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How to Identify Great Book Ideas and Writing Opportunities
by: Stephen L. Nelson, CPA

The first and maybe the most important step in writing a book is coming up with a great idea for some really useful or interesting book. The great idea makes the writing fun. The great idea makes the book easier to sell to a publisher. In the end, the great idea means you’ve got a shot at making good money from your writing. Unfortunately, many new writers don’t have a clue as to how to do this. Accordingly, I offer the following tips based on the 150 or so books I’ve written and the three dozen books I’ve published:

Don’t pick something big and obvious…

The first thorough book on any important topic—the last war, the current big business success, the next medical breakthrough—can be a good book that succeeds even to the point of becoming a bestseller. But I respectfully suggest that you leave the big topics to the big writers. The problem with big, well-known topics is that they are well-known. And that means, very probably, that big publishers are already talking to big authors about writing books. Sorry. But that’s the reality.

Find your own space…

A related point to this idea of staying away from the really big topics is that you need to find your space. You will find it very hard to succeed—especially as a new writer—if you’re doing what’s already been done. Publishers, booksellers and readers will too easily respond to your book or book idea with the feeling, “Well, yes, but hasn’t [insert name of well-known, bestselling writer here] already done that?” By innovating, however, you may be able to find your own empty space—a niche that isn’t already occupied by some successful book or series or author.

Fortunately, you often don’t need to be wildly innovative to create the illusion of existing in a new space. Incremental innovation usually works well. All you need, sometimes, is to be just enough different that publishers, booksellers, and readers will say, “Oh, that seat is empty.”

A warning must be made, however. Your innovation can’t be to “write a better book.” And it’s not that writing a better book isn’t a good idea. It’s just that “writing a better book” isn’t innovative. Too many writers think of the idea.

Test the market appeal of your idea…

Here’s another technique for filtering and refining your ideas: You ought to write a press release for your idea to verify that the ultimate book sells well as a concept. A press release is a one-page news story that touts your book and proves to people who will help sell and promote your book—distributors, wholesalers, booksellers and magazine editors—that your book is special and unique and worth looking at. Your press release gives your book a chance to break out from the pack of other books and get noticed. Any idea that can’t be distilled into a great press release is risky.

You can see what book press releases are by visiting publisher web sites. You want to visit web sites and look for press releases for books like the book your idea may produce. While you’re doing this, look at any magazines that review books like the one you’re contemplating: Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Booklist, and so on. Get an idea about the sorts of books get people talking.

Build a list of periodicals that will blurb your book…

If you’re considering a nonfiction book, you ought to be able to come with a list of a handful of special interest periodicals (magazines, newsletters, newspapers, and so forth) that prove people are interested in the topic of your book. If you want to write a book about raising Guinea pigs, conspiracy theories concerning the last president, or monetary policy in emerging economies, for example, one of the best ways you can confidently predict people will buy and read your book is to verify that people are already buying and reading periodicals about the topic.

If you do construct such a list, include the list and subscriber count information in your proposal to a publisher. The publisher can use your list to promote your book. In fact, as a former publisher, I promise you a publisher will look more seriously at any proposal that shows this level of author insight into the marketing of a book.

Try to fit your idea into an existing series…

Here’s another technique. If you can fit your idea into a publisher’s existing series, you ought to try that approach. While of course, we writers find it most satisfying to go our own way creatively, you’ll find it much easier to sell another idea that fits in an existing successful series.

I’ve always written about how to use technology for business and for personal finance. That’s my space. And I’ve got lots of good interesting ideas for books. But my bestselling book has been Quicken for Dummies (Hungry Minds 1993-2005). Would I like to write a different sort of personal financial management book? Yes. But to date Quicken for Dummies has sold one million copies in its numerous editions. The royalties on those salve away any creative disappointment.

Focus on a small niche…

That last number I mentioned, the one million copies of Quicken for Dummies, raises an interesting point. As think about the writing opportunities you pursue, know that you can make good money on a book that sells ten thousand copies. Maybe as much as $15,000. A book that sells twenty thousand copies or more is a big hit for both you and your publisher. And that means your best bet is often to go after niche.

Don’t just write another whodunit mystery, write a whodunit for children. Or better yet, write a whodunit mystery for Christian children or Muslim children or Jewish children. And then promote your book not just like all the other mystery publishers do but also using religious education periodicals that go out to churches or mosques or synagogues.

Don’t worry about slicing the market too small. Few books—almost no books—sell more than ten or twenty thousand copies. If you find a group of one hundred thousand or one million people with a special interest—even though that’s a very small slice on a planet with billions of people—your book idea can produce a successful work.

Verify your idea is big enough for a book…

One final idea and this is especially important for new writers. You need to make sure that your idea is big enough for a book—the content you’ll create is big enough to fill 250 pages or 500 pages or whatever. Experienced authors can do this intuitively. I know which ideas of mine support two hundred pages or four pages of writing. But new writers often can’t gauge this very well. Ever read a book where by the third chapter the author just rehashes material already covered in chapters 1 and 2? That’s a book where the idea wasn’t big enough.

Especially for nonfiction books, you ought to try writing a couple of example chapters—maybe chapters 1 and 4—to make sure you’ve got a big topic. Your chapters don’t need to be pristine or perfect. But make sure that you can write a couple of good, rich chapters that aren’t redundant. When you’re done with those chapters, look at what other topics you want to cover and make sure that there’s still stuff left for at least two or three more interesting chapters. A bit of rehashing is okay, I think. But you don’t want people reaching for the television’s remote control in the second chapter.

About The Author

Bellevue-Seattle accountant Stephen L. Nelson, CPA has written more than 150 books about computers and business for publishers such as Random House, McGraw-Hill, and John Wiley & Sons. His web address is

This article was posted on November 26, 2005


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