Last night I was going through some old boxes and found, I believe, my only still existing piece of juvenilia—a story that I co-authored with my friend in junior high, and still probably the corniest thing I have ever written. (Really, the zebra print border says it all.) But the best part is I also found a letter from my gramma, written to me around the same time. It’s a response to a letter I had written her, in which I had gushed about all of the writing I was doing. She replies:
I’m looking forward to reading that book you and your friend are writing & your 9 fantasy stories—I know they’ll be good. That’s great!
Little did my eleven-year-old self know the long and winding road I would end up taking on my path to authorship. A path that included long letters to friends, a tall stack of journals, blogging through my adventures studying abroad and interning, an English degree, a decade of writing book reviews, social media, over a dozen years (and counting) in the publishing industry, starting my own business, teaching classes and workshops, a book proposal, and… it’s still going. I haven’t quite reached my goal yet, but I’m doing it. I’m here, doing the work.
My gramma would be so proud. That eleven-year-old girl is so proud.
The creator of ConvertKit, Nathan Barry, recently posted an article on “The Ladders of Wealth Creation,” which lays out a common progression to building wealth as an entrepreneur. It’s incredibly well written and thoughtful, and if you’re in a service-related business (like writing or editing), I highly recommend it. But it got me thinking about all of the possible progressions to authorship that I’ve seen amongst the various authors I’ve worked with over the years, as well as my own.
There are a variety of paths available for certain kinds of writers based on our goals, and each path provides a menu of steps you can take. The beautiful thing about following these paths is that they help us grow our skill and self-efficacy so that we pick up momentum as we move through each step toward our dream of becoming authors. I’ve written before about how to build our self-efficacy (our belief in our own abilities to achieve a goal) as writers, but I realized for the first time that this process can look different based on what those goals are.
In other words, your why should determine not just what you write and how you publish, but also the steps you take to get there.
I’ve identified roughly six kinds of writers (each with a different “why”) and what each writer’s path to publishing a book might look like. Although I’ve presented them here rather linearly for clarity’s sake, you’ll see there’s lots of overlap and anyone who’s been in this space for a while knows that this process is anything but linear.
Also, this isn’t prescriptive. Do you have to follow any of these paths? Absolutely not. Can following a certain path guarantee you success? Nope. But if you do, will the road to authorship be easier and will success be more likely? For sure.
Each path helps us move from more personal and short-form writing to more global and long-form writing, while building our skills and self-efficacy. Publishing is, like it or not, a business endeavor, and so following a path will also help us improve our business acumen along the way. It’ll prepare us to ask the right questions, negotiate a favorable deal, and ultimately be happier with the whole experience. Each step helps to bring us closer to the next one and makes it more doable and attainable. As psychologist Albert Bandura identified, engaging in progressively more difficult and complex mastery experiences builds our confidence. Those small wins add up to big breakthroughs over time.
On the flip side, trying to skip over certain steps or make big leaps in the progression will, understandably, feel intimidating, out of reach, and hard.
It’s not wrong to skip steps. You can do whatever you want. Heck, sometimes publishers seek out authors early on and offer contracts. That’s great!
But there’s a way to make it easier. There’s a way to do it so that you will write a better book, grow your confidence, and set yourself up for greater success later on.
It’s not sexy. It’s not fast.
But damn, you’ll be proud.
Let’s talk about each kind of writer.
The Career Writer just loves writing for the sake of writing. There’s no other motive or goal. They would be doing this even if they weren’t getting paid for it (but they can’t imagine getting paid to do something else). It's not easy for them; but there's just no other alternative. Not writing is, to them, unthinkable. They journal, write letters to friends and family, pour their hearts out on social media or in blogs. When they realize they want to get “serious,” perhaps they enter contests and/or seek out articles in local or national publications. They know they’re serious when they start getting paid for their writing.
Publishing is a career writer’s dream in the same way that getting a record deal or playing at Carnegie Hall might be a musician’s dream; because that’s the pinnacle. A career writer not pursuing the publication of a book would be like Alex Honnold not trying to climb El Capitan. Of course they’re going to do it. That’s what they do, that’s what it’s all for.
