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I Wrote 500,000 Words In 2016, But No Book. Here’s Why.

500,000. That’s how many words I wrote in 2016. 1,370 per day. 450,000 of those went into summaries and content on Four Minute Books.

Add to that 12,000 words on this blog, another 15,000 words for Time 2 Read, Medium articles, a few long guest posts, work for clients, copy for landing pages, etc. and the half a million mark falls faster than you can say writer’s block.

Up to a million books are published each year in the US alone, half or more self-published by independent authors. When I first saw how much I’d written last year, I wanted to punch myself.

“Why didn’t you write a book, you idiot? Or 2? Or 5?”

Looking at the average page count of self-published non-fiction books on Amazon, especially in the self-help category, at my going rate I could’ve published 10-20 books easily. I mean, half a million words is 50% of the entire Harry Potter series, geez!

After (figuratively) beating myself up for a bit, I realized there wasn’t a particular reason. There was a multitude of them.

Note: What I’m about to say only pertains to non-fiction and is subjective to a decent extent.

The Downside Of Self-Publishing

We live in an amazing world.

Whoever has something important to say and feels up to the challenge can publish a book. No gatekeepers needed. No one to beg permission from. No endless amount of painful rejections to go through.

While I’m sure this has given us a great deal of books, which otherwise never would have seen the light of day, self-publishing does have its downsides. More people than ever now publish books, not because they feel compelled to share their message, or the world urges them to, but simply because they can.

Since people aren’t forced to take the traditional path through publishers, there is just no filter any more.

At first, this seems to be a good thing. Until you realize: There is just no filter any more.

And that’s a problem.

eBooks vs. Books

The thing about filters like conventional publishing houses is: they’re not all bad. They serve a purpose. For example, while getting a book deal with a traditional publisher is hard, it comes with many perks, such as:

  • At least one professional editor reviewing your work.
  • Access to research materials and data you otherwise couldn’t get to.
  • Bouncing ideas back and forth with folks who know the ins and outs of the literature world.
  • Built-in promotion and marketing.
  • A network of other, experienced authors to connect with.

Some of these help you sell your book, while some encourage you to produce the highest quality piece of writing you can muster.

No filter is perfect. A few things that shouldn’t pass through will, while others that should won’t. But remove the filter altogether and it becomes entirely your job to dissect what’s trash and what’s smash when it comes to books.

Wikipedia says ebooks are sometimes defined as the digital counterpart of their print equivalents, but long gone are the times where they all started as print publications. The number of published ebooks solely meant for digital consumption far outguns classic print books, most of them self-published. Such as some of the examples I linked to above:

Inside them you’ll find such gems as, and I’m quoting directly from the above:

“How to deal with persistent problem” – Grammar, anyone?

“I imagine it’s exactly what a heart attack feels like, without the strange comfort of knowing that you might die. Does that sound a little extreme? Well, any of you who have experienced an anxiety attack will agree that it’s pretty accurate.” – Description of an anxiety attack for those, who haven’t had one.

“I felt like I was floating in an ocean of unlimited ideas, each just waiting for me to take the first action. The more and more I took advantage of these opportunities and took action on the ideas; the more new prospects came into my life. At the time this was a mystery to me, but I went along with it and it resulted in some great success. I decided to include 101 thoughts throughout this book instead of twenty because I wanted to reach a broader audience with this book.” – Introduction to a book about positive thinking and where the authors ideas came from.

Clearly, the average ebook is different from the average book. As I kept asking myself which approach to becoming a full-time author is to prefer, I returned to the simplest question I could come up with:

What Is A Non-Fiction Book For?

When you look at the various categories of non-fiction writing, most of them serve one of two purposes:

1. Cover a specific, complex topic in its entirety.

This topic can either be known or unknown.

For example, you could tackle an existing topic by writing a book about 19th century history or penguins. Few books do this. Even less do it well. Why? Because it takes time. You can’t write a proper book about something as broad as “genetics” in 3 months. It takes forever. With knowledge doubling every year now, even niche topics are impossible to cover holistically.

Alternatively, you could share a new idea that feeds into an existing topic – like Seth Godin did with The Dip – which helps with business strategy, but can stand as its own concept. This is even harder, because you can’t produce these on command, let alone ideas comprehensive enough to fill hundreds of pages.

It’s a lot easier – and this sadly has become a go-to option for many, it seems – to hide one golden nugget inside a pile of fluff. Have a brilliant new productivity strategy? Awesome, throw it into chapter 8 and recycle a couple of classics to cram the remaining 240 pages.

