Finding A Good Idea For Your Book
The journey of a thousand manuscripts pages (or even 150) begins with a single idea. Here's how to find one.
by Robert W. Bly
Many people who attend my book publishing seminars already have a book idea in mind. Others, however, have a strong desire to write a book, but are stuck on coming up with a suitable topic. If you fall into this category, here are ten sources of ideas for books you may want to write:
1. JOB EXPERIENCE
An obvious but often overlooked source of book ideas is your job. Thousands of excellent books have been written by authors about a skill, expertise or career experience gained on the job.
This is how I came to write my first book, Technical Writing: Structure, Standards and Style (McGraw-Hill). My first job after graduating college was as a technical writer for Westinghouse Electric Corp. in Baltimore. After several months writing technical materials, I began to feel the need for a writing guide to assist technical writers with matters of style, usage, punctuation and grammar (for example, does one write 1/4 or 0.25 or one fourth in technical documents?). Being book-minded, I went to the bookstores and found nothing appropriate.
My idea was to compile a style guide for technical writers modeled after the best-selling general writing style guide, The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White. I wrote a content outline and book proposal, and began to pursue agents and publishers. I was extremely lucky: The first agent who saw Technical Writing agreed to represent the book, and within three weeks, he sold it to the first publisher to look at it, McGraw-Hill. The advance was $8,500 -not bad for a first-time author in 1981 for a short (100-page) book.
Not every book I've written since has sold so quickly and easily. But subsequently, I have written a number of books based on skills and experiences gained in various careers and jobs.
Do you hold a highly desirable position or work in a glamorous industry: Then you can write a book telling others how to get into your line of work.
Have you developed specific and valuable skills such as computer skills selling, marketing, finance, negotiating or programming-skills that others need to master? There's a need for a book telling them how to do it.
2. TEACH A COURSE
There are many opportunities for you to design and teach courses to other people at work, at adult education evening classes at the local high school or college, a community colleges, at association meetings and even on the university level.
If you get the opportunity to teach a course, keep in mind that the topic and content outline you develop for the course may have appeal to a publisher as the outline for a potential book on the same subject.
In 1981, a private seminar company offering low-cost public seminars in New York City asked me to do an evening program on marketing and promotion for small business. The pay was lousy but I accepted. A year or so later, I tool the course title and outline, turned it into a book proposal, and sold my second book, How to Promote Your Own Business, to New American Library.
If you want to write nonfiction books there are two advantages to teaching a class or seminar. First, in developing and teaching the course you will simultaneously be doing most of the legwork necessary to produce a book on the subject. Therefore, once you've given the course, transforming it into a book is a relatively quick and easy next step (or at least quicker and easier than doing , book from scratch).
Second, teaching the course positions you as an expert in the subject making you more attractive to book publishers. They figure that anyone who can give a course on the topic must have a substantial amount of information and expertise to share. If you taught the course at a prestigious, well-known institution, that further boosts your credibility
3. TAKING COURSES
Taking courses can also give you fresh infusion of ideas and information that can become the basis for a book.
The same private seminar company was teaching small business promotion seminars for offered a number of courses in different career areas, which as an instructor, I could take for free. After taking several, I came up with the idea of doing a career book on how to break into some of the more exciting, glamorous industries and professions, such as music, film, advertising, travel and television. The book, Creative Careers: Real Jobs in Glamour Fields, was published by John Wiley & Sons.
Warning: When you take the course, don't steal or plagiarize the instructor's seminar, reprinting it word for word as your book. Consider it a starting point and supplement it with additional research from many other sources (book articles, interviews, other seminars, etc.)
If the instructor does have good information you want to reprint (such as lists of contacts and resources), get his permission in writing. You can also ask the instructor if he or she will agree to be interviewed by you for inclusion in the book.
4. WRITE ABOUT YOUR LIFE EXPERIENCES
"It is in the totality of experience reckoned with, filed and forgotten, that each man is truly different from all others in the world," writes Ray Bradbury in Zen in the Art of Writing. Every person every life, is unique, and this is why say that everyone has at least one book inside them: What has happened to you has not happened to other people, and your experiences will make for a book that is either instructive, entertaining, moving or any combination of these.
This applies to everyone. For example, if you have chosen to remain single you can write Living Alone and Loving It or a similar book on the joys of being single. If you are married with children, you have unique experiences as a parent, and can share your knowledge and experiences with others in an entertaining or informative book. If you are married but have been unable to have children, you have credibility to write a book on infertility. If you and your spouse have not had children by choice, you can write a book on Choosing to Live Child-Free. If you have only one child, you can write Raising the Single Child. If you're a single parent, you can write Straight Talk and Advice for Single Parents.
