So You Want to Write a Book? Advice for Authors
Rosemary Hays-Thomas*, University of West Florida; Laura Koppes Bryan, Transylvania University; George Thornton, Colorado State University; Nancy T. Tippins, CEB Talent Management; and Donald M. Truxillo, Portland State University
*The first author organized the panel and prepared the article; other authors, listed in alphabetical order, participated in the discussion and contributed to the article.
Writing a book is often seen as a major accomplishment for someone in academia or practice. Every author or book editor has experienced a “first time” when the undertaking is without benefit of prior similar experience. We are a group of I-O psychologists with experience in preparing a variety of books. We shared our perspectives with an audience at the 2017 SIOP confernece. Collectively, we have authored or coauthored scholarly books (Bryan, Thornton, Tippins) or textbooks (Hays-Thomas, Truxillo), edited or coedited volumes (Bryan, Hays-Thomas, Thornton, Tippins, Truxillo), and served as series editor (Tippins).
This article summarizes our collective advice to our colleagues who may be deciding whether to attempt preparation of a book. We consider four main questions:
- How does preparing a book differ from other types of academic writing?
- Why might someone consider preparing a textbook, scholarly book, or edited book, working alone or collaboratively?
- What are the steps in bringing a book idea into reality? and
- What is the typical process for preparing a book in a series like the Professional Practice books?
In addition, we make suggestions about writing and editing books. In this context, the word “editing” refers to the process of planning and preparing a book consisting of chapters with different authors, as opposed to the process of cleaning up a manuscript and preparing it for submission.
How Does Book Preparation Differ From Other Academic Writing?
First, books are typically more comprehensive than research journal articles or chapters. They address a topic in more depth and breadth and allow the author(s) to explore topics and integrate them with others. Journal articles are usually focused on specific research results that conform to the narrow specified policy of the journal, whereas a book allows broader integration of a freer combination of topics.
Second, journal articles are generally targeted at professional peers, but a book is more likely to be aimed at diverse audiences, perhaps even in other fields. Journal articles are usually subjected to scientifically rigorous, focused criticism from reviewers who use narrow scholarly/research/academic criteria and typically provide specific critiques. Although book outlines may be reviewed by the publisher or an editorial board to ensure proper coverage and appropriateness for the intended audience, books must meet different criteria, including expression more accessible to the general public, marketing appeal, and lack of redundancy with other volumes. Their approach and style can be more varied.
Third, journal articles generally follow specific stylistic guidelines in terms of their organization (e.g., introduction, method, results, discussion). A typical journal article is not solicited but instead is submitted by author(s) to whatever journal seems most suitable. Some journals (e.g., The Journal of Social Issues) and special issues of other journals also call for articles on a specific topic and are constructed like an edited volume. In contrast, the organizational structure of books is more varied and generally determined by the author(s). In edited books, editors may invite authors to prepare chapters by issuing a call or by contacting specific individuals. The content and organization of chapters are generally developed by authors in consultation with the editor(s). Chapter authors may be asked to address a particular aspect of the larger subject, and any integration is usually provided by editor(s). The structure of individual chapters is usually determined by the chapter author(s) and is less prescribed and specific than the organization of a journal article.
Why Consider Doing a Textbook, Scholarly Book, or Edited Book?
Should You Work Alone or Collaboratively?
Motivations for this type of writing may be extrinsic or intrinsic. In most cases, authors should not expect significant financial rewards for publication of academic books. However, authors of very widely adopted basic textbooks or books with popular appeal may earn significant royalties. Royalties are generally a percentage of sales (e.g., 10%; although this can vary and be negotiated with the publisher) and are negotiated at the time the book is contracted. The royalties for books in a series (e.g., SIOP’s Professional Practice Series or Frontiers Series) may already be established for the entire series. Faculty should consult their own institution’s policies and culture to determine whether books are important for promotion or tenure. Many institutions place less emphasis on books (especially textbooks) than on grants awarded and research articles published. In general, book writing should not be undertaken by pretenure faculty. This is because peer-reviewed articles (and chapters) are more important for tenure at most institutions, combined with the large time commitment involved in book preparation and the length of time between writing and publication. Authors employed in private industry, government, or consulting firms usually face different expectations and reward systems and should generally expect little recognition from the organization for their writing efforts. They should also determine if there are limitations on what is published. Still, for experienced professionals, book authorship is generally important in leading to recognition in the profession, in related fields, and to the general public.
