To Write A Good Book, Answer These 3 Questions

1. What is the question my book answers?

2. Who cares? Who is seeking the answer to this question?

3. Where do I find that caring audience?

close up of several non-fiction books

 If you are writing a non-fiction book, it answers some question. “How do I play the guitar?” “How do I find the right midwife?” “What are some low-capital businesses I can start?” Your answer is simple, methodical, and action-oriented. You give some background, some definitions, then lay out the steps the reader needs to take. Then you answer frequently asked questions and list resources for digging further.

Next, you must know who cares about that question. Where is the hungry crowd who is going to be fed by your book? What do you know about them? Are they young? Old? Predominantly male? Female? Young adults? Spanish speakers? What language will they feel comfortable with? You might build a “persona,” a description of your ideal reader that covers age, gender, socio-economic considerations, education, and so on. Give that persona a name. Cut out a magazine picture that represents them, so that you can keep them in mind as you write.

Finally, you have to know how to reach those people who are going to be very interested in the answers you provide to the question you posed. Do they read particular blogs? Do they use particular search terms? Do they belong to professional associations? If you know where they gather, you will be able to let them know about your book.

Answering these questions is not optional, if you want to have a successful book. It is a prerequisite. And if you can’t answer the questions, get help. Discuss them with your friends, your colleagues, your coaches. Post a query on Quora.com; crowdsource your answers.

Do not start writing until you can answer these questions!

 

Painting with Numbers

“Presenting financials and other numbers so people will understand you.” That’s the subtitle of “Painting with Numbers,” a book by my client, Randy Bolten, that’s just out from Wiley. It’s getting enthusiastic reviews from sources as diverse as academics, bankers, politicians, and IT professionals, and its initial sales are gratifyingly strong.

From the book’s introduction: “This book is not about numbers. This book is about presenting numbers, and doing it clearly, concisely, elegantly, and, most of all, effectively.” And it successfully conveys its message in practical, take-it-home-and-put-it-to-work terms.

Bolten served as chief financial officer of several Silicon Valley firms and learned his skills “in the trenches.” He endured numerous presentations that left him scratching his head and wondering, “What was that person trying to say?” Determined to never do that himself, and to help others do better, he began to record and organize his insights regarding good and bad communication behavior in the numerical context.

This is a “how-to” book in the very best sense of the term. You can read it cover-to-cover and learn a great deal from it; you can also flip it open anywhere and gain helpful tips for the presentation you’re supposed to give in the next 10 minutes.

If you are an aspiring author, here are some key learning points you can model from Randy:

  • The focus of the book is his unique expertise, organized and articulated in bite-size chunks for easy consumption.
  • He invested time in learning what others have to say on the topic, and cites items of interest that can help his readers.
  • He micro-managed the book design process. Specifically, he knew that his spreadsheet examples would have to look like screen-captures, not like a gussied-up artist’s version of spreadsheets, if readers were to feel, “I can do that!”
  • His writing demonstrates his awareness that his reader is unlikely to feel excited and enthusiastic about his topic, to begin with. So he makes excellent use of humor and beautiful layout to engage the reader and drive home the power and utility of learning the skills he so eloquently presents.

He went with a major publisher, although we had considered self-publishing. Here are some reasons:

  • He didn’t want to undertake the work of creating a business to produce and market the book.
  • He was able to network his way to an appropriate editor, without an agent.
  • The implied imprimatur of a major publisher was meaningful to him.
  • Maximizing his profit was not his major goal.

I’m very proud of Randy, who has become my close friend from what began as a coaching relationship. Check out the book!

What’s your “why”?

Unless you know why you want to write a book, you are unlikely to produce one. If you know why, you have a good chance of knowing who your readers will be. And if you know that, you can figure out how to reach them.

There are lots of reasons to write a book:

  • To bring your message to the world
  • To record your life for posterity, or at least for your family
  • To teach something
  • To entertain
  • To draw attention to yourself, your company, your product
  • To organize your thoughts and knowledge about a subject
  • To establish yourself as an expert

All0w yourself to invest time in discovering your “why.” Develop an intense curiosity about it. When an answer occurs to you, write it down. Then ask yourself, “And what will that get me?” Write down that answer, and ask again: “And what will THAT get me?” Stop only when you start to repeat yourself.Why?

