Top 10 Mistakes Self-Published Business Authors Make—Over and Over

1. Poorly designed and executed cover

Nothing screams amateur author like a poor book cover. Self-published business authors are just as guilty of this as self-published fiction writers. It just breaks every rule in the book business—or any kind of business—to produce a substandard product. Get the cover wrong or worse publish a poor unattractive cover and it is the death knell for the publisher and author.

This first impression hasn’t changed and the cover still the number one element to get right.

2. Wrong title and sub-title

There are teams of publishing people in editorial offices all over the world that wrestle and argue over book titles so don’t feel alone in this lonely process. This is one of the most difficult areas of planning your self-published book because, to many authors, it seems so easy. And sometimes it is – a book about gardening in a greenhouse could have a straightforward the “it is what it is” approach. But it could have a provocative title that makes it stand out from the crowded gardening shelf too.

The title of your book is not necessarily what your book is about.  There are hundreds of memorable titles that at first glance would not explain what the book is about. Two I can think of: What Colour is Your Parachute, a book about how to find a job, and Freakanomics, a book about odd economic events that turn the world upside down.

3. Rush to publish

One of the huge advantages of self-publishing can also be one of the biggest challenges. 

Self-publishing allows authors to dramatically speed up delivery of their book.  But as with many things in life rushing or forcing something through a system quickly usually increases the amount of errors. And with a book that can be deadly. This applies to many authors when they can sense they are nearing the end and just want it finished already. With self-published authors it is even worse because they have to switch from author to publisher and, at some point, start to plan for the printing, delivery, marketing and usually much more.

Unfortunately this is when the most errors are made whether within the manuscript, production, or elsewhere. 

4. Lack of editorial standards

One sure way to lose your reader is with uneven manuscript or worse grammatical or spelling errors in your book. I cannot stress enough how important it is to use experienced editors to review your work

It’s not that hard to find good help. There has never been such a wealth of talented freelance book editors in North America. Publisher downsizing, merging publishing companies  and general uncertainty in book publishing has forced many experienced and award winning editors to set-up their own freelance business.

The Editor’s Association of Canada  website has an excellent method to help authors  narrow down exactly what kind of editor you need – and how to contact  them. So no excuses!

5. Lack of any independent and objective reviews of manuscript

I taught a course every summer at our local university about trade secrets in publishing – the inside story about agents, publishers, etc. One of the best reactions I get from the audience is a little line on one of my PowerPoint slides when talking about I’ve heard everything as an agent:  “Yes I’ve had feedback (to my manuscript)—my mother liked it!”

I’m not overstating this. Some of the queries I receive have so little objective feedback, so little editorial screening that leads to almost instant dismissal. It’s sad because many have promise and could be so much more with some belt-tightening, some decisive and judicious cutting, and honest and clear feedback.

6. No “publisher” designation

This is one of the most common areas overlooked by a self-published author.

Your book has to have the look and feel of something a good trade publisher would produce – and that also includes having a publishing imprint on the spine. It isn’t that hard to come up with a “publishing name”  Something innocuous and neutral—a colour, name of a tree, your street or something related to your business—all would work perfectly well. Leaving that area blank on the spine is a wasted marketing opportunity.

7. Believing the bookstores is the best place for the book

Some of my best people I know in publishing are bookstore owners.  Come to think of it they are some of the best people I know period. Dedicated, passionate about books and authors, they want to bring more reading pleasure to their customers.

But – and it’s a big but - it doesn’t mean it is the best place for your self-published book.  There is a lack of understanding about what a bookstore can do for your book. They provide a place for your book to be displayed but the publisher and in the case of the self-published author – you! – drive customers to the brick and mortar store to seek out your work. Are you prepared to do that? Do you have marketing funds set aside? Because if you can’t or don’t, then the hard work you undertook to get your book into stores quickly reverses and the books come back to you.

Bookstores generally take books on consignment and retain the ability to return unsold stock to you. There may be a time to place your book in selected stores. Just be patient with the process.

8. No post-release marketing plan

This is where the fun begins.

