write a bestseller


In my YouTube video on structuring a self-help book, I described the parts of a self-help book. When you divide those parts into chapters, you may have one or more chapters per part. However, you might find that one of those parts, such as the action plan, just needs to be a section of a chapter. (When that’s the case, you probably have exercises scattered throughout the book.)

Here’s a handy guide to remembering the way these six parts are commonly broken into chapters in a self-help book:

Self-Help Book Contents

 

Introduction: How I Came to Write This Book and Do the Research, And How It’s Organized

 

Chapter 1: The Urgent Problem (Don’t Worry—You’ll Solve It!)

 

Chapter 2: How You Came to Have This Problem (The History of Your Woes)

 

Chapter 3: What You Need to Know Before Tackling Your Urgent Problem (Trust Me, It’s Important!)

 

Chapter 4: More Stuff You Have to Know Before Taking Action to Solve the Problem (No, You’re Not Done Yet)

 

Chapter 5: Even More Stuff You Have to Know Before Taking Action (Be Patient—Each of These Chapters IS Necessary!)

 

Chapter 6: The Action Plan (What You’re Going to Have to Do)

 

Chapter 7: The Action Plan, More Details (It’s More Complicated Than You Thought, So We Need Another Chapter)

 

Chapter 8: The Action Plan in Action (What It Looks Like, With Lots of Anecdotes So I’m Sure You TRULY Get These Ideas)

 

Chapter 9: Troubleshooting When Problems Arise (Those Special Times When You’re Stressed Out or Things Get Complicated)

 

Chapter 10: Expanding Outward (Maintaining Your New Habits, A Pep Talk to Keep You Going, And How to Connect with Others Who Support Your New Habits and Deal With People Who Don’t)

 

Resources, Acknowledgements, Appendix, And All That

 

Of course, you don’t have to have ten chapters. You might have six, or twelve, or twenty-three. What’s most important is that the overall structure supports the reader’s journey from identifying the problem (and being emotionally engaged by your book!) to feeling empowered to create new habits, sustain them, and affect the world in a positive way. Now, that last piece may sound lofty, but don’t all of us want to improve some aspect of our lives, not just to alleviate discomfort or embarrassment, or make more money or have better relationships, but to expand on our greater joy and confidence by inspiring people around us, attracting new clients and friends and partners, and improving how things work in our families, workplaces, and communities? Increasingly, I’m finding my clients are putting more consideration into what goes into this last part. We’re all exquisitely aware of how much the world is changing, and how strongly we want to affect it positively. I encourage those of you who are writing self-help to put some thought to what would be in the fifth part of your self-help book.

 

"Oh no! I have an URGENT PROBLEM I need to solve! Where is the perfect self-help book for me?"

“Oh no! I have an URGENT PROBLEM I need to solve! Where is the perfect self-help book for me?”

The sixth part, “the future,” is your opportunity to help the reader connect with your work, your future advice, and other resources. It can include the author biography page with your contact information and resources. This is also the place where appendices (typically, charts and lists) go, and where acknowledgments typically go. (Sometimes, they’re in the front, but do you really want to hear all the “thanks to so-and-so”s before YOU read a book? Probably not. Stick it in the back of the book if you can.) You’d also add an index here if your book needs an index. But for pitching a book, you just need to list what’s in the sixth part; you don’t have to include it. I definitely urge you NOT to include acknowledgments in a book proposal–and don’t put in a dedication, either. Those are final touches for when the book has been written and edited.

Was this helpful? If you do get stuck, contact me at nancy@nancypeske.com and let’s set up a one-hour phone consultation so I can be your wordmason and get you unstuck!

Self-help book structure by chapter

An example of chapters that fit into the typical six-part structure for a self-help book

An example of chapters that fit into the typical six-part structure for a self-help book

 

Thinking of self-publishing? Should you choose the editing or editorial evaluation package from the self-publishing arm of a publisher, or from self-publishing houses?

As a former in-house acquisitions editor at HarperCollins, a current ghostwriter and developmental editor, and the coauthor of several successful books, I can help you make the right choice for yourself and your book based on your goals (and your budget). You need to know whom you are hiring (and yes, you want to hire someone who knows why I used “whom” right there!). You also want to get the most bang for your buck, and that means making sure your book’s structure, approach, voice, and concept are solid before you start line editing it. You don’t paint the walls of a house before you’ve installed the plumbing and wiring correctly!

