You dream of writing a book.
In fact, even if you’ve previously written books, you dream of writing another one.
Two things are going through your mind right now:
- He’s reading my mind. That means magic is real. I can fly. I can fly! crash…thump
- What’s wrong with me? (Yes, indeed, what is wrong with you? Who writes a book nowadays?)
Let’s be even more specific: you dream of writing a “traditionally published” book, the entire process from soup to nuts, including a literary agent.
And not just any agent. You want to get yourself The Agent, the brusque, Chanel-clad power agent who just hired a stunning-if-it-weren’t-for-those-glasses number 2 assistant recently arrived from Kalamazoo to pursue her dreams of literary stardom and sure, maybe she’s a klutz and spills coffee on a famous author’s manuscript that one time (“That was Stephen King’s original draft of Cujo 2: Off the Leash!, Jennifer—it’s irreplaceable!”), but her new gay friend’s gonna give her a rocking makeover, plus there’s this really cute guy she meets when they’re both reading Ulysses on the subway coincidentally (he just wants to be friends—doesn’t he?) and she’s going to be important enough to use a New York City car service (“Mom, I’m calling you from a car, and the driver is wearing a suit!”) someday soon because she spotted a bestseller on the slush pile that’s going to be made into a movie starring Shailene Woodley as the number 2 assistant of a Chanel-clad power agent recently arrived from Kalamazoo…
You know, traditional publishing.
Listen, the DIY approach has its uses, but:
In my experience, authors threaten to self-publish the way people on the losing side of a Presidential election threaten to move to Canada. (We get it, you’re not happy with the status quo, but you also have no intention of living in Toronto.)
On the surface, this strange compulsion doesn’t make sense from an economic standpoint. Many experts rake in vast amounts through teaching, speaking, consulting, online classes, and other avenues. They may already be writing for a huge audience of their own through blogs, newsletters, and social media every hour of the day.
And yet, the vast majority still can’t resist the allure of a big chunk of dead tree that takes a year to make, a year to publish, and will only ever reach a tiny fraction of that existing online audience.
Plus, most buyers won’t read past the first chapter. (Yeah, that one’s true, sorry.)
Publishing a book today makes sense for reasons I’ll explain. But if you go into it for the wrong reasons and with the wrong expectations, you’re going to be eating wood-fired bagels in Montreal before you can say “That’s a long queue just for pop and poutine, eh? What a kerfuffle!”
So: why a book?
Let’s start with why not:
- The enjoyment of doing things your way
- Having as much hair as you do now
- Book tours where that girl you liked in high school waits in line for hours so you can sign her copy and maybe invite her to coffee afterward and damn she looks even better than she does on Facebook
- Those ads in the subway that James Patterson used to get next to Dr. Zizmor
- Talking to Terry Gross on Fresh Air and having her say “I blow a lot of hot air on my show because authors are fragile narcissists but this is the first interviewee’s book I’ve actually read in a decade”
- Elbow patches
- Filling the void deep inside
- Embossed gold foil on the jacket
- Standing in the aisle at Barnes & Noble and waiting for someone to pick up your book and then telling them you loved that book and the author’s a genius and then leaving before they recognize you from your photo
- Getting into a flame war with Michiko Kakutani over Twitter and her getting so flustered by your devastating combination of irony and erudition that she deletes her account
- Sending a copy to your high school guidance counselor with a sarcastic note saying “Hope you enjoy my book!” and him not getting it and thinking the gift is sincere because he doesn’t remember discouraging you from applying to Wesleyan 18 years ago
- Because you like the sense of security you get by working on a complex project of massive personal and professional importance that constitutes a year or more of your life with the support of seasoned professionals over the age of 22
If any of these were prime motivating factors for you, put down the quill and step away from the carrel. You might consider a career in blacksmithery, lumberjackery, or high financery instead.
So why should you publish a book traditionally? To an expert, I’d argue that this odd, archaic process is more valuable than it has ever been, for the very reasons that the industry itself is suffering: that series of tubes through which you’re carefully reading every word of this.
