A few years ago, I decided I wanted to write a book. Today, I have a book on Amazon for pre-order and it's only a few months away from coming out. I'm a bit overwhelmed that this is really happening. But it's really happening.
Several people have asked me for advice on writing a book, so I figured I ought to write up what I know on here for everyone to share.
For me, my journey started out on a beach in Hawaii, in January 2006. I thought I had no choice but to spend the rest of my life sitting at a desk and I had a friend who told me he thought that human beings weren't meant to sit at desks 40 hours a week (or more!). On that beach, I had an epiphany. Here I was in Hawaii on the beach in January and happy instead of sitting at my desk in Wisconsin in a bunch of snow and miserable. I called my friend and said "You were right! Human beings weren't meant to sit at desks!"
So I scrapped my plans to go to grad school and rack up a bunch of debt that would enslave me into office life for at least another decade, and I met up with my friend to discuss an alternate career. Neither of us thought of "writer" or "author" as an option. But he suggested that I like food so perhaps I could make a cooking website. He thought that vegetarian cooking might be a nice niche. So I created http://www.simple-vegetarian-cooking.com and tried to make money off of Google ads. Well, that's good for about $100 per year.
Shortly thereafter, a blogger who knew about my food site suggested I write about food and politics. I dismissed the idea, until I read a few articles on Grist dealing with food and politics. I put up a diary on DailyKos and was blown away by the reaction. I didn't know it but that was the first sign I had a book in my future - I had hit on a VERY popular topic!
I promised to continue writing food & politics diaries every week, and people kept reading them. They began to think of me as an expert on the subject, even though I was really learning as I went and many of my readers knew FAR more about the subject than I did. But in the next few months, I noticed two things. First - I spent my ENTIRE week looking forward to my diaries and planning them. Second - people liked reading them! So abut the time that I realized I wanted to be a writer, people started saying things like "If you wrote a book, I would buy it."
So, OK... I want to write a book. What's next? I had NO idea. For the time being, I just kept researching and writing, every week. It turned out to be for the best because when I actually DID write a book, the research was all there - and it was written up in a relatively organized fashion. Instead of digging through entire books to find the quotes I wanted, I could google for old diaries that had the quotes in them with the page numbers of the quotes. Plus, I was building a following.
Also, I began networking. I didn't quite realize what I was doing at the time, but as I looked for people with similar interests or people who had information I wanted to learn, I built up a hefty network of contacts - both people and organizations. One of the very best ways to do this was by attending conferences, and I attended several - a meeting of the National Family Farm Coalition (a friend and I kind of crashed that one... a little embarrassing but the farmers were nice), Netroots Nation, a New Mexico food conference, a WI/MN food conference, a Consumers Union Activist Summit, and the Community Food Security Coalition annual conference. Over time, people started asking me to speak at their conferences too.
One of the people I met along the way was a blogger known as Swordsmith. He's an expert in publishing as he's seen many different sides of the industry, and he wrote a blog series to help explain publishing to bloggers. His advice was by far some of the best advice I got from any source.
Well, at some point, you have to find a publisher. You can self-publish too, but I chose to go the publisher route. I think I'd self publish if it was something like my family cookbook to distribute at the reunion, but if you want your book to potentially be a first book of many, I think getting a publisher is the way to go. You'll be setting yourself up for being able to find agents and publishers in the future.
I bought a book about finding publishers and agents and sent off a few query letters. Most were returned undelivered. I think I got a rejection letter or two as well. I don't think I'd recommend anyone go that route. If you're a blogger and you want to write a book related to your blogging, start by approaching two publishers who actually respect (and publish!) the work of bloggers: Chelsea Green and Ig.
I was fortunate enough to run into Ig Publishing at a Netroots Nation, and we struck up a conversation. They asked for a proposal, and a few friends (including Swordsmith) helped me put one together and send it to them. At that point I was still hoping I could just string together a bunch of old diaries and turn them into a book "the easy way."
I have nothing but WONDERFUL things to say about Ig Publishing. It's been the most positive, amiable, wonderful professional relationship I've ever had, and I consider my publishers as friends. I'll hang out with them for fun any day and in fact, I think Robert and Elizabeth of Ig Publishing could go on the road as a comedy duo and make it big if publishing ever doesn't work out because they crack me up.
I had about 170 pages of diaries cobbled together when Ig Publishing accepted my proposal, and Elizabeth looked through them and told me "Start over." She was right. So I started by coming up with one (long) sentence that described what I wanted my book to be about. I turned that into a longer statement of several sentences. That became the skeleton of my outline, with each sentence representing a chapter:
I. Industrialized Ag
- Eating well is unrealistically difficult under our system
- The most noticeable problem from our food system is poor health (Info from doctors)
- The same system produces problems you don't see too (Description of various problems)
- The current system was developed for & by big business (History of industrial ag)
- Industrialized ag relies on government (Explanation of subsidies and policy)
II. Sustainable Ag
- In the shadow of industrial ag, sustainable ag is flourishing
- Organics and Whole Foods are mainstream but increasingly industrialized (analysis of Whole Foods/industrial organics)
- Despite the hijacking of organics by industry, sustainable food is available (anecdotes of sustainable food operations)
- Sustainable food could become more widespread if it weren't for many barriers (description of institutional & legislative barriers)
III. The Solution
- The answer is not tweaking industrialized ag to make it better... you can't create a sustainable factory farm.
