When would I never self-publish my own book?

My first concern when I self-publish a book is whether it will sell. Not whether it can be produced well enough or it will change the world or it is well enough written. The production and the writing can be improved with outside help, if needed, and every book changes the world a bit. If it didn’t have some uplifting value, I wouldn’t publish it at all.

The question is economic: will I get the expenses back fairly soon, so I can embark on another book or venture? My expectations? To have the production costs back in a few months, and if it’s a general self-published book, for it to ultimately earn 25% in profit. If it’s a niche-marketed book, and it passes the pre-tests (see the 12 blog-series about this on these pages in the past three months), I want the first flyer and book mailing to bring in about 30-35% profit, and an over-all profit of at least 40%, plus additional related products shirt-tailing as long-range empire-expanding profit fonts.

So if I don’t see those goals being achievable, I just won’t self-publish. I might farm the concept out to other publishers, by query, for me to write. Or I’ll move on to another idea.

Which means there are a lot of conditions that will retard or prevent my self-publishing a specific book.

One would be pie-in-the-sky books. Books I would never buy or read, or I’d be embarrassed to have my name on. (If I can’t honestly say, “That’s a great idea. I’d want to read a lot more about it,” I’ll probably let someone else who is smarter, braver, or a greater visionary write or publish it.)

I’d also be wary of a book that has no tails, a book that is solitary, a one-idea-only book without any related products that are provoked by it. You can rewrite a book 12 ways, but if I don’t see at least a few of those or any (or at least many) logical worthy spin-offs, the energy and money invested in the first book has no place to grow.

The point just made directly relates to empire building, where a book I’m interested in creating, and risking my time and money on, should have sensible spin-offs through speaking (like seminars, speeches, or workshops), or further break down into its natural components (through workbooks, booklets, and manuals), or reach-outs to other subjects that are intimately connected. So a critical criterion of a book for my self-publishing is that every dollar it earns creates another dollar or two of related income over time.

The final reason I wouldn’t self-publish a book has to do with selfishness and mortality.

My least sensible trait is having a huge curiosity and the desire to know almost everything about everything, including a ton of dumb things. So it’s only by exercising painfully strict discipline, usually spurred on by a quickly-emptying purse, that I’m forced to focus hard on just one topic, so I can get a book from it that shares my discoveries and reaps food money! Thus I must be selfish choosing that particular topic at the exclusion of hundreds of others. I have to care about it a lot, and want others to do what I suggest with and about it, so I can justify have excluded so many other exciting things.

That’s mortality too. Since I will probably drop dead in the middle of researching, writing, and publishing some book, I can’t afford to write and self-publish willy-nilly. I want all that book-creating effort, and the hope that each book bears, to count.

Best wishes,

Gordon Burgett

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Prep and publish a high school graduation book

Why would you do that? Didn’t you already graduate from high school?

But if you were the mother, aunt, or grandparent of a lad or lass about to graduate from high school at the end of this school year or next, would publishing a gift graduation book for them interest you? Or would a friend in that situation be interested? Well, my book by that title tells you how write and publish just that book, an invaluable memento, to give to them at the graduation party so they would have a classy record of that experience forever! (Incidentally, publishing that book would be almost free.)

That’s one reason I wrote How to Create an Unforgettable Gift: A High School Graduation Book a few months ago. If that was all there was to it, I’d simply urge you to buy a copy or tell your friends, and I’d give you a link to the ordering page (like this), and that would be that.

But there’s a lot more because that was only part of the reason I wrote the “high school graduation book.” And how it symbolizes any other book you’ve always wanted to write and get published but never knew how or didn’t want to pay the sizeable printing costs, or didn’t want to learn the publishing means just to be properly in print.

How to Create an Unforgettable Gift: A High School Graduation Book is also a how-to, step-by-step process primer that, at the same time, tells how you can take part in what is almost a miracle in the publishing world.

That’s because a couple of years back a new business model popped up that shows

* how anybody literate and fairly sensible can create a book,
* they can get it published in minutes (ebook) or a couple of weeks (bound edition),
* it will be free (for an ebook) or almost (figure $25) for a bound book,
* the publisher that prints it will also market it (as can you), and
* the author will receive a royalty for every copy sold.