If you thought the writing, planning and publishing part was hard wait until you start dealing with distribution and trying to draw attention to your book.  What to do with your book when it’s done and in your hands has as much to do as what your book is about and why you started in the first place.

There are some who, smartly, use the book as their $20 business card. That is the essence of our business imprint Brilliant Idea Books.  The book allows the author or a business entrepreneur as the “expert” in whatever their line of business or professions is. The book becomes part of the author or business branding and is an invaluable tool to stand apart from the competition.

9. Hiring a book publicists—usually at the wrong time

I was a book publicist for many years so I think I have some insights into how they work and what value they bring to the publishing equation.

Book publicity, when all is said and done, is about timing. If you have the book in the hands of the right media and books are in the right distribution points, it can have a powerful and profitable effect. However this chain of events doesn’t always fall into place naturally. Book publicists can be a key component of your plan but hire them at the right time and for the right reasons.

10. Thinking outside the box

One of the great advantages self-published authors have over traditional trade publishing houses is the ability to move quickly with marketing plans, sale opportunities and promotions.

For example, one of the most effective marketing tools you have is right in your hands – your book!  If you printed a reasonable amount then your unit cost is low – maybe less than 10% of your cover price. Therefore use the book as a giveaway – free mailings to a targeted group of people who would be intently interested in what you have to say.  Use your book as a prize in radio stations giveaways, school fundraisers, local newspapers contests. You need exposure and your book is the best way to attract attention to – your book!

State of Business Book Publishing—2016

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I was telling a good publishing friend the other day that for my agency business, my customer base has dwindled to about half of what to was even 5 years ago. My customers are trade publishers – some multinationals while others independently owned – and this list seems to suffer casualties each year.

It’s the reality of the marketplace.

By all measure there are less books sold than the previous year and the publishers have less places to out their product in a tough retail environment.

There has been a slight reprieve for publishers as e-book sales have flattened for some time and allowed print to gain some traction. But while no one seriously believes that e-books will disappear, so to, it’s hard to rationalize that print will grow in leaps and bounds.  Simply put there are not enough places to put books out into a marketplace where demand is stagnant.

Hope for writers in self-publishing

So where does that leave the writer in all this?

Depending on what your objective or goal, it could be both the best or worst of times.  As noted above the trade publishers are less interested, generally, in new book projects. But ironically the one area of growth in the book industry are the self-directed or self-publishing options.

Let’s put to bed that term vanity publishing as some still use to describe this process of paying to have a book published.  Self-publishing is now sophisticated and legitimate by any  measure. The quality of the books are mostly superb, the marketing clever and the books gain as much attention as what might be called traditionally published books. The book reviewers who shunned self-published books years ago now regularly post reviews of a self-published book alongside a big multi-national release.  Why would they do that? Perhaps because the books are good. In fact there are even showing up on local bestseller lists in areas where the book has been picked up by enough by local booksellers.

Here’s another reason why it might be the best of times for writers. As those large publishers feel the squeeze of a changing marketplace, one of the sad realties is that good people are let go. This contributes to a very rich and deep freelance stable of editors, designers, and experienced book people to work on many of these self-published books. These are the same people who edited and re-structured many bestsellers and notable books published not that long ago.

There are pitfalls and dangers with self-publishing and we will continue to explore in this blogspace what to be aware of before taking that path.

In summary, for book publishing, like most industry and businesses, the only constant is change.  This industry has faced and will continue to face obstacles and demands on the book. Many critics have written off book publishing in the past and while it has been battered and beaten, the book survives. How it is produced and by whom has changed significantly even over the past 5 or 10 years. Where it will be in the next decade is worth watching.

Photo credit: João Silaas

Why Your Self-Published Business Book Doesn’t Belong in Bookstores

Why Your Business Book Doesn't Belong in Bookstores

The long wait is over. After months of writing, editing, and agonizing over every word, you finally hold your book in your hands. You’ve done all the right things, even some pre-launch promotion on Twitter and social media. You’ve told your coworkers, clients, business colleagues, and your mom. Maybe you’ve hired a publicist, you’ve done a press release, and been interviewed on local radio.