Now that you know why you want to write a book, think about your audience. Who are they? What do you want to tell them? Why will they want to read it? And where will you find them? The more detailed your answers, the better and more successful your book will be.

Your “why” will keep you going. It will give you the strength you need to finish your book and to promote it. Find your “why.”

 

The publishing war is over; self-publishing wins

I’ll start from the conclusion. Here’s why you should ONLY self-publish, and not seek a publisher:

  • publish #01

    You get to market MUCH more quickly by self-publishing (days or weeks versus a year or more)

  • You keep your intellectual property; you can reprint, translate, sell movie rights, go to multiple distributors without limitation
  • You keep 70% or more of the book’s selling price, versus 14.7% or less with a publisher (including for the ebook version)
  • You are in control of everything from design to editing to production to distribution

In the past, before the Web and print-on-demand technology, authors were at the mercy of publishers. That’s when the “rules of engagement” were established by the publishers, and they remain today as they were then: The publisher controls everything about the relationship, if the author signs the standard agreement. That means a production schedule that commonly stretches out 15-18 months from receipt of manuscript; a royalty rate that is nominally as high as 15%, but due to hidden costs, is more like 10% (payable six or more months after it is earned); total transfer of ownership of intellectual property to the publisher (meaning that if the publisher decides not to reprint the book after the first printing, the author must negotiate to re-acquire the rights to it); and other onerous strictures.

The author was ostensibly relieved of all responsibility for editing, design, production, distribution, and marketing of the book. Unfortunately, the author usually learned that she was actually stuck with marketing the book, and all the costs thereof–at the paltry royalty rate specified in the standard contract.

In recent years, an author could not even submit a manuscript to a publisher; he had to find an agent who would agree to undertake on his behalf, for 20% or more of the deal. And finding an agent was no simpler than finding a publisher had been in earlier times. A common question posed to the author: “Do you have a platform?” Meaning, do you have a coterie of loyal fans who are likely to buy your book? If not, your chances of finding an agent or a publisher were small.

Today, the author has been emancipated in the age of self-publishing. She is no longer in bondage to the system of publishers and agents. She can have her manuscript edited herself, get a cover designed to her liking, and take them to CreateSpace.com or Lulu.com, set her sale price–and have the book available for purchase within a week of submitting the manuscript and cover. At no fee for the service; production costs are taken out of the sales price for each book, and the balance sent to the author. Monthly.

These publishers take no ownership of the content. The author is free to submit it to multiple such services.

Moreover, both they and others offer a service to convert the book to the most popular ebook formats. Since the production cost on an ebook is virtually zero, it is reasonable that the authors receive 70% or more of the sales price of their books, and they do. If the ebook is published by, say, John Wiley and Sons, the author gets 14.7%.

Well, what about editing? It is true that the leading publishers employ competent editors. But so can an author–and at a lower rate by far, with the expectation of far faster turnaround.

And marketing? Most authors seeking to be published by one of the “Big Six” do not realize that the big marketing bucks are reserved for the “sure bets”–books by celebrities and already-popular authors. All the other books on the publisher’s list get very little in the way of marketing dollars. And if they do not sell in significant numbers–thousands–in the first three months after their debut, they will not be reprinted.

A client asked me the other day about the “cachet” of being published by a well-known publisher. Certainly there is something to that. But let me ask you, prospective published author: What value does it actually have for you? Will it establish you higher in the firmament of author/experts? Will it get you more clients? I doubt it.

The big publishers are not foolish, and they employ very smart people. But the traditional publishing world is stuck in an antiquated paradigm, and has not found a way out.

If you are an author, save yourself grief: Do not invest your energies in petitioning agents and publishers. Recognize that your book represents a business, of which you are the ceo. Act accordingly. Self-publish.

