Faima is a contributing writer for Journo Resources, writing a range of practical features about the journalism industry. She was previously our in-house senior staff writer. Faima is an award-winning journalist with other bylines at Metro.co.uk, Stylist, Time Out and HuffPostUK.
July 27, 2021 (Updated )
Writing a book is no easy feat. But for journalists, whose entire career is based around writing, publishing your own book is often the dream. But, how do you get from a fledging idea to a publication day announcement on Twitter? How do you find an agent? Or write a book proposal that makes sense? We spoke to three journalists turned authors to get the low down.
“Building up that body of work and giving yourself that niche as a journalist and as a writer helps massively,” says Natalie Morris, author of Mixed/Other and deputy lifestyle editor at Metro.co.uk, where she wrote around similar topics to her book. “I think that’s why this deal kind of fell into my lap,” she explains.
As part of her “day job” Natalie had already established her own weekly series Mixed Up, where she interviewed various people from Britain’s mixed-race population about the unique challenges and experiences they face. This helped to establish Natalie as an authority in the area and attracted the attention of Trapeze – the imprint who eventually published Mixed/Other.
“Publicising your work on social media, and seeding your work cleverly and engaging with the publishing world online, it can help make this happen,” she adds. “If you’re talking about these topics a lot online, and having those discussions, it just flags that you know what you’re talking about.”
Finding An Agent, Going It Alone, Or Self-Publishing?
Natalie didn’t have a literary agent in her journey to becoming an author. But many others do – having an agent means they pitch a book idea on your behalf, negotiating pay and potentially getting you a better deal.
For Mariam Khan, editor of anthology It’s Not About the Burqa, it was a natural choice after she’d learnt the ropes while working within publishing. Speaking to Journo Resources, she says: “I sort of had an awareness of agents because I worked within the publishing industry. What I recommend is speaking to other people who are repped by the agent you want to be repped by.
She advises hopeful authors to really look at the industry and what agents stand for. She continues: “The relationship was really built by knowing who repped what in the industry. What did they rep that I liked? Did they have other people of colour on their lists? Would they support the type of work I wanted to write?
“I reached out to my now agent and said I had an idea and needed help finding an agent and we spoke about all the agents I could be repped by only to realise at the end of dinner, she too was an agent and I just said, ‘why don’t you rep me?’And that’s how I got my agent.”
Meanwhile for Hira Ali, author of Her Allies, self-publishing seemed more of a likely route. This is when authors bear all the costs and risks of publishing the book, but earn a higher share of the profit per sale. “I didn’t pitch to a load of publishers, just one,” Hira explains.
“This topic was important to me and it was topical so I was also ready to self-publish. Traditional publishers usually take books a year in advance and control the narrative and the time and I was slightly hesitant about how delayed this would be. I finished writing in February and was aiming to self-publish it in March to coincide with International Women’s Day.
However, as with all methods of publishing, it’s important to weight up the pros and cons. While you’ll be able to publish more quickly and retain more control, you’ll also need to fork out for things like an editor, book design, and the cost of actually printing and promoting the book. “I was slightly nervous that self-publishing would not get me exposure and interest so when an agent from a publisher, Neem Tree Press, showed interest, I happily jumped on the opportunity,” says Hira.
“Neem Tree Press took a bit of a risk as it was too late to take on a book which was going to be published only three months later but they thought the topic was much needed and my publisher enjoyed reading the book even though she usually doesn’t publish these kind of books. I didn’t follow a typical process as such but grateful that I landed with a publisher nevertheless.”
Putting Together A Book Proposal
Whether you’re approaching publisher via an agent or individually, the chances are you’re going to have to put together a proposal. It’s basically a summary of everything they need to know about the book, including an outline, summary, sample chapters, and why you’re the best person to write it.
“The book proposal is the point to carve out your niche and identify your specific audience,” according to Natalie, who also urges journalists not to forget about the sales element of the pitch.”This was something that didn’t come naturally to me particularly so early on, it was kind of hard to envisage how it would fit in a bookshop or in the market.”
For Natalie, this is where research was crucial. “I didn’t know much about the market, I didn’t really know about the world of publishing or what people were after. So I had to do a bit of research to find what books like my book were already out in the world, how it would fit in, in that market. And also, crucially, how it stands out.
“I think we all have a tendency as kind of young, enthusiastic writers to think that we are the first people to come up with an idea or the first people to have this level of enthusiasm and platform. But it doesn’t take much digging to realise that a lot of these themes have been around for a very long time.
“And that doesn’t mean you can’t write about them or bring a new, fresh, contemporary perspective to it. But I think it’s important to have an awareness of what’s come before as well. My final point is to think about the bigger picture before honing in on the minutiae of your structure. So ask yourself, what journey do you want your readers to go on? What do you want them to take away from the book? What is the central argument that threads everything together? And having a solid idea of these answers will help your structure naturally come together.”
Similarly, Hira adds: “I made an effort to show how needed this book is. The reviews helped and I do have an established platform in the diversity and inclusion space, with a keen following on LinkedIn which kind of helped and which I leveraged on.”
And, most importantly, be prepared for changes and feedback. “”When you first send in your proposal, it’s likely that it will come back with lots of suggestions and lots of ways to make it better,” Natalie tells Journo Resources. “Even if it’s just you reading through it many, many times and honing it to perfection [that’s] a really important part of the process. And it really is the very first building block. So if it’s shifting and changing at that very early point, that’s absolutely fine.”
Settling On An Idea Your Passionate About
Overall though, the most important thing about the whole process is picking a subject you’re truly passion about. After all, as Natalie reminds us, it’s a huge commitment. “I want to hammer this point home – a book is such a big commitment to embark on.
“It’s a huge undertaking and not something that should be entered into lightly or just because you think it will be fun. It will be fun, but it’s really challenging and really hard to balance in terms of time and energy levels. You have to be super keen on it.”
Being passionate about an idea also often means bringing an element of yourself to the book too. “You want to have that that level of personal investment in the narrative,” says Natalie. “Because that makes it a better, more engaging body of work. So make sure you’re asking yourself that question early on, because your publishers and editors will want to know that.
“As journalists, it’s very easy to hide yourself away and not want to be in the spotlight when it comes to writing. But a book demands a certain element of yourself that you have to put into it. So that’s been something I’ve had to get my head around definitely.”
But, finally, remember that this is supposed to fun. “I had to remind myself I’m writing a book, that’s what I’ve always wanted to do. And also to remind myself to enjoy it. You only get to write your first book once.
“So in order to enjoy it, I had to be rested and not exhausted and burnt out. The only times during this process when I was having a horrible time was when I was just exhausted. Take that on board. Don’t burn yourself out to write this book. The book will still be there.”