5 Reasons why you don’t need to write a book

People ask me all the time how they can get a book deal. So I had my agent write a post on how to get a book deal. But really, I’m telling you, you probably don’t need to write a book. Every time I ask someone why they want to write a book, they have a terrible answer.

So instead of worrying about how maybe you need to get a book deal, consider these reasons why a book deal is no good for you:

1. People who have a lot of ideas need a blog, not a book.
A blog is more immediate, so you'll get better feedback. And getting feedback as you go is much more intellectually rigorous than printing a final compendium of your ideas and getting feedback from the public only when it’s too late to change anything.

Many people think they have a ton of ideas and they are brimming with book possibilities when in fact, most of us have very few new ideas. If you have so many ideas, prove it to the world and start blogging. There is nothing like a blog to help you realize you have nothing new to say.

And, if you do end up having an amazing blog that focuses on one, big grand idea with great writing to boot, then you can get a book deal from your blog.

2. A book is an outdated way to gain authority.
It’s true that lots of people think that book authors are the people with authority. But anyone can have good ideas, and only some good ideas fit into book format. On top of that, the people who are on the cutting edge of any topic are not waiting the two years it takes to deliver new ideas in a book. Instead, they're reading articles and blogs and discussion online with all the immediacy of the Internet.

So if you feel like no one is giving you credit for having good ideas because you don’t have a book, think again: Maybe your ideas just aren't that good. Or maybe you are trying to get credibility with people who don’t know how to assess authority in the information age.

3. Books lead to speaking careers, but speaking careers often lead nowhere.
This reason actually works, because one thing a book really does provide is enough traditional authority to get you speaking gigs. People who schedule speakers are reluctant to give you a slot unless you have a book published by a top-tier publisher.

But before you get giddy about those huge speaking fees that take you to Hawaii and Belgium, remember that the life of a public speaker may not be what you expect. You don’t really connect with people and work with them, but instead flit from city to city making one-hour connections and then leaving. Also, it’s great to get a gig in Newport Beach, but usually it’ll be Bismarck or Birmingham. And the constant travel will keep you so tired that you’ll become numb to those chic-chic accommodations.

But really, the biggest problem with the life of a public speaker is that it is so tenuous, because you have to speak about what you do, but if all you do is speak, then it’s a Mobius puzzle that ends with you having nothing to say. So most speakers have to eventually figure out what to do after the speaking is over. Which means why not just forget the book and figure out your post-speaking career before you even start?

4. You’ll make more money per hour flipping burgers than writing a book.
The odds that your book will be a best seller are absolutely terrible. Writing fiction is an impossible life unless you hit the jackpot. There’s a great article in the New Yorker about a relatively famous, established novelist who cannot support himself on book advances. I can’t find that article, but just trust me: It’s a very very hard industry to survive in.

Nonfiction books are a better bet for personal survival, but this is not to say books are big money makers. Most nonfiction books are paperback originals which means they are $50,000 advances, and most of you could earn more than that spending a year in an office.

On top of that, a book costs so much in time that it’s a cost center which you have to justify by deciding what you are using the book to sell. And that’s the crux of all of this: That a book is a marketing tool. You can market your company or yourself or your blog or an idea, but you need to have something you want the book to support.

5. When you’re feeling lost, a book won’t save you.
A book will not give you direction in life. A book is something you write in order to get you to where you’re going. If you have nowhere to go, a book will insure that you stay where you are: Lost.

People use books like law school. They think if they have some piece of paper — a degree, a contract — then people will respect them and then they’ll respect themselves. But self-respect comes from having some sort of vision for one’s life and heading in that direction. And there is no one who can give you that vision — you have to give it to yourself, and before you can feel like you have direction, you have to feel lost — and lost is okay.

So stop with the idea that you need a book. Most people who think they need a book deal probably need to answer the question: What will I be doing two years after that book? Do you really need the book to get where you want to go? Probably not.