Sometimes the career writer hasn’t yet stepped into this career. Maybe, like me, they became an editor or an English teacher or a librarian or otherwise surrounded themselves with books because they allowed themselves to believe (for now) that that’s good enough. Don’t worry; they’ll get there. For this person, writing is a calling that cannot be denied.
Other authors have other motives. For the influencer-entrepreneur, writing a book is a means to an end. It might be a stamp of validation and approval, it might be a way to get the word out about their business. It might be that they truly have a message that must be told, and a book is the most economical way to do that.
This person most often starts with a business incentive, or perhaps a passionate message that they must share. They are charismatic and eloquent; speaking comes easily to this person, so that’s probably where they start. As their speaking grows, their thoughts and ideas become clearer. Writing them down is a way to immortalize their accomplishment. They might write a book on their own, if they have the time and patience, or they might seek out a ghostwriter or collaborator to help.
For the academic, writing is part of the job. They may or may not enjoy it, but they know it’s a necessary path to doing what they really want to do: keep learning, keep researching, keep teaching. This path starts in school, and they learn to put their ideas out into the world in ever-widening circles through papers and journal articles and conferences. If they become a professor, publishing is often required to achieve tenure, so they compile edited volumes of papers and contribute to their colleagues’ edited volumes. Eventually they realize there’s no textbook out there that has all of the things they want to teach in it, so they decide to write it themselves.
The expert’s path is similar to the influencer-entrepreneur’s, but they usually start in a different place. They might pursue authorship later in life because, first, they have a career to build. They’re a doctor or an educator or a politician or a lawyer or another professional. Over the years, they observe and reflect. They see the same problems happening again and again. They think, “If everybody could see what I can see, because of all of my experience, the world would be such a better place!”
So they start talking about it. And because they’re so good at their jobs, they get asked to speak about it. Associations want to hear what they have to say and conferences ask them to share best practices. Often, the professional is pursued by writing more than they pursue writing. People start telling them, “You need to write a book about everything you know.”
Eventually they agree.
The celebrity is another kind of professional; a professional living in the public eye. They’ve made their living doing something else—TV, or film, or being royalty. They realize that to stay relevant, to maintain the level of adoration they’ve accrued, they have to keep feeding the public. So they probably maintain an active following on Instagram and do brand sponsorships and become a spokesperson and start their own clothing line and buy a sports team. Perhaps they find their way into entrepreneurship.
Often, these people notice the gulf between their public selves and their private selves, and they cannot ignore that intrinsic desire we all have to be fully known. So they author a book, most likely with the help of a ghostwriter, to share more of their heart in ways that they’ve been unable to in front of a camera.
In all of the above five paths, writing a book comes after a series of steps that grows their readership, their thinking and writing, and their confidence. It’s not that any of these steps are easy, but they are easier than they otherwise would be. The gap between where they started and publishing a book has become smaller.
The dreamer is someone without a public persona, without the expertise and recognition of their field, without a lot of writing experience, who still dreams of publishing a book. Maybe they have had an incredible life story. Maybe they are just gifted with a message to share. Either way, they feel called to path that they are unprepared for.
It’s all worthy, and I don’t think the dreamer is wrong to pursue publishing a book. I wouldn’t try to dissuade them from that endeavor. And I know first hand that dreamers can and do get book deals.
But this is the hardest path. It’s like trying to jump onto your roof from the ground without a ladder. Can it be done? Sure… but there’s an easier way.
My advice to the dreamers is: adopt another path that has the same destination. If that sounds harsh, I don’t mean it to be. Don’t give up on your dreams, but do put more rungs on your ladder. Give yourself the steps you need to close that gap. Make it easier on yourself. Learn from the people around you what works, and try it out. Understand that books never exist in isolation; they are outpourings of other things. You need to give yourself those other things.
The good news for dreamers is that those other steps are more easily attainable. You can start a podcast. You can practice writing articles and pitching editors. You can blog. You can call up your church or your school and ask to give a presentation.
You can learn. You can master. And in mastering one area, you’ll make the next step that much easier to attain.