What does a nonfiction book need to be successful?

Much as we authors like to think even our business or self-help books are the next best thing since How To Win Friends And Influence People, ego must be dumped and business acumen must prevail. Bottom line: with nonfiction books the question of whether or not to write one has to be a business decision.

It needs to be taken in the same way as a decision to introduce a new product or service. With nearly all nonfiction (and fiction too, up to a point) 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

If readers can find all or most of your information on Google, don’t write a book about it.

If you are going to find a traditional publisher to do your book you will need to write some very convincing proposals about your concept, along the lines of these two points. Even if you decide to go the self-publishing route you still need to fulfil either of those points. That’s because when you come to promote your book, you will need to be able to convince potential purchasers that your book is worth buying.

Whatever happens, be brutally honest with yourself, because if you aren’t, a potential publisher – and potential readers – certainly will be. If the answer is still “yes,” then go ahead… and good luck!

If readers can find all or most of your information on Google, don’t write a book about it

This is a somewhat hard lesson older authors have to take on board, but here it goes: if you want your book to sell make sure it offers readers a lot more than they could find just by searching for the information on Google.

I had the painful experience recently of looking into the production of an “A to Z” book of jargon terms for two particular audiences, clearly defined. All seemed clear and cracking until that “Oh No” moment hit me: why should people buy this book containing several hundred entries when all they need to do to find out what any of those terms those mean, is to key them into Google?

Important tip: make sure your book only contains information people can’t find easily (or at least quickly) on the internet.

Similarly I tested an eBook about wedding speeches with advice that covered everyone who possibly could be included in anyone’s wedding party. Great idea, right? Wrong. Sales were poor, and after a bit I understood why: people due to give a wedding speech aren’t interested in what other speakers will be talking about at the wedding. They are only interested in their own speech.

Fortunately I didn’t have to spend anything to find this out. I just produced a PDF document myself and offered it for sale via sales portals like E-Junkie.com. Bear this in mind when you’re thinking about that book you want to write; it’s a useful test-marketing opportunity.

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There are exceptions – usually in terms of books (especially printed ones which allow readers to make notes and highlight key passages more easily) providing a more useful medium for reading and learning. But especially if you are reading this some years after this book’s publication (2020), think hard and refine your topic so that it can’t be supplanted by the info-by-the-yard/metre out there already.

An example of how to refine your topic came up in a discussion I had with a client when I was helping her with developmental structuring of her book, which was a small encyclopaedia of different processes that help in a variety of health requirements. I raised the point that when looking at each process individually, readers could easily find them on Google or other search engines. What Google could not provide was a means of comparing each of the processes with and against each other, and rating them against a set of criteria made up of each reader’s personal needs. That was a light bulb moment for my client and as I write this she is busily typing away.

If you’re an expert, go for it

Even if there are several books on the market already about your particular area of expertise, don’t be intimidated. The topic itself might be well known but your views and personal take on it aren’t – especially if your input is surprising, unusual, controversial or breaking new ground in some way. That’s good enough to make the book of interest to its readership, whatever publishing method you use.

Make something easier

If your book offers a process, tips, shortcuts and other ways in which readers can achieve something they need to achieve more easily/quickly/cost-effectively, it will do well. Especially (but not necessarily) if you are a known expert in your topic, you may be surprised at how much valuable knowledge and experience you have ready to share with others less accomplished than you are. You may have created shortcuts and new methods without really noticing them. Yet to a beginner in that area, these could be worth their weight in gold, saving them a great deal of time, effort and even money.

Give readers pleasure

Nonfiction books with a feel-good factor will nearly always do well, because people like to feel good about themselves while they’re absorbing the information you share with them. Whether you write about delicious food and wine, beautiful-but-simple embroidery and needlework, DIY car repairs, social networking, aromatherapy or whatever, you book needs to exude a positive, smiling atmosphere. Negative stuff does not normally sell.

Inspire and change lives

Many people are dissatisfied with their lives and are attracted to nonfiction books which tell them how to revolutionise things, from their love lives to their relationships at work to cleaning and de-cluttering their homes. If you have specialised knowledge that you know transforms life for people around you, and/or if you have developed a life-changing process for yourself, unless it’s about something incredibly obscure people will want to read about it. Even in our increasingly cynical age where you can rent gurus by the hour, readers always want more help to try to realise their dreams. If you believe you can help them, genuinely, then write your book.

Think twice about current fashions

There are many, many books out there that deal with any number of issues involving self-help, mindfulness, de-stressing, meditation, pop psychology, sales, conversational selling, bitcoins, property investment, buy-to-let, and hundreds of other issues which grab folks’ attention for a few months or years. It’s tempting to jump on one of those bandwagons. But try if you can to get as much into your book that explores your topic not just now, but how you envisage it in the future: that will give it extra longevity. New authors tend to forget that books have very long shelf lives.

Before you read on, don’t forget to entertain

There is no rule that says even a serious textbook has to be written in a dull and boring way. It’s a fact of life that no matter how interesting or informative the subject matter, if it is written in a turgid and lumpy style readers will find it hard going. If they scan the book in the bookstore or online before buying it, that turgid and lumpy style may well be enough to make them pick someone else’s book even if you are the world’s number one acknowledged expert in the subject.

Right from your book’s inception, you need to think in terms of letting readers enjoy the experience of reading it. Think in terms of sharing your information with a friend over a drink or a cup of coffee. Be informal and conversational. Use humour if you want to. Make sure those thoughts set the tone for your book, right from the beginning.

Humour and light-heartedness sell books

Face it: it’s true. However this does not mean you need to become a stand-up comedian. It means, simply, that you need to produce a book that’s written by you, to your readers, in a way that you would share your knowledge and expertise to a friend over that drink or cup of coffee at your kitchen table. If you normally make people laugh and learn at the same time, write that into your book plan.

What is your experience of what makes a really good nonfiction book?

Please share in the comments below.

Excerpted from Suzan St Maur’s forthcoming title, How To Write A Brilliant Nonfiction Book, to be published by BetterBooksMedia later in 2020.