While writing a novel might seem sexier, some of the most successful books Girl Friday has helped clients produce are nonfiction. We’ve worked with biologists, psychologists, and sex columnists, business consultants, food bloggers, and religious leaders, and all of them have had one thing in common: they are experts in their respective fields and they have something unique to say. While publishing a book is a common dream across professions, writing and producing a quality book requires very different skills than does coaching business leaders, giving financial advice, or building up a killer nonprofit. After nearly twenty years of working with nonfiction writers, I’ve seen what works and also the common mistakes subject-matter experts make. To help get you started on the right path, first think through these questions:
Why are you writing this book? Being crystal clear on this point helps drive the tone of the narrative, the scope of the book, and even the structure. Do you need to establish thought leadership and this book will help prove you know your stuff? Is the book meant to capitalize on your personal story or illustrate your journey? Is yours a workbook or companion book you will use in your work with clients? Do you want to present your reader with principles or take them step-by-step through a process or lesson? One of the most common problems we see with books written by subject-matter experts is a manuscript that tries to do all of these things at once—and thus fails to do any of them successfully. Instead, focus very narrowly on what specific professional goals this product (your book) is meant to help you achieve. The better the business case for producing the book, the stronger the book will be.
Who is the book for? Now that you’ve determined what this book is going to do for you, it’s time to nail down what it’s going to do for your ideal reader. Notice I mentioned your ideal reader. When I was an acquisitions editor, do you know how often I had a writer (or even an agent) make the pitch that her book would appeal to nearly every member of the print-buying public? That’s not only lazy thinking, it imperils your book project from the start. Many people will not be interested in your book, so focus on the ones who are. Write to that Venn diagram of probable interested buyers and be ruthlessly honest about who lies within those overlapping circles. For example, both my husband and I enjoy lively books on economics. If the narrative isn’t compelling, you’ve still got him but you’ve lost me. So why wouldn’t you simply write a book both of us would buy? Because the book you want to write is heavy, academic, and footnoted and will expand economic theory in fundamental ways (you determined that was your purpose in question one). However, if your motive is to help the general public understand the roots of the financial crisis, that’s not the book that will get it done.* Oftentimes subject-matter experts write books geared toward their peers when they should be writing for someone like me, the very people who hire them to translate their specialized knowledge. I can tell a writer has forgotten his ideal reader when I encounter long narrative detours that overargue or defend a certain point or position or an imperious tone. Other tells for this mistake are an abundance of jargon or industry-specific language that is not explained in simple terms. As an editor, I try to keep your ideal reader in mind when I do my work in the manuscript. The writer must do the same.
Now that you know why you’re writing the book and who you’re writing it for, it’s time to ponder, what structure best conveys your message? There is more creativity in nonfiction writing than most people believe. (For a classic example, see Gödel, Escher, Bach.) As long as your structure is in service to questions one and two, you have a variety of options. Are you telling a linear narrative that will build throughout the book or is every chapter its own topic? Will you engage directly with the reader in second person (as I’m doing with you now) or keep a professional distance with third? Will you interview others and insert their material? Will facts, figures, or graphs be key in making your case? Will the book link to an online quiz or supplementary material? Less common narrative forms can be successful if done well. For example, if you want to convey a simple but profound leadership or spiritual principle, structuring the narrative as a parable could even work. (Leadership and Self-Deception is one bestselling example.)
If you’re planning to self-publish, what format does your book require? Ask questions as basic as, what size should my book be? (In the biz, we call this “trim.”) Does the book need to lie flat for the reader to use it successfully? For workbooks and cookbooks this might be important, precluding a smaller trim size. Think through how the book will be used if the reader will engage actively with the text. A consultant who leads management workshops might want participants to physically write in their books. A yoga instructor might illustrate various yoga poses or step-by-step positions so that practitioners can duplicate them at home. Consider too whether your book needs to appear in hardcover, paperback, or electronic form.
Finally, are you prepared to market your book as aggressively as you do your professional services or expertise or proselytize for your cause? Whether you self-publish or not, your marketing plan will determine whether you accomplish your publishing goals. From one businessperson to another, one book lover to another, I will be plain: Books are incredible instruments of joy and learning. They are also products. There’s no shame in that. In fact, recasting books as necessary and useful products may very well save the publishing industry from an uncertain future. Create the right book for the right reader and you’ll find yourself eager to market your wares. And if the thought of self-promotion turns you off, please return to question one. Remember those professional goals? It will be difficult to realize them if no one ever cracks the cover of that beautiful book you worked so hard to produce.
*If you’re interested, After the Music Stopped does a very good job.