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 Virtually every unpublished life coach, business consultant, advisor, therapist, spiritual leader, trainer, teacher or researcher is either writing a book now, thinking about writing a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

3 Essential Questions to Ask a Hybrid Publisher

3 Essential Questions to Ask a Hybrid Publisher

What the heck is a hybrid publisher, anyway? And how do you know if you’ve found a good one?

At its best, hybrid publishing offers many of the benefits of being published by a traditional publisher — including access to market (i.e. brick-and-mortar bookstores), high quality editing and design — as well as the benefits of self-publishing, such as higher royalties, ownership of rights and creative control. I founded LifeTree on this model because I wanted to offer authors the opportunity to have the best of both worlds. But not every company that calls itself a hybrid publisher delivers on all these criteria.

Because hybrid publishing is a relatively new and emerging model, different firms use the label in slightly different ways, which understandably leads to a lot of confusion among authors about what it is, how it works, and who it’s for. If you’re wondering whether hybrid publishing is right for you, you’ve probably Googled it and discovered some inconsistency in the services offered, which can be a frustrating experience.

It’s hard to shop around for something if you don’t know what you’re looking for. So how can you tell a quality hybrid publisher from a time-waster? When speaking to J.S. Leonard on his Bleeding Ink podcast, I mentioned that there are three essential questions to ask. Now I’ll also give you the best answer you can hear for each of the three, as well as the worst answer.


1. How is your distribution handled?

Best answer: “We are distributed to the book trade, which means that we have a national (or international) team of sales reps who will actively sell your book into stores. We supply these reps with a full set of sales materials relating to your book, including cover art, a sell sheet, excerpts from the text, and sometimes Advance Reader Copies (ARCs), which are also referred to as ‘bound galleys’. Each season, we meet with our distributor to present our upcoming titles to the sales team. In turn, the reps meet with buyers at Barnes and Noble, Amazon, airport stores, specialty retailers, libraries, and all other sorts of booksellers. Through our distributor, retailers sometimes offer us the opportunity to participate in ‘co-op’ arrangements, in which your book is given special placement in the store such as the front table, in exchange for a fee. We also handle warehousing, shipping, order fulfillment, and the processing of returns, as well as calculation and payout of royalties.”

Worst answer: “Your book is available to order in any local bookstore.” Some hybrid publishers and self-publishing companies claim to offer “worldwide distribution,” when really what they mean is that your book is listed in the catalogue of a book wholesaler such as Ingram. This means that, although a customer could technically walk into a store and order your book, they will never find it on the shelf there: no sales reps are presenting it to retailers, so no retailers are stocking it. This is not true trade distribution.

2. Do you do developmental editing?

Best answer: “We sure do! In fact, we consider developmental editing the most important part of the book creation process. This is editing at the bird’s-eye level, in which we examine fundamental aspects of the book such as its topic focus, structure and tone. What are its core messages, and are they clearly expressed? Have new ideas been introduced in the right sequence so that each one builds on what has come before? Is anything missing from the book, and does anything need to be taken out? Is the book geared to appeal to its target market? These are critical questions to resolve before the manuscript can be revised and copyedited. Our editors are industry-seasoned book publishing professionals who will bring sound, informed guidance to your collaborative relationship.”

Worst answer: “We will copyedit your book to make sure it is free from typos and grammatical errors.” Many vanity publishers and self-publishing companies tout their copyediting services to authors, who may be unfamiliar with the  various levels of editing. Yes, copyediting is essential to any book – but only once the deeper developmental work has been done. Otherwise, you’re icing a half-baked cake.

3. Who owns the rights to my book?

This one’s a bit more complicated, because it depends on whether or not the hybrid publisher jointly invests in the book’s production with you, or whether you have put up all the money. If you’re the sole financial backer of your book, then you should own all the publishing rights, now and forever (as you would under LifeTree’s model). If your hybrid publisher is jointly investing with you, then there are a number of different ways the deal might be structured, but be wary of any hybrid publisher who insists on acquiring your rights without making a financial investment in the book.

Of course, there’s much more to know about hybrid publishing. I covered a lot of it in my conversation with J.S Leonard, when he interviewed me for his Bleeding Ink podcast. Click here to listen to it.

This article was originally published on the LifeTree Media blog.

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.

What sprinters can learn from plodders

What sprinters can learn from plodders

Wow. Three weeks have passed since my last post. Where did the time go?

It has been too easy to push my book writing project to one side. After the initial buzz I got from sharing my outline wore off, I turned my attention elsewhere. I thought, I’ve got lots of time, and lots of other things calling out for my attention. There is urgent client work to complete, special projects to push forward on (Paris and I are creating an online course in how to build your author platform – watch for it in May!) and, as always, the unstemmable flow of admin hassles.

