Turning your idea into a book
With non-fiction books the question of whether or not to write one has to be a business decision, rather as you would take over any new product or service.
With general non-fiction there is usually room for a good new book on the market, provided it’s likely to attract a substantial group of readers because:
*It’s about something entirely new and very interesting that no-one has written about before, or…
*It’s about something that’s not new, but to which you contribute something entirely new and very interesting
So why write a business book? Well, there aren’t many more effective promotional tools. Having a book published still holds a certain kudos and perhaps in Pavlov-dog fashion, people automatically associate someone who writes a book about something with that someone being an expert on the subject.
Used correctly, your book will also be a helpful PR tool in other areas, and will make a business gift that has a very high perceived value. But never make the mistake of thinking you will retire to the Bahamas on the proceeds of its sales.
Pick a good title
A book’s title is a very important part of the marketing of a book. With non-fiction and particularly business books, like every other piece of marketing communication the book title has to offer or at least suggest a benefit to the reader.
It’s the title people react to when they see a book displayed, whether that’s on a shelf in a bookstore or online. When people are looking through books you only have one chance to get their attention, which is why your title needs to be powerful enough to stop them in their tracks.
Sub-headings are now quite fashionable and they help a lot to qualify the promised benefit. I’ve used them for four books so far and they work nicely.
There are two basic publishing routes you can choose: self-publishing, or conventional publishing by an external publisher. In addition there are a few hybrid options available, as well as publishing services organizations which offer services to self-publishers on a menu basis.
The conventional publisher
The advantages of getting your book published externally are:
*It gives your book status (less so than in the past, but still good if it’s a well known, respected publisher)
*Your book will be distributed to all the agreed markets at no cost to you
*They will handle and pay for all design, setup, print and production costs
*You’ll probably get paid a small advance on royalties
The disadvantages are:
*They will be in the driving seat, although they will listen to what you want to do
*They will say that they’ll market the book, but many of them won’t (see below)
*You will need to negotiate your contract with them very carefully
*The percentage of each sale you receive will be far less than if you self-publish
Finding a publisher to approach is easy with the Internet. Because publishers tend to stick to specific genres of book (called “lists”) you’ll find them simply by searching for your type of topic via a search engine or online bookseller. There are also print directories of publishers.
Most publishers have websites, and some even give you the option to submit your preliminary book proposal online – which is well worth doing.
Approaching publishers and submitting proposals
If you’re going into a publisher cold, you’re best to start with a covering letter addressed to the correct person – usually a senior editor – and enclose with the letter a one-sheet on which you describe the essence of the book. Then wait for feedback before you submit proposals.
Once you have submitted your detailed proposals you may have to wait quite a while – several weeks – before you hear anything.
The offer and the contract
If you get the green light, the publisher will come back with a formal offer, saying “yes, we want to publish your book.” The “offer” part of it is the advance on royalties – but don’t expect much! Advances are normally paid in 2 or 3 tranches with payment points at signing of the contract, delivery of the manuscript, and publication.
Until you sign a contract you’re not under any obligation to proceed, even though you will have accepted the publisher’s offer. There are a number of key areas you need to take special care, so be sure to research them thoroughly.
As the nuts-and-bolts elements of book production become cheaper through the advancement of technology, self-publishing becomes increasingly attractive for some business book writers. With modern print-on-demand facilities, too, you avoid the need to have hundreds or thousands of copies printed initially just to keep the unit cost down. Now you can have a handful of books printed at a time and still keep the unit cost within reason.
The advantages of self-publishing (as I see it) are:
*You do not have to answer to anyone else on design, content, editing, etc
*You do not have to spend any time on finding or convincing a publisher to take your book on
*You get to keep all profit from book sales
The disadvantages of self-publishing (as I see it) are:
*You have to find the money to get the book produced
*You can get editorial and design support, but you have to pay for it
*You have to organise and pay for distribution of your book
*You will not find it easy to get your book on to Amazon and into other key distribution channels
*You have to run a publishing business as well as whatever else you do
In some circumstances it may be useful to get involved with a commercial sponsor. Who this is depends on the nature of your book. If, say, you have written a cookery book about pizzas, you might get interest from a national chain of pizza restaurants. If your book is about cats, you might get together with a catfood manufacturer. If your book is about DIY property renovation, you might get interest from a chain of DIY stores. And so-on.