Many editors don’t know anything about structuring and editing books, which is a skill of its own. Also, those of us who are developmental editors do not work on every type of book there is. I am well read in many areas, but in some, I admit, I know next-to-nothing! I do turn down and pass along projects I know for certain I’m not the right editor for because I don’t have enough background in working on that type of book. My clients benefit from being able to work with someone who keeps up on what’s going on in the publishing world, the book marketing world, and the worlds of wellness, motivational speaking and writing, business, health, and more.

Peggy McColl

Some of the books I’ve worked on include business books, self-help, inspiration, life lessons books, and memoirs.

 

ADVICE FOR NONFICTION AUTHORS

Here’s what I recommend for authors who want to self-publish nonfiction: Work out your outline and the beginning of the book, looking to other successful books as your guide, and then call in a developmental editor who can evaluate the material and advise you BEFORE you get off track. Write a clear description of each chapter whether or not you do a whole book proposal before contacting an editor. Don’t make the editor guess at what’s in each chapter based on the chapter titles. If you’re looking to sell the book to a publisher and need a book proposal, follow the standard instructions for creating one (you can use the guidance on my website, and please pay close attention to the all-important comparative books list). Then, ask a developmental editor with an acquisitions background or success in shaping proposals that sold to evaluate it. A developmental editor will alert you to writing issues you need to be aware of, and will guide you on structural changes you need to make. If you’re writing a memoir, you will want to be sure you know what the purpose of the memoir is. Memoirs by non-famous people have to have strong themes and titles to capture the attention of readers who aren’t friends and family members.

When you’ve gotten the manuscript into the best possible shape, hire a copyeditor/light line editor to clean it up. He or she should simultaneously create a style sheet for a proofreader to work from (a style sheet lists all the proper nouns and the grammar and punctuation rules you decided upon, such as whether or not to capitalize the first word in a full sentence that follows a colon). Hire a proofreader and ask a friend or fellow author to be another set of eyes.

ADVICE FOR FICTION WRITERS

If you want someone to evaluate your novel (or your completed memoir or other nonfiction manuscript), recognize that it will take hours just to read it, much less to read it, make notes, and correct those notes afterward. How often have I thought, “Oh, I see—now I understand what she was talking about back in chapter 2. Let me go back and change that note.”! If you want to get an evaluation and save money, create an expanded chapter outline and a plot description. Otherwise, the editor has to skim and skim to get the big picture. I was trained to do this as an in-house editor and had lots of practice reading for literary agents, book clubs, and publishers, and I regularly met with other editors doing the same sort of work to compare notes. We became masters of skimming and evaluating. But even masters need time to go through a manuscript whose entire cover letter with plot description is three sentences long! Make it easier for an editor to evaluate your book by creating the one-page synopsis at the very least. And if you can also write up a list of chapters with short descriptions, that’s even better. It will help the editor and it will give you a big picture view of your book in the process. Maybe in preparing the chapter outline, you’ll spot sections that need to be edited down, for instance.

If you decide that you really must write the whole book and “get it on paper,” so to speak, before getting direction from a developmental editor, don’t let me stop you. Just know that if you go that route, you are likely to have to do a lot of cutting and restructuring, and you may end up spending a lot more money paying an editor because you’re presenting that person with a manuscript and no “cheat sheet” with plot description or chapter summaries. Don’t be married to what you wrote.

I hope this helps! I really don’t want any of you feeling you must approach the book writing process a certain way, but I also don’t want you shocked by how much money and time it takes to shape your very raw manuscript.

Good luck on your writing and editing!

Many aspiring authors contact me about help with writing a book based on what they’ve learned as a result of their experiences. They want to help others by sharing their story, wisdom, and advice in a book but don’t know how to start to write a memoir, novelization, or self-help book based on their experiences. I help them by consulting and coaching them (learn more HERE), ghostwriting their book (learn more HERE), or doing developmental editing on their manuscript (details HERE). The work often starts with a one-hour consultation call.

Now, I am all for writing your book solely for the sake of catharsis and self-expression. I think more people who are in a healing process should write about their experiences, as an act of self-empowerment. That said, writing for an audience that has its own needs is different from writing for yourself. Don’t confuse the two. Your needs and desires have value, but they are not always the same as a reader’s needs and desires.

