Having worked in and around the publishing industry for the past 12 years, I’ve seen a lot of nonfiction authors get it right and a lot get it wrong. I started to notice certain patterns in the writers who were successful and spot common mistakes made by those whose books flopped. As our mission is to make the world a better place through books, we’re going to let you in on the five biggest mistakes that nonfiction writers make, so you can avoid them on your journey to becoming an author.
Let’s be brutally honest: as the author, you birthed your creation and you love it, which is necessary to push it out into the world. But you also won’t think your baby is ugly or want to change it. That’s why you need an editor—someone informed, objective, and honest about how your book needs to be improved. Some authors can’t afford an editor and that’s fair enough, but others avoid working with one because they think the editor will a) steal their book (which is never going to happen), b) ruin their book, or c) add no value to it. In truth, the editor is there to help the author understand the publishing industry, what readers want, and how to succeed.
Every genre has certain standards, be it word count, cover design, or structure. These standards are a guide for authors on what readers want and what’s selling. For example, each genre has specific colours that instantly tell readers where the book sits. The average word count for traditionally published bestselling nonfiction is 75k words (300 pages long) and less for self-publishing. While some books fall outside of these standards—Sapiens, for example, is incredibly long for popular social sciences—they’re the very rare exception, not the rule. If you choose to step outside these standards, such as publishing a very long book, be aware that you’re limiting your target audience.
Whether we like it or not, readers are very unforgiving about typos in published books, often seeing them as a mark of poor quality or lack of effort on the author’s behalf. The reality is that most published books contain at least one typo, and they’re not the heinous beasts everyone believes them to be… but if you want readers to take you seriously, then you need to get your book proofread. Not by you (the human brain is designed not to spot our own typos), not by your editor (they’re too familiar with the book to spot the errors), and not before the book is typeset.
We get it: authors don’t want to market their books. And that’s fair enough, because marketing is arduous, time-consuming, and sometimes expensive. But the fact is that you’re competing with millions of other authors, some with thousands of reviews already, meaning readers won’t find your book by magic. You have to actively promote, market, and push your book out there. So, you need a marketing plan. You may need help from a professional marketer. And you definitely need to start building your author platform and marketing before the book is launched, ideally one to three months before publishing. If you don’t market your book, you can’t expect anyone to find it, buy it, or read it.
This is perhaps the biggest mistake, yet the least noticed. As the author, you are vital to the book’s success; however, to be a successful nonfiction author, you have to leave your ego at the door and put the reader first. If you want to reach thousands or millions of people, then you have to understand and deliver what those people want—because what they want is what they buy. If the author truly wants to help readers, then the reader must be their main focus, their top priority, the driving force behind their decisions. I say this with all kindness: it’s about the reader, not the author. If you don’t deliver what readers want, then people simply won’t buy or read your book.
Did these mistakes surprise you? Have you made any of these mistakes as an author? Let us know on social media…
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