Want to write a brilliant nonfiction book? Before you sit down and start writing, take some time to consider these seven questions first. They’ll help to make sure you write a book that people want to read and recommend to others. They’ll also help to make the writing easier by giving you a clear sense of direction.
(These questions primarily apply to prescriptive or 'problem-solving' nonfiction, such as self-help, business and how-to titles.)
1. Why do you want to write a book?
Writing a book is a LOT of work. And that’s only half the job – if you want people to read it then you’ve got to market it too. If you’re planning to self-publish then you’ve also got to sort out (and probably pay for) the editing, layout, cover design and distribution. Otherwise you need to find a traditional publisher willing to take you on (not an easy task) or a hybrid publisher who’ll help produce the book. You’ll need to have a solid reason for writing to keep you motivated through all of this.
What do you want the book to achieve? What do you want to get out of it?
Knowing why you want to write a book will also help to make sure you get the content right. For example, if you want your book to enhance your business – to basically act like a really hefty business card – then it’s got to be targeted at your core clients. It’s got to solve a problem (see #3 below) that genuinely helps these people.
(Alison Jones has some great advice in her book This Book Means Business on how to choose a topic that aligns perfectly with your business.)
2. Does it have to be a book?
It’s worth reiterating the point above: writing a book is a lot of work. There’s no doubt that it can be a huge asset to your business, but if you don’t have the motivation or time or don’t particularly like writing, think about whether what you want to say works better in a different medium – such as a podcast, workshop, presentation, video or blog. (These will likely be a lot quicker to produce, may play to your strengths more, and have the potential to enhance your reputation in a similar way.)
3. What problem are you trying to solve?
Still want to write a book? Great. The first thing to get clear on is your book’s promise. A useful nonfiction book has to make a promise and (most importantly) fulfil it. A book is more likely to do well if it’s solving a problem that is:
Something that people genuinely want help with and are willing to buy a book to solve.
Overcoming a fear of public speaking is good example of a problem that genuinely matters to a lot of people. If you hate public speaking but you’ve got to do it anyway then you’re likely to reach out for help – and you may well be motivated enough by the thought of potential failure to buy a book on it. So that ticks the second criteria.
But why does specificity matter? Because it’s acknowledged across the publishing industry that, in general, nonfiction books sell better when they solve a specific problem for a specific type of person (see #4 below).
It’s the difference between writing a book that’s so general it doesn’t strongly appeal to anyone, and a book that’s got targeted advice that really speaks to a smaller but better-defined market. This second book faces less competition; it’ll be easier to market and it’ll be more valuable for the readers it’s aimed at (who in turn will be more likely to recommend it to others).
‘Overcoming a fear of public speaking’ isn’t very specific. What sort of public speaking? There’s quite a difference between these four published titles:
How to Own the Room: Women and the Art of Brilliant Speaking (clearly aimed at women)
Public Speaking Panic: How to Go from Stage Fright to Stage-Ready in Less Than 24 Hours (aimed at occasional public speakers – those who don’t do it very often)
Ultimate Presentations: Master the Art of Giving Fantastic Presentations and Wowing Employers (aimed at employees who give presentations as a regular part of their job)
Public Speaking for Authors, Creatives and Other Introverts (aimed at introverted creative types)
All of these books are on public speaking but each takes a unique angle.
4. Who exactly is the target reader?
This leads on from #3 above. Who are you solving a problem for? As we’ve seen from the list of public-speaking titles above, it’s better to be specific. ‘Entrepreneurs’ won’t cut it. ‘Young entrepreneurs starting a business from their bedroom’ is better. And they’ll want an entirely different book from ‘Seasoned entrepreneurs looking to expand their business globally.’
Spend some time pinning down who your target reader is. What knowledge and experience do they already have? What problems do they struggle with that your book will help to solve?
Here are a couple of examples of books that have a very clear target reader and promise:
Creative Business Startup: Empowering Creative Women to Start a Small Business from Home
The promise: learn how to start a small creative business from home
The target reader: entrepreneurial women who want to make a living from the arts
Get a Financial Life: Personal Finance in Your Twenties and Thirties
The promise: learn how to control and improve your personal finances
The target reader: 20 to 40 year olds who struggle with debt and saving for the future
So by now you’ve hopefully got a clearer idea of who will buy your book and how it will help them. Keep this firmly in the centre of your mind as you start writing, as it should shape and focus your book’s entire content.
5. Do you have enough credibility to write this book?
People buy nonfiction books because they want to learn from someone who knows what they’re talking about. Being able to persuade the reader to trust what you’ve got to say is vital; your own background and experience are a huge part of this. For example, if your book is effectively coaching your readers how to do something (start a business, write a book, take early retirement), readers will be much more persuaded to give your method a go if you’ve successfully implemented it yourself in the real world (or even better, you’ve already helped lots of happy clients to implement it).
This doesn’t just matter when it comes to marketing your book; it affects how well you can write it too. The best nonfiction books are the ones that work because the advice they contain has already been thoroughly tested and proved in the real world.
Take an honest look at whether you’ve got enough experience to effectively write and sell your book. If you’re not sure then consider waiting a year or two until you’re more confident that your advice is genuinely useful – because it’s been shown to work in the real world – and you’ve got the authority and credibility to sell it to others.
6. What makes your book unique?
Books are more like clothes than dishwashers: people are happy to buy more than they strictly need. Contrary to what you might think, the fact there are already a number of books out there like yours is positive: it shows there’s a healthy market for the topic. But for your book to succeed it still has to be unique in some way.
This doesn’t mean you need to be groundbreakingly original. It does mean you need to stand out somehow. There are three main ways of doing this:
Covering the same topic as everyone else but doing it better (not easy).
Taking a specific angle on the topic (see #3 above).
Leveraging your expertise and credibility (see #5 above).
Have you researched the competition? If not then I highly recommend going away and doing this before you start writing. Buy three or four well-received books on the same topic as yours. Work out why they’re so good and what you can do differently or better. It’s hard to add something meaningful to the conversation until you know what other people are saying.
7. How do you want to publish the book?
It’s worth considering this now so you’re at least aware of what’s ahead. If you’re dead set on getting a traditional publishing deal, then stop here: instead of writing your book you’re better off going away and putting together a great proposal. This is a substantial document that outlines the contents of your book, the competition, your target market, why you’re the best person to write the book and how you plan to market it. See Jane Friedman’s blog post here for a really good primer on how to write a proposal.
Larger trad publishers will require a solid proposal to even consider taking on your book (they might require you to have an agent too). Smaller trad publishers may not need the full proposal but will probably want to see at least a slimmed-down version of it.
If you want to self-publish, you’ll need to educate yourself about what this involves and be prepared to pay for help if you want to create a professional-looking book. You’ll have to think about editing, layout, cover design, distribution and marketing. Plus extra little fiddly things like getting an ISBN, clearing any text permissions, putting together a copyright page, etc.
The third option is hybrid/partner publishing. This blends elements of trad and self-publishing: the publisher will project manage the production of your book (e.g. they’ll sort out the editing, cover and layout); you’ll have more input into this process than with a trad publisher; but you’ll have to pay them a fee upfront and/or allow them to take a cut of your royalties.
So that’s it – a fairly quick rundown of the most important questions to ask before you start to plan and write a nonfiction book. I guarantee that if you spend some time thinking about each of these questions, your book will be much stronger for it.