So You Want to Write A Book? Here Are Some Tips

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By: Steve Weinberg

Because I have written eight books for respectable publishers, and because I have been affiliated for more than 30 years with the group Investigative Reporters & Editors, I receive lots of calls for advice from journalists who also want to be known as “authors.”

The number of calls has picked up in the past few months because my new book is receiving lots of attention. The book, appropriately enough, features a journalist, Ida Tarbell (1857-1944). I make the case that Tarbell invented what today we call investigative journalism. She did so primarily while investigating Standard Oil Company and its wealthy, powerful, famous founder, John D. Rockefeller. (The book, “Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller,” is published by W.W. Norton.)

Some of my callers wonder whether they can write enough words to fill a compelling book. Some of them wonder if they need a literary agent and, if so, how to find the best one. Some wonder how long it will take to complete a book, or wonder how much money they can expect to receive. Some wonder whether publishers can be trusted on the business side, and whether book editors actually do any editing at all.

Although none of my books has earned me much money after expenses, I am upbeat about becoming an author. The reasons are both tangible and intangible. So, generally, I offer encouragement when I hear from newspaper, magazine and broadcast journalists wanting to be known as ?authors.?

The answers to the oft-repeated questions are straightforward, more or less, and usually grounded in common sense.

*The only way to determine if a journalist who is used to write 500 words, or maybe 5000, can fill a compelling book is to try. I wrote my first book while a reporter at the Des Moines Register during the 1970s. I certainly did not quit my day job — I composed the book during very early mornings, very late evenings and weekends. The book came to me because of my wife?s expertise on the topic, so she essentially reeled in the contract. She also contributed mightily to the research. After learning I could indeed fill enough pages with interesting, compelling sentences to birth a book, I have never looked back. I have been under contract to write a book almost without interruption since 1978.

*A literary agent is usually unnecessary if money upfront (called an ?advance?) is also unnecessary. But an advance of, say, $25,000 or more is extremely difficult to obtain from a publisher without an agent. That is because most publishers that pay advances depend on the reputation and goodwill of agents to vet potential authors. Finding an agent is not always easy, but the process is straightforward. The least painful way is through a referral, often from a journalist who is already an author. The alternative route involves studying books on topics similar to the topic in mind, determining the agent for the already published books (by contacting the author or studying the acknowledgments section), and contacting her with an intelligent-sounding letter.

*I am either slow or thorough, depending on how you want to spin the length of time it takes me to complete a book. My books are serious nonfiction, and I try to write compelling narratives after conducting thorough research. I assume my books will take at least five years. Some journalists could complete a comparable book in two or three years.

*For my first two books, I did not need advances. They did not cost a lot of money out of pocket, mostly because they involved almost no travel. When it came time for a third book, I wanted to tackle something more ambitious. I calculated I would need an advance of at least $100,000 to cover even minimal expenses for myself, my wife and my children during a span of five years or more. So, naturally, I sought an agent, who came recommended by a fellow author. Because of a superb book proposal and good timing, my agent and I received an advance of more than $100,000. On the other hand, I have never come even close to that figure on later books.

*About the conventional wisdom that few book editors actually edit: That has been untrue when it comes to my editors at each publishing house. They include the University of Missouri Press; St. Martin?s Press; Little, Brown; and W.W. Norton. Yes, I ask lots of questions to identify the best editors in the book world, usually with massive assistance from my agent. The search is worth the effort.

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