From Blog to Book, part one: Publish or Perish?

I’ve developed an arsenal of stock stories to use when I give interviews to reporters or meet Get Rich Slowly readers. One of my stock bits goes like this:

I always wanted to be a writer. That’s been my dream since the third or fourth grade. But I always thought I’d make my living writing poetry or short stories, or fantasy and science fiction novels. Serious stuff like that. I never dreamed I’d make my living writing about personal finance!

With the right delivery, the audience chuckles. More and more, though, this story isn’t funny to me. I really am a personal-finance writer — even if it’s just for the web.

But even that qualification — “just for the web” — is becoming a thing of the past. I’ve now had pieces appear in several books, most notably:

Now, it seems, I’ll be writing a book of my very own.

I can’t reveal the details yet (I don’t even know the details yet). I have a verbal agreement with a publisher and I’ve begun to work with my editor, but I haven’t seen a written contract. Once the paperwork’s behind me, I can start work.

In the meantime, I thought it would be useful to set down a record of the process. A lot of people have questions about what goes into writing and publishing a book. Maybe my experience can help answer some questions.

How Things Usually Work
The first thing to understand is that fiction books and non-fiction books are sold in completely different ways. In both cases, publishers like for an author to have a “platform”, a built in reader base. Michael Jordan has a huge platform. Barack Obama has a large platform, too. My own platform is modest — but I have one. Publishers view platform as a way to project sales. Basically, they usually — though not always — want to see a built-in audience.

With fiction books, you generally produce the entire work first and then send it out (via an agent or by yourself). The publisher wants to see the finished work.

That’s not how non-fiction works. With non-fiction, publishers want to see a book proposal before the author begins her work. The book proposal contains a general outline of the book, a sort of market analysis providing info on how many copies might sell, and perhaps a chapter or two. (I’m vastly over-simplifying this. Book proposals are an art.)

In general, the non-fiction author writes a book proposal, and then shops the proposal to various agents. Once she finds an agent that things the idea is marketable, the author then works with him to hone the book proposal to appeal to publishers. Then the process repeats itself: The proposal is shopped around to publishers. If a publisher buys the idea, it’ll then suggest changes to the book based on its knowledge of the market.

Basically, there’s a standard sequence of events that lead to publication.

If you’re fortunate — and I’ve been fortunate — you can bypass one or more steps in this sequence. In my case, I’ve had publishers and agents contacting me for the past couple of years. That is, I haven’t had to write a proposal and shop it around in the hopes that somebody might be interested. Instead, they’re already interested, and they’re coming to me in the hopes that I might go with them.

Established authors repeatedly tell me how lucky I am. And I believe them.

That’s how things usually work (for selling a book, anyhow). As I say, my path has been a little different.

Meeting a Mentor
In December 2007, I was contacted by Tim Clark. I’d never met Clark before (I hadn’t even heard of him), but he asked to meet me at a Japanese bubble tea shop along SE Woodstock in Portland. I was nervous about the meeting. Back then, this sort of thing was strange and new and gave me a severe case of nerves. It didn’t help that I had some Japanese bubble tea, which gave me a belly ache even before the meeting started. I almost ditched before Clark arrived. I’m glad I didn’t.

Clark introduced himself as the author of several books, including The Swordless Samurai. He wanted to chat with me because he’d just written a personal-finance book called The Prosperous Peasant with Mark Cunningham, a member of the writing group I belonged to. Clark wanted advice on how to market his book to bloggers.

We discussed The Prosperous Peasant, but as the conversation progressed, I realized that I was getting more out of it than he was. Clark was enthusiastic about the possibilities of a Get Rich Slowly book. “You should do this,” he said. “You should do it now.” He told me it was crazy that I wasn’t replying to agents and publishers who were contacting me. “Other writers would kill for that,” he said.

After our meeting, I thought about things for a while. Then I gave Clark a call. I asked him to describe the publishing process. He did. He also introduced me to his agent. Over the next few weeks, I talked to several other agents. I was trying to get a feel for their interest in the project. I liked all of the agents I spoke with — and they were each interested in working with me — but I just couldn’t pull the trigger. I was scared.

To learn more about the process of writing a book, I spoke with some of my friends and colleagues who had written one. I talked with Matt Haughey, Ramit Sethi, Leo Babauta, and Penelope TrunkPenelope Trunk. All of them (except Leo) advised against it. “It’s not really worth it,” they told me. “It takes a lot of time and there’s not much chance of a financial payoff.”

Clark acknowledged that the chances of making any real money on a book project were slim. “But it’s not about the money,” he told me. “Like it or not, a book lends credibility to your work. You do this to open other doors.”

