4 Steps To Writing A Book People Want

Step 1. Write A Book That Your Target Audience Wants To BUY

Did you know that Fifty Shades of Grey — a series that’s sold 90 million copies over the last three years — started off as an episodic series on a Twilight fan fiction site? It’s true: E.L. James took the characters from Twilight, wrote a bunch of stories about them doing sexy things with each other, then called the series “Master of the Universe.”

James removed the stories from the fan fiction site, published it to her own site — fiftyshades.com — then renamed the characters to Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele. The rest is history.

E.L. James, did it the smart way. She took a concept with enormous demand — the Twilight series — made it sexier, then gave it to the audience she knew would love it. She emulated a winning formula (and ultimately surpassed Twilight’s mega success). James knew that women were spending money on that type of book already.

There’s a BIG important lesson here.

This is for every author, artist, and entrepreneur. If you learn this, then it could save you from years of heartbreak and failure. The lesson is…


How do you do this? ASK!

Engage your audience (or your desired audience).
Interview them.
Survey them.
Interact with them.
Do research.
Find out what they like, and give it to them.

In order to hit #1 on the bestseller list, your book needs to make a big fat promise that it can deliver on. It needs to provide an amazing experience that people will readily pay money for.

Most authors do the total opposite.

They spend months or years working on their masterpiece… quietly, in the dark, without anyone looking, or knowing they are working on it.

They do this without ever realizing that they’re wasting their time making something that’s undesirable, and UN-BUYABLE. Then they come to me, asking me to help them with their book, and I have to say, “I love your idea, but I don’t really understand WHO this book is for. I don’t know WHAT it’s about (until they describe it to me for 10 minutes). And I don’t know WHY their audience would willingly pay for it.”

(I usually say it nicer than that… but on many occasions, once my clients answer these questions, they choose to write a new, or different book, or will change their content in a major way.)

It’s not enough to write a great book; You have to know what your target audience wants to buy.

If there are a ton of people buying one type of book (sexy vampires), it’s much more likely that they’ll buy a variation of it (sexy vampires having sex!).

Make sure the demand for your book is strong enough that people are willing to pay for it, before you start making it.

There’s a bunch of ways to do this. One method would be to read the 5–10 most popular books in your chosen category, and figure out why people love or hate them (i.e. read the reviews).

Before Tim Ferriss started writing The 4-Hour Chef, he read and took notes on about 50 cookbooks.

Once you’ve developed an understanding of the books that people are ACTUALLY BUYING, you’ll be able to create something unique or superior that those audiences will want to buy.

Now, I’m NOT saying to COPY someone else’s work. A big misconception many people has, is that emulating successful books, means you’re COPYING, or that you’ve compromised your artistic integrity. Nope!

It doesn’t even mean you’re a thief. (Let me tell you, NO ONE is original). “Modeling” what already works, is just a smarter way of doing things. It’s paying attention, and working within the framework that’s already established in the minds of your target audience — it’s giving them something they’re familiar with, and comfortable with buying.

When you do that, you not only make them happier, you also dramatically increase your odds of succeeding as an author, and reaching your goals with your book.

Step 2. Create The Book YOU Would Love To Read

“I just write what I wanted to write. I write what amuses me. It’s totally for myself.” — J.K Rowling

You better be a HUGE fan of your own book, because nobody is going market it for you. In fact, most people don’t realize that YOU are the one who is going to be 100% in charge of marketing it. That’s YOUR job.

If you produce a book you don’t really believe in, it’s going to be really difficult for you when you tell the world to buy it. I see many authors, apologize about their book, or hide them on their website, and actually sabotage themselves, and their credibility, because they created something that they are not proud of, or does not properly represent their brand.

Since they are confused, their potential audience is confused. And subsequently, they feel like they wasted their time writing the wrong book.

Before you start writing your book and acting all author-y (sitting at a typewriter, drinking scotch in a log cabin, etc.), you need to become the “architect” of your book first.

