To avoid waste (or disaster), do your book tasks in the right sequence

So often, authors waste time early in the process of creating a nonfiction book. It breaks my heart to see people writing extensive material that will almost certainly be useless, or trying to line up an agent without a solid idea.

At best, such tasks are an inefficient way to make progress. At worst, they’ll mess you up by poisoning essential relationships and making poor impressions.

The key is to do the right things in the right order.

Book writing steps in order

It’s not necessary to do these steps in exactly the order listed — for example, you certainly write some sample material before you have a title. But as a general principle, working on tasks — especially writing tasks — far down the list before tasks further up will waste effort and cause problems. This ordering also reflects that some tasks have long lead times, such as starting to assemble your marketing platform. Roughly speaking, here’s the sequence it’s best to follow:

  1. Become an expert. Learn things few others know about a particular topic.
  2. Start researching. Become familiar with the opinions and ideas of others in your field.
  3. Come up with a differentiated idea. Find your own spin or invent a way to buck conventional wisdom.
  4. Decide on a writing team. Will you have a coauthor? Do you need a ghostwriter? Will you need an editor? It’s best to figure out these questions early, when the idea is jelling but most of the work is still ahead of you. Bringing in a coauthor after you’re well along tends to lead to disaster.
  5. Road-test the idea. Test it out in speeches or with colleagues.
  6. Start building a marketing platform. You’re going to need tools to promote your content. The time to start building podcasts, blogs, videos, press contacts, contributed articles, speaking opportunities, mailing lists and the like is early. If you leave this until the book is nearly published, you’ll never be able to ramp up in time.
  7. Settle on a title and subtitle. Work on this early. A book with no settled title is hard to work on effectively, because the title will frame your perspective on the content.
  8. Write marketing copy. Why do this so early in the process? Because writing the flap copy before the book is written will help you define what direction the book is going.
  9. Write some sample content. Writers want to write. Early on, it makes sense to write manifestos and bits of chapters — especially if you feel inspired. But don’t attempt to write whole chapters until you’ve defined a table of contents and lined up the appropriate research nuggets that you’ll use as ingredients.
  10. Pick a publishing model. Traditional publishing will demand a proposal and likely an agent. Hybrid publishing will require a significant investment. Self-publishing will accelerate your schedule but attenuate your impact. It’s best to choose a publishing path before you get too far into the project.
  11. Create a table of contents. The table of contents is a pivot point in the book process. Once it’s created, you have an idea of the pieces you need to assemble. It’s also essential as you talk to publishers about the book.
  12. Build a book plan. The book plan builds on the table of contents and describes what question each chapter will answer, what case studies will go into it, and what frameworks and ideas it will include.
  13. Start work on a proposal. If you’re pursuing traditional publishing, you’ll need to create various proposal components including a title, differentiated idea, table of contents, marketing plan, and sample chapter. All of those elements will be useful later in the process; the proposal forces you to assemble them in one place.
  14. Pitch agents and publishers. Agents are only necessary for traditional publishing. Hybrid publishers also need to look at your book plan; even though you’re going to pay them, they’re selective about which books they’ll invest time in.
  15. Pick a publisher. Settle this relationship before you’ve invested huge amounts of time into authoring.
  16. Collect quantitative research. If your book includes surveys, analyses of data, or other quantitative research, you’ll need to get started on them before you’re too far along. Quantitative research takes significant time for planning, fielding, and analysis. It’s also expensive, so it pays to get it right.
  17. Conduct interviews. Line up and conduct first-hand interviews as source material for cases studies and expert quotes. Lining up interviews can take weeks; don’t expect your interview subjects to available just as you’re starting a chapter that includes them.
  18. Pursue secondary research. Do web searches and read books to assemble content to support the theses of the chapters.
  19. Write fat outlines for some chapters. Assemble bits of chapter content in order to make it easier to write when you’re ready.
  20. Draft chapters. Finally, time to write. With the fat outline completed, you can concentrate on words and paragraphs.
  21. Get feedback on chapters. Many editors will work with a draft of the whole manuscript. But if you can get feedback on a chapter or two earlier, this will allow you to make changes in later chapter drafts based on what you’ve learned.
  22. Complete a draft. Assemble imperfect chapters into a complete draft. It is better to finish a manuscript draft than to endlessly polish chapters out of context.
  23. Get feedback. Have editors or others review the draft as a whole and identify what needs improvement.
  24. Revise the draft. Incorporate the feedback. This is also where you create consistency in terminology and structure and rationalize the bits of content you created.
  25. Create graphics. If you have any, this is when you need to get them finished and deliverable.
  26. Finish the draft. Get the manuscript ready to turn in to the publisher or publishing services vendor.
  27. Finish the footnotes. It’s a pain. But if you’ve kept careful track of your sources, footnotes are not intractable.
  28. Do fact verification. Make sure you have quotes and facts correct. Send excerpts out to interview subjects who must verify that they’re accurate.
  29. Build up a marketing plan and start on tasks in it. In the months before publication, line up all the promotion and marketing tasks. If you wait until just before publication, you’ll be woefully behind.
  30. Deal with copy edits. Maintain concentration as you address feedback from copy editors.
  31. Review page proofs. Make sure the page layout does justice to your manuscript.
  32. Launch! You’ll be very busy around your publication date. It’s a good thing you lined up everything else ahead of time.
  33. Promote. Execute the tasks in your marketing plan.

What’s next? Start in at the beginning again as you work on your next book.

The pain

Every author I know has violated this schedule. Lots can also tell you why that didn’t work out.

Feel free to share your experiences in the comments.

And if you’re wondering how to do any of these tasks — well, there’s a book that covers all of them.

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