A Nonfiction Writer’s Identity Crisis

I promised to tell you about my writer’s identity crisis. I’m not sure that fiction writers suffer from this affliction, but I’m fairly sure that many nonfiction writers suffer along with me.

All indicators point to me being a writer, but some days I’m not sure that is who I am.

I have a literary agent – two actually, since my agent’s husband is also an agent. That must mean I’m a writer, right? Actually, I had three agents representing three book projects of mine at the Book Expo America this past year. So, I must be a writer.

I don’t have any books published by publishing houses, but I did have one book contract for about a year, but the book never was published. (That’s a long story not worth going into here…) I have several short books, or booklets, that I’ve self-published. So, I must be a writer.

As I’ve already shared, I have a degree in magazine journalism, and I’ve written for more than 40 different magazines, newsletters and newspapers. I’ve also written for a variety of e-zines, and I’ve had three essays published in three anthologies. So, I must be a writer.

I also work as a freelance non-fiction book editor and coach. I guess that makes me an editor more so than a writer, but it at least shows that I know something about writing. I’ve had several jobs as a magazine editor as well.

So, what’s the problem, you ask? It’s obvious that I’m a writer, you say? Why am I having an identity crisis? Because I spend about 75 percent of my time, if not more, peddling myself as an expert speaker and a teacher or writing news releases and press releases (free articles) and posting them on line or sending them out to the media promoting myself as an expert. These days, I spend very little time, if any writing articles for pay or writing books. (No wonder I wanted to start the Write Nonfiction in November challenge. I needed the challenge myself so I would actually WRITE something.)

Why? Because to become a published author – to have a publisher actually accept one of my book proposals and offer me a contract – I have to have a “platform.” No, not a wooden box or stage to stand on, but a speaking platform from which I can sell my books. I have to be perceived as the expert in my “field,” and I have to become well-known to many people. I have to be able to help market my books through “back of the room sales” at lectures, workshops and talks that are attended by hundreds, if not thousands, of attendees. I have to become a regular guest on radio and television talk shows, so I get lots of media exposure and can tell lots of people about my book. I have to be featured in national magazines or in magazines that pertain to my field of expertise. I have to find creative ways to build a big mailing list or e-mail list to which I can market my book, thus helping sell them over time.

If you still harbor the belief that a publishing house will market and publicize your book for you, think again. While they might do so on a small scale, in today’s publishing world, this job has fallen onto the nonfiction writer’s shoulders.

Today’s publishing environment demands that we nonfiction writers become expert marketers and publicists — of ourselves and of our books. If we can’t prove to publishing houses that we can wear these hats as well as our writer’s hats, we can kiss our dreams of that publishing contract goodbye. (Here’s where some of us might want to consider moving over to the fiction side of writing, where none of this platform business applies…)

So, am I a writer or am a marketing and publicity pro? Am I a writer or an expert speaker and media source? Am I a writer or a PR wiz? Mostly these days, I’m the latter in all cases. And that doesn’t leave me feeling much like a writer.

But…I am determined to be a writer. A nonfiction writer. I set out to help people through my writing, and my writing serves no one if it goes unread. Therefore, I will write, and I will publish. Where once I said I would never self-publish (although I have on a small scale), I will if necessary.

There are so many publishing avenues available to writers today, no reason exists for us to wait around for someone to tell us we’ve proven we can be something other than a writer so they’ll publish our work. Our writing should speak for itself and be published on its own merits. I, for one, am tired of waiting around for someone to decide that my platform is big enough rather than that my book idea or my writing is good enough. I’m tired of being told to be someone I’m not. I’m off to write…because writer’s write. Surely in the process my identity crisis will come to an end, and I’ll feel like a writer once again. I’ll remember who I am — a nonfiction writer.


  1. Hi Nina:

    I joined NaNoWriMo this month (I reached the 10,000+ words count, YIPPIE!). I write for NaNoWriMo at night, and during the day I work on my non fiction. I’ll gladly participate in your 50,000 word nonfiction noncontest!

    I’ll come back to your blog and post my word count and my frustration and joy through the process.

    I do have a non fiction book published and a publishing house is reviewing another book proposal. I have two additional book proposals in various stages.

    When I read about your identity crisis, I had to laugh. This is my story: when people ask what I do for a living, I say I’m a writer. Yes, I know I have only one book published but I decided that the term ‘writer’ fits me beautifully. A few months ago, a 13 year old asked me what I do for a living. The following is our exchange.

    “I’m a writer.”
    “What did you write.”
    “I’m the author of _____”
    “That’s it? You only wrote one book?”

