So, you want to write a book? Here’s what you need to know.
My name is Morgan Simon and my first book, Real Impact: The New Economics of Social Change, was released on October 3, with over 5,000 copies sold in the first week. I wanted to share what I’ve learned, both from my experience and from conversations I had with three best-selling authors who were quite generous with their time and wisdom — Van Jones (Beyond the Messy Truth), Sasha Abramsky (The American Way of Poverty) and Eric Reis (The Lean StartUp). And then for the people who know me/have been intrigued by the question of why/how I wrote a book, you’ll finally get that backstory, too.
A Pakistani friend once explained his community’s local wedding tradition — the officiate asks the bride three times whether or not she is sure that she wants to marry the groom, to make sure the marriage is not coerced and that she has thought through the implications of her decision. I invite you to similarly ask yourself this question at least three times in your aspirations to be an author. Are you absolutely sure you want to write a book? But are you really sure? Really REALLY sure?
Writing a book is serious business.
If you still have a full-time job, expect to give up all your vacation time for at least two years, plus a good number of weekends. Your grammar will improve, but your social life will suffer tremendously. Expect to have to read your own book at least 16 times. And that’s before its even published. Then expect to give up even more time if you want to make sure people actually read it. And finally, don’t expect to make any money — if anything you may wind up in the hole.
If that doesn’t scare you off…
The first step in writing a book is committing to WHY you want to write a book.
This sense of purpose is what will drive you through all the hard work. You have to want to get your ideas out for some specific reason, and you have to believe that a book is the right format to do so. Remember, people read far more blogs than books these days. Dig deep inside yourself and consider, is this just a vanity project? Or is there a reason why a BOOK is the right venue to share my vision with the world?
In my case, I work in impact investment, a relatively unknown field (that I refer to in the book as the trillion-dollar trend you’ve never heard of). No book on the subject had ever made it to a best seller list or into the popular dialog at all. Consequently, there is no clear definition of the term, and that meant I saw a clear opportunity to promote my particular angle on impact investment — as something that has a lot of potential, but is not a panacea, and needs to be more accountable to social justice principles. Impact investment is in danger as being defined as something that makes people feel good without actually solving social inequity. As the saying goes, I had an axe to grind, and that’s good. Grinding axes takes a lot of grit, and you need to feel passionate about your purpose.
If you’re rooted in your purpose, the writing will go quickly.
I was on what was meant to be a 5-day vacation on the beach in Brazil in January of 2016, and looked up impact investment on my kindle. Seeing that no book had ever gotten more than 15 reviews, I felt inspired to put something into the discourse, even if self-published, knowing with a little organizing I could likely make it a prominent entry in Amazon anytime someone typed in “impact investment.” I was so inspired to try and win what I saw as a definitional war for my field that I wrote 90 pages in 5 days, sitting at gorgeous beachfront restaurants with a glass of wine and my laptop as everyone else sat with their wine gazing at their lovers. Despite occasional pangs of envy, I was largely happy. I knew exactly what I wanted to say, and just had to race for my fingers to keep up with the ideas. I was rooted in my purpose, and that made the process easy.
Make sure you know what work environment will make you the most productive.
For some people that means getting out in nature. For others, its music without words. For me, it’s making sure I’m physically calm. I am a bit of an exercise nut and have a lot of trouble sitting still for long stretches. Writing typically requires uninterrupted time in order to keep consistent voice — and that meant I needed to calm my body enough to make a 3-hour work period productive. So, I largely wrote the book in 4 stretches; 6 weeks total over the 1.5 year period — in surf towns in Indonesia and Brazil. My daily schedule was surf, write, run, write, yoga, write. At the end of the day I probably wrote the whole book in a mere 42 hours — but I had to create the absolute ideal conditions to do so. (I’ll note the editing part took a LOT longer, and was much more challenging/less joyful for me…but I’ve heard other authors really love the editing process, so who knows what your experience will be!)
Don’t be surprised if it doesn’t look like a book at the start.
