How To Write and Sell a Successful "How To" Book


Copyright 2000 by Alpine Guild, Inc.  All rights reserved.




†††††††††† You have knowledge, experience, skills. You are ready to communicate your know-how to others through a book. This brief guide will help you get started.


Caution: Almost no book will provide a significant financial return on the author's investment of time and effort. Don't give up your day job expecting that a book will be the sole source of your income. For some authors, the book is a way to validate their professional status. For some it is a way to extend their message beyond the audiences they can talk to personally. For some it is a text to accompany the seminars, workshops, lectures, or other presentations they make. There are many reasons why authors write books. Making a lot of money should not be one of those reasons. It is possible that you might be pleasantly surprised. It is also possible that you might win the lottery.


Getting Started:


Take out three sheets of paper. (If you work on a computer, as I do, work on three separate pages.)


Step 1. Who will be the reader? On the first sheet of paper or page, write down a description of the person to whom you are directing the book. Be specific. (For example: a 45-year-old female with a Master's degree in Social Work who has worked her way through the ranks to become executive director of her social service agency in a large city. She has a sometimes difficult board, miserly funding agencies, high staff turn-over, and still has teen-age children and a husband at home.) Think of a person or a composite of persons you know.

You will hope to have a broad general audience of readers. But a book must be written to a single reader. Think of the process as the author sitting across the table from the reader and talking to the reader. A book differs from a presentation to a group. It is a written presentation to one reader at a time. If you can't clearly define the specific reader at whom the book is to be directed, you are not ready to proceed. If the reader you intend for the book cannot be easily and inexpensively informed of the availability of the book, then the book may be impossible to sell.


Step 2. What are the benefits? On the second sheet of paper or page, detail the specific benefits that your book will deliver to the reader. What will the reader be able to do when he or she has completed the book? Just providing general knowledge is not a compelling benefit.

††††††††††† Readers donít care what you put in the book. They care about what they get out of the book.

What will the reader get from the book that will make the reader's investment of money, time, and effort in acquiring and reading the book worthwhile? You are asking people to give up their money, time, and effort - their time is especially valuable. What benefits are you going to provide them? These benefits need to be very focused, not mealy-mouthed generalities. If you can't clearly define the specific benefits readers will get from your book, you are not ready to proceed.


Step 3. How will the book be structured? On the third sheet of paper or page (and you may need to use more than one sheet for this step), write down an outline of the content of the book. This will define the structure by which you will deliver the benefits to the reader

The first chapter will always be an introduction. It will specify the benefits you will deliver to the reader. It will validate the reader's decision to purchase the book and encourage the reader to invest the time and effort to go through the book. The second part of the introduction will set out the structure of the book in detail.

The final chapter will always be a summary in which you tell the reader what you told them, being sure to re-emphasize the benefits that the book has offered. In between the introduction and the summary will be chapters that each deliver a specific benefit or that provide the foundation for delivering benefits to the reader. The best how-to books begin each chapter with a brief description of what the reader will learn from reading the chapter. The chapter exposition follows. It will be amply illustrated by anecdotes, stories, parables, and examples taken from real life. The reader is not just told "do this", but is given case studies of success and of failure that illustrate why it is important to "do this". These verbal illustrations will be specifically chosen to relate to the specific reader you have identified. The outline should contain a brief synopsis of the content of each chapter (and perhaps each subsection of each chapter.)


Once you have completed these three essential steps, you are almost ready to write the book.

But before you actually write the book you have planned, you need to give attention to how it will be sold.

Many authors believe that books are sold by bookstores. That is like saying that onions are sold by grocery stores. Of course, onions can be found in grocery stores, but grocery stores don't actually sell onions. If you are a shopper and you don't want onions, you won't buy them and the clerks at the grocery store won't care whether you put onions on the check-out counter or not.

Books can be found at bookstores. A typical superstore has over 100,000 different titles. But the bookstore won't sell your book. If a customer doesn't want to buy your book, he or she will not buy it and the clerks will not care. A very poor way to sell a book is to put it on the shelf of a large bookstore among 100,000 other titles and hope that someone spots your book, picks it off the shelf, is intrigued by a quick scan of the book, and then buys it. This might happen, just as you might win the lottery. But your chances are even further reduced because most bookstores have sophisticated computer systems that identify what is selling and what is just sitting on the shelves. Books that have sat on the shelves for 60 days or so are removed and returned to the publisher, to be replaced by new titles. This limits even further the chances of getting a random sale at a bookstore.

A much better way to get your book sold is to have the customer come to the bookstore and specifically ask for your title. Another much better way is to have the customer order the book directly as a result of some kind of promotional activity.

Writing a book is not easy. Taking all of the steps needed to get a book into print is not easy. But these activities are not nearly as difficult as selling a book. Before you spend your time and effort writing a book, you need to be sure that it can be sold economically and effectively.

You have already defined your reader. Now you need to think about how you can tell that reader about your book. If your book is going to sell for $30, you can't spend $15 to tell each potential reader about your book. You have to find an effective way to communicate with potential readers at an affordable cost.

