Start Your NF Book with a Title and Table of Contents


Of my 42 books in print, 41 are nonfiction. (The novel is pretty awful.) I began #43 yesterday afternoon.

All of the books started the same way. I have no idea if I’m following a divine path or if, for others, it would even apply to the book(s) they are writing. But it works for me. It’s painfully logical and it seems to preclude almost any problem I might later encounter in the editing, publishing, and marketing.

Thus the title, “Start your NF book with a title and a table of contents.”

Why? Because I write books both to earn money and to share new information or processes with my readers. (I also hope that new information is passed down [or over] to others, and it helps its users, in this case, write better and with clearer direction.)

So, for my book to help it must be bought—and used. I can’t insist on the latter, but I can affect my book being selected from others like it, and bought.

To get the potential buyer to choose my book I, to my logic, must do four things: I must (1) have a clear vision the kind of person who benefits enough from my book, and would most likely pick it out and pay for it, (2) know how this kind of person most often finds my kind of book, and the rough price range this person will pay for its guidance, (3) know what information must appear in its title to attract their attention, and (4) know what kind of related information would best appear in the table of contents, and in what order, for them to think my new book “a good deal” and something “they have to have.”

All of that starts with identifying one or several benefits the reader will find on my book’s pages. Which in turn means that I must have a solid sense of why they would buy my book (what dreams it will help come true, what frustrations it will help resolve, what fears it will help lessen or remove, etc.), and one of those benefits (or even several) should either appear in my title or its sub-title. The buyer must know in one look at the cover what the book is about and what in it merits spending that much money, now, and reading and doing what it suggests, later.

Which is why I spent 90 minutes yesterday adding possible titles to a temp list I had begun about a month back when I decided to write #43. Then I made a list of the benefits my idea(s) could bring the applicants. I plucked from both lists and ended up with 14 possible titles. Each title went on an index card.

I moved the cards around, seeing if I could find a magic grabber, a “must-have” title and sub-title. It worked. With some editing and switching a word or two from one card to the other, I found a title that (I) I would want to read about, (2) was easy to understand, (3) promised a how-to process that I could follow, and modify, and (4) said (or I read) that I’d make money doing what it said.

(Where is that title and sub-title? I apologize but I don’t share information about books I’m prepping or writing—nor should you. Those close to me figure it out quickly because they see what I’m researching, who I’m interviewing, or they look in my waste can!) It will be out in 4-6 months; the title and contents will be on all of the promo material then.

Next came the tougher test, which took about three hours to pound into the precise order. It was the table of contents of the information needed to make the title and sub-title come true. I created a Word table on my computer and, in column 1, put 15 numbers after “Introduction” and before “Index.” I needed 14, for chapters. Sometimes (like yesterday) I list the chapter titles, other times I list the theme of that chapter and create the titles later.

Since I’ve been thinking about this book for about a year, I could rather quickly envision what had to be explained more or less in what order. So I put that down.

Then I filled a page of all the “bases” I needed to touch to make the process clear and complete, plus any illustrations (charts, layouts, and maybe a graph). Integrating them into the chapters and giving it a logical order was the hardest. Some didn’t comfortably fit in my original schemata. I moved chapters up and down, and I rewrote most of the chapter titles. Finally, when I felt that the process was whole and doable, I wrote a quick “script” a couple of sentences per chapter long that tied the framework together. And I was done.

Now, when I write the book I can imagine what my buyer looks like, why they are buying my book, the outcome they expect from using it, and the kinds of examples they will easily grasp and feel comfortable with. I know the kind of interviews I need (I’ll find the interviewees later). I can bounce near-finished chapters off of knowledgeable friends for process and fact verification. (I will probably head to them first when the book is done for early testimonials.)

That’s it. Writing the book will be a fun fill-in-the-blanks foray, and along the way if I see marketing needs it will fill I can do some pre-selling en route to completion. And find a magazine or newsletter or two for articles that will draw the right eyes to the new book being released at that time…

Those are a few of the benefits of finding the title and contents before finding the targeted substance later. It’s simply much, much easier compiling and writing a book when you know rather precisely what it’s about beforehand.

Best wishes,

Gordon Burgett

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