Lessons for Aspiring Self-Help Book Authors: What NOT to Do to Your Brand!

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?

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15 Comments

Filed under bestseller, bestselling author, book length, book publishing, book publishing economics, book publishing revenue models, chapters, eReader, frontlist books, grammar, headers, listen to the customer, Oprah, pricing your book, sales book, sales of books, self-help books, structuring nonfiction, write a bestseller

15 responses to “Lessons for Aspiring Self-Help Book Authors: What NOT to Do to Your Brand!

  1. Randi Kreger

    This model reminds me of what producers do when they have a bad movie. It opens in tons of places before word of mouth destroys it. Then all the marketing is pulled away. The author may have gotten a big advance and lots of publicity, but what will be her book sales over time and what will that do to her reputation? And the publisher’s?

    I happen to know of a very well-known author who had a great reputation and a line of books. Then she turned in a real stinker of a book and the publisher won’t do another book with her because they had to spend so much money on other people to fix it (and it still stunk). Ethical problems all around.

    I sill say it’s best to sink your time and effort into a book with a sales trend graph that goes up over time on backlist then in front list that disappears. For one thing, it makes me smile to know my books have sold more than some highly anticipated books by famous people that stink.

  2. nancypeske

    Indeed, Randi, smart publishers recognize that it’s the books that chug along or, even better, sell MORE copies each successive year, that are the best investments. It just seems easier to throw money at a name brand and cross your fingers. If it works, great. But when it doesn’t, it’s the author who is punished for the failure of the book.

  3. Thanks Nancy. I liked your post. I am the proud owner of a new self-help book and I have probably made many of the mistakes that you pointed out. But in some ways I don’t care. I am happy to have put together a fairly cogent and pleasant book that at the least will fulfill the Hippocratic Oath of doing no harm and at the end may actually help some people.
    But I have learned lots about publishing and self-publishing and about myself through the process and I have received far more from this exercise than I had ever imagined.
    Mike Martin
    Author of “Change the Things You Can” (Dealing with Difficult People)
    http://www.changethethethingsyoucan.wordpress.com

  4. Very interesting site and articles. Really thankful for sharing.Will surely recommend this site to some friends! Regards,

  5. Richard Amaral

    Great article. I just spent the weekend working on my first (of hopefully several) self
    -help books. It’s on addictions and learning how to recognize them, and then learning how to move into balance. Your article has given me some guidance around what i need to make sure my book includes, and to pay attention to the small details. Thanks again.

  6. What a refreshing and informative article! I have been doing extensive research on the self-publishing of self-help books, and I was so thrilled to stumble upon your comprehensive article. As I continue my research and continue composing my own self-hep book, I will certainly keep in mind the tips you have outlined above.

  7. Isabel

    Thanks for writing this article, Nancy. I’m working on writing a self-help book for young women on the cusp of adulthood, mixed with personal experiences…trying to answer the question of ‘What should I do with my life?’ Not easy! But lots of fun. This article is helpful. Thanks!

  8. Greetings Nancy, How serendipity, I just typed the last page of my self-help book that I started several years ago, then recently revamped it as my life experiences put the kibosh on my process. Just opened a bottle of Chardonnay to celebrate and there you were. I was checking on the advise for “words per page” sight and there you were. Thank you for your advise concerning matters of more importance than # of words. I’m trying to rush this book in order to advertise it on my web sight and have it ready for a convention. Too much pressure! QUESTION. Is self- publishing for sissies? Is it ever rewarding? So many folks in my profession have gone that way, most likely to avoid critical response- My biggest nightmare! (and I’m a Hypnotherapist). Just wondering if you have suggestions regarding that. JP

    • NancyPeske

      Hi Julie! Self-publishing used to be stigmatized. In fact, self-publishers were called “vanity presses.” However, if you approach self-publishing with a commitment to writing and publishing a quality work, then you should ignore the old ideas about self-publishing. I know many people who could get a book deal but want to self-publish for good reasons. You get a work into the marketplace faster. You can pay your own team of freelancers to help you create a professional product, without having to pay for the publisher’s overhead, which includes paying a CEO and rent on an office building as well as paying for a publicist who may be working off your list of contacts (which happens far too often!). Traditional publishers do offer some advantages, such as offering all the services under one umbrella, but you have to look closely at what is right for you and your project.

      You can submit your self-published book to Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and Kirkus, which are the prepublication reviewers libraries and reviewers pay attention to. It’s possible, but difficult, to get your self-published book into bookstores, but mostly, self-published books are sold online or in other real-life spaces than traditional bookstores. You can also submit your book’s typeset version, or final version, to reviewers yourself. You need to give magazines and newspapers a long lead time, however–traditionally, four months before your publication/launch if you want the reviews to come in at that time in order to make a big splash. I hope that helps!

      As for your heart-centered question–is self-publishing rewarding?–I’d say writing your story and ideas on the page and putting it out there to the public is rewarding if you get feedback. That can happen with self-published books and heck, even with blog posts. Do you need the book to sell in big numbers or to get rave reviews or book awards? Or do you want to get an email from someone whose husband moved back in after a split because of what he read in your book, or a woman who said your book got her through the worst days of her divorce? I have gotten both emails and believe me, they matter more than being able to say “My book was on a bestseller list” or “My book won awards” or “I was on TV promoting my book.”

      I hope that helps!

      • Hi Nancy, Thank you for your input and thoughtful words. Most of us beginners that are in the process of producing a product from conception to profit, are most likely praying for a kind word or a finger pointed in the right direction. You are the first person I’ve reached out to. I will continue reading your articles, blogs etc.. It is my hope to make a difference- as you do. I was put here to do just that and I’m excited to begin my journey at age 57. A very young and inquisitive 57 I might add!
        Sincerely, Julie P.

      • NancyPeske

        I’m glad I could inspire you, Julie. Be ageless, be courageous, be creative, and be curious. You can do this!–Nancy

      • Your answer is filled with great info, but defining success with a published book through responses from readers instead of becoming a best-seller is honest and heart-filled. Kudos to you for sharing this insight with new authors.

  9. Well, SHUT the FRONT door! BAY-UM! Dropped Mic Award of the CENTURY!

    I am just plain glad and appreciative of the fact that I had the insight to hire you as my writing coach as I wrote my first book. The advice you provided in a single 30 minute phone conference has resounded throughout my life. I am still guided by that advice as I focus on my platform, marketing and residual income streams.

    You spoke to my sense of excellence. I made many deep revisions based on your advice. Because of that advice, this book DELIVERS. I sent it through two professional edits and conducted research on layout. I hired an award-winning cover designer and a layout expert.

    You drug me along kicking and screaming, but it resulted in a well-organized product.

    THIS article is a treasure of guidance for indie authors. That you gave it freely from your heart is PRICELESS.

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