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Why You're Probably Writing Your Nonfiction Book Too Soon

Cristen Iris

Within six months of stepping into the publishing industry by launching my editing business, two industry professionals offered me the same advice: "You need to write a book."

One was an established editor. The other was a provider of publishing services. Although I respected these publishing pros, their advice struck me as off base for reasons that only became clear to me after several years in the industry.

Many others have been admonished to do the same or are victims of FOMO, the fear of missing out.

Over the past six years, I've often been approached by aspiring authors who tell me that they're starting a new business or want to do more public speaking and want to publish a book to build their brand and improve their chances of getting speaking gigs.

Rather than jump into a pitch about how I can help them write said book, I ask some follow-up questions all to get to the answer to the real question: To what end?


Being an Author Does Not Make You an Authority

The logic of writing a nonfiction book for branding purposes goes like this: Writing a book gives you something to talk about. When you position yourself, you lead with your author(ity) status.

There are two problems with that line of thinking:

  1. In 2021 all it takes to call oneself an author is to throw some words into a Word doc, slap together a cover using any number of free or cheap programs, upload to Amazon, and call it a day. "Author" lacks the caché it once had, and, therefore, the competitive advantage it once had is rapidly diminishing.
  2. It assumes that the person or organization you've pitched yourself to will not verify your education and experience to determine of you are the authority you claim to be.

Author status does not make you an authority. Being respected by other recognized industry experts may indicate your authority, but your results are the real objective measure of your authority status.

Being an authority makes you an authority. Publishing a book makes you an author.


Why Not Being an Author is Probably Not Holding You Back

There comes a time in some people's professional journeys when not being an author may indeed start to hold them back because all things being equal, if two or more authorities are vying for the same position it's a reasonable assumption that an author will win out over non-authors. This is especially true for academics.

However, from my work with nationally and internationally recognized and high net worth clients, I can assure you that not being an author didn't hinder their professional progress.

And in six years no prospective client has ever asked me if I'm an author. They vet my competency by looking at my client results and testimonials pages on my website and talking to me about my process, their goals, and details of their projects.

I can tell you based on my experience ghostwriting books for clients that writing a book takes a tremendous amount of time, energy, and financial resources, resources I'd argue would be better spent pursuing paid work, professional excellence, and personal growth until you have earned authority and the bandwidth to focus on a book project.

Customers, clients, and entertainment seekers don't care about our author status. They care about their experience and results and do cost-benefit analyses based on their goals and preferences. In most cases, leading with our education, process, and results provides a far more reliable set of data points than whether or not we've written a book.

Related Post: Will Writing A Book Get You Where You Want To Go?


How Writing a Book Too Soon Will Hold You Back

Professional development and financial stability take time, but it's important to recognize that the time a person has spent in an industry or position is not a reliable measure of an individual's ability to deliver a high-quality book.

There are at least two active ingredients that make any given book worth a reader's time and attention:

  1. author expertise
  2. and writing craft.

It is easy to spot an author with a lack of knowledge about their industry and insight born of experience. These authors tend to cobble together a narrative based on what they've read and heard elsewhere. To anyone who knows anything about the topic, the book immediately jumps out as derivative and contrived.

A book that lacks depth and adds nothing to the conversation or is poorly written demonstrates a lack of respect on the part of its author, a lack of respect for the topic and for their readers' time and money.

It is far more difficult to structure a 50,000 to 70,000-word intellectually honest rhetorical appeal than most people think and to do so in a way that keeps readers interested from page 1 to the last word of the last chapter. Memoirists face an even more difficult hurdle because they must adhere to the facts while crafting a narrative with the pacing and emotional appeal of a novel.

Authors who have not spent a great deal of time suffering the highs and lows of a specific profession and who have not come to some unique understanding of the pain points of consumers or who have not been sharing their story in targeted ways to develop a keen sense of which parts of their experience are most interesting and important to their audiences write books that are incoherent or boring.

The clear although unintended reader take-away is that the book isn't about helping them but helping its author.

Authors of these books damage their brands because their lack of knowledge and commitment to excellence is on display. The very thing they believe will attract high-quality clients and speaking opportunities is the very thing that signals "buyer beware" and questions such as, "Who else can we bring in instead?"

It's also important to note that if you aspire to be traditionally published, literary agents and acquisition editors will only consider high-value books written by experts with large platforms because those are the books they can sell.