Then comes the question:

Why isn’t my book in bookstores?

We get asked this a lot. As a self-published author who’s hired a publishing consultant or book coach (or even if you’ve gone it alone), this might feel like the next logical step. After all, bookstores are the stairway to published author heaven. In a world of Amazon online shopping, to see your physical book on the shelf of your local book store is a real thrill. We get that. Really! We wouldn’t be in the book business if we didn’t.

While we can’t speak for other book consultants, we can say that for Brilliant Idea Books authors, bookstore distribution and placement is NOT the most effective way to promote your book.

Why? Here’s the short answer.

It takes a (helluva) lot of time and money for self-published books to get on the radar (never mind into the inventory and then shelf space) of a retail bookstore. In the case of big bookstore chains it’s just about impossible. They just aren’t that interested you (sorry). There are too many traditionally published books clamouring for attention—over 300,000 per year. Frankly, bookstores have enough on their plate competing with Amazon for readers’ dollars than to give up shelf space to a self-pubbed author.

And now the long answer.

The Business Book as the New Business Card

The Brilliant Idea Books model of self-published business books is “the book as business card”, or the $20 Business Card, to be exact. We’ve written about it before here, and we’re backed up in our thinking by this Fast Company article by Ryan Halliday and this one by James Althucher.

In our model, the goal of the book is not retail sales (digital or print). Instead, your book is a promotional tool that establishes your brand, your credibility as an expert, and your tangible difference over your competition. It’s a vehicle for spreading your philosophy and ideas.

There is something powerful about being able to say: “I wrote the book on XYZ, AND here it is.”

What we’re not talking about is a business book masquerading as a 45,000 word brochure, full of salesy schlock and rampant self promotion. We don’t want to read that and neither does your tribe. The best business books, self-published or not, are thoughtful, well written, researched, and enlightening.

In our view, you should write a business book to enhance your brand because advertising is expensive, and publishing your own book is cheap by comparison. Depending on the industry, marketing budgets can range from 1% of sales to over 30% . Print materials and trade show gimmicks get thrown out. Emails deleted. But a book, especially one that’s well written and designed, that speaks to your customer’s problems, has lasting impact.

Bookstores don’t serve your target audience

So, if a book belongs in your marketing arsenal, let’s look at what being in the bookstore brings to the table. Sure you can “say” your book is available at Powell’s, but what does that really get you?

For one thing, you won’t be able to target your ideal customer. A book on a shelf is like a splatter gun approach to marketing. You hope browsing customers will pause long enough to pull your title out of the stacks and read the back cover. Plus you will be one of hundreds of business books. You’ll be competing with big name authors with coveted space on tables or ends of the aisle (endcap).

For example, to get into Chapters-Indigo in Canada you definitely need a bona fide book distributor to have any chance. While it’s possible for one or two locations to carry your self-published book, for anything more, a distributor is a must. And there are good reasons why. Distributors have an established account and confirmed terms, they know how to fulfill orders and how to ship in a timely fashion to individual or regional locations. But equally, the retailers would know where to get more books quickly should it sell and also where the returns are to go when it doesn’t.

It is a numbers game. Why would a chain spend valuable time tracking down each self-published author to pay for sales or take back books that didn’t find an audience?

So what are you supposed to do then, once your book is launched, and you are sitting there with a palette of books?

Don’t think about making money selling books, think about spreading the word about your ideas. In short:

Think giving, not selling

Here are some simple, non-retail promotional strategies for your book marketing plan.

1) Add your book title and thumbnail in your email signature.

2) Print your book thumbnail on the reverse side of your business card.

3) Create a dedicated book page on your company website or create a completely separate author website (actually, we recommend doing this at least four months before launch to establish an online home base for your book).

4) Send copies to your clients with a personalized note, inviting them to share the book with others or request additional copies.

5) Get your book included in the attendee goodie bag at niche industry events or conferences.