    Yeah. Nice. I left that conversation wondering if I was a writer after all. I was emotionally crushed by a teenager. Before I fell deep into his negativity trap, I took a deep breath and said, “Repeat after me. I am a writer. I am a writer.” On we go!

  2. Nina Amir says:

    Linda, I never gave a word count requirement, but you are welcome to write 50,000 if you so choose!

    I have four proposals. One is currently with a publishers, one is almost ready to go back out to a publisher (I’m reviewing the proposal and writing a booklet based on some of the chapters — this months non-fiction project), another proposal needs a rewrite then it’s going to a YA agent, and the last is sitting. Then I’ve got the book I really want to be peddling that is in booklet form, which I’m currently beginning revisions on. That needs a proposal, and my agent will peddle it after I promote it. Only one manuscript is finished; the others are started (a few chapters to put in a proposal). If I didn’t have to write so many proposals, all these books would have been written long ago.

    Thanks for writing in! Keep me posted on your progress.

  3. As I mentioned, I have been working on two different proposals. I’m switching back and forth. When I get bored with one project I move on to the next one.

    Usually, that isn’t a bad idea but I find that I suddenly get bored when I hit a wall. Instead of working through it, I bail and work on something easier. In the end, I feel neither project is getting the attention it deserves.

    I’m going to focus on one proposal tomorrow. That’s it. Really, it’s complete all I need is two sample chapters. I’ll concentrate on those chapters tomorrow.

  4. Nina Amir says:

    I used to hate writing proposals. I still don’t love the process, but I do find it useful. There are certain sections, however, I could do without;, and I, too, get bored. My agent’s husband — also my agent (I should just call him that, I guess) wrote a book on writing proposals, so I always feel a bit stressed about getting it “right”!

    I hope next week to finish the read through and revisions on one proposal, too. And then I’ll start on the more major revisions necessary on the other. I can’t rewrite the sample chapters until I land a few interviews, though, and that’s holding me up.

    Who published your first book? And congratulations on that, by the way.

  5. Prentice Hall Press published my book. They turned down a proposal I submitted last month so I’m revamping that one to send to another publisher.

    My editor liked the idea very much and guided me in how to write the proposal. Unfortunately, it turned out that the market for the book is too small, but I still believe in the project. I think maybe a smaller publisher will bite so I’m going to give it a shot.

    This past week I submitted another proposal to Prentice Hall Press. I probably won’t hear anything until next month.

    An editor from another publishing house is waiting for one of the proposals I’m writing. I don’t want to mention the company name because I’m not sure that I will submit my proposal. After talking to a few people it seems they don’t offer an advance. Well, now that I think about it, since she is expecting the proposal I will send it but it will be a multiple submission.

    I’m in search for another agent to negotiate the contract (if I get the deal). And of course, I want to establish a long-term relationship. I’ve spoken to two agents this week, so I don’t think I’ll be agentless for long. I just began my search this week and within five hours I received two agents that are interested. Not too shabby.

    My first agent called to represent me and he’s the one that got the deal with Prentice Hall. I have a platform so that makes it easier for me as a non fiction writer to get noticed.

    Don’t ask what happened with my first agent, because I really don’t know.

    I kept my word and only worked on one proposal so I made progress.

    What type of books does your husband write?

  6. Did you simply e-mail the agents that you got a response so fast? That’s pretty amazing.

    What kinds of books do you write, and how did you develop a platform?

    My husband doesn’t write books. Did I say he did? I said my agent’s husband wrote a book on how to write proposals.

  7. I wrote a five-line email and sent it to six agents. Two responded the same day, one responded two days later with a no, and I haven’t heard from the other three. While the two agents are spoke with are reviewing a proposal I wrote, next week I plan on writing an actual query letter and submit it to other agents.

    Since my articles are geared towards one topic (business), it what easy to brand myself. I developed a platform like everyone else. Writing articles and posting them online, joining organizations within my industry and volunteering my time, speaking engagements, blogging, podcasting, I have a website…nothing different than everyone else does.

    I’m very cautious about my brand. For my fiction writing, I created a pen name and will market myself on the internet using that name. I started writing fiction in August and plan to launch the blog and do other marketing activities beginning of next year.

  8. I don’t think publishers are just choosing to be difficult. Sure, they want to save money. However, they also have to respond to what works. If the public buys the books of people they see on the Today show, then no publicist can make that appearance for you! Self-publishing doesn’t solve that problem. If anything, it intensifies it, requires that you do 100 percent of the marketing rather than 90 percent of the marketing.

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