These new producers are called ancillary or open publishers. They include CreateSpace (Amazon), Pubit! (Barnes and Noble), Smashwords (that also sells to iPad), Kindle, Lulu, Blurb, and Scribd. All are P.O.D. publishers of a sort. They will publish all kinds of books: high school graduation, fiction, children’s, cookbooks, poetry, detective, romances, non-fiction, science, travel, wedding, and a dozen more categories.

When I first heard about this flip-flop in the publishing process, I frankly didn’t believe it. I’ve self-published about 35 books since 1981, and none were fast or free! But here were legitimate houses that would accept my ready-to-go final drafts (and covers) and turn out good-looking printed books, without charging me a sou. Then they’d sell them, and pay me. Duh. I hardly had to know anything about publishing. Just write a good book, get it well proofed, and I could publish with one of them, several, or all of them simultaneously. (Most of them would even provide a free ISBN!)

I tried it. I published several books through all of the houses (except Blurb, since they mostly produce art books and the only art I know is Art Jones). The only problem I had with any of them was understanding their techie terminology when I submitted the interior text. So I deciphered those submission steps into easy how-to talk for all of the publishers (except Pubit! which appeared after I was in print, but I do explain in the “high school graduation book”). Then I added a second half of the book, first, about how to write the actual book itself. That book is called How to Get Your Book Published Free in Minutes and Marketed Worldwide in Days.

The book just mentioned shows how to use the new publishing process for any book you write. But I needed an example of a specific book to complete the method, so you could see what you had to do to produce a book for open or ancillary publication, and how you took it from inception through submission and production. So that’s where How to Create an Unforgettable Gift: A High School Graduation Book fits in.

I was watching some kids practicing their graduation ceremony at a local high school and the thought occurred to me, wouldn’t it be a truly unforgettable lifetime gift if the parents or kin of those kids could capture their last year and the graduation in a nice looking, personalized book that they could get published quickly and inexpensively to give as their graduation gift? Duh again. I had just published the very book that explained the open or ancillary publishing miracle. Why not do another book that applies that book’s steps to the very specific task of creating a high school graduation book? And let that second book be a model for almost any other kind of book any person could follow to get their own words and ideas in print—everywhere, with their by-line, and even a few thank-you bucks back in their pocket?

So that’s the purpose of this blog, to tell you what’s available digitally for $4.95 or $10 at the links above or at And if you can’t afford that, send me your name and email address and I’ll send you an ebook version of either or both books free. (That is, if you’ll later mail me a free copy of the book that you produce and publish, autographed, when it appears. To Gordon Burgett, P.O. Box 845, Novato, CA 94948.)

Best wishes,

Gordon Burgett

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When would I always self-publish my own book?

“Always” is a tough qualifier, but I’d be 99% inclined to publish my own book:

(1) if it was for a tightly-targeted niche market, one that was well defined and had an accessible mailing list for pre-testing before I wrote a word of the text. I just finished posting a 12-blog series on this site about this pre-testing process. The example, fictitious, that I used was “Standard Operating Procedures for Chiropractors.” That’s the kind of market I can serve 100X better than another publisher, without much risk and very profitably. Also see my book Niche Publishing: Publish Profitably Every Time.

(2) if my book was written for a group with which I was closely involved. If I was an officer or even member of the Red-Headed Lilliputian League and the book was benefit-laden and for red-headed Lilliputians, bingo.

(3) if my book has such a narrow market I don’t think any other publisher would be interested. I’d write a sharp, short book zeroing in on the topic—like My Grandma’s Fair-Winning Pickle Recipes—and I’d let the ancillary (or open) publishers print a P.O.D. copy that I could order bound as requested, plus that they (and I) would sell in an e-book version. See details at Then I’d hustle like a fool finding every pickle devote in my city, county, state, and nation—and get the book reviewed by every reviewer who is into pickles.

(4) if my book met the loose requirements in Dan Poynter’s Self-Publishing Manual, I was willing to get it well proofed, I would provide it with a professional cover, and I would be a selling dynamo. John Kremer’s 1001 Ways to Market Your Book will also help there.

(5) if I had a seminar or speaking schedule to audiences that wanted more, detailed information about my topic, and if I could sell the book at or through the presentation (and through some related digital venues, like a newsletter, webinar, and other Web marketing means).