Posted in How to blog, Journalism, No image
250 comments on “5 Reasons why you don’t need to write a book
  1. Shefaly says:

    Interesting advice, considering that you did not stop at the first book, but are indeed working on a second one. :-)

    • Jonathan B. Williams says:

      Yes, that irony didn’t escape me either. Certainly, not everyone *needs* to write a book, but discouraging people from writing a book when you’ve already written a couple seems disingenuous at best.

  2. Caitlin says:

    You make interesting points but do you think the situation is different for journalists? I feel that it’s almost expected of me in order to earn more authority and get better journalistic gigs. Also, I am pretty sure that I would find the research and writing easier than the average person, even though I’m under no illusions about the amount of work.

  3. Dkdanielson says:

    Totally agree with your point 3 for many reasons, but love that you pointed out the fact that if all you do is speak, then you lose your expertise (unless you’re speaking about speaking!). It helps if you run a business with speaking and writing as ancillary byproducts.

  4. Leanne says:

    Hello there … I believe your concept that blogging is a great book substitute is true …

    But I might have liked you to end on a more positive note … if one feels one should write a book then by all means do so – but do it for the personal experience of commiting and seeing a project thru … do it with no expectation it will go anywhere … do it for the joy it brings to oneself not the effect it will have on the rest of the world.

    It then becomes a positive thing … I have a 30 000 word childrens novel written some years ago … it sits and now and then I revisit it .. but mainly it just sits and waits till my two boys are old enough for me to read it to them.

    My five year old has written and illustrated a book “Grow Flowers Grow” and it is published on my blog … he is thrilled and his love affair with words continues to grow … This is a good thing.

  5. Leanne says:

    And I remain someone who loves your work – book or blog form – either is fine ..

  6. Andrew Flusche says:

    Nice article, Penelope!

    I’m a fan of ebooks. If you really think you need a book deal, why don’t you try to write an ebook first? There are some pretty good ebook publishers that will help you with design, editing, and marketing. You certainly won’t get rich, but you can get a taste of being an author.

    An up-and-coming ebook publisher is Web Warrior Tools.

    Now, back to writing my own ebook.

  7. Alexandra Levit says:

    Penelope, thank you for sharing the truth about book publishing with the large audience here. I get asked these questions every day myself, and make many of the same points.

    I especially like the point that if your career consists solely of public speaking, you eventually lose your connection to what gave you something interesting to say in the first place.

    Best,

    Alexandra Levit
    Author, How’d You Score That Gig?
    Blogger, Water Cooler Wisdom

  8. Working Girl says:

    Ha. No. 4 is certainly true. Fortunately I am too lame at math and recordkeeping to be able to ever figure out much per hour my book will earn me….

    However, you leave out the tremendous FUN it is to create a book. You are making something, an artifact, out of your own head. And it’s a fascinating collaborative process as well.

    But if it’s money you’re after, then burger flipping is definitely the better alternative.

  9. Jen says:

    Thanks for saying this. I came from a meeting with 50 other entreps recently who all insisted I finish my books because I somehow ‘need them’. I have a full-time private practice, a blog, a monthly newsletter and about 20 other things going on in my work and a book has somehow made it to the bottom of my list. I believe in the old school before technology books were more important. Today, I go for quick, easy and useful and if you are writing a book just to get a book out – who wins there?

  10. Lance says:

    I haven’t really thought much about a book. But, when I began blogging, writing made a connection for me. And a big part of that connection was the interaction I get with others. And that’s something that is important to me. And something I probably wouldn’t have at the same level with a book.

    That said, I have thought a bit about speaking, so you section on that was most helpful. And came from a viewpoint I hadn’t considered, so thanks for writing this. Seeing something from all sides make it much easier to evaluate.

  11. Ari Herzog says:

    Of course, we’re talking about nonfiction books, right? Nobody’s suggesting blogs replace Harry Potter books?

    • Harold says:

      Although it’s kinda interesting to publish or follow a fiction story on blog every week. But I still think that being a published author is still the ultimate way to become the authority. Everybody can blog but few writers can be published.

