For mental health care professionals, becoming a book author is exciting, professionally rewarding, and—perhaps surprisingly—well within your reach!
Becoming a book author is every bit as exciting as you might imagine. It catapults your professional reputation to a new level. You become sought after for media interviews. You have the thrill of seeing hundreds—perhaps thousands—of results come up when you Google your name. But you have no doubt heard grim statistics suggesting that getting a manuscript accepted is harder than acing a proctored statistics exam. Jonathan Livingston Seagull was rejected 26 times, Gone with the Wind 38 times, and 12 publishers thought that Harry Potter should never have seen the light of day. So what are the chances that mere mental health professionals like us could ever be published? Actually, our chances are excellent!
Fiction writers compete against all forms of entertainment: movies, sitcoms, reality shows, and a few hundred years of literature. On the other hand, as a mental health professional, you have specialized knowledge that people need. You can help them solve problems and achieve goals. Self-help books are a “back door” to becoming a published author, because self-help is currently in such high demand. By following a few simple steps, you can become a published author.
1. CHOOSE A COMPELLING TOPIC Choosing the right topic is the single most crucial step to writing a book that will sell. Unless you are Dr. Phil, no one will buy your book about improving self-esteem, making friends, or handling stress—for these subjects, consumers will choose best-selling books by well-known authors. The topic needs to be compelling and distinctive enough that a certain group of people, a specific niche, will find your book irresistible, even though they have never heard of you. Teach the reader how to solve a specific problem with a new technique (biofeedback or mindfulness?), focus your book on a specific group of people (e.g., a certain diagnosis or demographic), find a problem that has not been widely addressed (Internet addiction?), or use an unusual or emerging format (workbook). Most important, give people a new, effective way to make important changes in their life.
2. THINK BENEFITS An effective self-help book is like an instruction manual. It should give the reader clear guidance about how to solve a problem or achieve a goal. You should be able to list at least three ways that your readers will be better off after they complete your book.
3. WRITE AN OUTLINE OR TABLE OF CONTENTS I like to think of a self-help book as a “doc in the box.” Take what you do with your clients and outline the process step-by-step. Do you start with encouragement, giving them hope and assuring them their problems are solvable? That’s chapter one. Then maybe you do an assessment of their particular situation and provide solutions, encouragement, homework, and referrals. There is the rest of your book. Anything you do in your office can translate into book form. It’s all a matter of organization.
4. WRITE ONLY A FEW CHAPTERS I am about to tell you the biggest, most encouraging secret of non-fiction book publishing. Non-fiction books are sold to publishers based on proposals. Proposals consist of an annotated table of contents, two or three sample chapters, and a marketing section.
5. WRITE AS IF YOU ARE TALKING TO A FRIEND The most difficult part of writing for many professionals is “unlearning” academic writing. For a self-help book, you need to take on a warmer, more conversational tone. Write as if you are talking to a client or friend. Write with compassion, warmth, and enthusiasm, and don’t shy away from humor where appropriate. When you compose academic papers, you generally do research first, scribble notes, and then write from the notes. When you write self-help, you can often just write what you feel and know, and then, if needed, support your work with references later.
6. THINK LIKE A PUBLISHER Publishers are intelligent people who love good writing. However, no matter how brilliant your writing is, they will not buy your book unless they are convinced that they can sell it. And it’s your job to convince them that your topic, your credentials, and your willingness and ability to promote your book will make copies fly off the shelves. The marketing section of your proposal needs to convince them that there are book buyers who will buy your book instead of the competition’s.
7. FIND THE RIGHT PUBLISHER Writer’s Market lists nearly every established book publisher, and it can be found in any library. Identify publishers that cater to the self-help market and look like a good fit for your book. Then tweak your proposal to match their requirements, and send it in to the first one on your list. Most publishers accept and even prefer email. If you get a rejection, try again. You might receive a few rejections before you get your publishing contract, but, chances are, you’ll get far fewer than Margaret Mitchell received when shopping Gone with the Wind.
A word of caution: you’re likely to come across “vanity” publishers (those who will publish your book—at your expense) and self-publishing options. Many of them have convincing sales pitches about why you should pay to get your book in print. Essentially, you can avoid the possibility of rejection by providing them will large amounts of money. However, you should avoid vanity publishers unless you have an empty garage you’re looking to fill with unsold books.
8. SIGN YOUR CONTRACT AND START WRITING When you get accepted by a publisher, it will be one of the happiest days of your life. It represents a near guarantee that you will become a published author. And by the time you reach this point, you are halfway there—you have a topic, an outline, and a few chapters. Filling in each section of your outline is like writing term papers about topics you know well and enjoy. Publishing your book is not at all an impossible dream. It is well within your reach, and it is a life-changing event that is well worth the effort.