Hey, Idea People! Find Out What Type of Book You Should Write

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So you’ve been kicking around the idea of writing a book. Maybe you’re a business owner thinking about what’s next for your business. Or maybe you’re a career professional thinking about the legacy you want to leave behind. Whatever your situation, you are practically bursting with ideas and not sure where to start.

Welcome to the club! You’re an idea person and idea people are my favorite people. If you could spend all your time chasing threads of ideas through your mind, you’d be as happy as a clam or hell, even happier. (Why do clams get to have all the fun anyway? Dogs seem way happier to me). I can relate!

But here’s what I know about idea people: implementation can be a sticky wicket (the technical term). Every time you give voice to an innovative idea, like clockwork, your colleagues say, “you should write a book about that.” Pick a random week in November and you might have four book ideas. So…

So many questions. Today, we’re here to tackle the last one.

For ease of discussion, I’ve broken down the types of books into four categories: the “how-to” book, the thought leadership book, the self-help or personal development book, and the fiction book. In what follows, you’ll come away with an understanding of what goes into each type of book as well as which type works best for you.

Can’t wait ’til the end to find out? Jump to the quiz!

But first, you need a strategy

Before I get to these four types of books, we need to talk about strategy for a moment because if you don’t have a strategy (i.e., publication, marketing, and positioning), it really doesn’t matter how amazing you feel about the book you write. In fact, strategy doesn’t simply matter. It’s everything. Your strategy is the #1 thing that determines your success as an author.

Here’s what you need:

1. A business case for your book.

Writing a book is an investment. Sure, it’s a labor of love and it can be immensely satisfying, but it’s also an investment (whether or not you choose to spend money on it). And if you’re not honest with yourself about this from the beginning, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment (and I don’t need a crystal ball to predict that unhappy ending).

So, take some time to figure out whether there’s a business case for writing your book. Essentially, you’ll want to do a cost-benefit analysis. Figure out whether the costs in terms of your time, money, and energy are worth the potential benefits you expect.

2. A plan for realizing those potential benefits.

This is where you’ll want to consider how publishing, marketing, and positioning your book can produce the value you’re aiming for. And by the way, that value depends on your “WHY.” If you’re writing this book because you believe it will propel your speaking career forward, your plan will look different from someone who is writing their book to boost sales of an online course they’ve created. So your plan should be multifaceted and tailored to your “WHY” as an author.

3. A clear picture of how your book builds your personal brand.

Always keep in mind that the book is not really the product here. The product is YOU. This mindset sets successful business book authors apart. You are your brand. The book is merely one (very strong vehicle) for raising brand awareness and giving yourself the credibility and visibility you are looking for, which is the hallmark of true success.

Consequently, successful authors know that book sales is only one part of the equation. If you’re selling a nonfiction book, especially if you’re self-publishing, you’re not likely to get rich off of the royalties. Yes, some business book authors make thousands of dollars a month selling their books. But they are the exception, not the rule. Truthfully, the average nonfiction author sells fewer than 250 books per year.

For successful authors, here’s the pattern I see most often:

  • They publish a book, which contains basically everything they know about a particular topic (e.g., how to manage your money).
  • People buy the book, read the book, and then realize managing their money is way more complicated than they first thought.
  • They call the author and hire her as a consultant to manage their money for them.

The good news is you are totally in control here. You can create a strategy that works for you. But even if you have the best strategy, you still need to settle on the type of book you’re writing.

So which type should you choose?

All four book types can work, but you may be better suited to writing one type than others. Let’s look at the elements of each type.

1. The “How-to” Book

Often structured as “X steps to achieve ____________ [result],” in a “how to” book, you teach your readers how to do something using your unique process. If you work one-on-one with clients or groups or you have developed a training program of some kind, this could be a good choice for you as you already have a process you take people through to achieve a certain result.

A good example of a “how-to” book is Tim Ferriss’s 4-Hour Work Week. From the overview of his book:

Whether you’re an overworked employee or an entrepreneur trapped in your own business, The 4-Hour Workweek is the compass for a new and revolutionary world. You can have it all — really!

