Not sure what to write about in your nonfiction book?

If you want to write a nonfiction book to help promote your business, charity or other activity, you may find that – to start with – you don’t have a clear idea on what content your readers would appreciate most.

In this article, adapted from my new book which will be published early November 2020, you’ll find a number of suggestions that will fire up your inspiration and help you refine your choices. Here are some ideas to be going on with (see below):

what to write a book about

Many people imagine that good ideas appear by magic, like those cartoon light bulbs that switch themselves on over a character’s head with a caption that reads ‘Eureka!’

Okay, inspiration can happen spontaneously. But what most people don’t realise is that there are thought processes and mind-triggers you can use to feed and nurture your imagination…ways to ensure you spot opportunities and get inspiration to happen. In the case of most business and non-business activities, creative inspiration comes about through method – not madness.

Nowhere does this apply more vigorously than in my own former career as an advertising copywriter. In that business, you need to have good ideas on demand. Multi-million spend advertising clients do not expect to wait around until light bulbs flash on over the ‘creatives’’ heads. Ideas, and damned good ones, are required on schedule. It’s “I want a new campaign by Monday morning – or else.”

Happily you’re unlikely to find yourself under this kind of pressure, which in some ways is a shame… it’s surprising how well that pressure can work.

Opportunity spotting

A key trigger for creative inspiration is opportunity spotting. Think Dyson vacuum cleaners: paper bags were fiddly, dirty to handle and tended to break. Solution? Bagless vacuum cleaner.

Think no-frills airlines: all this paraphernalia of fancy meals, drinks, snacks and lavish pampering by a large group of grinning cabin crew was a hangover not only from 1950s and 1960s commercial air travel, but also from ocean liner travel even before that. It made modern air travel too expensive. Solution? Get rid of all but the essentials and make airfares more affordable.

Think sushi bars … fast food outlets … drive-thru facilities … innumerable other resources. And so-on. The people behind these good ideas followed processes to gain inspiration and use it profitably – from entrepreneurs to engineers, from scientists to artists, from writers to inventors.

There is the potential for expensive mistakes here though.

Avoid solutions that are looking for problems

For a perfect example of this issue, we should look at the IT industry in the 1970s and 1980s. This was in the era when techies swanned about in white coats working in air-conditioned buildings closed to anyone without a PhD in Wizardry.

They were paid to come up with great ideas for magic boxes which would then be sent over to the sales and marketing people with a message saying, “here’s an M-9-24 Version X. It does this, this and this. Now go sell it to your customers.”

In those days when most people were in awe of technology, the method worked; businesses and other organisations didn’t have very much at all in terms of information technology to make things run more efficiently so in a sense anything was better than nothing.

However once IT had become more common, customers became increasingly picky until one day the MD or CEO of some relatively important organisation turned around to their IT suppliers and said, “I don’t give a f**k how the box works or how many gadgets it has. What will it do to improve my bottom line? And I want the damned thing to speak English, not gibberish, so you had better unravel all that crap on the screens so my colleagues and I can understand what it’s achieving for us.”

Shock, horror!

For the first time in history the IT industry was obliged to become ‘customer-focused.’ No longer could the IT giants of the era come up with magic boxes that achieved what their engineers thought was cool and then expect customers to find something useful to do with them. No longer would customers buy solutions that were looking for problems. And those of you who are old enough to remember the way the IT industry went through a throat-grabbing culture change in and around the 1980s/1990s will know what – and who – I’m talking about.

Whether we like it or not, we authors – like any other purveyors of a product or service offered to a market – must be ‘customer-focused’ too. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with writing a book about your Auntie Beryl’s knitting patterns or 379 different symptom presentations of chronic rhinitis, provided that you regard it as a personal achievement and don’t expect it to be either a commercial success in the book market or a useful PR tool for your business. To be a commercial success your book needs to be focused very closely on its readers’ needs and wants – just as any other successful product is.

Don’t forget your blogs

Are you a blogger? If you are, you may already be sitting on some golden content that could be turned into an excellent book. A few years ago I was working with a group of writers and one of them was discussing his ideas for a memoir (book). After a short time it became obvious that his concept was not just one book, but potentially three or four. To try to shoehorn that many angles into one book would have created a rather messy mishmash, and my fellow tutor and I both agreed that it wouldn’t work.

The poor guy looked a bit disappointed until I told him that his material would be perfect for a blog. Being an older man he wasn’t familiar with how that could work, but once we explained it he went away with the URLs for WordPress and Blogger … and a gleam in his eyes. And, after publishing his main story in blog form, he recently has published it as a book which is doing very well for him.

This is nothing new. I’m sure you’ve heard of a number of books that started out as blogs. Just after the turn of the 21st century this trend was already starting – even attracting a new word for the syndrome: ‘blook.’ One such ‘blook’ even went on to become a ‘flook’ starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams – a movie of the journal called Julie and Julia by Julie Powell, the true story of how and why she made every single recipe in the late Julia Childs’ cook book.