Still, I was hesitant. Very hesitant. I didn’t actually have an idea for a book, so I couldn’t begin to create a book proposal. And I couldn’t choose between the agents I had interviewed. They were all great. Plus, Get Rich Slowly was taking all of my time and was producing a decent income. The book seemed unnecessary.

I put the project on hold for a year.

[To be continued…]

Crossing the Streams

Kris turns on the radio in the kitchen and immediately my writing ceases. “Ahhhhh…” I groan. It’s NPR again — “noise pollution radio”.

“What’s wrong?” she asks.

“Do you know what it’s like every time you turn that on?” I say. “It’s like I’m building a wall in my head. It’s a carefully constructed wall with every brick in the right place. I’m trying to get the wall down on paper.” (By paper I mean into my text editor, but Kris understands.)

“And every time you turn on NPR — every time — that wall comes tumbling down and I have to start over.”

I’m always amazed when I read about people who can write while listening to non-music audio. Trent claims that he listens to podcasts while writing. How? I could never do that. It’d be like crossing the streams! (Which we all know would be bad, right?)

I can listen to music while writing. I can write in silence. But I cannot write in a situation where there’s discernible dialogue. No radio. No movies. No television. Not even coffee shop conversations. If I can hear speech, I want to parse it, and it prevents me from forming words of my own.

Which is why I’m now outside on the lawn; I’m attempting to rebuild the wall in my head.

On the Proper Use of ‘Me’ and ‘I’

This article was originally published at Foldedspace on 14 September 2006. I’ve been noticing this error again lately, and so wanted to revisit the subject.

Listen people, this is easy: you do not always use the word “I” when speaking of yourself and another person.

I’m going to be called a grammar Nazi for devoting an entire weblog entry to this, but it’s driving me crazy. Over the past week I’ve seen this error a dozen times — and from smart people who should know better.

What am I talking about? We’re taught from a young age that it’s polite to say:

Jane and I are going to the store.

That’s well and good for the nominative case, when you and Jane are the subjects of the sentence. But it does not work if you and Jane are the objects of the sentence. This sentence is an abomination:

The man gave ice cream to Jane and I.

This is WRONG, and it hurts my brain. It’s like fingernails on a chalkboard. I’m serious. It drives me insane. Would you say this?

The man gave ice cream to I.

Of course not! Politeness does not take precedence over grammar. The proper sentence in this case is:

The man gave ice cream to me.

And if you’re talking about yourself and another person, then the proper form is:

The man gave ice cream to Jane and me.

I know that sounds wrong, but it’s better than “Jane and I”. Far better. And if you really want it to sound better, then ditch your notions of the polite and say:

The man gave ice cream to me and Jane.

However, the real answer to your dilemma is to use the handy clear and concise first-person plural.

The man gave ice cream to us.

Isn’t that nice?

Are you confused? Here’s an easy way to tell whether you should use “Jane and I” or “Jane and me”. Ask yourself: if this sentence were only about me, which would I use, “I” or “me”? Use the same pronoun when talking about yourself and another person. Seriously. That’s the rule.

You make Kris and I weep when you do this.

Writing for Money: The New Way and the Old

It was late in 2006 that I realized I could potentially make a living writing for the web. It wasn’t until a few months later that I knew that this was true. I earned a modest (but decent) income at the box factory. But starting in February 2007, my web income began to equal my income from my real job for brief periods of time. Then in April 2007, I earned more from my websites than from selling boxes. And from July 2007 on, I’ve been a professional blogger.

Although I’m making good money from my writing, there are many ups and downs. But even the lows are higher than I could have imagined. On November 25th [2006], I made $29.29 in web income. That is the last day my earnings dipped below $30. My best day was last Tuesday: I made $169.90.

Over at 2blowhards (still one of my favorite blogs), Michael writes:

Planning on getting rich writing sci-fi or fantasy novels? Think again. Tobias Buckell writes that the average advance for a first sci-fi or fantasy novel is $5000. Five years and five novels later, the average author is pulling in around $13,000 per novel.

I used to want to get rich off writing sci-fi or fantasy. Then I decided I just wanted to get rich off writing books — I didn’t care what kind. More and more, it’s clear that I may never publish a book (at least not in the traditional sense)! I’m already making twice what a sci-fi novelist makes, and I have complete control of my content. There’s little motivation for me to change directions at the moment.

Some people — and perhaps you’re one of them — look upon web income with disdain. “You’re not making money from writing,” is a common observation. “You’re making money from advertising.” I can understand this delineation, but it’s not one that I make.

I am writing, and publishing that writing, and it’s making me money. I don’t feel guilty about it. I don’t feel as if I’m compromising anything. Did I ever dream I’d make a living writing about personal finance? Nope. But now I can’t imagine anything else I’d rather be doing.

Remember: The core of this article is more than two years old. Numbers stated do not represent current earnings.