Maybe you already are certain that you want to write a self-help book and weave your story, and other stories, into the book and use it as a sort of credibility card for your work but also as a key tool for your clients and followers. Maybe you feel strongly that a memoir is the best way to get your story out there and inspire and educate others.  If you’d rather not use real names, or you would like to explore what might have happened instead of just what did happen, you can think about turning your story into a novel. You can also consider writing a book of life lessons, with advice based on your story, and don’t offer any specific advice to readers.

If you’re struggling to conceptualize your book, here is how to get started.

* Write. Notice I didn’t say “write your book.” Some people free write until they reach hundreds of pages of material and there’s nothing wrong with doing that, but it’s easy to get attached to what you’ve written, and what’s on the page may not work as the basis of your book. Start small. Write a blog piece, a scene, or a chapter. Play around with it: Write it in first person, then second, then third. Write it as fiction or as a memoir, or as an anecdote illustrating a point, like you would find in a self-help book. Explore your story and your message from various angles to get a feel for how you want to tell it.

* Look at your goals. What audience would you like to reach, and why? What other types of books are they reading? Where do they hear about those books? Do they buy books based on advertisements, word-of-mouth recommendations, Facebook posts, bookstore displays–what is the main way of reaching them? Why do they trust the authors of those books? Are they drawn in by the power of the author’s personal story? Are they impressed by the author’s work as a therapist or coach? These are the kinds of questions that will help you to put yourself in the shoes of your potential reader and know how to write for that individual and how to get him or her to know about your book. You’ve thought about what you want to write. Now think about who wants to read it.

* Look at comparative books. Know what other books and information are out there. What is your fresh idea, take, or spin? If you know you want to write a self-help book on a particular topic, be aware that your idea probably isn’t completely unique but that’s okay. Give it your own take.

* Check in with your gut. Does it feel right to do a memoir, or even a novelization, of your story? Do you want to share life lessons, or give advice? Do you want to create exercises that will help the reader to learn what you learned, only in a more pleasant way? Get in touch with your instincts about the book you are meant to write–and think about whether you might be meant to write more than one book!

How do you get started writing your story?

* Consider collaborating or procuring a foreword. I knew I wanted to write a practical guide for parents whose children had sensory processing disorder because it was incredibly difficult to access that information back when my son who has SPD was two years old and newly diagnosed. There were NO practical books that could help me figure out how to brush his teeth or calm him when he was having a sudden tantrum. I teamed up with my son’s occupational therapist, who was not only treating him for SPD but who had also done some writing herself, to create Raising a Sensory Smart Child, a book that offered two valuable perspectives and appealed to parents and professionals. If you’re thinking you don’t have the right credentials to write your self-help book, find someone to team up with as a collaborator, or ask this person to write a valuable foreword for your book. I ended up with both a collaborator and a foreword writer with an important name in the special needs community (Temple Grandin).

* Start your outreach now. Begin building your author platform. Get a Facebook page and a blog if you’re going to create a memoir or a nonfiction book. If you want to write a novel, start writing regularly and working with a writer’s group to receive and give feedback and support (your fellow writers may well become your loyal readers!). If you’re blogging or on Facebook, ask your followers for feedback. Ask them questions to get them involved in a conversation, and respond to their answers. Encourage them to subscribe to your blog, like your page, and give you their email addresses so you can contact them in the future (you should offer a free gift, or a just a promise to send them information but never to sell their email address to anyone). Think about building a community of followers who talk among themselves and to you about your topic. These followers will not only buy your book when it’s ready, but they will also spread the word about the book or any other products or services you want to promote–not because you pay them but because they believe in you and your work and message. You can learn more details about starting to build your author platform on Facebook in my new eBook 25 Powerful Ways to Get Engagement on Facebook.

* Make a habit of learning a little more every week. Notice I didn’t say make this a goal: I said make this a habit! Every week, schedule time to learn more about your topic and your audience and more about using social media, creating webinars and teleseminars, marketing, doing workshops and lectures, and getting the word out about your work and your message. If you don’t make time to do it, you will become overwhelmed by all there is to learn once your book is actually written. Set some boundaries so you don’t get sucked in to using social media so often that you don’t get any writing done–it can be addictive!

