So, You Want to Write a Book: Six Things You Should Know First

I wrote The 10% Entrepreneur:

Live Your Startup Dream Without Quitting Your Day Job 3 years ago, and I’ve recently turned in the first draft of my next book, FOMO Sapiens. Before 10% Entrepreneur, I really had no idea what the process of writing a book - and what comes next - was anything like. I talked to a few people, did a little research, and dove in. But writing a book is unlike few other enterprises - and it is an enterprise.

I meet a lot of people that are “going to write a book.” It’s become the vague aspiration du jour for a certain class of educated, usually affluent person, like getting an arm tattoo, learning a foreign language, or creating a startup (I didn’t write The 10% Entrepreneur for myself, after all). Like those other aspirations, it’s something that gets talked about much more often than actually done; the process of writing, finishing, and publishing a book feels enormous and daunting, so much so that it often persists in people’s minds as little more than a dream.

All that being said, I think more people should write books, because I think there are a vast number of fascinating, diverse lessons to be learned from far more people than are currently telling their story. But it is a challenge to write a book, no doubt; and there are a lot of things that, if I’d known before I’d started, would have made the start of my journey a lot less stressful.

By the way, everything I say here speaks mainly to my experience as a non-fiction writer; I’ve learned enough to know that the path of novels, short fiction, screenplays, and the like are quite different. But if you’d like to write the answer to The 10% Entrepreneur, or share your own knowledge, a lot of the lessons I’ve learned will speak to you.

1.  A book is a collection of pages. If you can write a page, you can write a book.

Writing a book is usually a dream that ends up collecting dust because the idea of finishing something so substantial seems insurmountable at the outset. I’m here to tell you: you don’t write a book all at once. When I was preparing to run a marathon, I did it by running a series of 5Ks. Writing a non-fiction book is like writing a string of blog posts, one after another, until you’re done. If you can write 800-1000 words a day - about 3-4 pages - 60 times, you’ve written a typically-sized modern nonfiction book. If you can do that much in a full day, you can write a book; if you can’t imagine doing that, your idea might not be fleshed out, substantial, or passionate enough.

of novels, short fiction, screenplays, and the like are quite different. But if you’d like to write the answer to The 10% Entrepreneur, or share your own knowledge, a lot of the lessons I’ve learned will speak to you.

2. Write your proposal first.

People with no direct experience of the publishing world probably imagine that you write a book and “shop it around,” but in the modern market, that’s simply not true for most modern published nonfiction authors. The first step is not the book itself, but the justification and sales case for it- if no one’s even interested in the idea of your book, there’s no point in spending the next half a year or so toiling away at something that won’t sell anywhere. Get a book proposal accepted by a publisher before you dedicate a chunk of your life to writing that book.

A book proposal is a lot like submitting a business plan to investors: you’ll need to approach prospective publishers with market research, showing who’s going to be interested in your topic and why; the rationale for your book, making the argument that your message is useful and true; and the general structure you have in mind for how you’re going to tell your story. You’ll want to include a sample chapter, the one that best exemplifies your vision for the book at large, but that’s only one part of this essential first step.

3. Trust your agent.

You simply won’t successfully publish your nonfiction book without an agent that’s a great match for you. This is probably the hardest part of publishing a book, especially your first book. A great agent gets the absolute best out of you; they believe in you, motivate you to produce excellent writing, and is all-in on your success. They have to love what you’re doing, and never stop seeing the value in it. I found my agent through almost pure dumb luck.

Unless you already know published authors or move in the right circles, you probably won’t randomly come across the perfect agent like I did the first time. You’ll need to put in the time shopping your proposal around until you find the perfect person to carry it forward. Authors compare their relationship to their agent like being married or being buddy cops, and it’s true: you’ll need to find someone you trust implicitly, and stick with them to the end. Don’t choose your agent lightly - and don’t have FOBO for your agent to be Batman. 

4. Think commercially about why you’re unique.

Nonfiction requires a great USP (Unique Selling Point) more than anything. Before you begin writing your book, before you begin writing your proposal, you’ll need to put in a lot of time thinking about what makes your idea special - and about what else is out there. Read the best books in the domain you’re writing about, and browse the bookshelves - what unique point do you have to make about your topic? What can you say about your topic that hasn’t been said already? Do you have a new angle, a new point of view, a new opinion? New information that changes the conversation? Is it something you think people are hungry for?