In 1982, the New York City engineering firm employing me told me I would have to relocate. My fiancee did not want to leave Manhattan, so I resigned and started a new career as a self-employed industrial writer, producing brochures and data sheets for chemical companies and industrial equipment manufacturers.
The transition from employee to freelancer was an educational experience, one I knew many others would go through (or would hope to, some day). This became the topic of my book, Out on Your Own: From Corporate to Self-Employment, also published by Wiley.
5. WRITE ABOUT A PROCESS OR TASK YOU KNOW HOW TO DO Through work, leisure or life experience, we all have done things that many other people have not done, and therefore know a good deal more about these things than they do. The inexperienced would like to learn from your experiences and avoid your mistakes, and a book is the ideal vehicle for this.
For instance, after resigning from the engineering firm and becoming a self-employed industrial writer in 1982, I was forced to learn how to succeed in the commercial writing field on my own; there was no book to guide me. I made many expensive mistakes and learned from experience.
To help other writers speed the learning curve and avoid these mistakes, I wrote Secrets of a Freelance Writer, published by Henry Holt & Co. The book is about the process of running a freelance writing business, covering everything from getting started and finding clients to setting fees and negotiating contracts.
6. WRITING ABOUT YOUR HOBBY Hobbies that fascinate you no doubt fascinate a lot of other people. As a hobbyist, you have much more knowledge than a journalist or other outsider who would have to research the field from scratch. Why not turn your hobby into profit center by writing a book about it?
One of my hobbies is collecting comic books. I love Superman, Batman Wolverine, and the other DC and Marvel superheroes.
When I graduated college in 1979, I burned with the desire to write a book and get it published. I started two book projects. One was a Harlequin romance novel, which I started not because I enjoy Harlequin romance novels-I've never even read one-but because I figured it would be easy to do. I was wrong. I wrote 40 pages of the worst Harlequin romance novel of all time before abandoning the project.
But writing those pages taught me an important lesson: Don't select a topic or form for your book just because you think it is commercially viable and will make you a lot of money. If you do, your lack of enthusiasm will show through in your writing.
On the other hand, if you are passionate about your topic, your enthusiasm will show through in your writing. The book will be easier and more fun to write, and the final product will be much better in quality.
The second book project I started working on was a trivia book on comic book superheroes, written in quiz form. For example: What are the six types of kryptonite? (Green, red, blue, white, gold, jewel.) What was Spider-Man's major in college? (Physics.)
I wrote a short manuscript and, having no contacts in publishing, and no knowledge of the publishing business, sent it to editors at various paperback publishers with a cover letter. It was rejected by all. I gave up and put it in a drawer.
Years later, when I was cleaning out some files, I came across the manuscript. I was going to throw it out, but instead mailed it to my literary agent with a note saying, "Do you think you can do anything with this?"
Six weeks later, she called and said she'd sold the book. I was speechless, The book, Comic Book Heroes: 1,101 Trivia Questions About America's Favorite Superheroes From the Atom to the X-Men, was published by Citadel Press.
The second lesson I learned from this, experience was: A book idea that doesn't sell now might sell later. If you get rejected by publishers, don't throw away or forget about the book proposal. File it and make a note to take another look al it in six or twelve months. Sometime you have success on the second or third try because the timing is right. Other times, you see the idea from a fresh perspective, rewrite it, and make the sale with the revised book proposal. When asked to address the graduating class at Oxford, Winston Churchill, a great writer, stood up, said only "Never give up," and sat back down. These three words are good advice for authors who want to sell book proposals to publishers.
Eventually, a third lesson revealed itself: Every book published gives you credential that can lead to more book contracts in the same field.
I enjoyed writing the comic book trivia book. After it came out, I though about doing trivia books on other topics in a similar format.
I was always a big Star Trek fan. This resulted in two books with Harper-Collins: The Ultimate Unauthorized Star Trek Quiz Book and Why You Should Never Beam Down in a Red Shirt. As publishers began to see me as a writer of popular culture trivia, I received several more contracts along this line, including What's Your Frasier I.Q.?, a quiz book on the TV show Frasier.
Books about hobbies can be how-to, money-making, reference, specialized or general information. If you have an interest in tropical fish, for example, you could write How to Keep Tropical Fish (how-to), How To Breed Tropical Fish for Fun and Profit (moneymaking), An Illustrated Guide to Aquarium Fish (reference), Care and Breeding of Fancy Guppies (specialized) or Your First Fish Tank (general).
Notice that the first six methods on this list involve you, the author, having some special insight, experience or information on the topic of your book. Author and publisher Dan Poynter says: "Write about something in which you are a participant. The world needs more books written by writers who are also experts, not writers who are journalists."
"Concentrate on the area that interests you, and if you're not an expert now, you may become one," writes Tom Peeler in The Writer." And even if the area of interest still requires consultation with recognized professionals, specialization will allow you to develop regular sources and will give you credibility with them."
