This morning, my client and I had a conversation that upset me.
We were in the process of putting together a book proposal for his self-help book. The proposal will be something he will use to secure an agent and eventually a book deal, at which point the entire book will be created.
To protect his privacy I won’t go into the details of what his background is or what particular kind of self-help book he’s writing, but one thing I can share is what happened only a few hours before I put this post together. We were working on the general structure for what his book will be, and he stated that “the success of this book hinges on it being fairly profound.”
Yes, this is what upset me.
This comment was the latest in a series of comments that my client has made to me about how his book might be described by others. This time he wanted the book to be profound, and last week he was really on about how funny it needed to be. And weeks prior to that, he made a big deal about how important it was for the content to be original – as in, it needs to be like something that no one had ever seen before.
These are all things that it would nice to hear about a book we wrote when we read the reviews on Amazon – original, funny, profound. Who wouldn’t want that?
But the conversation was as upsetting to me as it was because each time he cited what he wanted his book to be, he revealed that he was making a crucial mistake in how he went about creating a self-help book. He was missing the underlying, essential point of putting together self-help material in the first place.
The point of self-help material isn’t to be original, funny, or profound.
The point of self-help material is to help someone to solve a problem.
Every time we start a sentence with “I really want my book to be ______,” as in “I really want my book to be profound,” we undermine our own success because we’re hung up on the wrong thing: what we want.
When really, we need to be hung up on what our reader wants.
When we’re hung up on what we want for our book, we’re automatically going to make different editorial decisions than if our focus is on our reader. We might pepper a paragraph with a bunch of jokes, like my client does, and while those jokes may be funny they may also distract from the task at hand – which again, is to teach the reader how to solve a problem.
If it doesn’t help the reader to solve a problem, there’s no point to the book.
And pointless books are a waste of everyone’s time.
Hence, I am upset.
When I worked at Penguin, I reviewed a self-help book proposal for possible acquisition that wasn’t original, funny, or profound. I didn’t like the project for the hardcover imprint for which I worked, as it lacked the kind of substance we looked for at that level. But I said to my editor-in-chief that I absolutely thought it would sell when the time came. Our paperback partner did indeed acquire the book, and sure enough, it became a New York Times bestseller.
Why did this happen, if the book wasn’t any of those appealing qualities? Many people go through life working at some job or career that they don’t believe is their purpose in life. This book helped people to hone in on exactly what they were supposed to do in their life as a whole and then implement a plan for fulfilling that decision. The readers of this book had the problem of a purposeless existence, and they wanted to solve it. They bought and read the book because they believed the book would help them to solve that problem.
Having content that can be described as funny or profound certainly can’t hurt, but the truth is that self-help authors will only be as successful as their potential readers believe their book to help them solve a problem – a problem about which they truly care. And to do this, the book’s material must follow basic principles of sound execution.
Curious about whether to pursue a traditional deal or self-publish? Check out my cheat sheet here.