When we think of J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame, most people imagine that Rowling was filled with fanciful ideas of a magical world bursting with details, but the truth is, the Harry Potter universe was, from the very first volume, a very carefully calibrated business venture. Rowling wrote Potter with the protagonists, themes, and story arcs designed to emulate the most successfully monetized stories of young adult fiction of the moment - none of it was an accident. Sound cynical? Harry Potter is beloved by hundreds of millions and has its own theme park, blockbuster movies, and musical theatre, and has impacted popular culture forever. Cynical or not, it was magic.

5. The reader is the star of your book.

By the time you’ve reached this consideration, you’re starting to actually write this thing; you know you’ve got a good idea and some people have already thrown their support behind it. But how you put your message across matters a lot - once someone actually opens your book, it’s everything.

You’re not writing for yourself; you’re writing for your reader. This sounds obvious, but it’s one of the places that some of the best ideas for insightful nonfiction falls flat on execution. You already know that your message is important; does your audience? Is the purpose of your book to convince them of this importance, or are you writing for an already-convinced crowd instead, telling them the how instead of the why? Both are viable choices; each requires different content and tone.

Does your audience already know the various trade terminology in finance, economics, psychology, or political science that you’re throwing out? Are you sure? Nonfiction in this space, for the most part, is here to teach; the level you teach at depends on the level of who you’re teaching. Even if you’re a driving instructor that teaches FBI agents to survive high-speed car chases, you won’t teach a student who’s had their license for a week how to take turns like Tokyo Drift. Even if that’s your ultimate goal, you’re going to make sure they’re brought up to the baseline of knowledge you expect before you bring deliver the good stuff - or, make it clear upfront that your course is for “highly experienced drivers only.” Know who you’re talking to, and what they want (and need) to hear - not just what sounds good in your own head.

6. Avoid all advice from writers.

“Ha, ha, Patrick’s been trolling us all along, making us read this big thing and telling us to throw his advice out the window.” I don’t exactly mean that. My goal is to give you a feeling for what the process is like, and the considerations that I know, from experience, make the difference between a book being finished or not, published or not. The point of this tip is, don’t let anyone tell you what your process should be. There are a million quotes from famous writers that “I do all my writing before 10 am,” “I write ten pages a day,” “I only write when inspiration strikes,” and the like. There are whole books published entirely on the mental game that one person found that keeps them productive and focused. I’m not going to give you that advice, and I’m not sure anyone genuinely can.

I wrote The 10% Entrepreneur when I felt like it. It was my 10% venture! I did it when I had the time and felt excited about advancing it. J.K. Rowling outlined her first and subsequent Harry Potter books from start to finish before even picking up a pen, and wrote full-time; but at the time, she was desperately poor, on public assistance, struggling with depression, and caring for a baby alone: Harry Potter was her all-or-nothing gamble on a livelihood. That might be you, or you might be closer to me, where your book is a 10% venture that could, if successful, shift you to a writing-focused career; or, you could be somewhere in the middle, working a job that’s strictly transitional for you but spending all your free time in writing groups, taking classes, and holding yourself to a weekly output of pages. No one will know exactly what or how much you need to write; the only important thing is that you do.

One last piece of advice,

which doesn’t really get a place in the list because it’s less about the process of writing and more about what happens next; you are never really finished with the books you publish. After you publish, the journey is just beginning. This is something I definitely didn’t know or imagine while writing The 10% Entrepreneur, but which I’m keenly aware of as I go into a second book. At the time of this writing, it’s been three years since The 10% Entrepreneur was published, but it still dominates much of my professional life: keeping up sales and value requires me, to this day, to keep a schedule of speaking, promoting, and other maintenance efforts. I have literally talked about my book hundreds of times since being “finished” with it. I don’t stop hearing about it just because I’ve become as super-passionate about new topics and themes as I was about 10%ing three years ago.

If you’re writing this kind of nonfiction, know that for it to be truly successful and profitable will take efforts beyond the writing. It becomes a product that you need to nurture, sell, and springboard from. You’ll need a great team to help you do that, and you’ll need to commit to this long-term relationship with your work if you want it to be anything more than a project you finish and toss out into space.

No matter where you are in the process of deciding to write your book, I urge you to do it - and know that it is within everyone to do so. I hope I’ve given you some useful signposts along the way.

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