Disruption in the publishing industry is confusing for authors. Getting published in the traditional way is harder now, but there are a lot more ways to get a book done — and a lot more people who can help you. I’ve collected all my book wisdom into this post, with links to more detail.
Potential authors have lots of questions for me. The most important is “How do I turn my idea into a book?” But they’re also interested in proposals, new publishing and self-publishing options, editing, schedules, and promotion. I’ve organized my answers here in roughly chronological order, following the process of creating and publishing a book. My answers apply to non-fiction books, especially business books, because that’s where my expertise lies. Take note: all the links here go to resources that are useful for authors.
Is my idea a book?
A typical nonfiction book is 20,000 to 70,000 words of connected thinking, organized around a single powerful idea. Before you work on the book, you need to focus on the idea. In my mind, the idea and the title are wed, because coming up with a title and subtitle typically crystallizes the idea. Insights:
- Get in the habit of cultivating ideas, turning concepts into meaty bits of thinking. Work with a conceptual editor (or any smart person) who will push back on the ideas. It’s often useful to have a third person in your idea development session as a sounding board. Do a ROAM analysis — determine who your readers, objective, and desired action and impression. Aim to create a treatment of your idea.
- Brainstorm a title at the same time you refine the idea. If you don’t have a title and subtitle, you don’t really know what you’re writing about. A thesaurus is a useful tool for riffing on titles.
What publishing model should I use?
Prospective authors ask me “Shouldn’t I write (or at least conceptualize) the book before I pick a publishing model?” No. A traditional publishing model demands an extensive proposal; self-publishing models are faster but have less impact. This is a key decision; it impacts a lot of other elements about your process.
- To decide on a publishing or self-publishing model, identify your priorities. Speed and control come with self-publishing, but traditional publishing will get you prestige, distribution, and the financial benefit of an advance. Unfortunately, there is no perfect publishing model that’s fast, pays a lot, and has a publisher that works hard for you.
- Shel Israel and Robert’s Scoble are the wizards at self-publishing. I learned a lot from my experience editing their book The Fourth Transformation. If you’re taking this path, you must buy Guy Kawasaki and Shawn Welch‘s book APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur which includes everything a self-publisher needs to know at a great level of detail.
- There are non-traditional hardback publishers who will publish your book and get it into bookstores without an advance, typically more quickly than a regular publisher. These include Greenleaf Book Group (whom you’ll have to pay), Bibliomotion, BenBella Books, and IdeaPress Publishing.
What should be in my proposal?
If you’re pitching traditional publishers or nontraditional hardback publishers, you’ll need a proposal. Doing a good proposal is about one-third of the total work you’ll do to create a book.
- Your proposal needs a great title, the opening of the book, market differentiation, an analysis of competing books, a detailed table of contents, and a sample chapter. You’ll also need a persuasive biography and, most important, a promotional plan (also known as your “author platform”). I spend about half my time these days helping potential authors write persuasive proposals — I call these “book whisperer” projects.
- You can read my proposal for Writing Without Bullshit if you want to look at how I sold it.
What do I need to do to actually write the book?
What’s it going to take to write the book? If you’ve got the ideas, you’ll need a fat outline, case studies, and a good editor.
- Write the marketing pitch before you write the book. The flap copy helps define why the book is worth writing. It will keep you on track as you write the book.
- Learn to write fat outlines. Regular outlines are useless. Fat outlines contain meaty detail. You should write them for the whole book, and for each chapter, before you begin actually drafting things. Also useful: an idea map to show how the ideas in your book map to the chapters.
- Get your case studies and stories ready. Business books that are only ideas and insights are boring. You need stories. And that means interviewing people who actually do what you’re talking about.
- A good book editor will help you define ideas, organize them, and get the concepts and words right as you make drafts better and better. That takes multiple levels of editing. This is a lost art — editors at publishing companies no longer have the time to put in this level of effort, so you’re better off hiring your own. After proposals, this is the thing I help authors with the most.
Beyond writing, what else goes into a book?
You’ll also need a cover, an index, and citations or endnotes.
- You need a great cover, whether you’re self-publishing or working with a publisher. Don’t tell designers what to do, tell them how you want readers to feel.
- Everyone needs a copyeditor to save them from errors. Here’s how to talk to one.
- A great index is a work of art. Find an indexer with imagination.
- Notes are more complex now that almost all the sources are online. A link-shortener enables you to create endnotes that work equally well in print and online.
How should I promote the book?
Book promotion is a challenge, but with social media, there are tricks you can use to get off to a good start.
- For an effective launch, you’ll need blurbs, reviewers, media and blogger friends, and contributed content. A mailing list, lots of social media followers, and speeches are great too.
- Sharable content is great. Blog posts (like this one) help, but infographics and videos spread faster.
- Friends are great, especially if they have large followings. The respectful thing to do is to reach out them individually, not with an insulting mass email.
Whew! That’s a lot of work. But now at least you have all the resources to do it in one place.