Novels Win out over Journalism

By Dietrich, William | Nieman Reports, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Novels Win out over Journalism


Dietrich, William, Nieman Reports


I became a journalist so I could write, rather than a writer so I could practice journalism. Accordingly, it's been a slow but natural transition to move from newspapering at The Seattle Times to writing nonfiction books and fiction. I had dreamed of being a novelist since I was a kid, and now am the astonished author of 15 books and counting.

With journalism in turmoil, book writing is an obvious alternative. Unfortunately the book industry is in turmoil too, with Borders declaring bankruptcy (the latest in a long line of mass market store-on-pavement booksellers to do so), independent bookstores under siege, and e-books challenging the old economics.

Is a move to book writing like leaping from the frying pan to the fire? The list of journalists-turned-author is legion, including Charles Diekens, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Joan Didion, Carl Hiaasen, Susan Sontag, and Michael Connelly. Even longer would be a list of reporters who tried books and didn't care for the labor, uncertainty and poor return.

Publishers rely on reporters' ability to produce on demand, be succinct, meet deadlines, cooperate with editors, and write for general audiences. Unfortunately, book writing is even more competitive than journalism. Publishers in the United States alone issue more than 6,000 books a week. Entry can be hard: agent Jennifer Weltz told the Historical Novel Society in June that of 8,000 queries she receives in a typical year, she will take on five new clients. And like professional sports, acting or music, writing books tends to be a winner-take-all profession in which the top authors--often celebrities to start with--reap outsize rewards while the majority of authors, including many who were journalists, struggle.

I've been fortunate. Books got my kids through college and produced the bulk of my retirement savings. (This says more about newspaper pay than my success as an author.) But book writing is unstable, and during the 21 years that I've had some kind of book contract, I've also worked as a fulltime journalist, half-time journalist, half-time college professor, freelancer, ghostwriter, speaker, or consultant to keep things going. In 2001, when I gambled on a new novel and 9/11 temporarily shut down the industry, my income was zero.

Aspiring authors talk craft. Established authors talk business. The biggest shift in going from journalism to books is not from scribe to artist, but employee to entrepreneur--suddenly self-employed, with no benefits, no expense account, and no security. Your mission is to become a brand, figure out how to market it, and then reapply for your job every year or two with a new and enticing proposal for a publisher.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Why do it? Freedom. Control. Creativity. Self-expression. No commute. No news cycle. With the right combination of talent, persistence and luck, there's a chance to earn more money than in a newsroom. Books can also earn you royalties for years or decades after publication.

Cover a topic of high interest--such as terrorism, Wall Street shenanigans, a politician or celebrity from your own stomping grounds, or a "stay-healthy--and there's the likelihood of getting a contract and monetary advance for a nonfiction book by producing a compelling 20- to 40-page proposal with convincing evidence that the idea can sell and that you know how to sell it. Publishers produce at least two times as many nonfiction books as novels and are looking for journalist storytellers. To get a novel published means producing the entire book before trying to sell it.

First Book--To Last

There's no typical route to authorship, but mine is illustrative. …

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