Pulitzer Center grantee William Wheeler reflects on his experience in international reporting and his transition from journalist to author.
I begin writing this essay in my room in a nearly empty hotel in Tripoli, Libya where I sit trying to ignore the incessant gunfire rattling from every corner of the city. Rebels are shooting anti-aircraft guns into the sky to celebrate the reported capture of one of Muammar el-Qaddafi's sons. The skyline looks like London in World War II as bright arcs of tracer fire cut across the dark. Occasionally I hear the weirdly silent flutter of bullets falling from the sky, striking glass or brick, even clanging into the spiral staircase of the fire escape outside my window.
I work for low pay, without assurance my work will ever see the light of day, and zero gratitude. I am a freelancer—by choice. When I started in journalism seven years ago I knew I wanted to write nonfiction books, serious and gripping ones about what is happening in the world. My metabolism never felt quite right for the daily news grind. But then a mentor reminded me that journalist/authors like Jon Lee Anderson climbed their way through the ranks of newspapers and magazines, learning the painstaking craft of reporting before they embarked on book-length projects.
So I put in my time at a weekly newspaper in California. In decades past I might have hopped from paper to paper, paper to wire service, befriending the foreign editor and waiting until I could get a position as a foreign correspondent. But this was not then, and with the implosion of the industry's business model nothing like a career ladder existed any longer. So I went to Columbia University to study journalism and international affairs, and after graduation I set out on the road and started pitching magazine pieces.
A friend who is a staff writer at a major national magazine soon recommended that I read a story in the New York Observer about how the well-worn path to writing books is no longer a reliable one to follow. David Hirshey, executive editor of HarperCollins and a former deputy editor of Esquire magazine, was quoted at the beginning of the piece: "Thirty years ago, you worked at a newspaper, you moved to a magazine, and then you wrote books or screenplays," Hirshey said. "Today you can be a blogger who writes books or you can be a stripper who wins an Academy Award for Best Screenplay."
I soon learned how hard it was to break into writing for magazines, especially when the global recession hit. Magazines were either dying or paring down their in-house staff to prevent that fate. This meant former employees were scrambling to find writing work and calling in old favors from friends and colleagues. For a newcomer, it was hard to break in. But with will and desperation, I persevered as I branched out into multimedia, newspapers and finally found a foothold in the magazine world.
Through the years, as a freelancer, I have filed reports from Lebanon, Thailand, Kenya, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Denmark and Haiti, often with funding from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. I signed on with a book agent with the idea of writing a book about political crises with roots in environmental problems. This concept was not unlike Jared Diamond's "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed," but mine would be told in real time. For months I worked on writing a book proposal, focusing chapters on topics such as:
- How the loss of wetlands along the Louisiana coast was making New Orleans more vulnerable to hurricanes
- How a century of greedy irrigation practices in Australia paved the way to more drought-induced firestorms and flash floods
- How a booming population in Egypt had gobbled up all the arable land and the next spike in global grain prices was likely to ignite unrest
- How deforestation in Haiti had exacerbated floods, driving peasant farmers into the shantytowns of slum-infested Port-au-Prince.
Haiti had been plagued in recent years by coups and riots related to the deforestation and flooding. On the heels of four devastating storms and hurricanes in winter 2008, the International Crisis Group warned, "a new natural disaster in 2009 in an overpopulated city such as Port-au-Prince could easily transform the considerable opposition to the [current] administration again into violent conflict."
We circulated the proposal, and publishers responded by saying that while they liked the idea they felt the marketplace was too crowded with books on environmental subjects. In short, publishers expressed uncertainty about what the final product would be and how it would stand out from what was already in bookstores. Here is a representative sample of the reasons given for passing on my book:
- "This is a Catch-22 for journalists, I realize, but it's just hard to take the leap, knowing that the narrative will be what distinguishes the book from 'Collapse' and all the other eco-crisis books in the works."
- "This is fascinating … But I couldn't get myself to see this as something more than a series of interconnected magazine articles."
- "I worried about breaking his narrative out in the crowded environmental category."
Soon an earthquake in Haiti would kill an estimated 300,000 people, leaving hundreds of thousands homeless amid mounting civil unrest. Oil would gush for 86 days and seep into remaining Gulf Coast wetlands, and biblical floods would ravage Australia. And the surging price of grain would be an instigating factor in the Arab uprisings. Feelings of disappointment turned into dismay as each of these events transpired and I realized that if my book had not been rejected I'd be in these places, weaving the stories together as my book's core narrative.
I learned, too, in this process that my early mentor's advice was wrong. A captivating, well-reported story can be the right place to start out. What transforms journalists into nonfiction authors is the heft of their voice, the narrative arc of their idea, and its marketability. These aren't lessons that tend to be reinforced on the way up the newspaper ladder. This also turns out to be a cautionary tale for old newshands trying to make the transition to writing books.
Marketing the idea—and selling you as its author—is everything in getting to write a book. Long gone are the days when an editor can go with her gut, putting trust in a writer's potential and in her ability to coax out a product that will sell. Now, an editor's instinct must be confirmed by marketing data. (I've heard that major studios use computer formulas to decide which films are marketable enough to produce.) Still, it can be to my advantage that I'm a first-time writer. "You have no numbers," a journalism professor told me enviously. Since book sales data are so readily available, a writer must sell a lot of books or earn critical acclaim with prior books so as not to suffer diminishing returns on subsequent advances.
A few months ago I had some disheartening conversations with friends as we lamented the writer's life. I decided to give up on journalism and e-mailed friends declaring that I was leaving the game. The next day a big magazine commission came through, and a few weeks later I got another. While reporting in Libya, I came across yet another story about the covert operations to liberate Tripoli from within, and I sold the idea to Byliner, a start-up Web publisher that sells long-form journalism e-books. So I'm back, trying to find my footing in an evolving marketplace and still trusting that a market will always exist for irresistible ideas and compelling storytelling.
This essay was featured in the Winter 2011 edition of Nieman Reports.