Making the Leap from Daily Journalism to Book Writing

For a journalist looking to make the leap into writing books, one lesson is vital to remember: It’s more than just typing a few thousand extra words.

Two journalist-authors, Cynthia Barnett and Charles Fishman, talked with National Press Foundation fellows about their environmentally themed books and how they made the switch from daily journalism.

Barnett (bio, Twitter), an environmental journalist in residence at the University of Florida, is author of three water-related books, including “Rain: A Natural and Cultural History.”

Fishman (bio, Twitter), who worked as a journalist at Fast Company magazine and newspapers in North Carolina, Florida and Washington, is the author of “The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water” as well as a book on Wal-Mart.

The two journalists detailed their water-themed books, from their environmental underpinnings to the efforts to make the books accessible to a wide audience.

And that was one of the key lessons they gave: Remember your audience. A book for a mass audience needs to be about people – about stories – not about scientific research and expert analysis. That’s why Barnett told stories from ancient rain dances to “founding forecaster” Thomas Jefferson. Fishman wrote about the wet moons of Saturn and the dolphin pools amid the deserts of Las Vegas.

They also talked about the mechanics and the realities of writing. “You really have to become obsessed,” Barnett said. “I got increasingly obsessed with water.”

And authors need to relentlessly pare away the mediocre stories and only write the good ones. Just because you have more pages to fill than for a normal newspaper or magazine story, that doesn’t mean you use everything in your reporter’s notebook. Only about 20 percent of what you have should find its way into your book, Fishman said.

They also talked money. A nice-sounding $150,000 nonfiction book contract – a very good contract these days – is whittled away by agent fees, taxes, reporting expenses and even book-production expenses (hiring your own fact-checkers, for example). You’ll be left with half the sticker amount, for a project that will take years to complete.


This program is funded by the Walton Family Foundation. NPF is solely responsible for the content.

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