As a self-help author, your intention to help people will, in itself, make the world a better place. But the success of a self-help book depends on how well you convey that help and how easy you make it for that help to be received.
Personal growth is a $10 billion industry. Self-help and self-improvement books make up approximately 10% of this market, and demand is growing by 6% a year. By following the suggestions below, not only will you help your reader, you are more likely to play a bigger part in that market.
A successful self-help book is one that:
- Speaks to a particular audience
- Readers have confidence will help them
- Actually helps its readers
- You feel good about having written
- Sells well and adds to your bank account, business, or reputation.
Answering five key questions will increase the chances that your book will succeed in these ways.
A successful self-help book speaks to a particular audience.
1. Who are you speaking to?
In other types of books the question might be, “Who are you writing for?” But with self-help you are your reader’s trusted friend, and you are speaking to them.
For example, you might be tempted to write: “When a person is angry, there is a corresponding sensation or energy in the area between the eyebrows.” But you should be more personal and address the reader directly: “Next time you feel angry, notice that there is a sensation or energy between your eyebrows.”
When you create a proposal for a book publisher, you usually include a section that describes the intended audience for that book. You need to be clear about this while you’re writing, too, so you know who you’re talking to.
You would speak differently to a friend who needs help being more productive, for instance, than you would to a grieving sibling or spouse. It is worth writing down a description of your reader and referring to it throughout the outlining, research, and writing phases, as well as during the promotion and marketing.
- What kind of person are you are speaking to?
- What problems does your reader have?
- What advantage or insight are you offering that will help your reader grow?
- Is there a particular age, gender, ethnicity, nationality, profession, religion, social group, diagnosis, or stage of life that is particularly affected by this problem, or that might be most receptive to your approach? (Think about secondary audiences for your book too.)
- How many people have this problem or desire?
- How will they be different after your book?
Let your readers know clearly who you are speaking to—right at the beginning of the book. This will help them understand why this book is for them and why they have to read it.
Leave no friend behind
No matter who you are speaking to, your orientation is to be helpful. This includes being interesting and creating the background that helps your reader be receptive and ready to accept your wisdom. (We’ll talk about this more in a moment.)
Helpful also means not making too many assumptions. When you are talking face-to-face with someone, you might be confronted with a blank stare at some point. This would be a clue to find out where you lost them. But you can’t see your reader’s face through a book. So be kind. Start with the basics about your topic. Define all terms, especially jargon and less common words. Your motto is “leave no friend behind.”
A successful self-help book is one that readers have confidence will help them.
2. Will readers have confidence in your book?
Your book proposal tells the publisher why you are qualified to write this book and why you are the best person to write it. Your reader wants to know this, too. If they are going to embark on a journey from page 1 to page 207, they want to know they have a competent—and hopefully spectacular—guide!
Why should I listen to you?
Show the reader that your knowledge or experience makes you credible.
If you have a history working in the field you are exploring, you could include that information in the beginning of the book or its introduction. If you have a degree, credential, or related experience like being a registered nurse, seminar leader, or crisis manager, say so, and explain how it helped inform your book.
Even if you don’t have a degree or title associated with your topic, your background is still of interest. If you traveled into the Amazon jungles several times to explore the healing approaches of traditional cultures, that experience is significant. But readers will also want to know that you have a basis for understanding what you experienced, as well as a respectful knowledge of the cultures. This is especially important in the self-help genre.
If it’s appropriate, share your personal experiences or challenges, or the knowledge you’ve gained from others who have gone through them.
Be sure to avoid clichés, however. Citing well-known life lessons or platitudes as wisdom will weaken your authority and turn off some readers. Offer something new and present it in an authentic voice. This will help give readers confidence.
Facts and evidence
To maintain the trust of your reader (and reviewers), it is vital to support the experiences you cite with well-researched evidence. (Or to support your facts with examples.) You need to show that any facts or studies you cite are appropriate, unbiased, and come from reliable sources such as peer-reviewed journals or respected researchers.
Always double-check any “facts” that you find on the internet. (I once edited a memoir and discovered that the author had spelled his own street name incorrectly. Fact-check everything!) You must also give the reader confidence that your facts are not being cherry-picked or distorted to support your view. This not only gives your reader confidence, but is key to producing a book that will help individuals and contribute to the culture.
Of course, some books take the reader through a transformation or other type of process the author has discovered; for those, validating experiences may be enough. But even in these cases having multiple verified sources increases reader confidence and better supports your approach. Exploring a principle that supports your thesis can also add depth and interest.
But remember: You are helping a friend. Be gentle with the facts and make sure they are given in a way that will keep your reader engaged and receptive.
A successful self-help book actually helps its readers.
3. Will your book help its readers?
It’s not enough to have a good idea. You have to structure and write your book so the reader will understand it and be able to put your approach into action.
Books that make learning easiest are those that:
- Tie each idea to the main topic
- Keep the focus of the book and each chapter specific
- Have a structure that’s easy to grasp, with clear headings and subheads
- Often use bullets instead of paragraphs (like this!)
Creating a good outline plus short chapter summaries can help you achieve these goals.
