One of the most common questions I get from potential authors is:
“I know I want to write a book, but I’m having trouble settling on the exact subject matter. How do I narrow down and pick my book topic?”
The truth is that there is no “one true method” for figuring out what your book should be about.
In this post, I will cover the three main approaches we use to help our authors choose their book idea. These work very well, and in fact, you can use each one to examine your book idea from different angles and ensure that it’s the right book for you.
(Note that these three approaches overlap a lot and can be used in conjunction. Do not see them as mutually exclusive, but more as supporting each other.)
Part 1: The Scribe Method
This is the exact three step process we use with our authors:
1. Objectives: What do you want your book to accomplish?
The first question you have to ask yourself is: What result must the book produce for you to be a success?
This question can confuse a lot of people, so the way we frame it for our authors is we ask them this very specific question:
Imagine it’s a year after your book has been published. What’s happened over that period to make writing your book worth it to you?
What this does is force you to think ahead and focus on objectives that are specific, measurable, realistic, and achievable.
Here are several popular (and reasonable) objectives that authors mention:
1. Raise Visibility/Profile: A book is fantastic at helping an author get more visibility in any number of ways, like making it easier to get media or other forms of attention.
2. Increase Authority/Credibility: A book is great at helping an author establish their authority and credibility in a field.
3. Reach New Clients/Opportunities: A book is very useful at helping generate all kinds of new business and opportunities, in multiple ways.
4. Obtain Speaking Engagements: A book is a necessity for becoming a paid speaker or even getting booked for any speaking at all.
5. Create a Legacy: A book can help establish a legacy and pass your story on to others.
6. Impact Readers Lives: Obviously a book can help people, and this is usually a primary goal of authors.
Obviously, the details of each of these areas depend on your specific field and profession, but any of those can be very realistic objectives.
The goal you should probably stay away from is book sales. I’m serious—selling lots of copies of your book is usually an unreasonable goal for authors.
In short, here’s why: last year, there were almost 500,000 new books published in America. BookScan, the company that measures all book sales, says that only about 200 books per year sell 100,000 copies or more. The number of books that sold 1 million copies last year is even fewer, probably close to 10 (and almost all of those were novels).
You can make a lot of money from a book, but that is done by using a book as a marketing tool. If you want to learn more about specific ways to use a book, I talk about several different ways to make money with a book here.
2. Audience: Who must the book reach?
Once you know your objectives, then you need to get clear on precisely who the audience is that must be reached for your goal to be achieved. Here’s an example:
Let’s say your goal is to speak at Human Resources conferences. In that case, the audience your book must reach is the people who attend those Human Resources conferences and the people who book speakers for those conferences.
Or, if you want to generate more business for your consulting firm that helps credit unions market their services, then you need to raise your visibility and authority with executives at credit unions.
This is pretty straightforward and simple: the audience is dictated by the objectives you select for your book.
3. Idea: What will you say, and why will the audience care?
The final question is the key one: what is your book about, and why will your audience care?
This should be a direct line from your audience—what they want to know about becomes the book subject. Here are some real life examples:
Mark Laughlin wanted to help raise his visibility and establish his authority in the franchise coaching space where he had a consulting practice. In order to do that, he needed to reach people who wanted to learn more about how to start and run a franchise, so he wrote the book How to Succeed in Franchising that explains exactly that.
Tyler Cauble wanted to establish his authority and generate leads for his commercial real estate business. In order to do that, he had to reach small business owners who were interested in finding and leasing space. He did that in a book called Open for Business: The Insider’s Guide to Leasing Commercial Real Estate that reveals all the information small business owners need to understand commercial real estate.
Jonathan Siegel wanted to raise his visibility and profile in the tech and startup scene, get speaking gigs, and generate deal flow. To do that, he had to reach tech entrepreneurs and investors. He did that by writing The San Francisco Fallacy: The Ten Fallacies That Make Founders Fail, which recounts Jonathan’s experiences building and selling a dozen software companies.
Check the Answers against Each Other to Make Sure They Work
Once you answer the three questions, the key is to check each of the three against each other. If you don’t have anything relevant to say to the audience you need to reach, then you need to re-examine your book objectives to reach an audience you can help.
Or if your objectives are so broad they require you to reach an audience that is not within your grasp, you need to narrow them down to something smaller so you can find an audience you can actually reach.
Everything ties in together.
Everything is connected.
The objectives lead to the audience.
The audience has their needs that must be met.
And if the book provides value to the audience, you’ll reach the objectives you want to achieve.
It all ties together in a simple formula. If you follow it, you’ll pick a book topic that provides value for both you and the audience.
Part 2: The “Teach the Pain You Solve” Method
This is a method that I’ve seen work really well for a lot of authors, especially for the types of authors we work with at Scribe (entrepreneurs, business owners, inventors, consultants, coaches, etc). It’s a deceptively simple process. This is how it works:
First, identify a problem you had, one that created real pain for you.
Second, describe the solution you came up with to solve that problem.
Third, ask yourself, “Is this a problem for other people, and if so, would they find my solution valuable?”
If the answer is, “Yes, there are people who would like that knowledge,” then you probably have a good book idea in you.
I told you—really simple.
Lemme give you some examples of how this works with real books:
Using Your Pain to Help Others
Driven by Dr. Douglas Brackmann is an excellent book that teaches people with driven people, specifically people with ADHD, how to master their gifts and get what they want from life.
