A journalist’s guide to writing books

May 5, 2016 01:30

By Deb Wenger, RTDNA Contributor

When the New York Times reported FOX anchor Megyn Kelly’s multimillion dollar book deal, a lot of folks suggested she had Donald Trump to thank for getting her the contract. Kelly’s ability to hold her own in a war of words with Trump may have made a difference in the size of the deal or the timing, but the truth is, journalists like to tell their own stories.

“All journalists want to write a book,” says Martin Fletcher, who worked for NBC News for many years and now freelances for the network while he’s working on his sixth book. “It’s the ultimate form of writing.”

Good journalist, good author?
Fortunately, publishers like recruiting journalists as authors, according to book industry expert Alison Baverstock, who oversees the graduate publishing degree at Kingston University in London.

“They have a pragmatic sense of what is required and can be congenial suppliers. They understand the significance of and generally stick to a deadline, and are not precious about being edited,” says Baverstock.

Fletcher agrees that journalists have something of a leg up on others hoping to get a book published.

“I always wanted to write fiction and began to write a novel, and then realized I didn’t know how to do it,” said Fletcher. “To get published, I realized I had to write about my job.  I had a certain reputation as a journalist, and I figured I could get a book published if it was about my career.”

Baverstock says the time journalists spend trying to reach and engage with audiences on the job can help in landing a book deal, too.

“Journalists know their markets, are in touch with them through social media, and can be relied on to have a wide range of contacts that they can pull in to support through endorsements or help get the project better known,” says Baverstock, who has written several books about becoming and succeeding as an author.

Competing for Contracts & Compensation

Even high-profile journalists face a lot of competition, however. In the U.S., more than 300,000 print books were produced by traditional publishers in 2013, the most recent numbers available from Bowker, a company which tracks the industry.  By some estimates, the average U.S. non-fiction book sells less than 250 copies per year and less than 2,000 copies over its lifetime.

Matthew Byrnie, who is associate director for college publishing for Sage Publishing, has some suggestions for maximizing the opportunities for success for journalists who want to be authors.

“If they do want to reach a popular audience, they need to find a literary agent to direct them to trade publishers looking to publish great non-fiction work by journalists,” says Byrnie.  “That’s where you have that opportunity to have that best seller, have an agent repping you. If you have your eye on that high profit, high profile book, you really do need to have a conversation with a literary agent and have them help you.”

Byrnie says the best place to start before approaching an agent is to craft your initial pitch letter.  In it, you highlight what’s relevant and important about your book, as well as what’s unique and how it will serve the needs of the audience.  It doesn’t hurt to start writing the book, too, as some publishers will require multiple sample chapters.

Most would-be authors may also need a reality check when it comes to how money they can expect to make.  According to survey data from Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest, the median income range for self-published authors is under $5,000 and nearly 20 percent of self-published authors earn nothing at all from their writing.

Those working with traditional publishers had a median income range of $5,000 to $9,999 and “hybrid authors” (who self-publish and also write for established publishers) had a median income range of $15,000 to $19,999.

Writing Your Novel
Fletcher says his first two non-fiction books – Breaking News and Walking Israel -- were successful enough to get him the book deal he always wanted.

“I decided to ride the coattails of my job as a journalist so I could get a chance to write a novel and it worked,” said Fletcher with a laugh.

In fact, Fletcher is writing his fourth novel in a seaside town in Mexico while he helps his son’s family with child care and running their two beach bars.  Sounds like heaven to a journalist in the daily grind of the newsroom, but Fletcher says the work is still hard.

“I thought that writing fiction would be much easier; after a lifetime of chasing facts now you just make it up, no problem, right? As a journalist, you begin in the morning and by night your story is on the air.  It’s completely different working two years on the same subject. I find it terrifying, but I’m doing it.”
Part two of this series next week will explore more publishing options for journalists – from e-books to textbooks, plus how to know if you’re ready to become an author, and an interview with former CBS News correspondent Randall Pinkston on the book he’s thinking about writing now.

Deb Halpern Wenger is co-author of two textbooks, Advancing the Story: Journalism in a Multimedia World and Managing Today’s News Media: Audience First.  She directs the undergraduate journalism program at the University of Mississippi.