We are writers and our own writing must come first. But working to help other authors manage their writing projects can be a way for author-entrepreneurs to add to their streams of income and manage a creative business life. Of course, as author and book coach Jennie Nash points out, not everyone is suited to be a coach.
Book coaching is a new player in the gig economy. It bubbled up alongside independent publishing because writers who take charge of their own careers need to gather a team of professionals to help them meet their goals. And because writers aiming for traditional publishers know that in an industry hell-bent on the next big hit, they are not likely to get the kind of intensive, ongoing nurturing editors used to provide.
Book coaches work with writers at every step of the creative process, offering editorial guidance, emotional support, and project management to help writers do their best work. It’s a fabulous side gig for a writer looking to add an additional income stream to the mix of what they do.
I’ve been a book coach for ten years now and have guided both fiction and non-fiction writers to traditional deals and national awards in the independent publishing realm.
Before this, I was a writer of both fiction and nonfiction, and I find the joys and rewards of helping other people reach their writing goals to be more satisfying than doing it myself. It’s deeply soulful, meaningful work to help other people raise their voice and find their stories.
In 2014, I started Author Accelerator, a book coaching company, and have trained more than 50 book coaches. I have developed a good sense of the characteristics that make a great book coach – and while some of the qualities are obvious (see #1), others may come as a surprise.
If you are thinking that book coaching might be something you’d like to do as a side gig or as a full pivot from your current job, see how you measure up to these 10 characteristics of an effective book coach:
1. They love books
Great book coaches love to read. They are the kinds of people who stayed up late reading under the covers with a flashlight as a kid, who sat in the back of big lecture halls sneaking a peek at the next chapter in college, who believe that books can save the world – or at least a long layover in Denver.
They love to talk about books, to read book reviews, to visit bookstores in every town they visit. They probably belong to a book club or two. They may even run it. You will often hear them say things like, “I wish there was a job I can do where I just read books all day!”
2. They love writers
This characteristic is different from #1. It’s about the people behind the books, not the books themselves.
Great book coaches admire the work writers do and appreciate what it takes to sit alone in a room long enough to produce a book-length work. They understand that people who write often feel emotions very deeply. They probably go to readings at libraries and bookstores, go to writer’s websites to learn the behind-the-scenes stories about writers’ lives, follow writers on Twitter and Instagram.
They understand that when a writer shares their work, they are sharing a piece of their soul. They may or may not want to be a writer themselves, but they get writers.
3. They feel comfortable with the creative process
Great book coaches understand the iterative nature of creativity and the fact that it is never a straightforward path. They are not afraid of the ups and down, are not put off by the inevitable twists and turns, the delays, the doubts.
They know that beauty can arise from chaos and enjoy being part of the becoming.
I often think here about something I once heard someone say about middle school teachers. “The only people who are called to teach middle school,” the comment went, “are those who are passionate about angsty twelve-year-olds.”
The people best suited to book coaching are those passionate about begin in the chaos of creativity.
4. They feel confident managing a complex project
Great book coaches have the ability to think logically and strategically about both the story and the creative process. This is often a skill that writers themselves lack; it’s a different muscle.
Book coaches can give clear direction about how to proceed with a project – what to work on first, what milestone to hit next, what to do when something goes awry — so that the project stays on point and on track.
5. They have the ability to focus on details and on the big picture—often at the same time
Great book coaches see the small things on the page and the big things about the way the book will live in the world. They are excellent at making connections between ideas and concepts and can even see things that aren’t there.
I often say that a good book coach can see the book before the writer can see it – they can picture it on the shelf, envision the finished whole.
At the same time, they can see that there is something missing on page 17, that the book may be stronger if it starts in a different place, that the writer has a bad habit of putting in too many adjectives.
6. They understand the marketplace
A great book coach understands that books are products that get bought and sold, that publishers—either traditional publishers or self-published writers—want to make money on the books they sell. They understand that readers are very discerning and have a choice whether or not they will read any given book, and that the job of a writer is to convince them to read theirs.
This means having an understanding of business practices around topics such as marketing, pricing, and product launching.
People who love books and writers and the creative process but don’t love this reality might not do well as a book coach. Most writers want to be read, and want help getting to that point. A coach needs to be committed to understanding what it takes to sell books.
This same spirit will also serve the book coach in running her own business – in doing all the work an entrepreneur needs to do to thrive.
7. They like to work 1:1
Book coaching is not the kind of work you can do at an emotional distance. You have to lean into the writer’s mind and their world, which means you also have to figure out how to establish boundaries so you don’t get sucked into places where you are not trained to work, and where a therapist would be better suited.
Most book coaches work for themselves and work from home but make no mistake: they are working very intimately with the writers they serve, and a great book coach thrives on this kind of 1:1 work.
8. They like to work alone
Editing is done alone in a room. Even if you are in a coffee shop or a library with other people who are working, you are alone in your head.
You need to enjoy being by yourself, working by yourself, figuring out all the problems yourself. You might have friends in the business of colleagues, but when you work – just like a writer – you are alone.
9. They have the ability to step back from the emotion to protect themselves from getting too drawn in
It’s hard to run a solid business if you get caught up in a writer’s drama. You need to be able to be part of their creative process, to meet them wherever they are, good or bad, but you need to be able to stand apart from them, as well.
You can’t take on the writer’s emotion, or their characters’, for that matter.
10. They are self-motivated
A great book coach can meet deadlines, prioritize their work, and keep projects moving along without anyone telling them they need to do it. They can say yes to the right clients, and no to the wrong ones.
They are eager to learn all the skills they need to run their business, constantly learning, determining best practices, and optimizing their business.
If you see yourself in these descriptions but don’t have all of them, can you still be a good book coach? I think so. I learned #3, #4, #5, #6 and #9 on the job, and have coached coaches in many of these areas, as well. They are learnable skills.
One last note about this list. Note that being a published writer, or a bestselling writer, is not on it. Having been published yourself can help you with certain aspects of coaching, but it doesn’t replace the characteristics on this list.
Coaching is its own endeavor, with its own demands. If you feel called to do this work but don’t yet have a book published or haven’t sold as many copies of your book as you would like, don’t let that stop you. You can become a great book coach without that.
The work of a book coach is best summed up by Devin Mahoney Zimmerman, a former cox on the Harvard men’s crew team. In speaking about the great rowing coach Harry Parker, she said: “He made people prove themselves to themselves. It’s like he said, ‘This is what you could be. Do you want to be that?'”
Would coaching other authors be a stream of income that would fit with you and your author business?