How to Know When the Market Is Ready for Your Book

There's no rubric that will tell you when the exact right time is to write a book, but here are a few signs that you're getting close:

  • Through trial and error, you've developed a unique approach that gets better results for your clients than your competition.
  • You've come to see an aspect of your area of study, industry, or personal experience in a different way and want to share your perspective in an effort to explore new ideas and develop best practices.
  • You have a large email list and online following of people who regularly engage with the content you put out. (They follow/subscribe, like, share, and comment.)
  • People tell you more and more frequently that you should write a book.

That last one is the least reliable clue that it's time to pursue publishing a book.


How to Respond to People Who Say, "You Should Write a Book"

Aside from academics who are actively encouraged by peers and employers who advise them to publish as part of their career trajectory, there are generally two groups of people who encourage others to write a book:

  1. publishing industry professionals and
  2. friends, family, and close associates.

When Publishing Industry People Say that You Should Write a Book

Those in the first group may be motivated by a financial interest in you writing a book. Of course, having a financial interest in your decision doesn't disqualify a professional from giving you excellent advice. But buyer beware.

If a publishing professional encourages you to write a book, I recommend that you ask them which books they see yours competing with. They should be able to immediately offer a lucid overview of books in the same genre as yours and include an informed opinion about the commercial viability of your book. At some point, they should ask you what books you've identified as being like yours. They may also bring up other "comp" titles to help you see where your book fits in the market.

Then I recommend that you step back and compare your education, experience, objective results, and your author platform to the authors of those books. All things considered, would you choose your book over those authored by others if you were the prospective buyer? Or would you buy your book and the others because each offer a unique perspective with equally high-value content?

If the answer is no, you're probably not ready, and the person in front of you may have more to gain by helping you write or publish a book at this time than you have to gain by being its author.

When Your Friends, Family, and Close Associates Say that You Should Write a Book

Encouragement from the second group is wonderfully but almost completely suspect because they know and love you and may (probably) have limited experience in your industry and the publishing industry. And they may not have read a book in years.

"You should write a book" is an oddly reflexive statement in American culture, a culture whose active readers are a small percentage of its population. More Americans consume art and information through film and television and now YouTube and other streaming platforms than ever before, yet "You should write a book" is said after hearing an interesting life or business story more often than, "You should write a screenplay [or documentary]."

Without a real understanding of the market, encouragement from friends, family, and close associates can be a false positive.

To test whether the person offering this feedback is doing so from a place of knowledge, I recommend asking them some genuinely exploratory questions following a conversation-starting statement like these:

  • That's an interesting idea. What other books have your read recently that you can see mine competing with or complementing?
  • I've been considering that. What one thing about my experience do you find the most compelling, and what group of people do you think are actively looking for a book on that topic?
  • I didn't realize that you were a fan of memoirs. What's your favorite thing about them? Are their any you recommend that I read?

Their follow-up thoughts will give you perspective because you'll be able to recognize how informed they are about the needs and expectations of readers and book sellers.

And I hate to bring up a sore subject, but it's something every aspiring author needs to know. My clients and many other authors I've heard speak openingly about this are dismayed by how little post-publication support they actually get from those closest to them.

After being encouraged by people in this group to write a book, authors are surprised by how few of them show up for book launch events or purchase the book and that even fewer of them write a book review or help promote the book in any way.

The disconnect between the talk and action of people closest to them can dampen authors' enthusiasm and erode self-confidence, damaging relationships.

The bottom line is that while individuals in this group are often truly well-meaning, they may say things in the moment that they would not say if they were being paid as a strategic career consultant. Members of this group--because they know and care about us--are relatively easy to impress. It's much harder to stand out among the millions of other people who publish books every year and to earn the trust of general readers and persuade them to purchase and read your book.

Related Post: Quick-Reference Publishing Stats You Need to Know! 

Regardless of who is encouraging you to write a book, it's important to disconnect from the emotion of the moment and consider their motivations and long-term interest in your success and your hypothetic book publishing project. It's also important to acknowledge that a book is a business, and all successful businesspeople carefully consider the potential costs and benefits of any action they take to share their vision and grow their business.


Why I Now Feel Almost Ready to Author My First Book

As a ghostwriter and book collaborator, I've already written books. While those books are reflections of my ability to craft pursuasive arguments and reader-pleasing narratives, they aren't a reflection of my unique perspective and experience as a freelance ghostwriter and developmental editor. My craft developed much faster than my perspective because it took time and trial and error to find the types of authors and books I love to work on and to learn enough about the publishing industry (from first-hand and client experience and deep research) to find the lane that suits my interests, ability, and client preferences.

