Sunday, September 27, 2009

3 Big Questions about Your Nonfiction Book - #1

After my major epiphany about the problem with my book, I started looking to learn more about how to shape a book that will sell.

At the beginning of this year I bought several books on copywriting and started studying. My thinking was this: “copywriting” is writing copy that helps businesses sell their products so if I can learn how to sell things, it will help me sell my books.

There’s so much I could say about what I’ve learned. And I intend let you in on all that, but it’s going to take some time. So to start, I want to give you three questions that kept coming up over and over. These became my “3 Big Questions” to ask. Here’s question number one:

1. What need does your book fill, what problem does it solve, or what desirable thing does it help your readers obtain?

Now, taking my book as an example, Where Grace Abounds: True Stories from Pro-Life Pregnancy Centers, can you see how I utterly failed to create a book idea that anyone would want to buy?

I may have a great idea for a book. And the comments and e-mails I get from people in pro-life work confirm that. But it is not shaped in a way that anyone walking into Barnes and Noble or any other bookseller would want to buy it. They wouldn’t even know to look for it. And if they saw it on the bookstore shelf, they wouldn’t think they needed to read it.

Can you see how I created a book based on something I wanted people to know? I could even think people need to know what’s going on in pro-life pregnancy centers.

If you remember the beginning of this story, I first wanted to write this book because I saw so much misunderstanding about what pro-life pregnancy centers do. People I encountered thought our pregnancy center helped women get abortions, which we didn’t. People thought we enabled promiscuity in young people. People thought we only helped unwed teenagers, not realizing many clients were in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, and many were married.

I wanted to showcase what we were really doing: helping anyone who needed help in their unplanned pregnancy, no matter the age, no judgments about their marital status. I wanted to set the record straight, but I wanted to do more than that. I wanted to inform people who needed our services that we had what they need. I wanted to let people who might support our efforts know what we really do. I wanted to inform other people about this great work in case they didn’t know what pro-life pregnancy centers do or in case they didn’t even know this work existed!

All noble intentions. But can you see the problem here? The above paragraph is loaded with “I want… I want… I want…” I may have wanted to do a lot of wonderful things, but the reader/book-buyer doesn’t care.

The reader/book-buyer is at the bookstore because they have “I wants.” Or “I needs.” And my book wasn’t playing into any of their wants or needs.

Even if my book, or the book you’re planning, does indeed help the reader/book-buyer with her or his wants and needs, they don’t know they need to read it!

If your nonfiction book, or mine, it isn’t couched in the setting for the reader/book-buyer’s wants and needs, they’re not going to find it, let alone buy it.

So, how will you answer the #1 of the 3 Big Questions for your book?

If you’re having trouble with that, go to your book store or visit one online and look at how the books on their shelves answer it.

  • How-to books fill needs for information.
  • Self-help books help people solve problems.
  • Diet and money management books help readers obtain desirable things.

If your book doesn’t do one of these, how can you tweak it so that it does?


Unknown said...

These are really searching questions, Diane, but isn't it a lot different for fiction? I usually browse the shelves and pick up something that interests me.

Dianne E. Butts said...

You know, Karon, I was kind of thinking the same thing until just the other day. On an e-mail loop for writers we were discussing how authors start their novels and one man wrote that he starts off with an idea of who the book is for AND WHY IT FILLS A NEED (emphasis mine). He gave the example of one of his books that was for kids with literacy problems.

I often tend to think most fiction is simply for entertainment, but I'm not sure that's really true. Isn't there often a message involved? I think that's especially true of Christian fiction.

When that's true, wouldn't it help an author to sell more books if she/he defined the audience and found ways to get in touch with them and tell them about the book...even if it's fiction? Wouldn't that fiction interest that audience?

I don't have all the answers here. Just throwing out more questions. Here's another question I'm curious about:

When you browse the shelves and pick something that interests you, what is that interests you about that book? Is it somehow filling a need?

Just thinking out loud...