“A book should be an article before it’s a book, and a dinner conversation before it’s an article. See how things go before going all in.” — Ryan Holiday, Perennial Seller

Do You Want To Write A Book?

Today, I want to share an idea with aspiring non-fiction authors, which will help them (and their books) be more successful.

This is not to do with the “craft” of the writing itself – although the quality of the book’s content is, of course, critical.

But plenty has already been said about how books can be structured and sentences constructed to maximise their impact.

Instead, I want to focus on a strategy to ensure that what is written actually gets read, by real readers.

Throughout my journey in self-publishing, I have read a lot about “book marketing”.

Most of it concerns how to game the search algorithms to make books artificially appear #1 in a category on Amazon, long enough to call it a (quote, unquote) “bestseller”.

Shortcuts like these are seductively appealing to authors, because they tend to want to spend as little time as possible on the marketing, so they can spend more time on the actual writing.

They want the result (bestseller status) with the least possible effort.

The trouble is, this only work in the short-term. It won’t keep a book selling for very long.

Gaming the algorithm may produce a spike in visibility, but a book isn’t going to stay there and sell consistently if that’s all you do.

So, I want to propose an alternative which is geared towards longer-term success. 

It involves conscripting your target readers to help with the creation of the book, so that the book becomes a joint effort between the author and the intended audience.

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Assembling a focus group of your target audience is a great way to involve your readers in the writing.

This idea has hardly been mentioned in the realm of book publishing. However, other fields of creative endeavor already understand it very well. There is even a name for it: “co-creation”.

I contend that non-fiction authors can apply co-creation for themselves.

The results you can expect through book co-creation are:

  1. Readers who are more interested in the book, even before it has been finished.

Both are important aims. If you are reading this, I assume you want people to buy, read, and care about the book you are writing.

More Interest & A Better End Product

Here’s how co-creation works: instead of a creator making a thing, and then trying to figure out how to sell it, the philosophy of co-creation first asks customers what they want, before the creator goes away and makes it for them. By giving customers a seat at the table, the creator doesn’t need to rely on guesswork to figure out what will be appealing.

The point is not only to make a better product, but to also make people feel like that product belongs to them. 

In exceptional cases, the product can even become part of their identity.

The best entrepreneurs use co-creation extensively. Before launching a new product or service, they extensively test it among their target users. They run surveys and collect feedback. They run show concepts, build prototypes, and develop minimum viable products.

The entertainment industry understands co-creation too. Before Hollywood spends tens of millions of dollars on the next blockbuster, they test the script, test different endings, and they measure reactions. Then, they use it all to make a better film. They do not trust the gut feeling of a lone script-writer — no matter how much of a genius he or she might be. There is simply too much at stake to risk a flop. To justify the necessary upfront investment, they need to know (not hope) it will be a success.

Co-creation means that by the time launch day comes, the creation (whether a business, a film, or anything else) has been molded into what the customer wants. And, because the customer has had this role in the development, they also feel a strong sense of ownership over the end result.

Unlike startups and Hollywood, authors aren’t usually spending millions on their book launch, but they are investing a significant amount of their time. Time is not something you want to waste.

You should do everything you can to give your book the best possible chance of success, before going to all the trouble of writing it.

Let The Reader Tell You What They Want

But most authors do the opposite.

They write their book first, and only once the book is done do they start thinking about how they can do the marketing for it. “I’ve got this book. Now, how do I sell it?”.

Unfortunately, by this point, it is too late. If you write a book which nobody wants, then no amount of clever marketing cannot overcome that. It’s like trying to convince people to buy a useless invention, or watch a terrible movie.

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People are pretty good at knowing what they want, and very willing to share this information if they are asked.

In a world where advertisers appear everywhere, insisting that people must buy this or that, creators that listen first (instead of shout) automatically stand out from the noise.

Creators like these are rare, and are therefore valued.

Do Not Isolate Yourself

Unfortunately, many aspiring authors have a horrible habit of isolating themselves from the possibility of getting such early feedback.

To focus on their project, they remove themselves from contact with the outside world. “I don’t want to be distracted”, they reason.

Removed from their friends and potential readers, it is little wonder when they are bereft of good ideas.

“Numberless artists toil away in total emotional and physical solitude, disassociated not only from other humans, but also from the source of creativity itself.” — Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

“Writer’s block” hardly ever happens to authors who put themselves in an environment where they can talk about their ideas with others. It’s one of the reasons why you might want to consider writing your book with a coach, or alongside other authors, or your target readers.

Of course, there needs to be some “alone time” for Deep Work as well. It’s a balancing act.

  • You can’t spend all your time writing. If you do, you risk creating something which is of no interest to readers.

The best books are not written in complete solitude.

For proof, just pick up any popular book and flip to the acknowledgments section. Look at how many people the author thanks — editors, early readers, publishers, friends and family.

Invariably, there is often some version of “I couldn’t have done it without you” — and they mean it.

It adds up to the following conclusion: creation is a collaborative endeavor.

Give People A Way To Be Involved

A lot of people would like to write a book, but the vast majority will never do it. They don’t have the time, they don’t have the patience, they don’t know where to start — all the usual reasons that explain the gap between those who merely wish and those who do.

But to those who have the necessary follow through, the dreamers present an opportunity — by asking for their advice (and listening to it), an author can involve those who would like to write a book in the book-writing process.

Those you reach out to may not get their name on the front cover, but they can still get to see themselves in print in the acknowledgments.

Give them this gift, and watch them become loyal advocates for your book.

Individual Genius vs. Group Wisdom

The idea of writing a book based on early reader feedback doesn’t get universal acceptance. The following objection is often leveled:

Real art comes from the individual genius of the artist. The public don’t know what they want until they see it. Therefore, asking them what they want isn’t going to create anything revolutionary.

Related to this, the following (possibly apocryphal) quote was attributed to the founder of the Ford Motor Company, and pioneer of the assembly line technique of mass automobile production:

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” – Henry Ford

If you want to disrupt the status quo and create entirely new (like a motor car, in a world filled with horses), then Ford might be right. Relying on what everyone else’s feedback will probably won’t produce a genuine breakthrough.

But you don’t have to do that in order to be successful. Plenty of authors and entrepreneurs make a living from taking something that already exists, and putting a slight twist on it, or giving their own take on it.

Ultimately, it depends on your goal and how much risk you are willing to take on with your book. If you are planning to rewrite the rules of literature, and create something so unlike anything that has come before, then you should realize that this is the much more difficult path.

For every Henry Ford who changed the world, there are thousands of failed entrepreneurs who were confident – but who you have never heard of, because their radical idea never caught on.

The same goes for books.

Most successful books follow genre expectations. Working within “the rules of how to write” still allows for plenty of creative freedom.

Don’t worry about reader feedback stifling your creativity.

Write your book with your readers.