When it comes to writing and planning a book, many self-published authors skip an important step: doing the research that’s needed to make their book successful. But, spending a few hours doing a little basic research can really pay off—both figuratively and literally. Authors of high-quality books take the time to do their research and do it right. I know you want your book to be great, too. So, I want to help you learn more about the research you should be doing for your nonfiction book.
In this episode, I’ll walk you through the three main types of research that I think you should do for your nonfiction book. The research I’ll describe has helped my clients create superior self-published books, and it’s the type of research all the pros do before diving into their books. Ideally, you’ll do this research before you start writing, but if you’re already working on your manuscript, I still recommend doing this research. It’s absolutely going to help you write a better, more successful book.
Let’s dive in!
When I look at the types of research that I do for my clients and my own books, that research falls into three main categories. Those categories are:
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Let me dive into each of these types in a little more detail.
First, let’s talk about market research, since it has a HUGE impact on how you position and sell your book. Like the name suggests, market research helps you figure out how your book fits into the existing market out there. It helps you understand how your book will relate to other books in your niche. And, it helps you understand how your book is unique, which will ultimately help you persuade more readers to buy your book.
Market research is a key component of book proposals that get sent to traditional publishers, and for good reason. First, you need to prove that you know enough about the books in your niche, which shows that you know what you’re doing and that you can write a well-informed book. And, that market research also shows the publisher that there is indeed demand for a book on your topic. But, even if you’re self-publishing, knowing this information is going to be incredibly helpful.
I’ll go into the “how” more in a little bit, but a big chunk of your market research should consist of looking at the other books out there that are either competitive with or comparable to yours. This research will help you make sure you’re not writing a book that’s already been written. (If you discover that your book has already been written, that doesn’t mean that you can’t write it. It just means that you need to do a little thinking about how you can put a unique spin on it so it stands out.)
Also, again, you need to see how your book is different or unique from all of the other books out there. Readers are looking for new insight or something different from what they’ve already read. If your book is going to be successful, it needs to stand out. (More on ) You also need to be able to tell prospective readers why they should buy your book. Part of that persuasion will be to tell them why your book is the best one out there, and to do that effectively, you need to know what other books are available.
You should also talk to your own audience as part of your market research. Does your book solve a real problem that they are actually having? If it doesn’t, you’re going to be very disappointed by your book’s impact and sales. You can also ask your audience what questions they have about your book topic, which will help you flesh out the information and content that you’ll be putting in your book. For example, if you’re writing a book on nutrition, maybe you learn that your audience really wants to know more about great sources of protein. So, you add a chapter on protein sources to your outline. Feedback from your audience and clients is a goldmine—don’t forget to use it!
Speaking of the topics that you’ll address in your book, research can also help you decide what you should include in and exclude from your book. The key here isn’t to copy what everyone else is doing. But, if you’re writing a cookbook and every other cookbook in your niche has a shopping list or a detailed description of a certain cooking technique, you should strongly consider putting it in your book, too.
It’s incredibly common for authors and developmental editors to look at competitive books to see what topics those books cover. It can be as simple as looking over a table of contents, although sometimes a deeper dive is warranted. In those cases, you can skim through competitive books, looking at headings, figures, and tables in each chapter. Doing these scans will help you understand what all of the books in your market have in common, and what makes them different. It also helps you notice things that you like and dislike about the competitive books. You can use that information to help improve your own book outline and manuscript.
If you’re doing your topic research, you may find that all of the competitive books in your market have a chapter on a certain topic, but you really don’t want to address it in your book. That’s okay! As long as you have a well-thought-out reason for omitting that topic, it’s fine. But, you don’t want to be ignorant of a point that needs to be addressed, a point that would really help your readers.
I strongly suggest doing topic research before you finalize your book’s outline. Again, this research is going to help you decide what you’re going to cover in your book. If you wait until your book is ready to publish, you may find yourself going back and doing some major edits. When I work with clients to develop their book outlines as a developmental editor, I do this research for them because I know how powerful it is to understand what they should and shouldn’t consider including in their book’s manuscript.
Content research is similar to what you used to do for the research papers you wrote back in college. This is the information you need to look up so that you make sure you have your facts straight when you’re writing your book. Content research can also involve looking up citations for the points you’re making, if that’s appropriate. (Look forward to a full podcast episode on citations coming up soon.)