6) Update your online bio everywhere: Google+ Twitter, Linkedin and Facebook, to include yourself as the author and the title of your book. Use the same picture of you or the book cover so there’s consistency across all platforms.

7) Get an Amazon listing and author page. Yes, you absolutely should have an Amazon listing. Amazon is now a global book catalogue so you should be listed there. Plus, a listing is an easy way for interested people to find out about your book. For our Brilliant Idea Books authors, we look at Amazon as a promotional tool. Through Amazon, you can also offer a digital download copy of your book for free.

8) Host giveaways of your book through your social media connections or other networking events.

9) Put together a book package instead of a standard collateral package for interested customers.

10) Still keen to sell copies? That’s okay too! Look for handselling (back of the room) opportunities at events such as keynote speeches and workshops.

Yes, but how do I get my book into bookstores?

(Sigh.) So, what if your goals ARE retail sales? You gave a pound of flesh writing the damn thing so you want it to sell…

We still don’t think you should invest the majority of your efforts getting your self-pubbed book into bookstores. But if you are willing to be strategic, there are a few key ways you can be successful in the bookstore game.

We suggest starting with your local independent sellers. The Indies (bless them). Find out if they host local author nights. Book store owners are often proud to serve or feature authors from the community. If you can connect with the owner, see if you can get on the calendar for their next event. Books are often sold on consignment in this case so you’ll have to negotiate sales arrangements with the store. For more tips, here’s a great article from The Book Designer.

A final note about online sales

If you are interested in online book marketing with the goal of selling thousands of copies, here some great resources I recommend:

  • Your First 1000 Copies, (Tim Grahl) – Really a great investment in your knowledge of book marketing. Packed with tips
  • Sell More Books Podcast – A fun weekly podcast that gives you a feel for the self-pubbed and indie book scene
  • The Creative Penn (Joanna Penn) – A very thorough and respected resource for authors
  • The Book Designer (Joel Friedlander) – Another great site with constantly updated information on helping authors write and publish books
  • Seth Godin – Always great advice: here’s this link is to his famous post to authors

Our approach to business books at Brilliant Idea Books  may not be for everybody. Let us know if you agree or disagree with investing time and dollars getting into bookstores.

 

Write your book in 40 hours! Really?

Writing Bestselling Books

I receive a ton of e-mail from all segments of the publishing industry. Trying to keep on top of what’s going on can be a full time job.  In addition I selectively subscribe to entrepreneurial events related to small business.  These are the places where Brilliant Idea Books can be most helpful and where we might find more people who understand the value of the $20 business card concept.

One recent e-mail really caught my eye. An upcoming event boasted that the speaker/author promises to help you write a “bestseller” and whole lot more:

You can be rich, successful and he can help you write your book in a mere 40 HOURS!

Uh-huh. This con game has been around for decades and takes different form. The internet is full of people who claim they can help you by pass what hundreds of hard working writers, editors, and publishers have taken years to perfect – write a book in a few days or a week – and easily make it a bestseller.

While the speed of publication is one of the real benefits for self-published authors this must be tempered with the notion of quality. In fact, quality trumps speed every time.  There would be very few writers, I would argue, who could produce even a semblance of a rough draft manuscript of 30,000 or 40,000 words in a mere 40 hours.  Who would want to?  It is mentally challenging, physically draining, and would be a worthless exercise that produces a sub-standard product.

A manuscript takes on a life of its own, building up some chapters, moving around other paragraphs, deleting sentences, all while trying to arrive at the final destination of a completed first draft.  It breathes, relaxes, runs, sprints and then sits waiting for you to contemplate what you’ve produced so you can, most likely, start it up all over again. Letting it sit while you get on with life is a key part of the process. Looking, reading with fresh rested eyes can sometime change the entire focus of the book. And as much as I like material to arrive from my authors in a reasonable timeframe, I know each book takes on this life of its own and is ready for me, well, when it’s ready.

This, my friend, cannot possibly happen in 40 hours.

