Robin Colucci is a successful entrepreneur, author, and writing coach. Robin and I know that creating a bestselling book isn’t about marketing—it’s about the entire writing, publishing, and marketing process. And it all starts with your first book idea.
Robin has studied some of the best-selling books in the world, the ones that have sold hundreds of thousands and even millions of copies. She discovered there are only four bestseller blueprints or book structures that these bestsellers use.
This is a great interview. We talk about those four book structures and how you can use any of them to create a bestselling book.
Robin began her publishing career in the 1980s while she studied journalism at George Washington University. She had several jobs during her college years. She was a freelance writer and news aide for The Washington Post. She worked for the George Washington University school newspaper, the GW Hatchet. She also was an editor on the school’s poetry magazine.
When Robin graduated, the chairman of her department recommended her for a job as David Wise’s research assistant. She worked with him over the next three years on three books, a novel, a political science textbook, and a nonfiction exposé about a spy who sold secrets to the Russians while working for the CIA. The spy was able to evade FBI surveillance to escape to Moscow.
It was while working as David Wise’s research assistant that Robin learned how to develop a concept to sell to publishers. She also learned the process of pitching, working with the publisher, and how national publicity campaigns work.
Robin started a fitness business after her job with David Wise ended. She decided to go to graduate school and get an advanced degree in spiritual psychology with the aim of helping entrepreneurs in the fitness space become better at running their businesses.
She got her graduate degree in spiritual psychology and learned a lot of useful skills. Primarily she learned the importance of listening to the essence of what people are saying. After graduate school, she got several clients, and to her surprise, most of them wanted to write a book.
She was able to combine her knowledge of publishing with her knowledge of being a business owner, as well as her newly acquired skills in listening and asking questions, to help her clients navigate the process of traditional publishing.
That’s how Robin’s book coaching business formed. She helps coaches and consultants write books to build their credibility, increase their income, and magnify their impact.
What It Takes to Become a New York Times Bestseller
“’Bestseller’ is an interesting term. Book sales is one piece of it. It’s also writing a book that helps sell you and your expertise and your message. It is about communicating effectively with your audience.”
– Robin Colucci
There are a number of factors that go into a book making it to the New York Times bestseller list.
- How well-known is the author?
- How well is the book promoted?
- Is there a confluence of events that makes the book “catch on?”
None of these factors is directly in the author’s control. While you can put yourself in a good position to become a New York Times bestseller, nothing is certain.
So Robin decided to ask a question that would lead to results her clients could control:
What common elements do New York Times Bestsellers have that can be replicated by anyone who wants to be on the list?
The Four Basic Blueprints of New York Times Bestsellers
There are a few common features of many NYT bestsellers. Let’s look at them.
Blueprint #1: The Organized List
Organized list books are books that contain related ideas that have been organized into a list.
Organized list books tend to be on the New York Times bestseller list so often because the structure is easy to understand and very accessible to readers.
Organized list books can be read in any order.
The organized list blueprint is used for two types of books.
- A compilation book is a collection of essays, interviews, or articles that all appear in one book.
- The self-help book is a collection of resources or articles with a specific aim: improvement. The Chicken Soup for the Soul series is the best example of an organized list book that’s a self-help book.
In the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, there is an overriding theme and several different contributors—and various authors can contribute. Those books can also be read in no particular order.
Listen to episode 119 with Amy Newmark to learn how to contribute stories to the Chicken Soup for the Soul series.
Another way you see this template applied is in books with list titles, like 1001 Ways to Be Romantic, or 1000 Ways to Promote Your Book, or 101 Ways to (you fill in the blank).
Usually these self-help books have shorter chapters, and more of them. These attributes make the book easier to consume. This isn’t always the case, however.
The Four Agreements is a great example of an organized list book. In The Four Agreements, there’s an introduction where the author lays out the four agreements, and from there each chapter is one of the agreements. But the agreements can be read in any order.