Next week, here, I’ll ask “When would I never self-publish my own book?”

Best wishes,

Gordon Burgett

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It’s time to actually test your niche book! (Blog Bundle #12)

All that remains is to establish the success or go-ahead level needed to justify publishing your book and paying the hefty direct mail promotion.

Remember in Blog #6 we came up with these numbers: to sell your SOPs for Chiropractors book at $149 each so you can realize $100,000 in sales (or $50,000 in profit) from a niche buying universe of 54,000, your buy response at $149 would have to be 1.244%. Thus, if you are pre-testing 500 people, you would need 6.2 positive postcard replies to reach your goal. That is, you would need between six and seven respondents returning a postcard saying “yes,” they would buy a book by this title (like the one described in the flyer) and “yes” they would pay $149 for that book. (That assumes that that number would buy the book at that price if offered as it is represented in the flyer. More later on this, but that’s an assumption you can make happen.)

Let me explain that formula so you can use it for your tests.

Take the total income you seek to earn ($100,000) and divide it by the test price of the item you are selling ($149). Here the result is 671. Thus 671 buys must be made at $149 each to earn $100,000 (actually, $99,979, but $100,000 here so we can deal with whole numbers at this level).

Our universe (in this case of chiropractors on our mailing list) is about 54,000. And we will test a total of 500. 54,000 divided into 500 results in .009259. (That is, our test group of 500 is .9259% of the testing universe of 54,000, a bit under 1%).

Then multiply the number of books you must sell to 54,000 (to earn about $100,000), or 671, by the percent of it that is in the test group of 500, or .009269, and you see that you would need 6.212 positive replies from the 500 to earn about $100,000, if applied to the full 54,000.

So your buy response, the percentage of your universe that must buy the book at $149 would be 1.244% (or .01244 x 54,000 = about 671). You can calculate that percentage by writing the number of books that must be bought by 54,000 at $149, or 671, over the size of the universe, or 54,000. That will equal x over 100. Next, multiply the 671 by 100 and divide that by 54,000x. The result (x) will be about 1.244% (or .01244).

Finally, if you multiply that percentage (1.244) by the number of potential buyers in your universe (54,000) by the cost of the item being sold ($149), the total should be the amount of income you seek to earn (or about $100,000.)

So if you send out all of the pre-test packets and get seven affirmatives (or even, don’t say it out loud, 10) in any of the test replies, roll out the presses, get out Niche Publishing, and let’s get going! (You can imagine our hearts when we got a 22% buy response on one of our smaller dental books. And yes, we sold that many too!)

But if nobody says yes to your test (or far too few do), something’s not working. So you have new choices to make: forget it or change the idea or title or description/contents or whatever it is that nobody wants. Then test again.

A last, important question: “Do the actual buying numbers correspond to what the tests say?” Yep. About 80% of our first mailings alone have matched or topped the test number “yes” replies. Some were 50% higher.


You have all of the parts, the thinking, and the numbers. All that remains is the doing.

First you figure out who your market is and what they need or particularly want that you can write (or another can and you can publish). Prepare your flyer first, and figure out your minimum income expectation.

Then study the direct mail information and find a list that you’d like to test. Ask the broker or list manager if they will send you 500 Nth selection ZIP labels free.

Prepare your test packet: the flyer, note, postcard, and envelope. Divide the names into the mailing piles for the first and second mailing.

Determine the test prices and make certain each pile of packets contains the correctly priced notes and postcards.

Apply the pressure-sensitive labels, stamp each envelope and postcard, address the postcards, seal the envelopes, and mail off the first test mailing.

See where the most profitable buy responses are before testing two prices in the second mailing. Repeat the process and mail the second test.

If it’s a huge “go,” don’t dawdle.

If the responses are tepid but acceptable, keep the title and price the same and improve the rest. Or adjust the weak points and test again.

If it’s a stinker, run for the hills! Thank God you only lost $500-700, not ten times that trying to hawk a loser.

