How to get a non-fiction book published: Q1

I’m currently working on my third book – “Brilliant Online Marketing” to be published by Pearson in late 2010. After my first two came out last year – “How to Grow Your Business for Entrepreneurs” and “365 Ways to Cut Costs” – quite a few people asked me how I’d gone about doing it.

It was in fact much more straightforward than I’d ever imagined, and I’d encourage others to give it a go. Don’t expect glamorous launch parties, international book tours, and six figure royalty cheques. You’ll be lucky if you get any royalty cheques. But I wasn’t after all that. I’m happy just to write about topics that interest me. And no royalty cheque would have given me such a rush as seeing my book on a bestsellers shelf in Waterstones Piccadily did. (OK – don’t tell my publisher that last bit. Royalty cheques would still be nice!)

So, here, for anyone who fancies having a go at getting themselves their very own ISBN number, I’m going to answer some of the questions I’ve been asked. I’ll post as many times as I can over the next couple of weeks, answering a question at a time. Feel free to drop me a line with any questions you’d like me to answer.

Q: How did you decide what to write about?

They say that everyone has a book in them, and I think that’s true. You might be an expert on cycle routes in Surrey, the emerging iPhone apps market, or the life and music of Erick Morrillo. Whatever it is, you need to ask yourself three questions:

One, do you know enough about it? I’d spent ten years interviewing entrepreneurs, seeing what marked out the ones who grew their businesses from those who didn’t, and prior to that I’d been Client Services Director at a small business where I’d personally faced many of the issues I wrote about in my first book. For the second book I took a different approach. I’ve never run a charity, but I know a lot of people who have, so I invested a lot of time into the research phase. Either way – through experience or research – you need to know enough to be a credible expert.

Two, are you interested in it? This isn’t just a passing interest but an in-depth enthusiasm that will sustain you over several months as you struggle to put together tens of thousands of compelling words. I could spend quite a long time talking to someone about cycle paths in Surrey, iPhone apps and Erick Morillo, but I’d never be interested enough to write 50,000 words about any of them. I am though genuinely interested in how to grow businesses. Make sure you care enough about the topic you choose.

Three, will people want to read about this? If you really, really care about a subject so much that you just want to write a book regardless of whether or not a single person reads it there’s nothing to stop you. You can even get it published if you have a few thousand pounds spare. It’s called vanity publishing, and there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with it. However, if you want to write a book that’s going to make you money you need to be sure it’s on a topic other people find interesting. There are thousands of entrepreneurs who want to grow thier businesses. There are thousands of charity managers who want to cut costs. I knew I had a market. What is the market for your book?

Tomorrow I’ll answer the question: Do you need an agent?

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Ten things PRs do that really annoy journalists – part seven

To restate, this series is intended as constructive advice to those who work in PR, a job that I know can be difficult and thankless. I’ve spend a decade dealing with PRs, many very good (see here for a recent example), others not so. I’ve also spoken to dozens of other journalists about what really grinds their gears about  PRs. This is the summary of that experience and those conversations. The story so far…..

1) Expect journalists to operate as an unpaid media monitoring service

2) Going oddly silent/AWOL

3) Sending irrelevant press releases

4) Writing like a PR, not a real person

5) Pitching like they’re selling timeshare properties

6) Arranging conference call interviews

Number seven is one that will surprise no one, but one that still happens far too often: saying you’re going to do something and then not doing it.

As in, “Oh yes, I can send you those quotes from our client by the close of play today”, or “Not a problem – we’ll get that case study interview lined up for you”, or “We’ve got all the data sitting here – it’ll take a while to go through it, but leave a gap in your article and we’ll send you the stat you need, and you’ll just be able to insert it before filing your copy.”

Over the years I’ve heard all these promises and more. Many times the PR is as good as their word, but all too often they’re not – the quotes don’t turn up until the next morning when the article is already filed, the case study interviewee gets cold feet, or the PR discovers they don’t actually have the necessary stat.

Why is this a problem? Is this just pompous journalists being overly critical of their PR partners?

I don’t think so. I don’t get bothered by it because I’ve been let down; I get bothered by it if it means I in turn let someone else down – specifically, if I fail to deliver to a client by the deadline I’ve been set.  That really is a problem for me.

But still aren’t we journalists being a bit harsh here? After all, the PR is no doubt hoping to be able to help, is genuinely doing his or her best.  In most cases they don’t deliver simply because they’ve been let down by someone else – very often the client of a client. It’s a bit harsh for journos to have a go at them for that isn’t it?

