former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

Writing a book is hard enough; selling a book is next to impossible

In Blog on July 18, 2014 at 10:00 pm

For years, I dreamed about writing a book. I had some reason to think I was capable of it. In 1990, my husband, after all, wrote a book that landed him on network news shows and on a mini book tour. CBS paid for us to stay in a swanky hotel in New York City – me, Richard and our then two-year-old daughter. His book deserved the acclaim. Wounded Innocents: The Real Victims of the War against Child Abuse was the culmination of years of work as a journalist covering the plight of foster children and the tragic predicaments of families whose poverty was confused with neglect, losing their children to a flawed and often inhumane system.

After years of thinking about writing a book, I did. It was terrifically exciting. I am a former journalist, and although I left that profession years ago, I’ve always been deeply attached to reporters and reporting. In my work as a public interest lobbyist based in Washington, D.C., I often was a news source to reporters, many of whom I admired. It was alarming to see what was becoming of the profession, as newspapers and broadcast outlets shed jobs, and readers went to the Internet for free opinions, and newspapers were giving their product away online. (Later, newspapers got smart and establish pay walls to protect their content.

I wanted to write about the crisis and the profession through the lens of personal experience. I found terrific subjects to profile. I was able to do long-form interviews with two MacArthur genius award recipients – David Simon, best known for his HBO series, The Wire, and Chuck Lewis, who left CBS 60 Minutes in 1990 to do a new kind of nonprofit journalism.

I was able to explore the high points of journalism in the 1980s and 1990s when newsrooms were flush, and reporters were encouraged to go big and deep. The people I interviewed who had left the profession were among its best and brightest. Paul Taylor had covered the transition in South Africa from apartheid to a multi-racial democracy. He’d been beaten by a white mob, shot in a black township, and kidnapped by Angolan rebels. Yet he relished that beat as the high point of his career. It inspired him to leave journalism to form a nonprofit dedicated to improving democracy in the U.S. Joan Connell had written movingly about the role of religion in people’s lives, had been a pioneer in online journalism, and after a long and successful career, became what she termed a “journo-bureaucrat,” helping young journalists, particularly those who were oversees on a free-lance basis, cover wars and other disasters while taking care of their own mental health.

I also told the stories of sexism and racism in the newsroom through the eyes of reporters who had experienced it
I was able to get the perspectives of Atlantic editor James Fallows and award-winning investigative reporter Jim Steele to help me make sense of this transition period in journalism, and to understand how the profession might be able to survive in the 21st century.

The individuals I profiled in my book had such terrific and memorable stories, I felt privileged to be interviewing them. Likewise, I assumed that the distinguished journalists who had valuable insights would draw readers. This, I thought, will be a book worth reading, not because of me but because of these gifted people who had been so generous with their time, their thoughts and their life stories.

My husband’s agent was willing to take me on. She helped me develop a book proposal. She made the rounds, but there was not much interest from publishers, who were not sure the book would attract a large enough audience. I was obsessed with getting a bona fide publisher, and searched every angle. I remember one chilly fall day, after a very long day at work, forcing myself to attend the convention of the American Library Association. I had invested $25 in a day pass, with the idea of browsing the aisles of publishers and possibly finding one who might be willing to take a chance on me. That’s how I found McFarland and Company, a publisher primarily of textbooks, based in a small town in North Carolina.

My agent approached them, and they offered me a contract. No advance, but a significant share of the royalties. I did not care about earning much money from the book. But I hoped that it would get some attention.

McFarland was terrific to work with. It took about two years to research and write the 85,000-word manuscript. I rewrote each chapter about 12 times, checked and rechecked my facts. My husband was a great editor, suggesting revisions, asking questions.

My daughter was my proofreader, did my index and was an all-round scold when it came to formatting and having the correct citations. She was terrific, although I often wanted to wring her neck for being so scrupulous.

The week after Christmas in 2011, I remember mailing the manuscript to the publisher. I was so nervous my hand trembled as we made the final copy and addressed the envelope. This was my baby, this was the ship that carried my dream.

McFarland editors made few changes and asked for two minor deletions. We had wanted to call the book Bye-lines, but the editors suggested Out of the News. I loved the cover they chose – an old-fashioned typewriter. I was amazed at how big my name looked.

Six months later, when my husband and I were in Europe on vacation, the book arrived. My daughter emailed us. I was overwhelmed. The book was real. No one could take this away from me. I’d become a nonfiction author!

I remain enormously grateful for the experience. My work colleagues organized a wonderful book party for me, and some of the subjects of my book attended. They were pleased, and bought extra copies for their parents! The following year, the Society of Professional Journalists honored the book with a national award for excellence. Winning that award was one of the high points of my life.

Along the way, I have received great reviews, wonderful coverage in the alumni magazine of Point Park University, where I earned my graduate degree in journalism, and from the Association of Opinion Journalists.

But I learned something very important about being a nonfiction author. Writing a book is hard. Selling a book is next to impossible. I did not expect my book to do as well as my husband’s book did. But I did not realize how hard it was to sell any books, particularly when your publisher does not sell books in book stores and sets a price that seemed awfully high to me. My book was a paperback, but its price-tag equalled the textbooks that students must buy because professors have assigned them. I also did not realize how much publishing has changed. Book stores are closing down, and it’s difficult for new authors to compete in a world where a few authors command all the attention and most of the dollars of readers.

I will never regret writing this book. But the pain of checking my stats on Amazon or getting my twice yearly reports from my publisher is an acute reminder of just how cruel a business publishing can be. Amazon does sales rankings among 8 million books on the market! Writing a bestseller has the same odds as winning the lottery.

You would think I would learn from this experience. But I’m writing a second book with the working title, Catholic Women Confront Their Church. I hope it will catch on with the public, but my eyes are wide open.

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