I have had authors who claim it will only take a few weeks to write their book. Odd I usually never hear back from them. I think some assume it will be an easy process as they have some semblance of writing experience and have oodles of enthusiasm but in the end they find out what countless writers, editors and publishers have learned over decades – good writing takes time, patience, and work.

So please do not fall prey to the charlatans who gladly take your money – eventually – in these schemes. They may have some snippets of good advice and information buried in their claims. But to be whipped up into frenzy that you, too, can produce a “bestseller” in 40 hours defies logic and plain common sense.

Finally, I hear the term “bestseller” thrown around all the time.  This is not only from the quick scam artists but from many writers who I speak with at various stages of the process. In a future blog I’ll address what a bestseller is and how it has turned into a watered down descriptive word in publishing that needs clarification.

Photo Credit: Rantz via Compfight cc

Editing and Editors — Essential Services for Your Work

Fundamentals series: Brilliant Idea Books

hiring and editor for your work

In the “good old days” book publishers had editors on staff that could mold and shape a manuscript into a publishable state. Sadly those days are gone as publishers operate on leaner staffing levels. Enter the rise of freelance editors. Not surprisingly this has been a big growth industry within book publishing. Many high quality and experienced editors, either by choice or by necessity, have set-up their own boutique editing service.

And that is excellent news for business authors and all entering the self-published world.

However there is some basic understanding of what editors can do for your tome which will determine what you need for your work.  And the status of your work is the most important factor as you begin this process.

Let me state right here one of the most critical aspects in producing a book:

EVERY MANUSCRIPT NEEDS EDITING. ”

Please don’t let people tell you your book is perfect – and don’t delude yourself with the thought that it’s good enough to hit the printing press today or tomorrow. If it hasn’t been reviewed by an experienced editor it is akin to trying to sell your house with a damaged roof or holes in the kitchen cabinets. The flaws are quickly apparent and any potential buyer (or reader) heads for the hills.

The first step is to understand what kind of editorial service you’re looking for. Editors work with manuscripts in different ways. There is the “big” picture point of view – there needs much reshaping and rejigging while at other times the structure is sound the writing is shall we say “rough”?

Which is right for you? Do you want someone to tear your work apart and reconstruct? To suggest alternate endings, or to move chapter 3 to the beginning, delete chapter 6  and remove others  that aren’t necessary? Or do you want someone to simply check the spelling?

Here are the basic editing areas:

Substantive or Developmental Edit

This might be considered by some as “manuscript evaluation.” This service invites an editor to critique your overall manuscript. The editor doesn’t actually change anything in the document itself. A detailed report or memo is usually issued.

For nonfiction manuscripts, the feedback will focus on the impact of your content: its clarity and conviction, the flow of ideas, and the effectiveness of the writing style. There is less emphasis on the narrative style or character development for instance.

If your work is unfixable or your writing will need massive amounts of work – this is the place where it can be shall we say “internally reviewed” by you before moving forward?

Line Editing

Line editing represents the highest level of the editor’s craft and makes your writing shine. That means that sometimes a line editor will make actual content changes to a work. An experienced business book editor will understand your audience and that is critical at this stage.

Line editors consider what can be trimmed, condensed, or cut in order to improve pace, avoid repetition, and make the experience of a book as engaging as possible. A line edit might include:

  • Eliminating wordiness and inappropriate jargon.
  • If there is narrative – giving dialogue more “snap” and bite.
  • Smoothing transitions and moving sentences to improve readability.
  • Developing examples, adding subheadings.
  • Deal with graphs, charts, lists and where they might fit (or not)
  • Suggesting—and sometimes implementing—more comprehensive additions and deletions, noting them at the sentence and paragraph level.

 Copy Editing

Copy editing is what most people envision when they think about editing. The book remains largely in the order and at the pace that it was, and editorial changes happen at the sentence level.

Copy editing may include:

  • Editing for clarity, format, syntax, obvious factual errors, and continuity.
  • Canadian/British vs. American spelling issues are dealt with at this point.
  • Correcting faulty spelling, grammar, and punctuation.
  • Correcting incorrect usage (such as who for that).
  • Checking specific cross-references (page numbers, references, etc.)
  • Flagging inappropriate or over-used figures of speech.
  • Changing passive verbs to active.
  • Flagging ambiguous or incorrect statements (very important in business titles).

 Proofreading

This is usually the final step in editing, when a detail-oriented, meticulous editor goes word-by-word to correct grammar, spelling, usage, and typographical errors. Proofreaders make sure that spelling, hyphens, numerals, and capitalization are always consistent. Proofreading fixes what our computer spelling and grammar checkers miss. We are all guilty on this last point – computers programs make life perhaps a bit too easy!

Let me reiterate – all manuscripts need editing. It is a matter of what stage your work is at to determine which service you feel you need.

Photo Credit: tim caynes via Compfight cc

This post is the fourth in a series on the Fundamentals of Self Publishing Your Business Book.

More articles in this Fundamentals Series:

3 Approaches to Defining Your Business Book Concept

Keys to Writing a Non-Fiction Outline

6 Essential Ingredients for Writing a Book

6 Essential Ingredients for Writing a Book

Fundamentals series: Brilliant Idea Books

writing a business book

Writing a book brings concepts and ideas to light that most business authors never even consider. Some are practical while others are like a big splash of reality. Consider author, consultant and business coach Kristi Hedges (www.thehedgescompany.com). She wrote a powerful business book The Power of Presence a few years ago and wrote about her experiences in the publishing world in a Forbes magazine piece. The information applies to authors who take the traditional route or chose to self-publish. She agreed to let us run an excerpt from the article.

#1  Make sure you love the topic.

I had no idea how important this point would be — even years after a book is written. Of course it’s helpful during the writing process if you feel energized about your topic. But after the book comes out, you will likely spend years talking about it, and this continues in a self-propagating way. You do a book talk, then someone hires you to speak to their company, leading to a series of workshops there, and so on.

You don’t just write your book, promote it for awhile, then go back to your day job.

#2 You have to be ready for self-promotion.

I ran a PR firm for 10 years, and even I was surprised at the sheer amount of promotion that goes into a book effort. Yes, your publisher will help some, and an independent publicist if you choose to hire one. But the one doing the talking — with reporters, on webinars, in speeches, on social media — is YOU. And again, this doesn’t go on for three months, it lasts indefinitely. I still do some element of book promotion every single day.

Back to point #1, it’s a whole lot easier if you genuinely feel passionate about the topic, and can focus on promoting the ideas rather than just yourself.

#3 You’ll be doing 90% of the marketing.

A common complaint about traditional publishing is that authors have to do the bulk of the work promoting their own books. With the industry in such a state of change, marketing staffs have been cut, and publishers have to make strategic decisions about how many resources to put into the books that are coming out in any given year. This means for a first time author, you will likely not get much, unless you’re the likes of Sheryl Sandberg.

I found that my publisher was able to offer a good bit of support, and still does, but I was also realistic about it. They have numerous books coming out at any given time, and appreciate authors who are willing to put in their own effort. I knew that the most I could do on social media, and on my own, would amplify my publisher’s efforts.

This is all to say you should be prepared to take the lead on marketing, and work with your publisher to fill in around those efforts.

#4 You should be willing to go global.

One of the most rewarding aspect of having a book in the world, is that literally, it gets read around the world. I’ve gotten requests to come speak and offer services all over the map. Back to that learning curve, perhaps I should have expected this, but I am still surprised at the reach a published book provides. I anticipated that it would help with my current clients and market, but it has opened up so many possibilities beyond that.

Especially with social media, we are truly in a global connected society. When you write a book, you should consider that you’re going national and global, and get ready to have your passport stamped. Conversely, if you’re not willing or able to travel, you may want to think twice.

#5 Be open to connecting.

To me, this has been the most personally satisfying aspect — the meaningful connections that get made. Your thoughts get read by tens of thousands, and the interviews and blogs you do go viral. Well beyond your actual book sales, your ideas in the book spread. And people reach out to you, in emails, Twitter, Facebook, and in person.

