If the internet is responsible for one recent, disturbing trend it’s this: The idea that everyone can and should write a book. Entrepreneurs should write books. YouTube stars should write books. Quit your job and become a Kindle author. There’s even one service that specializes in helping enterprising pastors turn their sermons into books, “without having to leave the pulpit.”
It seems inspiring and democratizing, but the truth is that not only has this bit of self-help internet feel-goodery sucked up thousands of hours of the time of otherwise productive people, it has flooded the world with crappy books.
Which is why I have to come out and say it: You should probably not write a book. And you shouldn’t pay someone to write one for you either.
The sales pitch is seductive, and has been honed in the darkest corners of the internet marketing and direct-sales tactics universe.
Never written a single word before? No problem. Have only the vaguest notion of what you’re trying to say or why you’re trying to say it? No worries. Don’t have a single fan clamoring for this idea you don’t have? So what. We can still make you an author. Soon enough you’ll be speaking to sold out crowds and climbing the bestsellers list.
All you have to do is take this course, come to this seminar, buy this package, or—in the case of traditional publishers—sign on this dotted line and take this advance.
On the self-publishing side it’s become a multi-million dollar industry. According to the companies selling these services, a book is “THE unfair business advantage for professionals” as one proclaims on their homepage. For a modest fee, they will deliver “a beautiful book that rivals the quality of any book found on the front table of major bookstores with less than 24 hours of your time.” One self-publishing “school” likes to remind potential customers that being an author “lends an air of authority to your professional endeavors. You can now add ‘author’ to your CV, LinkedIn, and professional website.” If simply adding “author” isn’t enough, some even offer guaranteed “bestseller” status. If $3,250 to buy the title sounds steep, just remember “You’ll forever after be a ‘Bestselling Author!’ a tag that will open doors otherwise closed to you.” Plus, there are financing options.
On the traditional side, agents look for anyone with a platform and beg them to think about doing a book. Have a YouTube channel, a couple hundred thousand Instragram followers, or did you post something on Medium that went viral? That’s what they’re looking for. And it plays to the greed of publishers, who forget that the entire industry to kept afloat by backlist titles which readers actually love and think their job is to chase the fad of the moment—to give book deals to the fidget-spinners and fame balls of the day. Of course none of these people actually have to write these books. The common stat in the publishing industry is that more than half the non-fiction books on the New York Times List each week involved a ghostwriter in some form.
At the core of the pitch is a seductive lie that, to paraphrase the author and poet Austin Kleon, you can be the noun without doing the verb. That you can be a writer without doing any writing, that you can be an author in name and status without suffering or sacrificing for it. That having a book is what matters.
On the other side of that lie, many people are ready to go along with it. Instead of wanting to earn a reputation through their actual accomplishments, they see a book as a shortcut for getting there. For thousands of years books have been unbeatable sources of knowledges and expertise—that’s why the public values them so highly and assumes that the people who write them are important, successful, or wise. Far too many entrepreneurs-turned-authors are trying to take advantage of that—hoping, hustling—so that someone will confuse their Chrysler 300 for a Bentley (remember the pitch: Books “lend an air of authority.” Translation: create the illusion). An actor thinks “If I can just have ‘author’ on my Wikipedia page, people will finally respect me. The YouTuber thinks, well, if they are just giving these deals away, who am I to say no?
That this devalues books in the process, turns them into little more than business cards or the literary equivalent of framed photo-ops with celebrities, doesn’t bother them in the least.
It’s interesting how many people are willing to do this, many of them being smart individuals who would be never go into business with someone because that person has a photo with Bono hanging on the wall. Yet these same people, who are constantly on the lookout for “wantrapreneurs” or posers in their own industry, can’t see that that is exactly what they are being pushed to become.
I’m not saying that there aren’t benefits to writing a book and that you can’t have help. I’ve published six books (many were real sustained bestsellers—what are called perennial sellers in the industry) and they have had enormous impact on my career and business. My company also has assembled an impressive track record developing, co-writing, and marketing major books that have earned large advances and sold well.
Yet I still tell the vast majority of people thinking about writing a book that they shouldn’t do it—even though I could very easily profit from encouraging them to—because I know how hard it is to do it right. The success the internet marketers or commission-seeking agents tell people is right there for the picking is actually quite rare, and requires much more work than it appears. More directly, if a would-be author is already looking for shortcuts, they definitely won’t find the rewards they are looking for in books.
There is the line from J.P Morgan: “A man always has two reasons for doing anything: a good reason and the real reason.” Writing a book because you think it will get you clients is not a good reason. Writing a book because it will look good on your social media profiles isn’t either. Same goes for: “It will boost my career,” “I want to impress people,” “My competitor did it,” “I heard you can make money speaking this way,” or “It looks fun.” And worse of all is the shrug and “Well, they paid me to do it.”
A lot of people want to be professional athletes. That they think it will make them rich or that it seems cool on TV is not remotely enough motivation to get them through to the finish line (nor is it what sports are about). Likewise, there is only one reason sufficient to produce a great book: you have something important to say, and you can’t not say it.
The great Cyril Connolly would observe that, “The more books we read, the clearer it becomes that the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and that no other task is of any consequence.” You can’t phone in making a great book. You can’t really even pay someone to do it for you. You have to do it. You might be able to pay someone to do it with you, to give advice, but nobody farms out a masterpiece.
Would you expect good treatment from a doctor who bought their degree online? Would you expect to sell out your inventory to followers you bought on Twitter? Do you think that you can pay someone to create a business for you?
No, you wouldn’t expect a full-sized return on a half-assed effort. You would never approach any other project the way many of these would-be authors have been encouraged to view books. What would you tell me if I said every author should start a company—that it would be good for their brands? What would you tell me if I said I was going to dabble in your field and that I expected the results of the top 1% of the field for my half-hearted efforts? To put a book out into the world but “do not focus on book sales.” Go to the gym but don’t focus on getting in shape. Invest wisely but don’t focus on returns. Start a company but don’t focus on the customer.
I tell people not write books because books matter and we should despair at a world filled with thousands of self-indulgent, posturing books that are nothing more than advertising and an ineffective means to an unrealistic end. (Something to think about: If you can buy a book in a box, so can everyone else). The time and expertise of other people is valuable and meaningful too. They should spend it doing what they do—not chasing a rainbow. I think they should invest their money in their art or business, not in boosting their own ego. They would do well to ask themselves whether they are creating a masterpiece or if they are simply contributing to “a market flooded with forgettable books created by companies for hire”? If their goal really is to create something special, by all means, go ahead.
I love books. They are my life. They are responsible for all that I know. I am grateful for what they have done for me as a reader and as a writer and as an entrepreneur. To watch them become commodified, and turned into some item on a best practices checklist tears at my insides.
I know how many people got where they are by reading, I know they love books too and all the wisdom within them. The only way you or I or anyone can create anything close to that is putting in the work. And if you can’t, or you won’t, then please save yourself and your business and the world the trouble.
Don’t write a book.