Well, now that you’ve decided on a publishing route… it’s time to write your book.
Writing your book
A daunting prospect? Not if you approach it methodically. Here are some tips.
When you come to write the book and are faced with what many people call that “huge, impossible project,” here’s a trick that I was taught when shivering with fear about my first book.
Forget thinking about your book as one project. Think of it as XX discrete projects (one for each chapter.) Get that notion fixed firmly in your mind. 15 writing projects of 4,000 words each feels a lot more comfortable than one writing project of 60,000 words. You also get a greater sense of achievement as you’re working through the book, because the completion of each chapter becomes a major milestone.
Planning and structure
Don’t try to rush the planning stage and don’t rush into writing the first chapter. Carry a notebook around with you and scribble ideas, reminders and any other inspiration you get while doing the chores or shopping for groceries. Play around with spider maps or mind-mapping programs or whatever works best for you. The time spent will repay itself many times over.
With non-fiction of any kind it helps enormously to work to a closely defined structure. Spend a good chunk of time planning your chapters and ensuring they run in the right order. Subdivide the chapters down into bullet point structure of their own and flesh that out as far as you can.
If you’re going to use research material you need to assemble it and file it under each chapter of your book. Particularly if the research material is printed on paper, assemble it in the same order as the running order of each chapter. That way you don’t have to leaf through piles of material to find what you want.
If you have collated information electronically, read through it all and cut and paste the bits you want into another document, so that it runs in the order that your chapter runs. Then have it available as a document called “Chapter X, background research” which you can either open in a separate window while you’re working or print out and refer to on paper.
Using your word processing software, separate the chapter breakdown into one document for each chapter. If you prefer to work with pens or pencils you can print out the document so that each subject heading heads up one page, then staple those pages together in order.
Now, start writing more bullets and notes under each subject heading. Leave plenty of space between them so you can add sub-notes and sub-sub-notes. Add in the information you want to include from your research material (this is much easier to do on a computer) in the appropriate places.
Work through this process without hurrying, but keep going for as long as you feel the creative energy flow. Once you have incorporated the bare bones of all information you feel needs to go into that chapter, stop and take a short break. Then go back to the chapter and edit your notes as necessary. The break is important; even if you only leave it for an hour or two. The fact of thinking about something else for a while means you look at your work from a refreshed viewpoint.
Writing it up
Now you need to take the plunge and start writing prose. Because you have mapped out the content of your chapter so carefully and thoroughly, you’ll find that some it has already started to write itself. Your job then becomes one of linking and smoothing, rather than having to think up stuff from scratch. This method doesn’t remove the fear of writing altogether (if you’re that way inclined) but it certainly makes it a lot easier.
Then, when you finish the final chapter, take at least a week off from the project. Looking at your work again, you’ll see a number of things that could be improved without really trying. And passages, paragraphs and even whole chapters that previously seemed OK but not quite there, will now look definitely not there! However because you’re coming back into it with renewed energy and vigour, what may have seemed like a difficult problem to rectify initially will now be much easier to put right.
Your own edit
Take your time over your editing process. And most important of all, be hard on yourself. Put yourself firmly in the shoes of a potential reader and ask yourself if – in this role – you would a) understand everything and b) find it interesting. If the answer is no to either then rewrite the section concerned until it IS a) understandable and b) interesting.
Be mindful of the final word count required for your book. If you’re over by a small amount, prune back unnecessary adjectives and adverbs (something you should do anyway.) If you’re over by a large amount you will need to think in terms of removing whole paragraphs or even whole chapters. It’s far better to remove large chunks than it is to prune the existing text too hard. Too much pruning will make it stilted and difficult to follow.
If you’re under the word count and you don’t need to keep some in hand in case other chapters are too long, don’t try to pad your work out to make it longer. This will make your book less crisp and lively. Instead – depending on the subject matter of course – insert examples, verbal illustrations, short case histories, charts, graphics or any other interesting material that supports your key messages without lengthening them.