Blueprint #2: The Traditional Outline
The traditional outline blueprint makes use of the traditional book format that is taught throughout grade school. It’s the outline method that Microsoft Word defaults to when you click the “multilevel list” button on the home tab.
A traditional outline uses Roman numerals for major topics and small letters for subtopics.
The traditional outline blueprint can be used for step-by-step how-to books as well as self-help books.
Self-help books written using the traditional outline blueprint need to be read in order. Self-help books written using the organized list blueprint do not.
In a self-help book written with the traditional outline blueprint, ideas are presented in a specific order. For this type of self-help book, you would introduce the simplest ideas first and move to more complex ideas later in the book. Typically, the reader would need to understand the simpler ideas before they can grasp the more complex ones.
For a how-to book using the traditional outline blueprint, you would have an introduction to your topic that explains what you’re going to talk about and why. Then you would start in chapter one with the first step in the process and move your way through to the end, taking a reader from where they are now to where they want to be. Finally, you have a conclusion that explains what people should do after reading the book.
A great example of a New York Times bestseller that was written using the traditional outline blueprint is The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change by Stephen R. Covey.
That book starts with the simple idea of doing what’s important first. As you progress through the book, the ideas become increasingly complex until you read about the four quadrants and how to use them as a tool to evaluate what you should focus your attention on.
Suze Orman’s book The 9 Steps to Financial Freedom: Practical and Spiritual Steps So You Can Stop Worrying is another good example of a book written using the traditional outline blueprint. In this example, Suze goes through the sequential steps to teach you how to become financially free so that you can stop worrying about money.
When you’re writing for the mass market, you should look for ways to be entertaining when communicating your ideas. Be sure to let your own unique author voice shine through. Your author voice will set you apart from competitors in your market.
“The #1 business you’re in when you’re writing books is entertainment. If you’re book isn’t entertaining, I don’t care how good the information is, it’s going to be much harder to get that information shared.”
– Robin Colucci
Find ways to include stories in your book. Stories allow your reader to connect with the material on a more personal level. You can include your own personal stories, or the stories of your clients.
People learn through story. People remember stories much more than they remember information. All the top-selling business books, self-help books, and information books are loaded with stories.
Blueprint #3: The Story Arc and Three Acts
This is the top-selling book blueprint of all time. This blueprint has been used for thousands of years. You can see this blueprint in Homer’s Odyssey and The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
This blueprint is responsible for all of the bestselling fiction that has ever been written. It also applies to memoirs, historical nonfiction, and exposés like All the Presidents Men.
The E-Myth: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It by Michael Gerber is a great example of a book written using the traditional outline blueprint that includes a fable.
The arc and three acts blueprint is the best-selling book blueprint in all of history. This is important for two reasons:
- It shows the popularity of fiction.
- It proves that stories sell. So whenever possible, use stories to illustrate your points in your nonfiction books. Stories make nonfiction and self-help books more engaging.
What Goes into the Three Act Structure?
Act I: The Normal
This is where you will set up what is normal in your world. You show your world before the story starts. You show your hero in their status quo before the story has interrupted the flow of their life. In The Hobbit, we see Bilbo in the Shire before Gandalf puts a mark on his door to tell the dwarves that this is where they should look for their master burglar.
Sometimes a novel begins in the middle of the story, and then later there’s a flashback to the events that took place in Act I. That still works in this blueprint because all three acts are still present in the story even though they don’t appear sequentially.
Act I exists to give the reader the context behind the time and place where the story happens. Act I doesn’t have to focus on the hero. Act I can focus on the villain.
At the end of Act I comes…
The Catalyst or Catalyzing Event
This is the event that changes everything. The catalyst is the event that puts the story into motion. Without this event, the story doesn’t take place.
In The Lord of the Rings, the catalyst event is when Bilbo puts on the One Ring at his birthday party and scares his guests. That catalyst introduces the role of the ring and its magical nature. Also, the fact that the ring is used attracts the forces of the enemy to Bilbo and Frodo’s home in the Shire.
