How To Write A How-To Book
A 5-point plan for the how-to writer on picking a hot topic, targeting an audience, and marketing the concept to publishers and focus groups.
Check out the shelves of most metropolitan bookstores and you’ll usually find a sizable section devoted to new releases regarding all manner of do it yourself topics. Whether it’s tips and tricks for growing your own herb garden, harnessing solar power, communicating with rebellious teenagers, or finding the love of your life in 10 days or less, the how-to/self-help market has never been better—or bigger—for aspiring writers.
The reality that non-fiction subjects have always been easier to sell than works of fiction is made even sweeter by the fact that, in many cases, you don’t even need an agent to represent you in this lucrative avenue of publishing. (See? You’re already saving yourself 15-20% right there!) The proliferation of Internet opportunities increases your chances of first-time success even more, which allows you to not only hype your book to special focus groups but to break out segments of the text into creative, stand-alone articles for sale both before and after publication.
Let’s take a look at how the process works in a simple 5-point plan.
1. What are you an expert on? The first step is to identify what you know and whether it’s a salable commodity. Generally, any topic which will enable the reader to save money (i.e., home-improvement tasks that will bypass a pricey technician); enrich a lifestyle (i.e., find romance or facilitate divorce); or maximize time (i.e., learn to play the piano in one week) will have the broadest appeal. That isn’t to say you can’t be an expert on how to start a seahorse farm or make your own buttons from lima beans; it just means that you’ll need to do more legwork in terms of reaching potential buyers. In terms of marketing, you must also consider the weight that your readers will place on professional credentials and/or tangible experience. In other words, if you are going to teach someone how to build a house for X-amount of money and materials, it’s important that you have actually put those theories to the test before writing about them!
2. Do you have a talent for explaining things? Suffice it to say, there’s a big difference between showing someone in person how to tie a square knot versus describing this same procedure in print, plus or minus illustrations. The best test, of course, is to show your written “lesson” to someone who is completely unfamiliar with the subject matter and see if they can replicate the steps without having to seek you out for assistance or explanation of any specialized terms. Keep in mind that the better you know the topic yourself, the greater risk of your assuming knowledge on the part of the user and, accordingly, leaving out steps that are crucial to implementation. In the case of self-help guides that deal with emotional issues, a similar problem can occur in assuming that every reader is operating in the same frame of reference as everyone else and will react exactly the same way to the material. For a how-to book to work effectively, it needs to take into account all possible angles of (mis)interpretation.
3. What else is already out there on the market? Before you pitch your outline and sample chapters to a publisher, you need to do your homework and see what types of similar titles are currently carried on the bookshelves. Is the market already saturated with your proposed subject? If so, what kind of fresh slant can you bring to it? Is it a topic that will only be of regional interest (i.e., How to Eradicate Idaho Bloat Worm) or perhaps one that is transitory in significance (i.e., Are you Ready for Y2K)? This is also the time to see which publishing houses handle your particular subject area, information which can further be gleaned from resources such as WRITER’S MARKET and THE WRITERS HANDBOOK. If your target subject is not represented in stores, you need to examine whether it’s because no one else has thought of it before OR whether the concept was dismissed because the readership was deemed to be too narrow.
4. Build your credibility and “test the waters” by writing short pieces for newspapers, trade letters, magazines, and Internet sites, especially ones where readership feedback can be invited. This will affirm whether you are on the right track or if your project needs a different perspective in order to make it more marketable. In the same vein, keep an eye toward how these stand-alone pieces can be used effectively as excerpts and teasers once the book is published. Make sure, of course, that you have discussed these plans with your publisher before you proceed; oftentimes—and especially with smaller houses—they are receptive to any extracurricular PR that you, the author, can generate in order to attract attention to the book.
5. Finally—and this is entirely optional—don’t rule out the possibility of sequels. Just as publishers of genre fiction get excited about the idea of spin-off series based on existing characters, so, too, is the non-fiction arena open to subject areas with extended application. Although it doesn’t fit the how-to mold, a prime example of the multiplicity theory is the popular “Chicken Soup for the Soul” collections, which have successfully branched out to now embrace the souls of mothers, pet owners, teenagers, veterans, and everyone else. Certainly if you can pitch an intriguing premise like “decorate your castle for less than $200,” the basics could be reworked to accommodate a city loft, a basement studio, a duplex in the suburbs, or a country ranch house. All it takes is your imagination, and a keen sense of what your readers want—and need—to learn next!