Writing a book – is it really worth the effort?

For the last few months I’ve been wondering how to bump my career up a bit. It’s been an odd year work-wise: I had loads of leads and work before I got married, then lots of interest when I got back off honeymoon, which then dried up completely over the summer. If I can be painfully honest, I’m just crap at self-promotion and avoid it if I can. Instead of embarking on a marketing and promotional drive, I spent the summer working on Fruitful Seminars, which drove home even more strongly how much I need to learn how to do marketing.

Something I did do was talk to a number of people about what one thing I need to do to really ratchet things up a notch and, to a (wo)man, they all said “Write a book.”

Writing a book is, of course, something I would love to do and have been planning to do for about, oh, the majority of my adult life. Admittedly for most of that time I’ve been wanting to write fiction (and still do), but over the last four years I’ve more and more wanted to write a non-fiction book. I put together a proposal for a book on business blogging about two or three years ago, got an agent and had some meetings and calls with publishers, but it went nowhere. I’m glad, now, because the book I would have written then would not have been as good as the book I could write now.

Like so many things on my To Do list, “Write Book” is rather a big project, and even though it is broken down into its much smaller component parts, such as “research email habits”, it’s one of those things that is infinitely put-off-able. And it does get put off, quite a bit. As it stands, I have a list of topics I’d like to cover in my book, some research done, a few links to relevant pieces, and not much else. And unless something changes radically in my life, I’m not sure how I’m going to get that much more done. Writing a book takes commitment, and when life is chaotic it’s hard to carve out the time to devote to it.

So it’s with mixed feelings that I read Penelope Trunk’s post, 5 Reasons why you don’t need to write a book. On the one hand, it’s nice to have someone who has clearly given some considerable thought to the subject come down on the side of “don’t bother” (although I note that Ms Trunk has, herself, written a book, and one that I wouldn’t mind reading, at that). On the other hand, I’m neither emotionally nor intellectually convinced that a book would be a waste of time.

The emotional aspect to this I can get over with quickly – I want to write a book. No amount of logic is going to change that. I will write a book at some juncture, the question is, how much of a priority is it?

That’s where the intellectual aspects of such a decision really come into play. We’ve decided that yes, I want to write a book, but the reason I haven’t is simply because of time/commitment conflict – the curse of being self-employed. There are things I want to do, and things I need to do because someone’s paying me to, and things I think I ought to do in order to increase the number of things that I need to do that someone will pay me for. When work is quiet, you end up doing more of the things you feel you ought to do and less of the things you want to do. When work is busy, you do more of the things that you need to do, a few things you ought to do and often none of the things you want to do.

The end result is that you often end up not doing any of the things you want to do, because they’ve vanished into the black hole created by ought and need. Of course, the simple answer to this is to refigure one’s schedule to ringfence time for ‘want’, but that’s much easier said than done. When the priority is to put food on the table, want languishes on the bottom shelf, gathering dust.

(I’m also aware that there may be other psychological factors at place, such as fear of failure, inability to mentally conceive of the first step in the book writing process, etc., but I think the time one is the biggest problem as when I do sit down and do some work in that area I really enjoy it.)

But let’s put that aside for a moment, because that’s a productivity issue, and only tangential to the rest of my intellectual reaction to Penelope’s post. She says (and I suggest you read her post before carrying on):

1. People who have a lot of ideas need a blog, not a book.

I could not agree with this more. If you have lots of ideas, then get them into a blog. Talk about them. Discuss them. Refine them.

Getting a book deal out of your blog is easier said than done, especially if your blog is not focused on one specific topic. Blog about the psychology of cats, and you might get a deal writing about the psychology of cats. Blog about the psychology of cats, green technology, self-build, planning and related events, and whilst you might see the commonality, a publisher may not. If you are more scattershot than that, you’re doomed.

Books are great for fleshing out one central idea and delving into it in great detail, in a way that blogs sometimes aren’t. That’s not because there’s anything inherent in blog technology that prevents us from doing that, but because blogs tend to encourage us to flit from topic to topic and talk about what’s on our minds right now. If you obsess about one thing, then great! Your blog will probably be very focused. The rest of us sometimes struggle to keep things “on topic”.