  12. Susan says:

    Penelope, so many people think that writing a book is the only way to be credible as a writer. On the contrary, I feel like building a platform FIRST and then possibly writing a book (if at all) is the way to go. It seems like you would have greater marketability and more clout with publishers by going that route.

    When I became a full time writer, a lot of people told me “you should write a book, then you’d be rich.” Uh… right. Next time someone says that to me I will forward them this blog post.

  13. Gordon says:

    Got rejected for a book deal did you?

  14. Debbie Stier says:

    I could not agree with you more. I work in book publishing….and EVERYONE I meet tells me about their book idea…..and I tell them there are 3000 books published EVERY SINGLE DAY…..do you have any idea how hard it is to get attention and succeed with all of that competition? Personally, I wish there were fewer books, the books were better, and we could focus more on the ones we choose to publish. I just switched jobs and am now working in a new imprint that will only publish 25 books a year (I used to be responsible for about 400 a year). What a relief.

  15. stephanie says:

    Now I’m curious. Why did you write a book?

    * * * * *

    Because I didn’t know any of this beforehand :)

    But, that said, I worked really hard to figure out how to use the book brand to build something bigger. (Hence brazencareerist.com).

    Penelope

  16. MJ says:

    So, how is blogging better? A lot of bloggers go on to speaking careers or write books. Is there that much money to be made from blog ad revenue (Dooce notwithstanding)?

    * * * * * *
    This is what I don’t like about ad revenue as a model for blogging: It is like being on a hamster wheel. You have to wake up and post every day and if you don’t, your revenue goes down. I think there are many better ways to leverage the online brand that blogging builds. Ramit Sethi’s blog iwillteachyoutoberich.com is a great example of expanding a blog brand in ways that does not require constant posting and ad revenue.

    Penelope

  17. Josh Russo says:

    If you’re like me, a book is just an excuse to think, plan, and never write. So, for non-fiction I love the blogging approach because it separates the content creation from the intimidating part of writing a book, which is, knowing what you want to say and filling a book with it. Stand it on its head, by writing what you care about and only then using your 20/20 hindsight to figure out what your point is.

    For example, I read lots of DIY books, and had this eureka moment when I realized that so many of the books are just collections of articles on a given topic from whatever DIY (woodworking, home repair, whatever) mag the publisher has. Lifehacker published a book, and I assume that’s just a well-organized collection of a bunch of good posts. Bruce Smith, my best-ever writing instructor said “lie, cheat, and steal” and one of the biggest mistake I ever make in writing is failing to steal from myself! Like I have a great idea, and heaven forbid I use it twice.

    But I digress. Personally, I’m dying to hear some of those terrible reasons for writing a book.

  18. prklypr says:

    “People use books like law school. They think if they have some piece of paper – €“ a degree, a contract – €“ then people will respect them and then they’ll respect themselves…”

    This is the essence of this post. I think many people who write non-fiction books do it to validate themselves, not to make millions or travel the country for speaking engagements – those are just the perks. Penelope, you’ve hit the nail on the head: just like brown is the new black, ‘published author’ is the new law school.

  19. Teri says:

    Well, how nice to get the confirmation that I’m doing things right! I started a blog to put out all my little bookish ideas and if it leads to a speaking gig or book deal that’s just whipped cream on the sundae! Just Me
    http://happilyevenafter.blogspot.com/

  20. Victor Stachura says:

    And WHY is it that everyone that HAS a book and speaking career says “Don’t write a book or start a speaking career”? Hmm?

  21. christine wach says:

    I think what is most interesting about this post is not so much about whether writing a book is a good idea or not. Obviously for some it is and for some it isn’t.

    The real point is that:lost is okay. So everyone may have a different thing that they might convince themselves they need to accomplish in order to feel respected and like they have ‘arrived’. So if the motivator to write the novel is actually fear of not knowing what the heck to do next. Then, yes, it is a bad idea.