Considering the relatively limited extrinsic rewards for writing a book, the potential author should have strong intrinsic motivations for undertaking the daunting task of writing a book. Primary motivations should be enjoyment of scholarship and writing, and the need to inform an audience on a particular topic. There may be no recent book of a particular type, and a new book may fill an important niche in scholarship or practice. (If another book exists, first consider what your new book might contribute that others do not.) In preparing a book, the author or editor has the opportunity to develop content in the field, translate research to nonexperts, and explore conceptual connections within and across diverse fields. One can contribute new theory, models, best practices, or insights. Furthermore, some enjoy writing and find it relatively easy to do. Many senior professionals feel it is their obligation to contribute to the field by authoring or editing books.
Another question is whether it is best to work alone or within an author team. Working alone provides a single “voice” and style, and allows the author to develop ideas as she or he wishes. However, working closely with coauthors/editors or chapter authors on a book can be rewarding and the resulting product may be improved as a result. Coauthors/editors can generate synergy, stimulate ideas, contribute unique skills, check each others’ work, and verify adherence to the original proposal and style, but collaborators’ work must also be combined into a coherent and consistent product. Collaborators can provide support and feedback, share the workload, and motivate each other to stay on schedule and finish the project earlier. In addition, consider your coauthors in terms of working style and what each team member brings to the project. These are significant points to consider at the outset, as aspiring authors should note that the writing task itself can be a lonely process, and having a team helps a lot!
What Are the Steps in Bringing a Book Idea to Reality?
There are number of key steps to bring a book to reality. First, we suggest you carefully establish the need for the book you envision, and think about the niche it will fill. Are there similar books? How is your idea different? Who is the intended audience? How marketable is the book? Books most often begin with the aspiring author’s or editor’s idea but in some cases may be solicited by editorial boards or publishers. Second, think seriously and soberly about whether your schedule permits the undertaking of such a large project. It will always take longer than you expect! It is important to clearly articulate and organize each step needed to bring the book to fruition (e.g., first draft of each chapter; review period; revisions; proofing and typesetting) and have administrative or clerical support prearranged if possible.
Third, consider working with a coauthor or coeditor. Be sure this person is someone with whom you can work and who has a reputation for following through on commitments in a timely way. Consider what each of you would bring to the project and how each of your skills might complement the others’. Sharing the task may result in faster completion and even a better product as you critique and supplement each other’s work.
Fourth, it is important to identify the appropriate publisher who is the best fit for your topic. Identify publishers who develop books that are similar in area and type. Talk to colleagues who have published similar types of books or books on similar topics. Ask them to recommend publishers and give you advice about negotiating royalties, contracting, and other topics. Develop a relationship with appropriate publisher(s). Speak to publishers’ representatives at professional meetings or contact them by email or phone to discuss your idea.
Fifth, develop your proposal. Publishers generally have a format for information required for a proposal that can be obtained from the publisher’s representative or at their website. You might also be able to obtain samples of other successful proposals. The proposal will typically ask you to address the proposed content and organization, length, market, other competitive products, and the ways in which your idea is different from what’s already out there. You may also be asked to submit a table of contents and a few sample chapters. These may be sent out for review by other scholars who know the field for feedback.
Next, if a publisher likes your idea and a contract is proposed, read it carefully and be aware that most of the terms of that contract are negotiable (unless the book is part of a series). This includes such things as royalties, who pays for the index (i.e., is cost of the index deducted from your royalties or paid by the publisher?). The publisher may wish to have an online version of the book, and this often imposes special considerations. Be sure you understand what type of indexing will be done (i.e., author, subject, combined, or separate) and who will do the indexing. Good books are sometimes diminished by a poor index. More than one editor may be involved in production of a book as staff turn over and as the book progresses through various stages from proposal, reviews, revisions, style editing, and production. This staff turnover means that you should keep good records regarding agreements you have made with the publisher throughout the proposal and contractual process (save those emails!), and also be flexible.
Once you have negotiated and executed a contract with the publisher, your publisher will probably ask you to submit a set of chapters by a certain date to be sent out for review. Deliver chapters that are well written, polished, carefully referenced, and timely. Evaluate the feedback you receive and modify your ideas accordingly. It will probably lead to a better book. The publisher is often very helpful in deciding which feedback is most important.
Finally, carefully review the book at its various stages of production, including the indexing and formatting. Note that the production of the book is often not done in house, and you cannot assume that your vision of the final look of the book will be what you and the publisher originally negotiated. If something seems wrong, say so.
