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  • Julian Talbot

How to write a non-fiction book

“I don’t always like writing, but I very much like having written.” — William Gibson

What book have you been thinking about writing? We all have a book in us they say. Personally, I prefer muesli for breakfast or a good steak with a nice Cab Sav in the evening, but to each their own :-).


If you have been thinking about writing a non-fiction book, here is the process I thought I would use. You may have also thought something similar. It goes like this in your mind:


  1. Block out a few weekends to write the book. Discover, too late, that you need another hundred weekends. Write, write, write until the the (sic) typos are invisible.

  2. Breathe deep, walk around the room, and reach for (another?) drink. Groan: "Why, why, why ... did I ever sign up for this?"

  3. Ask friends to review your dubious scribbling and Implement the (good) suggestions.

  4. Find an editor who can turn the result into an actual book. Accept your editor's recommendations (especially the grammar) with good grace.

  5. Publish it with a massive sigh of relief. Bask in the glory of being someone who has written.


Except it never works out that way. The good news is that over the course of writing and publishing ten books, I have worked out a streamlined system.



"A professional writer is an amateur who didn't quit." — Richard Bach

Using the method outlined below, I can write an ebook in a day, a 50-page book in about 50 hours (typically spread over a month), or a 550-page book in, oh, about 15 years.


OK, that last one is huge and has been taking a while. It's called the Risk Management Body of Knowledge (RMBOK), and I've been picking it up and getting side-tracked since 2009. It's due out in July 2024, so watch this space. I'm getting quicker at long-form books and can write a 300-page book in about six months.


So, this is how it actually works for me. Don't get too hung up on the software I use. I write on a Mac, so some may not be available on Windows. There are free equivalents and apps like Grammarly and ChatGPT have reasonably effective free versions.


START SMALL


Jot an idea in Evernote, usually from 50 words to 1,000 words. The longest note (20,000 words) took me 4 days and was 15 years ago. It is the basis of a book on travel safety that I still haven't (yet) published.


I have over 3,000 notes in Evernote that are citations, ideas, or draft articles. I also use the Evernote webclipper to save relevant quotes, articles, and ideas so not all of the 3,000 notes were actually typed. Many are articles or images that I've clipped as references..


Exactly 118 of them are book ideas, and I have no clue how many will be completed and published. But every time I have a half-decent idea (usually in the shower or on a beach), I jot it down.

4MAT MINDMAP


Use X-Mind to map out the structure, what should be in it, who my audience would be, and why anyone should read it. I typically use the 4MAT process. I don't always use it as some books write themselves, at least for the first draft.


Below is the one we built for the first book. That turned out to be 500 pages so we did this process for most sections.



SCRIVENER


Scrivener is a writer's dream, and it's where I spend most of my time doing the writing, adding to the research folders, and moving chapters around up and down the pile until they seem to be in a logical order.


Scrivener is one of those tools that is "you'll never go back" better. I also love that I can compile the manuscript directly from Scrivener. I can produce a typeset PDF file for print-on-demand or epub files with a few clicks of a button.


A note MS WORD: If you choose to write in MS Word, that is also fine and even easier to find an editor. Word is OK for short books, but it doesn't cope with 500-page books (or any books) anywhere near as well as Scrivener. If you use MS Word, I recommend Vellum to convert it to an eBook and PDF for print-on-demand.


GRAPHICS


If you need graphics, bulld them in Powerpoint. Don't worry if they are messy. We'll tidy them up later. To give you an idea of just how messy, below is a screenshot of some of the iterations we went through when writing the Security Risk Management Body of Knowledge (SRMBOK).

If you don't have a copy, you can do 'Read sample' on Amazon, where you'll see they came out much better after a professional designer had at them.


ZOTERO


Zotero is a free referencing tool and it is brilliant. It also has fabulous drag-and-drop compatibility with Scrivener footnotes.


PEER REVIEW


Compile the document (including graphics and citations) from Scrivener to a PDF, and then cajole some trusted friends to provide feedback. Especially be grateful for the feedback you didn't want to hear. Ignore the 'it looks great' feedback. You already know it looks great. You need to know what is missing or misunderstood, repetitive or dull.