Every story ever told has a catalyzing event, because no story can begin until a catalyst occurs.
In Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack is supposed to sell the cow’s milk at market. Instead he sells the cow for a bag full of magic beans.
If you’re going to write a memoir, you should identify the important points in your life before you start writing. What part of your life are you going to write about? What event changed the trajectory of your life? That’s your catalyst.
The catalyst launches Act II.
In Act II there will be several plot points. When these plot points occur, your protagonist will either be getting closer to or further away from the goal. Usually the catalyzing event creates a goal of some sort for the protagonist:
- Something the protagonist wants to get done or achieve.
- Something the protagonist wants to stop from happening.
- Something that the protagonist wants to discover.
- A mystery the protagonist needs to solve.
A textbook example of The Arc and Three Act Structure is the movie version of The Wizard of Oz. A tornado picks up Dorothy’s house and transports the house with her inside to the land of Oz. When she wakes up, her goal quickly becomes getting back home. After she decides to follow the yellow brick road to get to the Emerald City, obstacles are thrown in her way at every turn.
Act II begins with your catalyzing event and ends when your character reaches their “all is lost moment.”
The All Is Lost Moment
The “all is lost moment” usually takes place after the character thinks they are going to succeed. Not only do they fail in the next moment, but circumstances are much worse than they imagined. The stakes are raised, and there doesn’t seem to be any way that the antagonist can possibly win.
In The Wizard Of Oz, Dorothy escapes the witch, makes her way to the wizard, and finds out that he’s not a wizard after all. At this point in the story, it doesn’t seem like Dorothy will ever be able to get home.
Story structure is actually present in our everyday life. How many times have you thought you were going to achieve a goal only to be thwarted because of circumstances beyond your control? And how many times have you succeeded only after you were at your lowest point?
The climax takes place shortly after the “all is lost” moment. This is where we find out whether or not the protagonist succeeds or fails.
The climax is the final turning point where the fate of your protagonist is determined. Obviously, in a lot of stories the protagonist is victorious, but certainly not in every story, and you do have that flexibility depending on what your story demands.
Act III: The New Normal
Act III is where the audience gets to see the resolution. Act III shows the audience what Robin calls “the new normal.”
- Act I contains the old normal which ends with the catalyzing event.
- Act II contains the bulk of the story where the character pursues a difficult goal and grows as a result.
- Act III is the resolution of the story and reveals the new normal as a result of the story that has taken place.
To those authors who feel constrained by the three-act structure, Robin has this to say:
“Creativity flourishes inside of structure”
– Robin Colucci
She also points out that you can’t play improvisational jazz before you learn the C scale on whatever instrument you are playing. You have to know the fundamental rules of enjoyable art before you can successfully improvise something that an audience would enjoy.
You need to practice your artform and be willing to be bad before you can expect to write or create something good.
“Any art form you pursue has fundamental structural forms that make it work.”
– Robin Colucci
Once you’ve mastered the fundamentals, if you want to consciously break a rule, it’s possible to be successful. But you have to know why you’re breaking a rule in order to break it in a way that is helpful to your art.
The only reason to break a rule is if you get more out of your art by breaking the rule than by following it. And the only way to know whether or not that’s the case is to be a master of the fundamentals.
Blueprint #4: The Essay
One variation of the organized list blueprint was the compilation book, a series of short essays, and it’s not that hard to write a series of short essays.
In the essay blueprint, your entire book is an essay. This can be very difficult. These books often require a massive amount of research. The essay blueprint is designed to prove a point or bring new information to the public that they didn’t have access to before.
The essay blueprint is designed for authors who are trying to convince their audience to live in a new paradigm. These books are usually written by journalists or researchers, people with extensive knowledge in a particular area who want to bring information to the general public so they can make better decisions or raise their awareness.
