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Thursday, February 08, 2018

Answering the Question, "Why Do You Want to Write a Book?"

My last post posed the question, “Why do you want to write a book?” In the comments was a great response from junior TT prof to kick off this attempt to provide helpful information about publishing non-fiction books not oriented towards law students and prawfs. Here’s part of the comment from junior TT prof:

Why a book? I'm interested in writing a book to reach two types of audiences that don't read law review articles: experts in fields related to the subject of the book who are not lawyers, and laypeople. Structuring my thoughts as a book seems like it offers more flexibility in several respects. First, of course, the writing can be longer and more detailed. But also, it needn't hew slavishly to the law or the law review format. Its primary relevance needn't be to law or legal academics. And it can include pictures, charts, and a less formal writing style - all technically possible in a law review format, but less likely to succeed in the placement game or replicate well in Westlaw.

Let's be real, it would be fun to publish a book and go around giving talks to non-legal and even non-academic audiences about the book. At least this is how I envision publishing a first book. This isn't a major motivation, of course. I view it the same way some aspiring artist out there is thinking about showing their work in a cool gallery one day.

Junior TT prof captured exactly what I find so appealing about writing a non-fiction book for an educated audience outside of law schools. Most of our fields are inter-disciplinary. You can appeal to the lawyers and non-lawyers in your field by writing a less formal book that abandons the rigid formats we follow in writing law review articles. And, yes, it is fun to go out and meet these people who find your subject interesting enough to come to an event to hear you! You’ll find them as interesting as they find you! You’ll expand your network of people interested in the same things you are, which has been a delightful side benefit of the book publishing process so far. In fact, to publish a mainstream book read by more than your usual suspects, you’ll need to identify your audience (and how you will reach them) before you even start writing. More on that later.

It’s funny that junior TT prof mentions artists wanting to show their work. The subject of my book is Nazi-looted art litigation. I really relate to that analogy. And, my work really needs some photos! As junior TT prof mentions, the book can more easily include pictures and charts, but you have to be careful. Those things cost money, and the pictures require copyright permission from whoever took the photo (or now holds the copyright) and right of publicity permission from anyone recognizable in the photo. If you want to use photos, you’ll need to demonstrate to the publisher upfront that you understand what that requires and that the cost is justifiable given the marketability of your project.

So, to finish on the subject of answering the question of "why do you, Prawf, want to write a book?," I’ll list three good reasons, followed by three misguided ones.

Good Reasons:

  1. You have burning thoughts THAT WILL INFORM OR HELP OTHERS!
  2. What you bring to the subject is an important, non-trivial perspective that many non-lawyers will want to buy a book to learn more about.
  3. Other forms of writing, such as articles, op-eds and blogging, are insufficient for you to contribute what you know your field needs.
Misguided Reasons:
  1. You think you’ll become famous and make a lot of money. If John Grisham did it, why can’t you, right? Your chances of making significant royalties are about the same as winning the lottery. So, if being famous or making money are big goals for you, there are far easier ways than writing a book. In fact, I’ve spent money learning the trade.

  2.  Your ego. If your process is anything like mine has been, your ego will take a beating. You’ve got to have some thick skin to admit that our skills writing law reviews require change to succeed in mainstream publishing. Just because the writing in popular books is “less stuffy” does not mean that you’ll automatically be good at it.

  3. You want to take a sabbatical. That’s not enough motivation to see this process to the end. Ask most of the prawfs who started sabbaticals with the goal to write a book. Most wind up writing law review articles instead. That’s perfectly fine, respectable and understandable! Getting a publishing deal today from any mainstream or academic press is harder now than perhaps ever before, regardless of your writing ability. The game has changed completely, as I’ll relate in a later post about university presses.

Keep posting in the comments if you have questions you’d like me to try to address. Junior TT prof, I’ll respond to your other questions in later posts. Thanks for the input, and I hope this helps you! Unless something different comes up in the comments, I’ll start to talk in my next post about the process of landing a mainstream book publishing deal. Hint: It starts with thinking like a marketer, not an author.

Posted by Jen Kreder on February 8, 2018 at 08:27 PM | Permalink


Junior Prof, I think Senior Doc's got it right.

Posted by: Jen Kreder | Feb 13, 2018 7:33:05 PM

Junior Prof-

If you have tenure, save it for the book. If you're trying to get tenure, get the article published.
If it's politically-incorrect, publish it posthumously. Don't be a martyr like Jordan Peterson or Seth Rich.

Posted by: Senior Doc | Feb 11, 2018 1:36:11 PM

I have written a few articles on a particular topic over the past five years that I would like to turn into a book to try to reach a broader audience. I am in the final stages of the last article, and this article would be a critical part of the book.

My question is this: Should I try to publish the article or hold it back so there is original content for the book? I think I have a good shot at publishing it in a peer-reviewed journal or a law review.

Posted by: Junior Prof | Feb 9, 2018 4:57:35 PM

Exactly, Fahrenheit 451. That's on my mind a lot lately b/c of all the book challenges around the country. To Kill a Mockingbird is just one title expelled from school libraries these days.

Posted by: Jen Kreder | Feb 9, 2018 12:55:49 PM

"You have burning thoughts"

burning thoughts for burning books!

oh come on, the rest of you were thinking the same thing

Posted by: Fahrenheit 451 | Feb 9, 2018 9:10:01 AM

Just a minor point of potential disagreement: I think it's wrong to suggest that publishing in law reviews encourages stuffy writing, or that informal writing is somehow punished in the placement process. My sense is that student editors really like informal writing at the placement stage. All other things being equal, a piece that is fun to read will place better than one that is boring to read. It's true that some student editors can encourage stuffy writing during the editing process because they (wrongly) think it sounds more officially legal. But my sense is that at most journals, the Stuffy Brigade will stand down when authors say they want to be more informal writers.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Feb 9, 2018 12:41:29 AM

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