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The secret to a successful book

There are more books being published now than ever before. UNESCO (via Wikipedia) says:

  1. United States (2009) 288,355 (“new titles and editions”) [3]
  2. United Kingdom (2005) 206,000 [2]
  3. China (2007) 136,226 [4]
  4. Russian Federation (2008) 123,336 [5]
  5. Germany (2009) 93,124 (new titles) [6]
  6. Spain (2008) 86,300 [7]
  7. India (2004) 82,537 (21,370 in Hindi and 18,752 in English[8][9]
  8. Japan (2009) 78,555 [10]
  9. France (2010) 67,278 [11] (63,690 new titles)
  10. Iran (2010) 65,000 [12][13]

How many of these sell more than 50 copies? I haven’t found exact figures, but my guess is that the percentage is below 10.

Why? And how can you get your book into the 10%?

“Why” is the secret: Most authors write from their own need or desire to do so. They have a vague idea about who will buy their book or want to read it. But they are focused on their message.

That is a mistake. A HUGE mistake.

If you want your book to be read by more than your mom and your close friends, you must view the book as a product, and its publication as a business. Even if you plan to give it away for free.

So the first question you must answer is: Who is the audience for my book? Who will want to read it? And you must study that audience and refine your understanding of who is in it, so that you can be sure that your book is something they will want.

(Notice that I said “want,” not “need.” People buy what they want, what they desire. Their desire may or may not stem from need.)

Does this sound backwards? Shouldn’t you focus first on your message? Not if you want to reach an audience.

You must first pick your audience. Define it narrowly, as narrowly as possible–age, gender, family situation, profession, and so on. If you address the wants of a highly targeted group of people, those who share some of their attributes will also be interested. But if you attempt to address everyone, your content will not attract anyone.

Who is your audience? Dentists who have just opened a practice? Stay-home moms with 2-3 kids under 10? Harried executives in large corporations who have been at it for 10 to 12 years, and are thinking about entrepreneurship? Owners of Golden Retrievers? Once you define your audience, you can figure out what problem your book should address. You’ll know what title will capture their interest. And you’ll know where to find your readers, and how to help them find you.

What are your thoughts about audience? Please comment.

Help! I am baffled! Why did you come here?

For a couple of years my blog here has toddled along with a slowly growing audience, until recently averaging about 50 visits per day. Suddenly, last week, I had 5,000, then 12,000 visits.

They were all coming from StumbleUpon. No spam, just real visitors. Needless to say, I was thrilled!

But then I was perplexed. It coincided with me publishing the post, Do you make these 3 disastrous book-writing mistakes? It is a good post, but not dramatically better, or even different from, all my many other posts.

Also, only about 10 of these visitors have left comments (all interesting ones). Only a couple have signed up to receive the blog posts by email. And only a couple have bought my $9.97 ebook on writing a book.

StumbleUpon

So here are my questions: What is it you are seeking here? What can I provide to you that will make you want to visit again? Please respond by commenting on this post, and I promise to give you more of what you want!

Thank you!

 

Do you make these 3 disastrous book-writing mistakes?

I’ll say it again: Most people think that writing a book is incredibly difficult, time-consuming, and of questionable value. But actually, if you just follow my program, it can be doable (if not easy), quick, and a really good use of your time. I’ll save the value part for another blog post; what I want to focus on here is what makes book-writing difficult and time-consuming for most people.

  1. Jumping in without a complete plan. If you want to build a house, you don’t begin driving a truck to the Home Depot and filling it with 2×4’s, dry-wall panels, and other materials. Obviously you don’t know how much to buy, of what materials. Instead, you hire an architect, and work out detailed plans. Only when these are complete, down to each door, window, strip of molding, and electrical outlet, do you find a builder who will shop for materials and turn them into a house for you. Produce your title, your subtitle, and your table of contents down to the sub-chapter level. Now you can begin to write.
    English: Overview of Home Depot store
  2. Researching as you go. Thanks to Wikipedia, Google, and other resources, research can quickly become a fascinating journey without an end. DO NOT research while writing. When you come across a “blank spot,” something you need to find out, just mark it with “%%%” or some other sign your word processor can easily find. Then, when your book is complete, go back and look up only what you need to replace the “%%%.” If you follow this guideline, you will save many, many hours.
  3. Writing for the broadest possible audience. If you try to write for everybody, you wind up writing for nobody. Instead, picture your ideal reader, the person for whom your book will be a welcome and blessed gift, exactly what they needed and wanted. Write a detailed description of this person–gender, age, family situation, work, physical qualities. Give them a name. Cut out a magazine picture that looks like them and post it where you can see it. This is your audience. Speak to this person as you write.

