How to write a book

So, you want to write a book? Having seen one textbook through to publication, and in process of finishing a second, here’s my advice.

1. The idea

All good books start with a good idea. (So do some bad books, but let’s forget them). I’ll assume you know your subject area well enough to be able to spot a potential hole in the market, which your book will fill. You don’t want your book, after its lengthy production process, to have small sales and end up on remainder tables. Maybe it won’t be the next Harry Potter, but it should be worthy addition to the field. This requires a good knowledge of competing texts, and a good sense of where your book will fit in with them. Will it supplant other well-known texts, or be a useful adjunct to them? What will your text provide that others don’t? This is where your acquisitions editor will be useful, in guiding you through the initial planning stages. And in fact, this is a good place to point out that you should engender a harmonious relationship with your editors. Good editors are worth their weight in gold, and can make your work immeasurably easier.

2. The contract

You and your editor have thrashed out a good idea, you’ve sent a chapter and outline off to be reviewed, and the reviews have come back positive. Or, positive enough for the book to be commissioned. Here is where you need to read through the contract very carefully, and determine if the time-frame is sufficient, and the projected remuneration and royalties. Don’t be scared to ask for changes in the contract if you need them! You want to end up with a contract which is fair to both the publishers and to you.

3. The writing

This is the longest, and for you the most arduous task. Many authors (certainly me!) base their texts on student notes which have proven their worth over some years of teaching. Now it’s a matter of fleshing out those notes, and adding the extra material you promised in your outline. I have found that this always takes more time than you think. Time away from work (leave, or a sabbatical) can be wonderful, but is not always possible. Some sort of timetable can help. Not the “write 1000 words each day before breakfast” sort, but a gentler timetable, which includes do-able tasks: “finish the exercises for chapter 6”. The important thing is to keep plugging away. I seem to work in fits and starts – sometimes other work swamps any time I may have for writing – but when the work pressure is off I can write more again. If something really big gets in the way (a medical issue, for example) which is going to hinder your writing in a major way, you can always re-negotiate your contract. Keep a weather eye on the calendar! Enjoy your writing – you are producing something new. And don’t get too despondent if you find you haven’t done any writing for a while. Everybody has a bit of down-time. In fact, if you find at any stage the writing is getting too arduous, take a short break – a “book-holiday”.

If you need to use copyrighted material: images, diagrams, computer code etc, you will need to allow plenty of time to approach the copyright holders for permission to use their material.

If you are going to prepare the index yourself – as you should do, as you know your material better than anybody else – allow yourself at least two weeks to go carefully through the manuscript. This is an excellent time for some proof-reading.

4. Proof-reading

Between you sending the manuscript off to the publishers, and the book being published, you will need to check the publisher’s proofs. This is a fiddly, difficult task, but you really do need to do this carefully, to ensure that no typos slip through.

5. Final remarks

I reckon that writing a book should be a really enjoyable experience – it’s your idea, being turned into a tangible product. What could be better than that?

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