- Nor is it scrapping industrialized ag entirely, because that's an impossible fight
- Instead, we should aim to increase market share of sustainable, local food
- Individuals can do so by changing their own personal habits
- Individuals can also get involved in grassroots local/sustainable food (Advice for how to do so)
- Organizations to bring change to their communities (Anecdotes of community groups)
- Ultimately, we must bring about policy change to reduce barriers for sustainable food operations & make it easier for more people to obtain sustainable food (Explanation of my plan for policy change)
That was my original outline. It's changed since then, but not by too much. I turned it into a detailed outline, and then turned each chapter into a 2-3 page chapter summary. Then I started writing...
I paced myself at a chapter a week at first. That worked out well until I hit chapter 5. And oh, I hated chapter 5. I wrote it, and it sucked. I re-wrote it, and it sucked. I re-wrote it again, but nothing I could do made it not stop sucking! And I think I wasted about 4 mos on that one chapter because it made me so unhappy I procrastinated too. Finally, I just moved on. I finished the book about two months after the deadline Ig set in my contract, but I finished. Phew. I finished.
Then the editing started. I was surprised and delighted by the editing process. I think at first I was kind of holding my breath to see if they'd send it all back and tell me it's trash and it can never become a book. But that didn't happen. The edits were very good changes, in my opinion. And I'm grateful that my publishers are more mature than me, because there's nothing I would have loved more than identifying a bad boss from a former job by name (Alix Paterson) and letting the world know what a bitch she was (she used to grab me by my neck when she didn't like what I was doing). But they had the sense to keep it on topic! (The only chapter they sent back and said "redo" was stinking chapter 5. But you know what? It doesn't suck anymore.)
Sometimes, I would think a chapter was about one thing, and they would think it was about something else entirely. I thought I wrote my first chapter about the health problems caused by our food supply, but they saw it as an introduction of who I am and why I have credibility to speak on this topic. They suggested changes based on that, and in the end, every time I followed their instructions, the chapters looked MUCH better than the draft I had sent them.
It's been a long process from start to finish - three years for me, and now a year and a half with Ig Publishing - but I'm glad it took this long. If I had found a publisher immediately, I would have had less information, less experience, and the book would just be far less comprehensive. I started researching and writing in early 2006, found Ig in late 2007, and the book will be out in mid 2009. It's been a long journey but a good one.
If you're looking to write a book I'd recommend a few things:
- Start building a following, networking, and researching your topic NOW. No matter how long it takes you to find a publisher, your book will be better because of any work you do between then and now. The people I met along the way ended up giving me some of the "blurbs" you'll now see on the Amazon site. Their help will be instrumental to selling books and if I had found a publisher immediately or self-published before I ever met them, I'd probably sell many less copies of the book. This takes time, and it's worth taking that time!
- Read Swordsmith's diary series on publishing.
- Come up with a "thesis statement" for your book (just like you used to have to do in English class). You need to answer the question: What do you want to say to the world? If I had said "I want to write a book about food" that still says NOTHING about what's actually IN the book, and no publisher would be interested.
- Get some information on how to write a proposal, and then contact a publisher you think might be a good fit for you and see if they are interested in a proposal. Find out what they want specifically (i.e. sample chapters, an outline, chapter summaries, etc). I wouldn't bother writing an entire proposal before I know if a publisher is even interested in reading it, but once the publisher says "Send me a proposal" I think it's best to be able to act quickly to send them something.
As for me and my book, we're about half-way through editing it. A lot of people tell me they can't wait to read my book and my response is: me too! I know what I sent to the publisher, but it's 1000 times better after they edit it. The book will be finished soon, and next step is printing galleys - early copies of the book that might still have mistakes in them here and there. We send those to people who will review the book ahead of time. Then the actual book gets printed sometime before July.
Another thing I've learned is that pre-sales are important. As a consumer, I usually wouldn't pre-order something because I'd just buy it once it's out. But as an author, I've got my fingers crossed people will pre-order the book. The best way to pre-order it is from the orange Amazon.com box on my blog below the PayPal thingy. The book's the same price that way, but I get an extra cut of the cash.
I'm excited that I'm finally at the point to start planning a book tour. I don't think there's a huge budget for it, but I am obviously going to Pittsburgh (Netroots Nation) and there are a handful of other cities I can get to easily where we have a lot of liberals and bloggers or a Drinking Liberally that might make it a good place to go. I'm hoping to make it to Madison, San Francisco, LA, and Portland for sure. Then there's Denver, Chicago, and Phoenix where I have family to visit so I might see if I can go there too. I might try to have my university bring me in to speak in St. Louis (if they are willing). And hopefully progressive conferences, or food-related conferences will invite me, but I have no idea what to expect.
One last word of advice to anyone who wants to write a book: Don't do it for the money, because it's a LOT of work and not a ton of money. But for me, that's perfectly OK. It's about spreading ideas, not making money. And anyway - that's why we blog.