Mark Terry

Friday, August 15, 2008

Think About Yourself

August 15, 2008
Halfway through August? What happened to this month?

Anyway, before I went on vacation I shot out some statistics about book publishing in the nonfiction arena. Jude commented that unless we had particular expertise or an MD or PhD in a particular area, we weren't qualified to write these books.


I respectfully disagree.

Yes, if you read Nathan Bransford's blog (you should), his post on "platform" suggests that if you're not the world's leading expert on any particular subject, you don't have enough platform to write a nonfiction book. My problem with that is the notion that there's only one leading expert on any given topic, and what that means about some really amazing nonfiction like "The Hot Zone" by Richard Preston, who is not, as a matter of fact, the leading expert on the Ebola virus. He's just a very good writer with a strong interest in science. Bransford suggests that if you're not a celebrity chef with a TV cooking show, you shouldn't write a cookbook. If you're not the head of the Human Genome Project, you shouldn't write a book on genetics. If you're not a soldier, you shouldn't write about the military. He also hints that this is starting to happen in fiction.

God save us all, if that's the truth.

I still believe we need writers and good ones, to make sense of things.

Anyway, my point here is that if you're going to write nonfiction, and for the moment let's put aside nonfiction books and consider shorter nonfiction like magazine articles, it helps to have some expertise. When my brother quizzed me about writing because his oldest son wants to be a writer, asking me what I thought about English degrees, what I said was Tobias Buckell would be a better person to ask (they're friends, my brother and Tobey) because Tobey had an English degree and is a writer. I have a degree in microbiology. I said that I was ambivalent about the English degree. My brother, Pete, laughed and said that's exactly what Tobey said.

I commented that the advantage of having a degree in something besides English was it more or less automatically gave you something to write about. An English degree doesn't, necessarily, do that, and in fact, because you haven't necessarily been exposed to things like computers and science and business, but instead spent most of your degree reading and writing about works written by dead white guys, it might make it a little bit harder for you to write about the things people are primarily interested in paying for. 

I'm not slamming English degrees, exactly. They have their place and their role and their value, but I know an awful lot of good, professional writers who bypassed that path.

I'm wandering again.

Here's an example. Topics I could comfortably write about without having to do tons of research:

clinical diagnostics

Why? Because in my 44+ years on the planet I've had hands-on experience with all of these things. That doesn't mean I wouldn't have to interview an expert. Or 3 per article, as is often the case. But it means that, just by hanging in there, I've gained first-hand experience on a number of things, any of which I can write about.

I'm sure you can, too.

And you might consider making a list, because it's a great way of seeing that, as a matter of fact, you might have more of a "platform" than you thought you had. Enough to declare yourself an "expert" and get a book contract? Not necessarily.

But it's a place to start.

Mark Terry


Anonymous Amy Nathan said...

Making a list is a great idea. I'm going to add it to MY LIST. I am using this coming year (my year always starts in Sept) to bump up my freelancing. Recognizing what I might tap into and write about is a great idea. And if I don't have to constantly remember it, but can refer to it, all the better!

7:21 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Jude commented that unless we had particular expertise or an MD or PhD in a particular area, we weren't qualified to write these books.

That's not what I said. I said without credentials or a platform nonfiction probably isn't any easier to sell than fiction. I think your post that day said something like 75% of books published are nonfiction, making that market appear easier to crack. I still maintain that it's not, unless a writer has aforementioned credentials or a platform. If you have a bunch of initials after your name, or if you're Brad Pitt, then yeah, it's easier to get a nonfiction deal than a fiction deal. Otherwise, I really don't think so.

Being qualified to write a book and getting a publisher to pay you to write a book are two different things.

7:51 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Here's the peculiarity and I didn't touch on it in either of my posts.

How do you build a platform?

Often by writing about a topic.

The nonfiction book proposal I recently completed is about genetics in medicine. Am I a geneticist? No. Did I work in the field? Yes, although not at the top levels.

However, and I think this is important and I hope is persuasive in the proposal--in the last 4 years I've published well over 50 magazine articles about genetics or genetics in medicine. I've also written several market research reports on aspects of it. I'm also the long-term editor of a journal for genetics technologists. If you go back to the beginning of my freelance writing career, I've written well over 100 articles about different aspects of genetics.

Now, do I have a platform? Am I qualified to write a book on this subject?

Yes, I think I do.

Now, what if I had wanted to write a nonfiction book about a ship that sailed out of the Netherlands to Australia in the 1500s? (It's an idea I have percolated in the back of my head). Do I need to be a historian? It wouldn't hurt, but what I would need to do is start researching the topic. And looking at magazines that might be interested in articles on the subject and pitching them.

