Why You Should NOT Write A Book

Stewart Butterfield

There’s an unwritten rule that published authors are supposed to encourage everyone who dreams of it to finally go for it and write that book!

Except that’s just not true. Many of the people who want to write a book…should not.

Why not? Is their idea that bad?

Well…sometimes their book idea is really bad, yes, but just as often the idea is pretty brilliant. And sometimes an idea many people think is really stupid turns out to be brilliant to a lot of other people (e.g. 50 Shades of Grey sold 100 million copies and I thought it was unreadable).

It’s not about the idea for the book. It’s about the motivation behind the book. People should not write a book if they’re doing it for the wrong reasons.

When someone asks me if they should write a book, I always ask these questions:

“Why do you want to write a book? What are you hoping to get from it?”

There are many good answers to that question. Some examples:

“I think it would help other people.”

“I want to establish myself as an authority in this subject, and raise my visibility.”

“I am starting a business around this topic and want to generate interest and clients.”

“I really care about this and want to get the word out to other people.”

“I want to switch careers and this will help me.”

If I hear anything close to that, I encourage them to move forward. There are so many GREAT reasons to record and share your ideas with the world through a book, I wish more people did that (in fact, I believe so much in books that I started a company to help people easily turn their ideas into books).

So what are the wrong reasons to write a book?

Bad Reason #1: “I want to sell millions of books and make a lot of money.”

I hate to be the one to crush your dreams, but the odds that it will sell even a 100,000 copies are so vanishingly small they are essentially zero.

Last year, there were about 300,000 books published–just in America. According to BookScan, only about 200 books per year reach a 100,000 copies sold. That means you have, statistically, about a 0.0007% chance of selling one-tenth of a million, much less a million.

The number that reach 1 million sold is even fewer, probably close to 10. And virtually no book does more than that. In fact, the list of books that have sold 10 million copies in HISTORY is so small there is a Wikipedia page about them.

The return on time invested for authors is horrendous when you measure it in terms of the expected value of book sales. It’s basically the same thing as saying that your retirement strategy is to “play the lottery.” Yeah, someone has to win the lottery, but your lifetime ROI on that investment strategy is probably going to be negative. In fact, your odds of winning most lotteries are better than selling a million books.

You are not going to sell millions of copies and get rich from book sales, and if you write a book for that reason, you’ll be disappointed. That’s the bad news.

What’s The Better Version Of This Goal?

The good news is that a book CAN make you a money, if you look at it from a totally different perspective. Instead of trying to get rich by selling millions of copies, if you look at a book as a way to generate attention for your other endeavors, then the path to profit can become wide and smooth.

For example, if you have some skill or knowledge that is very valuable to people, the best way to build a consultancy and sell that knowledge is by writing a book that shows what you know. This establishes you as an authority and gives you credibility to sell your services (and charge a premium), as well as giving you a consistent pipeline of people looking for the exact type of skill and experience you offer.

This is using a book to make money, but doing it an indirect way. It’s using the book as a platform to promote something else, especially something expensive and profitable (and usually hard to promote, like consulting skills).

You can think of the book as a business card, or general marketing material.The fact is, books not only possess a credibility that very few marketing materials do, they are a great way to differentiate yourself in crowded fields, and a great way to find people who have the exact problems that you can solve, and connect with them.

How does that happen? Well, one way: Amazon is the 3rd largest search engine in the world, and the largest search engine for professionals.

Think about it–how many times have you had a problem, and tried to solve it by finding a book about it?

Well, what if you were the person who WROTE the book on how to solve that problem? Then you’re going to get all those people coming to you.

This doesn’t work for everyone, but does work really well for companies, entrepreneurs, coaches, consultants, and even certain types of executives (here’s a really good example of this).

Bad Reason #2: “I want to be a famous, bestselling author.”

Everyone wants to be famous, and some people think a book will make them famous. I’ve already explained why rich won’t happen (except indirectly), and the worse news is that a book is even less likely to make you famous than rich.

Yes, yes, there are famous authors. But far fewer than you think.

In fact, there are only about 15 or 20 (living) people who are famous ONLY for writing (and nothing else). Malcolm Gladwell is one. J.K. Rowling is another. You can probably name 5 more. But probably not 10 more, and definitely not 20 more. Start naming famous writers, and you’ll realize quickly that 80% or more of your list are dead (Hemingway, Twain, Lee, Tolkien, etc).

The fact is, writers are just not celebrities in America anymore. In fact, it goes the other way around in most cases; people get famous for something else first, THEN they write a book that becomes a bestseller. Being famous is usually why their book sells; they don’t get famous from their book.

Here’s the worst part of getting fame from books: hitting a best seller list does NOT mean you will become famous.

Just like having the line “These pretzels are making me thirsty” in a small indie movie isn’t putting you on the cover of People, having a book that spends a week or two on the New York TimesBestseller list does not mean you’re famous. It barely gets you any attention at all.

Here’s a fun game that shows this: What’re your three favorite books? Were any of those books bestsellers?

When I ask this of people, there’s usually a stunned silence, and then the inevitable answer, “Wow. Yeah…I have no idea.”

Because being a bestseller has virtually no bearing on the fame or impact of a book! There are thousands of books that hit the bestseller list for a week and no one reads or hears about them again, and yet many of the most impactful books in the world have never been bestsellers (e.g. Man’s Search For Meaninghas sold 10 million copies, and was never on a best seller list).

