3 Essential Secrets to Writing & Selling a Popular Book

It's not what you think, here's what to do instead

Posted Oct 03, 2017

Gaelle Marcel/Unsplash
Source: Gaelle Marcel/Unsplash

Ever since writing The Happiness Track, I’ve found myself coaching many people who want to write popular psychology (or other) books. That’s when I realized a lot of people have books in them but they don’t know where to start (or they hate writing). The whole field of publishing seems like a mystery. Here’s a primer I wrote up to help you get started with the process. 

1. Write

No, not your book. Some people have the mistaken idea that the entire book needs to be done before it is pitched. You don’t need to write a single word of your book before getting a contract. What you do want, however, is to write for in print magazines or online in order to show your editors/agents that you can write and in order to learn more about writing yourself. 

Pitch your articles to relevant magazines or websites until they find a home. 

When I first started out, I pitched 100 places and heard back from 1. You have to keep trying and be ok with rejection.  What you’ll soon realize is that it’s all an invaluable learning process. Here's why: 

  • You will start to craft your pitches better and therefore write better articles. 
  • You will get a feel for what people are interested in. Most online platforms nowadays can give you direct feedback about how many people are reading your article. You’ll get instant feedback on which titles work best, which content is most successful, and the writing styles that move and touch your readers most. 
  • You’ll find your audience. Ideally, you want to write to the same audience your book is geared for (without giving your whole book away) - that way you already gather a following.  
  • You'll find your writing style. The more you write, the more you'll develop your own voice and get in touch with the subject matters that inspire you most. Writing is as much a tool for self-learning as it is for communicating. 
  • You will understand how to get your articles read by the audience you want - if your book is about The Psychology of the Roller Derby Culture, then you should join all the Roller Derby social media platforms you can. Submit your articles there - find the audience that is interested in your stuff. 

In addition to pitching websites relevant to your topic, you can start your own blog - with either original articles or reposts of articles published elsewhere (again here you will notice what articles get more views etc). What’s more, you’ll be able to start a newsletter list (very important to publishing houses who want to know that you have loyal readers who will be interested in your book).

2. Prepare Your Platform

We mistakenly think that all we need to get a book contract is to sell a great mind-blowing revolutionary idea for a New York Times bestselling book. Unfortunately, this is not true. The truth is that you can write a dumbass book and still sell well if you have a following or a good platform. You may have the best idea in the whole world, but without a platform agents/editors won’t be interested. Why? Because you need to demonstrate that you yourself can sell your book through the platform. Publishing houses sell to business (bookstores etc), they don’t actually sell to consumers. They may offer some publicity, but not much. That’s where you come in and that’s where they rely on your contacts and visibility to sell your book. Again: Agents and editors will be more interested in your platform than in your idea.   

Here are some essential elements of your platform:

  • Do you have a significant (or truly loyal) newsletter following?
  • Do you have a significant social media following?
  • Do you already write for places with a wide audience or a niche audience perfect for promoting your book?
  • Can your workplace or website or club serve as a platform (for example, if you work for Google or a major university, that can be selling point on the book cover or in features about your book “Google Manager Reveals Secrets to High Performing Teams” or “Harvard Psychologist Finds that Weight-Loss Is More About Mind than Diet”). Careful here: you may need to check in with the legalities of your workplace PR to see if they have issues with you representing their company in your book. 
  • Does your workplace, school, club etc... have a PR team that would get behind you if you wrote a book and help to promote it? (Presumably because it also serves their interests to have you/your book represent them)
  • Are you regularly involved with press or media in any way (TV, news etc)?
  • What are your resounding features? Especially if you’re the humble type, you really don’t like to brag. Believe me, coming from Europe where you’re not supposed to toot your horn, this self-promotion stuff still makes me cringe. But unfortunately, you have to in this field. This is where you have to think about what makes you who you are, different from others, and uniquely positioned to write your book. Are you an Award-Winning Orchid Gardener? An Ivy League Grad Turned Raw Food Chef? A 75 year Old Triathlete? You just have to figure out the marketing angle - sounds strange and materialistic I know, but it’s a must. You *WILL* Have something special about you so don’t second-guess yourself.  If you can’t figure it out, then ask your friends and family to list all of the resounding features that you have - you’ll be surprised with what they come up with. There’s probably more than you think. Just like your book, your bio is a story you tell. 

It’s worth waiting 1, 2 3 or 5 years to build a platform before going out there with your idea. In my case, 10 years passed between the publication of my first magazine article and the publication of the The Happiness Track. It doesn't matter. But your platform does. It will guarantee that you get eyeballs on your proposal, wow your agents and editors, and get a contract (and hopefully a somewhat financially viable one). 

3. Find & Pitch Agents

There are agents and then there are agents. You want an agent that gets editors’ attention - someone that is respected in the field. In order to do that, find successful books similar to the one you want to write and look in the acknowledgements section - chances are, the author will have acknowledged their agent. Contact them with a great pitch.

After you introduce yourself giving a brief overview of your outstanding bio, you want to show how earth-shattering your idea is. Make sure you’ve scoped out all competing titles and/or any relevant books that have recently come out in your field. Discuss their popularity (hopefully they have been) but the obvious gap in what has been shown and how you plan to address that by bringing out a whole new angle no one has thought of before. 

If more than one agent is interested, find out what they bring to the table, the clients and contracts they've received in the past etc... You want to feel comfortable with your agent, perhaps speak to existing clients etc. 

If you Hate Writing (or Have No Time)

I’ve always loved writing and known that I wanted to write books. But you may not. The idea of sitting and typing out your book (or the blog articles mentioned above) makes your skin crawl, you would rather procrastinate until death do you part with your book offer. Or you may not have time because you have a family and a full-time job. That doesn’t mean you don’t have a book in you - and a great one at that. You can hate writing but still have a GREAT idea. Relax. You don’t actually have to write your book. Find a ghost writer, preferably someone who has ghost written for others in your field (again, check acknowledgement sections here). Yes, you’ll have to pay them a significant chunk upfront. But if your most important goal is to get a book out and to spread your ideas (and not the financial remuneration - which by the way is often not that significant anyway), then hire someone to write it for you. You’ll want to find a great partner, someone you really connect with and who deeply understands the ideas you are trying to convey. You may pay them a bulk (or all) of the advance, but at the end of the day, you’ll have the book you’ve wanted to write.  The agent/editors won’t care if you or someone else writes the book. They just want to know that you can help sell it. They may even have suggestions for great ghost writers for you. 

There’s more here - so much more about what comes next: the book proposal, the contract, the writing and editing process, the release etc. But first things first! Get your book contract and I'll be happy to share more tips later! Good luck! 

Here's the book I ended up writing: 

Source: HarperOne