Before leaving you to the winds of good fortune, let me share an abbreviated checklist of the main points described in these 12 blogs:

1. Figure out your market and topic.
2. Who will write the book?
3. Create an abbreviated TOC.
4. Calculate your income expectation.
5. Determine a minimum book price.
6. Study the niche and prepare your flyer.
7. Find the best direct mail list.
8. Get test names as free as possible!
9. Determine three starter test prices.
10. Prepare your note, postcard, and envelope.
11. Sort names for two mailings / five prices.
12. Put prices on the fliers and postcards.
13. Apply the pressure-sensitive labels.
14. Stamp the envelopes and postcards.
15. Apply postcard reply address labels (sent to you).
16. Insert the items and seal the envelopes.
17. Mail the first test mailing.
18. Select the most profitable sales price.
19. Test two prices, send the second mailing.
20. If it’s a “go,” get going!
21. If tepid, change a weak spot and test again in the second mailing.
22. If it’s a winner, also lay out your empire.
23. Begin with items that are natural “also-needs” from your book.
24. Keep the mailing and e-mail addresses of all buyers/respondents.
25. Create a related speaking program, and use the product as the primary booking tool.

Also a closing bias: following this test process can be a path to niche heaven, all for a few weeks of waiting and for relatively little testing expense, which is the mailing list cost, some printing at the copy shop, 500 envelopes, card stock for postcards, and stamps. How much better it is to have an excellent insight into the future of your product before you risk the time creating it, plus incurring the sizable expense of selling it, untested, by mail.

Again, the entire process (from inception of a niche book idea to the book’s huge success), is explained step-by-step in Niche Publishing.

The process works. Give it a try!

Best wishes to you.

Gordon Burgett

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One Way to Write a Script for Your Club or Singing Group

This script was written for the local (Marin Golden Gate Chorus) Barbershoppers, for an annual show on November 6, 2011, at the Marin County theater at the fairgrounds, a once-a-year moneymaker with about 20 singers and an audience of 200+.

Mind you, I write books and articles for a living, plus review and sometimes improve others’ copy, but in the group I guess I’m the closest thing to a script writer. Poor souls.

Why is this a blog? Because a fair number of folks (even friends) keep asking me about the thought process in putting a show together. What do you do in what order? So here it is, one answer for all, with apologies to those who do this for a living!

One, I started about six weeks before the show date (earlier is much better). What I needed to know is what the show committee had in mind, what songs the chorus was prepped to sing, and what other acts had been contracted.

(It helps that I’ve sung in five other shows at this locale with this group, so I kind of know what the viewers have seen before and expect.)

It seems that they have two other acts already booked (‘Til Dawn and Motley Q), each to sing for 15-20 minutes, and four local quartets, two singing two songs each, two singing one. So that will expand both halves of the program, with an M.C. with simple lines to introduce each group. The curtain remains closed when the first invited group sings, a quartet then appears, and then the second act will perform. The curtain opens so the chorus can sing two favorite patriotic songs, all of the guests who appeared in the show are called out to bow, and the entire group sings “Keep the Whole World Singing.” A collective bow, the curtain closes, opens to bow again, closes definitively. Whew! All that’s left is the first half, with 11 songs and another quartet.

My job is really to create a script that will add some fun, punch, and a loose thread of continuity (some sense too, if possible) to the 11 songs and a quartet. Fortunately, the song committee has chosen 11 love songs and the group is well practiced with all eleven! They even suggested a character, a guy named Joe, and they suggested an order for the 11 as well. (In the script I did change the order of two songs.)

The question is how we get the character to interact with the chorus (that is on stage all the time Joe is present). And how much leeway do I have in Joe’s acting ability. (A miracle occurs. A local actor, David Skibbins, is eager to play the part! So talent abounds…)

My thinking is that Joe will wander in pulling a wagon or a shopping cart, and make some noise just after the chorus director (in a tux) is announced and is raising his baton to direct the first song. He turns around, irked, to see who is making noise, and when the director sees Joe, he asks “Who are you?”

Joe puffs up and shouts back, “Well, who are you, and what’s that motley group behind you?”

That will be the theme and tenure. Joe is a braggart, brassy, dressed like a dandy (with touches of hobo), and continues to insult the singers as too old, half-dead, and so on. He has two or three lines between each song, and sometimes chorus members or the director talk with him.

The theme is that Joe spent his youth looking for the right woman, with related songs about Coney Island, walkin’ his baby back home, and the Nickelodeon (“Music, Music, Music”), and he claims to have had 26 girl friends. “But not a one of them stuck!” Until he met “Mary Lou.” She was his 27th and he was bowled over by her.

