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 Virtually every unpublished life coach, business consultant, advisor, therapist, spiritual leader, trainer, teacher or researcher is either writing a book now, thinking about writing a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.