* Talk to a book publishing consultant or developmental editor early on in the process. It can be invaluable to toss ideas around with a knowledgeable publishing insider. It’s energizing to have a clear picture of your overall strategy and clarity about what you can do write now to get started creating your book. If you are going to contact me, do give me some details about your book project and whether you’re leaning toward self-publishing or building your platform then aiming to get a book deal. We can schedule a brainstorming session and focus in on your brand, your plan, and your action steps for getting closer to your goal right now. Email me at Nancy at nancypeske dot com and check out the services page on my website, www.nancypeske.com.

As part of my research for a book proposal I’m working on, I’ve been looking at a bestselling self-help book that was recently featured on Oprah’s show. I see from the acknowledgements that I know the acquiring editor well; she is a talented structural and line editor and has a good eye for commercial material, strong hooks, and great platforms. The book has hit the bestseller lists and has a high number of stars (average ratings from reviewers) on Amazon.com/ Yet the number of one- and two-star reviews is very high as well—and to me, the book is unreadable and a waste of $15 in paperback, much less $25 in hardcover. I can’t even recommend it as a $10 eBook. So what are the lessons here?

  1. A book does NOT have to be good or even readable to be highly successful IF it’s from an established author. Platform is king these days. But, the big question is, has this author tarnished her brand by going out in a big way with a book that’s mediocre at best? The bad reviews are mostly focused on how little information is contained in these pages, the book’s repetitiveness, the book’s lack of originality, and the lack of value. There is no way an author with a modest platform could have sold this book to a publisher, in my professional opinion.
  2. Publishers are stuck in the old business model. The book began as a hardcover selling for nearly $25. It is 224 pages and by my count, about 50,000 words. When I began in book publishing in the late 1980s, a standard self-help book was 10,000 words. Now, they usually run 60-80,000 words. Why charge $25 for 50,000 words? The publisher needs to justify a big advance to the name-brand author and money spent on advertising (they advertise only the handful of books they think have a chance at bestsellerdom), paying bookstores to display the book, and paying the publicist. For publishers, an overpriced hardcover is crucial to make the numbers work. Now that eBooks are outselling hardcovers, and eBook prices are being jacked up to make up for the lost revenue, the $25/hardcover-first model is in serious danger. Depending on the timing of the hardcover and the eBook releases, the eBook revolution may have erased this book’s profit margin for the publisher. So while it may be a bestseller, it’s possible it lost money for the publisher. Selling her next book may be VERY difficult for this author regardless of how low an advance she is willing to take.
  3. Grammar, mechanics, and structure matter. Although the book has a standard self-help book structure, the chapters meander and have no headers, just design elements to break up text here and there. On the surface, this disguises the meandering, unstructured text. In reality, the reader notices that we’re flitting from this thought to the next in a disorienting path that circles back in on itself. What’s more, there are several sentence fragments on each page. Knowing that the editor is perfectly well aware that a sentence must contain a subject and verb, and with some verbs, a direct object as well, I have to assume this was a stylistic choice. It was a poor one. The text is disjointed and tiresome to read. You see, discussion of all those commas and semicolons, parallelism in clauses, and careful choices regarding sentence length and placement of subordinate clauses may bore anyone but a Latin or English Grammar major, but when they’re missing, the casual reader recognizes that something is “off.” It takes work to slow down and put the thoughts together in your mind to understand the ideas. When the reader discovers the ideas are overly familiar, she loses interest (many reviewers reported not finishing the book).
  4. Define your audience. The title was designed to play off another bestselling book’s title that appeals to the same demographic—a wise editorial choice. The problem is that the book doesn’t deliver on the title. This frustrated readers. Remember, you have a title AND a subtitle with which to summarize the book. People buy books on titles and short descriptions. If yours is misleading, your readers will be very unhappy and post negative reviews.
  5. Define your audience’s problem. One aspect of defining your audience is clearly defining their problem that your book promises to solve. If they buy your book to solve a different problem, thinking you’ll address it, they’ll be disappointed. Is yours a book of parenting advice for all parents, parents of children with special needs, or both? A book can straddle both audiences, but don’t mislead people by implying that it’s for the wider audience when it’s not. (In fact, I had this problem with another book I bought this week—at some point, I may blog in more detail about this particular problem!)
  6. Know your audience’s sensitivities. Is your audience women from 18 to 80, women who attend Bible classes and go to church every Sunday as well as women who are atheists, women who find Sarah Silverman offensive and women who find her hilarious? If you want to cast that wide a net, you will have to pay close attention to tone and voice. The bestselling book I’m describing in this blog uses the word “God” to describe a New Age/New Thought concept of divinity, ignoring the fact that many women have a very different idea about “God.” It also uses the F word liberally, including in a chapter title. That may fly with a certain generation; to another it is considered offensive and a sign of lazy writing. When I work with clients or cowrite books of my own, I may not agree 100 percent with the final choices the team of authors, editor, agent, and publisher’s sales force representatives makes, but I know how important these decisions are. I have seen books shut out of bookstores due to poor decisions about title, tone, and voice that caused the bookstore buyers to be unclear about the intended audience.
  7. Deliver what you promise your readers. A self-help book is supposed to do more than just define the reader’s problem and give insight into its origin. It must have takeaway: an action plan for solving the problem. This may include exercises, a recipe for activities to be carried out over a specific period of time (such as a 21-day diet plan), tips, resources that will help the reader further tailor the takeaway material to her specific needs, and so on. Reviewers complained that the entire book is summarized in the few pages and that the suggestions for how to solve the problem were stale, the sort of ideas we’ve all heard a million times. Today, authors are competing with free information on the Internet available in seconds to anyone using a search engine. If there’s nothing special or fresh about your information, and your advice can be summed up in a page of bulletpoint tips, you aren’t ready to write a self-help book.