As a friend of mine commented wryly, "Publish an article and you're suddenly an expert."

Platform doesn't necessarily refer to being world famous. If it did, the majority of NF books wouldn't get published. But often NF books are written by people who've demonstrated some expertise on the subject, either by practicing it...

Or writing about it.

And I can tell you absolutely that breaking into magazine writing is easier than book publishing.

8:19 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Good luck with it, Mark.

8:31 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

I know I don't have a platform to stand on. As far as something else you mentioned -- Don't let your babies grow up to be English Lit majors. I have an English degree. Totally useless. No one should waste their time and money on one. I had to get a law degree to even be marginally employable. (And I hate to say it but being a "writer" if you define that as writing fiction, is not a career choice any more than being a lottery winner is). If you want to write you can read books without any help. Most of what you are told, in college, about books, if you take it seriously, will keep you from writing for anything except maybe a college literary magazine.

8:47 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I don't know, Eric, that law degree must be useful for something.

And I would suggest that with what, 8 historical novels taking place in 5th century Byzantium, you guys could probably write a nonfiction book about some aspect of it if you were inclined to--or certainly some magazine articles for magazines.

12:31 PM  
Blogger Gloria Chadwick said...

Interesting post and discussion. Platform is extremely important to publishers. I agree that you don't have to have initials after your name to write a book on a certain topic, but you do have to build a platform to help launch your book.

In addition to writing magazine articles, a platform consists of speaking/lecturing, giving classes or workshops, having a healthy web presence, having media exposure, and numerous other things, including your personal plans for marketing and promotion.

The ratio of nonfiction to fiction is closer to 90/10. That doesn't make it easier to sell NF, it just means that you need to have a unique focus for your book's subject matter and you do have to be an "expert" of sorts in that area, i.e., what qualifies you to write that book. I don't have a degree and I've sold lots of NF books based on my area of self-taught expertise (reincarnation). And I'm not a TV celebrity chef and I sold a cookbook last year.

There's no black and white in writing a book and in what publishers will buy. If you're a celebrity, it's much easier to sell a book because of your name. Publishers want books that sell. So, bottom line: Build your platform and write a book that people want to read.

12:52 PM  
Blogger MissWrite said...

Absolutely! The term 'expert' is often misunderstood by people thinking it means some sort of 'formal' education. I am an 'expert' on just about any living animal (I might include humans in that just by the fact that I am one) because I have over the course of my 46 years on the planet owned, bred, and shown just about every breathing domestic animal possible (hey, even including chickens--bet most city folks don't know there are 'chicken shows') anyway...

Children... yep, got two, had more than my share of trials and tribulations and can easily pontificate on the 'joys' of parenthood. Have some grandchilren too... double bonus.

Home repairs--oh brother. I am well beyond expert on that subject. If the 'money pit' hadn't been written I could have done it well.

The list is long and mostly attributable to age, not education. Hell, I flunked typing in high school... go figure.

2:43 PM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

I agree with you. On the other hand, I'm pretty sure at least... hmm, 40-60% of espionage fiction authors I can think of at the moment were in the business.

9:24 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

--I know, which can be pretty intimidating when you consider trying to write in that subgenre.

11:16 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Hi Mark:
I wrote two books for Prentice Hall on working from home and home-life balance. My "platform" was I had started editing from home way before it was trendy to have a home-based business. I've been quoted--as recently as three months ago--in Kiplinger's and Forbes magazine. I am contemplating another nonfiction proposal . . .

I think it DOES help, if someone is serious about NF publishing, to have a web presence/blog, etc., with some traffic, because the question becomes marketing. You may write it and be an expert--but will folks read it/find it? So if I were to write the home-based business book NOW (versus several years ago), I would develop a blog, get traffic to it, have a site where I offered advice on starting a home-based business . . . write a few articles, etc.

I freelanced for years at the Chicken Soup for the Soul publisher--which publishes tons of self-helf and New Age and so on. They always wanted to see the marketing plans of the author. But if you have that in place already . . . then I do think it is easier to sell NF.

11:56 AM  
Anonymous Jim said...

Leaving aside the question of selling the book once it is written (and then of selling lots of copies once it is published)... I definitely have to agree with you about not needing a degree in a given area in order to write a non-fiction book about that field.

It probably does help to have spent some amount of time in grad school because the ability to do organized research and to sit and write are useful skills to have acquired.

It would also help to have some affinity for the subject matter (why spend so much time on something you don't like?) but you need not be an expert at the start, just as long as you become one (however restricted that expertise may be) during the process.

1:34 PM  
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