it will turn out, or be sure that anybody will “get it”. Like a painting or a song, it’s highly revealing; I must stand behind it, but I can’t hide behind it. And it is intensely creative. In fact, it is the most creative, complex, exciting, bold, multi-faceted and dynamic art project I’ve ever made.

Above all, it is mine, all mine.

Nobody forced me to start my own business, just like no one forced me to draw in my sketchbook. But unlike the visual art I never made, this business demanded that I breathe it into being.

By answering its call, I unblocked my own personal channel to universal source energy; the same energy that inspires the painters and poets. What is creativity, after all, but the power to make the imaginary real? I have chiselled this company out of a lump of raw potential and watched in fascination as its features emerged under my hand. Looking back on my years as a frustrated failed artist, I see that my problem wasn’t laziness or lack of talent; it’s just that I was trying to work in the wrong medium.

At long last, I am making the art that only I can make. LifeTree Media generates meaning in my life as well as money, and the further along this path I go, the more certain I am that I am in the right place, doing the right thing. My business is a living expression of the things I care most about, and the instrument with which I will leave my mark on this world. And that’s just about the best definition of art that I can imagine.

maggie langrick
Founder and Publisher, LifeTree Media


Maggie Langrick is the President and Publisher at LifeTree Media, a publishing company specializing in nonfiction books and ebooks that help, heal and inspire. Before founding LifeTree in 2013, Maggie was Arts and Life editor for the Vancouver Sun newspaper. In June 2016 she was shortlisted for the Tom Fairley Award for Editorial Excellence, Canada's only national peer-reviewed editing prize, for her work on Shell, by Michelle Stewart. She is the author of the forthcoming book Bold, Deep and High: How to Write Your Best Book. Maggie calls herself "an optimistic cheerleader for the human race", and thrives on a balanced diet of yoga and ribald humour.