The Book’s the Goal (Mistake #80)

Quite a lot of new writers tell me upfront that their ambition is to write and publish a book, and that’s cool. But a sizeable number make it also clear that a/ it’s the be-all-and-end-all of their ambition or b/ that they want it to be a fait accomplit by the end of the year.

To tackle b/ first – unless you go the self-publishing route, the idea-to-published book timeline is very rarely less than 12 months total. Typically it’s 18 to 24, or longer. Book publishing is slow – sometimes painfully so. A book usually takes months, a year, or more, to research and write. It’s a huge undertaking, not that that should put you off. But you must be realistic about it.

While it’s fine to have the ambition to have a conventionally published book appearing on the shelf of Waterstone’s, it’s a shame to make this a blinkered goal which blocks out other potential achievement in writing – such as making a living from publishing articles, or working with words in some other way, for instance in translation, or via speaking, or playwriting, say. If it’s your only goal – your be-all-and-end-all goal – you might be risking missing out on other possibly fruitful avenues for writerly success.

My first article was published in 1996 and my first book in 2005. In hindsight, I wish I’d explored authoring sooner than I did, but I don’t think I was in a position to succeed until the turn of the millennium at the earliest. You need that period of several years being ‘in the business’, before moving on to tackle something more challenging.

You also have to be patient. Starting out in the business – actually making the decision to give writing a go – can make you feel hyper-enthusiastic, over-excited, uber-confident. Good feelings, granted, but they die down when you’ve got to knuckle down and put in the hours. A few years’ experience on your CV will help see you through the darker or duller times when the going gets tough (as it really will).

Part of the motivation, I can’t help feeling, is ‘fortune’ – or money. This is understandable. Sadly, it’s also misplaced. There’s not that much money in publishing as far as many non-fiction books and their publishers go, and while any book can be a huge success and take off, potentially, a far greater amount do rather more modestly and shift a few thousand copies only. I can only go on my experience, but for comparison, an article of mine in the Daily Mail has so far earned me more than twice as much as one of my books. Other writers have done better, others much better, but others a whole lot worse too. It can be a bit of a lottery – and publishing is littered with disappointments: too many to pin all your hopes in it.

And the other part is sometimes ‘fame’ – or just wanting to make a name for yourself. Fame these days has been redefined. Anyone can blog or tweet or reveal themselves on Facebook, anyone can (it seems) go on a reality show, and appearing on a bookshelf is no great shakes to a world increasingly moving towards electronic not printed words. These days, it seems everybody has some form of fame. And it’s worth remembering that some of the most successful writers (of, say, textbooks) are virtually wholly anonymous.

Fame, fortune, authorship – you can have one or two of these without one or two of the others. Having all three is tough: there’s not many in the Reuleaux triangle in the centre of that particular Venn diagram.

So have other reasons to drive you in writing, other than fame or fortune: focus on personal fulfilment, on educating yourself and your readers, on making every bit of writing you complete the best you can do, on cultivating passion for the subjects you write about. If you have all these and others, you’ll find that other forms of writing, even some that may surprise you, will bring you professional and personal satisfaction and keep you busy as you steadily gather experience and knowledge, build your profile, and take sizeable steps towards having that book published in a few years’ time, or whenever the time is naturally right.

Comments 3

  • Very true. If I had a pound for every time I've been asked, 'oh, so you're a writer? What's your book called?/ Will I have heard of your book?/ What have you had published?', then… er… I could give up writing for a living (and concentrate on the novels!). As for ghostwriting – now that really does people's heads in. 'But don't you feel cross when something is published without your name on, even though it's your work?'. Ironically, that's the moment when I DO start to feel a bit fed up about it (and have to repeat the mantra 'think of the money, think of the money, it paid for last month's Tesco shops!' 😉 )

  • But for many new writers – seeing their name 'in lights' is the thing that makes the business exciting. In the absence of that – as in ghostwriting – it's easy for them to think 'oh what's the point?' Of course, for people who make a living from words, the point is … dosh! Thanks, Alison.

  • Yes – dosh and a certain amount of enjoyment and job satisfaction! Solely having a first book published rarely delivers a living wage – unless you're Ms Rowling, of course; given a choice between writing for a living or grinding away at a day job while scribbling away at books that might make it big, I choose writing about hiatus hernias – and (almost) anything else someone will pay me for! 😉 If it's their 'name in lights' or nothing, perhaps some writers love the actual writing less than they think they do.

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