On Seeing, A Journal. #293

March 12th, 2019

Writing A Book? Don’t Tell Me About It

Books at the Morgan Library, NYC

When I hear someone exclaim, “I am writing a book.” I experience visceral discomfort, realizing that such premature declaration might be — and usually is — the kiss of death.

Recently, I met someone new to me at a social gathering, who told me he was writing a book. He casually told me a good deal about his ideas and chapters, and even that he had included an announcement about this projected book on his web site.

Curious (and concealing skepticism), I asked, “How much of it is written.”

I also asked during the conversation, “What is your routine for writing and when do you expect to finish?”
“It’s about half-done,” he responded. “I work on it whenever I can sneak an hour or so…every once in a while.”

For his sake I hope that he does complete and publish his book. However, my guess is that though he thought he was half finished, he was at most ten percent done; editing and re-editing often takes considerably longer than the original writing. I’m all too familiar with the “95% rule” of writing a book: “The first 95% of the work takes 95% of the time; the last 5% takes 95% of the time.” Sometimes it’s 99%.

And based on what I’d heard, which seemed to be the natural desire to assume credit for an idea before real work was done, I also thought that it was possible there would never be a real book produced.

For those who make their living writing, it is a fact that writer’s write regularly, tenaciously and usually alone. “I work on it whenever I can sneak an hour or so…every once and awhile,” makes it unlikely to reach the finish line.

The non-professional writer usually has to make a living with a full-time job other than writing, and so he or she needs to set a rigorous, almost addictive schedule, a fixed routine with specific goals so that there is steady progress. Writing is so hard that a book will likely never reach completion without tenacious regular, religious devotion.

Whether a book is ever published is a test of how bad one wants it, how strongly one yearns to bring it to life.

The creation, including the writing, re-writing, editing, editing and more editing, designing (with decisions about the graphic look, paper quality, type font, cover, end papers), publishing, marketing, distributing, and promoting a book is a daunting process. Announcing it prematurely dilutes the emotional as well as physical energy necessary for getting it written and following through to production.
Obviously it makes sense to discuss a book’s progress with advisors and experts as a necessary part of research and thinking; not to just anyone.
My advice: Keep public talk of a book (and probably any “super idea”) inside and let it come out as work, progressive effort and only when the exceptionally difficult labor produces something you can hold in your hand or click on, open and read. It’s bursting inside of you—let it out only as words on a page, images captioned and inserted; it takes major and thoughtful discipline.

When you finally do have a book, go ahead and announce it, show it off, publicize it. In fact, not to do so proves the P.T. Barnum adage: “Without publicity, something terrible happens: nothing.”

Also, though best sellers get a lot of attention, most books make no profit for the author/writer/artist. A book can serve as a confirmation of expertise, a calling card or a foot in the door. I suggest make a deal with the publisher to buy at a significant discount a number of books you can give to people important to your career or the field you’re in and perhaps to friends and loved ones. Publicists routinely send dozens if not hundreds of books to reviewers at magazines, television news programs, web sites and newspapers. Your publisher is likely never to provide as many “publicity” copies as you want to send out.

And, it is said that after the publication of a book, the labor of months or years lives on for what seems like a few minutes, or a week at most. If the author is lucky and the book is compelling enough, there may be published reviews, readings and interviews, and then the world will move on to something else. (Book publicity is another subject—for another time.)

So when people ask me, “Are you working on a book?” or, “Will this work become a book?” I attempt to control the urge to tell all and respond, “I’m working hard on some projects and deriving great satisfaction from the work.”

The Library of Congress.
With steady, tenacious hard work maybe that fellow will have his book housed here one day.
I wish him good luck.