In other words, you need to envision and conceptualize what the final product is going to look and feel like. Image your book being 100% complete. If you had it in your hands right now, answer these questions:

Who would you like to read it?
What is it about? (What would they tell their friends it was about?)
Why do they want to read it? (Or buy it, and why would they want to share it with their friends?)
What do you want them to do next?

I call this: STRATEGY first.

You’ll want to plan out as much as possible, so you have an extremely clear idea of what you’re making before you start making it. I can’t emphasize how important it is to give yourself a clear vision from the very outset.

This will save you SO MUCH TIME, it’s not even funny. And, it will help you get clear about your marketing while you’re creating your book (i.e. understanding the elements that will help your book sell itself).

Here’s a checklist of all the elements you should plan out before you start writing…

#1 — Title + Subtitle
You need a great title in order for your book to be marketable. It’s the phrase that people are going to say, over and over, when recommending your book to friends or talking about it on blogs. If you have a great title — one that’s easy to remember and enjoyable to say — you’ve already won half of the marketing battle.

The goal of the title is to reveal your book’s main concept. Really great titles are usually 1–5 words long (Outliers, Harry Potter, Chicken Soup for the Soul). Any longer than that and it starts to lose its memorability, though there are exceptions (Men are from Mars Women are from Venus, How to Win Friends and Influence People).

Come up with 10–20 potential titles. Pick your three favorites. Now go down this list and ask the following questions to see if it’s marketable:

  • Is this title easy to remember?
  • Does it reveal the main concept or type of experience my book has to offer?
  • Does the title express what type of reader will benefit from reading the book?
  • Does the title provoke an impulse purchase? (“Oooh, I want to read that right now.”)
  • Would readers enjoy recommending this title to friends because it’s fun, cool, or sexy? (word-of-mouth friendly)
  • Does the title start a conversation when people hear it for the first time? (hint: if people say nothing upon hearing it, that’s a bad sign)
  • Would it be easy to turn this title into a franchise? (Harry Potter and the…, The 4-Hour…)
  • Is the domain available? (convenient, but not required — I bought playitaway.ME because .COM wasn’t available)
  • Are there any other books or copyrighted material with this same title?

If you answered “No” to some of those questions, keep brainstorming. Eventually, you’ll hit upon a winning title.

I thought about just calling my book “How I Cured My Anxiety,” based on a popular post I wrote. Then I had a conversation about it with my friend Tucker Max (bestselling author of I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell), and he offered his thoughts:

The problem with calling it “How I Cured My Anxiety” is that it hinders word-of-mouth. Think about it: If someone wants to give your book to their friend, what are they going to say? “Hey man, I have a great book that you need to read — it’s called How I Cured My Anxiety“? That’s uncomfortable because it almost sounds accusatory. “What do you mean I should read it? You think I have anxiety?” That’s not a conversation an anxious person wants to have.

He was right. I toyed with a number of other ideas:

  • How to Recover from Burnout
  • The 4-Week Plan for Health and Happiness
  • Overcoming Workaholism

The winning title, of course, was “Play It Away” (which Tucker suggested). The subtitle was simply a matter of tacking on who the book was for (workaholics), and how the book could benefit them (cure their anxiety).

Thus came the subtitle: “A Workaholic’s Cure for Anxiety.”

# 2 — Cover
Your cover is the core visual people associate with your book. Your cover must be compelling, sophisticated, and so eye-grabbing that people want to click it and read the Amazon description.

I had a concept in mind for my book’s cover from the very beginning: playing catch on a grassy hill, on a summer’s day. I wanted the coloring to fall somewhere between the movie posters for Field of Dreams and Big Fish — two films that have always felt magical, nostalgic, and playful.

That’s what I had in mind from the start. The goal for the cover was to INSTANTLY communicate those qualities, while revealing that the book was for anxious workaholics.

I decided to do a photoshoot so I could make a few cover mockups myself. That way, I would be able to quickly see if my ideas were working or not.

