This is an excerpt from Writing Better Books the Agile Way, you can get a copy here.


 

There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.

—Maya Angelou

When deciding to start a book project, you have two options. You write a book that you want to hold in your hands or you write a book that you want to see others holding in their hands.

3.1  Writing for Yourself

Writing for yourself usually means that you come to the project full of ideas. Maybe you have had those ideas over the years and want to see them finally in print. My own first book was such a work of passion. Over the years, I wrote down ideas on little note cards. After I moved to Düsseldorf, my journey of minimizing my household started. I began by scanning and digitizing all those cards. Together with articles and forum entries I wrote, the resulting file was a 1000-page “book” of unconnected thoughts. This was followed by years of editing.

In the end, I divided my book project into eight parts and then approached them one by one. It still took me many months to finish the first part. In the end, this approach was extremely inefficient as I had so much text and only a fraction of it published.

The lesson of this story is: Do not wait until the end of the book to look at the big picture. Writing books is not like producing a movie, where you first try to get as much footage as possible and then focus on editing at the end of the process.

In a way, it is the curse of the first book you will write. You have not been writing books for long, so all your ideas have piled up in your mind or in notebooks or on your computer. But the higher your ambitions, the lower the chance that the book ever sees the light of day. The saying “Aim for the stars to reach the moon” holds true, but it is not done in a single step! A general rule of thumb is to change only one element with each new book. If you have written novels about Scandinavia in the past and now want to write a non-fiction book, write about Scandinavia. If it is your first book, the easiest way to start is taking an existing book as a blueprint and focusing on learning the tools that allow you to write and publish your unique book.

Ultimately, in this case, my advice is to write your first book based on your notes. By converting your ideas into a book, you are organizing them in a coherent way. And no matter how your book does in the marketplace, it is the foundation of your future publications. You can always come back to it and reuse elements directly or indirectly, based on the things you have learned while writing it.

3.2  Writing for Others

If you are writing for others, you are starting with a blank page. Sure, you have the background knowledge in your field (and books you have written in the past, see above), but because you are writing for others, the first step is to start asking people what they want to read.

How do you acquire the information necessary to decide what to write about? Here, you have several options:

  • You are running an active blog where you post articles (maybe parts or whole chapters of your previously written books). Analyzing the amount of feedback, comments, and even click rates, you can guess what topic most interests your visitors.
  • You are using online advertising based on keywords (like Amazon Marketing Services or Google Adwords—paid services for your book to show up when people are searching for specific topics). Depending on how you have set up your keywords, they can act as a net and give you valuable information about what people are searching for.
  • You can research in the existing market of ideas to identify niches—genres and topics few other authors have written about but which have an above-average number of sales. You can do this by looking at the sales rankings on Amazon.
  • If your goal for the book is to supplement your career, you are technically still writing for others, but the content of your book is clear from the start: you want to use your book as an alternative medium to promote the unique selling point of your career. What makes your approach special in your field?

If you are unsure about which option to use, I recommend starting a blog and writing articles. If you cannot attract an audience by posting small articles or stories, you will not be able to do it with a book. Alternatively, write your first book as a way of learning how to market and sell, and use the passages from the book for articles and further market research.

Once this general research is done and a decision has been made, you now have to focus on the core of the book and organize your ideas around it.