I learned quickly that while I had written a number of very successful 10-page blog posts, writing a book is a whole other ballgame. There’s a reason why people get master’s degrees to learn how to write books! It’s really hard to get to a consistent narrative and figure out in what order to tell, in my case, over 17 years of stories.
I had heard to not expect much support from my editor at the publisher, and thus I crowd-funded roughly 20k from 70 people to be able to hire my own editor/book coach to support my writing process. The editor I hired, Lisa Kaufman, did three major things: she moved sections into the right order, making the narrative much more coherent; she fixed my grammar, which makes you sound like yourself, but even better — kind of like subtle makeup; and finally, she forced me to really justify my arguments when I would just make assertions that I expected the reader to take as fact. If you don’t have the resources to hire an editor, think about who in your life can play this role. For example, my sister, Nina Simon, has self-published two books (as the older sister she is of course a step ahead of me). My father, for instance, an English major, has served this role for her, among others.
Once you have a manuscript — it’s time to decide whether to self-publish or pursue a publisher.
Form follows function — go back to your purpose in writing your book, and think about what best serves you.
If you already have a large audience of followers, and expect that these people will largely serve as your readership, self-publishing can make a lot of sense. My sister’s first book, The Participatory Museum, was targeted at — you guessed it — museum professionals, and has sold over 25,000 copies. She regularly speaks to audiences of 1,000 or more at museum conferences, and thus has ample opportunities to sell her own book. So, she correctly posited there was no reason to give up the vast majority of the book proceeds if she was going to be the only one distributing it. This has proven quite successful — she’s been able to get the book out into the communities that need it, in a way that maximizes her economic benefit.
If, however, your primary objective is to get the book out to people who don’t already know you, working with a publisher is likely the best bet. You will get four major things from a publisher — national distribution, support selling rights in other countries and languages, design and (limited) marketing support, and feedback on what will make a book appeal to audiences beyond those that you clearly know yourself.
You can either approach publishers directly by submitting a book proposal , or first solicit an agent. Agents are a mixed bag — they can greatly simplify the process of approaching publishers, and help you negotiate contracts. They also take a good chunk of any financial benefit — so it’s really a time vs. money calculation. In my case I cared more about the book taking as little of my time as possible than making more money from it, so I had my book proposal forwarded to a friend’s agent who graciously took me on. 6 months after that beach trip to Brazil, I had a book contract. And then just shy of two years later, my book was in stores.
Your book is out. Who knows? And who cares?
Let’s face it. Americans barely read. Pew found 26% of Americans didn’t read a single book in 2016, and 23% more read between 1 and 5 books — so yours must be pretty amazing to land on the top of their pile!
At the same time, a 2014 study found a whopping 93% of Americans watched a news source on TV within any given week, and the average American used 4–8 news sources consistently throughout the year. And guess what — the news, whether on TV or online, still cares about book releases, and will look to authors as the authority on certain issues — because, to use the cliché, you “wrote the book on it.”
Your friends will read your book, alongside people who see your topic as central to their life’s work or philosophy. But a lot of other people can benefit from the messages of your book if introduced to them in the context of a topic that’s relevant to them. Your book might be a great literary work — but it’s also a platform. Be ok with the fact that people will at times be more excited about the ideas in your book rather the book itself.
In my case, I put extra effort into making the book highly readable given that investment is a notoriously snoozer topic. I fought to keep “investing” and “finance” out of the title, as social change is relevant to everybody, whereas investing is perceived as only relevant to the wealthy. I am extremely proud of the number of people who told me they finished it within a week — and sent it to friends and colleagues for whom they found it to be relevant.
But I also wanted to make sure to reach the people who would never read the book — and hired a publicist for that task, once again through donations, and a social media person to handle our online presence. (I did this through a fiscal sponsor agreement — where is where a non-profit organization agrees to serve as your “host” and accept donations in your name. This was possible because my topic was social-justice oriented, and because I committed to donate the proceeds). The publicist got me onto NPR and interviewed live on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, among other places, and we are using that footage to show other networks that despite being a no-name, I’m a great interviewee. Hopefully this helps keep building the momentum need to get a best-seller.
