by Rob Fitzpatrick
read in Feb 2022
book info on goodreads
A book about writing a book… In “Write Useful Books”, Rob Fitzpatrick offers not just some advice on how to write a book. He outlines a new and radically different approach to writing books, specifically non-fiction books. The core suggestion of the book is to write in public, expose your book to real readers and learn from their feedback as soon as possible. While this advice resonates well with ideas put forward in The War of Art, Fitzpatrick’s book is unique because he weaves in plenty of highly actionable advice all the way down to particular Amazon pricing settings or cover designs for maximum recommendability.
Modern authors increasingly abandon the traditional book publishing approach. That is, they do not publish a book in the traditional way with a publisher. New authors (especially first-time authors) increasingly choose a more modern approach to publishing books. They self-publish first and only later sell to a publisher once they have already sold the first copies of their book. They follow a hybrid model that maximises early profits without sacrificing scale later on.
To be successful with self-publishing and zero marketing, a book needs to be recommendable and useful. Useful books solve a problem. Such problem-solver books can be reliably designed, tested, and provide value to potential readers even before publication. To write a useful book, be very clear about who your book is for and also who it is not for.
“You can’t fully prevent bad reviews from ever happening, but you can certainly make them a rare exception by plainly stating who your book is for and what they’re going to get out of reading it.”
State what readers will get out of it. Be as niche as possible. It is better to satisfy a few readers than keeping many readers in a larger audience unsatisfied. In other words, your book needs to be the best, not for everyone, but for someone.
One of the core strategies of Fitzpatrick’s approach is to test and get feedback on a book idea long before publication.
“A major theme of this guide is to stop writing your manuscript in secret and start exposing it to — and learning from — real readers as quickly as possible.”
You want to write something that delivers real value to the average reader. To know whether your book can deliver real value you want to test the book with the readers before it is written. A recommendable book needs to have a good value per page ratio.
“From a reader’s perspective, your book is a multi-hour journey experienced as value received over time spent. If too much time passes before arriving at the next piece of meaningful value, a reader’s engagement drops and they’ll drift away.Designing a strong reader experience means deciding exactly how to pace and where to place your book’s major insights, takeaways, tools,actions, and “a-ha” moments. It’s the difference between a page-turner and a grind”
Fitzpatrick recommends to get to the first piece of value as soon as possible. Try to reduce foreword, introduction, etc. to as few words as possible and move theory and background to the end. The aim is to get feedback from 3-5 deeply engaged beta readers for each editing round. Make it as easy as possible for beta readers to provide feedback. Tell your beta readers what type of feedback you want. Do not think of the feedback of criticism of the book or even you personally. You and your readers are working together to improve the book.
Recommendable books have the potential to enter the back catalog. Back catalog books are responsible for 90% of the publishing industry’s profits while requiring only 2% of its marketing budget. To get into the back catalogue you need to offer your readers something that will remain relevant for more than five years. In other words, do not focus on temporary tools, trends, and tactics.
In the later parts of the book, Fitzpatrick offers valuable bits of very actionable advice. For example on seed marketing tactics for modern book publishing, which can include digital book tours via podcasts and online events, Amazon PPC advertising, giveaways and bulk sales, or an author platform via content marketing.
He also discusses different techniques for profit-boosting such as offering upsell-bundles or creating a business around the book that sells services or digital products. Similarly, once the book is published optimisation strategies include setting up a purchase funnel (title, subtitle, cover, store page, reviews), adding percentage sales boosts (extra platforms, formats, related products), and paying attention to your fans.
Building an author platform is the best but most time consuming tactic to market a book and position oneself as an authority.
“Of the four options for seed marketing, building and maintaining anauthor platform is by far the most time-intensive. But in the long term, asupportive audience is incredibly valuable. It’s a permanent,compounding asset that will travel with you from project to project foras long as you continue doing interesting work.”
To build an author platform you need to decide where to post (communities and platforms), what to post (drafts, research, references, learnings, process, behind-the-scenes), when to post (schedule to make it a habit), how to capture interest (turn audience into direct contacts (email subscribers)). Start with pillar content (podcast, video, book chapter, research paper). Repurpose it into micro content (articles, quotes, images, stories). Distribute across several social media platforms and communities. Make publishing content a habit, a repeatable process and find some way to stay accountable.
Fitzpatrick does not have much to say about the actual content of a recommendable book (besides the niching down and testing). Write Useful Books offers mostly small, but extremely practical pieces of advice for self-publishing books and establishing oneself as an author(ity). Considering that the traditional publishing market is ripe for new models and that the traditional process is highly opaque for novice authors, this book offers a surprisingly refreshing read for any potential book authors.