Category Archives: chapters

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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Hire a Ghostwriter to Write Your Book? 4 Questions to Ask Yourself

You’ve dreamed about writing a book someday. You believe you have a story inside you that will amaze and inspire people. You’ve tried to write it down, and have sketched out some ideas here and there. Maybe you have notebooks or computer files that are filled with writing but you’re realizing that all these bits and pieces aren’t adding up to a book. Do you need to hire a ghostwriter?

Perhaps, but first there are four crucial questions to ask yourself:

1. Do I understand what a ghostwriter can do for me? A ghostwriter, or “work-for-hire” writer, writes for other people but does not receive public credit and her name won’t appear on the book jacket or the book’s copyright notice. She’s a “ghost” because she works invisibly, behind the scenes. A ghostwriter for a book structures and shapes the book, including its scenes or sections, and renders the expert’s ideas on the page in a way that is true to her client’s vision. Her client, not the ghostwriter, retains the claim to the book’s copyright and takes responsibility for the material in the pages. A professional ghostwriter can alert her client to potential legal issues, but ultimately, the book she will ghostwrite will be her client’s baby. In fact, you might think of a ghostwriter as a professional midwife for books.

2. Do I secretly want to be a writer, or do I simply want my story and ideas told in my voice? An excellent ghostwriter will listen to how you express yourself in person or over the phone. She will notice the complexity of your sentence structure, your pet phrases, and your tone. Then, as she begins to ghostwrite your book, she’ll create a voice that sounds as if it were yours. She knows that if you’re serious and dignified, your voice on the page should be different than if you’re playful and whimsical.

If your heart tells you that it’s you who must write every word of your book, you must be willing to master the craft of writing a book. Hire a writing coach, take writing classes, and read books on writing. Commit to the time it will take to master your craft and write your book. If you hire a ghostwriter when you truly want to be the writer, you’ll find it difficult to create a good partnership with her. You need to trust the ghostwriter to capture your voice and ideas or she won’t be able to do her job properly.

A ghostwriter or developmental editor may be key to getting your book written

3. Do I have the money to hire someone to interview me and write a book based on my life or ideas? It can take hundreds of hours of a ghostwriter’s time to interview you and ghostwrite a quality book for you. You’ll need tens of thousands of dollars to hire a professional ghostwriter to ghostwrite a memoir, self-help book, or novel based on your ideas and synopsis. If you procure a book contract and an advance against future earnings from a publisher, you can use that money to hire someone to ghostwrite or coauthor your book. If your budget is too tight to pay a five-figure fee to a book ghostwriter, remember that you get what you pay for. Will you be content with a book that isn’t well structured or well-written, a book that doesn’t have rich ideas and a narrative flow that’s engaging and entertaining? If you don’t have a publishing contract and paying a ghostwriter will be a problem for you, see question #1 and rethink whether you might be willing to learn to write the book yourself rather than hire someone to ghostwrite a book for you.

4. Do I know what I want to say? Everyone has ideas and stories to write about, but you may not have enough to say to fill a book unless you work with a professional ghostwriter who can draw stories out of you, find the narrative arc to your book, and help you develop your ideas. In fact, if you want to write your own book and you have good writing skills, but are stuck on what to say, you may not need a ghostwriter so much as a developmental editor. A developmental editor can help you flesh out your ideas and structure your book.

Whatever your goal, don’t let fear, insecurity, or embarrassment influence your decision about whether to write your book yourself or hire a ghostwriter to ghostwrite it for you. If you honor your strengths as well as your weaknesses, you’ll come to the right decision for you regarding who should write your book. Know what type of assistance you need and you won’t regret your decision, whatever it turns out to be.

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The Word on Word Count and Length

How do you determine word count and length for a book and its chapters?

First, study other successful (key word: successful!) books in your genre to discover what length they are. For example, a typical self-help book is between 60,000 and 80,000 words in length. Don’t worry about pages for now. Editors, publishers, and agents usually think in terms of words, not pages because a page of a book or manuscript could have anywhere from 200 to 500 words on it. It’s more accurate to think in terms of word count. In fact, if I’m asked to work on a book “of about 200 pages,” I will ALWAYS question what that person means in terms of actual word count.

 

To determine the word count of a book, count up the words on a typical page and multiply by the number of actual pages (don’t count the copyright page, title page, index pages, etc.). I use the Chisanbop method of counting on my hands to 100  to quickly calculate page numbers, shouting aloud “one hundred!” or “two hundred!” to ensure that I don’t forget what hundred I’m on (most pages will hold 200 to 400 words). I suppose I could just write a hash mark on a piece of scratch paper too but that wouldn’t be as much fun now, would it?

 

Anyway, to determine the word count of your Microsoft Word document (or a highlighted section),  go to the Toolbar and from the TOOLS pull-down menu choose WORD COUNT.

Once you’ve determined what your book’s chapters will be, you will have to figure out how many words you’ll need per chapter to meet those word count parameters.

Let’s say you’re aiming at 70,000 words and you’ve come up with 14 chapter ideas. Assign a few thousands words to the front matter and back matter (which consist of the title page, copyright page, contents page, and the like, as well as  extra sections such as the a preface, introduction, foreword or afterword, epigraph, resource section, and endnotes). That leaves you with about 67,000 words. Divide that figure by 14 chapters and you end up with  4785 words allotted for each chapter.

 

Typically, a self-help book will have at least ten chapters but less than twenty, and most chapters will be approximately the same length.  If you have several 15-page-long chapters and one that’s 36 pages long, consider whether you could split it into two different chapters, or whether you’ve simply written too much on that topic and need to save it for another book. (It’s common for an author to realize this unwieldly chapter can be tamed and serve as the seed for his next book, which will look at that topic in depth).

When in doubt, look at successful books. How many chapters do they have? How long are the chapters? How much of the book is devoted to the “action plan” versus background material for understanding the book’s fresh ideas? Novelists and memoirists should be looking at length, too.  If you aspire to write the next Eat, Pray, Love or  Twilight series, how long should your book be? Remember that while the brilliant Harry Potter series ended with some hefty tomes, the first book was a more standard length publishers and readers are familiar with.

So take a few good books off your shelf and take a look at their word count. Familiarize yourself with your genre’s most typical length and think long and hard about breaking the rules and writing a book that’s very short or very long compared to its buddies on the bookshelf.

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