One of my business cards lists my title as “Word Sensei.” It has a tied black belt in the front—a nod to my first career as a martial arts instructor. On the back, it lists the various services I primarily offered at the time I had that batch printed:
At conferences, attendees and other “civilians” would take my card and say variations on the theme of “neato.” Veterans and professionals also liked it, but about half would do that hissy intake of breath when they saw “Book Coaching.” Especially if they didn’t know me well.
Fortunately, almost all of them were willing to talk with me about that snap assessment. Without exception, we agreed on several points about book coaches:
- The overwhelming majority of book coaches mean well, and practice their trade in good faith
- Many writers can benefit from a book coach
- If you ask 1,000 people what a “book coach” does, you’ll get 1,000 different answers
- 2,000 if you come back and ask them again six months later
- Many (if not most) book coaches have no idea what they’re doing
- Qualified book coaches are awesome
- It’s hard for the people who need book coaches to tell which coaches are qualified
And that’s why I’m writing this article.
If you have an idea that you keep failing to turn into that book…
Or you have a book you can’t figure out how to finish…
Or your book is finished but you can’t figure out why it keeps getting rejected…or…or…or…
…you may need a book coach.
So let’s talk about them for a while.
A Coach by Any Other Name
Just like you’ll get 1,000 answers about what a book coach does, you may also find 1,000 different names for people who provide the services we’ll talk about here.
We’re using the term “book coach” because it’s pretty descriptive: it’s a person who helps you write the best book you can under your specific circumstances, like an athletic coach helps you perform to the top of your ability given your physical and mental circumstances.
But a book coach might also advertise themselves as a:
- Book consultant
- Publishing consultant
- Publishing guide
- Book shepherd
- Book sherpa
You may also get some of the services of a book coach by hiring a really great copy editor or developmental editor. These are folks who specialize in helping you develop your writing voice, continuity, and flow within a specific manuscript…but when you find a truly amazing editor in these spaces, they give you tips, tricks, and tools you can use to improve your writing across the board, forever. They teach, in addition to providing the service of helping clean up your current project.
So how do you tell which of these folks is the best fit for you?
Let’s take a look at what a book coach does, first, and then dig in deeper.
What Does a Book Coach Do?
Man, that’s a tough question.
Different books need help in different areas. Some need coaching on voice. Others need help with pacing, or with dialogue. Others need solid copy editing and continuity checking.
Still other books don’t need help with the words. The author needs help in getting it together to finish the project.
Book coaches do each of those things…
No single book coach can do all of them.
Just like the books they help with, different book coaches are experts in different areas. One might excel at plot and pacing, but be terrible with dialogue. One might be helpful with close editing but fail at big-picture continuity. Somebody who excels at motivating you to write might not be able to tell good writing from the back of a cereal box.
This means the first thing you have to do about finding a book coach is to identify what your book needs help with. Where is it weak?
If you don’t know, here are a few ways to find out:
- Go to a few paid critique sessions run by your local writing community
- Pitch your manuscript to a handful of agents, then read their comments and feedback carefully
- Look for patterns in what your beta readers have to say
- Compare it to the books you wish it was like, and find where they differ
- Identify what you believe are the best and worst features of your writing, then ask people you trust about both
From there, the next thing is finding book coaches who know how to teach you what you need to learn.
It’s a little like the martial arts industry. A 200-pound male karate teacher who cut his teeth in tournament fighting and went to the Olympics would excel at teaching athletes interested in the sport, but might not be great at teaching self-defense to women. His experience would be too different. A woman who worked as a police officer and a karate instructor would teach amazing self-defense, but might not have the demeanor to teach kids’ classes.
Figuring out which coaches are a good match for you is tricky, because very few bill themselves as “Qualified Book Coach on X and Y, Not Great at Z.” Most will present themselves as qualified to coach you about anything you need.
In a way, they’re right. Most book coaches will be better than you at most aspects of your book project. That doesn’t mean they’re the best candidate for the job.
How, then, do you figure out which coaches excel at the kind of coaching you need?
It’s easier than you might think.
Find out what they’re good at.
Look at the projects they’ve had published under their own names. (And if they have no published credits, run away—most…though not all…book coaches started out as writers and still work as writers; this might not necessarily involve writing nonfiction or novels, but they should have a body of work in the form of published articles in that case. If there are no writing credits, check for editing credits and publications there. No credits at all? Run! This person hasn’t actually put in the time to know the industry they’re claiming to be immersed in.)
Read the reviews. Read the work. Where is it powerful? Where is it weak?
If the coaching you need is about accountability and productivity, does the coach show a history of consistent publication and meeting of deadlines?
Go into the writing community and ask what people think of that person as a writer. Do those opinions match your analysis? Do their takeaways from the reviews match your own? What about the specifics of any blurbs on their coaching website?
Once you’ve done that background research, you can have a detail-oriented and open conversation with the coach you’re considering. Ask what he thinks his strengths and weaknesses are. Do they match your analysis, and that of the people you checked with? If not, the coach might not be self-aware enough to do a good analysis of their own work—and therefore, might not be able to properly analyze yours.