The essay blueprint is structured like this:
- In an introductory chapter, you state a thesis or opinion about the world.
- Through the body of the book, you present your evidence for your opinion.
- In a conclusion, you show how you proved your opinion and what people should do about it.
May All Be Fed: A Diet for a New World Including Recipes by Jia Patton and Friends by John Robbins is a good example of the essay blueprint.
Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit by Al Gore is another good example of a bestselling book that follows the essay blueprint. That book is about the threat of global warming on modern society.
Freakonomics is another example of a book written using the essay blueprint.
Another variation on the essay blueprint is to take a story or stories from your own life to prove your point. This form is generally more accessible to audiences because, as we’ve said before, stories sell books.
This variation of the essay form can be used very effectively by a coach or consultant who wants to share their perspective in a more personal way and connect with potential clients.
The most popular books written using the essay blueprint are usually written by authors who are known for something else, usually writing. But an expert can also use the format of personal essay.
Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad about My Neck is a good contemporary example of this variation on the essay blueprint, although she didn’t use it to become a coach.
Robin hasn’t seen an expert become a bestseller using this blueprint, although it is a viable blueprint—what makes these books bestsellers is how well-known the author is. So if you’re a well-known author who already has one or two bestsellers under your belt, you should be able to write a book using the personal essay blueprint and have it become a bestseller.
You have to be an experienced writer to pull off the essay blueprint, especially if you’re going to write a personal essay, because you have to write your essay from what Robin calls The Witness Perspective. You have to pull the reader into the story, but you also have to have parts of your essay where you’re looking at events from the outside and reporting on them, sort of like a witness to a crime would give information to the police.
Robin does have some clients that she recommends use the essay blueprint, but those people generally run organizations and have a staff that can help them with research. If you’re a first-time author, try tackling one of the easier blueprints before you approach this one.
How a New Writer Should Use These Book Blueprints
Now that you know these blueprints exist, here’s how a new writer should approach using them.
- Decide on your concept for the book.
- Figure out which book blueprint fits with the concept of your book. (You can also choose a book blueprint based on your personality and how you relate to information.)
Contact Robin Colucci at http://robincolucci.com and use the contact form to ask about taking her Author Personality Test to see which book blueprint suits you best.
- Make a list of everything you want to talk about in your book, then look at the relationship between the ideas you want to discuss to create an outline you can work from.
After you’ve made your initial list, you’ll find that some ideas have been repeated and other ideas contain within them many subsidiary ideas.
The brainstorming list is where it all begins. When you have the list of ideas you want to cover in front of you, it’s time to start looking for a through-line or theme that can tie all of those ideas together.
Links and Resources Mentioned in This Interview
http://robincolucci.com – use this website (as of 8/21/17) to contact Robin. It’s her most current website, and it’s the best place to get ahold of her.
How to Write a Book That Sells You: Increase Your Credibility, Income, and Impact — Robin’s book where she goes into the four templates for writing a New York Times bestseller in depth.
Examples of the Four Bestseller Blueprints
Organized List Blueprint
Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays by David Foster Wallace
What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures by Malcolm Gladwell
Traditional Outline Blueprint
The 9 Steps to Financial Freedom: Practical and Spiritual Steps So You Can Stop Worrying – a book that uses the traditional outline blueprint following steps.
Story Arc and Three Act Structure Blueprint
All the Presidents Men – an example of an exposé that follows the story arc and three-act structure blueprint.
Way of the Peaceful Warrior: A Book That Changes Lives by Dan Millman – a great example of a thought leader using fable and story arc and three-act structure to create a bestselling book.
The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It – a great example of a book written using the traditional outline blueprint that weaves in a fable.
The Essay Blueprint
Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine by Candace Pert
Freakonomics by Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner
The Tipping Point by Malcom Gladwell
I Feel Bad about My Neck by Nora Ephron is an example of a book written using the Essay Blueprint that uses stories from Nora’s life to prove her point.