You may wonder if publishers aren't supposed to do this. Yes, they are supposed to, but all too many publishers will put your book on bookstore shelves and hope lightning strikes. In any case, if you want to sell your book to a publisher you will need to convince the publisher that the book can be effectively and economically sold to its potential audience.

Does your reader belong to a group that can be reached through a mailing list or through an inexpensive ad in a publication that this group reads regularly? We receive many manuscripts whose authors tell us that their work will appeal to "everyone". There has never been such a book. Even if there were, there is no effective and economical way to tell "everyone" about a book.

Most public libraries provide reference sources that will tell how many members belong to associations or organizations that your reader might be a part of, and whether these associations have newsletters, magazines, web sites, mailing lists, and other resources that could be tapped to communicate with potential readers. Other references at the library will provide other kinds of information that will help to plan on ways to tell potential readers that your book is available and will provide valuable benefits for them.

Perhaps you watch television ads. How many book ads have you seen? The cost of television ads is far too high to economically promote a book. The same is true for most other mass media used by advertisers of soft drinks, beer, laundry detergents, automobiles, and other products. The audience for a specific book is such a small part of the audience reached by the mass media, that the costs of advertising to "everyone" cannot be recovered by sales to just a few.

If you are unable to clearly identify and define a cohesive audience that can be economically informed of the existence and benefits of your book, you don't have a publishable book.


You have previously identified compelling benefits that will drive the audience to part with money, time, and effort. Now it is time to write a brief sales letter to that audience. On one page, explain to the audience why they should buy the book you plan.

Shouldn't the publisher do this? Of course, but a great many publishers expect that the author will know the most about the book and the audience and will provide the selling points. It will certainly be much easier to convince a publisher to take your book if you can provide a strong sales letter that will get the publisher to ask to see your manuscript.

If you can't write a brief letter that is likely to convince your audience that the benefits of your book justify their investment of money, time, and effort, then you don't have a salable book.


When you have identified the cohesive audience that can be economically and effectively reached, and when you have composed a sales letter that clearly identifies the compelling benefits your book will provide, then and only then, should you go to work to write the book.

Each section you write should fit into the structure you have prepared. Each should deliver the benefit or benefits you have promised. Each should speak directly to the reader you have defined.

Good writers do a first draft, then rework the manuscript to strengthen it. They move or eliminate sections that do not fit properly into the structure. They sharpen the presentation to be sure that the benefit - the "how to" - is both obvious and well-illustrated with anecdotes, stores, parables, examples, case studies, and so on. They rewrite to be sure the language will be appropriate and clear to the intended reader. This usually means eliminating insider jargon, shortening run-on sentences, and using straightforward language. Think of sitting across the table from the person you are directing the book toward. Speak to this person clearly and simply.

When you are satisfied that you have provided the intended benefits in a clear, well-organized presentation that will appeal to the reader you have identified, then you are ready to move toward publication of the book.


You may want to publish it yourself. You will need to be able to finance the pre-publication editing, design, and manufacturing steps, as well as the marketing and promotion activities needed to make the book known to its intended audience. (In book publishing, almost all of the money has to be spent prior to getting any sales.)You can hire free-lance experts to do most of the technical tasks of getting the book into print (on paper or in digital format), as well as the marketing, promotion, and distribution activities. If you have gone through the steps outlined above, you have already done the most difficult part of publishing: determining how to sell the book.

You may want to submit a proposal to the publishers who are most active in your field (or to agents who work with those publishers.) Your proposal should include the output of the three first steps discussed above (reader identification, benefit definition, structure). It should include a chapter or section of a chapter to illustrate your writing style. It should also include a biography of the author or authors, emphasizing what marketing and promotion activities the author or authors can provide to help sell the book. (Almost all successful books involve substantial author involvement in marketing and promotion.) Be sure to include your sales letter as well as a brief description of how you believe the publisher can effectively and economically reach the intended audience.

With these materials, your chances of having a publisher ask to see your complete manuscript will be greatly enhanced.

You may be a successful author even if you ignore the steps outlined here. But your chances of success will be immeasurably improved if you follow this proven process.

Writing and publishing a successful "how to" book can be personally and professionally rewarding, even if it is not going to make you rich. If you do a good job, you can help a great many people to be more productive, more successful, and more satisfied. After all, the most important outcome of writing and publishing a book should be making a real difference in the lives of the people who read the book. To know that you have touched your readers and made a difference in their lives is a reward beyond that provided by money.


Please feel free to contact us at Alpine Guild if you believe we can be of assistance.


Good luck and best wishes,



Bob Follett



Some Helpful Books (None published by Alpine Guild)


How to Get Happily Published ; Judith Applebaum

Writerís Guide to Book Editors, Publishers, and Literary Agents: Jeff Herman

Literary Marketplace: The Directory of the American Book Publishing Industry: R. R. Bowker

Complete Guide to Self Publishing: Marilyn and Tom Ross


(There are many more, available in most larger public libraries.)


COPYRIGHT 2000 by Alpine Guild, Inc.