Joint blogs, such as this one, also suck for producing a focused collection of posts that might attract a publisher. Kevin and I blog about sufficiently similar subjects that I think our audience is generally ok with our meandering about, but a publisher isn’t going to spend the time separating out his work from mine (hell, a lot of bloggers don’t even bother, often crediting me with his work, and visa versa), and then picking out the key themes.

2. A book is an outdated way to gain authority.

If only this were true. Books are a great way to gain authority, as shown by the dozens of authors that are given keynote slots at conferences or are invited to the RSA or other venerable institutions to speak. It would be wrong to imply that they didn’t have anything interesting to say or deserve those invitations, but oftentimes they are invited not because of their knowledge and experience, but because of the embodiment of their knowledge and experience – their book.

Books are also good at helping you access a different audience to the one your blog cultivates. One thing I learnt from Fruitful was that many of the people I need to reach to expand my business don’t read blogs, aren’t on Twitter, and have no real clue about the social web. And it takes a very long time for information to filter through from people who do read my blog to the people who need to know what I know, if it ever does. It’s an age old problem and one that marketers have been battling with since the invention of commerce.

Books, and articles in the mainstream media, expand your audience beyond your own echo chamber. I thought, with Fruitful, that because I have a good reputation and am well respected by my peers that I would easily be able to launch a seminar series. But my peers are the people who already know what I know, and the people who might be interested in learning what I know don’t know I exist. Books can introduce me to them in a way that my blog simply can’t.

3. Books lead to speaking careers, but speaking careers often lead nowhere.

I fear this may be true for some people, but I also think that this statement implies that the speaker exerts no control over their speaking career. The key thing here is balance – having enough speaking engagements to get you in front of people, but balancing that with real work that will inspire you and keep you at the cutting edge of what you do. There’s this little word that’s quite useful in helping prevent the proliferation of useless “make work” (which, let’s be honest, some speaking engagements are), and that’s “No”. I’m a big fan of no – it’s a very useful word used in the right way.

(I’m aware that a lot of people are allergic to the word ‘no’ and fear that it might cause a rift in the spacetime continuum that will suck us all into oblivion. To these people I would say that we should view ‘no’ in the same way as we view the Large Hadron Collider – it’s highly unlikely to create a black hole that will eat the earth and, used intelligently, it can contribute untold worth to humanity.)

4. You’ll make more money per hour flipping burgers than writing a book.

So true. If you only count money made by the book, and not the money made because of the book. Same case with a blog, of course – I make no money at all from Strange Attractor, but I do make money because of it.

The worth of a book to the writer can’t just be measured in royalties and advances, but also in paid speaking gigs and additional work opportunities (whether a new job or freelance/consulting openings). When it comes to money, books open doors, even if only just enough for you to shove your foot in.

There’s no doubt that books do still count for something – many of my friends are writing books, and many others think that writing a book is a good way to develop one’s career. You can’t discount the higher status awarded (often subconsciously, and whether they deserve it or not) to authors. We might like to pretend that we’re not that shallow, but we’re human, and we are.

5. When you’re feeling lost, a book won’t save you.

Very true. But when you’re lost, a blog won’t save you either. Nor will your job. Or trading in your antique Mac for a Harley and roaring off into the sunset. When you’re lost, you need to think lots about many different things and try to find yourself some direction.

I think the key thing, if you want to write a book, is understanding your own motivations for doing so. If you don’t want to write the book, but want to have written it, then book writing is probably not for you, because it involves, you know, actually writing. In the same way, if you want the speaking gigs without the airports, then you should probably not bother trying to become a public speaker.

But if you enjoy the process of research and writing, then I see no good reason why you should not attempt a book. How you prioritise that work in the face of an overwhelmingly long list of other things to do is another topic for another time, but, perhaps quaintly, I still see a lot of value in the writing and publishing of books.

Comments are closed.