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Let's Talk About How-To Books

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Al Stevens

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Good topic. Differences between fiction and how-to non-fiction in my experience:


  • A how-to needs an outline. Fiction can be seat of pants.
  • Fiction is told in narrative and dialogue. How-tos are told in explanations and procedures.
  • Fiction needs no illustrations. How-tos? "A picture is worth..."
  • Fiction is stories told on a timeline. How-tos are presented as subsequent lessons.
  • Fiction writers are making it up and anything goes. How-to writers better know what they're talking about.
  • How-tos sell readily to a targeted audience. Fiction appeals to everyone.
  • Everyone's writing novels. The how-to competition is not as fierce it you have an esoteric subject.
  • Formatting an e-book novel is easy. Non-fiction can be a pita because of charts and illustrations.
  • Non-fiction needs paperback editions that can be sold or given away at private and public events such as conferences, lectures, signings, reunions. Self-published fiction works best with e-books.

(All of the above are opinions based on my experiences.)

Today's how-to market is tough. Everything anybody wants to know about almost any subject can be found with google. Consequently, I think one would do better choosing topics aimed at folks who don't sit at their computers all day or walk around with their noses buried in their smart phones. Although that's a shrinking audience.
 

Scriptissima

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I have started work on my first "how to" book of sorts, and I am trying to figure out whether I want to self-publish or whether there might be a traditional publishing possibility, which I would actually prefer for several reasons. I'm not ruling out self-publishing, though.
Okay, I'll bite. I think you make a great point that they are good money-makers, if you are researching the potential market and writing to it. I wrote a book on raising dairy goats, ended up about 90Kworks, and with illustrations that put me well over 250 pages. I smiled at your reasons for enjoying it. I liked your point that you are writing to sell someone their dream - so true!

I'm working on a nonfiction right now about dogs and behavioral issues. Kind of specialized.
Have you self-published your "how to" book on dairy goats, or did you go with a traditional publisher? Same question for the canine behavior book you're currently working on. Since I am tapping into a similar genre, I'd love to hear what your (thought) process was. :)
As an editor, I do want to say generally that there are a lot of how-to books on Amazon that are badly done - riddled with bad grammar and spelling errors, and badly structured, with cheesy titles and sub-par covers. If you are going to do it, watch quality. Quality will always sell better in the long run and will keep your book marketable longer. Put some thought into the title and into the cover design. Make it attractive, the same way you would with a fiction offering.
I think that is true for any self-publishing endeavor; many of those books look unprofessional, which is a huge turn-off for me as a reader, and which makes me have a hard time taking the writer seriously, regardless of their expertise or writing skill.
 

frimble3

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Hand-drawn graphics. :e2smack: At least, use skilled hands to draw, with technical aids like rulers and such. Oh, and bad computer graphics are worse - jaggies and such.
 

celadon

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I just published a short ebook on a currently popular how-to subject. I am also working on a longer, more detailed book on the same subject (to be published in a month or two), but when I saw all the truly abysmal, badly done, scammy ebooks on the subject (that people were actually reading and buying!) I snapped. I wrote something shorter for release right away. I probably am doing things all wrong, but I KNOW that I can't be as bad as these other books. I'm trying to do things the right way, like getting a good cover and having the book edited. I have plenty of illustrations (that aren't horrible) and at least I know what I'm writing about! (The scammers don't.)

I'm probably being overly optimistic. The genre I'm writing for has plenty of other books. Some of them are outstanding. So many of them are horrible! At least I know I'll be on the not-horrible side. I'm studying how to promote and I'll be learning as I go.
 
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Al Stevens

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Differences between self- and trade-published how-tos. Again, in my experience.