Join Tim Ferriss, popular guest lecturer in entrepreneurship at Princeton University, as he teaches you:

  • How to outsource your life and do whatever you want for a year, only to return to a bank account 50% larger than before you left
  • How blue-chip escape artists travel the world without quitting their jobs
  • How to eliminate 50% of your work in 48 hours using the principles of little-known European economists
  • How to train your boss to value performance over presence, or kill your job (or company) if it’s beyond repair
  • How to trade a long-haul career for short work bursts and frequent “mini-retirements”
  • What automated cash-flow “muses” are and how to create one in 2–4 weeks
  • How to cultivate selective ignorance — and create time — with a low-information diet
  • Management secrets of Remote Control CEOs
  • The crucial difference between absolute and relative income
  • How to get free housing worldwide and airfare at 50–80% off
  • How to fill the void and creating meaning after removing work and the office

The “how-to” book is a great choice for someone who is naturally good at thinking through systems and processes.

2. The Thought Leadership Book

Rather than taking readers through a process to achieve a certain result, thought leadership books are more persuasive focusing on making your case for something you believe in. This can work well for entrepreneurs who:

  1. Have a highly customized process that can’t easily be broken down into steps
  2. Have a highly involved process with many steps that happen at the same time, so they are difficult to explain in a sequence (this often happens with very large corporate projects, for instance)
  3. Work in a field that isn’t widely understood or accepted and have especially strong views that may even be slightly controversial

These books generally start by focusing on a particular problem in the industry and then show how the author’s innovative perspective can solve it in a surprising way. The bulk of the content in these books often comes from interviews, anecdotes, and case studies.

Simon Sinek’s Start with Why is a good example of a thought leadership book. This book revolutionized how the business world views leadership and put Sinek on the map as the go-to leadership expert. Almost every business person I know has read this book or heard of it. Definitely a good example of thought leadership.

If you want to make a name for yourself, and be seen as the go-to person in your field, you can’t go wrong with writing a thought leadership book.

3. The Self-Help or Personal Development Book

If your “WHY” for writing your book is about helping others, then self-help or personal development might be your jam. Most self-help authors have gone through a transformative experience of some kind in their lives (e.g., a serious health scare that causes them to make lifestyle changes and develop a whole new set of habits). And the book is an outlet for the author to process that transformation as well as to provide support and inspiration for others on a similar journey.

This is why it’s common to find personal development elements within memoirs, especially memoirs positioned as business books. However, self-help or personal development can also work well for experts who work with patients or others dealing with a particular health or lifestyle challenge, but who may not have personally experienced those challenges themselves.

4. The Fiction Book

Finally, if you enjoy creating characters, scenes, and whole worlds, then you may enjoy writing fiction. I know many entrepreneurs and 9-to-5ers working on a novel in their spare time (remember Michael Scott’s screenplay, Threat Level Midnight?). I admire their ability to get lost in their art and express themselves through the fiction they create.

While it may be harder to find a direct connection between your business and a fiction book, you could certainly build a business around being a fiction author, if that is a strategy that works for you. The good news here is that there are a lot of online creative writing groups you could join if you’re looking for some accountability to get your idea out into the world.

Still not sure where to start?

If you’re still not sure which book type will work for you, the best place to start is with some brainstorming or a mind map.

First, write down your general topic and then turn it into a sentence that fits each book type. For example, if your topic is health and fitness:

  • Your “how-to” sentence might be “how to get physically strong and double your energy.”
  • Your thought leadership sentence might be “the high price of illness — why it’s so important to look at your health now.”
  • Your self-help or personal development sentence might be “how learning to do a handstand changed my life and how it can change yours too.”

Then, spend some time brainstorming each of these ideas. The one that sparks the most ideas, and where you have the most knowledge to share, is the book you should be writing.

Also, I created a quiz to help you figure out what type of book you should write. Take the quiz to find out which type of book is best for you (it only takes 60 seconds!).

Emily Crookston is the Owner and Decider of All Things at The Pocket PhD. She’s the ghostwriter for rebels, renegades, and mavericks. She loves helping experts who are long on ideas, but short on time write business books. Find out what type of book you should write with her Book Type Quiz.

Emily Crookston is the Owner and Decider of All Things at The Pocket PhD. She’s the ghostwriter for rebels, renegades, and mavericks.