Monday, December 3, 2012...7:02 pm

Paperback writers: how to move into freelance book writing #2

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How can freelance journalists make the move into non-fiction book authoring? We’re asking  freelance journalists about their experiences in the book market and what tips they can offer to anyone who fancies taking the plunge.

The second case study in our series is a sports writing partnership – Martin Cloake (who took part in the Value of Journalism debate in this blog a couple of years ago) and Adam Powley, who also lectures in Sports Journalism at the University of Creative Arts. Martin and Adam’s latest book, The Glory Glory Nights, the official history of Tottenham Hotspur in Europe, is now out and can be browsed at, yes – I know it’s a hardback, so technically that headline is wrong.)

Why did you want to start writing books?
 My first book was We Are Tottenham. I’ve been a Spurs fan since the early 70s, and spent vast swathes of my time watching and talking about the team. I’ve also got a close group of friends built up through going to games, one of whom is a great storyteller.

There’s a bit of a tradition of swapping campaign stories amount football fans, and I’d often thought it would make a good book. It was also at a time when football crowds were getting more attention, but there seemed little recognition of the individuals that made them up. So I wanted to show the variety of people who come together to form a crowd, and to exchange some of those stories about the amazing lengths and daft things people do to follow their team.

I floated the idea to Adam Powley, partly because we had similar views, and partly as a way to ensure I delivered because I didn’t want to let him down. I’m a regular performance psychologist.

All that went together with the fact that I’ve always enjoyed writing and quite wanted to get a book done. I haven’t cracked the definitive socio-political crime novel about the state of Britain yet though. But there’s time.

How did you get your book deal?

Martin: I circulated a proposal to a number of publishers who published similar material – in my case sports publishers. It took well over a year – long after I thought the idea wasn’t going to fly – before Mainstream Publishing got back to me and said they were interested.

Adam:  Martin had been talking about doing a book and he came up with an idea to pitch. I had been working in publishing and knew a few people to contact either for advice or to approach to commission the book, so we pooled ideas and took it from there

Do you need any special skills beyond the usual journalistic ones?
 It helps if you understand how to market your book once it’s written. The writing itself was relatively straightforward. The book was a series of interviews with the fans of the football club I support – Spurs – and I wanted to keep the conversational style. So that involved sitting and talking for a few hours with people, taping it, then transcribing and boiling down the tapes. Very laborious.

A key skill I needed was to be able to quickly and accurately type up those interviews – the typing pool isn’t as deep as it was. The rest was working contacts, teasing interesting information and anecdotes out, making judgements on what to use, writing in an engaging style, getting the facts right – pretty much like journalism.

If you plan to self publish ebooks – which is an option you should give serious consideration to – then there’s a lot of other technical stuff you need to know. That’s perhaps another discussion, but it should be mentioned as an option.

Adam:  The kind of books I work on (non-fic) require very similar skills to journalism – finding stories, research, interviews, features, picture research, etc. One of the main differences regard deadlines – rather than day-to-day 24 hour deadlines, there’s at least a two-month ‘lead time’, so you have more time to put work together but also have to be disciplined

What are the differences between planning, researching and writing a book as opposed to, say feature articles?
 Time’s the obvious one – especially for a project such as this. From the outset you need to be honest about whether your idea is a book or really just a long article. Then you need to plan it out in some detail and deliver to that plan. You’ve also got to weave more in and sustain the reader’s interest over a longer period than you would for a feature. And you’ve got to be meticulous in your research. A book is much, much more permanent than a newspaper or magazine article. Finding the time to do the thing properly is a challenge, especially if you’re doing a full-time job and especially if that job involves writing and editing.

Adam: Wordcounts are obviously much higher. Interviews tend to be planned longer in advance, and the actual interview can take place over a longer period of time than a quick half hour phone call or presser. There’s more ‘room’ to write as well – more reflective and analytical rather than quick-fire hard news

Did/do you enjoy it?
 Yes, I did and I do. By definition you have to have an enthusiasm for the subject, so there’s obviously enjoyment in researching and writing the book. And seeing the book published gives areal sense of achievement. If you win any plaudits or prizes, as I’ve been lucky enough to do, that’s a great feeling.

Adam: Not half!

What about money? How was your deal structured. Was it fee-based or was it based on royalties?
 My first deal was a case of take it or leave it – that’s the nature of first book deals. Subsequent ones have been better – but the book market is getting hammered at the moment and deals are being squeezed.

As a rough rule of thumb, you get an advance that’s paid in three blocks: on signing the contract; on delivering the manuscript, and on publication. That’s an advance, not a fee, so you need to make that total in royalties as a minimum. Royalties in this sort of deal can be from 9-12.5%.

In the sports area, there’s more of a tendency to do licenced books. With Waterstone’s reducing the number of copies it takes, that’s often the only way a publisher can guarantee a return. That means authors get a fixed fee. The size of the fee depends on the project, but we’re not talking big money and there’s a certain element of labour of love that publishers rely on.

Was it worth it (financially or otherwise)?
 I’ve done OK, but all my books put together certainly wouldn’t earn me a living. It’s certainly been useful establishing myself as a published author – it can bring in work. I see it as just one way of marketing myself. And I do enjoy it, especially as I do a lot of my work with an excellent writing partner, Adam Powley. I can honestly say it’s the most productive and straightforward working relationship I’ve ever had. We both have a very similar take on things – uncannily so sometimes. As with most things, it’s the people that make the difference.

Adam:  On the whole yes, but it can be a lot of hard and intensive work without much reward. Don’t even think about the hourly rate. But it is very rewarding in terms of seeing your book in print, on the shelves and being read.

Top tips for potential freelance book authors

  • Be tough on your idea – destruction test it before you take the plunge.
  • Know your stuff and choose your market
    But be prepared to be flexible and tackle other subject areas.
  • Be clear about what you want from the project
  • Weigh up the wider benefits
    Something may not pay fantastically, but it can be worth doing to raise your profile or increase your cachet.
  • Be prepared to market your book yourself
    Not all publishers get behind books in the way you think they might. Use your contacts; use social media; offer extracts. You will care more about your book than anyone. And if you’re on a royalty, then it’s worth your while pushing.
  • Consider ebooks
    The process looks daunting but it is just a matter of approaching things in a new way and having some patience. This also gives you the opportunity to turn longer articles that are not book length into short books – Adam and I do it with our Sports Shorts ebooks, and The Guardian and The Atlantic Review are among the news organisations publishing short form books and collections of articles as ebooks.
  • Don’t take rejection to heart
    Be thick skinned – as a journo you should have this ready grown.

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