I became a journalist so I could write, rather than a writer so I could practice journalism. Accordingly, it’s been a slow but natural transition to move from newspapering at The Seattle Times to writing nonfiction books and fiction. I had dreamed of being a novelist since I was a kid, and now am the astonished author of 15 books and counting.
With journalism in turmoil, book writing is an obvious alternative. Unfortunately the book industry is in turmoil too, with Borders declaring bankruptcy (the latest in a long line of mass market store-on-pavement booksellers to do so), independent bookstores under siege, and e-books challenging the old economics.
Is a move to book writing like leaping from the frying pan to the fire? The list of journalists-turned-author is legion, including Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Joan Didion, Carl Hiaasen, Susan Sontag, and Michael Connelly. Even longer would be a list of reporters who tried books and didn’t care for the labor, uncertainty and poor return.
Publishers rely on reporters’ ability to produce on demand, be succinct, meet deadlines, cooperate with editors, and write for general audiences. Unfortunately, book writing is even more competitive than journalism. Publishers in the United States alone issue more than 6,000 books a week. Entry can be hard: agent Jennifer Weltz told the Historical Novel Society in June that of 8,000 queries she receives in a typical year, she will take on five new clients. And like professional sports, acting or music, writing books tends to be a winner-take-all profession in which the top authors—often celebrities to start with—reap outsize rewards while the majority of authors, including many who were journalists, struggle.
I’ve been fortunate. Books got my kids through college and produced the bulk of my retirement savings. (This says more about newspaper pay than my success as an author.) But book writing is unstable, and during the 21 years that I’ve had some kind of book contract, I’ve also worked as a full-time journalist, half-time journalist, half-time college professor, freelancer, ghostwriter, speaker, or consultant to keep things going. In 2001, when I gambled on a new novel and 9/11 temporarily shut down the industry, my income was zero.
Aspiring authors talk craft. Established authors talk business. The biggest shift in going from journalism to books is not from scribe to artist, but employee to entrepreneur—suddenly self-employed, with no benefits, no expense account, and no security. Your mission is to become a brand, figure out how to market it, and then reapply for your job every year or two with a new and enticing proposal for a publisher.
Why do it? Freedom. Control. Creativity. Self-expression. No commute. No news cycle. With the right combination of talent, persistence and luck, there’s a chance to earn more money than in a newsroom. Books can also earn you royalties for years or decades after publication.
Cover a topic of high interest—such as terrorism, Wall Street shenanigans, a politician or celebrity from your own stomping grounds, or a “stay-healthy”—and there’s the likelihood of getting a contract and monetary advance for a nonfiction book by producing a compelling 20- to 40-page proposal with convincing evidence that the idea can sell and that you know how to sell it. Publishers produce at least two times as many nonfiction books as novels and are looking for journalist storytellers. To get a novel published means producing the entire book before trying to sell it.
First Book—To Last
There’s no typical route to authorship, but mine is illustrative. Simon & Schuster wanted a book on the Northwest timber wars in 1989, a dispute I covered. I wrote a proposal, it went back and forth several times, and FedEx coincidentally stuck the contract in my screen door the same day in 1990 that I shared a Pulitzer Prize for covering the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
My exasperated agent said the modest $30,000 advance could have doubled if I had known the prize was coming. I didn’t. I also centered that 1992 book, “The Final Forest,” in Forks, Washington, but failed to put a single vampire in it. Later I calculated that author Stephenie Meyer sold more copies of her “Twilight” series in 20 minutes than I had of “The Final Forest” in 20 years. So it goes.
A book on the Columbia River followed, but a half dozen others on that subject came out the same spring. Bumping into such competition is a likely consequence of writing books on newsworthy topics.
When I couldn’t sell an idea for a nonfiction book on Antarctica, I decided to try a novel based on a real-life Nazi expedition to the continent. It was a mess: I had to get rid of Hitler, pick up the pace, and more fully develop characters.
In journalism you often conceal your heart; in fiction you mine it. In journalism facts can carry a story; in fiction the telling becomes crucial so style and insight grow in importance. Newspaper editors cut the clutter of descriptive detail while fiction editors demand it. In journalism the punch line usually comes at the beginning, in fiction usually at the end. And so on. I spent nine months revising after it initially sold, but “Ice Reich” did well enough to launch my fiction career. I’m now editing an 11th novel and starting two more.
Having made every mistake in the book (pun intended), here’s some advice:
- Newsroom skills like timeliness, localizing the story, and speed are less useful for books. Your story should be as timeless and global as possible. It can take at least a year to write a book, a year from acceptance to publication, and a year to paperback. Aim high, write for the ages, and think foreign and digital rights.
- Don’t write for mom, your English professor, city editor, the critics, or newsroom know-it-alls. Write for you and (maybe) the folks at the mall.
- Think audience and where your words will be shelved. Readers must recognize your “brand” and know where to find you. My reluctance to define myself cost me sales.
- For commercial fiction, you’ll likely be asked to do a book a year, to be flexible to trends, and to heed marketing. Listen.
- Don’t reinvent the wheel. Read books on how to write books. For nonfiction, start with “Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction—and Get it Published,” by Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato.
- Don’t dabble, plunge. Get a website and Internet presence, attend and speak at writer conferences, read at bookstores, study your genre. Few authors hit it big with their first book. Philip Roth has written about 30 books, Stephen King and Elmore Leonard about 50, Danielle Steel 105, Nora Roberts 210. Hard work!
I tremendously enjoyed journalism. But burnout, health issues, age and the newspaper slump meant books came at a good time for me. It’s probably easier to stick with journalism. But some have the itch. If you have to scratch, you know it.