Write Useful Books by Rob Fitzpatrick

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Published or Updated On: 
April 4, 2023

Big Picture Thoughts

I loved Rob's other book, The Mom Test, and I'm interested in writing so was eager to check this out. It did not disappoint. Rob approaches writing like an entrepreneur (don't build till you have proof of demand). The book is, overall, a great guide for how to write things people will actually want to read. Very practical, very dense. I highlighted like half of the book.

The Main Ideas

  1. Useful, well-written nonfiction will have strong organic sales growth.
  2. You can create this kind of book for the subject of your choice with iterative testing, before the book is even written.
  3. Seed marketing can get your sales started, then word of mouth should grow it on autopilot.

Summary Notes

The goal of book marketing is to stop needing to do it

Start before you’re ready

First, your early drafts are supposed to be terrible. Every first draft is a dumpster fire. That’s okay.

Second, creating useful nonfiction is a task of manual labor, not genius.

CHAPTER 2 Designing nonfiction for long-lasting recommendability

Useful books are problem-solving products

Make a clear promise and put it on the cover

Here’s the secret to a five-star Amazon rating: be clear enough about what your book is promising that people can decide they don’t need it.

nearly every style and topic of nonfiction can be designed as a problem-solver.

Your book’s promise should appear in (or at least be strongly implied by) its title and/or subtitle.

When someone asks what you’re working on, attempt to describe the book in just one or two sentences. And then you need to do the hardest thing of all: to shut up and listen to them completely misinterpret and misunderstand what you’re trying to do.

once people are immediately getting it — without requiring you to clarify or correct anything substantial — then you’ll know you’ve found the words.

Decide who it isn’t for

The point is that, in order to make something valuable for somebody, you must be willing to define and defend what your book isn’t.

Before allowing those comments to take hold of your soul, take a moment to reflect on who your book is really for.

Note: On feedback

Weak scope / strong scope

Your book is under no obligation to start from the beginning, to serve everybody, or to cover everything. Pick the piece you’re best at, for the people you care most deeply about serving, at the moment in their journey where you can really help them,

The scope of a useful book is like the executive summary of a new business. It’s an as-brief-as-possible description of what it is, who it’s for, and why they’ll pay for it: Scope = Promise + Reader profile + Who it’s not for + What it won’t cover

I didn’t fix the scope by figuring out what to add (or how to write it more beautifully), but by figuring out what to delete. The path became clear after asking one crucial question: What does my ideal reader already know and believe?

Your book’s scope should also be guided by your own goals and interests as its author.

Note: Does the book offer a good outcome without those other things you aren’t excited about? Call them out of scope.

Three helpful lines of questioning to strengthen your scope: When someone decides to buy and read your book, what are they trying to achieve or accomplish with it? Why are they bothering? After finishing it, what’s different in their life, work, or worldview? That’s your book’s promise. What does your ideal reader already know and believe? If they already believe in the importance of your topic, then you can skip (or hugely reduce) the sections attempting to convince them of its worth. Or if they already know the basics, then you can skip those. Who is your book not for and what is it not doing? If you aren’t clear on who you’re leaving out, then you’ll end up writing yourself into rabbit holes, wasting time on narrow topics that only a small subset of your readers actually care about. Deciding who it isn’t for will allow you to clip those tangential branches.

Your scope will still evolve and improve as you proceed through the process, so it doesn’t need to be perfect.

DEEP books vs. ineffective problem-solvers

Desirable — readers want what it is promising (Chapters 2 and 3) Effective — it delivers real results for the average reader (Chapters 3 and 5-6) Engaging — it’s front-loaded with value, has high value-per-page, and feels rewarding to read (Chapter 4) Polished — it is professionally written and presented (Appendix)

You can — and should — write out this sort of recommendation story for your own book idea.

