It can be seen as a black and white issue: either you’ve written a book or you haven’t. Many people do write books. Many more want to. In a survey I saw sometime in the past few months—I can’t recall exactly where—a survey indicated a high percentage of Americans wanted to write a book. What exactly does that mean? There are many different kinds of books and several motivations for writing them. And, depending, your work may or may not be taken seriously, even if you publish. As someone who’s published four nonfiction books, all of them obscure, I often think about this. Working in publishing I have some privileged access to the ins and outs of how this works, but that doesn’t necessarily help in writing success. So what are the motivations? Is there any way to tell the difference?
Obviously, I can’t speak for others’ motivations but I can see the results. Most of the writers with whom I work are academic writers. Their books are generally written for fellow academics and they’re the result of years of research in specialized libraries often off-limits to non-academics. Those are pretty easy to tell at a glance. Another class of nonfiction writer is the journalist. It’s assumed by the industry that someone who majored in journalism is a talented writer. If, after reporting on a topic for a few years, a journalist wants to write a book based on experience, that frequently gets a publisher’s interest. The results may not be academically reliable. I recall that as a grad student it was assumed there were even certain established publishers not to trust—mainly those that weren’t university presses, but not exclusively.
The self-published book has a more difficult trajectory to trace. Some authors, no matter how good or insightful, just can’t get a standard publisher’s attention. Others are convinced of their own wisdom and now have an easy route to become a published author. Yet others realize some money can be made from writing (although making a living at it is very hard work). I’ve been reading a book by a journalist that has lots of factual errors in it. I try not to judge, but I do wonder when I know it’s shelved as nonfiction. Now, these aren’t the kinds of errors that will cost a life if dosed incorrectly or will set off a war between dominant personalities that are heads of state. I also know that most books do contain inadvertent errors—books are written by humans and we don’t have all the answers yet. Still, I think of the readers and how we define nonfiction. What counts as a book anyway? Things are seldom black or white.