I think everyone must dream of being an author at some point in their lives. Sharing your passion, telling a story, leaving a legacy, promoting a business – those are all things that writing a book can help you do.
So what, exactly, is involved in writing a book? There are so many programs and websites and people that want to help would-be authors. As a published author and ghostwriter, I’ve been through the process and I can help you avoid some pitfalls. For the purposes of this discussion, we are talking about non-fiction books (i.e., not novels or poetry).
Before you write
There are a few things you should do before you sit down to write. Before doing anything else, decide who your audience is, and the purpose of your book. Are you writing a book to inspire women to start their own business? Are you going to explain how to create a tech startup? Before you start writing, be sure you know: 1) who your audience is, and 2) what your end goal is. Keep these things in mind every time you write. Write them down and put them somewhere you can’t ignore them or forget them.
Now, brainstorm all your ideas. You might be tempted to self-edit before you write ideas down. Don’t do that! An idea that doesn’t ultimately belong in your book could still lead to another idea that does. Keep every idea.
There are all kinds of ways to brainstorm and none of them are right or wrong. You can try mind-mapping, you can use sticky notes or index cards, a whiteboard…whatever works for you. Don’t try to organize these ideas at first. Just jot down anything and everything that you know (or could find out) that could potentially belong. Be sure to include any stories you want to tell!
Once you’ve brainstormed, remind yourself about your audience and your end goal. Look at your ideas and for each one, ask yourself, “Is this idea something my audience already knows about, and do they need to hear it?” If not, put that idea to the side. Next, ask yourself “Does this idea advance my end goal? Does it inspire or motivate my audience to action?” If not, put that idea to the side.
Once you have a pile of ideas that are on-topic and in scope for your book, it’s time to organize them. Sometimes ideas group together naturally – for example, if you’re describing a process, some things are natural prerequisites. Try to put yourself in your audience’s shoes – what would they need to know first? What do you want to use to finish strong? Everything else goes in the middle.
If you have too many ideas, some of them may have to go. If you have too few ideas, look to see if there are any gaps in what you have, or if something you’ve put to the side could be made to work. You may have to do some research. Include stories from your own experience. You could also ask other people for their stories.
Write an outline and synopsis
Now, put all this into an outline. Write a synopsis (what you would read on the back cover to make someone who picks up the book want to look inside). Make sure both of these are still working for your intended audience and your end goal.
Ask yourself: Do I still have passion for this project? Does it feel right? If it does, keep going. If not, decide if you want to go back and change it. A book is a big project, so make sure you’re ready to commit the time and/or the resources.
Yes, let’s talk about the resources you’ll need. I can’t say how long it will or won’t take you to write your book. I’ve had practice and I never get writer’s block, so I just sit down and write. If you’ve got a day job, you’re either going to have to get help writing or plan to give up some of your evenings and weekends, and possibly vacation time. Only you know if this project is worth it to you.
If you have too much going on and simply can’t afford the time, getting a ghostwriter to help is an option. You can spend a few days brainstorming with a ghostwriter, and they will write the book for you. A good ghostwriter will learn to imitate your communication style, so people will have no idea you didn’t sit down and type it out. If you think this is cheating, just ask yourself – could the ghostwriter write this book without me? (Of course not – these are your ideas, and that is what makes it your book.)
A good ghostwriter can be expensive, but also can be good value. If you can make more than the ghostwriting fee in two or three months (the least amount of time you would spend working on tyour book), and you can take it off your taxes as a marketing expense, it can be a good deal. Plus a ghostwriter will help you stay on message, help you edit, and can be a resource for layout, finding an agent or publisher, and so on. And if time is of the essence, they‘ll be able to write it faster, too.
I would suggest getting an editor or at least a proofreader. A good editor will ruthlessly cut out any fluff (or tell you if something is missing), get rid of things like passive voice, and make sure that your message is clear and understandable. They can make sure you don’t make any mistakes in timelines or contradict yourself. A proofreader will make sure that you don’t say “effect” when you should say “affect” and catch other things that automated spelling and grammar checkers are not going to catch.
Traditional Publishing versus Self-Publishing (and Agents)
Before there was such a thing as Amazon and self-publishing, there was (and still is) traditional publishing. In traditional publishing, you take your book idea to an agent. You give the agent your synopsis and your outline (and potentially the first chapter or two). The agent looks at it, and if they think your idea is viable, they take you on as a client, in return for a cut of your royalties. This process has not changed much, but nowadays the agent is likely to ask if you have a following on social media, and how big it is.
Alternatively, you could go straight to a publisher by writing them an inquiry letter. This is what I did with my traditionally-published book. So why would you want an agent? They know which publishers to go to and can get you a better deal than you can get yourself. (This works better in some genres than others.)
The thing that most people don’t know is, once you get a book deal with a publisher, they aren’t going to market the book for you. They will do the editing and the layout, and they will make it all pretty and get it printed in China. It will go in their catalog and some bookstores they sell to may choose to buy it. But they won’t send you on a book tour, and they won’t put advertisements in any magazines or online. It’s all up to you. Yes, you do see book advertisements, and they will do it for J.K. Rowling or James Patterson or Malcolm Gladwell. But for the average beginning author? Not so much. That’s why they (and the agent) ask about your social media following.
How does the money work?
Let’s say your book retails for $19.99. Bookstores will buy it wholesale for half that ($10). What you get depends on the deal you got (here’s where an agent brings value), but you might get $1 for every book. So yes, if you sell 5,000 books, you get $5,000. If you got a book advance against royalties, they could give you, for example, $4,000 in advance and you would get $1,000 in royalties. Did you have an agent? Don’t forget they also get 20% or so off the top.
Most authors do not get rich from selling books. They make more money from being an author. Imagine being introduced as “Chris Doe, whose new book is…” Now you are an expert, because you “wrote the book.” You can now go on to get speaking engagements, interviews, and so on. You can sell books at your lectures. People read your book and decide to become your coaching clients, or have you speak at an event.
How many $5,000 speaking engagements would it take to make your book a worthwhile endeavor? How many new clients would you have to get to make it worthwhile? That is why people write books. Once they get better known (which ironically is what the book helps them do), they actually make money from selling books, which then leads to more clients…you get the idea.
Alternatively, you can self-publish. You can see why people do this once you do the math on the traditionally published book. If your book sells for $20, you get most of the $20, so selling 5,000 books now gets you $100,000. And if you sell enough books on your own, you will have agents and publishers calling you to ask if they can publish your book the old-fashioned way.
There are costs associated with self-publishing. You will have to get someone to lay out the book, either as a print book, an e-book, or both. You will have to get a designer to do a cover (if you want to sell books, get a designer to do the cover, don’t scrimp by doing it yourself – you can get a decent one for $100). An ISBN number costs about $50 – they’re not required, but you should get one. If you’re doing this as a business, these are all legitimate business expenses.
Marketing your book
Again, whether you choose the traditional route or the self-publishing route, you are going to have to do the marketing, and bear costs related to that. That is beyond the scope of this article, but there are plenty of books out there on the subject – traditional and self-published.
Good luck with your book! I hope this helps you understand a bit better what’s involved. Books are a big project but also a big accomplishment. If the work involved doesn’t dent your passion – go for it!