    For some people their thing will be a novel, for others it will be Law School or a Graduate Degree.

    The ROI on all of these things is terrible if you are doing them for the wrong reasons.

  22. Susan Ireland says:

    Writing a book can be very satisfying. I’ve had four published and I totally enjoyed working with my editors and seeing the end result on store shelves. But that was back in the 90s, and three of my four books are now out of print simply because books aren’t as sexy or immediate as online content.

    Wannabe authors ask me about writing a book, and many of them have something valuable to say. I encourage them to write the hardcopy version for their satisfaction but not for the money. If you’re not a household name already, you’re probably not going to become one because of your book. But do it for yourself (or your grandmother!). Be sure you have a good contract and that the manuscript is copyrighted in your name (not the publisher’s) so you can later use the material online, if you want.

  23. Lamar Mundane says:

    The New Yorker article, “Moby Dick in Manhattan” is about the novelist James Wilcox. Now that he’s out of NYC and is now a professor at LSU, my hunch is he’s more prosperous.

    Here’s the link to the story:

    http://www.newyorker.com/archive/1994/06/27/1994_06_27_046_TNY_CARDS_000370611

    * * * * *

    Oh, thanks so much for the link. I love when stuff like this happens in the comments section!

    -Penelope

  24. Mr. Salamack says:

    Thank you for kick in pants! I’ve been sitting on this idea for a blog for months now and I finally see that I need to start filling it in!

  25. Pamela Slim says:

    Damn you, why did you write this just when I am trying to finish my book?

    :)

    Yes, many reasons not to write a book. I agree with everything you said.

    But on the flipside, when you have the chance to synthesize a lot of your thoughts into a book that will be a useful reference for people you care about, it is a good exercise.

    I have been told by other authors to not see “The Book” as the end result, rather as a calling card for other things you do in your biz to generate revenue.

    -Pam

  26. Milena Thomas says:

    I can’t imagine that the discipline of writing a book is not valuable. Not everything is about making craploads of money anyways!

    My teacher wrote a book, and she does plenty of speaking/lecturing, but that is precisely the lifestyle she was going for. Furthermore, I recommend her book to all my students, it is my primary text as a voice teacher – without it, I’d have been lost. A blog simply would not have been effective or met the needs of my teacher, myself, our students, or lecturees.

  27. bilbo says:

    Yeh, but I bet if I wrote a book on Blackberry’s, it would increase my chances of getting that Blackberry gig.

  28. Dorothy says:

    Isn’t this from an earlier post? I feel like my friend sent me this exact article when she was first telling me about you.

  29. crystal says:

    first of all, can we become best friends? seriously.
    i’d be really fun and we could shop at target and such. (that’s what best friends do right?) i love your blog so much.

    second of all, i love this post. my secret fantasy is to make money off my personal blog. and every time i tell people this they look at me like i just said i want to make money going to disney world drunk every weekend. some have said i should try to write a book and then inter-market it with my blog, but I’m not even sure where to begin with something like that.

    and you’re right, i want to write a book because i feel lost and i don’t know what to do next in my life.

    see. we’d be such good best friends. you already know so much about me.

    just sayin.

  30. earlgreyrooibos says:

    In May, I finished my M.A., moved 1500 miles from home, and started a new job. And then, since I literally did feel lost in my own life, I decided to write a book.

    That lasted about a month. Then I started taking on more responsibilities at work, finding volunteering, and just getting more involved in my new community, and I realized that blogging was enough to sustain my writing bug. Heck, even THAT has slowed down a bit since I started making friends and such. I don’t need a book!

    Although I think I will still try NaNoWriMo this fall . . .

  31. Chris says:

    I am forwarding your post on to my father-in-law who has been working on “the book” since I first met him (10+ years). He is college professor and former non-profit executive that feels his experiences would be beneficial to others. Blogging, speaking are so much easier and beneficial to the target audience.

    I agree with you, a book for the writer is some form of validation to their life.