Through doing those things, I've discovered several things that no other author has put together in the way my clients and workshop participants find valuable. I finally have something to say and have identified groups of people who want to hear it.

I'm also now competing for business against other proven editors and ghostwriters, many of whom are authors. While I have no reliable way to measure project and speaking opportunity wins and losses when being compared to individuals in this group, my gut is now telling me it's time to write that book. And I want to write this book as an extension of the value I offer clients, workshop participants, and strategic parners. Of several ideas, this is the one I've been writing in my head for years.

But...I'm still testing a few hypotheses and gathering evidence to strengthen my argument and provide maximum value to my readers because I want my book to be one that they go back to again and again, year after year. I want my book to be nuanced, something that readers can reference in as many stages of their writing and professional journeys as possible. And I know from experience that I'm not quite there.

I also know that to be attractive to the type of publisher I want, I have more work to do to develop my author platform. And that's a project that often takes more time and energy than writing the book itself. So I'm working hard to balance patience and urgency.


It's Worth the Wait

Some advise to ship before you're ready. Others advise that the word "author" in one's bio is what matters most.

I partially agree with the first thought because perfection is unattainable. However, excellence is within reach and striving for that even if it takes longer for us to do things than it takes others demonstrates respect for ourselves; our art, ideas, and industries; and our clients and customers.

As I'm sure you realize, I understand the point but wholeheartedly disagree with the second thought. Becoming an author before we're ready may provide some immediate benefits, but it can undermine our authority and limit our growth and long-term success.


What to Do Next

So, if you have what you think is a solid idea for a book, great. To test your readiness to pursue publication, I recommend that you do the following:

  1. Identify your motivation for wanting to write a book. Is it FOMO, peer pressure, ego, or are you driven by purpose and a clear understanding of the value you can deliver and why the book format is the best way to do it.
  2. Outline your experiences and related ideas to see if you have enough high-quality content for a book.
  3. Survey as many people as possible by asking specific questions that will help you identify which topics they're most interested in learning about and where they most often go to find information related to the topic.
  4. Research, research, research the market and develop deep industry knowledge, especially if you aspire to be traditionally published.
  5. Test the market by pitching ideas related to your book idea to publications that exercise editorial discretion and to respected podcasters and other media outlets. This will help you identify if there's broader interest in you and your work and other authors and experts with whom you and your book both compete against and fit in with.
  6. Identify your ideal reader and determine if you're already in front of them and how you can get in front of more of them. (Numbers 1-3 will help you do this.)

Related Post: Who Is Your Ideal Reader, and Why Does Your Book Matter to Them?

Related Post: Which Publishing Model Is Right for You: Traditional Big 5, Traditional Indie Press, Self-Publishing, or Hybrid/Partner?

My favorite clients are the patient ones, the ones who've allowed their ideas to germinate and grow into viable plants that bear fruit.

Their books are the most interesting, useful, and recommendation worthy and unsurprisingly sell more copies, win more awards, make more lists, and get more media attention than those pushed into the market too soon.

Without exception, I respect anyone who has taken the time and expended the energy to write a book.

But I have the utmost respect and gratitude for those who've proven to me that my instinct to resist the urge to write a book at the dawn of my writing and editing career was correct and added to my life in innumerable ways by writing high-value books that I've greatly benefited from reading and rereading. I aspire to be like them and hope that this post comforts and empowers you on your publishing journey.

Last, I think it's important to note that in my experience, most publishing professionals who encourage everyone to write a book do so not from a place of greed but because they believe everyone's story is important.

I 100% agree with that sentiment. And if someone wants to express themselves by writing a book, I'm all for it. But I believe that those of us who make a living in the publishing industry shouldn't give aspiring authors false hope or pretend that poorly written books don't matter.

Giving false hope is unkind and can emotionally damage published authors, and the flooding of the market with poorly written and low-value books has eroded consumer confidence making it even harder for expert authors and committed creatives to compete against film, television, YouTube, and all the other instant and often free and easy-to-consume information available.

Authors have a responsibility to serve their readers, and publishing professionals have a responsibility to serve prospective authors and protect the integrity and long-term viability of our industry.

In the long run, everybody loses when books are published too soon.


Ready to talk to an experienced and results-oriented ghostwriter/book collaborator, book doctor, and developmental editor? To schedule a free, 30-minute consultation, click here.


Feature Image Photo by Kai Pilger on Unsplash


Cristen Iris

CI Communication Strategies


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