What’s Your Book About? Easy to Ask, Hard to Answer

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Part Three in a series on self-publishing vs. professional publishing

Are you writing for yourself or for an audience?

There’s nothing wrong with a selfie. I have lots of them on my shelf. After every trip and family gathering, my partner David makes beautiful picture books that are printed by Blurb. The circulation of his books is typically two, or maybe a few more if they’re for my extended family. We love them. They’re a wonderful way to remember what it was like in that place or at that time.

But what if you are trying to reach a broader audience? If you are, you need to answer some basic questions at the very beginning of the project:

  • What is your book about?
  • Who is your audience?
  • What will they find special and appealing about your book?

Any non-fiction author who wants to be professionally published has to answer these questions in a convincing fashion when they present their book proposal to a publisher. Yet far too many authors who self-publish don’t ask themselves these questions, and even if they do, they don’t answer them.

It sounds so simple: What is the book about? Can you answer in 300 words? In 30? In one line? To do this, you have to make some important decisions: What are you trying to say? What is your argument? If you can’t summarize it in a few words, you may find you’ll run into serious trouble as you try to write your book. How, for example, will you know what to put in and what to cut out? And how will you write your title? You’ll probably end up with a title that raises the question you should have answered at the beginning: What’s the book about?

Next, who is your audience? It’s not everyone. It’s only some people. Who are they? You can often tell right away when a self-published author has failed to ask themselves that question. For example, the title of the book may sound like it’s going to be a saucy cookbook, but when you look inside, the chapter headings are written for chemists.

What will your audience find special and appealing about your book? There are plenty of books out there, and you will no doubt find other books on the same general topic that are written for your target audience. How will your book differ from the other books on the market? Why will your target audience buy it? They won’t if the title and content is the same as previous titles, or if it’s a pale version of a bestseller already on the market.

All of these questions are hard to answer. At Barlow Books we make sure our authors can answer them—and we work closely with them to find the answers. These answers guide us at every step, from the writing and editing of the book, to the design and marketing. This is a key difference between professional publishing that aims to deliver a book to broad audience and the publishing version of a selfie.