The usual:

  • Control of price, title, subject matter, cover, and content. Publishers can run rough-shod over authors based on their perception of what will sell.
  • Timely publication: publishers can take so long that by the time your book hits the shelves, your self-help content might be obsolete.
  • Marketing: publishers sell to bookstores. Self-publishers have access to the world's largest bookstore and there's no sales involved to get distribution. Publishers do not usually sell to readers unless the author's name is a successful brand.
  • Self-published works need never go out of print. New editions are the author's decision and don't have to be based on previous sales. How-tos are especially conducive to new editions because some subject matter changes with time and technology. One of my programming books, originally written in 1990, is in its seventh edition. The publisher didn't want to do an eighth, they decided to put it out of print, they reverted, and I self-published it.
 

Scriptissima

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Differences between self- and trade-published how-tos. Again, in my experience.

The usual:

  • Control of price, title, subject matter, cover, and content. Publishers can run rough-shod over authors based on their perception of what will sell.
  • Timely publication: publishers can take so long that by the time your book hits the shelves, your self-help content might be obsolete.
  • Marketing: publishers sell to bookstores. Self-publishers have access to the world's largest bookstore and there's no sales involved to get distribution. Publishers do not usually sell to readers unless the author's name is a successful brand.
  • Self-published works need never go out of print. New editions are the author's decision and don't have to be based on previous sales. How-tos are especially conducive to new editions because some subject matter changes with time and technology. One of my programming books, originally written in 1990, is in its seventh edition. The publisher didn't want to do an eighth, they decided to put it out of print, they reverted, and I self-published it.
Your experience-based opinion sounds like you're very much in favor of self-publishing. :)

I think one of the aspects to consider is whether or not self-publishing might be harmful to the writer's reputation down the road. It seems that quite a few agents and traditional publishers consider self-published writers some sort of failure, and I have read some accounts that make me think self-publishing might close the door to future opportunities with traditional publishers. And as a reader, I am generally feeling that most traditionally published books have received better editing (and I'm not just talking about proofreading and grammar).

That said: The book I am currently working on is catering to quite a niche and doesn't necessarily have mass market potential, so not many publishers would be interested to begin with. On an upside, though, as of this week, it would be a stand-alone book with no direct competitors in its segment (which could be good or bad. Either nobody had that brilliant idea before, or the idea is not all that brilliant after all and all the previous attempts have been shot down. I think - and hope - it's the former, but I'm a tad biased...), so not having any direct competitor could translate into this book "dominating" said niche, which could be attractive to traditional publishers after all.

Right now I think I am leaning towards querying smaller, independent publishers that operate in the respective genre(s) of this book, and if the pile of rejection letters reaches a certain height I might switch gears and go for self-publishing. My proposal including several sample chapters will be ready to submit in a couple of weeks, three weeks tops, I guess (professional editing included), so that's when the fun of querying shall begin.
 

WeaselFire

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Your experience-based opinion sounds like you're very much in favor of self-publishing. :)

Some things, especially in nonfiction and absolutely in how-to, won't get published any other way. While there is a market for the material, it's no way near large enough to attract a traditional publisher. And many things really have no viable market to begin with. Part of the planning process for your book.

Jeff
 

Zeroni

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Hey, just thought I'd add my two cents, I get a lot from how-to books. I catalogue practical toolkits on community organising on my blog, I call them practical works, those authors writing to serve a function, to group together many experiences into one coherent idea, that can be used as a tool. Then any useful articles on the process of writing I put into the catagory 'creating culture'.

There are many books, zines and essays advising how we’d ideally organize together, support, transform etc. Titles like ‘Organizing Social Spaces as if Social Relations Matter’ aim at critiquing a certain ethos, in the hopes of moving the movement in a certain direction.

Recently I've been trying to get radical folk to submit personal stories that meander about general issues they’ve come up against surviving, growing, learning how to make change happen, for themselves and their adopted community.

Rather than asking writers to come forward with the best how to instructions, I've kept it general in order to broader the conversation, I'm asking open questions like, where we’re at, where we’re going as a movement, what sustains you? and what motivates you? as an individual.

You can find me at activistjourneys.wordpress.com if you know anyone that's interested.
 

dot-dot-dash

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The big difference for me is that when writing non-fiction, I have a publisher waiting for a book. My fiction, however, is waiting for me to find a publisher.
 

Elizabeth George's book Write Away