how to write a book 1: the mindset
Today and tomorrow, I will discuss book writing. Today’s post will be about the basic mindset behind book writing. Most academics are trained to write articles. In some fields, an article might be a few pages long, or a few dozen pages. Books are longer and more ambitious in scope. Their length and sustained argument is a challenge and many academic are not able to complete such a book due to training or temperament.
So here, I want to outline some key differences and help you get in the mindset about writing a book:
- Books are not about narrow nitty gritty arguments. They are sustained arguments in a (mostly) verbal format. You should only write a book when each part of your argument involves a journal article length explanation. Otherwise, think about cutting down to journal size.
- Books are good for very verbal areas (historical work); arguments that collect a lot of different data and thus can’t fit in a 35 page paper; and big ideas that might reach a broad public.
- Books often have wider audiences, even technical books. A well written book can be discussed in academic journals, learned journals (e.g., Foreign Affairs), and mass media (e.g., the NY Times). Even a technical book might reach out, in that other specialists will want to consult “the book” on a topic that goes into gory detail. So when you write a book, be prepared to explain what bigger audience you might be shooting for.
- Books need to justify their existence. It costs about $20k for a single print book. These costs will only be recouped if you sell about 1,000 copies at $20 a pop. Only offer an idea that will (a) be bought by libraries and (b) have some justification to a larger public or cross-disciplinary academic audience.
- Bill Germano’s book writing guide gets it right – you only have 20 pages to really justify the book. If an editor doesn’t get it after about 10 minutes, it won’t get published.
Tomorrow, the book publication process.