How to Start a Book



Writing a book is challenging, but it doesn’t have to be impossible. A lot depends on making a good start. Here’s how to do that—in four steps.

Check your knowledge. The first step, which can’t be put off, is to check what you know. Are you drawing on a body of knowledge that others share? How are your ideas the same as and different from what they know? Has your knowledge been tested and used successfully? Is there a generally accepted set of terms for referring to it? Can you specify the relation between the ideas that make up the body of knowledge? Are there parts of what you know that you feel are solid but which you haven’t completely articulated?

This work can involve some writing, but it doesn’t have to. You can draw charts, make tables, create notes, compile lists of resources. You can use idea-mapping software to great benefit, as well as repositories of knowledge such as libraries or websites. When you write things down, remember that you’re not writing the book, so don’t worry about polishing text. Just concentrate on making sure you have a good grasp of what you know, and that what you know is useful (broadly speaking), complete, and coherent.

Many people skip this step because they believe they will do these things as they write their books. They have heard that writing is thinking, and that is true, but thinking is not only writing. Much of the thinking needs to be done prior to working on the book. If it is not, then the writing will likely be overwhelmed by the requirements of the knowledge work.

Conceptualize your book. Once you are sure that you have a complete sense of what you know, you must turn this knowledge into content, which means identifying a part of it that has a specific purpose for a defined audience. You project the value and use of what you know. In short, conceptualize your book by asking yourself what good you want it to do in the world.

Note that your book should not try to say everything you know—because it can’t. In carrying out this step you might think of other ways you can disseminate your content—in another book, in a related workbook, on a website, in a blog, and so on.

When conceptualizing your book you will need to develop an idea that organizes what you know. In addition, you must establish a set of terms that will effectively portray the main aspects of that idea. If you can draw on terms that your audience is already familiar with (adjusted for your particular presentation), it will help the book be more accessible.

The combination of audience, purpose, and an organizing idea constitute your book’s proposition.

Put together a first draft. Now you are ready to capture in text all the content you want the book to contain. This is where the writing begins. It is a task that takes some time, although in many cases you can make progress by gathering together material you have already written. But you need to make sure that you write statements about your audience and purpose. It is the goal of the first draft to be substantive and complete, not finally organized. You address the latter in the next step.

Structure your book. In this step you determine how the book will present its proposition. The best way to do this is by writing the introduction—at which point you are moving on to your second draft and the writing occurs in earnest. In the introduction you give an overview of your proposition, citing the audience (primary and secondary), saying what the book will do for audience members, and detailing chapter by chapter how the book will accomplish this. The introduction thus becomes a guide for turning the first draft into a second draft. You’ll note that the book’s proposition is closely related to its structure, but they aren’t identical. Authors sometimes conflate them.

Also, remember that a book is long text that typically supplies the big picture while providing specific observations and advice.

Moving on. With a complete first draft and a second draft introduction in hand, you will have made a good start on your book. In fact, it is much more than a start; more than half of the work of the book is done. Finishing the book will require you to complete the second draft, redoing text from the first draft and writing some additional material as necessary to realize the structure and accomplish the argument.

Then, in a third draft, you will polish what you’ve written, adjust the introduction to accommodate any changes that had to be made as the rest of the book was created, and do a final check for consistency and completeness.

Note: Publishing is by its nature a collaborative activity, which means to do it well you should get help with starting (and finishing) your book. At Publishing in Context we have years of experience in providing such help and would be pleased to assist you. See the description of our services for more information.

© Martin Wilcox

The Context and Purpose of Publishing

© Martin Wilcox

          There is a lot of talk today about how publishing should change. People say it should alter its business plan; put out more, or perhaps only, digital products; promote open-access or self-publishing; and more. This discussion, which focuses largely on technical and technological issues, needs to take place, but it has become so passionate that it has diverted us from another, at least equally important, discussion: how publishing should not change.

In order to talk about that we need to pay attention to the context, and through that the purpose, of publishing.

Although it is seldom discussed, the context of publishing is knowledge, and the context of knowledge is culture.

Culture has been defined in a myriad of ways. Rather than trying to define it by describing its specific manifestations, such as beliefs, values, goals, and practices, I prefer a functional definition: Culture is the systematic way that we humans test, adapt, preserve, and pass on what we learn from our collective experience. It is the dynamic container of our shared knowledge.

Of all the cultural activities that relate to knowledge, publishing has become one of the more prominent. Whether as a contribution to a scholarly discipline as in academic publishing, as part of an exchange of expert ideas about how to conduct work as in professional publishing, as a guide to a practical task as in specialty publishing, or as an entertainment as in trade publishing, it provides knowledge for a defined purpose to a specific audience.