Is your book’s promise Desirable enough that people will readily complain about, receive advice, give advice, and search for solutions to it? When someone encounters this problem/question/goal, is finding a solution a top priority or simply a nice-to-have? If your book could have several possible promises, does one have more “hair on fire” urgency for a certain type of reader? Of your several potential reader profiles, does one more actively search for (or give) advice and recommendations? Do any feel the pain more sharply? If so, they’ll fuel a stronger, faster recommendation loop. This is the first of several moments when you can go back to strengthen your scope.

you must obey two additional requirements for your book to enter the back catalog: Pick a promise that will remain relevant and important for 5+ years Avoid overreliance on temporary tools, trends, and tactics that are likely to become quickly dated

To create a book that lasts and grows, the formula is simple: do the best job of solving an important problem for a reader who cares, without anchoring yourself to temporary tools, tactics, or trends.

CHAPTER 3 Improve your book before you’ve written it

Listening and teaching are part of writing

“reader conversations” will allow you to test and iterate on your book’s underlying scope and structure without worrying about its words,

Note: Key. No words written.

two main styles of reader conversations: Listening/understanding conversations — to verify and improve your scope and rekindle reader empathy Teaching/helping conversations — to refine your table of contents and iterate on the book’s underlying education design and structure In practice, these two styles of conversations tend to overlap and blur together, so you needn’t be overly strict about facilitation.

Just be aware that neither of these conversations are about asking for opinions about your book idea (“So what do you think?”).

As the author, you’ll typically be more experienced than your readers. To write something useful, you’ll need to get back inside their heads and see the topic from their perspective.

You’ve been dealing with X recently, right? Would you mind talking me through what you did and how it went? How did you decide to do it that way? What else did you try? What did you give up on or find unhelpful? Where did you search for help or guidance? What were the most frustrating moments? How did you eventually get over them? Did you read any books or blogs about it? Why (or why not)? Which ones were helpful and which were a waste? Why? What’s still worrying or blocking you? Are you doing anything about it, or is it not that big of a deal?

Oh, you’re writing a book? Amazing! How are you approaching it? Or: You said you’ve always wanted to write a book — what’s getting in your way?

Once you begin to feel that your book’s scope is resonating with your future readers, it’s time to shift toward testing the Effectiveness of what it will contain. Which begins by writing down a first guess at a detailed table of contents.

Fill your ToC with takeaways, not clickbait

To serve its purpose as a tool for design and feedback, it must be built from: Clear, descriptive language Detailed subsections.

Teach the book to test its contents

Sit down and attempt to teach that slice of the ToC to them. Don’t just describe what it will contain — help them to actually receive its value and achieve its promise.

Take good notes about what’s working and what isn’t. Whenever you’re forced to improvise, repeat, or rephrase, treat it as an opportunity to iterate and improve your ToC.

Hey, I remember that you were thinking about doing X a while back. Is that still on your mind? If so, I’d love to grab some time, answer any questions, and help you think through how to approach it. The reason I bring this up is that I’m starting to work on a new book about the topic, and helping you through it would be super useful for me as research. And hopefully I can be helpful in return.

How to find people to talk to Here’s the crucial insight about finding reader conversations: you don’t need that many. Plus, you don’t need them all at once — a few at the start and one or two per week throughout a book’s creation is more than enough.

Begin with friendly first contacts.

Second, plant a flag online.

Third, when people ask what you’ve been up to, start mentioning the book as “your thing.”

Unless you’ve got zero other options, don’t waste time on direct cold outreach.

But if you shift the conversation to be about your readers’ lives instead of your ideas, then the initial invitation is as easy as saying: Hey, I’m planning out a book about setting up an apartment veggie garden. I remember you once mentioned doing something like that before — would you mind talking me through what you tried and how it went? It would help me out so much and should only take about fifteen minutes. But I know everyone is super busy these days, so of course no worries if it’s not a good time.

Note: This is advice for starting a convo with potential book readers to later get feedback on scope & your toc

Same could be done for blog writing.