If they are good enough, the next question is how much they charge.
How Much Should You Pay?
Sadly, there is no set answer for this question, either.
Some book coaches charge very low fees. A few even offer help in exchange for buying the drinks when you meet. Others will ask for thousands of dollars up front, or a sizeable percentage of the book’s proceeds.
And the frustrating thing is, there’s no real industry standard to tell you which is right. All I can tell you are the following guidelines:
- The only wrong answer is a price you can’t afford. You don’t want to spend lots of money, then have to quit midway because you’ve run out of funding.
- If you’re being asked for five figures on a project without a guaranteed payday, you’re probably spending too much. Even a big name in the industry shouldn’t ask for more than that.
- If you’re being asked for less than $2,000 on a book-sized project, you’re probably spending too little. This indicates somebody who either won’t be professional, or who has to work another job and might not have time to really devote their full energy to your book.
- Let the book coach be the first person to name a specific number. It helps your negotiations.
Beyond that, listen to your gut.
If it feels like way too much, it probably is. If the coach you’re considering seems sketchy when talking about money, talk to some other coaches. Get prices from more than one coach, but don’t limit your decision to going with the lowest bidder.
I wish I could give more complete advice on this score, but the field is wide open. What’s worse, price is in no way an indicator of quality. Charlatans often charge high fees, while gifted coaches may be shy about asking for a few hundred dollars.
Which brings us to…
The Qualified Instructor Problem
Remember earlier when I mentioned my career in martial arts? One of the biggest problems in that industry is the variety in instructor quality. If you walked into a dojo looking for lessons, the person in charge of that martial arts school would be more or less qualified based on three factors:
- Whether or not he was skilled in the martial arts
- How much she knew about the context of self-defense in your region
- What level of teaching skills he had
Two other factors—more important, but less visible—also play a role. Martial arts teachers have a widely varying level of awareness about their qualifications on those three factors, and they have varying degrees of honesty about those qualifications.
And they all wear the same clothes and look about as good as one another to the brand-new, uninitiated, students who walk in their doors. To a prospective student, the following teachers would look exactly alike:
- A black belt who spent six years as a bouncer, took 100 hours of instruction training, and frequently spoke with local law enforcement about safety and self-defense
- A brown belt who left his hometown, bought a black belt, and set up shop after watching a handful of videos of qualified teachers teach
- A black belt who was trained by a charlatan, who thinks he’s excellent but is actually poorly qualified in the grand scheme of things
One is obviously better than the others…and those others could very literally get students killed.
I’ve remarked more than once about how similar my first and second careers are, and this might be the worst place those similarities exist. The quality of a book coach is:
- Highly varied
- Not clearly visible to the people who need book coaches
- Not necessarily linked to how good the book coach thinks he is
An unqualified book coach might not get you killed, but can potentially murder your book. Or at the least, cost you a year or more of moving in the wrong direction. And that’s assuming you’re not working with a charlatan, the kind of “coach” who gives minimal value for high fees, and spends lots of energy keeping you on the hook without getting closer to finishing the project.
How to Start Working with a Book Coach
So that’s the bad and the ugly of book coaches: the risk that you’ll spend time and money without moving your book forward in the right direction. To recap, those risks are:
- That you might end up with a coach who doesn’t offer the specific kind of help your book requires
- That the coach you work with isn’t qualified give you the help you need
- That the “coach” is more of a scammer than an actual mentor and teacher
Because we’ve been dooming and glooming for a thousand words or so, I feel the need to reiterate that a good book coach is worth taking these risks. Working with one can change an idea into a book, a good book into a great book, or a tepid career into a professional living.
But you have to mitigate those risks. While you’re talking with a book coach, you can perform some due diligence by applying several tools to your analysis.
1. Ask for an Introductory Phase
This is a short-term period of work where the coach looks at what you have, then makes recommendations or does some other form of work for you (like writing the proposal, or holding you accountable for a month).
You’ll get a sense of how solid the coach’s work quality is, and whether or not you work well together. If a coach isn’t open to this, that’s a sign you should work with somebody else.
2. Look for Contractual Red Flags
Not all book coaches require a contract, but most of the professionals do.
The majority of those contracts will be standard fare, even boilerplate. However, a few of them contain language that shows the coach is concerned about losing clients. For example:
- Locking you into a long-term relationship
- Cancellation fees for quitting with more than two weeks’ advance notice
- Non-defamation clauses that prevent you from offering honest reviews
- Large cash penalties for innocuous things
- Front-loaded payment plans
These are signs of somebody who isn’t confident that their work and personality will keep clients happy and returning on their own. You want to work with a coach who knows she doesn’t need those protections because she keeps her clients happy through the quality of experience.
3. Read in Full One of Their Projects
You’ve already made yourself a little familiar with the prospective coach’s work. Now read one in full, as deeply as you can.
Look specifically for how well the coach does on the aspects of your writing for which you are hiring his help. Is it good enough to warrant what he wants to charge?
