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. 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 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 exact three step process we use with our authors:
1. Objectives: What do you want your book to accomplish, for your reader and for yourself?
Three basic questions help our authors discern the proper objectives:
Question #1: How do you want your book to serve your readers? What will they get out of it?
While your book can get you myriad benefits, the content of the book is not for you—it’s for the reader.
Readers are the audience for the book, and they will support and share your book (which helps you) only once they’ve gotten real value from it.
We begin by having our authors identify how they see their book serving readers. Once you can pinpoint the benefit your readers will receive, you’ll see how to connect their support to your goals. Here are some common ways authors want their book to serve their readers:
1. Help Solve A Problem/Get Something They Want: This is usually the big one, and can vary across a wide range of benefits, but the point is that every reader is buying your book because they anticipate it is going to get them something they want—so what is that thing?
2. Gain Knowledge/Wisdom/Information: Sometimes that thing the author wants will come from learning something, so this is often intimately tied with solving a problem, but they are not always the exact same thing.
3. Inspired/Motivated/Empowered: This is about how the readers will feel coming out of the book.
4. New Perspective: This is not as common as the above, but still fairly frequent. Many authors want to give readers an entirely new way to look at something.
From a book about learning faster and more effectively:
1. First and foremost, I want to inspire them, and convince them that they aren’t stuck where they are now—that they can improve and unlock their full potential to learn anything and everything, fast
2. I’d like to give them tools and techniques (and then the confidence) to actually learn faster
3. Finally, I’d like to open their eyes to an alternative way of living, from health, to lifestyle design, to their career. I want to ultimately inspire and empower them to live the lives of their dreams.
From a book that teaches women how to sell like men, but ethically and with heart:
1. The women who read this book will feel empowered to ask for the sale confidently
2. The women who read this book will be able to use the sales strategies I share to increase their conversion rate without ever feeling pushy or sales-y
3. The women who read this book will feel like, “If she can do it, I can do it too!”
4. The women who read this book will feel inspired to stand in the face of fear and go for their dreams in sales
Question #2: Imagine it’s a few years after your book has been published. What has the book helped you accomplish that made the effort worthwhile?
There are an almost infinite array of benefits a book can get for an author, but most of them fall into one of these six popular objectives:
1. Raise Visibility/Profile: books can increase visibility in any number of ways, like making it easier to gain media exposure or raise your profile in your niche.
2. Increase Authority/Credibility: books help an author establish authority and gain credibility within their field.
3. Get New Clients/Opportunities: books can easily help generate new business and other opportunities across a variety of platforms and venues in multiple ways.
4. Speaking Engagements: a book is almost a necessity for becoming a paid speaker, or often getting booked for any public speaking at all.
5. Leave a Legacy: a book can help establish a legacy, and pass your story on to others.
6. Impact Others: This is somewhat covered by the first question, but you can put it here as well. For some authors, this is often the main benefit to them. They either do not care about what they’ll get from their book, or they care about that only as a secondary benefit. Note that for any book to be effective, it has to impact others—it’s just that some authors place a much higher emphasis on this than others.
Obviously, the details of each of these depend on your specific field and profession, but any of those objectives can be very realistic objectives.
NOTE: The more specific you are with your objectives, the better.
From the same book about learning faster and more effectively:
1. We have built our B2C business to over $10M a year, in large part by leveraging the free book funnel and the exposure of the book, despite the fact that I’m less involved in the business than ever
2. We are running the world’s largest learning summit, with over 500 people a year paying to attend
3. We’re doing over $1M a year in corporate and enterprise subscriptions, because of the exposure and credibility of the book and the event
4. We have sparked research, conversation, and debate about education reform, and are working on a few not-for-profit pilot initiatives to improve education
From the same book that teaches women how to sell like men, but ethically and with heart:
1. I have a large following of female entrepreneurs and my brand is recognized and well-respected
2. I’m a sought out speaker on the topic of sales, and female empowerment. I have done a TEDx talk and been asked to speak at large, recognizable conferences like SXSW and Traffic & Conversion Summit. I will be asked to speak in venues with thousands of audience members and be paid $20K for a speaking engagement.
3. I frequently get messages from people (women and men) who thank me for writing this book because it genuinely helped them.
What Are Unrealistic Book Objectives?
Of course everyone secretly hopes their book will sell millions of copies and be a breakout success—but if you make that your objective, you are setting yourself up for failure. Those are not realistic goals. If you set realistic goals, you give your book a chance to actually succeed.
In fact, the most important thing you can do with this question is kill your fantasies and set objectives that are achievable. These are unrealistic objectives:
- Sell a million copies the first year
- Be asked to do a TED talk
- Become a famous author
- Be a New York Times Best Selling author
- Get on Oprah/Ellen
- Fill an ill-defined emotional void
Here’s the thing about these objectives: they are not literally impossible. People have accomplished them all. We’ve had a few of our authors do them.
But they are exceedingly rare, and most books have no shot at these objectives. The more you focus on realistic objectives, the better your book will be at hitting the audience you need to hit in order to succeed.
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?
We recommend starting with the smallest possible audience you must reach to make your book successful. For most authors, the smaller the better. Your total audience is a series of concentric circles; the primary audience is the bullseye.
When I say small and niche, I mean literally ask yourself, “Who makes up the smallest group of people that my book is specifically designed to reach and influence?”
By starting small, you can ensure that your book will definitely reach SOMEONE. This niche focus ensures that your audience will get excited about your ideas, they will implement your ideas, and they will share your ideas with their peers. Anyone who doesn’t meet those criteria is not in your microtribe.
The audience you need to reach is directly tied to the results you want, and you can reverse engineer precisely who your audience is by understanding who needs to know about your book to make your results happen.
This process is no more complicated than asking yourself a very basic question:
“Who MUST know about my book in order for it to get the results I want?”
This is results for the reader and for you.
For example, if your objective is to help oil and gas executives make better decisions about where to drill, and you want to speak at a major oil and gas conferences and become the expert in this space, then your audience is the people who book the speakers for that specific conference (and the executives who attend).
If your objective is to help CTO’s recruit engineers better, and raise your authority in the CTO space to get clients for your CTO recruiting business that caters to small-to-midsize companies, then chief technology officers from SMBs are your primary audience.
If you want to help people deal with their back pain and get visibility in your community to drive clients to your chiropractic practice, then your audience are the people in your community with the health problems that you can address.
“Chiropractors who own their own practices, looking for better ways to market their business.”
“Accredited investors looking for how to get into wine as an investment.”
“Women executives, aged 30-45, who want to have kids but don’t want to compromise their career.”
“Women 20-70, suffering, that want to feel better.”
“Any executive who wants to be a better leader.”
“Young men and women looking for something more in life.”
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 and is connected:
The objectives lead to the audience.
The audience have 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 ion 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.
They then 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 they are offering real value to the reader because it’s not theory—it’s their actual solution to a real problem they had.
2. By focusing on a problem that other people also have, the author is making sure they have an audience ready for the book, before they even write it.
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 he 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.