Hiding from your readers is a slippery slope that causes a series of harmful decisions and consequences: skipping reader conversations, skipping beta reading, and launching without testimonials, reviews, or a seed audience. The more you’re scared by the idea of talking to your readers, the more important it is to deal with now.

Note: True for blog writing too.

Just get out there.

INTERLUDE Expand the tested ToC into a first draft

Note: Once verified it’s wanted AND it works

The first draft is supposed to be a mess

The main idea is to avoid slowing yourself down by rereading, self-judging, or fretting over what you’ve written.

Don’t fix typos. Don’t rework paragraphs to be more beautiful. Just follow the ToC that you’ve already verified via reader conversations.

Don’t worry about front matter (introduction, foreword, etc.) or back matter

If you find yourself stuck by either tone or writer’s block, try drafting the book in your email client. Put one section’s title in the subject line of a fresh email and address it to a friend who knows what’s going on. And then, in the body, simply type out the shortest possible explanation or justification of the subject line — that’s your first draft of that section.

Define your schedule, do the work

You don’t have to write, but you aren’t allowed to do anything else.

Note: Schedule your butt in seat time

CHAPTER 4 Create an engaging reader experience by giving it all away

value received over time spent. If too much time passes before arriving at the next piece of meaningful value, a reader’s engagement drops

What keeps a reader reading

Readers aren’t buying your useful book for its storytelling or suspense. They are buying it as the solution to a problem

They’ll stay engaged for as long as you are regularly and consistently delivering on that promise.[12]

Value Enablers vs. actual value

The most common way to ruin your reader experience is to spend too long on foundational theory before getting to the bits that people actually want.

Visualize the reader experience by adding word counts to your ToC

adding word counts to the titles of your sections and chapters, allowing you to see how many words (and thus how many minutes — 250 words per minute is typical) are sitting between any two pieces of value.

Increase value-per-page by deleting the fluff

Even if it’s only a brief section, finding some way to reduce its word count by 50 percent will double its value-per-page, and your reader will receive twice as many insights per minute of their time. That’s a big deal.

Stephen King once said that throughout the writing process, he ends up deleting twice as many words from each book as he leaves in. My experience has been similar.

It’s not wasted work; it’s part of the process, and those deleted bits will often reappear later as part of your content marketing.

Front-load the value

Revise into a third draft and prepare for beta readers

From the second draft onward, I like to follow Hemingway’s approach of rereading while writing: The best way is to read it all every day from the start, correcting as you go along, then go on from where you stopped the day before. When it gets so long that you can’t do this every day, read back two or three chapters each day; then each week read it all from the start. That’s how you make it all of one piece.[17]

While doing these revisions, focus on the big-picture issues of structure, clarity, and reader experience. Try not to worry about every little problem with grammar, typos, and wordcraft.

You’ll sometimes spend a full day painstakingly writing something that you delete the very next morning, which can feel like sliding backwards. But rest assured, it’s a healthy and natural part of the process.

Note: Thank god I’m not alone

Just remember that your goal at this stage is not to finish a perfect book. The immediate goal is to create something just barely coherent enough for your beta readers to begin working through.

CHAPTER 5 Finding and working with beta readers

Begin beta reading while the manuscript still has problems

The biggest mistake with beta reading (apart from not doing it at all) is to wait too long to start, having already spent hundreds of hours on detailed editing and refinement.

you’ll receive more helpful feedback by showing a less polished product.

Note: Major key

How beta reading works — how many and how often

I aim to find a new set of 3-5 deeply engaged beta readers per iteration, which typically requires inviting 12-20 people who claim that they’d love to read it. Roughly half of them won’t even open the document, and another half will submit approximately one comment before giving up. So expect to invite about four times the number of potential readers as you hope to end up with.

Their disinterest is the data — it shows you what’s next to be fixed.

How many iterations are required? It depends. In general, the more time you’ve already spent teaching the book’s material, the less time will be required for beta reading.

If you need a timeline, plan to run at least two full iterations of beta reading (which should take one to four months, depending on how quickly you can do each rewrite).

