Of Books and Pen: Steinbeck’s Advice and Mine on Writing Your First Book

By: Professor Abigail L. Perdue

The profession of book writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business.

John Steinbeck

I first dreamed of writing a book when I was nine years old. A precocious fourth grader with a vivid imagination, I had always been an avid reader, going off on grand adventures from the comfort of my father’s study. The walls of that tiny room – not much larger than a closet – were covered from floor to ceiling with books on every topic imaginable. I would crawl on his chair and reach for the classics on the highest shelves. That’s where I first met Alcott, Austen, Hardy, and a host of other beloved childhood companions. I lost myself in his library, but perhaps I found myself too.

Like many insatiable readers, I soon discovered that I enjoyed creating stories almost as much as reading them. In the fourth grade, my teacher entered my short story – The Eagle’s Eye[1] – into a writing competition. Much to my surprise, I won, and my first story was published. That unique experience reinforced two burgeoning desires – my passion for writing and my dream to one day publish a book.[2]

Fast forward several decades later, and I’ve published two books and am currently waist-deep in a third. All the while, Steinbeck’s ghost has been whispering in my ear while I revisit his Depression-era classic – The Grapes of Wrath. So here are a few things I wish I’d known before naively embarking on my first book-writing journey:

  1. Author’s Fatigue: Book writing is a marathon, not a sprint. Book projects are expansive and exhausting. They require unwavering dedication and demand the significant sacrifice of time, energy, and resources. Yet as Steinbeck explained, “[t]o finish is sadness to a writer – a little death. He puts the last word down and it is done. But it isn’t really done. The story goes on and leaves the writer behind . . .”
  2. The Writing Process: When establishing writing deadlines, be realistic and reasonable. If you predict that writing a book will consume a year of your life, double that figure because the time spent composing the draft fails to account for the months of back-and-forth edits with the publisher, co-author, etc. Set small, manageable, process goals. As accomplished author and law professor Heidi Brown explains, “Different motivational techniques work for different people. Some writers prefer daily page goals; others favor word count quotas; still others set a daily timer.” For my part, I can only write during long and uninterrupted blocks of time, usually in comfy clothes in a vibrant, off-campus setting that gets my creative juices flowing. Steinbeck admitted, “When I face the desolate impossibility of writing five hundred pages, a sick sense of failure falls on me, and I know I can never do it. Then gradually, I write one page and then another. One day’s work is all I can permit myself to contemplate.”
  3. Scholarly Impact: A book may not have the same scholarly impact as an article. You can’t upload a book to SSRN for free downloads. Nor you can place it on Westlaw, Lexis, or Bloomberg so that scholars and students alike can easily locate it. Only diligent researchers – the ones who still venture down to the stacks – will likely find your book. So before you choose a print vehicle to communicate your ideas, find out how your institution assesses scholarly impact during its tenure and promotion process. If it relies on measures like the number of SSRN downloads, your book may not be as beneficial to your professional development as a traditional law review article. Furthermore, while a book certainly permits a deep dive into the subject matter, digital age readers with short attention spans may prefer a snippet or slice of information that is quick to read and easy to process.
  4. Tenure and Promotion: A book may easily consume a year or more to write, but whether fifty pages or five hundred, it is still only afforded a single line on your C.V. By comparison, four average length articles (~160 pages) are afforded quadruple the space of one 160-page book. Accordingly, before you write, investigate your school’s promotion policy. What value does it afford to books versus articles? At many institutions, a book of any length is treated as comparable to two law review articles, perhaps only one if you co-author. That often remains true no matter the depth, breadth, popularity, or import of the book. Thus, devoting several years to a single book project may be less advantageous to your professional development than investing one year apiece to publishing several high-quality law review articles.
  5. Compensation: With the exception of casebooks, which can easily cost over $100 apiece, most academic books will not provide a significant source of alternative income. In fact, academic publishers often provide free review copies to professors upon request. Law students check free copies out of the law library or buy used copies from other students, rather than purchasing new copies that would generate revenue. Furthermore, most publishing contracts only afford authors a portion of the royalties minus any costs the publisher spends to create the book’s index or table of contents. Even if your institution provides a research stipend to write a book, it is often limited in amount, duration, or both and is equivalent to what one might receive for publishing a single, shorter, and less time-intensive law review article.

There are also many upsides to producing a book.

  1. Book Proposal: Most publishers require a fairly comprehensive book proposal and often a draft chapter before putting you under contract. This ensures that you do not waste time on a project that will never be published. Notably, you’re not usually wedded to your book proposal. It’s a prediction, not a blueprint. Accordingly, authors generally retain the creative freedom and flexibility to alter a book’s scope, content, organization, chapters, and even title during the drafting process. Perhaps that is why Steinbeck advised, “[a]bandon the idea that you are ever going to finish” – because he understood that books are living things, which evolve.
  2. Engagement and Expertise: Publishing a book opens doors by prompting other related scholarly opportunities. You may be asked to co-author or contribute a chapter, to speak at conferences or symposiums, or to mentor new authors. These natural by-products of book writing are incredibly rewarding and foster your reputation as an expert on the topic. After all, you literally wrote the book on it!
  3. Crossing the Finish Line: It’s incredibly fulfilling to teach a course using your own book. You feel no sense of urgency to fill gaps in the text, and your course material and reading are entirely consistent. The reading reinforces your lecture, while your lecture reinforces the reading, making each session maximally productive. But to reach the finish line, you must maintain your passion for the piece and your faith in yourself. As Steinbeck observed, “the writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true.”
  4. Thoughtfulness: A book project allows you to take a deep dive into an area of interest and slowly, methodically explore it without arbitrary page constraints. This is especially enriching when your scholarly interests intersect with your teaching and service. With this kind of scholarly synergy, your book writing will strengthen your teaching and vice-versa.[3]
  5. Timing: For some authors, the slower, more self-directed pace of book writing is far more appealing and satisfying than the more rigid and cyclical submission deadlines for law review articles. While perhaps more tedious, book writing also offers greater opportunities for staggered reflection and peer review.

As to the writing process, like Steinbeck, “I still don’t know how to go about it except to write and take my chances.” With all this in mind, my best advice to emerging scholars considering a book is to wholeheartedly pursue one if that is what your heart desires and schedule permits. But make the decision with your eyes wide open.

 

[1] The short story was told from the perspective of an eagle that was contemplating the higher meaning of the people and things he saw as he flew.

[2] Of course, at the time, I envisioned a fiction novel that would embody the bold wit of Austen and beautiful precision of Eliot.

[3] See Abigail Perdue, Finding Your Muse, Perspectives (Spring 2019).

 

 

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