How it works

I’m sure we’ve all seen further examples of popular blogs being turned into books. To start with, there is Lucy McCarraher’s brilliant series called How To Write Fiction Without The Fuss. This began as a 26-part series of tutorials on my website, devised by me and written by Lucy. After completion, Lucy turned it into an excellent book which is still selling well for her.

Then, there is my own tome: How To Write Brilliant Business Blogs – which has become a popular book for SMEs and one which I love to sell, share, sign, and talk about. It is based entirely on the many blog posts I have written on the website about blogging for business.

Blog posts (and related books) get noticed

Just as my self-published business blogs book was selling nicely on Amazon in the UK and the USA, I got a note from a USA business book publisher offering to take mine up and run with it. It needed re-editing, but that wasn’t a problem – especially as the US publishers were happy for me to continue selling my own version online and offline. Win-win.

As you know, a blog offers you the option not only to publish chunks of information in short, easily digestible posts, but also it lets you choose between scheduling those posts to be linear or non-linear. You can post consecutively about utterly different aspects of your theme, if you want to, then file them into categories which a blog supports easily.

The other useful aspect of a blog is that it’s interactive – readers can comment on your posts and your ultimate book text grows and evolves organically. You will learn much more about your target audience this way than with almost any other type of research.

Your blog and book, properly configured and promoted, not only complement each other but also help sell each other. Much as you may think people won’t want to buy your material in book form if they can read it (or similar) for free online, it doesn’t work that way. Once you develop your book it will reach a slightly different or at least adjacent audience, for starters, and in any case people who may only dip in and out of a blog now and again will appreciate having everything together in one print, electronic or audio volume.

What else from your blog?

Then, with the fact that you have gone into more than one stream of your material on your blog, you effectively will have laid the foundations of more than one book. Whether you actually go on to create more than one book will depend on how each stream of information is received by readers: a blog is a superb market testing tool.

And what about the other way around – from book to blog? That works too, provided that the book has not been published online in its full text form. Interestingly, if it only is sold on Amazon (at the time of writing this) that doesn’t count in Google’s brain as ‘duplicate content.’ So – again, as far as I know – if you want to serialise a book that you have published on Amazon, you’re OK because when you publish it as serialised on your blog it will be seen as original material. Be warned though: this may change.


Brainstorming has been around as a quick-fix way to generate ideas for a long time now, as we saw with such methodology as Tony Buzan’s Mind Mapping. Both hand-written and electronically generated spider charts and various other systems have been developed which formalise what many people have been doing for centuries anyway: doodling on a piece of paper.

Verbal brainstorming is popular, too, especially in its form of ‘think tanks’ and ‘retreats’ often used by corporations and other organizations to whip their people up into a frenzy of new ideas that ultimately will benefit the organization, and – we assume – the recipients of its services.

What problems need to be solved?

Having warned you about the dangers of solutions looking for problems, don’t assume there aren’t any problems to solve. There are plenty. What you need to do in your search for a good idea for your book, is to ensure you keep your eyes open for real problems in your particular market or topic area, and keep aware of what’s missing from whatever options exist currently to solve those problems.

Time, probably, is on your side. Solutions put forward to problems 10 or even 5 years ago, may no longer be appropriate and may indeed have been superseded by better solutions. Your solution might be even better still.

Remember that people don’t buy problems: they have problems, so they buy solutions. Make sure that at every stage of thinking through your project you touch on problems only long enough to establish the ways in which your book solves them. 

And if you have a true passion?

That’s a perfect start. If you have a passion for your book’s topic, it will shine through every word you write. But you need to be a little wary of gushing about your passion in a way that ends up being too much for readers to absorb. Remember that readers probably aren’t passionate about your topic yet and to encourage them to become passionate does not mean whacking them over the head with how incredible all this is right from the Table of Contents. It means to bring them to that point gradually, building it up at their pace – not yours.

Recently I reviewed a book written by a friend of mine who had been through the most awful personal journey that left her bankrupt, homeless, sick and suffering from PTSD. I know her well and she wrote poignantly, from the heart, for more than 100 pages and it was only until we approached the end of the book that we got to her solutions and salvation.

Harsh though it is to say, there is only so much heartache and sympathy a reader can deal with and had I been her writing coach, I would have encouraged her to shorten the bad news and expand not the good, as there wasn’t much, but at least the useful news – so helping readers who may be in the same boat to see what they could learn from her experiences.

Yes, it’s the old marketing meme about ‘what’s in it for me’ (WIIFM) to make your material attractive – in this case, to readers who are seeking solutions to their own problems. Personal, subjective passion in a nonfiction book needs to be harnessed, not over-indulged in.

What will your next nonfiction book be about? Please share!