Your beta readers will show you when you’re finished

Three strong signals that your manuscript is “finished” and ready to be Polished: It feels easy to recruit new beta readers, since they want what you’re offering (Desirable) Most of them are receiving the value and reaching the end (Effective and Engaging) At least some of them are bringing their friends (the recommendation loop is running)

Finding and managing beta readers

A six-week iteration cycle, for example, would only require stumbling across somewhere between two and four new potential readers each week to find the 12-20 “interested” (and the 3-5 “actual”) that you require for that iteration.

Pick the right tools for live commenting and negative feedback

You also need to tell your beta readers what type of feedback you need. Otherwise, they’ll spend all their time flagging typos when you’re still trying to figure out the core content. Here’s what this looked like for The Workshop Survival Guide:

Save the most influential readers for last

But one thing we did right was to get signed copies into the hands of fifty influential review readers. The logistics took some time, but it wasn’t difficult — we just found their emails, said we wanted to send them a new book, and asked for their postal addresses. We asked for nothing in return, but some of them went out of their way to help us anyway.

CHAPTER 6 Gather better data, build a better book

When a reader seems confused, pay attention to that precious signal. It’s easy (and tempting) to respond with an eye-roll while thinking, “C’mon, pay better attention!” But that only serves to preserve the problem. Far better to think, “A-ha, my book has a weakness; let’s see if I can fix it so nobody else gets lost in the same way.”

Delete the sentences drawing unnecessary drama A small number of your minor sentences will attract a disproportionately large amount of criticism, confusion, drama, and debate. You may want to delete those sentences.

Fall in love with negative feedback

The most helpful feedback of all is about where readers are becoming bored.

Detecting boredom, abandonment, and the hidden analytics of reader engagement

The best way to detect boredom is to identify where readers are quietly giving up and abandoning the book.

Nine times out of ten, the problem is low value-per-page in the surrounding areas.

This is yet another reason to invite actual beta readers instead of just pressuring your friends or hiring a professional. Friends and professionals feel obligated to finish the manuscript, which denies you the invaluable data of where they’re getting bored and wanting to give up.

Follow up to see whether the book actually worked

if you’re writing something that requires the reader to act, then going beyond the comments is invaluable. People will only recommend your book if it has successfully touched their lives. “Sounded good in theory but didn’t work for me” is a death blow to an otherwise recommendable book.

Begin pre-sales once the book is mostly working for beta readers

Finishing and polishing the book

As for polishing it, the biggest task — and the one that feels most writerly — is to hammer your prose into shape through detailed, repeated editing passes.

If you’re self-publishing, hiring a little bit of professional help is highly recommended. Nearly everyone should pay the few hundred dollars for a good copy editor (for sentence-level improvements) and proofreader (for typos and grammar).

CHAPTER 7 Seed marketing to find your first 1,000 readers

How many readers do you need to find? Personally, I aim to get any new book into the hands and hearts of 500-1,000 seed readers before taking my foot off the gas, which could require anywhere from a few weeks to a few months.

Four marketing options for useful books

My top four suggestions for seed marketing (in no particular order) are: Digital book tour via podcasts and online events (most scalable) Amazon PPC (pay-per-click) advertising (easiest but unscalable) Event giveaways and bulk sales (fastest if you have the contacts) Build a small author platform via content marketing and “writing in public” (most reliable and valuable, but time-intensive)

If I were starting over with absolutely zero resources, reputation, or connections, I would rely mainly on the fourth option — writing in public to build a small author platform — complemented by Amazon PPC

"I’ll tell you a secret. When someone wants to interview me for their show, I ask them to send me some questions a week in advance. I spend hours writing down answers from different perspectives, before choosing the most interesting one."

Note: Sivers

But, if you don’t mind waiting a few months, ads can (eventually) build your seed audience all on their own.

One slightly sneaky trick is to research relevant events while your book is still being written, and coax a few organizers into becoming beta readers.

