Many books require no thought from those who read them, and for a very simple reason; they made no such demand upon those who wrote them. -- Charles Caleb Colton
Why People Read Books
Dozens of people have asked me to critique their idea for a book, and my response is always the same:
Imagine that you’re in a Barnes & Noble bookstore (let’s hope there are still bookstores when you read this) or that you’re on the home page of Amazon. You see books by Isabel Allende, John Grisham, Anne Lamott and Lee Child. Over in the business section there are books by Malcolm Gladwell, Jim Collins and Clayton Christensen. Maybe there are a few ghostwritten vanity tomes from the CEOs of large, well-known companies.
In this sea of choices, why should anyone give a shiitake about your book?
Most would-be, and some published, authors cannot answer the question because they haven’t given it enough thought. But they can answer a different question: How will I benefit from writing a book?
Their answers include: “It’s good for my visibility.” “To make money.” “It will help me get speeches and consulting engagements.” “It’s good for my company.” “It will impress people.” These reasons are sometimes true for the author, but they are irrelevant for readers. Think about this:
How often do you peruse Amazon or Barnes & Noble while wondering how you can help an author achieve his personal goals?
My answer to this question is, “Never.” I’m happy for authors to earn lots of royalties, but that’s not why I’d buy their book. I’d bet the same is true for you, too.
People read books to add value to their lives. It’s that simple. So you should write a book that does this. It’s that simple. The most common ways that books add value are:
- Providing specialized knowledge. Scientific books explain how the world works. Business books explain management techniques. History books explain events from the past.
- Entertaining people with humor, adventure or fantasy that enables them to “escape.” Some people want to be heroines. Some people want to be seductresses. I want to be a Navy Seal. To each her own.
- Bringing joy and laughter. Some authors are gifted with a sense of humor and mirth that brighten people’s lives. For me, for example, Fran Lebowitz does the trick.
So stop now and answer this question: “Will your book add value to people’s lives?” If the answer is yes, then fire up your word processor and get going. If it adds value to people’s lives and furthers your goals, too, that’s even better.
An End in Itself
At the tender age of 48 I took up ice hockey having never skated before (there are no frozen ponds in Hawaii). People from Canada and Minnesota will tell you that this was a mere 42 years too late. There was never a chance to make money or even earn a scholarship by playing hockey. My motivation was pure: the challenge of learning an enchanting skill.
Let’s apply this theory to writing. Perhaps your book won’t add value to anyone’s life except your own; I’m not referring to insipid fantasies of royalties, generating speeches, consulting gigs and personal brand awareness. You could still write a book for the same reason that I play hockey: the intrinsic value of mastering a new skill.
In my book, pun intended, a book is an end, not a means to an end. Even if no one reads your book, maybe you want to write it for the sake of writing it. The amount of people who will want to read a book whose origin is so pure will surprise you.
By Popular Demand
There’s another reason people say they want to write a book: “Lots of people told me that I should write a book.” Let’s dissect this. First, exactly how many is “lots”? Divide that number by one hundred to estimate how many people will actually buy your book.
Second, have you ever told friends or relatives who were great cooks that they should open a restaurant? If you have, were you serious? Did you literally want them to go into the food business?
While starting a restaurant (or even buying a food truck) is harder than writing a book, I hope you get my point: a few friends and relatives telling you that you should write a book doth not make a market for it. They were making polite conversation or flattering you, but that is not reason enough.
As Steve Jobs said, “There’s one more thing.” If my great expectations of adding value to people’s lives dissuades you from writing a book, then you might not have finished it anyway. Self-publishing is a lonely, difficult process. I will simplify and make it easier for you, but at the end of the day, you either have the guts, determination and masochistic tendencies to succeed as a self-publisher or you don’t.
Guy Kawasaki is the author of 11 books, including What the Plus!, Enchantment, Reality Check, The Art of the Start, Rules for Revolutionaries, How to Drive Your Competition Crazy, Selling the Dream and The Macintosh Way. He is also the cofounder of Alltop.com and a founding partner at Garage Technology Ventures. Previously, he was the chief evangelist of Apple. Kawasaki has a BA from Stanford University and an MBA from UCLA, as well as an honorary doctorate from Babson College.
This is the beginning of a multiweek series from Guy, featuring exclusive excerpts from his new book, APE: Author, Publisher, and Entrepreneur, which he will self-publish this fall, barring a massive advance from a traditional publisher.