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Self Help for Success

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Non-Fiction Guides | Getting Started in Non-Fiction

Rachel Fehily

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Are you stuck trying to write a novel? Are you finding it difficult to get started? Can’t find an agent? Can’t get published? Maybe you should expand your horizons and think about writing non-fiction. It’s a great way to get started as a writer and publishers and agents will take you more seriously once you’ve published your first book in any genre.

There’s a growing market for books in the self-help genre. If you have an area of expertise you’d like to share or you want to further your career by marketing your knowledge, then you should put away your novel for a while and seriously think about writing a self help book.

The first two things you should think about before you sit down to write your non-fiction book in the self-help genre are (1) your subject and (2) your reader.

1. Know your subject

John Gray knows his subject. He used his Phd in communications and practise as a family therapist and relationship counsellor as the starting point to develop the ideas for his books which have become the foundation for his hugely successful multi-million dollar business.

“Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus,” one of the most phenomenally successful and famous non-fiction books of all time, is a self help book that helps heterosexual couples improve their relationships.

Gray has sold over 50 million copies of his 17 self-help books worldwide. He sells services and products on his website that include: relationship expertise, success coaching courses, wellness products, nutritional supplements, workshops, CDs, DVDs, books, franchising, a dating website and (if you’re free for a week!) a ranch retreat in Mendocino, Northern California,

Kim Woodburn and Aggie MacKenzie’s skills as cleaners and television presenters of the show “How Clean Is Your House?” turned them into incredibly famous British superstars. They also cashed in by writing three companion books to their series: “How Clean is Your House?” “Too Posh to Wash” and “The Cleaning Bible”.

Are you interested in writing a book that will help people? You don’t have to be a Californian relationship guru or have a Phd to write a useful book that can sell well and help you expand and improve your own career or business. However you do need to be qualified in your area and have excellent communication skills. Publishers prefer to buy books from writers who already have a profile in their job or profession.

Don’t rule out the power of blogging about your job or career as a route to success as a non-fiction writer.  Julie Powell started her writing career by setting herself a challenge to cook 524 of Julia Child’s recipes in 365 days and blogged about it on her own page. Her original idea and popular blog made her a published author and her book was used as the basis for Nora Ephron’s award winning movie “Julie and Julia”.

While she was completing her doctoral studies “Belle de Jour,” aka Brooke Magnanti blogged about her daytime activities as a high class call girl in London. She went on to have her experiences published and her two books were UK top ten bestsellers.

Those two very interesting non-fiction books that aren’t in the self help genre but they were based on blogs and they attracted huge attention from publishers and literary agents.

Think about your own area of expertise. What do you know that is useful? Lots of professions or careers in the service industry involve helping people. If you’re a doctor, lawyer, teacher, nutritionist, plumber, nanny, chef, waiter or a cleaner, you have unique information and skills that help to improve people’s lives.

You must be passionate about your subject and understand it well if you want to write a book. There’s no point in trying to write a book about dieting unless you understand and care about health and nutrition. You can’t write give advice about child rearing if you’ve never looked after a child.

Think about your subject. Have you something new to say? Do you have a deep understanding of an area that hasn’t been explored? Or do you have new ideas that haven’t been written about before?

It doesn’t matter if your job isn’t highly skilled. Everything from dog training to waiting tables can be a subject for a book. If you have an original and helpful book idea then you are ready to get started.

2. Know your reader

Once you have identified your area of expertise you then need to think long and hard about who your readers are going to be. It’s important to try to appeal to as many people as possible if you’re writing for a general readership. One of the reasons Gray is so successful is because he writes for men and women who are trying to improve communication in their relationships and understand what makes the other sex tick – that covers a huge number of people.

Kim and Aggie give advice that helps us to clean our homes well. Even if you’re lucky enough to have a cleaner come to your house once or twice a week, unless you’re as wealthy as Gray and have full time staff cleaning your ranch in California, you’ll still need to do a good bit of cleaning yourself. Their books are appealing to the many people who like to have their house clean and looking good.

Sometimes there will be a niche for books that will exist at a particular time. During an economic boom there is a market for books that help people invest money on the stock exchange or buy property abroad. During a recession there’s a better market for books on how to budget, live on less and cook and shop economically.

Think very carefully about who will read your book. Is it for a broad market or a niche market? If you work in a very particular, specialized area then you may be publishing your book for one particular group of readers.

If you are an expert in nephrology, gene therapy or an obscure computer language you might be writing your book as a companion to an educational course you are providing or as part of your MA or Phd. Your book might be published by an academic press, be very expensive, with a small print run and everyone doing your course/studying your subject might have to buy it.

Try to expand your market if your book isn’t a niche book with a very clearly defined readership. If you want to write a book about child rearing try to aim it at parents rather than mothers. If you’re writing a book about plumbing make it accessible to everyone.

The “For Dummies” series of books (Computers for Dummies, Guitar for Dummies, Stress Management for Dummies and hundreds of others) is great because it appeals to everyone, whatever their level of education.

If your book covers a subject that is limited to an Irish readership think about whether you can expand it so that it has international appeal. You could start by publishing an Irish version of your book and then rewrite it for an international publisher.

Once you’ve identified your area of expertise that you want to share and targeted a readership for your book, you’re ready to start thinking about how you’re going to write it.

About the author

© Rachel Fehily 2011 for writing.ie

Rachel Fehily was born in Dublin and is a graduate of Trinity College Dublin, The Kings Inns and University College Dublin. She has practised as a Barrister and a Mediator and is particularly interested in conflict resolution.

She has represented defendants before juries in criminal cases, victims of sexual abuse, litigants in medical negligence, defamation, family law and commercial cases. She has contributed articles to The Irish Times, The Sunday Business Post and Image Magazine.

Her first book “Break Up, Don’t Crack Up: A Practical Guide to Dealing with the End of your Marriage or Relationship” is due for publication in January 2012. She is currently working on a novel and a self-help book for an international readership.

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