D) Build a small author platform via content marketing and “writing in public” (most reliable)

Between beginning and finishing his first book, Arvid Kahl grew his author platform from zero email subscribers and 400 Twitter followers to several thousand subscribers and 8,000 followers. That’s an achievable size of platform to build alongside writing a single book, and was enough to launch Arvid’s book, Zero to Sold, to #1 in its Amazon categories and deliver $20,000 in royalties within the first six weeks of publication.

of my “marketing” was just sharing the work I was already doing on the manuscript. You can write your book in public, chapter by chapter or section by section, and just continually release these things to an ever-growing audience of people. Nobody will compile it into a book and release it without you. Doing that consistently, every single week, will build an audience whether you like it or not.[29]

The crucial insights: You can reuse the book’s content as its own marketing You can begin doing this very early, even with rough drafts and tiny excerpts

Once a day, after you’ve done your day’s work, find one little piece of your process that you can share. If you’re in the very early stages, share your influences and what’s inspiring you. If you’re in the middle of executing a project, write about your methods or share work-in-progress. If you’ve just completed a project, show the final product, share scraps from the cutting-room floor, or write about what you learned.

Note: Talk about my media department build

you’ll need to make four decisions: Where to post — including both relevant online communities and your own audience What to post — how to adapt your preexisting work into high-value nuggets of standalone content, which could include sharing: Your drafts, excerpts, and deletions Your research, references, and learnings Your process, progress, and behind-the-scenes When to schedule your posts — a repeatable process to reduce the time cost and emotional drain How to capture interest — respectfully converting internet strangers into direct contacts

Consistency is key, so try to figure all of this out before you get started.

Note: Key

Make a list of places to share

Once you’ve found some relevant groups (either by Googling or by asking your readers where they hang out online), spend some time researching each community’s “culture”

Then, whenever it’s time to share something (e.g., a valuable idea, quote, excerpt, or example), you can simply scan your list and decide where it best belongs. My list (for this book) begins like this:

Note: Promotion strategy

Share your writing, drafts, and excerpts

Building an online presence, at its core, is a simple strategy: start writing. Share your experiences, expertise, knowledge, wins, and perhaps equally as important your losses.

Following Gary’s model, your manuscript is not one piece of content — it’s a thousand.

One easy option is to simply screenshot some piece of the manuscript, add some highlights or commentary, and share it.

Share your research and references

Another option is to share the research you’re doing. If, say, you’re writing about the lessons of history, you’ll be bound to come across all sorts of interesting facts, anecdotes, and references. Share them! Even if it’s just a small link or quote, that’s fascinating stuff to the same people who will eventually want to buy your book.

This applies doubly to original research.

Note: Share your convos w smart people

For many nonfiction topics, readers will be just as intrigued by your day-to-day process as your written output.

Or if you were writing for entrepreneurs, they’d likely devour data about your marketing and earnings.

To review the options of what you might post: Share your writing, drafts, and excerpts Share your research and references Share your process and progress

Get accountable by creating a content schedule

I started with just an occasional blog post. But then I realized that I’m a very lazy person, so I started my newsletter as an accountability scheme for myself, since it forced me to send something out every week.

I’d write a chapter or a section of my book, post it as a blog post, send out the same thing as a newsletter, and then read it aloud — plus a little extra commentary — as a podcast episode.

Find some way to stay accountable: use my checklist; use Arvid Kahl’s approach of public accountability; or use Austin Kleon’s simple requirement of, “Once a day, after you’ve done your day’s work, find one little piece of your process that you can share.” But do use something.

creating a short, five-part email series (with each email explaining one common mistake of customer interviews), which roughly 5,000 people have now trickled through.

Note: Need a lead magnet

I’ve recently been attempting to merge reader engagement with (finally) building an author platform. For the past few months, whenever a reader asks a question, instead of sending an email reply, I record the answer as a public video on my YouTube channel[50] and send them a link. This requires slightly more time, but doubles as a permanent piece of content to help build my fledgling audience.

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