Telling your story

Published in The Whistle (Newsletter of Whistleblowers Australia), No. 59, July 2009, pp. 13-14

Brian Martin

Peter Rost worked for a moderate-sized pharmaceutical company that was taken over by the giant Pfizer - and the impact of the takeover was devastating on employees. Rost decided to oppose the US drug industry's opposition to reimportation of cheaper drugs from other countries. His 2006 book - The Whistleblower: Confessions of a Healthcare Hitman - is a fantastic exposé, engagingly written with damning information.

Surely there should be more books like this: the comprehensive story from the point of view of a whistleblower. My aim here is to tell you how very difficult it is to bring off a successful book-length exposé.

Every so often, someone contacts me and says "I want to write a book about my case" because they believe their story is so big and important that only a book can do it justice. However, I know from experience that writing a book is a hard way to go about it.

The goal is attractive: a path-breaking exposé of crime, corruption and abuse, sitting in a prime location on bookseller shelves and burning up the airwaves with interviews and commentary - just like Rost's book. Alas, it's hardly ever like that.

Writing a book is too big as an initial goal. It's like saying, "I'm going to swim the English Channel. That will show everyone." Unless you've done lots of shorter swims, it's misguided.

So I say "You'll have a much bigger impact by writing an article. A lot more people will read an article than a book. You can finish it more quickly. And if the reception is good, then you can consider a book."

What I could say, but don't, is that most people who begin writing a book never finish it. Writing an article is more sensible because it has a better success rate, and if it isn't completed or published, there's less effort wasted. In other words, choose a path in which the cost of failure is not too great.

Now suppose you don't listen to this sort of advice and instead go ahead and write your book anyway. What next? Finding a publisher. This is harder than you imagine. For you, your story is so important that everyone must want to read it. The reality is that the publishing industry is tough. Lots and lots of people are writing books, and there aren't enough publishers for all the books. The result: rejection.

My first book was rejected by 30 publishers before it found a home. For a couple of my later books, publishers stalled for years before making a decision - usually rejection - so the material got out of date. Just as importantly, delays are often demoralising. I know lots of colleagues who've written books and given up trying to find publishers. Being the author of a book is important for their careers, but even so they can't stomach repeated rejection.

Even when a publisher says yes, that's not the end of the effort. Often the publisher wants changes, sometimes extensive changes. Over to you for more work. Then the process of copyediting, checking proofs and getting the book into print can take many months. A typical delay is a year. One publisher took over two years after I submitted the final revised manuscript. I've heard stories of even longer delays.

This is another reason for writing an article. You can maintain your motivation more easily.

Writing is a skill and like any other skill it takes time and effort to become good at it. Famous novelists spend at least a decade writing stories and books, some never published, before producing their greatest works.

You don't need to write like a famous novelist, but books do need to be up to a certain standard for people to want to read them. Whenever you see a book by a celebrity - a pop star or sporting figure - you can bet the celebrity didn't do all the work. Usually there is a ghostwriter, a person who does the writing behind the scenes. Sometimes the ghostwriter talks to the celebrity over many hours, recording the conversations, and then uses this material to write the book, which is (usually!) checked by the celebrity. Other times the celebrity does some actual writing and the ghostwriter reorganises it, checks facts, corrects expression and puts it all into proper prose.

If your whistleblowing story is huge - namely you're already famous because of it - then a publisher might arrange for a ghostwriter. If your story is less than huge, but still pretty big - you're not widely known but your story is a breakthrough - then you may have to write your own story, and a publisher will assign an editor to fix your text. That could mean polishing expression here and there or, on the other hand, drastic pruning, reorganisation and insertion of new material.

Does this count as your book? Certainly it's your story. And you're listed on the cover as the author. If you and/or the publisher are generous, the ghostwriter will be a co-author: books by celebrities sometimes have a second author who did most of the writing.

So let's proceed. You have a publisher and your book comes out. Wonderful! But publishing is only the first step. Next come distribution and sales. Your book might be a bestseller - but, unfortunately, it's more likely to sell a few hundred or a few thousand copies and then end up on the remainder shelves, in those bookshops with low prices that sell books no one wants to buy at full price.

Let's say your book sells 1000 copies. That's pretty good, especially in Australia. Some of my books haven't sold nearly that many. Of course, my books are more academic than a typical whistleblower book. If your book is a racy, engaging story, more people will want to read it.

But you're pretty much at the mercy of the publisher. Some publishers are effective at promotion, but others do very little - most of their effort goes into the few books that promise the greatest return. Your book might not be in bookshops. When people order it, it may take ages to arrive. The price may be too high. It may be distributed in just one country, so you miss millions of potential readers.

If you're so inclined, you can promote your book yourself, like Ray Hoser who went door to door selling his books on Victorian police corruption. Ray published those books himself - he paid for the printing and took the risk. This is an option for you. But you need to have enormous energy. Writing the book is one thing. Promoting it requires at least as much stamina. If this option appeals to you, use a search engine to look up "self-publishing" and you'll find plenty of information.

Peter Rost had a very big story: shenanigans in the pharmaceutical industry, one of the biggest and most profitable industries in the world. But he didn't end up with a big-name publisher, but instead with Soft Skull Press in New York. That's okay. Some smaller publishers are much better at promotion, because they take personal interest in each book. But seldom do they have the international distribution networks of the major publishers.

Don't expect to make a lot of money by being an author. The pickings are very slim, especially for non-fiction. The average published author makes only a few thousand dollars a year. Just about any other occupation will give better hourly pay.

So, once again, I think it's worth considering another option: publishing on the web. You've written your book and had grammar-savvy friends check it. Instead of spending months or years searching for a publisher and being stuck with poor distribution, you can publish immediately and at low cost on the web.

I know from experience how useful this can be. Some of my books have sold only a few hundred printed copies but receive thousands of hits every year on my website. Furthermore, they are being read by people across the world - for example in Italy and South Korea - where the book has never been distributed in hard copy. On the web, your writing can find readers you never knew existed.

So by all means tell your story. I think it's one of the most useful things any whistleblower can do to help others. It's effective to tell a story and especially valuable to draw out lessons for others. But remember that a book is a big operation and publishing in print is unreliable, slow and has limited distribution. So consider two options: starting small - an article is more achievable - and publishing on the web. Happy writing!

PS Do read Peter Rost's book, an amazing story of whistleblowing in the pharmaceutical industry.

Brian Martin is editor of The Whistle.

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