2.02.2016

What’s New and Different?

Prominent on the nonfiction side of the book world is a selling document known as a proposal. This contains such crucial elements as the author’s ability to promote the book, the book’s outline chapter by chapter, and a sample chapter or two from the manuscript. A proposal provides benefits for both author and publisher. Because a writer has to provide only an outline and samples, he does not have to write the entire book first. On the publishing side, the perenially overworked acquisitions editor does not have to read the full book.

Many nonfiction books require extensive expertise, and that is usually gained by long years of toil in a given topic area. That suits many veterans of an industry who wish to write a book before or just after they retire. They have a wealth of knowledge that they have imparted to junior members within their company, and they want to share it with the world at large. So they happily jot down all their various insider’s tips and organize them into chapters. After months of labor, they think they’re done. There is only one catch: the bookstore may already contain books on the same topic.

A publisher naturally wants to know what you are bringing to the subject that is new and different. Otherwise, you’re competing in an established marketplace where other titles are better known. I am often surprised that authors don’t factor in this essential qualification before they start. If your book covers raising venture capital, you’d better choose a blossoming niche area of that well-covered field, such as crowd funding. If you are writing a book on natural health, don’t assume that you are the first person to discover that beta-carotene is good for you. Its attributes have been extolled in all sorts of books, from those on smoothies to juicing to raw foods.

Depending on how crowded your chosen field is, you need a fresh paradigm. The reason I advise this is that a good deal of the material that you will include in the book will not be new. If you are writing a get-rich-quick book, you will probably discuss the investment strategies of Warren Buffett at some point. Yet do you have a catchy title like Timothy’s Ferriss’s The Four-Day Workweek? A whole bunch of fairly common material is viewed through this prism. If you are writing a diet book, you’re going to discuss why eating meat leads to heart disease, diabetes, etc. You’d better have, however, an outstanding franchise idea like Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin’s Skinny Bitch.

Having a striking hook in no way undercuts the many solid pieces of advice you have to offer. What you are doing is the same tactic employed in many other industries: branding yourself. Books have price tags on them. You need to convince a bookstore browser that your book is better than those titles standing right next to yours on the shelf. So start thinking: what will make her decide that my book is new and better?

Exercise: The front cover of the book is an all-important consideration. An editor at a publishing house can spend hours and days wrestling with the best choice for a book title and subtitle. Sit back in your chair and start free-associating. What catchy ideas are related to your material? Write down a couple that are closely related to each other. Then think along entirely different lines and write down those titles. Shoot for 15 titles, of which 10 are not related at all. Then show them to family and friends, and ask them what catches their eye.

“A bookstore is one of the only pieces of evidence we have that people are still thinking.”
— Jerry Seinfeld

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine

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