One popular application of a commonplace book is collecting notes for writing books. (For example, see Ryan Holiday on how he wrote three books in three years.)
If this is your reason for creating a commonplace book, then I urge you to check out The Book In A Box Method by Tucker Max and Zach Obront. This free ebook (requires an email opt-in) explains how the editors at Book In A Box work with subject matter experts to create nonfiction books. (Get a taste of the method from Tucker’s overview.)
Don’t be fooled by the quirky title of this company or the book. Having these ideas on hand 30 years ago would have transformed my work—and the results I produced for clients. Following is what I found remarkable.
- Aiming for a best-seller is one of the worst goals you can have
Tucker and Zach note that “for most authors, bestseller lists are not only unrealistic, but they’re also a needless distraction.” Only a tiny fraction of books will ever make those lists.
The good news is that you can sell small quantities of your book and still make money from it. Options for doing this include:
- Using your book to generate leads for selling products and services such as coaching, consulting, and teaching
- Converting book contents into online courses
- Using your book to get the attention of people who book speakers for conferences and other events
- Inviting people to join a subscription-based online community based on your book
- Adding a book to your résumé so that you can get promoted or change careers
For more ideas, see Tucker talk about how to monetize books (graphic language included).
- Begin with goals and benefits—not content
According to Tucker and Zach, “the place to start with a book is not a deep dive into what’s in the book, but rather, where the book fits into the market and if there is an audience for it. We start with the author in mind, then focus on the reader, and only then worry about the content.”
As an author, be brutally honest what you truly want from doing a book. If you’re not, then you risk personal and professional failure. Remember that you’re more likely to succeed with a book that creates value for a small audience that cares passionately about your topic. With this focus, you could end up writing a different book than the one you originally envisioned.
In addition, you might discover that you have enough content for more than one book. This is key: Don’t put it all in one book. The optimal length for a nonfiction book is 25,000 to 50,000 words. If you have more than that, do another book.
- If you hate writing, then speak your first draft
“The conventional process for writing a book is too inefficient for someone who doesn’t have time to dedicate their entire life to learning and doing it,” note Tucker and Zach. “The writing skill is a totally different skill from having intelligence, wisdom, experience, or knowledge.”
Fortunately, there’s another way to produce your first draft. Create a detailed outline and then elaborate on each of the main points by speaking about them. Record everything you say and then send it to Rev.com to be transcribed.
The practice of using spoken words as the basis for a book has a long and celebrated history. This is how the dialogues of Socrates, the sayings of Jesus, the teachings of the Buddha, and other classics were produced. Students and disciples of these masters wrote down what they heard. In the process, they took wisdom that would have been lost and saved it for posterity.
- Ask someone else to interview you
Resist the temptation to sit alone in your office and dictate the first draft of your book from rough notes. Instead, recruit someone who’s new to your topic and interested in it. Ask this person to interview you, working from a detailed list of questions.
Why bother with this step? Because you’re probably steeped in your subject and assume too much prior knowledge on the part of readers. Having an uninformed but enthusiastic interviewer forces you to elaborate, give examples, and break instructions down into simple steps. If your interviewer doesn’t understand what you’re saying, then readers won’t either.
Your interviewer can ask questions such as:
- Why did you do it that way?
- How exactly did you do that?
- What was the purpose of that?
- Can you explain what you mean by that?
- Can you be more specific?
Skilled interviewers also prompt for good stories by asking about specific trigger events: “Tell me about the day you decided to become an entrepreneur.” “How did you respond on the day you realized you didn’t have enough revenue to meet payroll?”
Another good prompt: “Imagine that you’re talking to an 8-year-old. How would you explain this idea?”
- Outline with questions and prompts
To get the best results from your interviews, produce a detailed outline for your interviewer to work from. Include specific questions, prompts for stories, and reminders of key facts that support each point in your book.
The Book In A Box Method includes a sample outline. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. At 3,000 words, it’s a microcosm of an entire manuscript. It shows the entire progression of ideas and how they all hang together.
When you get to this point, you’re well on the way to a finished book.
This is not all! I’ve got five more big take-aways from The Book In A Box Method, and those are for my next post.