“But what do I write about?”

I’m finally past the hump of having been to South by Southwest, getting home, and unpacking. Life’s been busy with learning how to get a book listed on Amazon and other busynesses, but I’m able to at last turn my attention back to the blog.

One of the many great things I attended while I was at South by Southwest was a party put on by Peachpit Press. Peachpit is a wonderful company that’s been in business for about 25 years. They’re based in Berkeley. Peachpit focuses on smaller technical books that are incredibly well-designed, short, and informative. I’ve never been dissatisfied with any Peachpit book I’ve read. I had the honor of writing two books for Peachpit 20 years ago, too. They’re lovely people to work with.

While I was at their party, I was chatting with a new author who’s written one book and really enjoys it. He was saying that he’d like to write more books but he wasn’t sure what to write about. It sounded like a blog topic and I said as much to him. (I touched on this briefly in an early blog post, but there’s more to be said.) The question is “Do need an idea to become an author?” The answer is “no, not necessarily.” Here’s why:

Many people have the technical skill to be an author and know that they’d like to get into this silly business; their problem is that they’re not sure what to write about. You can still identify general topics you’d like to write about and personal strengths in your writing. Even if this doesn’t point you at a specific set of topics to write about, it’ll help narrow the field. As I’ve mentioned in an earlier blog post, I do very well writing books about computer and software basics, stuff for the 1st– and 2nd-tier users. I wouldn’t do nearly as well for the senior developer because I don’t think I have enough coding knowledge these days… although I might be able to co-author a book on that topic with an author who does have the technical chops to do coding examples and so on. I also know that I’ve got a long history of co-authoring books and I rather like that. I have even batted clean-up in a few cases: gone in to pick up a project that someone else had been working on and had gotten jammed up and couldn’t work on anymore. All of these things go on my list.

With this in mind, I pitch an acquisitions editor saying that I can do all of this nifty keen things and does s/he have a project that needs an author. And you know… sometimes, they do. It’s easiest to approach a publisher if you have a book proposal in hand about a specific topic, but it’s also true that publishers will have ideas for books lying around on their desks that don’t have authors assigned to them. My very first book happened that way, in fact: I had pitched one book and they didn’t like it, but they said “Stick around, kid, we wanna work with you. How’d you like to write a book on Word?” Sure, what the heck? And lo! I became an author shortly thereafter.

If you want to try this bookwriting stuff out but you don’t have an idea in mind, don’t despair. If you’re already writing manuals or articles, look at what you’ve been writing about professionally. Add whatever other skills you can add to this list: for example, you may be a whiz at setting up computers, at cooking, or at helping your clients analyze their interior design needs. All of these add depth to your writing and increase the potential for a variety of non-fiction books. Good topic knowledge combined with writing ability is enough to sell most publishers on you as a potential author.

So, even if you don’t have a specific book idea to propose, a general list of topics may well be enough to start with. The publisher will be able to aim you in the right direction for the project they have in mind. They might say “Hmmm… I need a proposal on a book about muckle manufacturing in Lower Slobbovia by Thursday” and if you want to take a crack at it, you can grab that book template off the blog here and whip one out. They’ve provided you the basic idea and will tell you who they want you to write it for and how; all you have to do is figure out how you’re going to do that and write it. (Simple, huh?)

Do you need an idea to become an author? Nope. It may make it easier to get in the door, but it’s more important to be able to write and know where your strengths lie. Everything else you may end up making up as you go along.

2 Responses to ““But what do I write about?””

  1. Thanks John. I corroborate your “notion”. I arrived at a topic first, which made me realize I had to write a book. But throughout the process, I’ve experienced what you describe. “If you write, it will come.”

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