September 8, 2017
Book doulas are doulas for bookbirthing
by Simon Reichley
Writing anything at all is very difficult. This blog post, for example, is very very short, and yet it was almost impossible to write. Writing a book—or, shall we say, giving birth to a book from the womb of the mind—is considerably more difficult. So difficult, in fact, that at least some writers are seeking emotional, editorial, spiritual, and technical bookbirthing assistance from professional book doulas.
What is a book doula? Olga Mecking, writing in The Guardian, gives a brief overivew of the industry, offering this provisional definition:
Distinguishing themselves from agents and editors, book doulas offer a sort of coaching service, a kind eye to reassure nervous authors who are having trouble getting their book published.
According to the websites of the three book doulas featured in Mecking’s piece, they also provide more traditional editorial and marketing services, including cover design, typesetting, proofreading, editorial help, research, and ghostwriting. But these services are widely available from freelance editors and publishing consultants, and, really, it’s the “kind eye” that book doulas are hanging their hats on.
Consider this promotional copy from Ariane Conrad, one of Mecking’s book doulas:
“You will probably make me cry… in a good way. We will probably crack each other up. I will tell you when there is spinach in your teeth. We will probably become lifelong friends.”
Conrad is, of the three featured book doulas, the most apparently successful. She’s credited on two books by CNN contributor Van Jones, and on The Age of Dignity by Ai-Jen Poo, director of the very dope National Domestic Workers Alliance. She’s clearly good at what she does, and this partenership of shared tears, spinach-spotting, and professionalized friendship might well be necessary for writers struggling with anxiety or organizational difficulties.
But there remains something a little off about the “book doula.” Specifically, the word “doula.”
The invention of the “book doula” as a category of laborer smears the distinctions between the various specific forms of labor that usually go into creating and publishing books. Childbirth is the result of a natural process that can be made easier and healthier by appropriate therapeutic intervention; it is not at all obvious that this is the case with book publishing, or even a helpful analogy.
The term also undermines the specificity and seriousness of actual doulas, whether intentionally or not. It creates a false equivalency between the work of doulas and the vaguely defined affect labor that Conrad outlines on her website, mostly by dodging the fact that the physical and psycological danger of giving birth to a human baby is not in any way commensurate with (nonetheless real) emotional struggles that come with publishing a book.
DONA International, the world’s largest certifier of doulas, defines a “doula” as:
A trained professional who provides continuous physical, emotional and informational support to a mother before, during and shortly after childbirth to help her achieve the healthiest, most satisfying experience possible.
Here are Bethany Beam’s thoughts on being a book doula:
I adore books. And recently I have started helping authors as they prepare their work for publication! It couldn’t be more exciting for me to come alongside writers while they birth their book babies.
There is no reason to doubt that Beam is serious in her work, or that her services are valuable to the authors who chose to work with her. But books, darling though they may be, are not babies, and doulas are more than just another kind of life coach.
Simon Reichley is the rights and operations manager at Melville House.