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So, You Want to Write a Bucket List Book?

Updated: Nov 22, 2022

Here’s the whole range of things to consider before you get started

Years ago I read in the AARP magazine (then, I was visiting my parents…now I qualify for my own subscription — YAY!), that Americans’ top three lifetime goals are home ownership, their kids going to college, and writing a book! And this was well before our current age when just about anyone can write a book thanks to digital publishing, free internet advice, and all manner of self-publishing services ready and waiting. Whether or not it’s actually true or true anymore, it left an impression on me. Millions of people have something to say, want to share their stories, yearn to express something inside, are called to organize their thoughts in a long format.

For over 20 years, I've helped others with these bucket list book projects alongside the traditional book publishing I do. I call them “bucket list” books because the authors usually have different motivations than the typical author seeking a traditional publishing contract.

  • First, almost all of these authors are 55–80+ years old and are retired or semi-retired. They all have lived full lives and most have a significant amount of accomplishments under their belts.

  • Second, they have time and money, though in varying degrees, to put into a project.

  • Third, they are often less interested in the fame and fortune type of rewards of being an author, so few and far between anyway, than the internal, intrinsic, and legacy benefits of having written a book.

If you, reader of any age, also have “write a book” on your list of 1,001 Things to Do Before I Die, here are some of considerations of penning a bucket list book that can help you define your project better and clarify some of your expectations for it.

What kind of book do you want to write? Common categories are:

  • Memoirs — General reminiscences of life or recollections specific to one’s life’s work/career achievements.

  • Business Histories — Legacy titles that preserve a company’s past and its achievements, popular with business owners and executives.

  • Family Histories — All stripes of documenting current and past generations of one’s family tree: Genealogies that go back one or two generations or quite a bit more (one 900-page tome I helped publish went back eleven); straightforward history or fictionalized for color and interest; told in the first or third person; written for private consumption or public distribution.

  • Subject of Expertise — A nonfiction treatment of one’s area of expertise.

  • Subject of Longstanding Passion — A nonfiction treatment of one’s longstanding passion.

  • Exploration of a New Hobby — A nonfiction dive into a new area of interest, often something like photography, food, travel, or a cause.

  • Children’s Book — Frequently inspired by or meant for one’s grandchildren, or a children’s version of one of the above nonfiction types.

  • Fiction — You know, the great American novel that has been burning and brewing inside for decades.

Who’s your book for?

  • Family and friends — You’re writing something for the people you know and love.

  • Clients and VIPs — You’re writing something to share with your clients and colleagues.

  • Specialists or hobbyists — You’re writing for those who share your area of interest or expertise.

  • The world at large — You’re writing for anyone and everyone who wants to read something awesome.

How involved will you be in the writing?

  • “I will do all of it.” — There are no expenses for you at this stage.

  • “I will do most of it but need a developmental editor to work with me.”— This will cost you about $2,000–$5,000+.

  • “I need a co-writer.” — This will cost you at least $10,000–$30,000.

  • “I need a ghostwriter.”— This could cost you anywhere from $30,000 to $100,000+.

Writing is a skill and a time-consuming activity. The more you do yourself, the less you’ll have to pay others. If you’re not able or willing to do it yourself, keep in mind the price tag.

What kind of publishing?

  • Traditional — This means you’ll be pursuing the classic route, seeking a contract from a publisher that pays you royalties, perhaps an advance if you’re lucky. Traditional publishing happens at the major publishing houses in NYC, small and mid-sized presses, university presses, and the publication divisions of many religious, nonprofit, and professional organizations. If you have something first-rate, try first to get an agent to rep you to the big publishers. Visit Mark Malatesta’s site for a directory of agents and advice in this area.

  • Hybrid — Hybrid publishing is the fastest growing area of book publishing. It is a blend of traditional publishing and self-publishing, ideally combining the best of both worlds, i.e., the professionalism, reputation, experience, and connections of the former with greater control and financial rewards for the author of the latter. What this requires, though, is authors paying some or most of the up-front costs. This is a solid route to go if you think that you and your project are a good investment, or if you have the money to spend and you want the imprimatur of a publishing house behind you. In either case, consult the excellent list of standards for hybrid publishers established by the IBPA (Independent Book Publishers Association).

  • Self-publishing — Though self-publishing is book publishing overseen and financed by the author without the involvement of an established publishing company, it doesn’t mean that you have to do everything by yourself (just pay the bills!). Self-publishing can be everything from doing it all yourself to hiring others (either individually for the different tasks or a company) to do it all. Most authors select something in between, a mix that makes most sense for them, their budget, and their goals. An important consideration of self-publishing these days is whether you’ll be publishing digitally, in print, or both. If you’ll be publishing hard copies, physical books, will you be doing short-run/POD (print-on-demand) printing or printing in larger quantities on a traditional offset press? The former comes with less risk and upfront costs but higher unit costs; the latter can bring a book down to $1.50–$2.50 a copy for printings of 2,000+.

