Should You Write a Book?
It may be that everybody has a book in them, but not everybody is sure if they should try to get it out of them. Why should I write a book? How long does it take? What does a book do that a blog or Tweet can't do? Does anybody really read books anymore? Do I have to write a book?
These are the questions I get from would-be idea entrepreneurs — people who want to go public with a deeply-felt idea so as to influence how people think and behave and, as a result, create some kind of change in their company, discipline, or community. Given the uncertain status of the book in today's ideaplex (my term for all of those activities — from TED to Twitter — by which we create, communicate, and consume ideas) these are smart questions to ask.
The answer is different for everybody, but there are many valuable roles a book, and only a book, can play in taking an idea public and gaining respiration for it — that is, making it come to life and breathe on its own. (All of these assume the book does not totally stink.)
Keycard to the ideaplex. Yes, you can make your entrance to the ideaplex with a blog, video, or a conference talk. But the book is the most widely-accepted credential at the largest number of content venues. "Has new book" is a standard, and often required, box to tick for the gatekeepers who control access to areas of the ideaplex you would most like to enter: lecture halls, television studios, boardrooms, media pages, special events, people's minds. Charlie Rose rarely says, "My next guest has just posted a cat video."
Evidence of effort. Books are hard to write and everybody knows it. They demand more rigorous thought and require a greater preponderance of material than any other form of expression. If you put in the work and do the thinking, people will usually grant you a larger measure of authority than if you have put in the work and done the hard thinking but haven't written a book.
Crime-stopper. Take a look at the notice on the reverse of the title page of your book. It says Copyright © Me. All rights reserved. That means the rule of law has your back. Not infallible, for sure, but if you ask any of the high-profile authors who have run afoul of copyright provisions recently I bet they'll say the law can have pretty sharp teeth.
All-purpose tool. The book is a calling card, an icebreaker, a doorstop, a representative, a leave-behind, a marketing brochure, a love letter, a non-lethal weapon, a time-whiler, a discussion-starter, a manifesto, and an excuse to start a group whose real purpose is to gossip or drink wine.
Gateway. The book can't (and shouldn't) contain everything you know. It should be an enticing entry to the world of you and your content assets — your other writings, your talks, videos, seminars, special events, emblems, merchandise, teachings, and affiliations — a world that you can continue to expand and update, so that the book, while unchanging, takes on new meanings over time.
World's most beautiful (utilitarian) object. The book is a work of art and an elegant technology. It is a tangible form that enables you to hold an abstraction in your hands. It is also, you have to admit, a great gift item.
Wellspring of future endeavor. The book is the end of a period of work, and the beginning of another, often more important, one. It is not the final word on your topic, but rather the start of a conversation about it. With a book, you can lay the groundwork for a whole life's enterprise.
There are also some aspects of writing a book that are not so pleasurable, and you should take these into careful consideration before plunging ahead, including:
Special (rather weird) process. Writing a book is different from any other process you may be familiar with or good at. It is a creative endeavor more like personal art-making than commercial innovation. Parts of it are driven by mysterious forces of the unconscious that simply cannot be plugged into a flow chart or spreadsheet. As a result, the process can be frustrating, torturous, or so time-consuming that you'll want to give up.
Personal trial. Writing a book is intellectually, emotionally, and physically taxing. It is also quite exposing and revealing — of your knowledge, the quality of your ideas, your writing skills, and your personality. You are putting yourself out there in a big way, which you may not want to do.
Irrevocability. You cannot take a book back. It doesn't slowly fade from memory like a live presentation does, or get lost in the sauce of the blogosphere. It's there and will always be there and if you aren't happy with it, or change your mind about something in it, you're stuck with it.
Backlash. You believe your book is great and that your motives in writing it are honorable. Yes, you want a lively conversation about your book — that's what respiration is all about — but when that first negative comment, sarcastic Tweet, or full-throated rebuttal comes along, you may feel taken aback or unjustly attacked.
It's not over when it's over. Books do not sell themselves. After writing the book, there is publishing, promoting, and promulgating to be done. That process also has uncontrollable parts (Will it get a good review? Will people buy it?) but if you don't work at selling the book, it may not gain the respiration you would like or it might be ignored completely, which is far worse than backlash.
So there is no all-purpose answer to the question, Should I write a book? That's why I usually answer it with a question of my own: Is it impossible for you not to?
If your answer is yes, Godspeed.