Monday, April 6, 2015

So You're Writing A Self-Help Book...

As you know, in addition to writing fiction and blogging, I’m also a reviewer. I have less time to review now than I used to, but I still pick up the occasional offers. I’ve read my fair share of Self-Help books for review...and I think we need to talk.

Here’s one of my dirty little secrets: I’ve read Self-Help books for years and have some sense of what works. I really, really have no interest in things like Women Who Love Too Much or Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus (blech and double blech), but I have enjoyed everything that Zac Bissonnette has written so far (which is a sign of what a great writer he is because I am sooo not his target audience). I’ve also read more guides on fitness than most people know exist, and I not only used to read books on fashion and beauty (or, more accurately, wardrobe advice, cosmetics application and hair styling tips), I used to seek out old, out-of-print guides when I was younger. I mean, I remember sitting in the back room stacks of the Cambridge Public Library in the Eighties reading things that were published in the mid Sixties, and one of my favorite guides on skin care for adolescents was published in the Seventies. And I’ve perused plenty of titles on personal finance, education, programming, time management and organization, among others.

One of my favorite books, and not an exaggeration to say it changed my life
In general, Self-Help text is going to be easy to read because the authors want to throw out as wide a net as possible. This isn’t a criticism; if anything, I’d say this is a requirement, and it should be. There is also not going to be a lot of text, at least relative to titles that are providing analysis and/or history of an issue.

Brevity doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but let’s not get carried away: some of the titles I’ve seen in the last few months would be better as a monetized blog post and not an ebook. If you can’t write more than ten thousand words on a subject, please step back and reconsider whether it’s something you should be putting on Amazon or Smashwords, even if it’s free. And if it’s not free...do you really want to charge ten bucks for sixty pages? Really?

The basic problems these books are trying to help us solve haven’t changed- we’ve been trying to make limited resources do more for centuries, and we’ve all wanted to look taller, thinner and wealthier with high cheekbones, full lips and almond shaped eyes for at least fifty years- so it has to be presented in a way that speaks to your contemporaries enough that you’ll keep them through the end of your short book. One way to do this is through real-life examples, be they testimonials or anecdotes; provide some kind of proof that someone else has taken your advice and been better for it before you clicked Publish on Kindle Direct Publishing’s dashboard. If you are going to talk only about your own experiences, then tell a compelling story about yourself. In other words, be engaging and take me on your journey. Even more importantly, use your skills as a writer to convince me that I can and should follow you on that same path.

...whereas this was one of the worst things I ever read, and I only finished it because it was required for a retreat
It also can’t be overstated how important it is that these things be visually appealing. For certain things, like fitness and grooming, photos and/or illustrations are essential, and I would argue that most other categories are going to benefit from them as well. (No matter what your budget, spend some money on an original cover. A good designer does not have to cost you a lot of money but will be worth their weight in gold.) But if you’re not going to include illustrations, you can still do a lot with your text. Change the font of your section headings, move away from Times New Roman, block of portions of the text (quick tips, lessons, anecdotes, etc.) into boxed sections (maybe with a grey background), create lists and use boldface, italics and underlining when appropriate. Obviously stay professional (emoticons and colored text should always be avoided), but professional doesn’t have to be boring.

The best Self Help is common sense, but that’s not a bad thing. As we’re inundated with garbage science, get rich quick schemes and politicians, entertainers and media figures who profit from making readers and viewers afraid, reminders of common sense can be good things. So if that’s something you want to publish, be proud. Now figure out a way to do it well.