Posted by Jake Magnum | April 5, 2019
How to Write Your First Non-Fiction E-Book
Step 1: Assess, Develop, and Refine Your Idea to Arrive at a Working Title
By asking yourself a series of simple questions, you can test the viability of your initial, broad idea and then narrow it down to arrive at your working title.
This is the first in a series of blogs in which I document my journey to self-publishing a non-fiction e-book. While I’m no expert on self-publishing, I think that, by journaling my progress here, I might help others who are thinking about writing and publishing their first e-book. The main reason I’m compelled to write this series of blogs is that all the free information I could find online on the subject was not as detailed as I would have liked. (The articles I read tried to sum up the entire process of writing an e-book in about as many words as I’ve used here to describe only the first step.)
Throughout these articles, I will explain the questions and issues that arise while I develop my book. I will also show how I solve these questions, offering any resources that I found helpful along the way.
This article discusses the thoughts and concerns I had when I first decided that I wanted to produce a non-fiction e-book. It outlines the questions I asked myself and the research I did to reach my first goal — ensuring that the topic of my book is viable and focused.
What is covered in this article:
· Determining whether your idea is worth writing an e-book about
· Ensuring that your topic is neither too broad nor too narrow to be covered in an e-book
· Clarifying what your book is about
Assess Your Idea
As soon as you decided that you were going to write an e-book, you probably had a broad idea in mind of what you wanted your book to be about. For instance, I knew right away that I wanted to write something that would help non-native English speakers improve their writing skills. Your initial idea could be even more general than this. It might even be a single word: baking, gardening, relationships, etc.
Before attempting to narrow down my idea, I had to ask myself some questions to make sure that I should be writing a book on this topic in the first place. After all, who am I to declare that I’m an expert? I wanted to be sure my book would have value before I got started.
How qualified am I to write about my topic?
To be qualified to write on a topic, you don’t necessarily need a university degree, a certificate, or work experience. However, you should question whether you possess the kind of in-depth knowledge required to write a book. If the information you hope to share can be found through a few Google searches, you’ve likely chosen a poor topic.
When I analyzed the purpose of my book, I realized that helping ESL authors improve their writing skills was something that I, as a proofreader, could not do in a book nearly as well as an ESL teacher could do in a classroom.
I needed to rethink my topic. So, I asked myself another question.
What sub-topic related to my main topic do I know a ton about?
What do I know that most people don’t? What knowledge do I have that warrants a full book rather than a series of online articles?
Some brainstorming may be required to answer these questions. However, if you’re lucky (like I was), a good idea might come to you right away. I immediately thought of the mistakes I see ESL authors make all the time, especially in academic writing. I have strategies for fixing these mistakes that I have developed on my own and that no one else has shared yet.
At least no one had shared them yet as far as I knew. But I wasn’t sure, and that’s when my next question came up.
Has anyone else published an e-book on my specific topic?
Since I plan on publishing on Amazon, I searched the Kindle store for “academic writing English.” I clicked on a couple of results that seemed relevant. Then I found a few more similar books in the “Customers who bought this item also bought” sections of these listings.
I found two books that are very similar to the book I hope to publish (English for Academic Research: Grammar, Usage and Style and English for Academic Research: Vocabulary Exercises). My search brought up two other books that have a few sub-chapters that tackle the kinds of topics I intend to write about (Science Research Writing for Non-Native Speakers of English: A Guide for Non-Native Speakers of English and PhraseBook for Writing Papers and Research in English).
Are the books in my sub-genre selling many copies?
My next task was to see if the e-books that I discovered are selling well. I used an online Amazon book sales calculator to do this.
I found that one of these books sells much better than the others. Science Research Writing for Non-Native Speakers of English sells 71 copies (for a total of $1,125.35) per month. The next-best seller sells only 17 copies ($127.67) per month.