  32. Juki Schor says:

    I guess it would prevent a decent amount of trees from being killed and the water pollution from paper industries might go down as well if less people wrote books. I just have a hard time to imagine myself sitting with a laptop and read stories to my kids from the screen. Otherwise there seem to be a lot of odd reasons why people write books and that was interesting information, thanks.

  33. Jim D'Amico says:

    Writing is tough and it needs to be a passion. As a stand up, I write at least an hour a day, every day, and edit at least half that time on previous writing (multiply that by ten years – yikes!). If it wasn’t my passion, I’d never be able to do it, since the day job still pays the bills, and for every 5 hours I write I boil it down to about 2 minutes of usable material.

  34. Jon says:

    There are a million reasons not to do things, and it’s odd that you’d pick only 5. As someone who loves to write and may have reached the max potential of his blog, this line hit like a punch:

    “If you feel like no one is giving you credit for having good ideas because you don’t have a book, think again: Maybe your ideas just aren't that good.”

    What people really need is reasons to do things, and a reasons to go against the grain.

  35. Victor Stachura says:

    Why is it that everyone whose written a book and has a speaking career tells everyone “don’t write a book and start a speaking career”? Hmm?

  36. Scott @ The Passive Dad says:

    #1 if you have a lot of ideas write a blog not a book. This is especially helpful if you like to write off-topic pieces. I don’t know if an editor or publisher would allow a writer to get off-topic on a novel or book.

  37. Suzy Oge says:

    I can’t tell you how many times I hear this every week from the small business starters I advise/support/coach/coax. So many of them rattle off writing a book as part of their “business plan” (I use this term loosely). In most cases, it is an excuse to procrastinate actually starting their business. These individuals are the more extreme version of the ones that can’t start promoting their business, product or service until their website is ready and then drag it out for up to a year. Many people still view their website as if they were writing a book, delivering a final product. Of course they would be better off if their site was alive instead of dead!

  38. Dora says:

    One of my favourite bloggers got big with his blog, and is now on the speaking circuit so much that he rarely updates his blog anymore. And I’ve gotten bored and doesn’t visit his blog anymore.

    People get big, and then they forget what made them big in the first place.

  39. Don B. says:

    If you read the breadth of your blog and the comments it is as a book. I can picture some sort of fiction based on your blog, comments from start to finish as the outline, then with some polish and embellishment the story of Penelope the blogger. You could have flashbacks to earlier times and imagine the future. You would describe the times you were the sentinel of career advice and the times when you were the delicate flower it the morning frost. Oops, this blog was about not writing a book.

  40. Grace says:

    Over 60% of college students take more than four years to graduate! Those extra semesters don't just mean more tuition, it's also time, income and job experience that's being pushed into the future. A great number of these students take longer to graduate because they start school without a firm idea for a career path and end up changing majors two or three times.
    "Profile XT", the most advanced psychometric career match tool available today, can save students and their parents money, time and headaches by providing complete and accurate information on a student's best career matches to assist in making an informed decision. Learn more about the tool at http://www.findyourcareermatch.com and be in the right program of study from day one.

  41. pink panther says:

    I agree 100% – I wrote a book once – the advance will give you pennies per hour of work you put into it, and you are NOT going to make any money. If the book sells its first print run you’ll be doing fantastic and you won’t break even on that. The only way you’d break even is if you have a perennial best-seller, and those are so rare it’s not worth taking the chance. Also consider opportunity costs – I wrote my book during the late 90s when the Internet thing was going on and could have been doing other things – almost anything you do will be a better time investment than a book! I can’t discourage you strongly enough from writing a book. When I see mine now I want to throw up.

    If you want to write, do it under the Creative Commons. Do it for love of your subject. At least then money won’t be involved and you will not lose money. You can typeset the book yourself in LaTeX and let a print-on-demand service make dead-tree copies if the PDF and HTML isn’t good enough. If you love something enough to write it do it as a donation to humanity or something through the CC license and forget the publishing industry!

  42. Rachel says:

    Penelope, good post – similar to a previous one, but if people keep asking, I suppose you have to keep telling them!

    I think it’s important to remember the kind of writing you’re talking about, which is nonfiction. It is ideas you want to share with others or experiences from your business or your life, or in the case of you, Penelope, the way you juggle both. To bounce off what pink panther just said, you should write if writing is your passion or if it’s a subject you’re really really passionate about, something you absolutely cannot stand not sharing with others. That’s kind of what being a speaker is, isn’t it? There are different outlets for your thoughts; you just need to pick one that suits you.

    I have started my own blog, and a blog is great for putting down ephemeral ideas or those your experience warrants you to advise on. I want to be a fiction writer. Every time I read a blog that says don’t write a book, I tell myself that I can’t not try to write a book because I have stories in my head which would be sad not to share, even though I know the odds of having a bestseller. But I am a young writer, so I have began stories but not finished them. I decided this would be a good opportunity to take snippets of my writing and make them blog posts, and maybe one day I can piece them together to make a novel, or two.

    I don’t know that my blog will ever do anything for me in the long run, but I took your advice and just did it. Who knows what it will become?

  43. Mrs. Micah says:

    @Ari Herzog re: blogs not replacing novels

    Just throwing this out there, some of the earliest novels were epistolary (letter form) or published in small segments in magazines. It’s totally feasible to use a blog to put out a novel though it might be better to use a content-management system like drupal, which actually has a book for.

    Of course, it would require substantial writing and editing before posting the installments. But it’s an option for self-publishing. Or you could write the book as you go along as a sort-of exercise in plot.

    Or you could use a private blog to make sure you get your writing done if writing in WordPress/Blogger/Typepad comes more easily to you!

  44. Rachel says:

    Mrs. Micah – thanks for the feedback! Good advice – the latter two points I think are right on target. I think putting out short segments is an excellent exercise for plot writing. I also think that posting a new chapter every week to a blog is an interesting idea for a novel-in-progress (like you said, it would require a lot of work and a lot of editing). Blogging is also a disciplinary measure for me, so if I focus (acc. to Penelope’s recommendation) 4 days per week to blogging, it’s a great way to get a substantial amount of writing done.

    Do you have more info on drupal? I’m not familiar with that. Thanks again.

  45. Karen H. says:

    Amen!

    As a debut author myself, I completely agree with your points. There’s a reason the cliche – write because you love it – exists. :) That’s the only reason that will satisfy.

    Great post.

  46. Bev says:

    I’m bookmarking this entry so that when people tell me I “ought to write a book,” I can give it to them. *I* know writing a book is a TERRIBLE idea. I know my limitations. I’ve seen authors spend thousands of dollars and get dozens of rejections. I have a friend who is a legend in his field of writing yet he can’t pay his mortgage. I write because I love writing. I blog because I love blogging. If I have an audience, that’s the whipped cream on top, but I’d write even if I knew nobody would ever read it. I don’t need a book deal to make my writing mean something to me.

  47. Jessica Bond says:

    If this is true, then we should all burn our Barnes and Noble discount cards, forget about movies that are based on books, and sell any stock in the book industry.

  48. John says:

    Victor Stachura says:
    > And WHY is it that everyone that HAS a book
    > and speaking career says “Don’t write a book
    > or start a speaking career”? Hmm?

    Ha ha, indeed! Excellent point.

    • florida says:

      Exactly! While they are making money on their blog by readers, and other bloggers get notoriety by linking up. Penelope is not an expert…she got her info from someone else because there’s nothing to write. WRITE YOUR BOOK.

  49. Debbie Weil, author of The Corporate Blogging Book says:

    You make some great points. Sad but true, a book may not necessarily get you where you want to go. The flush of excitement about your book wears off all too soon… still, glad I did it. It had always been a goal of mine. So maybe that’s a good reason…

  50. Liza's Eyeview says:

    “There is nothing like a blog to help you realize you have nothing new to say.” – Oh that is true! :)

    Great post. Thank you.

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