I have two writing clients at the moment, both of whom are working on nonfiction books. They both crave publication, and I believe they both have a good chance or I wouldn’t have taken them on or stuck with them this long. Yet they may each be sabotaging themselves. I’ll explain.
Lex (names and other minor details have been changed to protect my clients’ privacy) is writing a book about a way to increase high performance in any field. Now that’s a popular self-help topic. He’s got a pretty solid platform already. At least it looks good on paper.
Lex and I have been going back and forth on his book since our initial phone consult 16 months ago. He’s done his writing and rewriting between his regular work and time spent with his family. (He called me one morning and then accidentally left his phone on. The family chaos I overheard made me wonder how he got any writing done.)
Marcy came to me with an idea I knew would excite agents, publishers, and readers alike. How did I know? Because it’s related to sex. She’s not a doctor, but perhaps with a doctor writing an introduction or an enthusiastic endorsement, her book will come across as highly credible. It’s a perennial topic, much in the news, and endlessly fascinating, and her approach is fresh. I’ve been working with her for more than four years now, as she’s been busy with growing her practice and dealing with family life.
The two things these two book writers share is that (1) at times they chose not to listen to my advice (which is fine), and (2) they’ve each approached their projects the way they seem to approach the rest of their lives. That is, one is a bit too impatient to get things done, and one might be a bit too perfectionist.
Lex has sent drafts of his proposal out to various colleagues at the same time he sent them to me, which means those people are commenting on a version that I’m about to suggest drastic changes to. That costs him more of my time, duplicates everyone’s efforts, and runs through his list of potential friendly first readers too soon. He sent a nowhere-near-finished draft of a proposal to a potentially good agent, who wrote back with, guess what? “This isn’t ready yet.”
Marcy had her heart set on a top agent, because other advisers had told her she should. But the agent at the top of her list basically said, after seeing the proposal, “Come back to me when you’re more famous. This is a small book now, but it could be big.” That’s the usual platform-spouting advice of many agents these days, that bigger everything is always better.
So Marcy spent the next few months, rather than working on the book, setting up speaking engagements, a professionally designed website, and a couple of blogs (which have been a strain to keep up with). And after all that, the big agent still wasn’t responsive. Keep in mind that a lesser known (but by no means inferior) agent had long ago expressed great enthusiasm for the project based on the same proposal.
It’s been said that the good is the enemy of the better, but I would also suggest that the better is often the enemy of the good enough. And sometimes, when it comes to getting a book published, good enough is all you can realistically expect.
So rather than racing around frantically in several directions at once, sometimes it’s smart to take what you can get, learn from it, and build on it.
Last reviewed: 28 Aug 2010