It’s a good idea to know a subject well before you write a book about it.
But once you have written that book, you have a powerful piece of validation that says, “This guy is an expert on this subject.”
Academics long ago locked in the idea of books as offering significant evidence, if not exactly conclusive proof, of expertise in a specific field, and not just through the principle of “publish or perish.” An academic thesis or dissertation is a document that for practical purposes is a book, whether published as such or not, normally submitted as a central piece of work toward receipt of a master’s or doctoral degree.
Less formally, books can serve as specific indicators that a person knows a good deal about a subject, often of use to other people. They demonstrate not only a base of knowledge, but a way of thinking about and organizing that knowledge – and an ability effectively to communicate that knowledge.
Don’t imagine that traditional publishing approaches are the only way this can happen: Self-publishing can demonstrate this expertise too.
As marketing strategist Dorie Clark wrote recently in Entrepreneur magazine, “Because of self-publishing’s increased legitimacy, it’s become a viable branding strategy for entrepreneurs who want to establish themselves as thought leaders. . . . Working with a commercial publisher still has some reputational advantages, but if your market niche is small, the mainstream publishers likely won’t be interested, anyway, so self-publishing is a great option.”
It happened to me.
In the mid-1980’s I was a newspaper reporter covering politics in Idaho, and I often heard stories about the bits and pieces, the anecdotes and personalities, that made up that scene and the activities that guided the state. I decided to collect this background about state politics, a mass of stories and personalities and issues and ideas, that had been grist for statehouse insiders only, and record it in book form.
As Clark suggested, the market niche – the subject of political history in one small state – was small enough that traditional publishers probably wouldn’t be interested. (Realizing that, I didn’t submit the project to any.) Instead, seeking out advice from other self-publishers I knew in the area, and getting counsel and other help from local book sellers, I wrote and published it myself. Inside the (small) Idaho marketplace, the book “Paradox Politics” became a bestseller.
At the time I was one of about a dozen journalists whose main work involved covering state government and politics, and many have come and gone since. But as author of “the” book on Idaho politics, long after leaving newspaper reporting, I often have been sought out for quotes, appearances, speaking, guest analysis and other activities. All of that is traceable back to that first book, and other books about Idaho I’ve written since.
Book-writing expertise can work in other directions, too: The research you do specifically for a book can turn you into an expert on that book’s subject, even if you hadn’t been at the beginning. In that way, authorship can take you into life experiences you never expected.
Your choice of subject does make a difference. In my case, I wasn’t one of a dozen writers delivering books on the same topic: I had the topic nearly to myself. If your subject is more popular, your prospective audience may be larger but you’ll also be one of a crowd competing for attention. Some subjects are more compelling – or “sexier” – than others. But if an audience exists for the book, it can exist in other ways as well, for public speaking, consulting or other activities.
One other suggestion: Don’t try to cram everything you know into one book. You’d make the book ungainly and probably poorly organized. And besides, you want to have enough additional ideas left over for your next book.