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Putting Your Passion into Print | How to Turn Your Social Change Story into a Published Book

A notebook with balled up paper next to it.

Nowadays, it seems that many nonprofit leaders are publishing books. From StoryCorps Founder David Asay’s book about love in All There Is, and NTEN CEO Amy Sample Ward’s book about leveraging social media in Social Change, Anytime, Everywhere, to Marci Alboher’s advice to job seekers in the second stage of their careers in the Encore Careers Handbook, leaders from various parts of the sector are sharing their experiences and advice through books. And with good reason: Creating and managing organizations that advocate and work diligently to create change and help others often lends itself to powerful stories and life lessons that should be shared.

But you don’t have to be a nonprofit leader to share your stories of change or lessons you’ve learned about pursuing your passion.

Personally, ever since I knew how to write it’s been my dream to publish a book. The act of writing, editing, packaging those words and sharing them has been part of my life since I was little, and took stronger root when I was a teenager and began making zines: small, self-published magazines.

So I took my passion for the nonprofit arts and the DIY, creative community by publishing a book this year entitled, Grow: How to take your do-it-yourself project and passion to the next level and quit your job. For those of you who share this impulse, or perhaps have just hit on the perfect idea for a book, I wanted to break down the process further to give a general road map of how to take a book idea from concept to publication.

Find an idea that is compelling and exciting to you

It should be a story that you are uniquely positioned to tell or information that you are equipped to share. I knew in my gut when I hit on the idea for my book. It combined my experience working in the arts, my expertise in budgeting and fundraising, and a passion of mine: helping other creative people bring projects into fruition. I also a need for a new type of book: a fun to read guide to moving a project from idea to actualization for creative types working in all disciplines.

Focus your idea

Before you dive too deeply into the research and writing process, figure out what your book will communicate. To help you focus your idea, describe your book in one sentence. For example, Grow is a practical field guide for creative people to help them achieve success and sustainability on their own terms. What will yours be about?

Imagine who you are writing your book for

Who is the ideal audience for your book and how do you want them to access it? For example, I was familiar with Grow’s core audience of independent artists, creatives, and solopreneurs who own their own businesses because I work at a national artist services organization and collaborate with people in these communities regularly on art, music and community engagement projects. I knew this audience valued handmade goods and tangible objects, so I knew I wanted the book to be an actual book, not just an ebook.

Find the right publisher for your idea and audience

Some books exist only as a proposal and a first chapter before they find a publisher while others are fully finished. For Grow, once I narrowed down my idea into a one-sentence description, a paragraph and developed a three-page outline I pitched it to a publisher that served the audience I wanted to reach. I chose my publisher Microcosm because I knew their catalogue and had watched them build their business over the years. I thought my book would be a fit for them because while they put out other books on DIY projects and culture they had not yet released a “business” book. In addition, I was familiar with their audience: progressive minded, independent, creatives and knew that this audience would be interested in the information the book had to share.

Before approaching a publisher do your research

How will your book fit with their catalogue and audience? Do you need an agent before they will talk to you? I was advised that, as a non-fiction, how-to author, I did not need an agent and indeed, the publisher I worked with was small enough and we had enough of a relationship built up that I could talk with them directly. Agents offer another layer of expertise, but also another layer of expense and time in the publication process.

Sit down and write the thing

It sounds strange, but even though writing is my favorite way to spend my time, it took an enormous amount of self-discipline to actually sit down and produce a first draft of my book. After a few months of working haphazardly on the project I set up a writing schedule: one hour in the morning on weekdays before I went to work. To finish the draft I created my own “writing retreat” and spent 5 days away from the distractions of work and home in a wi-fi equipped cabin in New Hampshire. There I wrote for eight hours a day with a break for lunch and a hike. Find what time works for you to write and write it.

Get feedback and another pair of eyes on your draft

Once you have a draft that you feel is complete enough to show to someone else, share it with a trusted friend who can also give objective feedback. You may find that ideas you though were clear are anything but, or that you are hopelessly wordy, or that you need to re-arrange some key sections. When I had finished a first draft of Grow I got feedback from three trusted friends who also represented different segments of my audience: a recent art school graduate; an arts administration colleague who organized food and art events; and a corporate PR executive who was also a guitarist in a rock band.

Be open to revision

Once your manuscript goes to your editor, publisher or agent, or if you are self-publishing but working with an editor, be prepared for revisions, both big and small. As you are working through these revisions remember the overall goal for your book and ensure your revisions fit into this goal. Grow’s distributor strongly recommended that the publisher and I revise the cover design the book. At first I was upset by this suggestion, but the second design fit the book perfectly and also helped determine the overall design of the book.

Publication is just the beginning

Whether you self-publish, work with an indie press like I did, or go with a major publisher, authors of all types are expected to work to promote their books and engage the book’s audience. The book may have been years in the making, but it is new to your audience and you need to figure out different ways to connect with them. I’ve been doing book events around the country with arts organizations, maker spaces, craft stores and other creative gathering places. I wrote about what I learned about planning a DIY book tour on the blog I keep for Grow.

Overall, remember that publication is a long process with a lot of cooks in the kitchen, but nothing beats the feeling of having your very own book in your hands!

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About the Author | Eleanor C. Whitney is a writer, arts administrator and musician living in Brooklyn, New York. She is currently a Program Officer at the New York Foundation for the Arts and is the author of Grow: How to Take Your Do It Yourself Project and Passion to the Next Level and Quit Your Job, released in 2013 on Cantankerous Titles.

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