Writing books: How to get started

May 18, 2016 01:30

By Deb Wenger, RTDNA Contributor

Today alone, an estimated 835 new books will move into the marketplace, jockeying to find an audience.  Former CBS News correspondent Randall Pinkston is hoping to get into the publishing scrum someday soon.

“Some of my friends and associates tell me that I should write about my career path - from growing up in racially segregated Mississippi to becoming a White House correspondent,” says Pinkston. “I've also thought about focusing on my family's story:  my great-great grandmother who was born into slavery, my great-grandmother who was a self-taught midwife and 'medicine woman,' her husband, my great-grandfather, who according to family lore, was a porter on Theodore Roosevelt's hunting trips in Mississippi, and my mother, the first college graduate in our family.”

Writing about your own life or career is a common starting place for journalists and producing a printed book for a traditional publisher may seem like the best approach, but there are other options.

E-books and Self-Publishing
E-books have exploded on the scene in recent years with many authors launching writing careers by taking the self-publishing route. According to the latest report from Bowker, a company which tracks the book industry, over 391,000 books were self-published in the U.S. in 2012, an increase of more than 400 percent since 2007.

Alison Baverstock, who has written a number of books on how to become an author, says there are advantages and disadvantages to bypassing a traditional publisher.
“Writing an e-book is a really good way of testing the market,” says Baverstock. “Traditional publishers may like to see an author do an e-book first because it means the author is committed – especially if that e-book is a success.”

In addition, Baverstock says readers may actually prefer your book in an e-format, but she still recommends working with a traditional publisher in the beginning, if you can.
 “Most authors like the writing, but not the formatting or the other details of editing a book,” says Baverstock. “Working with a traditional publisher allows them to concentrate on the writing bit.” If you’re interested in self-publishing, you’ll want to do your research.  You’ll need to find a service provider, think about cover art or any other illustrations, as well as layout, marketing, etc.  You do get to skip the work of finding an agent or a publisher, but it’s not necessarily an easier path to success.

Writer Jane Friedman offers “How to Self-Publish Your Book” – a good place to start on your research.

Textbook Options
For journalists who spend a lot of time thinking about the craft, writing a textbook may be a good starting point.

“It’s probably not the first type of publishing anyone thinks about, but it can be really rewarding professionally and financially,” says Matthew Byrnie, who is associate director for college publishing for Sage Publishing.  “Professionally, it can help improve your profile in the field among your peers, and if you also have a teaching appointment, it helps with your standing within the department.” Byrnie says some textbooks become classics that get revised regularly and become part of the way new journalists are trained. If you’re thinking about writing something that can have impact on the field, textbooks are a good way to do that.  So, what type of textbook is Sage looking for now?

“We see a lot of interest in books that engage with changes in the traditional media brought about by technology or social media or a change in thinking about the role of the audience.”

Increasingly, Byrnie says he’s seeing a demand for books that recognize that journalists may be crossing over into other areas of communication, such as public relations or corporate communications, and says there’s a desire for books that recognize the changing career paths for students studying journalism.

Need more help to plan your book? Alison Baverstock’s Is there a book in you? tries to help.

Are You Ready to Write?
There are many paths to getting published, but Pinkston says he thinks there are really only two kinds of journalists—those who always hoped to become authors but found it easier to make a living doing news reports rather than selling book proposals – and those who love to tell stories.

“Our work puts us in touch with people with stories to tell. Usually, we know a lot more than we are given the time or the space to report. Writing a book provides the time and space to tell the story the way we want to tell it.”  But having the story, and even the talent, might not be enough. Martin Fletcher, who has worked for NBC News for many years, is now in the process of writing his sixth book. 

“I think you need a lot of self-confidence, a burning need to write something,” says Fletcher.  “You also have to ask yourself if you are the kind of person who is disciplined enough to sit down and write for six, eight, ten hours a day.”

Fletcher also notes writing a book is very different than daily journalism.

“It’s just you and nobody else. In daily news, you have a scorecard, you have people telling you how you did each day. As an author, for most of the time you’re writing, you just don’t have any idea how good it is, in fact, you generally have a good idea how lousy it is,” says Fletcher laughing. “You’re on your own – for a year or two – you’re on your own.”

Pinkston’s first book is just in the idea stage right now, but he says he knows why.

“I have two huge problems: procrastination and discipline. Perhaps that's a distinction without a difference. In his book, This Year You Write Your Novel, Walter Mosley says it is essential to write every day, that the act of writing helps you reach a place where writing becomes an ‘unconscious activity.’ I know what I need to do. I just need to do it.”
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.