Here are some of my mockups:

I handed the mockups over to my designer, who sent this back to me two hours later:

No one understands the spirit and meaning of the book better than the person who wrote it. All authors should try to envision the exact cover they want (and how it will look when listed on Amazon), then sketch it out on paper or create a mockup in Photoshop.

Even if your designs are terrible drawings on a napkin, you can hire a great designer on Behance or Elance for a couple hundred bucks who can turn your ideas into something beautiful.

#3 — Description / Back cover
The description of your book is what gets people to BUY the book. It’s the squeeze page, the sales pitch, that converts an interested prospect into a paid customer. You need to invest a lot of time nailing this part because it’s really important. As Tim said in this post:

I’m astonished when authors spend 1–10 years writing a book and then let a junior copyeditor at their publisher write their backcover… You should spend at least 10x as much time on backcover/flap/”description” copy as you would on an average internal page.

I took my back cover pretty damn seriously. I didn’t want to just write whatever I thought sounded good, so I surveyed over 130 people to get their thoughts. I asked them the following questions:

  1. In your own words, describe what your anxiety feels like. How does it manifest itself? In what situations does it arise?
  2. What solutions have you tried in the past to manage your anxiety? What’s worked, and what didn’t work? How did you feel before and after trying these solutions?
  3. What is the biggest obstacle that’s preventing you from getting your anxiety under control?
  4. What would it mean to you if you got your anxiety under control? How would things change? What would your life look like?

I really wanted to get inside my readers’ heads, just to make sure I had a deep understanding of what they most wanted (this is a value I learned while working with Ramit Sethi). My readers’ answers heavily shaped the first half of my book’s description:

Do you live in constant fear?
Do you worry that something terrible is about to happen?
Do you have trouble breathing, relaxing, and sleeping?
Do you think you’re losing control, and that you’re going to die?
Are you trapped in your own personal hell, and don’t know how to get out?

I’ve been there, and I know what it’s like. Shallow breathing, tension in the gut, chest pains, rapid heartbeat… Every moment is exhausting, crushing, and painful. Anxiety destroys your confidence, your productivity, your relationships, and your ability to enjoy life. The worst part is the obsessive hopelessness — the gnawing sense that you’ll never feel happy again.

Fear no more. You can put an end to your suffering. You can start living again. And it’s not as hard as you think…

The first sentence of my book’s description contains the words “constant fear,” because that was the most common phrase people gave in the survey. For the rest of the description, I didn’t copy my readers’ answers verbatim, but I borrowed bits and pieces of what they wrote.

Here’s the second half of my description, which encouraged people to open the book and start reading RIGHT NOW:

Play It Away covers my entire journey: what caused my anxiety, the “A-ha!” moment that lead to my cure and how I got my life back. In this book, you’ll learn:

  • The key breakthrough that allowed me to enjoy life again (page 27)
  • My step-by-step plan for healing anxiety without drugs (page 47)
  • How I turned non-stop worrying into background noise (page 95)
  • My unusual technique for stopping panic attacks (page 100)
  • Why “anchors” fuel anxiety, and how to remove them (page 49)
  • How I finally started sleeping well again (page 85)
  • Three common nutrient deficiencies that amplify anxiety (page 114)
  • How to boost productivity and have guilt-free fun (page 70)

Actual Reader Feedback

“I can’t explain how nice it was to know that someone finally understood AND has solutions to change those feelings… The answers I’ve been searching for and asking doctors about for almost the last 3 years, you were able to summarize in one book.”

“I’m a developer who’s been struggling with burnout for a long time. I read your book in a single sitting. The only feedback I’ve got is THANK YOU! I’m so appreciative of your words because they validate what I’ve been feeling deep down all this time.”

You might be surprised or disappointed that I copied other people’s words, instead of coming up with everything on my own. And I get it — it’s seems like a weird thing to do. But the truth is that — even though I’d experienced intense anxiety myself — I wasn’t totally sure how other people thought about their own anxiety, or what it would mean to them to get those feelings under control. So I asked them, just to be sure I was creating something they’d actually want.

