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How to Generate & Test Non-Fiction Ideas

Last week’s blog post explored a few ways authors can generate and stress-test fiction ideas. Non-fiction, by comparison, is often a more methodical affair.

Last week’s blog post explored a few ways authors can generate and stress-test fiction ideas, balancing passion with commercial potential. Both are vital if you want to succeed as a fiction author. After all, while copying phenomena and chasing trends can serve you well, nothing drives viral success like a fresh idea. And the only way to stumble on something totally new is to write what you enjoy, even if it isn’t in vogue. Subjective taste and originality are the magnesium powder that light up fiction ideas for both authors and readers.

Non-fiction, by comparison, is often a more methodical affair. Its typical readers aren’t looking for original stories to help them escape the every day; on the whole, they want insights they can use to improve it. Biography and memoir readers, for example, want to peek into an individual’s psyche and draw lessons from their experiences. History buffs look to learn about a place and time. Science lovers take pleasure in discovering how the universe works. And self-help readers want to solve a problem. Yes, they all enjoy surprising and compelling reading material, but practicality is their primary driver. Fun is a bonus.

This reality makes inventing non-fiction ideas a challenge. As an author, it forces you to uncover questions that are common enough that readers are asking them en masse via search engines but original enough that nobody has already answered them. Fortunately, much like with fiction, there are tricks you can use to ease the process and expose opportunities. Today you will learn not only how to become a fountain of non-fiction book ideas, but also how to identify and optimise those with the most potential to produce world-class works of non-fiction.

Draw from Experience

One way many successful non-fiction authors source their ideas is by relying on their own expertise. It’s difficult, particularly if you suffer from imposter syndrome, but you do have expertise. Everyone’s an expert at something. It doesn’t matter if you lack a Phd or 20 years of experience in an industry. Readers don’t care. It’s the classic example of the guru versus the guide. Yes, some readers want to read the wisdom of an all-knowing guru who has mastered a subject, but many can’t relate to that sort of person, and don’t believe they can replicate their success. Instead, they want a guide who’s just one step ahead and can teach them in simple terms.

Once that realisation sinks in, coming up with book ideas becomes a more approachable task. Your area of expertise is up to you. Consider what you’re good at to make a start. Do you have an engineering degree? Have you successfully raised clown fish? Do you have a quirky hobby? Are there questions you and other enthusiasts ask that existing books don’t cover? If that’s the case, there’s your idea! Tools like Google Trends or Publisher Rocket can help you compare the demand for different ideas based on what readers are already searching. Once you’ve found a winner, all you have to do is create a premise and fill gaps in your knowledge with research.

Test Samples

Once you’ve gathered a list of ideas you think have potential and would like to explore, next comes the testing phase. Testing ideas before you start writing isn’t essential, but it can save you time and greatly improve your chances of hitting a home run with your ideal audience. Not only will doing so indicate which of your ideas has the hungriest audience, but it will help you gain feedback to develop the best one and help you to grow an audience in advance of your eventual book launch. How does all this work? Think content marketing but with a twist.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, “content marketing” is the act of producing content, like a podcast or blog, to market a product, service or brand. Entrepreneurs routinely use content marketing to build business platforms. The twist, though, is to aim not for outright profit from the venture but for information. Say you have five book ideas. In theory, you could write five books to test demand. Or, using content marketing, you could create and test the popularity of five short-form content pieces and save a tonne of time. Following this method, you’ll learn where best to dedicate your energy writing a full-length book and build an audience at the same time.

Market Empty Assets

Using content marketing to inform your idea-choosing process is okay if you only have a handful of ideas, but testing dozens in this way could take hundreds of hours of work. If that’s the case for you, you’ll save a lot of effort by marketing empty assets. Have you ever tried to buy an ebook on Amazon and realised you can only pre-order it? When that happens, the publisher often has the book ready to go. But sometimes they set an “assetless” pre-order—one that makes the book appear to be ready so they can collect payments even if it isn’t yet written. They can do this because they know the book will be ready for the launch deadline.

Trying this tactic to test lots of book ideas on a retailer website, though, isn’t advisable if you can’t fulfil pre-orders. It will leave customers feeling cheated. Instead, to avoid a backlash, consider creating multiple near-identical sales pages for book ideas on a website you control to can gather clean test data. Then promote them using paid ads. Instead of taking money, though, include a buy button that doesn’t work to record clicks. That way you can gauge which books readers would have bought if they could. Tim Ferris tested title ideas for The 4-Hour Work Week using a similar process, selected his winner, and went on to sell over 2 million copies as a result.

Connect the Dots

Once you’ve learned which of your ideas has the hungriest audience, it’s time to narrow your focus to the sub-ideas that will make up the chapters of your non-fiction book. Far from reiterating the premise you share in your elevator pitch, these ideas should be unique and add nuance to the overall message. If they don’t then you’re either creating a pamphlet or a padded, repetitive guide that isn’t worth reading. These sub-ideas will act as tentpole moments that connect your main talking points. Eventually, you’ll order them in a logical sequence to form your outline. However, they start life as a random list of initial ideas in need of pruning and development.

As the author, you could have your audience vote on what bits you include in the book but, ultimately, you must decide which components need to make the cut. Unfortunately, that means killing your darlings. No matter the quality of an idea, it must go if it doesn’t fit your outline. This is important. Imagine you’re writing fiction—a sweet romance—to help you understand why. In this case, your sub-ideas might include:

A serendipitous meet cute.

A quirky best friend.

A sacrificial murder.

A kiss in the rain.

Each idea could be a hit in isolation but one definitely doesn’t belong in this outline. And it’s the same with non-fiction. Connecting the dots is a useful way to identify problematic sub-ideas that need pruning before you begin.

Teach Your Outline

Hiring a professional editor can help you iron the creases out of a non-fiction manuscript. However, problems can still arise if your editor isn’t your exact audience. Having never lived through your readers’ experiences, they can point out gaps in your explanations but will never know the burning questions you could answer to make your book pop. You could run a draft past a review team, once you have one, but that might not be possible if you’re yet to build an author platform. Plus, there’s also the drawback of having to write the book in full in the first place to get it review-team ready. And that means having to carry out significant rewrites after feedback.

Alternatively, there is one way to gain real reader feedback before you’ve written a single word: run a seminar. This can either be in person in your local community or online over video. Use your initial outline to structure the workshop. Not only will doing so highlight to you which bits don’t flow, but it will also give your well-targeted attendees an opportunity to ask questions, point out where they want to know more and what bits they don’t fully understand. Taking this step isn’t necessary but, managed well, it can help you to develop your ideas to craft a better book outline that hits the mark first time and surpasses your ideal readers’ expectations.

Following the points outlined in this article will empower you to create lots of non-fiction book ideas, select the best and develop them into audience favourites. More than that, though, they will give you a way to create a whole non-fiction business built on strong foundations. Select the right non-fiction book idea and it will sell itself. More importantly, though, it will also sell you as an expert in whatever field you chose to inhabit.

Daniel Parsons

Daniel Parsons

Dan Parsons is the bestselling author of multiple series. His Creative Business books for authors and other entrepreneurs contains several international bestsellers. Meanwhile, his fantasy and horror series, published under Daniel Parsons, have topped charts around the world and been used to promote a major Hollywood movie. For more information on writing, networking, and building your creative business, check out all of Dan’s non-fiction books here.