How involved will you be in the publishing? How much do you want to learn and do? There is a learning curve, as with anything, but it is not beyond most people, especially if you have the time to spend and are open to your project blossoming into a major retirement endeavor (at least for a couple of years).

How much time can you commit to this project?

  • Agent — Are you willing to spend the months it could take to find an agent if you have something an agent is likely to pick up? Are you then willing to wait the months it could take the agent to find a publisher and then the 12–18 months+ it could take a publisher to release the book?

  • Publisher — Are you game for contacting dozens, possibly hundreds, of publishers until one says yes to your book project? Back up, are you willing to take the time to put together a proper book proposal package required to showcase your book to a publisher? Many quite accomplished folks think they can bypass this step by getting a publisher on the phone and running their idea past them. Really, now. You’re unable to spend the time to put your thoughts into writing, and I’m supposed to trust you can write the 250-page masterpiece you’re rambling on about?

  • Self-Publishing — Whether you go the traditional or self-publishing route, writing and publishing a book will take hundreds of hours (or more), typically spread out over one to three years. How will this fit in with the rest of your life?

How much money can you commit to this project? But, before we get to that, you should know for yourself: Do I want (or need) to make money on this project? And, can I afford to lose money on this project? If not, is breaking even okay? As you might imagine, the calculus and planning are much different if your publishing is a business endeavor and not strictly a creative one.

What are some costs of self-publishing a book? In addition to potential writing help costs addressed above, use these prices ranges for reference (for hourly rates, consult the Editorial Freelancers Association, whose price ranges I find to be spot on):

  • Editing — $600–$2,000+

  • Proofreading — $300–$1,000

  • Indexing — $3.50–$5.00/page

  • Cover design — $300–$1,500

  • Interior design — $500–$2,500+

  • Project management — $500–$2,000

  • Printing — Print-on-Demand — $8–$20+ per book, Short-Run (100–500 copies) — $3–$6 per book, Traditional — (2,000–5,000+ copies) — $1.25–$2.50 per book.

To be clear, these numbers are generalities and cover what’s most likely for a trade paperback book of say 150 to 400 pages, with normal production values of industry-professional quality. These numbers are provided to prime you for the actual costs and to get you in the ballpark (and so you can have an inkling if a vendor’s prices are too high).

If you self-publish, what kind of production values do you see for your book? This question is about the level of editing and design, and the quality and type of components that go into the package that is a book, so…

  • Will the editing be minimal or as-much-as-needed? Solid or top-notch?

  • Will the design be basic or elaborate? Solid or sophisticated?

  • Will the cover be paperback or hardcover?

  • If paperback, do you want a matte or a gloss finish? Will the cover have French flaps?

  • If hardcover, will that be covered in leather, imitation leather, linen, vinyl, or vellum? Printing options on a hardcover include ink colors (metallic available), foil stamping, embossing, and debossing. Do you want a dust jacket? You’ll be choosing endpapers and headers, and have fancier options, too, like the sewn-in ribbon bookmark.

  • What size will your book be? A standard size (more affordable) or whatever size your heart desires?

  • What kind of paper will you use? Available papers vary in color, opacity, and texture.

  • Is your book text only? If not, what enhancements does your content need — photos, illustrations, charts, tables, maps? Are the photos merely illustrative or are they the main event, i.e., should they appear in color and on glossy paper?

  • Will the interior be strictly black and white (much cheaper) or will you be printing in color?

  • What about special features? A pocket for a CD, souvenir tickets, or a pair of 3-D glasses (I’ve done all these)? An inserted map or family tree that fold out?

How will you sell or promote your book? See my Medium articles on How to Build a Cottage Industry Around Your Book and Tap into Who You Are and Bring What You Have to the World (8 ways to customize your book marketing) for a sense of what’s required in these areas and what might work for you.

What do you want for your life as an author? Most, but not all, bucket list book writers are very aware that once having written and published a book, that they will be authors. It is a lot of work and an incredible accomplishment regardless of what path is taken to arrive there. But most aspiring authors have not fully grasped all that being an author can open up for them. To start expanding your sense of what’s possible and getting a handle on what you desire for your author life, read 52 Benefits of Being an Author: Make Your Expectations and Goals Explicit to Reap Proper Rewards.


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