Today’s post is adapted from Read Books All Day and Get Paid for It: The Business of Being a Book Coach by Jennie Nash (@jennienash).
If you’re interested in becoming a book coach, join Jennie’s free online Book Coaching Summit starting on January 20.
The first book coach I ever had was my college roommate, Bridget. Fate put us together in a tiny room in a remote freshman dorm—and for most of the rest of college, we never lived more than a few steps apart. Senior year, I hatched a scheme to write a series of linked narrative nonfiction pieces as an honors thesis. The topic was friendship—our friendship.
I had to make sure Bridget was OK with my writing about everything I wanted to write about, so I would turn in my typewritten drafts to her long before my advisor ever saw them. She would respond and react to them, reflect back to me what was working and what wasn’t, explain when I had gone too far in sharing a personal detail about her life, help me figure out a way around the hole when I took it out, ask me where the pages were when the pages weren’t getting written, and cheer me on as the stack of finished pages grew.
She was an editor, coach, critic, trainer, judge, mirror, cheerleader, fan. She helped me do my best work and helped me become the kind of writer who sold her first book at the age of twenty-five. She read every page I wrote, even after I had an agent, even after I had an editor at a Big 5 publishing house.
I often use an exercise in my writing classes that I call the Universe of Support. It asks writers to make a target with two concentric circles. This gives them three spaces: an inner circle, middle circle, and exterior circle. I then ask the writers to place friends and family members in this universe according to exactly how much support each member gives to their writing. The only names that can go in the inner circle are the names of people who support the writer’s work 100%.
What does 100% look like?
It looks like Bridget.
It looks like the boyfriend of one of my clients who was writing a moving memoir about being a gay phone-sex operator. After I’d been working with my client for about three months, his boyfriend called me. “I don’t know what he is writing about or what you are doing to help,” he said, “but I have never seen him so happy. I want to buy your coaching for him for six more months.”
Sometimes people put their dogs in the inner circle. Sometimes they put their dead mothers.
Sometimes they have no one to put in that sacred space, which is a tough realization, but also a good one because they can keep their writing away from the people who don’t support it, and they can go out and find what they need: someone to support their writing life. Someone who wants them to succeed and helps them do their best work.
This is what a professional book coach does.
Now it may seem odd that a writer would pay for this kind of support, when they can just get an awesome friend like Bridget.
The fact of the matter is that it’s relatively easy for writers to get free help with their writing. They can go to a writers’ meet-up, or a workshop, or a conference and make writer friends, or they can ask their college roommates, or their sisters, or their neighbor who is a seventh grade English teacher to read their pages.
But here is the terrible truth: Free help is not always good help.
It can be, on occasion, and writers who have found a smart, supportive, fair-minded, tough, and kind critique partner or writers’ group should hold on as tight as they can. But free help is, in fact, often damaging help.
I see people whose pages have been batted around by their writing group to the point where their work reads as if it has been written by a committee.
I see people who keep giving their work to family members and friends who are way out of the center of their universe of support, and who give such mean-spirited and judgmental critiques that the writers become paralyzed with shame or fear or both.
People are generally too embarrassed to talk about their own experiences getting burned in this way—it feels so personal.
What a book coach does is say to these writers, “You don’t have to put up with that kind of abuse or lack of support. You are a good writer and you are worthy of this work. You can learn what you need to learn. Don’t stop dreaming. Let me help you raise your voice and write the best book you can.”
Book coaching is a profession that has emerged as a result of the changing forces in book publishing over the last decade. Once there was time to get each project ready for primetime, and time to nurture a writer’s career. Editors often purchased book projects that were not fully cooked. If a book and a writer showed promise, they would buy the book and then work with the writer to do what had to be done to get it into publishable shape. Publishing was a business built on the hunches of these editors.
That world is long gone.
So what does a book coach do? It’s far more than just editorial support. Coaches help you achieve a lifelong dream. It is critical to understand this. It’s not about making sentences prettier and a story or argument stronger. Rather, coaches help clients complete a transformation. They show you how to go from someone who wants to write a book, who talks about it, who dreams of it, to someone who has created a book they are proud of.
But why are writers so willing to invest in their writing life, when there are so many other pressing needs for their hard-earned dollars? There are three main reasons I see come up over and over again:
1. They don’t want to die before they write their book.
They want to prove to themselves they can do it and prove to the naysayers that they can do it. They want to accomplish a thing that so many people say they want to do but so few actually do. It matters to them, deeply, which is why they are willing to invest in professional guidance to help them get there, even though they realize they may never make that money back.
2. They want to raise their voice.
They have been silenced by parents and partners and bosses, and they are tired of it. They want to stand up on a soapbox and speak their truth—whether their truth is about a topic they are expert in, or a story about dragons. Raising your voice is, again, not about selling books. It’s about speaking up and speaking out, at long last, and it matters enormously to many writers. It is also a terrifying reality for them. When people are scared to finish or to publish, or when they are worried no one will like what they have written, it is often straight up fear of being seen and heard.
3. They want to make an impact.
They are not writing for themselves. They don’t want their words to end up in a drawer or buried on a hard drive. They want to connect with people, to change them, to influence the conversation. I like to say that connecting with a reader closes the loop for the writer. It completes the circuit. Without a reader, a writer is shouting in the dark. We want to matter—and that means having an impact on a reader.
Where You Can Find Quality Coaches
The best way to find a quality coach is by referral from a writer who has used one and been satisfied with the outcome. Here are some coaches I whole-heartedly recommend:
- If you are writing fiction and want a deep understanding of story and structure, Lisa Cron is an outstanding story coach.
- If you are writing memoir, Marion Roach Smith has fabulous programs and resources.
- If you are writing nonfiction having to do with health and wellness of any kind, Lisa Tener is excellent.
All the above book coaches are on the high side of the pricing spectrum. My company, Author Accelerator, offers an accessible alternative. I have trained and certified more than 50 book coaches using the systems and strategies I use in my own book coaching practice. They specialize in every genre, and we use a human-powered process to match you to the best coach for your project.
Note from Jane: If you’re interested in becoming a book coach, join Jennie’s free online Book Coaching Summit starting January 20. She interviews more than 12 experts in the field—including Lisa Cron, Lisa Tener, and yours truly—and gives you a thorough understanding of what it’s like to be a book coach, how to start a coaching practice, and how to grow your business.