They say everyone has one novel inside them and, given the number of creative writing degree courses on offer, there’s a lucrative market in encouraging people to excavate it.
But a more realistic course for freelance journalists is a non-fiction book – probably on one of their specialist beat topics, such as sport or business.
This week we’re looking at the experiences of three freelance journalists who made the jump to paperback writer – how they did it and what skills they needed, plus a set of tips for anyone else who fancies giving it a go.
The first case study is from Stuart Derrick, who saw his Startups: Going Freelance: How to set up and succeed as a freelance worker hit the bookshops in August. (Disclosure: there are some excellent and relevant contributions to the book via Freelance Unbound).
Why did you want to start working on books?
Many journalists are frustrated authors, but not me. I’ve never felt there was a book in me waiting to get out. It was purely an offer that came my way.
How did you get your book deal?
As much as I’d like to say that it was all down to my entrepreneurial zeal and a recognition that I was an expert in the field, the truth is that I was commissioned to write it. In the past I worked for the publisher Crimson, so it all came down to contacts, which is one of the important lessons you will read about in the book.
Contacts are everything for a freelancer. Never burn your bridges, and as much as you may want to tell people to sling their hook after an unhappy freelance gig, be aware that existing contacts are your best source of future work. Bite your tongue, count to ten, and one day you too could be a top B2B author.
Do you need any special skills beyond the usual journalistic ones?
Organisational and planning skills are more important to this kind of writing. With shorter journalistic pieces, it can be possible to take off and see where you end up. With this sort of commission – 80,000 words – you need to be more methodical and have a better idea of where you want to go with the writing, what bases you want to touch on the way, and where you want to end up.
The desk research element was a much bigger element than for my journalism. Usually when I’m writing about a topic I don’t know about, I find somebody who does and pick their brains. Going Freelance covered a lot of bases, but the publisher didn’t really want external voices, apart from case studies with real freelancers. This meant that I had to find the information myself, mainly online.
This sounds easy enough. You can find anything online, can’t you? As a journalist who started in the pre-internet age, I’m conscious of the fallibility of online sources, so I did a lot of cross referencing of certain topics, particularly technical issues, to ensure that they were right and not just the first Google result. If I still got things wrong after that, then that’s all down to me.
What are the differences between planning, researching and writing a book as opposed to, say, feature articles?
It’s on a bigger scale and takes place over a longer period, so everything has to be more planned. With features, it’s easy to jump in at the deep end, grab as much information as you can and then crack on with the writing.
With the book, it was broken down into chapters and sub-sections within that, and you have to tackle them in a fairly methodical manner. I had the list of topics stuck above my desk and continuously monitored it. I tried to work through it a section at a time, but there were times when I would come across information that I knew would be useful for another section, so would squirrel it away for future reference. I had files of information on my laptop and bookmarked webpages that I thought would be useful.
One of the big challenges was keeping on top of what I’d already done. With a 2,000 word feature, it’s easy to re-read to get a sense of what you have, but when you are 40,000 words into a book, it’s harder to do review quickly. It’s also quite tough to remember what authorial tone you are using too. I’m sure I started out with one ‘voice’ and drifted into others as I wrote. It can depend on what mood you are in as you write.
I was writing the book around other things, which can make things a bit disjointed. The best work came when I devoted solid blocks of time to the project. You get back into it and develop more of a flow.
Did/do you enjoy it?
It took a lot longer than I thought, and there were times when it was a definite chore. It was a great feeling finishing it, thinking that the weight was lifted from my shoulders, but then the publisher’s queries and comments came back, which I had to act on. Then I had to read the proof. I definitely like the idea of having a book to my name though, and, at the risk of damning myself with faint praise, there are parts of it where the writing isn’t bad. It’s actually quite tough to keep the quality consistent in a book this long, and I think I’ve done a decent job of that.
One of the things I enjoyed most was speaking to other freelancers. It’s a lonely job sometimes, so it was encouraging to hear about other people’s experiences.
What about money? How was your deal structured. Was it fee-based or was it based on royalties?
I was given the option of having a straightforward fee for the project, or a mix of fee and royalties. The publisher wasn’t able to give a very accurate indication of how many it was likely to sell, so I opted for the cash. I suppose that I could have gone down the royalty route and then tried to be more proactive with promotion in the hope of driving sales, but to be honest, that’s not where my skills lie.
The payments were staged: 25 per cent on signing the contract; 25 per cent on filing the manuscript, and the balance when the proofs were cleared. It was something like that.
Was it worth it (financially or otherwise)?
In bald financial terms it was nowhere near as lucrative as journalistic writing. It may well be that in the future this will change if I am recognised as the go to guy for features and tips on freelancing – I’ll just cut and paste what I’ve already written!
In terms of skills development it gave me a lot of ideas on how to better project manage editorial projects – not just books. I think it would be easier the next time.
I like being able to say that I’ve written a book. It has a nice ring to it.
Top tips for potential freelance book authors
- Look very carefully at what you are being asked to do and the amount of work that is likely to be involved
If it’s an area you already write about, or that you know about then it could be worthwhile, especially if you can repurpose material that you have already written. Bloggers with a particular niche could be very well-placed to pitch a book to a publisher as they will have a lot of the copy that they need – as long as the publisher is happy with that sort of approach.
- Allow more time than you think the project will take
I overshot my deadline twice, but thankfully I had an understanding editor and publisher.
- Budget carefully for a longer payment process
The editorial process for books is more protracted than in newspapers or magazines, whether you hit deadline or not. This means you will have to wait longer for your money.
There’s definitely a book in advice on how to write a book, but not from me.