Before I knew it, three weeks had elapsed.

I got waylaid not because I am too busy to do this project (I am, but that’s no excuse). It wasn’t because I haven’t got the ideas or the energy or the discipline to see it through. I got waylaid for one reason: because I hadn’t yet set dedicated time aside for the book or established a writing schedule. The first push came so easily and with such a big bang, surely this thing will coast on its own momentum, right?

The fact is, there is never enough free time in your schedule to effortlessly squeeze in the writing of an entire book. And if there were, it would probably be filled with snorkeling.

Some tasks, such as taking out the trash, demand that we return to them regularly, whether we’re “inspired” to deal with them or not. But my book, being a creative project that lives in the “big dreams” drawer, just didn’t intrude upon my other activities.

Nor should I expect it to. Our biggest dreams never come banging on the door like bill collectors. They are not going to email us weekly to remind us of our appointment with our highest calling. They are not interested in nagging us or fighting for space in our Google Calendar with the dentist. Like wild horses, they aren’t going to break themselves.

Instead, they slip into our midnight hours and disturb our sleep. They entice us to play hookey from our “real work”, nibbling at our attention while we are sensibly trying to focus on more pragmatic tasks. But what they won’t do is book a session with us through our assistant.

There’s only one solution: We need to make space for them, invite them in and fully attend to them. If we don’t do this, they will disrupt our lives like mischievous wraiths, always felt but never seen. Your book project will tease and torment you endlessly, but it will not demand that you sit down at the table with it. That’s your job. That’s my job.

That means creating a writing plan, and sticking to it, no matter what.

Now, what kind of plan will work for me and my book? That depends on whether I am a sprinter or a plodder. Some people will find themselves at the midpoint on this spectrum, but most of us have a dominant style in our creative pursuits, favouring either bursts of activity or a more methodical approach.

Plodders will find it relatively easy to set themselves a writing schedule. If you are a plodder, you love routine. It feeds you. It focuses you. It calms and energizes you. It puts you into The Zone. You will find a window in your week, insert “write book” into the slot, and then dutifully show up at the appointed hour. (You will face other challenges once you get there, but that’s a topic for another day.)

I am primarily a sprinter. That means I love to work in bursts of energy. Like a tornado, my creative energy can get very high very fast. It can be destructive to other things in its path. It is laser focused. It draws other things into it. And when it is over, it is over. It might whip up again the next day, or not at all for weeks or even months. And that’s the problem with sprinters. By the time the tornado comes back again, the landscape may have shifted so drastically, it can be very hard to pick up where we left off.

There are three rules for sprinters who want to successfully complete a large creative project that will take many sessions to see through:

1. Do as much as you can while the tornado is swirling.

When you feel that warm wind stirring, run outside into it and let it lift you up. Do not close the door on it for the afternoon and assume you can jump into it at a more convenient hour – in too many cases, you will find that the wind has died down while you were sensibly sticking to your plans. If this means canceling dinner with friends, do it. If it means skipping your workout, do it. You can get a hell of a lot done when you’re gripped by a creative fever. Yes, it’s manic. No, it’s not balanced. It doesn’t matter, because believe me, it won’t last forever. When the wind dies down, you will take your friend out for a nice dinner and thank her for her understanding. You will work out with twice as much joyful energy, fuelled by your sense of accomplishment.

2. Learn to create your own weather.

In drought-stricken regions, meteorologists use cloud seeding to encourage heavy skies to let loose their rain. Notice what was happening right before your last creative burst. Were you walking in nature, or doing yoga? Had you been reading a particularly inspiring book or blog, or listening to Wagner? Sometimes it’s quite possible to recreate that seemingly spontaneous state by understanding and harnessing your own creative triggers.

3. Embrace your inner plodder.

Most importantly, sprinters need to take a note from the plodders. You can coax your fickle creative tornado out to play more often simply by making space for it. Move with the muse when she strikes, but don’t only wait for her to come calling. Set a date with her, and she will show up, even if sometimes she’s a little lower in energy during those sessions.

This last point is crucial. It’s good to respect your natural rhythms, but even better not to be a slave to them. Even sprinters can use routines. I do it all the time. Feed dog, make coffee, take shower; morning accomplished. But I broke that routine this morning to make a date with this tornado of a process, the writing of these words. And I’ll do it again next Tuesday morning: 90 minutes of writing, no matter what. Sometimes it will be a blog post, sometimes a part of a chapter. Sometimes, like today, it will be a bit of both.

The dog, the shower and the coffee will still get attended to. And now that my muse knows I’m making time for her, she’s more likely to come calling on me too.

Are you a sprinter or a plodder? And what kind of writing plan works best for you? Let me know in the comments below!

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.