That’s the purpose of the back cover — to convince the prospective reader that this book was MADE FOR THEM, and that it’s going to deliver an amazing experience that will change their life. That’s how you get people to buy your book, which is required if you want to hit #1.

# # #

I hope you’re with me so far, and can see the value in architecting your book beforehand.

After you have the title, cover, and description of your book mapped out, THEN you can start writing.

Step 3. Bake the marketing into your book

Your aim is to create a marketable book. In order to do that, you — the author — should try to bake marketing elements into your book that facilitate word-of-mouth and ongoing sales.

Here are a few examples:

  1. Capture leads. If someone buys your book, they’ll probably be receptive to buying other stuff you come out with later on. But how are you going to reach them unless you have their email address? You should find a way to collect their contact information at some point in the book. For instance, people looking at your sample chapter on Amazon are able to read the first 10% of the book, but might not make the purchase. Why not give them an offer in the sample chapter that sends them to a landing page which collects their email address? Case in point, from my book:
  2. Beta readers. Have between 5 and 40 ideal readers give you brutal feedback on an early draft of your book (don’t ask family or friends to do this, they’ll be too soft on you). Send them a PDF of your book. Have them read it in Preview (Mac application) and use the annotation feature to leave candid notes. Ask each of these readers to give you notes on the following:
  3. When they get bored, stop reading, and check Facebook,
  4. When they roll their eyes,
  5. Whey they want to share a quote or section with a friend,
  6. When they laugh, get excited, or feel hooked,
  7. Which sections they loved, and which ones they hated.

This is EASILY one of the best things you can do to improve your book’s odds of hitting #1. The feedback you’ll get from your beta readers will sting, but it’s totally worth it because they are saving you from countless negative reviews on Amazon. They are forcing you to make a great book, and catching all of the things that currently suck. And trust me, a lot of what you’ve written in the early drafts will suck. You need beta readers to prevent you from releasing garbage.

After they’ve sent you their notes, hop on the phone with them. Talk to them, offer to help with something they’re struggling with. Get to know your readers and form a deeper bond. Because when your book is finally up on Amazon, you’ll need to get some positive reviews in a hurry. And guess who’s going to love helping you when that time comes? Your beta readers.

  1. Chapters are blog posts. Think about how your writing can be packaged online and easily shared. In the early stages of creating the Table of Contents for The 4-Hour Body, before he’d written anything else for the book, Tim Ferriss was coming up with chapter titles based on what he thought would make great guest blog post headlines.
  2. Quotes. Readers love to put quotes on Twitter and Facebook. Equip them with little bites of wisdom from your book that they can easily share with their friends.
  3. Call-to-action to share, review, or buy more. I have two main calls to action at the end of my book. The first is to call up a friend, ask them to play, then ask them to “play it forward” (sounds a little corny, but it works when you read it in the book). In other words, I’m asking them to do something fun while indirectly having a conversation about the book with their friend. The word-of-mouth is baked in. The second CTA comes immediately after the final chapter:

If you want to learn more about baking marketing into your book, check out these two articles:

Step 4. Get influencers and mavens to read your book

Compile a list of your “Dream Team” readers: the people who your work was made for. These are the select few who you’d love to read your book, and want to have them recommend it to their friends / fans.

You’re going to be giving away digital copies of your book — for free — to every single of them. You have to do it, because it’s the only way your book will have a fanbase the day it gets released.

This tactic has worked really well for Tim. For the release of The 4-Hour Chef, he did a promotion where he released a digital bundle on Bittorrent — a site with 170 million users — which contained a section of 4HC, deleted chapters, and bonus video content. Bittorrent promoted the bundle, over 1 million users downloaded it in the first month — that’s a lot of free quality marketing (and many books sold).

The 4HC promo is a unique case with exceptional results, but the principle can be used by any author — give your book away for free to people who are going to talk about it.

