How to Go From Freelance Writer to Nonfiction AuthorBy Grace Bello February 28th, 2013
For successful freelance writers, the next step in their careers may be to expand their longform articles into books. But how does a writer know which concepts would work best as a book and how to move forward with that idea?
Freelance journalists are in luck: they already have a wealth of articles that can be potential starting points for books. So how can a writer hone in on which ideas might make the best manuscripts?
Glenn Lewis, professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, told The Freelancer, “See if you can put together a table of contents, a minimum nine, ten, or eleven chapters for a book based on that article.” This way, a writer will begin to see which concepts are too thin or too unwieldy — and which ones might flesh out a book nicely.
Straight from the source
Moreover, a writer must think of which sources or information she can access. For a freelance reporter expanding an existing article into a longer piece, she can probably return to her original story’s interviewees.
But for a writer pursuing a concept that he hasn’t previously covered, publishing consultant Philip Turner suggests doing some reporting upfront: “You may not want to do all the reporting at first, but sometimes you won’t know whether it’s a good idea until you’re hip-deep in reporting.”
Therefore, writers may need to do extra research for their book proposals; they will want to make sure they can deliver on the story that they want to tell. And though this reporting seems time-consuming, it will ultimately set the groundwork for the full manuscript to come.
Everything old is new again
Turner said, “People tend to write in well-trod paths, so I see a lot of things that are overly familiar — for instance, [proposals with a] hipsterish focus on how young people are getting along in the current economy.”
Therefore, what he seeks right now are new approaches or new formats, for example “more advice-oriented service pieces” rather than zeitgeisty, ruminative pieces.
Lewis said, “I look for what’s being ignored … I might take a look at a really hot topic. [But] what aspects of this apply to people in their 20s and 30s? [Or] would this be applicable to women? Then I turn it into an underdog book. All of a sudden, I’m filling a niche in the market.”
Thus, it’s not so important to tackle a completely original idea. Simply exploring a new facet of a familiar topic can be enough to make a writer’s proposal, and her eventual book, stand out from the crowd.
According to David Henry Sterry, co-author of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published, there’s a question that new authors often neglect to answer: “Where does [the book] fit into the bookstore?”
Lewis said, “Some books will bridge several categories. Some people think that’s an advantage — I don’t. Publishers want to see a clear way to define the book for whoever’s marketing the book.”
He suggested browsing Barnes & Noble or Amazon to see what’s in the publishing marketplace. Then a writer can more confidently classify her material, right down to which bookshelf it will occupy. This ensures that, ultimately, the author’s potential reader will more easily understand what her book is about and whether or not she wants to purchase it.
Sterry said, “If you don’t know [where your book goes in the bookstore], how’s an agent going to know? How is an editor going to know? How is a reader going to know?”
About the author
Finally, she must convey to agents, editors, and publishers why she should be the one to write this book — not just in terms of writing chops but in terms of unique expertise or access.
For instance, Arielle Eckstut and Sterry had years of experience as a book agent (Eckstut) and book doctor (Sterry) before embarking on their manuscript on publishing. Lewis had access to top executives at the “big six” book publishers before proposing his project, Book Pro’s Guide to Publishing.
Turner said in his proposal guidelines for his clients, “You should state your experience not only as a writer, but also as a specialist in the field that you are writing about.”
A nonfiction book isn’t just a great concept. It’s a package consisting of pertinent information, compelling stories, the author’s unique insight, and a sexy hook — all geared towards a specific audience. For freelance writers making the jump to first-time authors, the transition may seem intimidating. But armed with writing and reporting skills, it’s a great way to level up in one’s publishing career.