You see, the Internet is a house of mirrors a la Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon. One website features light gray text on a dark background and a thumbnail headshot and belongs to the foremost expert on international trade at Wharton. Another looks like it belongs to a Fortune 500 company, but it’s run by a lone iOS developer in Estonia offering success advice based on eleven years as a shut-in wearing Depends and drinking Soylent for “efficiency.”
Whither reputation? Whither credibility? Whither or without her!
You see, there can be a relatively weak connection between how a site looks—the aesthetics, the content, any of it—and the credibility, reputation, authenticity, or sanity of the person or people behind it.
As a book editor at traditional publishing houses, a good portion of my job consisted of evaluating experts and companies by their websites and social media platforms. I can’t tell you how many times I would read something that seemed to make a lot of sense out of context on a site only to discover it was written by a medium-level lunatic.
(To be fair, without any larger context, most of How to Win Friends and Influence People could have been written by a sociopathic murderer. If you don’t believe me, try it yourself with any randomly selected passage. It works a bit like the fortune cookie game. Just add “wearing somebody’s skin like a Superman cape” to any passage. For example: “It isn’t what you have or who you are or where you are or what you are doing that makes you happy or unhappy. It is what you think about it while wearing somebody’s skin like a Superman cape.” Sounds crazy, right?)
This mismatch between online and off is where a book comes in. A book is a fixed point for everyone. It doesn’t change significantly over time without slapping “2nd edition” on the cover. the Energy Bus you read today is the Energy Bus I read five years ago. If your opinion of the book differs from mine, you don’t have to wonder whether you and I read the same thing.
On the other hand, your online platform morphs constantly. When you first build your brand online, it’s probably going to make you look like an amateur even if you have decades of experience under your belt doing what you do. It’s a distinct skill, but we conflate it with your other professional capabilities almost completely. No one judges your abilities as a lawyer by whether you can juggle or not, but platform building is different.
Sure, you’ll remedy this aspect over time, but let’s say you start to get an audience. As that audience becomes loyal and vocal, your work will start to narrow in on their tastes and preferences based on feedback. Ten years later, the platform that newcomers will see when they first discover you will bear very little resemblance to the one that captured all that attention in the first place.
How many times has a friend pointed you to some expert or another and when you visited their site you were like, who the hell is this guy and why does he want me to drink hot chocolate with butter in it? (“Dude, it’s called Kevlar Kocoa and it’ll change your life!”)
You have to choose, day after day, to keep today’s fans or welcome tomorrow’s. Eventually the former wins over the latter because it’s safer and involves less hate mail, and your platform becomes almost unrecognizable to a newcomer. Opaque. Think editing Wikipedia opaque.
That’s where a book comes in. It’s the manual of you. It interprets you for a mainstream audience and gives them the tools, lingo, and mindset to enter your peculiar universe. And it counts whether or not that mainstream audience ever reads the thing. We know that Tim Ferriss is the 4-Hour Workweek guy even if we’ve never read the book or if we (being older than 35 and/or not working in tech) find the current permutation of his online platform to have a bit of a learning curve.
Your book is a flag in the ground that tells everybody who you are and what you’re about.
Say what you like about how slow and clunky the publishing process is—there’s an advantage to the way it’s still done. A lot of people are involved. There’s friction. Like all the safeguards built into our government by the Founding Fathers, frustrating when you want change and reassuring when you don’t, forcing ideas through the traditional publishing grinder manages to be an effective filter for things the public doesn’t really want to see entering the mainstream. (And when you see a travesty like If I Did It or, more recently, Go Set a Watchman, it’s doubly disconcerting because you know how many people were involved in making that happen.)
A book crystallizes you. And for people who are new to you, this quality is essential. That goes for a conference considering you for a panel, a potential consulting client, or just somebody who followed a link back to a blog post and is wondering whether to engage with you or go back to Reddit.
A traditionally published book both centers and transcends your “content strategy,” and with fewer reputable traditional publishing imprints than ever, that only becomes more true because it’s a relatively limited resource.