There is a range of knowledge processes that support publishing—for instance, scanning the environment, using empirical methods to evaluate validity and truth, perspective-taking, collaboration, and popularization. The first three examples are important but not always present; the last two are always at work and essential.

Collaboration is a process in which two or more people work together to understand and accomplish a common purpose. It is a knowledge process because collaborating inevitably requires people to refer to and pass along what they know. In an organizational setting, collaboration has only recently been recognized as important—often distinguished from teamwork, which has received much more attention, because the latter typically involves people in a formal workgroup, or in formally recognized roles, whereas the former involves people who aren’t members of the same formal group work. Thus, it commonly necessitates working across a variety of boundaries (vertical, horizontal, stakeholder, demographic, and geographic). In a general setting, where formal groups are the exception, collaboration is much more prominent. In publishing it is how things get done.

Popularization is the means by which expert knowledge is made available to a succession of ever-wider, more general audiences that can make use of it. Because expert knowledge is everywhere, it can begin anywhere—in an academic discipline, in an ongoing practical activity, or in an association of shared interests, or wherever these may intersect, to name a few. And there are many degrees of popularization—beginning with a very small amount, where, for instance, an expert informs his or her peers about something he’s learned; to somewhat a slightly greater amount, where the expert informs experts in closely related fields; to a very great amount, where an expert portrays his or her knowledge to a largely lay audience. For each degree, the audience must be considered and knowledge must be transformed.

Golden Leaves Floating Copyright: Melanie Arrowood Wilcox

Golden Leaves Floating
Copyright: Melanie Arrowood Wilcox

Given its context, the purpose of publishing becomes obvious: to contribute to the sharing of knowledge. Thus, the cultural and social aspects of knowledge use and dissemination, especially the essential processes of collaboration and popularization, are central to our understanding of what is happening in publishing and how we should move forward.

In addition, we need to acknowledge that publishing has six interrelated but distinct stages: knowledge verification, content development, publication development, production, marketing and promotion, and sales and distribution. On occasion, there can be some overlap, often resulting in confusing one stage with another. Each of these contributes to its purpose.

  1. Knowledge Verification. Publishing must begin with a commitment to contribute in some way to shared knowledge. To follow through on this commitment, it is necessary to judiciously consider the value and quality of the knowledge that is being added. It can come from a scholarly or a practical field; it can be held individually or organizationally.
  2. Content Development. Content development is a large part of the popularization that publishing organizations do. Thus it is the means by which expert knowledge is transformed into something that can more readily be understood and used by people throughout society. Within any knowledge field, a great deal of effort is expended to make it internally consistent and expandable (that is, something that can be contributed to). This is accomplished in many ways but especially through a precise and detailed terminology and, closely related, through organizing concepts. Except for the community of experts in the field, the terminology and expert concepts cannot merely be passed on to a more general audience. Content development develops a terminology that is accessible to a wider audience and is relevant to its needs, and finds more understandable organizing concepts. It can be understood as turning knowledge into content.
  3. Publication Development. This was once essentially book development, but now it involves developing different kinds of products. But the book is not dead, and furthermore it needs to be understood that in many cases when we talk about the book what we are really referring to is text: language that is put into a fixed form in various ways, the most prominent way historically being written (and then printed). This text, language in fixed form, is an important type of technology, which was developed in the course of the cultural activities of preserving and sharing useful knowledge. Publishing is essentially about content in textual form to create products that serve cultural needs.
  4. Production. Production is the stage in which collaboration and popularization are essential—with editing producing an understandable and useful text, and design and layout creating a presentation that is efficient and accessible—assuring that the product is effective at sharing the content in the developed text.
  5. Marketing and Promotion. The purpose of both marketing and promotion in publishing is to let an audience know that a publisher has some content that the audience needs and can use. It is not to create a need that doesn’t already exist, although sometimes an audience may not be aware that it needs something. Marketing aims to inspire an immediate, or not-too-distant, purchase. Promotion, on the other hand, informs people about a publication and aims to set the stage for an eventual purchase. Both are key to the effective sharing of content.
  6. Sales and Distribution. This is a part of publishing that is much discussed and changing. In the midst of this, we must make sure that sales and distribution are driven in large part by the knowledge requirements of people, by what they need to understand and do, and not exclusively by technological considerations.

What should stay the same for publishing, despite the innovations of new business models and technological capacities, should be the context it operates in and the purpose it fulfills. Collaboration, popularization, and the six stages of the publication process must continue. These can be done in different ways by new combinations of people and resources, but if publishing is to continue its contribution to society, they must endure.

Publishing in Context