If my primary goal for writing my book was to make money, I would have to seriously reconsider my chosen topic at this point. However, my primary goals are to help non-native English speakers improve their writing while building my reputation in my field of work. Therefore, I’m not too concerned about sales. I’m just happy to see that I will have an audience when I publish.
When you do this research for yourself, there are two things you don’t want to see (based on what I’ve read — again, I’m not an expert on self-publishing). It is a bad sign if several hundred books in your sub-genre are being published each month. It is probably even worse if zero books have been published about your topic. Either case makes it unlikely that you will reach many people with your writing, either because there are so many options that hardly anyone will find your book, or because no one is even looking for it.
What is it about the best-selling books in my sub-genre that make them best-sellers?
I read through a sample of each book that my search turned up to see if I could decipher what it was about Science Research Writing for Non-Native Speakers that helped it sell significantly more copies than the others. I discovered that the three books that aren’t selling so well are organized into short subsections which do not go into much detail. Also, these three books do not clarify how the reader can apply the information to improve their writing. Science Research Writing for Non-Native Speakers, conversely, is written in subsections that are of a good length and which contain well-thought-out examples which are clearly relevant to the target audience.
Is there anything new I can add to the topic? If not, can I improve upon what has already been published?
For me, the answer to this question was easy. Science Research Writing for Non-Native Speakers does have a chapter on grammar within each of its main sections. However, each of these chapters is broken up into three sub-chapters, each of which contains 800 words or so. After reading through the first chapter, I am confident that I can explain similar concepts in more detail (and I will write about a far greater quantity of such concepts). Furthermore, I noticed that the author of Science Research Writing for Non-Native Speakers does a great job of discussing what good writers do properly but doesn’t consider the mistakes made by non-native English speakers.
Perhaps you’ll have more trouble answering this question than I did. If the niche you’re planning to write in is highly competitive, it might seem like there’s nothing that hasn’t been covered. Still, with some thought, you may find a small gap in the market — some specific aspect of your topic that no one has written about yet.
For example, as Joanna Slodownik, author of 15 books on Amazon, offers on her blog aimed at readers hoping to get into the highly competitive niche of vegan cookbooks,
I recommend – at least initially – concentrating on one ingredient or a handful of ingredients, or choosing a theme for your book to narrow down your niche. For example, desserts, juicing, smoothies, quinoa recipes, pizza recipes, juicing recipes, grilling, or gluten-free recipes. You can choose to focus on a specific group, for example, moms making lunches for school. Perhaps you’ll write a book about creating vegan versions of your favorite mainstream dishes, such as lasagna, pizza, or meatloaf.
Based on my answers to this question and the one before it, I am now quite confident of two things that any non-fiction writer should be confident of before they put pen to paper:
· My book will have an audience who is willing to pay for the information I plan to present.
· My audience cannot find another resource that gives the information that will be offered in my book (or, if they can, it is of low quality).
Develop Your Idea
Once I was confident that I had chosen a viable topic for my e-book, I began thinking about what specific things I wanted to write about (i.e., what some of the chapters in my book might be). I started by considering the needs of my target audience.
What do my readers stand to gain from reading my book?
I wasn’t worried about being concise in answering this question. I only wanted to make sure that my readers will get real value from reading my book.
Here’s what I came up with:
My e-book will show ESL researchers what grammatical mistakes they’re making (and why these things are mistakes). My book will also show my readers how to fix these mistakes (and why these methods work). After reading my book, the reader will have a better chance of having their next scientific research article accepted by an academic journal.
Can you easily write 20,000 words on your topic?
I needed to be sure that I know enough about my topic and that my topic is broad enough that I can actually produce a full book’s worth of content about it. If you don’t have enough subject matter to work with, your extreme level of expertise is irrelevant, and your book won’t be very successful. You could be the best chef in the world, but if you plan on writing something called How to Cut a Carrot Using a KitchenAid KKFSS3PRST Classic Forged Series Stainless Steel Paring Knife, writing a whole book without being repetitive is going to be an uphill battle.