You should know this is coming, and expect to be generous with your thoughts and your time. Many authors love to write because they are introverts, who don’t need as much social stimulation. But your readers feel as if they know you, and want to connect and get your advice. My advice is to be prepared and to embrace it. And look at it as a privilege.

#6 Be thoughtful about what time you can dedicate, or it will take you over.

As you can probably gather from all of the above, having a published book takes a considerable amount of time. It’s like having a second full-time job the first year, and a part-time job thereafter. There’s an infinite amount of work you could do, but your time is finite. It’s important to think of your entire career, and life, and where you want a book to fit into it.

Truthfully, I feel like I am still trying to find this balance! There’s always more I could be doing, and want to be doing. (Keeping the web site updated alone is a thorn in my side.) But I have gotten more mindful of the activities that have the best ROI. Webinars, blogs, Twitter and workshops have become my mainstays — while it’s tough to speak for free anymore. You find your groove, eventually. But with hindsight, I could have benefitted by being more strategic on the front end.

Today, with some perspective, I can say that publishing a book is one of the highlights of my career. I’m excitedly nervous (or nervously excited) about doing it again. Regardless, I’ll be starting with Tip #1 — finding a topic I’m passionate about.

Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk via Compfight cc

This post is the third in a series on the Fundamentals of Self Publishing Your Business Book.

More articles in this Fundamentals Series:

3 Approaches to Defining Your Business Book Concept

Keys to Writing a Non-Fiction Outline

Keys to Writing a Non-Fiction Outline

Fundamentals series: Brilliant Idea Books
writing a non fiction outline

This post, the second in a series on the Fundamentals of Self Publishing Your Business Book, tackles the sticky question of non-fiction outlines.

To outline or not to outline…

I suspect a few business people have the innate ability to apply the same logic and clear thinking used in their business when they sit down with a laptop and construct their book. Ideas flow naturally with a solid structure and foundation.  And the writing seems effortless.

The majority of us, however, need some guidelines and that’s where an outline comes in.

Based on my experience working with business authors, there are three basic steps to crafting a solid, workable outline that will see you through the whole project.

#1: Create a Mindmap

On a blank sheet of paper write your book’s title (or topic) in the centre. Sounds simple enough. Remember you are the business expert in your field – so perhaps the name of your company in the center might be a place to start. Or you might want to select some phrases from your mission statement.

Jot down all the ideas that you have around the edge. You can use circles for each idea or lines connecting back.  Don’t worry about putting them in order or selecting between them – just get everything down.

Once you’re confident you’ve captured all your key ideas, you can start prioritizing them. Which ones belong in my book? Are some of the ideas too basic, or too advanced? Do I know what I want to say and can I explain it easily?

Now step away. Ignore it for a day or two to distance yourself from the information. When you’re ready, go back and look at it fresh. Do you see topics that are similar enough to be covered in the same chapter? Circle or number them. Are there any topics that don’t really fit in with your overall idea? Start deleting them now.

For some writers this may be enough to keep them on track, but for others this exercise feeds directly into a chapter outline.

#2: Create a Chapter-by-Chapter Outline

Your next step is to turn your mindmap into a chapter-by-chapter outline: this could very well be the basic table of contents for your book.

You might want to start with an “Introduction” and end with a “Conclusion” (though you can name those slightly differently if you want). But many writers work on the beginning and end much later in the process. In between, you’ll have chapters. If you find that you’ve got a lot of chapters, I think that’s OK – there is no rule on how few or how many you can have.

Obviously you’ve now moved to your computer. You’ll want to create your chapter-by-chapter outline as a document, so you can easily rearrange the chapters. Logically, you’ll want to put the more basic material at the start of your book, and work up gradually to more advanced topics.

If you are writing a narrative non-fiction book, then this gets a bit tricky. In this case you have to think about the narrative arc or how the book will span from the introduction to conclusion. It could be that it works to have specific chapters but with a narrative it is best to start the writing process and let this table of contents keep you on a clear path.