What Is a Typical Process for a Book in a Book Series?
In some cases a book may be proposed as part of a series (e.g., Professional Practice). The process for selecting topics, volume editors, and chapters may vary with the series. In the case of the Professional Practice series (currently edited by Nancy T. Tippins), in past years the series board chose topics and identified an editor who was asked to draw up a more complete outline of the book and possible chapter authors. The Professional Practice series has recently moved to a new publisher and will now consider ideas that are proposed as well as formats other than edited volumes of chapters by several authors.
The outline is sent first to the editorial board for review, then to the publisher. Both may make suggestions to the book outline. If approved, a contract with deadlines is developed. In the past, rejections by the publisher were often related to how well the book was expected to sell. With the new publisher, rejections are no longer based on sales potential. The publisher will consider projects that are timely, important to the practice of I-O psychology, or fit a niche market.
Once the proposal is approved, the book editor contacts authors and manages the completion of the proposed volume. The series editor checks in periodically and makes sure things are running smoothly and according to schedule.
General Suggestions for Writing
Goal setting works! Set aside regular and frequent chunks of time for writing. It is difficult to disengage and reengage with much time in between. Some writers pick a certain time each day (e.g., early morning) to focus on writing before the distractions of the day begin. Some set a goal of a number of pages or a section to be completed in a sitting. One author recommended writing the first sentence of the next section before stopping as a guide to what comes next. Some authors take “vacations” in a different location and allocate most of their time to writing undistracted. Plan for about three times the amount of time you expect to need.
Record details of citations and references (or construct the reference list) as you write. Electronic references may change, and government documents may be updated between your draft and final manuscript. These must be rechecked in revision and before final submission, and may require alteration of your text as well as references.
Book contracts usually specify page (or word) limits, and you may find it difficult to stay within those limits. If the initial version is very much over the limit, allow time to shorten it. Shortening involves matching references to text again and may affect continuity.
Follow the publisher’s style manual. This may not be APA style or another familiar to you. Alternate forms of wording (e.g., acronyms, shortened titles of organizations, different spellings) and formats (e.g., paragraphing, indentation, spacing) may be used. From the start, focus on clarity and consistency throughout each and all chapters. Ask knowledgeable colleagues or others for whom you are writing (e.g., students) to read chapter drafts as you go to check for clarity, accuracy, level, and consistency of language. When permissions are needed (e.g., for copyrighted work, quotations over a certain length), get these early and save for any later editions. Sometimes it is difficult to determine who owns a copyright. In some cases, payment is required to use copyrighted material. If using screen shots or other art work, assure high quality from the beginning because it may degrade with reproduction.
General Suggestions for Editing Books
When preparing an edited book of chapters prepared by others, choose chapter authors carefully based on their expertise and reputation for writing well and meeting deadlines. This may be difficult because in some cases there are no writing samples. Some editors decline to use again those authors who in the past have submitted work that was poorly written or very late. Set up and enforce a clear time schedule for authors. The editor is responsible for producing the volume but cannot do so without the authors’ contributions. Remember that authors are typically working on multiple projects, so be sure to send multiple “friendly reminders” about upcoming deadlines.
Allow time to send individual chapters out to colleagues for review, especially if you do not have in-depth knowledge about the topics of the chapters. This can help verify that the chapters are original works and contain timely and accurate information about topics. The first round of editing may aim at adhering to length limitations, identifying sections that are confusing or redundant, and improving how chapters fit together. Later in the process, editing may become more directive and specific, and identify things that are unclear, contradictory, or involve typos and grammar. When working with chapter authors (especially authors who generally write in other languages), plan for considerable editing of chapters for expression as well as content.
Participation is often especially difficult for those in practice because no time during the work day is allocated to writing, many must account for billable hours, and (unlike most academics) they may not be expected to write and publish or be rewarded for doing so. However, once practitioners agree to contribute, most are good at meeting timelines, and many write well because they often write for executive audiences. For those in practice, reviews or approvals internal to their companies may be necessary and add time to the process. Illustrations in particular may be proprietary.
Writing or editing a book can be an interesting and rewarding process, and the result may be a real contribution to the field. Book writing and editing are major commitments and are best undertaken with planning, commitment, and understanding of the process. The authors of this article have all derived satisfaction from this work. We hope that potential authors and editors will find our suggestions helpful.