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:
- “How to Wrestle With a Bear — and Win” in Ramit Sethi’s I Will Teach You to Be Rich
- “How to Start a Roth IRA (and Where to Do It)” in Wise Bread’s 10,001 Ways to Live Large on a Small Budget
- Two pieces (including one about our garden project) in the upcoming Be Thrifty
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…]