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?
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:
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.
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?
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:
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.
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:
That last one is the least reliable clue that it's time to pursue publishing 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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
CI Communication Strategies