Usually you can put material like this into a “box” so that it is seen to be separate from the main text. This way readers aren’t interrupted as they go through your text, and can look at the “box” when they’ve finished reading the paragraph or section concerned.
The external editor
If your book is being published externally, once you’ve finished your edit the manuscript will go the publisher’s editor. Once the edit comes back to you, you’ll have the opportunity to go through the issues raised by the editor and dispute their recommendations if you feel they’re wrong. Then when everyone is happy with the result, your manuscript goes into production.
If you’re producing the book yourself you don’t, in theory, need to use an editor at all. However unless you’re a professional writer by trade, if you’re self-publishing it makes a lot of sense to use a pro editor to have a look at your work. An informed but unbiased extra expert on the case will help you sharpen up your text and will pick up on all the little details that you – being so close to the material – may have overlooked.
And there you are – a finished manuscript! Now, to the final stage…
Producing and selling your book
If your book is being published externally you won’t have a huge involvement with the production process. This means that you’re relieved of the hassle and expense of production, but on the other hand you won’t have all that much control over how your book looks. Publishers will usually send you cover designs to look at as a courtesy, but don’t automatically assume they’ll change the designs if you happen to hate them.
Often a business or other non-fiction book will be published as part of a series of titles and so will have to be designed with a “family resemblance” to the other books in the series. Other times the design will be dictated by the publisher’s corporate image and colours. Usually, though, if your complaint is well founded they will listen and may well make some alterations to keep you happy.
“You can’t judge a book by its cover” — but it helps!
If you’re self-publishing you’re free, of course, to have whatever you like on the cover. Even if you have strong ideas about how it should look, in your shoes I would invest in a professional design for the cover. Particularly if you’re going to sell the book remotely (i.e. without your being there) that cover is the only real point-of-sale tool you have – so it needs to be good.
Publishing services companies usually offer cover design as a service. If you use an independent graphic designer, ask to see samples of his/her work on book covers before you commission yours. Although designing book covers is not rocket science you do need to know about how books are racked in bookstores, how to display the title, where to put what words, etc.
You will also need to compose your jacket copy to go on the cover. This usually consists of two chunks of sales copy about the book and one short chunk about you, the author. However how many sections and how many words in each will be determined when the cover is designed, and that should happen first.
Just as the title and cover design are critical elements at the point of sale for your book, so is the jacket copy. This has to sell hard enough to make them carry your book all the way to the checkout and stay there until they’ve paid for it. If you’re self-publishing and don’t feel you can create the snappy words required, hire a pro copywriter to do it. It won’t cost very much as it shouldn’t take them long to complete, and it will be well worthwhile.
How the main text looks
When you’re setting your raw text out for uploading to the designer and production people, start as you mean to continue by ensuring that paragraphs are reasonably short and that you break up your text with some or a mixture of the following:
*Section headings in bold, larger point size than main text
*Cross headings in bold and perhaps underlined
*Emboldened words and phrases
*Phrases pulled out from the text and centred, as a cross heading
*Small diagrams, charts, photographs
*Bullet points and numbered lists, if appropriate
Remember, for readers there’s nothing more offputting than long, unbroken blocks of text. And you want them to read all of your book, don’t you?
Marketing and selling your book
Publishers say they do marketing, but the reality is they don’t do much. And it really is annoying when you think that they are taking the lion’s share of the proceeds from your book sales. So if you want your book to be marketed, you have two choices.
The first choice is to hire a publicist. This is quite popular among American business gurus and public speakers who do not have the time but do have the money. Opinions are divided on whether or not you will get back what you pay the publicist in extra book sales you wouldn’t have had otherwise.
The second, and the more realistic choice for most of us, is to DIY. To achieve that without spending big bucks you need to consider a number of important points following publication of your book; however, once again, book marketing is not rocket science. It’s much more about using your common sense and taking up opportunities to get the word out there.
Well, that’s it – with luck you’ll sell a good number of books. Enjoy the experience!