'You should write a book." Or, "Why don't you write a book?" Or, "Have you ever thought about writing a book?"
Are you detecting a theme here?
Anyone who writes for a living — anyone that is, with a mother or well-meaning friends — has heard those words over and over. And over.
Yes, Mom, I write for a living. No, I do not want to write a book.
Or, to put it another way: Do I look like I'm crazy?
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday
We journalists meet interesting people, run across interesting stories, lead interesting lives. We already know how to write, so, surely we could/should turn out an interesting book. That's the theory of our mothers, friends and people we run into at our kids' baseball games. That is a terrible theory.
"You covered a war. You should write a book."
"You knew President Bush, you interviewed Obama, so why not write a book?"
OK, but what would the second paragraph of that book say?
The trifecta of reasons I don't want to write a book: debt, doubt and despair.
Every author I've ever talked to has suffered at least two of the three. (I'm talking about heavily researched books based in fact. Fiction is a whole different species but no easier than nonfiction when it comes to making a living.)
My conviction that writing a book is a terrible idea was underscored — once again — when
For anyone who has ever considered writing a book, it is a humbling and cautionary experience to look at the rows and rows of titles produced by so many hard-working, earnest, hopeful, talented, ambitious, delusional men and women you've never heard of.
Why would anyone want to be one of them? Count me out.
"There are close to 200,000 books published every year by traditional publishing houses. And there's only room on the best-seller list for 15 at a time," observes Kitty Kelley, the best-selling author of "Oprah: A Biography" and six earlier hugely successful unauthorized
Kelley describes the agony of researching and writing: "The weeping and wailing. 'I won't be able to do it. I can't do it. Why did I sign up for this?'"
Why does she keep doing it? "You're going to have to ask the same question of mothers after childbirth. Why do they do it again? You forget the pain and you rise to the challenge. Maybe it just takes more guts than brains."
Call me the Gutless Wonder.
I have a friend who took 10 years to research and write a book. The project was so huge that her editor moved into her tiny New York apartment to make sure she was writing, not procrastinating or continuing her research. For several years, as she wrote what became a wildly successful nonfiction book, if you phoned or emailed this author, the calls went unreturned, the email responses were auto-replies that offered no hope of contacting her. She'd prefer that I don't out her by name, embarrassed that she has so much trouble juggling her book life with her real life.
She's currently finishing up book two.
This second book took her another decade, and every time I've talked to her over that time — on the rare occasions she was communicating with the world outside her book — she sounded despondent, preoccupied, unhappy. And hers is a success story.
"It's an incredibly hard thing to do. ... It takes over your life," says another writer, Rebecca Skloot, author of the 2010 nonfiction best seller, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks."
After a stack of rejections it took Skloot 11 years, three publishing houses, five editors and two agents to get her book into readers' hands. This is not uncommon. J. K. Rowling's first
When I asked Skloot if she ever despaired, she did not hesitate: "Oh, sure. Oh, yeah."
"I can't think of another field where people do an enormous amount of work not knowing whether they're going to be paid for it," she says. And, "The odds are stacked against you."
As she researched and wrote her book, Skloot went into "enormous debt" — at least $100,000.
But her experience was trumped by another author she knows. "I had a friend who worked on a book for 10 years and it was published on the morning of Sept. 11 and that's it. That's 10 years of work that just evaporated — and books aren't relaunched," Skloot says.
Case closed? Never write a book? Quite the opposite, says Skloot, who lives in Chicago's
Despite the debt and anguish of her first experience, would she do it again? "I would do it over and over and over again." That's because she felt so passionately that the story she was writing needed to be told.
She's working on a second book right now.
Sanford Horwitt, who wrote the much-praised 1989 biography of Chicago community organizer Saul Alinsky, "Let Them Call Me Rebel," says deeply reported books like his require stamina and more.
"This kind of writing has to have an obsessive part of it, otherwise you'd never get it done." (His Virginia license plate read "ALINSKY.")
"Writing nonfiction, especially biographies and in the case of the Alinsky book a rather long biography, is a really lonely experience. You are the only one in the world who cares that much, nearly that much. … I think it was a small miracle that I was able to get to the finish line."
"This was something I was doing every day for nine years," he says. And the economics of it were not very appealing.
"You'd be just sort of foolish to think you're going to get a big payoff in the end. ... It almost always does not work out that way," Horwitt says.
As a journalist with a short attention span — the reason many of us are well-suited for the news business in the first place — I repeat: I don't want to write a book. P.S. I'm not foolish.
Despite the lonely process and the obsession that consumed him, Horwitt declares, "I absolutely have no regrets." In fact, he went on to write another biography, this one in 2007, of then Wisconsin Democratic Sen.
And that's one more reason not to write a book. Like the Skloot friend whose book was buried by the Sept. 11 tragedy, unpredictable, uncontrollable events can have a huge impact on whether a book breaks out of the 200,000-titles pack or is sold for chump change at the Tribune book sale.
"Publishing right now is a scary business," says Kelley. "The landscape is shifting, shifting as we're talking. Publishers are not giving the huge advances they used to and they're not the best prognosticators of what the public taste is. And, you're in an era of 24/7 information overload."
Adding to the uncertainty, once fringy self-publishing is now skyrocketing and e-books also are on the rise. Authors who sign a contract today on a book that takes years to produce will likely face unchartered publishing territory when their manuscripts are ready to sell to the public.
To me, that's a way too risky proposition.
And speaking of the unexpected, an author I know had a well-known agent and a contract with a respected publishing house. Then, the contract was canceled and she was left in a financial hole with an unpublished manuscript.
"I could barely look at it for 10 years. It just sat there in a shoebox."
"It was a devastating financial, emotional experience. You've invested so much time — over five years of my life — it's crushing on so many levels."
On that cheery note: I don't ever want to write a book.