Lately, I have been getting a lot of questions from people wanting to know how I write, publish, and market my books, especially my most successful book, “How To Deliver a TED Talk.” I love helping others become more effective communicators so I’m happy to share the insights and techniques I have learned along the way. This post, part 1 in a three part series, covers how to write a nonfiction book. The next posts will be:
Tip 1: Write to express your ideas
The first advice most writers give aspiring writers is, “Don’t Write!” While there are blissful, Zen-like moments, writing is mostly lonely and mentally taxing work. Worse still, publishing is frustrating and occasionally costly. If that is not enough to dissuade you, marketing a book consumes more effort than the other two activities combined.
Still, at least for me, writing is worth the pain. A few weeks ago, I was writing in a Starbucks when an aspiring novelist engaged me in conversation. Even after I warned him that I know almost nothing about fiction writing, he still wanted to pick my brain. He shared his visions of great wealth from the millions upon millions of copies that he planned to sell. My advice was as follows. Let go of the concept that writing is a business. Writing is a hobby. For every J.K. Rowling or John Maxwell, there are perhaps hundreds of thousands of authors who sell no more than a few hundred books. To the best of my knowledge, a raging nonfiction success is 10,000 books sold; that is a very rare feat.
I think the best attitude is to write to express your ideas. That means you declare victory when you type, “The End.” It should not matter if you sell a single copy. It should not matter if your ideas are groundbreaking or not. Just express yourself. Though not required, I recommend writing about ideas that make the world better in whatever way you define as better.
Tip 2: Own a nerdy niche
Express your inner nerd. I’m a leadership-nerd so my first book, “What Great Looks Like,” was about leadership. Though a commercial failure, it was a great personal success. I’m also a public speaking nerd since speaking is fundamental leadership skill.
When I started writing “How to Deliver a TED Talk,” one of my close friends in publishing said the topic was too niche. I wrote it anyway and it has had reasonable commercial success. My third book, “How to Win the World Championship of Public Speaking,” is so esoteric that I’ll be lucky if I sell a few hundred copies to Toastmasters with competitive speaking aspirations. I just keep expressing my inner nerd and do not concern myself with what will sell. Commercial success for a first-time author is infinitesimally remote, so in my opinion, you are better off writing about something you think is cool.
Nerdy niches are more interesting if you can combine ideas from two words. For instance, in “How to Deliver a TED Talk,” I combined what I knew about public speaking with what I knew about cinematic storytelling. Those two worlds were only just beginning to touch when I wrote the book. What two worlds do you geek-out on that you can combine?
Tip 3: Go three levels deep in a single genre
Even if you “combine two worlds,” I still recommend staying within a single genre. Some major genres, based on Amazon book departments, include: Business & Investing (1,665,809); Health, Fitness, & Dieting (523,688); and, Self Help (239,466). If you want to write a book that combines the major genres of investing and fitness, then go for it; just go in with eyes wide open that readers (and publishers) prefer books that fit neatly into a single genre.
Saying “go three levels” deep is a way to find a big enough, yet unique enough, niche. By way of example, “How to Deliver a TED Talk” is: Business –> Public Speaking –> TED. There are countless books available that stop at the second level, public speaking, but are boring since they all say the same thing. Contextualizing public speaking best-practices to TED Talks makes things interesting. By the same token, Carmine Gallo’s “The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs” does the same thing: Business –> Public Speaking –> Steve Jobs.
Tip 4: Read a lot
When I was in my mid-20s, I shared with my wife my dream writing a novel. Much more well-read than I (she learned to speak English by reading Shakespeare at age six), she said, “You need to read a lot more fiction than you do if you want to write a decent novel.” I disagreed with her at the time, but I see her wisdom now.
I have read hundreds of nonfiction books. Though I was not consciously paying attention, I was learning how to write. On my best days, I hope I’m a good writer, not great, good. I try to logically order my thoughts, stay in active voice, and use accessible language and grammar. I now fully agree with my wife… if you do not read a lot in your chosen genre, then you have little business writing.
Tip 5: Keep your intended reader fixed in your mind
I recently read a manuscript that a friend of mine was about to submit for publication. Sometimes his explanations were at a very basic level – useful for a 21-year-old with limited professional experience. Other times, he assumed a level of knowledge that only a seasoned corporate executive would have. His mistake was that he was trying to serve both audiences; however, he served neither. When I wrote How to Deliver a TED Talk, I imagined that I was writing for a 35-year-old, white-collar professional with limited public speaking experience.
In many instances, the gender (or other demographic and behavioral factors) of your intended reader matters but I wanted to write for men and women. By keeping the intended reader fixed in my mind, I applied a consistent depth to my subject at all times.
Tip 6: Write then edit
I find that if I edit as I write, I get bogged down. For that reason, I write the first draft of my entire book start to finish without editing anything. That is what second, third, and occasionally additional drafts are for.
Strive to write at the same time and in the same place every day. For many, the most productive time is in the morning. However, I have a pretty demanding day job, so I write between 7pm-9pm in a particular room in my house (though I do break things up by writing occasionally in Panera, Starbucks, or Barnes & Noble.)
Tip 7: Develop a title and an outline to go deep on one big idea
If you are going to write then edit, you need to have a strong title and outline to make sure your first draft is of reasonable quality. The title serves as the promise of value to the reader. A title also helps you self-edit. As you are about to commit words to paper, ask yourself, “Does what I am about to say fulfill the promise of the title?” If not, note your idea for a future project but do not put it in the book.
Your outline then supports your title. While it is possible to write a book without an outline, I don’t recommend it for a number of reasons. First, an outline helps you organize your ideas. You may decide to write a series of essays that could be reordered without affecting comprehension. You may decide to write a book with a strong narrative arc (in nonfiction, the arc is often problem-solution). Second, an outline ensures that you have enough material to fill a book. There is no definition of how many words a book has to be to qualify as a book. On the low end, you can get away with 10K to 20K words in a self-published e-Book. A proper nonfiction book suitable for print publication should be about 60K words.
Some authors advise spending massive amounts of time outlining. While it is true that time spent outlining is time saved writing, I’m more in the minimalist camp. My outlines consist of chapter headings along with bullets for the ideas that I want to convey.
Tip 8: Do not waste time with fancy formatting
Unless you are a book design expert, do not waste even a second of time on formatting. Write in plain-text (occasional bold and underline is OK). When you are done, you can and should hire someone to make your book beautiful. If you want to spend as little money as possible, then pick up Guy Kawasaki’s book template which comes as a free bonus if you buy APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur.
Tip 9: Support your ideas with research and remember to cite sources and get necessary permissions
Countless low-quality, nonfiction books are published each year filled solely with opinions. You owe it to your reader to support your ideas with research. I use Google Scholar to find academic research studies that are esoteric but interesting.
You also owe it to your reader to cite sources. I see a lot of books that regurgitate anecdotes and conventional wisdom which on deeper inspection turn out to be urban legend. I always find and read the original source and so should you.
Finally, if you quote other people, it is good etiquette and often a legal requirement to secure necessary permissions. For “How to Deliver a TED Talk,” I reached out to every single speaker whose talk I quoted. In one instance, a speaker had a blog post stating that due to email overload, he closed all email accounts. My solution was old school – I sent handwritten letter to him via FedEx and included a postage-page return envelope.
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Please add a comment if you agree or disagree or if I missed anything.