By now, I’m sure you’re thinking, “Yeah, but the author got a big advance, a bestseller, and a place on Oprah’s couch.” Yes….but only because the author had built up credibility with previous books over the years and a solid brand she’d worked hard to build. Will her next book see success? Will it yield a hefty advance? I doubt it. Over the years, I’ve seen many authors destroy their brands by making bad choices in conjunction with their advisors who are too often contemptuous of book buyers. I will never forget the day one of the bigwigs in the editorial department of a publishing house told me, “We don’t have to spend the time and money cutting out those two hundred pages in the middle of the book that weigh it down. People won’t realize it sags in the middle until after they’ve bought it!” She chuckled; I made a mental note that I did NOT belong in a company that held contempt for their customers. To me, the story I’m telling here is a cautionary tale for publishers, editors, and authors. You can only fool people so long before they catch on to the fact that you don’t provide quality products and don’t respect and value them.

If you as an author or aspiring author aren’t comfortable with a suggestion your social media expert makes regarding how to build your brand, if you don’t feel ready to write your book just yet because your platform’s solid but you’re still unsure if your ideas are well-formed enough to work into a book, listen to your instincts. Maybe you need to try out your ideas in workshops and with real-life clients. That’s easier than ever to do thanks to webinar and teleseminar software. Maybe you need to mull over your brand and your hook a little more because something’s not right about it. These investments of time and creative energy will pay off in a book that you can be proud of for years to come, and they give you greater potential for establishing your career and a loyal audience.

Have you ever felt torn between rushing forward with writing a book and slowing down to get it right? What pressures did you feel, and why? Would you have benefitted from spending time with book publishing consultant to talk through your concerns and strategies? Please share your stories with me!

Does your self-help book deliver on its title and promise? Does it solve a problem? Does it offer "takeaway" for readers that they can apply to their own lives?

I am feeling expansive of late and have news to share:

I now have a company called Wordmason Services, Inc. This new business will allow me to continue providing professional, quality services as I have for the last 20 or so years, just under a new umbrella. If you’re looking for a ghostwriter, book editor, or publishing consultant, I am happy to assist you.

I’ve freshened up my website, NancyPeske.com In the process, I have, unfortunately, lost the email addresses of newsletter subscribers. Please resubscribe on the upper right–I have some great advice to share with all of you, including helpful guidance on discovering the perfect publication date for your book.

I continue to Tweet as Nancy Peske, and I now have a Facebook page for myself as a professional ghostwriter, freelance editor, developmental editor, book doctor, and publishing consultant. You can find me under Nancy Peske, writer. Please join me there as I will be sharing links and advice. I encourage you to comment on my posts on Facebook and here.

Professional Ghostwriter and Editor Nancy Peske

Next Page »