What I Wish I Knew Before Writing a Book
Thinking about writing a book? Check out our Book Publishing 101 guide, then read on for advice from a recently published author on what she wishes she had known before getting started.
If you’re an independent consultant, entrepreneur, or an expert in your field, you’ve probably heard it: Writing a book is one of the best things you can do to level up your career. And, as a media consultant who wrote a book on social media marketing three years ago, I can tell you that’s absolutely true.
But I can also tell you that it isn’t easy, and not just for the creative reasons that come to mind—squeezing out all of your literary juices onto the page and having them whipped into compelling shape is only just the beginning.
So, if you’re contemplating putting pen to paper, here are the things I wish I'd had a better understanding of when my book, Share This!, came out.
1. Writing a Book is Expensive
Let's start with the concept of advances. Many first-time authors get either very small advances or no advances at all, unless they're writing some of the dishiest dish that the gods of dish have ever seen. So, the notion that you can sell a book and live off the advance while you write is generally a thing of the past.
My publisher doesn't offer any author advances—a policy my editor talks about in an interview with Red Room—so I chose to crowdfund my book instead. And it worked for me—I raised $6,000 in cash, and I also negotiated a three-month paid (near-)sabbatical from my main retainer client, who was eager to support my work on the book. That covered the three months I took to write my first draft.
What I didn't count on was the amount of time it would take to get back onto my clients’ radars after the draft was finished and when I was ready to work again. It never occurred to me that people would either think I was still working on the book—our cultural assumptions about the eternal state of book-writing plants that idea in people's minds—or that they simply wouldn’t think of me for work anymore once I was off their radar in the first place. It took another four to six weeks before my normal pace of work (and inflow of cash) started to resume.
2. No One Should Market Her Own Product
I thought that because I had spent years building and running outreach campaigns for my clients (including several book authors) that I would be able to do the same for myself. I was wrong. I was so overwhelmed with the stress of the release, keeping up with my workload to get food on the table, and making all the tiny little follow-ups and decisions that had to be made about the book (Did that editor get her copy? Have you bought your plane tickets for the next three trips? How many copies does that conference need?), that I felt had no capacity to structure and implement a real publicity strategy.
So, if you want your book to sell, you need to have someone who will focus on marketing it. The publicity people at your publisher are likely incredibly sweet and earnest and want to help you—but they are also likely so overworked with the 50 other titles they’re promoting that yours could get lost in the shuffle. Rarely is an author happy with the publicity department at her publisher, but it’s almost never the actual fault of those people. The industry strain is grueling.
My friend Baratunde Thurston talked about thinking of your book release as a political campaign and promoting the issues in the book rather than the person behind it. His advice is to hire a campaign manager—not a PR person, not a publicity agent—to run everything. If you've got the money to do so, you absolutely should.
3. Touring is Exhausting
When it was time to hit the road and starting promoting the book around the country (and actually, in my case, the world—I was happily invited to Europe and Chile to speak on my tour), I thought that because I was independent and had always worked from anywhere, that I could integrate my work schedule easily into my tour schedule. And—let’s just say, I was wrong about that, too.
What I didn't understand was the high emotional and psychological energy that one needs to do lots of effective public speaking—not to mention meaningfully interact with folks during and afterward. I didn't want to shortchange my audience, so my work ended up suffering because of all the extra sleep and downtime I needed. (And when I say downtime, don't imagine a fancy cocktail at the bar by the hotel pool—often all I'd have energy for was staring out a window.) Add in the additional time needed for actually being in motion and getting settled in each new place, and the amount I was able to focus on paying work was just about cut in half.
All in all, I've calculated that the two years I put into my book, from writing to publication to touring and publicizing, cost me about $30,000 (that's lost income as well as expenses, and it factors in the money I was able to raise on my own). And an extra $15,000 bill for two consecutive years is nothing to sneeze at for most of us.
But would I do it again? Knowing what I know now, yes—in a heartbeat. Writing a book is a lot like going to grad school: It’s a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, but in the end, you have a piece of paper that gives you enormous credibility. And that credibility is the foundation on which you can build the next big phase of your career.
Deanna Zandt is a media technologist, the co-founder of and partner at Lux Digital, and the author of Share This! How You Will Change the World with Social Networking (Berrett-Koehler, June 2010). She is a consultant to key media and advocacy organizations, and her clients have included The Ford Foundation, The Daily Beast/Newsweek, and Jim Hightower’s Hightower Lowdown. Zandt is contributor to Forbes.com via her ForbesWoman “Prospect: Tech” blog, and a social media advice contributor NPR’s flagship news program, “All Things Considered.” She has advised the White House on digital strategy and public engagement. Zandt specializes in social media, is a leading expert in women and technology, and is a frequent guest on CNN International, BBC Radio, Fox News and more.More from this Author