Dr. Brackmann wrote this book because he grew up with the diagnosis of being ADHD and was told his whole life that he has a disability. He refused to see it that way. He spent his life seeking to understanding where ADHD comes from (it’s actually genetic and serves an adaptive purpose) and how to utilize the energy and focus the condition creates to improve his life. He now spends all of his time training the highest performers—entrepreneurs, CEOs, pro athletes, inventors, and Navy SEALs—to learn how to perform even better using the techniques he had to learn to compensate for his ADHD.
He learned a new skill to solve his personal problem, built a business out of that, and then wrote a book to share this knowledge with others who were suffering from the same issues he was.
And if you look at the reviews, you can see the impact his book has made on people.
Leverage Tools You’ve Made for Yourself to Help Others
Meetings Suck by Cameron Herold is the definitive text on how to run a business meeting. It quickly and succinctly explains every aspect of running a meeting, from setting an agenda to what to do if someone is late.
Herold became an expert at meetings because when he was busy growing three companies to $100 million+ in revenue, no one in any of his companies knew how to run a meeting. As a result, huge amounts of time and money were wasted. It wasn’t anyone’s fault—there was no training, no resources, not even a pamphlet for people to refer to.
So he figured out best practices, taught his direct reports, and saw the productivity of his company explode.
This is basically what Meetings Suck is—the training manual he created to make the meetings at his companies enjoyable and effective.
Problems You Solved are Valuable to Other People
How to Run Away from Home: And Bring Your Family With You by Adam Dailey is about how, after he sold his company, Adam wanted to travel the world. The problem: he was married with four kids.
Nope. Adam and his wife became experts at traveling with children: knowing what airlines and hotels are best, learning how to find schools, navigating daycare and meals in strange places with six people, and creating the right mindset in your family for travel.
You see the pattern?
The author had a problem that created real pain for them.
They solved that problem in their lives.
Then they shared their solution with other people through a book.
The reason this works so well is because it does two things:
1. It forces the author to ground themselves in reality and focus on something they actually did. It ensures you are offering real value to the reader because it’s not theory—it’s your actual solution to a real problem you have.
2. By focusing on a problem that other people also have, you are making sure you have an audience ready for the book before you even write it.
This Is a Time-Tested Method to Find the Best Book Ideas
If this storytelling method sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because this is basically the essential story structure of every fable, myth, and legend in existence. The historian Joseph Campbell called this story structure the “Hero’s Journey” and you can break down many movies, novels, and even video games using this same basic structure.
The best part of using this structure is that by following it, you can be sure that there is an audience for your book and that it will have an impact with real people. If you had a problem that a lot of people share, and you found a solution, then those people will almost certainly want to know, will buy the book, and will thank and respect you for sharing that wisdom.
And isn’t that ultimately the point of writing a book to begin with?
Part 3: The “Cocktail Party Pitch” Method
Even if you can come up with a book idea, a big fear many authors have is a very valid one:
Will anyone care about this book?
With over a decade of experience in writing and publishing books and working with authors, I’ve found one test that nearly always works to help authors answer this question.
I call it “the cocktail party pitch.” It’s very simple to do:
Picture your ideal reader in your head, the exact person your book was written for. Now, imagine they’re at a cocktail party and they’re talking about your book to their friends. What do they say?
This question works so well because it gets at the heart of the author’s fear. If you can’t imagine anyone talking about your book to their friends, that means it’s not very useful to them, and the book might not be worth writing.
But if you can imagine your ideal reader talking about it to their friends in a realistic and natural way, then the book is probably a good idea.
The key to answering this question is self-awareness. Anyone can make up a silly story about how someone might recommend their book. That’s unhelpful.
For this to work, you have to be honest about how people actually talk to their friends about recommendations.
There is a very specific pattern to how and why people recommend books to their friends. Generally speaking, people only recommend nonfiction books (or anything) for two reasons:
- They took a lot of value from the book, and/or
- Sharing the book makes them look good.
For example, if a book helped them lose fifty pounds, they’ll often recommend it to their friends because people will praise them for losing all that weight, and sharing how they did this will raise their status among their friends.
If the book is about how to travel the world for $50 a day, they’ll talk about it because it tells the world that they are travelers (which reinforces their identity), and makes them look good to their friends (who are probably also travelers).
In essence, they want to share books that will make them look smart, educated, and cutting edge to their friends.
This test goes both ways. It also helps you identify when your book might be something people do not want to share. People do not share things that:
- Are hard to explain and make them feel stupid, and/or
- Make them look bad to their friends.
For example, if the book title is hard to pronounce or confusing, people won’t say it out loud at a party because they will feel stupid for not knowing how to pronounce it.
If the book is something that is looked down on by their friends—for example, if they are into Crossfit and the book is on how lifting weights is bad for you—they probably won’t admit to reading it, even if they really enjoyed it.
Even if the book is great, but the reader struggles to easily explain what it’s about, they are less likely to recommend it or talk about it. Their inability to explain it easily will make them feel stupid.
If you can’t imagine your ideal reader actually recommending your book to a similar reader at a cocktail party, then no—it’s not a good book idea.
But if you can imagine that—by creating a plausible conversational scenario—then yes, that’s a good book idea.