Essential lessons from 42 nonfiction book projects

I’ve made a hell of a lot of mistakes while working on 42 nonfiction books. I learned from them. And although my clients may not realize it, that is why they pay to me work with them.

I show them how to do it right, and how not to do it wrong, based on all that painful experience.

What I learned

My first book was an awesome experience in which nearly everything went right and sales took off like a rocket. That fooled me into thinking creating books was easy.

Don’t take advice from anyone who’s only written one book that succeeded.

Here’s an incomplete list of what I learned from the other 41 projects. Every lesson here was painful, but led to wisdom.

  • Good books with poor promotion make little impact. This is the most common error authors make.
  • All authors are disappointed with their publishers. Don’t whine about it. Do the work yourself, or hire people who can help you.
  • Embracing criticism and using it to improve is a hard skill to learn, but it may be the most important quality any author needs.
  • A great book answers one big question. A book that tries to answer two big questions will fail. A book that answers more than two is a rambling travelogue.
  • To improve the text of a nonfiction book, add paragraph breaks, rewrite passive voice, reduce jargon, and use the word “you” to speak directly to the reader. Every editor knows this, and yet authors still pay them to make these simple fixes.
  • Don’t work with people who don’t know what an idea is.
  • Don’t work with people who don’t have stories to tell.
  • If you write a book at a company, get your managers on board. Don’t surprise people.
  • When collaborating, two authors are company, three’s an epic disaster.
  • When collaborating, define the roles and process up front, or it will be more work than if you did it alone.
  • Authors who plan book contents before writing are productive. Authors who operate by the seat of their pants are dangerous.
  • If you write in modular pieces, restructuring content isn’t a big deal. If you don’t, I hope you like untangling knotted hairballs.
  • The Oxford Comma is an element of religious faith. Those who believe in it are right, but you can still work with those who don’t.
  • Authors tend to give speeches. But their level of speaking ability is highly variable.
  • Be prepared for praise from unexpected sources. I don’t mean psychologically, either, I mean be prepared with a plan for how to turn it into publicity and sales.
  • Editing is both the most rewarding and the most infuriating job there is. What makes the difference is the ability of the author to listen.
  • All books can be better if 20% shorter. And that applies even if you think you’ve already shrunk them.
  • An elegant structure really helps a great idea to shine.
  • Short chapters (1000-2500 words) are often better than long ones (5000-8000 words).
  • Use short sentences for emphasis. But don’t overdo it.
  • Use italics sparingly and profanity even less. Avoid exclamation points altogether.
  • Subheads are useful. Use them. Readers need guideposts.
  • Use text, graphics, quotes, tables, and lists to break up text. A wall of undifferentiated paragraphs is hard to struggle through.
  • Don’t force the acronyms and initialisms.
  • If a manuscript repeats any word more than 75 times (excepting common words like “the” and “that”), you should probably fix that.
  • Traditionally published books take a long time to get out — well over a year, typically. Unless your book is about a news event that just happened, you’ll never convince the publisher to go faster.
  • Sales is a poor way to measure a book’s success. If it gets into the hands of the people you need to influence and changes the way they think, you’ve succeeded — even if there aren’t that many of them.
  • Once you become an author, you think differently about everything. But what matters is what you do about it.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

One Comment