But even Mary Lou fled, so singing “I Don’t Know Why I Love You (Like I Do)” to console him is appropriate.

Joe says to forget about Mary Lou because a new love has appeared, #28. She’s Amy, of ”Once in Love With Amy!” Near the end of the song an 83-year-old chorus singer, Roy Harvey, comes in front and tap dances to the music. Joe watches in astonishment as the dancing begins (he even tries to imitate a step or two). When the dancer bows and returns to the stands (in the first row) Joe draws close and looks him over (like he’s an apparition), then finally raises the dancer’s hand in a victory concession so the audience can applaud again. He then tells us that Amy became his wife, is his sweetheart forever, and they have three grand children to prove it.

The front half of the program ends with “When I’m 64,” when he’s an old man.

Once I have the grand design (the linking of the music), I have to put words in Joe’s mouth. That is easier than it seems because in each section he segues into the next song, giving the title or suggesting its purpose. Since he’s a wild spirit he can talk to the audience, bicker with the director (Phil DeBar, a veteran performer as well), or heckle the singers. (I will finalize the words with the actor playing Joe since he has a lot of stage experience and will surely be able to massage the lines to be much funnier.)

The only thing that must be worked in are the four quartets, injected about when the chorus sings their fifth song, to give the chorus and the audience a break, plus our lead in-house quartet, to start Act II. So when I find out what they are singing (love songs for sure) I will have Joe jump backward in shock as this foursome emerges from the chorus, lines up, and sings away. He’ll watch in amazement, then sit on a chair on the stage, heckle them a bit between songs—and shoo them back into the chorus when they are done, when the script and group music will begin again. In short, he will do some physical business on stage but won’t detract (much) from the foursomes.

That’s it. Hardly any props, a hand-free microphone on Joe and a chair on each side, front, of the stage where Joe can go during the singing. The other speakers won’t need amplification because the hall is small and acoustically quite good). That’s it: the audience expecting some sort of routine or variety show around the chorus music.

I wrote the rough script, showed it to the committee and the director, Joe has seen it (where it will be finalized), and the chorus will rehearse it a night or two before it is unveiled to an eager audience composed mostly of kin, friends, and barbershop fans.

The only thing I can’t share is where the script words come from–because I don’t really know. Mostly it’s what I think Joe would do and say in that situation, and what the audience will sort of believe. It’s more fun if there is some tension between Joe and the singers, so I give Joe a healthy disregard for the group and what they are up to. The audience won’t expect that either, so it’s different from the typical MC-driven barbershop script too. I have to stick fairly close to the theme of the song that follows the lines, including a bit of the lyrics. I want a guy who swaggers a lot, is bigger than life, and isn’t afraid of anybody, including 20 odd singers. He’s not the kind to tell jokes so the humor is his irreverence and bragging. Really, it’s what I would laugh at, what I wouldn’t expect, and what adds to the singing.

The second half of the show is straightforward, as is said. The MC, E. Bond Francisco, will welcome the audience back, present the quartet and the two guest acts, and as the curtain reopens introduce the chorus for some final singing. When the guests are then brought out for recognition, when Phil again raises the baton for the last, group number, out will run Joe, shouting that they forgot to bring out the star. So the MC will introduce “the star, Joe, who will ham it up bleeding more applause. The curtain will close, open for a collective bow, then close closed.

I will turn in the final early draft in a few days, get their OK with three weeks to go, and get “Joe” involved putting flesh on his paper person. Then hold my breath (though not too much because I also sing in the chorus!)

Some of you asked how it’s done. That’s how I do it. I hope this sketchy explanation helps.

Best wishes,

Gordon Burgett

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A postcard to know your niche pre-test book results! (Bundle Blog #11)

In this 12-blog series about how to pre-test your niche book all that remains (beyond the summary in #12) is a description of the postcard that is part of the three-insert mailing packet.

In blog #9 we saw the note and in #10, the flyer sent to the tested recipient.

You need a response mechanism so the addressee can let you know if he/she would be interested in the kind of book you are about to prepare, and how much they would pay. What’s easier or less expensive for them than to make some marks on a postcard and put it in the mail?

