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Help for Self-Help Writers
by Beth Fowler

According to Marketdata Enterprises, self-help books sales reached nearly $700 million in the U.S. in 2005 (latest figure available) and were forecast to grow 8.3 per cent a year.

People buy self-help books for one reason: to solve a problem. The range of topics reveals the myriad problems readers need to resolve and are, therefore, willing to spend money on. Book buyers crave solutions to abuse, eating disorders, unhappiness, stress, mismanaging time, financial woes. They're tired of being unfit, fat, unemployed, addicted ...

In Writing Successful Self-Help and How-to Books, Jean Marie Stine states that hopeful self-help authors who "have something new to offer or a powerful twist on established techniques" can enrich their lives helping others and adding to their own bank accounts.

If you're not a recognized subject-matter expert you can still write a book that will help others. You can interview and quote (with permission) experts and collect supportive current evidence and data. Not all self-help books are by big names like Deepak Chopra. Some are the collaboration of as many as five authors. Some crossover to the memoir genre as they offer practical methods to others dealing with the same issues as the author.

Consider writing a proposal to land a contract before writing the book, then your work will not be for naught. Refer to Michael Larsen's How to Write a Book Proposal. In your proposal to publishers, indicate the market as Pat Olsen did for How to Help Your Alcoholic Brother or Sister and Not Lose Yourself. Pat said, "It stands to reason - if there are almost 22 million Americans who are addicted to or abuse alcohol, many if not most of them have siblings. If a publisher deals with recovery books, then they recognize our numbers. My story must have convinced mine there was a need for this book."

Select a working title to help focus your writing. Later, refine the title. Many self-help titles include numbers (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People). Typically, titles state the end result in a positive way (You Can Heal Your Life). Titles can state the problem and the result (How to Stop Worrying and Start Living). Most self-help titles are two phrases connected by a colon (When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times).

Employ strong, precise verbs and nouns, especially in titles and subtitles. Better Networking is weak compared to Hone Your Networking Skills. Dealing with Stress is weaker than Conquer Stress Forever.

Write in a consistent, appropriate tone. Books about distressing life passages such as grieving the death of a spouse can include humor if it's genuine, not at the readers' expense and adds insight. A conversational, friendly, empathetic tone is more saleable to mainstream readers than an academic, detached, judgmental tone.

No matter how grave the topic, readers should feel encouraged while reading your book. Victims struggling with incurable diseases, for example, although not expecting a cure, will feel better having found a writer who understands their suffering, offers coping techniques and provides resources.

New Harbinger editors (www.newharbinger.com) recommend including only as "much theory, history, and motivational writing as the reader needs to understand and acquire the skill at hand. A few sentences of inspirational or motivational writing can help, but keep your focus on the practical and factual. When you have the choice of explaining a complex theory or just giving a simple instruction, give the simple instruction. If you discuss theory, give a brief, clear explanation."

Organize your material logically in easy-to-digest chunks. Stine used a form of outlining to organize her book. Chapter 2 is broken into subchapters (2.1, 2.2, 2.3) and some of those are broken further into sub-subchapters (2.2.1, 2.2.2, 2.2.3).

If a self-help topic doesn't lend itself to a sequential process, first summarize the problem, next talk about the causes, review "solutions" that typically fail, go over the costs — financial, physical, mental, emotional — of the problem. After you've laid that groundwork, the reader is primed to read your solution.

Include lists, charts, diagrams, analogies, activities, quizzes, self-ratings, case studies, testimonials, before-and-after data or photos, media excerpts, survey results and examples to get key points across in interesting ways.

Don't overstate results. Don't use technical terms when everyday words are fine. Don't use the book as a ploy to sell something else. Don't make up words or use buzz words. Don't repeat a concept. (A succinct review is enough).

Do read books on your topic to figure out how yours is different. Do write the first draft quickly to get the ideas down. Do rewrite until the prose pops. Do help market the book with seminars, speaking engagements, radio interviews, television appearances, press releases and signings at bookstores.

If you know an approach to solve a problem that bedevils people, start writing your self-help book and work toward earning readers' gratitude and publisher royalties.

© Copyright 2009, Beth Fowler

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