Have you discovered any mis-steps that slow your book-writing or get you off track? Share them in the comments!

What’s the question?

Your audience–the people you want to reach with your book–has a question. Yes, I know they have more than one. But for many of them, there is one big question they share. It occupies them. It represents a pain, a hole in their lives, that is demanding comfort, that must have an answer.

Do you know what your audience’s question is?

If you do, great. The title of your book should address that question. And the answer found in your book should be powerful. Actionable.

If you don’t know what the audience’s burning question is–find out. Ask. Call. Interview. Read market research reports. In fact, if you don’t know, don’t publish a book until you do–that is, if you want anyone to read your book.

 

Back in the saddle again

I took off the period from the Memorial of Trumpets (what most Jews call Rosh HaShana) through Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, at least in terms of blogging. I didn’t stop working entirely, but I did focus on just a couple of things, and on taking full advantage of joining with my people in reflection on the past year and the coming year, and on making things right with fellow humans.

In the Yom Kippur prayerbook, it says that in observing the day we can find forgiveness for offenses against God, but that for offenses between people, we must go to them. That’s a very practical and loving point of view, and I appreciate it.

blowing the shofar (by Alphonse Lévy)
Image via Wikipedia

And that goes for both asking and giving forgiveness.

Hmm…what if I cast a broader net here? OK. If I have offended you, my reader, in any way, I ask your forgiveness. And I invite you to write or call me and tell me about it, so that I can also seek not only forgiveness, but a place of reconciliation. I mean it. My cell number is 650-336-3937.

I’ve grown more and more aware of the significance of emotions in my life and in my communications. When I was a math grad student, good writing was elegant, and elegance meant succinctness. Expressing a thought in the fewest possible words and symbols was the peak of elegance. Unfortunately, I carried that over into my writing. My greatest challenge is to being juicy, and not just concise.

It’s odd, because I’m a very emotional person. I just didn’t accord emotions–mine or those of others–the weight they deserve in human discourse. Now I can say that I feel bad about that. Sorry, even. And determined to do better. (See? Feelings! :-))

Feelings enter naturally into fiction and memoirs. But less naturally into the books being written by my typical clients, who are typically trying to explain their “special sauce” to prospective clients. And that fact makes them all the more important. Emotions are what engage the reader, not facts. Facts are important, but feelings communicate.

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A book-writing tip from Clippy

Well, it’s not really from Clippy, the hated Microsoft “helper” that came with Office and was finally buried in 2007. Clippy is mentioned in this fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal by Stanford professor Clifford Nass:

[W3 illo]Alex Nabaum

By CLIFFORD NASS

When BMW introduced one of the most sophisticated navigation and telematics systems into its 5 Series car in Germany a decade ago, it represented the pinnacle of German engineering excellence, with great advances in accuracy and functionality. Yet BMW was forced to recall the product—because the system had a female voice. The service desk had received numerous calls from agitated German men who had the same basic complaint. They couldn’t trust a woman to give them directions. More

Go ahead, read the article. Then come back here.

What speaks to me in this piece is the significance of rapport, and the ease with which it can be created and broken–even with semi-animate objects. It makes me think: What about my book is generating rapport with my reader? What’s breaking rapport?

I’m using “rapport” in the sense that it is used in NLP–neurolingistic programming. Here’s one definition:

Rapport is the quality of harmony, recognition and mutual acceptance that exists between people when they are at ease with one another and where communication is occurring easily.

Why use this?

In general, we gravitate towards people that we consider similar to us, because people like people who are like themselves – like likes like. In rapport the common ground or similarities are emphasised and the differences are minimised.

Rapport is an essential basis for successful communication – if there is no rapport there is no (real) communication!

I’ve not seen writing teachers address rapport categorically. Maybe it’s time we do. What do you think?

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