IMPROVING THE GRAPHICS


Pay an actual graphic designer on Upwork to make my home-built graphics legible. That is a process in itself. For a recent book with 150 graphics, I ran a short trial and paid five designers to do five designs each. I then picked the one that produced the best designs (and was easy to work with) for the other 145 designs.


COVER DESIGN


If you don't know what you're doing with design work, I strongly recommend you find a graphic designer on Upwork.com to design a cover - again, relying on friends to help pick which one is best.


If you have half an eye for design and some honest friends, you can do it on Canva. I've done the covers on my last five books using Canva templates. I'll be impressed (or saddened, maybe both) if you can tell which ones I did versus the ones I paid a designer to do without looking at the publication dates.




PAY AN EDITOR


At the very least, get a good copy editor to review your book. It isn't expensive but they will pick up errors, duplication, inconsistencies, structural problems, and suggestions for improvement. Go through their comments. Using an editor doesn't make it easier to write a book, btw. It makes it harder, in fact. But editors make the book much better.


You still have to review their comments and tweak the text when they say things like "this paragraph is crap". Actually, they usually politely leave a comment, "Not clear what you are trying to say here," but we know what they really mean.


Not every editor will work with Scrivener, but I've found four excellent editors on Upwork who can work with my Scrivener files.



PICK A PUBLISHER


I've worked with many publishers, including some of the biggest. There is some merit to going with a publisher. They will take care of editing, design, and printing. They will, however, take 90% of the profit for that. Given that 50% of the price of a book is in the direct production costs, you will likely see about 5% of the cover price of every sale.


You may be able to negotiate better than that, and if you really don't have the time or inclination to publish, I suggest you shop your manuscript around. The Author's Guild can help you interpret and negotiate the contracts, but with minor exceptions, the contract is immutable.


You will also lose control of your book, and contrary to my early naive perceptions, publishers will do exactly 0% of the marketing for you. Yes, marketing will always be the job of the author. You can outsource it, but that will be at your expense, not the publishers.


The short version is that I recommend you sign up on kdp.amazon.com or ingramspark.com to publish the book. I use Amazon's KDP, which is 90% of the market anyway. If you use Ingramspark.com, you will also have to go to Bowker,to get an ISBN. It's not hard, but Amazon does that step for you.


PROOF EDIT


Proof editing is a simpler but no less important form of editing. In this process, the editor looks at typos and grammatical errors of the most basic kind (e.g., missing commas and periods).


I hate to say it, but as the author, you CANNOT do this yourself. I'm not saying that you are incapable of editing. But we are all incapable of editing our own material. By this point, we have read, re-written, re-read, revised, revised, and revised so many times that the typos are invisible. Invisible to us authors, that is. Not to the readers (sadly) or the editors (thankfully).


We know exactly what we are trying to say, which is what we see on the screen. There are some options if you can't afford an editor or it is a relatively short book. You will benefit from doing one or all of the following, number 4 especially:

  1. Find a quiet place where nobody can hear you (and hence won't think you are mad) and read your manuscript aloud. You'll be amazed at what you'll find.

  2. Print it out on paper and read it with a pencil or highlighter.

  3. Use Grammarly to go over it (ProWritingAid is another excellent tool), but do it section by section. No more than 500 words at a time. And hold yourself to account. Force your attention to each line and every word.

  4. Hire a professional editor to do the job properly.



TYPESET


Hire a graphic designer to convert the manuscript to a print-ready version.


Or, as I've done with my recent books, spend the time to trial and error the capabilities of Scrivener to output a document that meets the requirements for KDP - and some aesthetic basics (again relying on peers and people who know about design).


Note: If you write in MS Word, I recommend Vellum as the tool to convert it to an eBook and PDF for print-on-demand.


PUBLISH


Job done. Press the big PUBLISH button and get your weekends back. Until you realize that you might want to tell people that the book exists so you:

  1. Block out a few weekends to do some marketing.

  2. Discover that ...



 

As I've hinted, marketing is a huge exercise. And you need to start from step one, the "I've got an idea phase."


If I haven't put you off the idea of writing and publishing a book (I hope I haven't), you might like to come along and do my short course.


It is not too painful, just two hours a week for four weeks. I'll explain exactly how I do things and demonstrate the processes and tools. We'll discuss your ideas and how to turn them into a book or three.




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