One of Gary Larson's Far Side cartoons shows an author autographing his book at a book signing. The caption reads, "After being frozen in ice for 10,000 years, Thag promotes his autobiography." The title of the book: It Was Very Cold and I Couldn't Move. Obviously, no publisher expects you to have 10,000 years of experience in your subject matter. But writing about something you know, have experienced or have achieved is one route to coming up with a book idea a publisher will buy from you.
7. COLLECT AND COMPILE TIDBITS OF SCATTERED INFORMATION
Are you interested in a specific field of knowledge or study? And are you the type who clips articles and collects tidbits of information on your topic? If so, you can convert this passion for information by compiling your collected knowledge into book form.
For a while, I became fascinated with all the toll-free consumer helplines and hotlines I saw advertised, giving free information on everything from AIDS prevention to gardening tips to stock market quotes. I became an obsessive collector of these numbers, clipping articles and writing down 800 numbers I heard on radio and saw on TV. Finally, I compiled them into a book, Information Hotline U.S.A., published by New American Library.
Similarly, a friend of mine, Don Hauptman, is obsessed by language in general and word-play in particular. Don is a collector of information, and began collecting acronyms (such as DNA, LSD, scuba, laser). When his collection got large enough, he turned it into a book on acronyms, Acronymania, published by Dell.
8. FIND AND FILL A NEED OR GAP IN THE READER'S KNOWLEDGE An excellent way of finding marketable ideas is to talk with people and find out what they want and need to know, then write a book to satisfy that information need.
For example, an attorney with good negotiating skills heard many clients telling him that they too wished they had good negotiating skills and would like help becoming better negotiators. The attorney became a millionaire by writing and selling books, audio and videotape programs, seminars and training sessions in negotiating skills.
Working as a business consultant, I saw there were dozens of books on sales, but almost nothing on how to generate leads for salespeople. I proposed The Lead Generation Handbook, which sold to Amacom, the publishing division of the American Management Association.
And when we moved out of New York City and bought a home in the suburbs, we knew nothing about plumbing, electricity, gardening, cars, aluminum siding, roofing, or the dozens of other things every homeowner eventually becomes familiar with. I thought, "Why not do a book that will be an instruction manual for first-time homeowners?"
I wrote a proposal for a book titled The Homeowner's Survival Guide. No one was interested, and I put the proposal away in a file and forgot about it. Several years later, a major publisher-one for whom I've now written several books-came out with such a book with the exact same title. Another lesson learned: Pay attention to your own gut feelings. Had I kept trying with this book, as I advise you to do, it might very well have sold within a year or so. But I gave up on it, and now another author's name is on the cover.
9. TAKE AN EXISTING TOPIC AND TARGET IT TO A SPECIFIC AUDIENCE
A common situation is the author who wants to write a book on a specific topic but finds the field overcrowded.
This happens to all of us: You get an idea for a book, get excited about it. But
then you visit the bookstore and find two shelves full of books on the same topic, books that seem very much like yours. You become discouraged by the competition, give up and drop the idea. Don't! You can still write that book. You just need a fresh slant, angle or hook.
One of the easiest and most successful methods to finding this fresh slant is to target your book toward a specific audience within the market. For example, a woman seminar leader told me she wanted to write a book on presentation skills, but was afraid to try because so many books already exist. She mentioned at one point that she trained mainly women. I asked her if women making presentations in the business world face a different set of challenges than men do. "Of course," she replied.
"Then," I suggested, "the title of your book should be Presentation Skills for Women."
In the same way, I wanted to write a book on selling, but found the market overcrowded. Since my experience is in selling services vs. products, I offered Holt a book on Selling Your Services.
10. WRITE WHAT INTERESTS YOU In addition to finding out what interests other people, an excellent source of ideas is what interests you. You are a curious, intelligent, creative human being, constantly thinking and wondering about the world around you. Chances are what interests you will interest many other people, too.
I'm a big Stephen King fan, as are many others. Having written the TV and comic book quiz books, I naturally thought of doing a quiz book on Stephen King. My agent promptly sold it to Kensington Books, a paperback publisher in New York City.
I recommend you keep a notebook, file folder or computer file labeled "book ideas," and whenever an idea for a book comes to mind, write it down and save it. Don't worry whether the book will eventually interest a publisher. Creating ideas and analyzing/assessing ideas are two separate activities, and should not overlap. Don't hold your creativity back; let the ideas flow and quickly get them all down on paper. Later you can decide which won't work and which merit further effort.
But first, you must have the idea.
Robert W. Bly is the author of more than 35 books, including The Copywriter's Handbook (Henry Holt) and Write More, Sell More (Writer's Digest Books). This article is excerpted from Getting Your Book Published and is copyright © 1997 by Robert W. Bly. It appears here through arrangement with Roblin Press.