How to Write a Book that Sells

A few years ago I took the liberty of modifying the best advice any author can give a new writer, "Write what you know," to be beneficial for self publishers, "Publish what you know you can sell." I don’t want to get carried away with adages, but when you set out to write a book that sells, first dig two graves. No, that’s not what I meant to say, little Freudian slip! The truisms I’d like to talk about today are, "Don’t write what you don’t know," and "Write what your readers want to read." There you have it, the businessman’s advice on how to write a book that sells, be it fiction or nonfiction. Art does not trump life unless you’re trying to become a critically acclaimed writer, in which case you’d better write what the critics want to read.

Learning not to write what you don’t know is a critical skill, failing which some authors never start to write because they’re doing endless research in fear of leaving anything out. Maybe I should add a fifth adage, "Write what you know you can finish." Very few authors are the world’s leading experts on the subjects they’re writing about, though they may be acknowledged as such after the fact if their books are commercially successful. The world’s leading experts on most subjects got there by working at those subjects, not sitting around writing books, and on top of that, few books are limited in scope to the extent that one person could be said to be the top expert on all of the content. This is especially true of novels, which have to take place at a given place and time and involve human behavior of characters from a variety of backgrounds, but it’s carries over to the blandest nonfiction subjects as well.

Putting it another way, don’t take stupid chances. There’s nothing that will put a reader off as quickly as a novel that opens with a bar scene in a country that’s famous for being dry, or a family canoe trip on a made up river in a state that doesn’t even have running water. I’m using obvious examples because it’s not that easy to give sweeping advice about how to write a book that cuts across all genres. If we’re talking about nonfiction, let’s say you want to write a cookbook, and you’re a vegetarian. Hint: Write a vegetarian cookbook. If you try to write a cookbook that includes meat recipes, even if you study up sufficiently (i.e., copy) from other cookbooks or cooks to get the recipes right, the odds of your connecting with readers on the subject are quite low. The sad thing about authors who get caught up in endless research or caught out faking some bit they don’t really understand is that it’s unnecessary. Just leave that bit out, you’ll still have a book, and it will be all the more coherent for that fact that you actually understand it.

My other advice for the day about how to write a book that sells is to write what your readers want to read. You might have figured out from my writing style that I’m not going to recommend that you pander to anybody. Just don’t be so quick to appoint yourself an arbiter of the public taste and then lock yourself in an attic to write until your book is ready as a gift to the world. Being somewhat lazy, I have an extremely simple system for finding out what my potential readers want to read, I let them tell me. I publish draft writings and related materials online long before I sit down to write a book, and I let readers contact me by e-mail for questions and comments. The result is I get a fairly broad sampling of opinions not only about what I’ve written but about what I should write. At times, it’s almost like my readers are telling me how to write a book! If you haven’t already written a book, it also pays to do some market research first, to make sure there is a market. Even if you get everything else right, there’s little chance you’ll have much success selling a how-to title about the care and feeding of dodo birds, except as a novelty.

Finally, keep in mind that this brief piece was about how to write a book that sells, not about how to sell a book you’ve written. The main job of a self publisher is selling the books, writing them is just a necessary business preparation, though hopefully one you enjoy. Anybody can write and publish their own books, but it’s not really a business unless it pays for itself and earns you a living. I do all of my marketing over the Internet. There are certainly other approaches, and the archives in the left-side navigation contain many posts on the subject.

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