To some extent yes. No one is perfect. However, this happens too frequently in the world in PR. I think it’s the sort of over-promising and over-delivering that gives the industry a bad name and that makes it a more stressful place to work that it needs to be.

Journalists would be far happier if PRs were more realistic in their promises. If they explained that they will do their best to sort out a case study interviewee, but they don’t know for certain that their client’s client will agree to it, then the journalist wouldn’t rely on them – he or she would be able to judge accurately whether or not it was worth waiting and if it was worth the PR spending all that time on something that doesn’t work out in the end.

Am I being too demanding? Or naive even? Should journalists just accept that that’s life. People let you down. Deal with it – basically don’t rely on a PR to help you out with a job that, at the end of the day, is yours to do.

I guess so. I’m not paying for this help from these PRs so I have no right to demand that they do anything.

I know though that if I worked in PR I want to be one of the ones that journalists did trust.

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Five tips for improving your writing: 5

TIP 5: Be as specific and vivid with your language as you can

Avoid the bland, me-too management-speak that characterises so much business writing these days. Avoid cliches like the flu. Pick your words carefully so that they produce maximum impact, and so your message stands out, bold, bright and clear.

So, to summarise, my five tips are:

1) Use short sentences

2) Always use the simplest, clearest and most direct word available.

3) Cut out unnecessary words

4) Cut the jargon

5) Be as specific and vivid with your language as you can

By going back over your writing and editing it for each of these five improvements you will, without fail, produce better copy. I hope this series of tips have been useful – do let me know if you agree or disagree with any of all of them!

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Five tips for improving your writing: 4

TIP 4: Cut the jargon

Many people think that using technical or jargon words or phrases makes them look intelligent. It doesn’t – it just makes it likely that people will stop reading what they’ve written.

Bear in mind that a word or phrase you, your colleagues and your clients use every day may be completely unfamiliar to your readers. Will they really know what person-centred counselling, user-generated content and interactive voice recognition is?

Much jargon is concealed as acronyms. Every time you introduce one you need to write it out in full, then have the acronym in brackets afterwards. Then you need only use the acronym. So, it’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and Customer Relationship Management (CRM).

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Five tips for improving your writing: 3

TIP 3: Cut out unnecessary words

Using too many words makes it difficult for your reader to grasp your core message. It also makes it more likely they’ll tune out and stop reading. Yet, most business writing is too wordy. In fact I would say that you could halve the word count on most passages of business writing without losing any of the meaning.

So, once you’ve gone through your copy shortening your sentences, and then simplfying your language, look through it again and ask yourself whether you could cut that section, that paragraph, that sentence, that phrase, that word. Be ruthless – if it’s not adding something then cut it.

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Five tips for improving your writing: 2

TIP 2: Always use the simplest, clearest and most direct word available.

Your goal with business writing is to convey your meaning as directly as possible, so always use the simplest, clearest and most direct word available. Your words should be a transparent glass through which we view your ideas, not an overly elaborate painting that distracts us.

Two words that always jar with me are ‘myriad’ and ‘utilise’. Neither word adds anything to ‘many’ or ‘use’, so why not go for the simpler, shorter version?

I’m not suggesting that you should avoid all words longer than two syllables, and peppering your copy with the odd, more florid, word can add colour, but use them sparingly and they will have greater impact.

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Five tips for improving your writing: 1

Good business writing is clear, direct and simple. It says what needs to be said in as straightforward a way as possible.

Why?

1)     No one has time to decipher your message; you need to make it immediately accessible for your reader

2)     Clear writing is a symptom of clear thinking. You’ll find that simplifying your writing will help you to clarify your thinking.

Many people think it’s easy to write simply. In fact it is much more difficult to write simply than it is to produce over-blown, jargon-filled text. Getting it right is not easy, and that’s why I run training courses specifically for PR professionals to help them produce this kind of good business writing. Over the next five days I’ll be posting a tip a day from this section of the courses. I hope you find them useful.

TIP ONE: use short sentences

Short, punchy sentences are easier to read – they also have more impact. Longer sentences, with convoluted phrases and clauses tend to appear like argument; shorter sentences tend to appear like fact. People are more likely to read and believe your copy if you use short, simple sentences.

