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How to plan your nonfiction book when you’re self-publishing

One of the advantages of self publishing a nonfiction book is that you don’t need to write a book proposal. Many authors-to-be make the mistake of thinking that means they don’t have to answer the questions commonly covered in a book proposal, though. The thing is . . . you do. You need an informal book proposal of sorts — a nonfiction book plan — even if you’re self-publishing. With this in mind, I’ve asked my friend Jennifer Lawler, who’s teaching an e-course on “How to Plan Your Nonfiction Book” beginning September 9, 2013, to write about why this is so important to your book’s success.

Jennifer Lawler is the author or coauthor of more than 30 nonfiction books as well as 16 romances under various pen names. Her publishing experience includes stints as a a literary agent and as an acquisitions editor. She just released the second edition of Dojo Wisdom for Writers, the second book in her popular Dojo Wisdom series. She also offers classes in writing book proposals, planning a nonfiction book for self-publishing authors, and writing queries and synopses for novelists at BeYourOwnBookDoctor.com (under the “classes” tab).

How to plan your nonfiction book when you’re self-publishing

By Jennifer Lawler

If you’ve decided to bypass traditional publishers and strike out on your own, congratulations! You’ve taken the power of publishing into your own hands.

But as a book publishing consultant, I’ve often found that authors who are self-publishing worry so much about the process of publishing (“How do I format an e-book? Where do I get an ISBN? Who can do an affordable cover for me?”) that they forget the most important element of successful self-publishing:

Writing a great book.

Over and over again, I’m asked by authors why their self-published book isn’t selling or how they can get better reviews. The problem is almost always that the author didn’t plan his or her book before writing it.

Planning your nonfiction book means that you have identified your audience, know where to find these readers, have differentiated your book from its competition, created a unique selling proposition, and begun to build your promotional platform. And, yes, you need to do all of that before you write a single word of your book.

Here are the basics your plan needs to cover:

1. What is your book about and how will you write it?

In a few paragraphs, describe what your book is going to cover. Treat this like the copy you see on the back of a book, but expand it with a few more details than you usually find there.

How will the information be delivered? Using case studies, anecdotes, analysis? Will you need charts and tables? Do you envision illustrations? (Consider that tables, charts, and illustrations can be difficult to convert to e-book format). Will you interview experts, do you need a coauthor? What is unique about your book (more on this later)? How would you describe your book in one or two sentences to someone who asks?

2. Who cares about your book?heart

This is your audience, and you need to know them intimately before you start writing. Who are they and what do they need from you? Why will they buy your book? Most crucial of all: where will you find them? You should be part of this community before your book is ever published.

3. What does the competition do?

You need to research other books like yours and answer these questions:

  • How will yours be different?
  • What will it offer to readers that they can’t get elsewhere?

If you think there’s no other book like yours on the market, it could be that there’s no audience (see #2). Consider tweaking your idea.

4. Create a chapter outline.

Many times authors just sit down and write the book, start to finish. But this is a mistake. You need to know where you’re going in nonfiction. An outline is crucial. This is the spine of the book and where people can often forget what the audience needs.

You don’t want to sit down and 60,000 words later realize that you’ve written a book that no one needs. As you devise the outline, constantly ask yourself, What can the reader expect from the book? How will you meet their needs?

5. What is your platform?

file000696061336That’s right, even before you write a word of your book, you need to think about your platform.

Your platform is what you use to sell your book to an audience. If you’re Dr. Phil, your platform is your television show. If you’re Oprah, it’s your magazine (among other things).

For the less well known among us, a platform starts with a website (or a combination website-blog) so that your audience has a place to find you. In this part of your plan, you’ll nail down why you are the right person to write the book. Why should the reader trust you? What is your experience? What are your credentials? Do you need to get more, or can you partner with someone who has the needed expertise?

What will you do now to make sure you have an audience in place for your book once it’s published?

Yes, it’s work

If it seems like a lot of work to do before you even write the first word of Chapter 1, you’re right. But skipping the plan will almost certainly lead to a less than ideal outcome for your book. You owe it to yourself and to your project to make a solid plan. Not only will it help you clarify your thinking about what your book will cover and how, it will help you ensure solid sales of your book once it’s published.

For more information on Jennifer’s “How to Plan Your Nonfiction Book” online course please visit her website. Note that I’m teaching the fourth week on platform-building, so I hope you’ll check it out.

Do you have a question about what you should to do plan your nonfiction book? Please ask it here in a comment.

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  1. Thanks for such an informative article. It gives me a clearer sense of the self-publishing business. I appreciate Ms. Lawler’s suggestions on the pre- and post-writing process for creating successful non-fiction books.

  2. Thank you, Bonnie. I think many writers fail to grasp the importance of stepping back from their work and making sure it does what the audience needs, wants, and expects. An outline helps you take that step back and can ensure that you don’t miss important information.

    – Jennifer

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