Here, I suggest that you cut your own postcards. Buy a small amount of card stock at a stationery store or office mart. For 500 postcards, you would need about 125 sheets of regular letter-size paper. Make them the size of regular postcards from the Post Office—or turn a sheet horizontal and divide it in half cross-wise and half vertically. Draw lines at the half-way marks so you have four rectangular quarters.

Prepare your copy so the same message comfortably fits into each box, and save the four segments in landscape layout. Print a test sheet on a printer or copier and make any adjustments needed to create clean, clear postcards.

Mind you, you will need a different price on different piles of your cut cards.

Since you are sending these cards to, say, five possible audiences, you will probably have from three to five different prices.

Do you remember the way we divided the direct mail address labels that we bought or received, in blog #8? We were going to create test pile (A) at $149, B at $169, and C at $ 189, then after tabulating the results of the first mailing we decided to test pile D at $149 and E at $169.

So it seems prudent to me to create your postcard text, get it laid out in the four segments on the stock cards, then finish the cards (insert the prices) as needed for only the first of two mailings. Thus, in our example, you would create 100 cards with the price at $149, $169, and $189.

Then, when you knew from that first test, what prices you want to test in the second mailing, you would then complete and print those cards. Here, it would be 100 more cards for $149 (D) and $169 (for E).

In every case you would print the four-card stock sheet before cutting it carefully into the four different cards.

As for stamps, it is far better to buy and apply actual postage stamps on the reverse (address) side of the card, in the upper right corner. Doing that, rather than using prepared postal cards with the indicia already printed, increases the response rate significantly. On that same card side, with the stamps, you would carefully apply return labels (addressed to you) that you have run on your computer on pressure-sensitive labels, like Avery 8160 labels. (Print and test one page of labels first to be sure that the ink doesn’t smear. If it does, use another printer, perhaps at the office supply store.)

If you click the following link twice it shows the message side of both postcards: Postcard Examples (2) of Niche Pre-test

Let me describe the whole postcard. On the top half of the message side of the card I ask the reader to check one of two boxes—one says “I would” and the other says “I would not.” These precede two statements: (1) be interested in reading a book specifically about drawing more patients to my chiropractic practice—and retaining them, and (2) buy Standard Marketing Procedures for All Chiropractors for $149.

Below those statements I ask an open-ended question: “Other thoughts I want to share…” That is followed by space in which they can write what they wish to share. (They usually say “Great idea! Good luck!” “Are you kidding?” or they give their name and address and ask to be notified when the book is ready to buy. We give them a thank-you discount when the book is ready, with a note of appreciation.)

At the bottom of the page, centered, it says “Would you please mail this back today? Your help really is appreciated.” Our mailing address appears in a line below that.

Note that the response is almost effortless. One or two checks in the provided boxes, plus, should they wish to share more about the idea, a place for that as well. With the wee reminder on the bottom to please mail it today—and the address (which also appears on the address side of the card).

Make the postcard fast and simple to read and use. Our card is built around two boxed questions and an open space.

The second postcard example is an actual test item we used with our first K-12 education book. It differs only in the questions the recipient is responding to. In this case, we suspected that educators might be interested in the fairly new e-book format rather than the bound version, so we gave them two choices to “I would/would not…” (1) buy What Every Superintendent and Principal Needs to Know for $19.95 and (2) prefer to buy this book in digital form for $2 less. (Their third choice, of course, is that they didn’t want either version, in which case they don’t mail it back.)

$19.95 was one of three prices we were testing, and the price that was most selected (and the most profitable for us) was $24.95 (which is what we charged, and still do).

I recall only two or three of the entire 500 tested picking the e-book choice. We know now that the price of the latter should have been lower. So we did (and do) offer an electronic download version for $20. The test was accurate, though. We sell less than 5% of these books electronically.

That’s it! We wrap up this series in blog #12 next week.

Best wishes,

Gordon Burgett
Author of Niche Publishing: Publish Profitably Every Time

P.S. You may enjoy my free monthly newsletter, with three free reports.

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How do you find the best titles for nonfiction books?

Titles make or break you, except in newspapers where one of the editors will write the title to fit into the available space. There, if the item is about “wild dogs chasing widows,” that’s precisely what you write at the top, add your by-line (by Jim Slim), and they’ll decide what to use and what to call it.