Keep the reader motivated
It’s important to keep your reader motivated in the beginning, the middle, and the end of their journey through your book. One way, as noted above, is through related research. Another is to show positive changes in others. Have people gotten results from your approach? If so, share them. If you don’t know, it may be too soon for your book.
Another way to maintain motivation is through exercises or to-do sections that help readers integrate and use the knowledge presented. But you need to convince the reader that these exercises will be worth it. Each exercise should be short, and its benefits should be introduced and described both clearly and briefly. Let your reader how the exercise relates to the chapter topic and to the book as a whole.
If you ignore these suggestions, your readers may skip the exercise, or worse, put the book down—and never pick it up again!
Help your reader
- Keep it short. In 1982, when the newspaper USA Today was first published, one of its commitments was to keep paragraphs short and stories brief, because readers tend to move through those more easily.
- Don’t use too many difficult words (or define the ones you use). The average US reader is comfortable with a seventh- or eighth-grade reading level; a larger vocabulary communicates less, not more.
- Book and chapter titles should offer specific promises. And those promises should be fulfilled. (More on titles shortly.)
- Read each sentence and make sure it is based on a verified fact or authentic experience, and be sure it makes complete sense.
- You can also help your reader stay focused by using frequent subheads.
- Tie each section, exercise, or story to the topic.
- Organize each chapter the same way. This will add clarity and unity, and make your book easier to absorb.
For still more information, I recommend a book called How to Write a Bestselling Self-Help Book: The 68 Fatal Mistakes You Should Avoid. (Some editions refer to the 69 mistakes, but we won’t quibble.) Written by editor-author Jean Marie Stine, it’s based on mistakes she saw in her years of editing self-help and how-to books, as well as consultations with fellow editors and other publishing professionals. She also identifies mistakes she has seen in book proposals, and errors authors make after publication—including giving up on a book that doesn’t sell well at first.
A successful self-help book is one that you feel good about having written.
4. Will you be glad you wrote it?
You may spend the same amount of time on a book that you think will be truly helpful or meaningful as on a book that you craft mainly because you think it will sell. But you may end up having more success with the truly helpful and meaningful book—and you will feel you have made a genuine contribution.
Take the time to fully structure, outline, research, and fact-check your book. Show it to three people with some knowledge or experience of your topic. Be clear about your purpose in writing it, but also be open to altering your course as you learn more. You may also want to bring on a cowriter, a subject matter expert, or an editor.
You can make a difference
Your book can help people make a change, grow, or deal with a problem they want to solve. It may be part of your business or intended to make money or promote something else you do, but it is also a service to people. Make sure it is the best book you can write on the topic and is structured in a way that will truly help your reader.
Ultimately, if you produce a meaningful, high-quality book, you will be glad you wrote it. And if this self-help book is successful, you might have the chance to write another one. So make sure people will look forward to it!
A successful self-help book is one that sells well and adds to your bank account, business, or reputation.
5. Will your book be popular and profitable?
Part of your book’s success depends on following the suggestions we’ve discussed. You will also want to tell your readers what they can do next. Offering bonus material will help you stay in touch and tell them about your upcoming appearances or future efforts.
First impression: Your title
A good title can do a lot to generate sales, influence, and even media interest. As mentioned, the title of your book should offer a promise, and your book should fulfill that promise. A self-help title can’t be boring or generic. The topic can’t be too broad or general, either. The title should narrow the book’s focus. (And hopefully there is a focus!)
Take a look at successful self-help and personal development books. Their titles are catchy, usually short, and related to the premise and promise of the book. They often have subtitles too, which clarify the title further.
Check out our blog post on how to create a great book title.
Grow your audience
Some authors already have a huge email list, social media following, and a large blog following; they appear on various media or speak at large conferences and seminars. The people in these groups are your built-in audience, or platform. They are likely to buy your book.
If you have a small (or almost no) audience, you may want to increase the size of your platform. Ideally, you should start doing that now, so there is a bigger audience when you are ready to release your book. A traditional publisher may prefer that you already have an audience, so don’t wait.
Consider other ways to increase your audience:
- Increase your online presence and following
- Hire a publicist to contact online, radio, TV, and print media about your area of expertise—now or when your book comes out
- Call radio stations every day (as Chicken Soup for the Soul authors Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen did)
- Attend seminars and conferences that relate to your topic
- Give webinars
- Make two-minute YouTube videos that answer the top questions of people who may read your book
- Speak at bookstores and libraries; this is a good way to connect with local readers and it gives you an excuse to contact local media
Always remember who you wrote the book for, and gear your outreach to them first. As Winston Churchill once noted: “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”
Your self-help book can be an opportunity to do both.
You might also like to check out our other articles:
- How to Write a Book: Structure Before Content and Writing Tips by Joel Orr
- 11 Writing Tips for Improving Readability and Communicating Better
- 111: Writing Tips and Techniques from Film and Journalism with Phil Hall
Jeffrey Ainis is a freelance writer, as well as a nonfiction book editor, author, and designer. A former writer and associate editor at the Hollywood Reporter, nonfiction books and memoirs he edited have won numerous awards.