So you want to write a book – pt 1

I’ve written six academic books in my career, of varying quality and usefulness. I occasionally get asked advice on different aspects of the book writing process, so I thought I’d gather some thoughts in a series of posts. I’m focusing on academic, mainly solo-authored books here, rather than fiction or collected editions (although some of this will be applicable to those also). This is just my take on the whole book thing, it may not work for others, and will vary depending on discipline, motivation for writing a book, geographical location, career path, etc.

A general point before getting into the various stages – when I was younger (and probably still the case to an extent) I viewed writing books as a magical act of alchemy. Blessed writers conjured books from thin air, and if you were struck by this divine command one day then your life would be irrevocably altered. Needless to say it isn’t like that – it’s much more quotidian. It’s a graft, you just have to get on with it, and once you’re published almost nothing changes. But it is still kinda magical to anyone who loves books – you have a book on your shelf with your name on it, and that is always a buzz. And while you are unlikely to suddenly be receiving dinner party invites from the literati it does allow you to set out a longer argument and to stake a claim as ‘the person who knows about X’.

In the next post I’ll look at the proposal and the publisher, but before you get to that more practical step, it’s worth asking yourself: Why do I want to write a book? I expect it is usually a mixture of reasons, but it’s not a question people often ask themselves (or answer honestly) in my experience. It will probably be a mix of the following:

  • Career – a book is a good publication on an academic CV, and in some disciplines is the preferred output. It can move your career forward.
  • Reputation – related to the above, a book associates your name with a topic perhaps more strongly than a paper. It can lead to keynotes, research grants, general increase in kudos.
  • Money – I hate to break this to you, but an academic book is probably not going to get increase income significantly, unless it becomes one of the rare cross-over popular books, or a set text on something like Statistics 101. But indirectly it might help, with the previous categories.
  • Ego – easy to dismiss, but we all have some ego, and the increase in reputation, the sense that you have created an authoritative work in a topic, those can give the ego a boost, which is no bad thing.
  • Interest – writing a book allows you to explore a topic in more detail than any individual paper, and if you have sufficient time, there will be unexpected findings.
  • Bibliophilia – academics are often book lovers, and as I mentioned above, there is something about going through the process of writing and having a published book that appeals to a core part of identity.
  • Fun and creativity – ok, not that much, but writing a book is different from much of academic life, it is more fun than sitting in a three hour teaching committee and allows for more creativity than completing research project timesheets (although these are often works of fiction too).

The point is, it’s worth examining your motivations, and the priorities amongst these. For example, if you are primarily doing it because you need to have a publication on your CV, then it is much more pragmatic task. Get it done, move on. If it something you feel you need to do to express a dampened creative spirit then you will need to ensure that there is room in the proposal and your process for this to flourish. So ask yourself why you’re thinking of writing a book. And having done that, it may be that a book is not the best way to realise that goal, but if it is, then the most important step is the proposal, which I’ll look at next.

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