Also, if you’re publishing through another house (not self-publishing), expect that they will change your title almost 100% of the time. Read the rest of this blog, but don’t make the sale conditional upon them using your title (or you designing the cover)–it ain’t gonna’ happen!

For nonfiction books, which include at least 85% of the total published, the title (and subtitle) should tell the buyer or reader what the book is about, or its promise, a benefit or two that readers will receive, or maybe something that tickles their fancy.

What you can’t fit in the title you can put in the subtitle, if needed. Just look at ten titles of books for sale like the book you want to title. What are they called? And how does the subtitle boost the title itself? In fact, making a list of the titles/subtitles of all of the published books directly in competition with your book is the very best way to see what other publishers think will sell. The farther you wander from those examples, the weaker the plank.

Teachers Change Lives 24/7 is a book we publish, and it sells great titled as is. (It works so well we are about to publish Principals Change Lives 24/7.) It doesn’t need a subtitle. I’ve been publishing another book for 20 years, updated now and then, where the title alone carries the freight: Treasure and Scavenger Hunts. Bingo.

But we have another fairly new book where the subtitle saved the day: “Finding Middle Ground in K-12 Education” it says at the top of this very popular book. Makes sense, sort of, but what’s it about? The reader must know that immediately or you need a better title. What kind of middle ground? Is that the play yard? Is it some kind of compromise? Of what? By whom? So we added “Balancing Best Practices and the Law,” and every top K-12 administrator and school lawyer came running!

Since I review books in their last-gasp pre-print stages, I’ve had to SHOUT “NO” more than a dozen times for books with titles like “My Story,” “What Your Workers Need to Know,” “The Ideal Meal,” “Crooks for Sale,” and “What I Learned in 40 Years.”

I mean, why would I (or anybody) pay money to buy those books, or invest time reading them, however well the prose is written? Your story? Your message? So what, unless you tell me more, like “Barbers: What I Learned…” or “My Story Winning in Five Olympics.” Or add a subtitle like “Crooks for Sale: I Hired and Fired for the Mafia.” Otherwise, I’m sorry but who cares? That the very same question asked by the distributors who will not-so-kindly refuse to show or sell your book.

Niche books sell best, if in the title or subtitle you mention the niche, like SOPs for Endodontists, The Fourth Grade Teacher’s Science Guide, The Best Burger and Fries Salesperson Five Straight Years… (See the 12-blog series I’m just concluding here at about how to pre-test your niche book, including testing the title.)

Your nonfiction book title (or subtitle) should include at least a couple of the journalists’ “5 w’s and h”: who, what, why, where, when, or how. Especially who and what.

In my seminar about “How to Set Up and Market Your Own Seminar” I talk about seminar titles, and remind them that those work best if they are short, precise, and accurate. Short there means six words or less (a single-decker in an ad), precise meaning that there is only one interpretation that the words convey, and accurate in tone, so if the target is engineers it is more like they talk and think than, say, barn dancers. I think the seminar “Speaking for Money” is an example of all three.

I’ve met writers who were seized by a title and spent a year writing a book to match it. (Article writers are even worse.) Heavens. They have the tale wagging the chapters! Do precisely the reverse. Get a rough idea for a book by figuring who would read it and why, then get writing. Put an empty sheet of paper (or a blank page in the computer) and every time a title seizes you, write it down—and write down two more since you are there. But call your book MY BOOK until it’s done. By then you should have a dozen or 30 titles on your list. Eliminate those that have nothing to do with the book you finally wrote. Then zero in and pick a winner—but let your friends (or people on the trolley) pick from your top five. Pay attention to their choices—but you select.

Fiction I know nothing about other that I usually guess the wrong killer. There doesn’t seem to be much sense there, except that the artwork on the cover usually has a clue to the field where the action takes place. If I see a cop, cross, swastika, or tart, I pretty much know what’s coming.

Finally, nobody can copyright a title. But if you use a title that has already been used it mightily confuses librarians, booksellers, and the well read. For example, I wouldn’t call my how-to book The Bible. But How to Read the Bible has legs.

I hope this helps a bit. Spend a lot of time playing with titles, then pick one only after you have a book that your title will drive readers to.

Best wishes,

Gordon Burgett

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