Five questions to ask before you write your book

Five questions to ask before you write your book, excerpted from Produce, Price and Promote Your Self-Published Book  –

Marketing starts even before you write your book. 

“How can I market something I haven’t even written?” you might ask.

There are five questions you should ask before you start to write a non-fiction book. The answers will help you focus your book, and that will help you focus your marketing.

A friend of mine told me he was starting to write a non-fiction book. I congratulated him and asked, “Have you answered the W5 questions—your who, what, where, when and why—yet?”

“I’m writing a book,” he said, “not a news article. I don’t need to answer the W5 the way journalists do before they write news articles.”

I suggested that he take a look at the W5, from the perspective of thinking about and planning his book, before he started to write. Since I have written a number of non-fiction books, he cut me some slack. “So tell me why, and how, to answer the W5 before I start my book,” he said.

How is a good point,” I said. “It wouldn’t hurt to add hoW to the W5 mix and make it the W6.” And here, in a nutshell, is what I told him.

Presuming you know the big picture topic of the book, before you start to write any non-fiction book, ask yourself who. Who is my target market (TM)? Who am I writing for? Who would be most interested in this book? Knowing your reader helps you determine the tone and style of your book and how accessible your material should be. It also helps you focus on the marketing channels that will reach your TM.

For instance, I have a book called Copywriting that Works. While I’d like to think any copywriter might learn something from the book, my target readers are continuing education students taking copywriting courses. I’ve marketed the book to universities and colleges that offer continuing education copywriting courses and several post-secondary institutions have picked up the book. That means I have a number of book buyers each semester the institutions offer the course. So looking at who can help you determine where to find your TM and how to reach them.

The next question to ask is what. What will this book cover? With my audience in mind for the copywriting book, I have to cover the rudimentary elements of copywriting (not dumb it down, but start at the ground floor). In addition, this is a textbook, so I need to show readers examples of effective copywriting and give them exercises that will help them go from the blank page to polished copy. I also needed to define what I would cover in my book before I started to write it. Since the textbook is an introduction to copywriting, I focused on print and online (social media) ads that use text, not multimedia, radio or video (TV commercials).

In Harness the Business Writing Process, I focused on the process of going from the blank page to polished email, letters and reports. Not on spelling and grammar. That would be a whole other book. So it’s important to know what you are writing about—the breadth, depth and scope—before you put fingers to keyboard. That helps you write in a focused manner but it also helps you focus the writing of your marketing material.

The next question is where, as in where are your readers located. If you are targeting an American audience, you will want to use American spelling, even if you are not an American writer. Also, you will want to use American examples and references and only use other examples if they transcend borders. If your audience is primarily Canadian, use Canadian “colour” (examples, references and spelling). While the audience for my copywriting book could be international, it is primarily Canadian because I use it for an online copywriting course I teach for the University of Toronto and have sold it to Canadian post-secondary institutions. I can, however, refer to American ads because Canadians read American publications and watch American TV. Plus many ads that run in the US are used in Canadian publications and on Canadian TV.

I would be happy to sell my Everything You Wanted to Know about Freelance Writing book to the US market, and I do generate some US and even UK sales, but my primary audience is Canadian. While I use many Canadian examples in the book, I also use American examples. Fact is, news reporting transcends borders for the most part. Still, before I started to write, I thought about where my primary audience would be located and wrote for that audience. Add to that, I focus my marketing efforts based on my TM as defined by who they are and where they are located. For example, I wouldn’t run an ad for Everything in a British publication. I like UK sales, but freelancers in the UK are not my primary TM.

And then there is when. When will your book be published? Are there trends, factors, situations that you will be covering that might change dramatically by time the book is published? Or will your references and examples stand the test of time? It may not seem like a huge question, but it is something you should ponder before you begin to write. I am not saying you shouldn’t use older examples or cite older sources in your book. If the information will be relative to your audience when the book is published, by all means use them. But be aware of dates.

When my Harness the Business Writing Process book was being edited, the editor picked up on an old online reference. It was an early example of Web writing that helped me make a particular point. He suggested that I find a more current example. Students and professors would think the book was dated, he pointed out, if I used a decade old online example. He was right. I found something more current.

When is also a factor in marketing. When will your book be published? Do you want a soft launch—get the book out there and get some feedback before you start to market it? Or do you want to make a big splash the day the book is available? In fact, you might even want to do some teaser promotion before the book is available. All of this is up to you and you want to think about it and make conscious decisions before you start marketing. That way, you control your agenda instead of simply reacting. (“Oh my gosh, the book is on Amazon, I better do this or that and do it now to market it!”)

Then there is why. Why are you writing your book? To entertain, educate, inform or persuade your reader? If you don’t know why you are writing, how will you write in a way that helps you achieve your purpose?
Why would your reader be interested in your topic? You have to know that so you can write promotional copy that sells your book to the right readers for the right reasons.

In fact, I’d say that why your reader would want to read the book is more important than why you are writing the book. I am not saying you can’t write about anything you want. I am saying that if you want to sell books (people are not obligated to buy, after all), you should have a sense of why your TM would want to read it, and you should work to fulfill their expectations (the reader’s reason for reading) in your writing.

The same goes with your marketing. Think of your reader asking one significant question: Why should I buy this book? Here is another version of that question: What’s in it for me?

If your marketing can’t answer that (I don’t care if you are writing non-fiction, fiction or poetry), it will be hard to sell your book. After all, you are asking the reader to part with money to buy your tome. The reader will want to know why they should buy before they will spend. How do they find out if not through your marketing efforts?

Finally we come to how. How will you structure your book? How will you begin and how will you end the book. How will you structure each chapter to get your readers from beginning to end? Will each chapter have a similar structure, or will each one flow freely?
When it comes to marketing, you have to answer some important how questions as well. How will you market your book? (What types of marketing will you use?) How much time will you spend on marketing? How much money will you spend? With answers to these questions you can start to plan your marketing campaign. Without answers to the questions, you will be taking virtual shots in the dark when it comes to marketing your book.

If you want to be a focused, efficient, effective writer, and if you want to be a focused, efficient, effective marketer, start thinking about writing your book before you put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and start planning your marketing campaign before you start marketing. In short, answer the W5, and how, before you start to write and market your book.

[Paul Lima is a freelance writer, business-writing trainer and the author of a dozen books on business and promotional writing, self-publishing and the business of freelance writing. Learn more about Paul, or read about his books, at]


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