How To Write 60 Books in 20 Years: The Book Doctors Interview Terry Whalin–Writer, Editor and Publisher Extraordinaire
1) You’ve written over 60–SIX ZERO!!!–books. How in the world did you accomplish such a feat? And what can other writers who have trouble writing learn from your ability to keep writing?
I often say writing a book is like eating an elephant. You do it one bite at a time. It’s the same with books. They are tackled one page at a time, one chapter at a time, one section at a time, one book at a time. One of the best ways to write a full length adult book (something with 40,000 words or more) is to set a daily word count then consistently day after day write 500 or 1,000 words or whatever makes sense for the type of writing that you do. In nonfiction (and all of my books have been nonfiction), I look at each chapter as a lengthy magazine article. In magazine writing, you need to have a beginning, middle and end plus you need to lead the reader to a particular point (call to action or takeaway it is often called). If you can write a successful magazine article and get that into print, then you can string 15 or 20 of those articles together into a single book.
While many writers want to produce a book, I always encourage writers to learn the craft of writing in the magazine world. I have written for more than 50 magazines and I’ve been a magazine editor. It is much better to learn this skill on a short magazine article than a long book. Also you can reach many more people with a magazine article than most books. I wrote many magazine articles before I ever tackled my first book, which was published in 1992. The same principles apply to writing books from my perspective.
I also love many different types of writing and books. Too many writers make a decision that they are only going to write nonfiction or fiction or children’s books or young adult books. It is almost like they are hitched to a plow trying to get through a muddy field and are constantly plodding forward. I’ve discovered great joy in the variety of the writing world. One day I was writing children’s material and another focused on a magazine article then a third day writing a chapter in a nonfiction book. The decision to write a certain type of material is to be made consciously—just like you can decide to write many different types of material.
2) Your books have been published by publishers big and small, general and niche. How did these experiences differ? What were the biggest pluses and minuses of each?
Each book and each publisher has a unique way of working. I’ve learned to ask a lot of questions before I turn in my manuscript to make sure I’ve met their expectations and I encourage them to voice as many of those expectations as possible so I deliver what they want. Some publishers expect you to be a mind-reader and I’ve learned that often I’m off base if I make assumptions and don’t ask expectations questions. This reality is true whether you are working with a large or small publisher.
The key from my perspective is building a relationship with the editor and also as many different people within the publisher as you can access such as marketing and sales and publicity. Position yourself as a proactive author who wants to come alongside and help each person in the house exceed expectations for the performance of your book. There is a fine line each time between proactive and high-maintenance (not where you want to be as an author).
Finally I advise authors to be open to many different ways of working with a publisher. Writers often have a pre-conceived way of working with a publisher. For example, many writers only want a royalty contract with a publisher and are turned off with the offer of a work-made-for-hire, all-rights contract. With that attitude, they walk away from a WMFH offer rather than take it. My literary attorney (notice I have one) says that I’ve signed more WMFH agreements than anyone she knows. I like to have book contracts and work as a writer. Many nonfiction writers don’t understand that about 90% of nonfiction books never earn back their advance. This figure isn’t my statistic but I learned it in a writing book (unfortunately I can’t remember the source). The statistic bears out in my own writing. I would rather be paid well WMFH for a short term book than not have my book earn out a royalty advance. For example, I wrote two devotion books on a very short-term deadline and each book sold 60,000 copies. My name is in the tiny print on the copyright page of those books since devotional books are topical and not author driven. It’s OK with me because I was paid a flat fee and gained a great writing credit that I can use to get other books. Many writers lose sight of such possibilities because they are focused on one way to publish when in fact there are many ways of working. Do not limit yourself.
3) We’ve entered a new age of publishing where the barriers have been ripped down and anyone can publish. Do you see this as a positive or negative for all of those out there that not only want to get published, but get published successfully? Please elaborate as much as possible!
The fact that everyone can get published online with a blog is great (a positive) but writers need to learn to tell good stories and not just write from a stream of consciousness (a negative). Every single book I know has a good target audience and delivers well-crafted stories and how-to information for that reader.
Whether publishing an ebook or manuscript, the successful authors know how to tell a good story and work on their visibility in the marketplace (platform) through speaking, an online presence or other aspects. I encourage writers to attend conferences and build relationships with other writers as well as with magazine and book editors. You never know when one of those relationships is going to lead you into a new publishing opportunity. The old saying is true, “Often it is not what you know but who you know.” What editor is thinking about you and going to pick up the phone or email you when they have a need that they believe you can fill for their publishing house? Much of writing is isolated and writers need to make the effort to get to conferences and continually build personal relationships.
Also writers need to join with other writers and take an active role in a writer’s organization like the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) and The Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). They will grow as writers and learn a great deal from the experience. Like going to conferences, an active role in an organization will help any writer grow in their craft and abilities.
My final point is to encourage writers to establish their own independent publishing business. While building and working within the publishing structure, there is something refreshing and freeing about having your own ability to generate income and reach people through your own initiative. This step teaches you that writing is a business and you need to run it like a business but also this action removes the gatekeepers so you can interact directly with your target market. Establish your own free newsletter like my Right-Writing News. Give away part of your work to build your audience. As you sell products, you can collect the money directly from your reader rather than waiting for a magazine to pay or your book publisher. It will help you have an independent income stream as a writer and is vital for your on-going work in this market.
4) You’ve been both a writer and an editor/publisher. What did you learn about becoming a successful author from being an editor/publisher?
I’ve learned there are many options to get published. There are several keys: the right book for the right audience which is created right and has the right distribution to the bookstores and the right marketing behind it. I understand there are many “rights” in that last sentence. No one cares whether Doubleday or Podunk Press published your book if your book is edited, designed properly and has distribution and marketing. At Intermedia Publishing Group where I’m a Vice President and Publisher, we offer these services at an affordable price. I’ve signed several authors who have sold millions of books (no exaggeration) in the traditional market.
5) You established a strong niche for yourself by writing many of your books for a Christian audience. Do you think this helped your career? Did you ever felt you were the equivalent of type-cast?
A common saying to writers is to “write what you know.” I didn’t necessarily select the Christian audience but I was writing what I knew. The relationships I built were primarily with Christian editors and they gave me the opportunity to write for their magazines and book publishers (in many cases over and over).
There are merits to specialization but my writing is also diverse in the types of writing that I’ve done such as children’s books, young adult, biographies, how-to books, co-authored books, etc. Even within a particular category such as religious inspirational books, there is room for wide diversity. In my years in publishing, I’ve worked in many aspects such as a magazine editor, a book author, a literary agent, an acquisitions editor and now a book publisher. Each aspect has taught me something new and helped me grow as a writer. I’ve built many of the lessons from my diverse experience into my latest how-to book, Jumpstart Your Publishing Dreams, Insider Secrets to Skyrocket Your Success.
Some great additional links from Terry:
1) The list of Terry’s published books online. Notice the diversity in his writing and the different categories he straddles.
4) Here’s a link to a free hour-long teleseminar that Terry did with editor, Diane Eble, talking about the changes in publishing and the differences between traditional publishing, independent publishing and self-publishing.
5) A free sample of Jumpstart Your Publishing Dreams
6) The book trailer to Jumpstart on YouTube.