Ready to Write the Book — Almost
Now armed with the knowledge that you have your subject and genre, you're set to go. Or, so you think. However, there remains one more issue to be decided and even after that, it may be a long time before you begin to write the full manuscript.
Is There a Book Here?
Before you proceed further, you must honestly ask yourself whether the project you have in mind needs to be conveyed in 50,000 words or more. Keep in mind the writers' mantra that “less is more.” While your idea and subject are superb and you are certain you have the ability to write about it convincingly, it just may be that the project can be as effectively expressed in an article or a series of articles.
It is not unusual for one article to lead to a second article on a subject and sometimes an entire series. With a proven track record of publication in the subject and having demonstrated an ability to write with authority on the topic, the result can be a book deal that expands on the articles.
There is also the question of marketability and securing a publisher for your book, which will be examined in great detail in Chapter 22. Beginning by writing articles on the subject (which will be explained in Chapter 13) is often a good strategic move to get you on the road to publishing your book.
It's Not the Book They Want to See
Many aspiring authors are surprised to learn that most publishers, editors, and agents do not want to see a book manuscript but instead require a book proposal. Consequently, unless you want to write the book whether it gets published or not, the point to remember is: “Don't write the book!” You'll need a book proposal to shop your book project, and you'll learn how to do this in Chapter 23. Nonetheless, you must master every aspect of writing a nonfiction book in order to produce a first-rate book proposal, so we will continue with everything you need to know to write a nonfiction book.
While the general rule is to write a book proposal to be marketed to editors and agents and write the book after a contract is signed, this is not always the case. Some genres and some publishers will require a complete manuscript before closing a deal. This is especially true of scholarly books.
Interview with Journalist and Author Dan Rottenberg
Dan Rottenberg has been the chief editor of seven publications and has written more than 300 articles for numerous magazines. A former Wall Street Journal reporter, he wrote an editorial-page column for the Philadelphia Inquirer for twenty years. Rottenberg is the author of ten books, including The Inheritor's Handbook, The Man Who Made Wall Street, and most recently, Death of a Gunfighter: The Quest for Jack Slade, the West's Most Elusive Legend.
RDB: You have written hundreds of articles and ten books. What have been the advantages and disadvantages of each?
DR: A book is a long-term project that may offer some semblance of immortality — one of the great compensations of writing. On the other hand, book publishing is a very capricious business. It's no easy thing to persuade people to spend $20 or $30 on your particular book, especially if your subject is obscure. That's especially true (as was the case with one of my books) when the publishing house is sold shortly before your book appears, and the editor, publicist, and marketing director all quit, leaving no one to champion your effort.
It's much easier to write an article for a magazine with subscribers who, while leafing through its pages, will stumble upon your article and may be enticed to read it. For that reason, in some respects magazine writers feel less subconscious pressure to hype their work than book authors feel. Such are the tradeoffs of the writer's life.
RDB: How do you go about determining the subjects of your books?
DR: I write for two reasons: for education and for immortality. So I look for subjects that interest me and where I can make a difference and learn something. Usually these are subjects that have been neglected by other authors. The great challenge is to find ways to interest people in important subjects that aren't necessarily sexy. (My Anthony Drexel biography, The Man Who Made Wall Street, was a prime example.) That said, I won't pursue a book project unless a publisher feels enthusiastic about it. I've kept projects on the back burner for years until I could light a fire under a publisher.
RDB: You have authored books over a span of thirty years. How have your research methods changed? Has your writing process altered over these years?
DR: Computers and the Internet have changed everything for me over the past thirty years. I used to type, cut, and paste (literally) and then retype a clean manuscript when I was finished. Aside from being labor-intensive, this process subconsciously inhibited me from polishing my prose. Thanks to computers, a change of a word here or there is no longer a big deal.
Similarly, I used to spend days researching a subject in the public library. Thanks to the Internet and e-mail, I'm able to access material and consult with experts all over the world within minutes. The “search” function on my computer is also an invaluable tool for sorting out information.
RDB: What changes have you seen in the book industry and among the publishing houses?
DR: When my first book, Finding Our Fathers, first appeared in 1977, 40,000 books were published annually in the United States. Now the figure is something like 280,000. Thanks to online publishing and the Internet, it's much easier to publish now, and much easier to find a niche for a specialized book. But it's much harder to attract the attention of respected book review outlets. Promotion is different as well. With Finding Our Fathers, I was sent on a twelvecity promotional tour, doing TV and radio appearances and public talks and signings. Today most books are sold over the Internet. It's a terrific sales tool, but I miss the public contact, which generated new ideas and new contacts.
RDB: Your most recent book, Death of a Gunfighter, The Quest for Jack Slade, the West's Most Elusive Legend, has been decades in the making. Can you share your passion and persistence with this project?
DR: One of my missions is to rescue deserving figures from obscurity. Anthony Drexel was one such figure; Jack Slade is another. I first encountered Slade in 1951 in the pages of The Pony Express. I was nine years old at the time and found myself instinctively drawn to this roughneck who, when handed a seemingly impossible assignment, fulfilled it beyond anyone's wildest expectations, only to be destroyed by the weight of the burden. I resolved to write a novel about him but eventually discovered that the historical Slade was far more extraordinary than anything my imagination could have conjured up. And so a childhood curiosity about Slade blossomed into a lifelong obsession to find and understand him. But it wasn't until about five years ago that I found a publisher who shared my enthusiasm, which was just as well, since the necessary research required the benefit of the Internet.
RDB: What are the most important qualities a writer should have to write a nonfiction book?
DR: Persistence, integrity, objectivity, organizational skills, and the ability to grasp the large picture. Writing a book is inevitably a huge project.
RDB: Any words of advice to budding authors?
DR: Ask yourself: What do you have to offer that no other author can offer? Maybe it's expertise in a particular subject. Maybe it's a perceptive eye. Maybe it's an analytical mind. Maybe it's a good ear for language. Maybe it's a love of words. Maybe it's a unique personal experience.
Also ask yourself: What book is worth a year or two (or five) of my life? If you're not really committed to your subject, maybe you'd be better off writing a magazine article and then moving onto some other subject.