3 Mistakes New Authors Make When Writing a Nonfiction Book
Every author starts out with great intentions and ambitious goals, but they don’t necessarily have good publishing instincts. In countless meetings and consultation sessions with aspiring authors of nonfiction books, I’ve found that there are three key mistakes that most new authors make.
1. They write about what interests them, rather than what interests their audience. Over the course of your career, you’ve acquired a wealth of information, not all of which is useful to your target reader. Your book is not the right forum in which to explore the arcane aspects of your work that fascinate you the most. Instead, ask yourself what need your reader is trying to meet by reading your book. Shape the content of your book to meet that need, giving them exactly what they will find most useful and relevant, and nothing more.
2. They aim to reach as many people as possible. Many authors assume that writing a book with “mainstream appeal” is the best way to sell a lot of copies. A broad market has more people in it, therefore more potential buyers, right? Unfortunately, that’s not how it works, unless your book is the undisputed bible on its subject. The counter-intuitive truth is that the more specific you are about who your audience is, the more likely those readers are to have a strong positive response to your book when they see it on the shelf. Narrowing in on a theme, a reader demographic or a topic focus will give your book a unique personality and purpose. It’s much better to be a big hit among a smaller crowd than to be overlooked by the masses.
3. They don’t understand the “rules” that apply to their chosen genre. How-to books, memoirs, “big idea” books and narrative nonfiction books all follow particular conventions, and must have certain qualities in order to be successful. Failure to understand or observe these norms is almost certain to lead to an unsatisfying book that feels “off” to readers, even if they can’t pinpoint why. The most common way this error tends to show up is in books that are neither fish nor fowl, for example part memoir, part how-to. You may have a burning desire to tell your personal story as well as dispensing advice, but the truth is that readers don’t care. They’re just trying to get their own needs met. Understanding and fulfilling your readers’ expectations will help you craft a winning book that stands out in its field.
Behind every successful book is a well thought-out plan that takes these three things into consideration, and that’s just a starting point. It’s also critically important to think strategically about how your book will help you reach your personal and professional goals. Maybe you’re trying to attract more or higher-quality clients to your business. Perhaps you want to raise your expert profile and do more public speaking. Or you’re planning to step away from your practice and establish a serious writing career as an author with a series of books. Whatever your objectives, they must guide your writing decisions at the conceptual level.
There is no shortcut around this groundwork, and it must be done early on. Before you approach publishers and agents, long before you’re ready to work with an editor, and even before you write your book proposal, you’ve got to decide what your book will be about, who it’s for, and what will and won’t go into it.
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