How to write a valuable book in an awful hurry

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Neal Katyal decided to write a book on impeachment on October 5. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published Impeach: The Case Against Donald Trump less than two months later. This type of speed is very unusual for a well researched, professionally published book. I’ll talk about why it worked in this case.

(This is not a post about whether Trump should be impeached — it’s about how and when you can write and publish a quality book in a hurry.)

The first thing you need to know is . . . don’t do this. Do not do this. You will not find a publisher. Your publisher will not want to go anywhere near this fast. If you go this fast, you will produce crap. So do not do this.

So how did Katyal actually do this?

He explains what he and his coauthor Sam Koppelman did in this Twitter thread.

Normal book creation and how Katyal accelerated it

Any book process includes the following stages:

  1. Narrow down the idea. Determine the table of contents.
  2. Sell it with a proposal.
  3. Do research.
  4. Write and rewrite.
  5. Book production (copy editing, page layout, manufacturing).
  6. Promotion.

It’s interesting that in this case, Katyal and Kopperman didn’t skip any of these steps. I’d argue that you can’t skip steps and do a good job. They just did all the steps very fast.

On a typical, professionally published nonfiction book, the first five stages take 15 to 18 months. There is no need to rush, and publishers move in a deliberate way, carefully selecting authors, evaluating manuscripts, producing them, and selling them into the channel. Very little will make them go faster.

Three things came together to make everyone willing to pump up the urgency for this book:

  • Katyal is celebrated Supreme Court lawyer. He has the knowhow to write this book. (Koppelman is a successful ghostwriter, but not of books.)
  • There’s huge interest in this topic.
  • Waiting would put a big dent in the demand. If this book was going to be successful, it needed to be done fast.

The right author(s), the right topic, and a huge degree of urgency are necessary conditions to do a book this fast. But they’re not enough.

The other things that made this work were these:

  • Katyal realized he had to do this. He had the knowledge and the passion to make it happen. And he was dedicated to putting in the time and had the right collaborator who could work quickly in Koppelman.
  • The knowledge existed in Katyal’s mind; he’d been thinking about it as the impeachment inquiry unfolded. This vastly reduced the necessary research.
  • Koppelman is clearly very fast, because they wrote a draft in a week, and spent another week cutting and polishing.
  • One thing I’m amazed at is that both Katyal and Koppelman were first-time authors. Anyone planning on going this fast really ought to be more experienced, so they know the mistakes to avoid. But perhaps they succeeded because they didn’t realize that what they were trying to do was insane.
  • The book was short. While it includes 224 pages, only about 150 were the authors’ writing. The rest are documents that require no editing, like the whistleblower complaint and the summary of the call that Trump made to the president of Ukraine.
  • The authors picked a publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, based on speed. They promised to turn the book around in a month. This is spectacularly difficult, as it includes cover design, copy editing, page layout, manufacturing, and getting books into the channel. Most publishers couldn’t come close to this level of speed.
  • The first edition is paperback. You can’t produce a hardback book when you’re going this fast.
  • They reached out to publications to promote the book. Time and Newsweek ran excerpts. And Katyal regularly appears on networks like CNN.

This paid off. The book is ranked No. 219 on Amazon as I write this.

Sometimes fast is better

If you know exactly where you are going, and the public is clamoring to hear what you know, fast is great. There is no time for doubt and recrimination. You just write the book and publish it in a blazing hurry.

This can all come together if you have the clearest possible idea of what you want.

Self-published books can come together this quickly, but they don’t have nearly the clout and impact that this one will, nor do they have the distribution.

A book with a process like this is very unusual. But when it works, it’s glorious.

3 responses to “How to write a valuable book in an awful hurry

  1. The speed of the writing is impressive but I agree that the publisher’s agility here is astounding. I have churned out manuscripts in four to eight weeks only to then wait five months for all of the other pieces to fall into place. For Slack For Dummies, I completed the manuscript in eight weeks and submitted it in October—three months early. The best case scenario is that I’ll be holding the book in April of 2020.

  2. Whew, that is incredible turnaround time. I’ve joked that I’m glad Tom Koulopoulos didn’t tell me it was pure insanity to co-write our book (The Gen Z Effect) in 3 months. It wasn’t released until 6 months later, but 3 months is a pretty aggressive research/write/edit pace… especially when I already had a full-time job, and I personally interviewed more than 100 people for the book. Still not quite sure how I managed that, although some days I interviewed 2 people before going to work, and another 2 12 hours later.

    But hey, 5 years later, and it’s still selling and has aged pretty well. Turns out we were early on the topic too, there’s a fresh raft of new books on Millennials and Gen Z coming out nearly every week it seems.

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