My research revealed that those who have written multiple non-fiction e-books recommend that first-time self-published authors aim for 20,000 words. They suggest this length because a book that is much longer may be too daunting to new authors and may cause them to give up early in the process. I don’t know if this is good advice or not; it’s just what I’ve read. I feel that 20,000 words would make for quite a short e-book (I hope to write at least 50,000 words on my topic), but 20,000 words is probably a helpful benchmark to use as a minimum word count for your book.
Of course, if you’ve never written a book before, you won’t be able to accurately estimate how many words you might be able to write on your chosen topic. I made my estimation based on some of the blogs I’ve written in the past. I know that a good, in-depth article (i.e., an article which could reasonably be a chapter in a book) is at least 2,000 words long.
With this, my next question came naturally.
Can you think of 10 subtopics (chapters) that you can write about in depth?
By thinking back on the mistakes I’ve seen multiple times in the research articles I’ve proofread recently, I produced the following list of potential chapters:
· When to use (and when not to use) “a(n)” and “the”
· Overused words/phrases and alternatives you can use
· Empty words and phrases
· How to identify and revise redundancies
· The proper order for adjectives
· Active voice vs. passive voice
· Colloquial words to avoid
· Avoid wordy phrases
· When to use despite/in spite of/even though
· The purpose of transitional phrases
· The correct format for “not only … but also” sentences
Obviously, this list is by no means final; perhaps only a couple of these topics will make their way into the final draft. The purpose of performing this exercise was simply to ensure that I’m not going to run out of things to write about before I get to 20,000 words. I would hate to get 8,000 words into my book and then have to scrap it because I have nothing else to write about.
If you could think of only four or five chapters, you could still write the book you hope to write; you would just need to expand your topic. What you thought would be the topic of your entire book would instead become one part of a larger book. For example, if I had realized that my idea was too narrow, I might have decided to cover writing/grammar errors in Part 1 of my book, to explain how to resolve formatting problems in Part 2, and to discuss significant mistakes to avoid during the process of submitting an article to a journal in Part 3.
Oppositely, perhaps you thought of 30 chapters to write about almost immediately. In this case, your topic might be too broad to be covered in one book. While 30 chapters is an acceptable number, you will undoubtedly come up with more ideas as you do research and will eventually have too many to include in one book. It would probably be helpful if you grouped your thoughts according to theme, complexity, etc. and then chose one group as the basis for the first volume in a series of books, putting the others aside for future volumes.
Refine Your Idea
Whereas the previous section was about ensuring your idea was broad enough that you can write a full-length e-book about it, this step is about making sure your idea is focused enough that you can sum it up in one phrase (which will serve as your working title). The purpose of doing this is to give yourself a clear path to stay on while you write.
If an acquaintance were to ask me what my book is about, what would I say?
I would say, “My book is about how to avoid common writing mistakes made by scientific researchers who speak English as a second language.” And, just like that, I had something that resembles a working title: How to Avoid Common Writing Mistakes Made by Scientific Researchers Who Speak English as a Second Language.
I really didn’t like the sound of this, so I quickly reworded it to How to Avoid the Most Common Writing Mistakes Made by Scientific Researchers: A Handbook for Non-Native English Speakers.
Still not the cleanest title by any means and something that I will revise in the future. However, it accomplishes my immediate goal of assuring myself that once I start composing my first draft, my writing will have a focused direction. If I think of an idea for a chapter that wouldn’t make sense being in a book with this title, I can discard it before putting much effort into it. Or, if I find that I have a lot of ideas that don’t quite fit with my title, I can change my title and slightly shift my focus (or I can keep these ideas filed away somewhere to use later if I want to write a second book).
Now that I know what I’ll be writing about, I will have a go at writing the first draft of a chapter or two after I read up on how the experts produce their first drafts. This will be the topic of the next article in this series.
Thanks for reading.
Here are a couple additional resources that I found helpful but which I haven’t referred to in this article: