When you get to a certain age you think you’ve seen everything, right? But no, I logged onto LinkedIn recently to find a “Can you recommend me?” request from an “award winning fiction author/top client” I’d never heard of (although I was obviously daft enough to accept a previous request to connect) whose 76-page novel was compiled by a self-publishing services entity called Infinity Publishing. Currently ranking 797,095 on Amazon, her various reviews point to the “terrible” writing, “disjointed” plot and a comment, from someone giving four stars, that “I wish it had been edited a little better.” So where did the “award-winning” part come in? (And, no surprise, I declined her invitation!)
In a world in which anyone can (and does) claim “best selling” or “award winning” status for their book I thought about how, when talking or writing about thought leadership, I remind people that this is a term that’s meant to be bestowed on you by others, not something you get to adopt just because it sounds cool. So in that vein I went searching for last year’s Best Books lists. Who gets on them, anyhow?
After giving up on the undoubtedly worthy but dull-sounding (and long!) lists of nonfiction books I’d never heard of, produced by the likes of Publisher’s Weekly, NPR, and the New Yorker, and stopping briefly by the business-specific books reviewed by strategy +business plus the December 2012 best-sellers offered up by 800-CEO-READ, I decided to wander over to Goodreads to see what had shown up in their Choice Awards nonfiction category for 2012. Why? Because what we want for our books (or, at least, I do) is approbation from a mainstream audience—people who typically read rather than get paid to review. And who do so NOT because of the “I’ll-offer-you-entry-in-a-drawing-for-a-free-iPad-if-you’ll-write-me-a-five-star-review” tactics of some self-published authors that increasingly taints the comments seen on Amazon.com; in genuine appreciation of good quality writing.
The following observations will (hopefully) spark some spirited discussion about what still constitutes successful nonfiction (at least as far as unbiased readers are concerned) in an era when it sometimes feels that we are being drowned in mediocre dross.
Among Goodreads’ Top Ten (books garnering 1,000 votes or more)
- Despite (I’m assuming) no discrimination against self-published books, ALL of these books were published by major houses—Random House; Little, Brown; Free Press etc. Not a single CreateSpace original among them!
- All were written by journalists or self-proclaimed professional writers (with a sprinkling of academics).
- None was the author’s first book and several had appeared on the New York Times’ bestseller list.
Of Goodreads’ Top Three:
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo.
The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg.
Common praise for these three very different books covered many of the themes I’ve discussed in this column over the past year:
- Quality writing.
- Well researched, providing not just the author’s experience and opinion but third party “science” or other content.
- Entertaining, strong on storytelling.
- Addressing topics that haven’t been done to death already.
- Interesting conversation starters.
So what’s the point I’m making? Am I suggesting that, if you’re not already an award-winning, professional writer who has nothing else to do but research and write then you should give up the goal of ever crafting a book that could inspire readers to consider it (as one did for Boo’s book) “an impressive achievement”?
Not at all! But that’s where the bar is set, so it behooves those who are supporting the self-publishing revolution to rise to the challenge, not drag standards lower.
- Stop thinking of your book as a spare-time project. Get into the mindset of a professional writer. Make regular “appointments” with your book when you do nothing but write it!
- Write every day—quality prose, not informal email exchanges, tweets, or stream-of-consciousness blog posts. Writing well comes from writing well a lot.
- Leave aside your opinion and personal experience and do some objective research. Who is supporting or rejecting the premise of your book? How can you weave this into your manuscript?
- Become a better storyteller. There are no end of books, articles, and blog posts (my favorite site being Copyblogger) on this topic. Take a screenwriting or novel-writing course to learn the rudiments of crafting a powerful, emotionally engaging story.
- Do your due diligence before you begin writing your book. There’s a reason why publishing houses (big and small) ask for a competitive analysis when you submit a book proposal: you need to be aware of what’s already been written about your topic (even tangentially connected topics) in order not to simply repeat what’s already out there.
- For goodness sake, hire a professional editor to help you craft a quality manuscript before self-publishing. At the very least, one who will help you avoid readers’ comments like: “terrible writing” and “I wish it had been edited a little better.”
Liz Alexander is a prime example of how childhood passions are the best indicators of future careers. She’s been writing since she could pick up a pencil, was reading newspapers at age two, and Homer’s epic poems by the age of 8. As “Dr Liz” (granted after five years in the educational psychology doctoral program at UT Austin), she draws on 25 years of commercial publishing experience to transform subject matter experts into best-selling thought leaders. Instead of the usual bio blah, blah, you can find an infographic depicting her communications career here
, as well as social media links. Liz loves mutually respectful, intelligent arguments; feel free to challenge anything she writes here, or on her website