How do you get a best-seller? And do you really need one?
Well, first let’s go back to your purpose — do you need a best seller? Publishers will tell you they care much more about the “long-tail” of proceeds — the ability of your book to stand the test of time. For instance, my favorite book on negotiation, Getting to Yes, was published in 1991 and is showing no signs of slowing down. But what do YOU need?
If you’re feeding your ego…you want a best seller. Ok, I get it.
If you’re trying to promote a timely topic (or in my case trying to set the seminal definition on a relatively unknown topic) …then a best seller is helpful in legitimizing the concept.
If you want a timeless classic — focus on the slow build and enjoy the ride. Best-seller campaigns are a ton of work and energy, that could be better invested in relationships with institutions like universities that could become long-term purchasers.
If a best seller is something you want to pursue, ideally, because it serves your purpose for the book, and not just your ego, here’s some tips:
· Most books are available for pre-sale 4 to 6 weeks before the actual publication date. Those pre-sales are released during launch week, meaning that you get a nice head-start to ask people to buy and promote the book generally.
· You may know lots of people who want to read your book…eventually. But they don’t feel any particular urgency to buy the book on your timeline. So, you need to create that urgency — -either by letting them in on your goal, or giving them something they want like access to premium content. In my case, I wanted my campaign to be as fun as possible, so we did things like offer pints of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream to people who bought books. Try not to annoy your network — make it clear they will benefit, too!
Ultimately, best seller lists are fickle. There are three lists that let you put “national bestseller” on your cover — the New York Times, which is edited based on factors like geographic distribution of sales and media coverage, USA Today, a longer list, but that includes all books, not just new releases, and the Wall Street Journal, based more strictly on sales. (You can also hit the local best seller lists in two geographies, and that will allow you to say your book was a national best seller). Be happy if you make it, but don’t make it your only goal. There’s lots of ways to achieve your purpose without hitting a list.
(I’ll note Real Impact is still in the running for best business books for the NYT — so if you’re now curious to read my book, try to get it this week!)
Will you make money? And should you make money?
For most authors, book proceeds are an afterthought. (Remember the part where I mentioned that a quarter of Americans haven’t read a book in the past year?) But it’s still worth thinking about what you would do if you did happen to make some money.
I decided, in solidarity with the fight for $15, to pay myself $15/hr for an estimate of the time I spent on the book, which meant I kept about half the advance and then put the other half into the marketing of the book. I then pledged that I would donate the proceeds, largely to the groups I write about in the book — as writing is the process of compiling learnings you’ve come across in relationship to others, and these people deserve to be compensated for their contributions.
I debated putting this fact on the book jacket (all profits to charity), but quickly realize this would be a pretty unwarranted halo effect. The amount that I receive on any book is so unbelievably miniscule it’s hard to imagine there will be much to donate (read for instance about this best-selling author who made a whopping $12,000). So, while I’m now sharing that pledge here, and appreciate the many authors who donate their proceeds to charities, keep in mind most money from books is largely made from speaking, not the book itself. So, unless someone is donating all book-related proceeds, it’s not that much of a commitment.
In my case, I prefer to get the book into people’s hands than collect speaker fees — no judgement on people who do, I just don’t want speaking to be my job — so I typically speak “for free” to venues that commit to buying 300 or more books; roughly a $6,000 commitment. That means I am guaranteed my reward of a. knowing people are getting access to the book and b. trying to keep book purchases up in a way that can help best-seller lists.
Would I do it again?
Ask me again in a year! Going back to the “long tail” theory, it’s hard to know what the long-term impact of your book will be. We are now working on outreach to colleges and universities as the book, plus the Harvard Business School case study written about us, will hopefully help enhance the experience of students globally. We are also encouraging people who like the book to contact their favorite professor and suggest it as curriculum. If the book becomes central to impact investment education, and if it manages to influence the popular conversation in a way that achieves my personal social justice goals, I could be convinced to do a sequel.
In the meantime, if I can help with your book, let me know!
Thanks to the many people who supported Real Impact: The New Economics of Social Change, and I hope you enjoy it.