What could have been a blog post will be turned into a topical book. You can’t sell a blog post, after all. Then, there’s the other reason to write a non-fiction book:

2. Explain how to execute a specific, complex skill, step-by-step, end-to-end.

This depends on the scope and complexity of the skill.

Take the “For Dummies” books, for example. They’re not the top 1%, but definitely on the higher quality end of the spectrum, because they usually go deep on various aspects of a skill, covering it both on a broad level and in detail.

For example, Auto Repair For Dummies doesn’t just show you how to change your oil or fix a flat tire, but instead starts all the way back at how your car even works and then shows you how to keep its various sub-systems, like electronics, fuel, cooling, tires, brakes etc. in check.

After reading, practicing and implementing everything you can learn from this book, cover to cover, you’ll be doing alright at repairing cars in a variety of different situations. That’s what makes it a decent book and that’s why it costs $15 (and why it’s published by Wiley).

If we go to the other end of the spectrum, we end up right in $0.99-ebook-land.

While supposedly doing the same thing, you’ll quickly find that $0.99 ebooks rarely teach you a skill in its entirety, let alone a complex one. They either get ridiculously specific, over-simplify the matter, or end up being nothing more than an in-depth blog post. Worse yet, the author runs out of ideas and adds a bunch of (more or less) related content to camouflage the slim, actual how-to value. As a result, the book winds up just as fluffy as the bad books in the first category.

…and that’s why they cost $0.99. It’s only logical though. I mean…

How much time would you spend writing something you end up selling for a buck? A day? A week? A month? Sheer pride would keep any writer from selling what he’s poured his heart and soul into for a year for such a ridiculous amount.

It’s similar to the reflex you have when someone offers to buy your precious stamp collection for $10, because stamps aren’t worth much any more.

“Just $10? Pshhhh, I’d rather keep it then!”

Note: I’m aware there are other categories, like autobiographies, which focus on a (true) story aspect. I dropped these for my case because, let’s face it, there aren’t many “oh my god” moments and incredibly valuable life lessons to be learned from a 25-year old. At the quarter-century mark, it’s just too early for me to write a memoir.

So…What Kind Of Non-Fiction Book Would I Write?

Whether topical or skill-related, I’d want to knock two things out of the park when writing a book:

  1. Quality of the writing.
  2. Quality of the idea.

I can’t control how well-received the idea will be and whether people like my style. But effort in improving my craft? I can maximize that.

Two solid indicators the quality of my writing is ready for a real book are, I think:

  1. Getting people to pay me to do it full-time – voluntarily. That’s how I’m using Patreon to validate if my writing is any good.
  2. Having a publisher approach you with a book deal. This isn’t perfect, but if the pros think you’ve got what it takes, it’s a strong signal at the very least.

So much for writing quality. What about the idea?

This comes back to the different kinds of non-fiction books. The how-to type I’ll toss immediately, because as I see it, most skills fall into one of two categories:

  1. Too simple. These can be googled within a few seconds and learned via blog posts, ebooks, and so on. Think cooking recipes, how to change a tire, operating Microsoft Word.
  2. Too complex. These can’t possibly be taught, because they’re highly individual and have to be done to get better. Think writing, furnishing your apartment, running a business.

This is where it gets interesting, because there is a way the other kind – topical books – can help with complex skills.

While telling you the word “that” is often used as a filler word and can be removed 90% of the time might take you from a 3 on a 10-point scale to a 3.1, understanding the “Resistance” Steven Pressfield exposes in The War of Art can really enable you to practice your craft a lot more.

Teaching complex skills comes back to equipping the reader with new concepts and ideas, which allow him to move forward on his own. But where do you find such ideas?

You don’t. They find you.

A book you have to make a big effort to find an idea for is, in my eyes, not a book worth writing. Such ideas can be expressed in blog posts, essays, open letters and other free form media. They’re manufactured constructs and therefore limited in quantity only by how willing you are to be concise.

Only when an idea repeatedly returns to you, when life practically throws it in your face, when it’s so powerful, deep and encompassing you can’t not share it, because it would be irresponsible, are you on to something worth writing a book about.

What kind of book is not all that important. It’s what would even make me consider writing one that matters.

Would I love to write a book? Hell yeah! But not at all cost. I’ll take to heart a slightly adjusted version of what grandma said:

If you don’t have something nice meaningful to say, don’t say anything at all.