For best results, read the most recent work by that coach. All writers improve with experience, and some experienced writers start to slack off as they become comfortable in their careers. The most recent work will give you a current snapshot of the reality.
4. Scan One of Their Coaching Projects
Also take a quick look-through of a project the coach has helped somebody else complete. Don’t be as judgmental as you are of their own work—you can’t know how much of the coach’s advice the author actually took.
Scan for the same things you did when reading the coach’s writing. See if you can track the influence. The coach shouldn’t overwhelm the student’s voice, but should make it better and more polished—the best version of itself, rather than an echo of the coach’s own style and preferences.
5. Lie a Little Bit
Not everybody is comfortable with using this tool, but those who are find it extremely effective.
When you turn in your work for that introductory phase, fib about one aspect. Say you’re happy with a thing you know is weak, or that you’re weak in an area you know you’re strong.
Wait and see what the coach says later.
If he agrees with you, that shows a coach who’s more interested in telling you what you want to hear than in giving you quality advice. If she engages you respectfully about how she disagrees, that’s a sign of a good coach.
For best results here, do the one where you say you’re happy about something you know is weak. Too many writers think they’re good at something they’re bad at for the other option to reliably work.
6. Check out Their Social Media
Social media is the place where people accidentally out themselves all the time. That’s why it works as a business model—we’re all constantly giving away tips about what advertising would work best on us.
The same is true about subtle aspects of personality, priorities, and general habits.
Spend some time watching the coach’s social media feeds. Is the coach somebody you would “friend” or “follow” if you weren’t in a working relationship?
If not, you probably aren’t sufficiently compatible to succeed in collaborating on something as intense and personal as a book.
There’s one more tool in your toolbox for checking out a potential book coach. It’s important enough to merit its own section…
Your Superpower: References
The best way to find out how good a book coach is at her job is to ask people who have worked with her in the past.
One of the best things to happen in the martial arts industry was the spread of those community review sites like Yelp! or Google’s review service.
Before the advent of those services, an underqualified or dishonest “expert” in any trade could stay ahead of his reputation long enough to keep himself basking in a consistent stream of victims.
Not so anymore. That said, not all book coaches have a space on the review sites where people can leave their opinions.
You’re going to have to talk with references.
And how do you get references?
You ask for them.
That’s right. When you’re vetting a potential book coach, ask her who she’s worked with before and if she will put that client in touch with you. Any legitimate professional will have a line of happy current and former clients ready to tell you how great it was to work with them.
After some time, you’ll develop your own list of questions for references. For now, use mine.
- When did you work with ________?
Make sure their story matches what you were told by the prospective coach.
- Did he do what he said he would do?
If “no,” find out why. Sometimes it’s a matter of unclear expectations, or one-time-only issues. Other times it indicates a problem.
- Would you work with him again?
This is a dealbreaker. If somebody with experience wouldn’t rehire somebody, why would you hire her?
- What was the best part of working with her? What was the worst part of working with him?
Both questions can help you find out if this particular coach has habits and traits you love or hate working with.
- If you rehired him, what would you change?
This can help you set yourself up for success by starting with fixes to how the coach might have done things in the past.
- Can I see a copy of the finished project?
Seeing and holding what the coach produces can give you a uniquely powerful view of what she values in the writing and publishing process.
There’s a final question that deserves its own treatment:
Who else do you know who has worked with ____________?
You ask this question because the prospective book coach will only give you the names of happy former clients. Follow the answers to former clients the book coach didn’t recommend you speak with, and eventually you’ll find the people who weren’t so happy with their relationship.
Take what these folks say with a grain of salt, but listen closely. Much of what’s negative can boil down to personality, unclear expectations, or things that are the fault of the former client. But sometimes you discover a dealbreaker…or something that shows you personally can’t work with that particular coach.
I recommend speaking with a total of three to five references: three if everything’s looking great, five if you feel hinky about even the smallest things. Once you’ve spoken to the references, add it into your growing pile of information.
If at this point you can’t give a coach a firm “yes,” I recommend you look elsewhere.
You’ll work closely with this coach for a long time on something very important to you. A “maybe” isn’t going to do you any good.
Not every writer needs a book coach. But for those who do, a book coach is probably the only solution to whatever problem they have in their writing.
If you need a book coach, the first step is finding out what kind of coaching you need.
The second step is finding book coaches who offer that kind of coaching, then finding among them one who fits with your personality, work habits, genre, style, and budget.
The final step is checking out that coach to make sure she’s qualified, aware of her own faults, and has good intentions.
Well, that’s the penultimate step. The real final step is working together to turn out one hell of a book. The good news there is how easy that usually is if you do the preceding steps well.
For more on how to build a team to help advance your writing career, check out these articles:
- How to Find an Editor for Your Book with Step-by-Step Instructions
- Getting the Most Out of Your Relationship with Your Editor and Cultivating Beta Readers
- How to Find the Best Book Cover Designers with Examples and Step-by-Step Instructions