It’s true; not only do books almost never make you famous, even having a bestselling book won’t make you famous!

[And this is not even getting to the issue that most “bestselling author” claims are meaningless.]

What’s The Better Version Of This Goal?

Ask yourself: why do you care if your book is a bestseller?

If it’s just for the status?—?just so you can brag to people at parties?—?then you need to re-examine your goal. You’re only doing this for ego reasons, and nothing else, and quite frankly, there are much easier, cheaper ways to get an ego boost than spending a year writing a book and then a ton of time and money promoting it.

But, if all you want is the recognition and validation that comes from making a contribution to the world, that is TOTALLY doable, and a book is a great way to both give to the world AND get recognized for that giving.

The problem comes with the thinking that being a bestselling author is the measure of your book’s contribution to the world.

If you reframe your goal from, “I want to be a famous bestselling author,” to something that is closer to what you actually want, like, “I want my book to make an impact on lives and get some recognition for that,” then it does two things:

  1. It makes the goal very achievable, and
  2. It actually helps you to write a better book.

How does it make the book better? Because if your goal is just to help people and be recognized for that, you can almost always teach something to at least a few thousand people that greatly impacts their lives.

Doing that might not sell enough copies to be a bestseller, but it will help those people, and they will thank you and recognize you for it.

And isn’t that the point?

Bad Reason #3: “I want to live the writer’s life.”

I think this is summed up perfectly by Hugh Macleod, the awesome cartoonist and author:

“A successful book agent I know tells me that at least half the people he meets who are writing their first book, are doing so not because they have anything particularly interesting to say, but because the idea of “the writer’s life” appeals to them. Tweed jackets, smoking a pipe, sitting out in the gazebo and getting sloshed on Mint Juleps, pensively typing away at an old black Remington. Bantering wittily at all the right parties. Or whatever. Anybody who wants to write books for this reason deserves to suffer. And happily, many of them do.”

Doesn’t this seem like so many other things? We all say we want to be rich, lose weight, start a business, etc.

But it’s the idea of being rich or skinny or an entrepreneur that’s more appealing than actually doing it. The idea sounds glamorous, and we want glamour.

But we don’t get glamour by “living the writer’s life,” just like we don’t get in shape by wearing the best gym clothes, or get rich by playing the “startup game.”

Glamour is the RESULT of hard work and doing something that other people find valuable. Notice what’s missing when people say that? Actual writing.

What’s The Better Version Of This Goal?

This is about identity. Who do you want to be? “Living the writer’s life” is fine, if that’s who you are.

But you probably aren’t. Instead, don’t go looking for an identity. Either embrace the identity you have, or work REALLY hard to create the identity you want.

This is a long way of saying there is no way to have the privileges and glamour and status of an identity, without doing the work necessary to get that identity.

And with a book, this doesn’t mean “living a writer’s life.” It means authoring a book that other people actually want to read.

Bad Reason #4: “I don’t care what anyone thinks, I’m just writing this for myself.”

This type of “book” has a name already: a diary.

If this is your goal?—?yes, many people have said this to me, and yes, it’s a perfectly valid goal?—?then consider that all you need to do is write it, but not release it.

I’m serious. I have several friends who write just for themselves, and they didn’t do anything with the writing at all. This is perfectly fine.

But there’s no reason to publish it. Or even talk about it. If it’s just for you, let it just be for you. You don’t need to do anything else.

The point is, this statement is usually a lie authors tell themselves to protect against failure. Many people who say this, then go on to not only publish their writing that was “just for them” but also make huge efforts to promote it.

Why, if it’s just for them?

What’s The Better Version Of This Goal?

There is none. Just go write it for the reasons you want, and leave it in a drawer, and you’re good.

Or, recognize that you DO want recognition for you book, and then focus on writing a book that will be appealing and helpful to other people.


I fully understand how ironic it is that you’re hearing this advice from an author who actually sold millions of books and got famous from his writing. I did two of the exact two things I’m telling you are almost impossible.

But part of the reason I’m telling you this is because I’ve seen both sides, and as much as I would like to think I accomplished those things because I’m special–I’m not. It’s almost certain that I was far more lucky than special.

Since my books came out, my agent estimates he’s had 10,000 people pitch him something similar to my writing, “the new Tucker Max,” “the black Tucker Max” “the monk Tucker Max”–the list goes on and on–and never once have any of the books worked or sold anything.

The fact is, there was a temporary market for my style of writing, and I just happened to come along at the right time, with the right message, and be the first person to nail what the market was looking for. I was the one personwho won that lottery.

It’s not like the tens of thousands of other people trying to imitate me have nothing to say. But the reason no one cared about their writing was because they were just chasing my success, instead of saying the unique thing they had to say and focusing on the unique impact of their unique.

I hope this didn’t come off as mean. I’m not telling you to not write a book.

I’m telling you that if your reason for writing a book is one of these four reasons, you need to stop and really examine what it is you are trying to get, and then re-evaluate what your actual goal is.

Because here’s the thing about books: most people don’t want to write a book. They want what they think writing a book will get them.

So be VERY clear with yourself about what you want, because a book can get you a lot of great things–but probably not what’s on this list. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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