Consider this example:

“As Manchester United and Arsenal, the two most successful clubs of the past twenty years have proven, success in footballing terms comes from continuity of management, and so Everton, if they want to achieve long term success, should be looking to support their manager, David Moyes, rather than firing him straightaway.”
Now compare it to this version:

“Successful football clubs have continuity in their management. Look at the two most successful clubs of the past twenty years: Manchester United and Arsenal. David Moyes may currently be struggling, but, rather than fire him straightaway, the Everton board should be supporting him. That is the way to ensure long term success.”
Which is easier to follow? Which is more convincing?

So, while you should vary the length of your sentences, you should favour short sentences.

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PRs – time to name and acclaim

You know what? Sometimes PRs are absolutely brilliant.

Sometimes you’re writing a story and it’s not going so well. You’re missing a case study that’ll bring it all to life, or you need an expert to give you some incisive comments on exactly what is happening, or it’s lacking some  killer stats. Sometimes it goes like that, and you start wondering what you’re going to do. You worry that the whole thing isn’t going to hang together and that you’re going to let your editor down. And then you get an email from a PR who does everything he or she is meant to, and suddenly it’s all right. The world is a happy place again. It’s a beautiful thing.

Ok, maybe I’m getting a tad carried away here. But the point is that sometimes it does happen, and it rarely gets noted. In amongst all the bitter sniping and public wrangling between the hacks and the flacks, there doesn’t seem to be a space for we journos to point out these times when a PR does a really great job, helps a us write a better story, and no doubt gets some good coverage for his or her client.

So, I thought I’d start a new series on my blog to do just this. Somewhere I can name and acclaim a PR who I think has done something well. Now, being this positive goes against every fibre of my being, influenced as it was by a firmly British upbringing which taught me to always favour grumbling and criticism over celebration and praise. But bear with me. I’ll give it a go, and let’s see how it pans out….

A couple of weeks ago Paul Maher of Positive Marketing read my e-newsletter, saw that I was writing an article that one of his clients could comment on, and so dropped me a brief email explaining who his client is and precisely why they’d be great for the piece. I agreed to an interview and so he set it up promptly, sending out details for the conference call in good time, and even calling just before the interview to check I was still on for it. His client and I had a good conversation. He answered all my questions openly and made interesting points supported by facts, figures and real-life examples. Once or twice Paul gently nudged his client in the direction of points he should be making. It was a great interview. Then, later that day, Paul emailed me a pic of his client and details of a LinkedIn group we’d discussed in the call. It was exactly the follow-up I needed. Throughout the whole thing he was friendly, efficient, down-to-earth, and clearly understood exactly what I was writing about.

Result? I’ve got some great copy for my article and am very happy. He should also get some good coverage for his client.

Now, why can’t it always be like that?

(I should add for all you cynics out there that I have absolutely no commercial relationship with Paul or his company. I’ve never even met the bloke, and what’s more he has no idea that I’m writing this!)

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Are your media spokespeople doing this? Question 5

Are they following up after an interview with an email to the journalist?

If they are then well done them – they’re doing better than almost anyone I’ve ever interviewed. The handful or so who have done this over the years are the ones who I’ve gone on to form good, long-term relationships with. I’ve had a good source of information and opinion, and they’ve got a lot of good coverage.

So, why does it happen so infrequently? I’m just suggesting something like: “Good talking to you just now. Hope you found what I had to say interesting (by the way, I’d welcome any feedback you have on how I came across..) – I look forward to seeing the finished article and to working with you on similar pieces in the future.”

How long would it take to fire that over to a journalist after an interview? What impact could it have on the coverage they got in that piece and the future relationship they built?

The thing is that it just doesn’t occur to most spokespeople, and usually that’s because they’ve not had media training, or the media training they have had hasn’t covered this. Why don’t you help them get more out of the interviews they do – why don’t you book them in for some media training?

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Are your media spokespeople doing this? Question 4

Do they signpost key messages?

This is something that very, very few people do successfully. Even fairly accomplished spokespeople – the people who are clear on their marketing messages, who cleverly find a way of weaving those into answers that are genuinely useful to the journalist, and who approach media interviews calmly and capably – even they very often find that their key messages don’t make it through into the finished article.

It can be incredibly frustrating for them.

Signposting is a great way of making sure the interviewer understands your key messages, notes them down, and then uses them in his or her copy. It’s a difficult technique to master – do it too obviously and it can be counter-productive – but I’ve worked with spokespeople practising it in roleplays, and helping them to start using it to very good effect.

Listen in to the next media interview your spokespeople do – are they signposting their key messages as well as they could be?

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