#3: Write Notes for Each Chapter

You’re starting to fill in the space now. It’s a great idea to also make a few notes on each chapter at the planning stage. It’s up to you exactly how you do this, so jot down subheadings or key points that you want to cover in each chapter.

Sometimes, you might find that one chapter is going to require a lot of research: if so, you might choose to change the scope of your book slightly and cut out that chapter, or you might want to keep it in but allow extra time for writing it. In either case don’t get hung up on adding or deleting chapters as you’re making progress.

Last – and this is something to both accept and remember. You will be re-writing your work. As mentioned at the start there are a few gifted writers who have the knack for letting the work unfold simply, easily, and beautifully. But the vast majority of us need to work, re-work and re-work again! the material until it feels absolutely right.

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More articles in this Fundamentals Series:

3 Approaches to Defining Your Business Book Concept

3 Approaches to Defining Your Business Book Concept

Fundamentals series: Brilliant Idea Books
writing a business book

What do I want to say in my book?

This can be the biggest obstacle out of the starting block for any writer. For some people it can take years to describe their book concept and in many cases it never does get clearly defined.

Ideas swirl around, scrawled notes on Starbucks napkins get left behind, and individual one page Word docs start to plug your computer.  Everyone means well but becoming disciplined to not only think out what you want to say but how to say isn’t easy.

In this first post in a series on the Fundamentals of Publishing Your Business Book, I’ll try to get to some answers. Let me give you some ideas which could open up a path forward.

1. Tell a Story

Keep in mind the basics: determine your goals, know your audience, and only then start to write an outline and basic one or two line chapter highlights.

The approach is where people get bogged down. One suggestion for defining your book concept is to determine how you might normally explain something to a group of people. Think about it – if you are a born storyteller or you consistently use examples to illustrate your point vs someone who logically breaks down a talk into a PowerPoint or bullet point approach – you might be on your way to how you will feel most comfortable with the process of writing your book.

For storytellers, constructing chapters into parables might work. A really good example of this is Bill Bishop’s How to Sell a Lobster: the Money-Making Secrets of a Street wise Entrepreneur.  The book has seventeen short chapters and each has a beginning and an end.

Taking this even further an entire business book could become a story.  You can create a fictious company and staff, create a problem and set out various ways it was solved.  One terrific book I’ve read that uses this method is  Built to Sell: Turn Your Business into One You can Sell by John Warrilow. The book is about how to sell your business but written with a compelling narrative than easily supported John’s thesis – and his consulting business.

For some people this is a comfortable approach and it can bring out the “writer” in some entrepreneurs.

2. Solve a Problem

But it doesn’t work for everyone.  Most business books have a linear approach. Start with identifying a problem and lead the reader down the road to a solution.

That isn’t to say they don’t have examples sometimes in sidebars but generally the emphasis is on presenting the facts or expertise in a common-sense manner.  This is where a clear and logical chapter progression is essential.

Don’t worry about the number of chapters. I’ve read business books that have twenty or more. And that might work for you or not. The editor who works on your book will have guidance on how they flow.

Knowing your audience is the key for this writing approach. You don’t want to talk down or talk up to potential customers for your business or service. Getting the correct tone might take some time – again, an editor will help.

3. Write What You Know

As you start writing, just pour it out on the paper. Many masters of writing have one consistently common phrase that has stood the test of time: write what you know. If you feel you are an expert in your field then tell the world why. If you have a service that can be extremely useful to a certain segment of the business world – tell them how it can help them.  If you have a unique business philosophy that more people could use – use your book to illustrate why.

For business entrepreneurs who know they need a book, believe they have something different and unique, getting the concept right requires thought and planning. Defining your book concept depends on your style and comfort level of how you want to deliver your message.

One final thought:  do not get bogged down with making the writing perfect. There are far too many books that remain in a desk drawer or buried in a hard drive that with some skill editorial work could be a really useful business card that reflects your business.

Once you have an approach you like get it all down on the page. An editor can do wonders with any method you choose.

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