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Rick Foster

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Are You Sure You Want to Write a Book?

Posted: 10/15/09 03:20 PM ET

Pretty much everybody wants to write a book. I know this because I've co-written a book, and everywhere I go -- for keynote speeches, presentations, training sessions, or to talk about our topic in any form -- people emerge from the audience to tell me about the book they, too, are writing.

Our first book was about happiness. It was called How We Choose to Be Happy, and it chronicled our travels interviewing people who make certain "choices" to live wonderful, elevated, enjoyable lives. It turns out that almost 80% of Americans are also writing books on happiness -- and, as amazing as it may seem, they've told us that they, too, are writing about happiness as a choice.

Initially I was incredulous -- and, frankly, unhappy -- that we seemed to have so many competitors. But, in over a decade of talking to many hundreds of our would-be writer colleagues, only three have actually published. What I didn't see is that the chasm between writing a book and actually publishing a book is vast. In fact, writing and getting published are two entirely different projects. The following are some thoughts about writing with the hope of helping any would be writers.

Why does nearly everyone want to write a book? There are a number of answers. There is a subset of the population that really enjoys putting words to paper. To them I say, "Go for it!" You'll love the process. There's another subset that is in love with the idea of being "published" -- having a book to their name seems to have some kind of cache'. This group should proceed with caution, and perhaps look for something easier and more lucrative to satisfy their needs. Writing is often painful and doesn't pay much. Another block of possible-writers are, in fact, dedicated readers who forget that reading and writing are interdependent activities but lack any true causality. One does not necessarily lead to the other. My suggestion to this group: keep reading, please. We need you! You maintain all of the following in writing-related businesses: Authors, publishers, editors, admen (and adwomen), printers, critics, PR agencies, radio interviewers, bloggers, librarians, and many, many more. We desperately need you to keep buying (or borrowing) books to stimulate the marketplace.

But, if you're truly dedicated to the idea of book-writing, here's a very simple list of pluses - the good reasons and enjoyable outcomes of writing, and the "deltas" -- the downside of taking on the writing of a book. This will help you decide if you, too, want to write a book on happiness... or anything else.

On the "plus" side:

1. We have established a kind of heartwarming intimacy with people we've never met that can only come through the author-reader relationship, and, their emails have frequently moved me beyond words. I feel honored to have been part of their lives.

2. I have never learned more. The intense process of converting ideas into words is incredibly stimulating. And I became deeply aware of how much I didn't know.

3. I have met some of the most wonderful people along the journey.

4. It brought Greg Hicks, my partner and co-author, much closer to me. (See the problem with this in the "deltas" below.)

5. Books are like calling cards. I am often well-known to people, even clients, before they meet me. It's an odd feeling, but they seem to care about what I've been thinking and writing. It creates an almost instant "connection."

Some of the "Deltas":

1. Apropos the comment in item #4 above about Greg and me: Writing to a publishing industry deadline is, well, potentially deadly. At 2 a.m. on the day our final draft was due, Greg got so frustrated with me that he threw a chair at my head, missing me by only a couple of inches. I was blameless in the situation, of course. "Greg," I said, "It's a lucky thing we're writing about happiness, rather than mayhem. You might've hit me..." It wasn't a happy moment. Writing, particularly co-authoring, can be a major impediment to an otherwise healthy relationship.

2. The difficulties of English grammar are overwhelming. Note, in the paragraph above, the direct object of the preposition (me) and the quote marks placed after the period or comma. Writers have to remember stuff that pretty much everyone else gets to forget.

3. The final drafts of all books are given to "readers," whose reactions and suggestions are entirely inconsistent and often in utter conflict. This could mean that your ex-wife and your mother don't find themselves in agreement about something you've written. Be prepared for heavy relationship management. I know.

4. Let's not get into the financial rewards. They fundamentally don't exist. You'll lose more money in the form of time investment than the book will ever re-pay -- unless you're Stephen King.

Obviously, the decision to, or not to, write is your own. The bottom line is, if you've got something authentic and important to say and you've got the time to say it, give it a shot. There's a lot to learn about the world and about your self. And the world needs a heavy diet of intelligent writing.

If this has been helpful, there's more good news coming, at another point, about agents, publishers, proposal writing, and ghost writers.