My dream team consisted of: reddit.com/r/anxiety, blogs and podcasts catering to people with mental issues, programmers and tech entrepreneurs, academic experts on play, and online friends of mine who wanted to help me (hey, thanks Noah!) Once I had my list, I reached out to everyone, and gave them my book for free.

I asked several dozen influencers if they wanted my book. More than 90% said yes.

You might think, “It’s unfair! You know all the famous internet people!”

Do you think I was born with connections? Do you think I paid for those relationships?

Of course not. I BUILT those relationships from the ground up, several years prior to writing a book. With Tim, Tucker, and Ramit — I reached out through email, offered to help them for free, and eventually became friends with them. Then they introduced / referred me to their networks (I met Noah through Ramit). I developed actual relationships with most of the people I met. Some are just loose connections, but most are friends that I’ve had dinner and drinks and crazy experiences with many times over the years.

Here’s the thing — I never expect anything from ANYONE. I don’t expect my friends to read the book, nor do I expect them to help me in any way. I just try to get them interested in my book by making a personal offer that’s extremely difficult to refuse.

Here’s how I phrase my offer, depending on the strength of my relationship with that person:

Email to: Loose Connection

Hey [nice person that I like but don’t know well] — My first book is coming out next month, and I’d love to send it your way. Not asking for any favors, don’t worry — this is a free gift. I think you’ll like it because I talk about managing anxiety and workaholism with play.

Do you prefer Kindle or PDF? Let me know, or feel free to pass — no hard feelings, I promise

I hope you’re well!

See what I did there? Instead of asking if they wanted the book, I asked what format they preferred. The question assumes they’ve already said “yes” (A or B?), while immediately absolving them of any guilt if they’re not interested (“feel free to pass — no hard feelings”).

This is critical for busy people, who receive hundreds of emails a day. It’s short, sweet, and makes it easy for them to quickly respond (“Kindle, please!”)

Email to: Influencer I’ve never met

Hi (author I admire),

I’m the author of the book Play It Away: A Workaholic’s Cure for Anxiety. The reason I’m emailing is because I’m an enormous fan of your writing, and I would love to give you a copy of my book. It’s based on a popular article I wrote about play, called How I Cured My Anxiety (#2 search result on Google for “cure anxiety,” underneath Oprah.com). The article has already helped more than 100,000 anxiety sufferers rediscover the importance of play, and I’m hoping my book will help many more.

Would you prefer Kindle or a PDF of my book? Just let me know and I’ll be happy to send it to you. If not, no hard feelings — I appreciate you taking the time to read this email, and for sharing such a helpful message with the world.

All the best,

A few keys about this email:

  • The first paragraph shows my admiration for their work, and establishes me as a fellow expert in terms they’ll appreciate.
  • The second paragraph makes it easy for them to respond to the email (A or B?), absolves them of guilt if they have to ignore me, and thanks them.

Don’t frame your offer in a way that leaves too much room to say “No.” Assume they’ll want your book by giving them more than one choice.

Reddit: I posted a few helpful threads in the /r/anxiety forum, including one which said I was working on a book. Very soon, I’ll be doing an exclusive giveaway of my book for 250 of /r/anxiety members. I’ll host the giveaway on Gumroad, which will automatically limit the number of downloads to the first 250 people.

Pirating sites: Don’t be afraid of your book being pirated. If that happens, it actually validates that your work is good (no one pirates awful content). Think of it as free advertising. Seriously, it costs you NOTHING to distribute your book digitally, so what are you worried about? If your book is really good, people will pay for it or share it. If they don’t like your book, they won’t buy it and you’re in the exact same position as you were before. No harm done!

Paolo Coelho — the Brazilian author of The Alchemist, and many other books that have sold millions of copies worldwide — is such a big believer in giving away his books for free that he set up his own piracy site (called Pirate Coelho).

Seth Godin gained much of his following by releasing his book The Idea Virus online, for free. It was downloaded more than 1 million times. Hell, even I gave away my first book (Recession Proof Graduate) for free. That book was read by more than 150,000 people, and it’s the reason I have a 5,000 sub email list.

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