Content research can be done at any stage of the writing process, although I encourage you to separate the act of doing research from the act of writing. If you’re trying to get words on the page but you’re diving down a Google rabbit hole, you’re not going to write very efficiently. Instead, if when you’re writing you find there’s something you need to look up, make a note. Then, do your research at a different time. Come back later and add in what you’ve found to your manuscript. Trust me, you’ll write much more efficiently if you’re not switching back and forth between writing and researching.
It can also help to plan ahead and do as much research as possible before you start to write. If you have a detailed outline for your book (which I strongly encourage you to do), you’ll have a good idea if there are any topics that you need to research. If you can look up all of that information before you start writing and have it at your fingertips, when it’s time to write, the process will be much easier. If you don’t have the time to do the research yourself, you can always hire someone to do it for you. (Or, you could find a collaborative writer and delegate the writing of those sections to someone else entirely.)
The easiest place to do market and topic research is at your favorite bookstore, whether it’s brick and mortar or online. (Ideally, I suggest that you look at both.) Find the right section of your bookstore or book category online. Then, start to look through the books that are there. Narrow your focus to the books that are most closely related to what you plan to include in your book (knowing that that plan may change based on your research).
I definitely think that you should take some time to look through books on Amazon in relevant categories. To find these categories, simply go to the Books section on Amazon and scroll down until you see a big list of categories on the left-hand side of your screen. (On mobile, just scroll down and the categories should show up in the middle.) Your book will probably fit into several categories. Make sure you take the time to look at each one.
Be sure to spend your time looking at the bestselling books in each category. You want your book to be high quality, so spend your time analyzing the highest quality books. Look over the book covers, noting what you do and don’t like. See which books have a Table of Contents available and see what’s being covered in the chapters of the book. Also take a look at the ratings and reviews. How many reviews do they have? What are the reviewers saying?
Two-, three-, and four-star reviews can hold a treasure trove of information. Often, the people who write these reviews will mention what they think the book is missing or why it didn’t live up to their expectations. Make sure you write those points down! You can make sure your book does include that information (but only if it feels organic for you). Reviews can be a great place to learn that the other books in your niche are missing a critical piece of information. If you can include that information in your book, you’ve got a great way to position it to potential book buyers and readers!
If you have the budget, I think it’s worth it to buy any books that are direct competitors to keep for reference. But, here’s something important: I don’t want you to look at those books and worry that yours isn’t going to measure up. Instead, I want you to keep them around as inspiration for what your book can be. And, even better, when you really get to know those books, you’ll begin to understand how you can improve upon what other authors have done. Sometimes, that’s as simple as adding your unique experience, voice, or worldview. Or, you might find that other books failed to address a subject that you think is vitally important. Either way, having those books around can help you make your book better.
If you can’t afford to buy copies of competitive books, see if they have them at your local library. You might even see if your library has them as an eBook that you can borrow. The important thing is to take a sneak peek at the content of the book. What topics are they covering in those books? What information are they including? If you can get the physical book, what is the book’s overall design like? Having this information can help you make sure that your book doesn’t have any gaping holes in the content you cover. And, it can help you make important decisions when it comes time to design your book, too.
Sometimes, it’s tempting to dive deeply into the research for your book in order to avoid actually writing it. Don’t fall into this trap! If you know you’re the type of person who easily gets trapped in rabbit holes, set some limits for yourself.
For example, if you’re doing your market research, limit the number of titles you’ll look at to 10 or 20. If you’re actually flipping through the books themselves, don’t look at more than the five or 10 most relevant books. It can be tempting to want to look for every last book that might be competitive or comparable to yours. But, your time is best spent looking at the books that have been the most successful, not cataloging every single book that’s out there.
You can also set a time limit for yourself. For example, set an alarm and don’t allow yourself to spend more than an hour or two doing your research on Amazon. I also recommend setting a limit on the overall amount of calendar time you spend working on the research for your book. (This is especially true for your market and topic research.)
I suggest that you don’t spend more than a week or two focusing on the background research for your book. Of course, make sure that you do all of the content research that your book needs. But, don’t let research keep you from actually writing your book. I’ve heard so many stories of writers who get stuck in research mode but never do anything with that research. In those cases, that’s essentially dozens or hundreds of hours of time wasted. Don’t fall into the same trap.
I thought it might be helpful if I shared what I look for when I’m doing my own book research, and what I do for my clients. I’m not saying that this is the only correct way to do book research, but if you’re really not sure where to begin, I think having a framework to follow can help.
When I’m doing market research, the first place I go is Amazon.com. It’s a treasure trove of information, and almost every book in your market will be listed there. I also think it’s the easiest and fastest way for me to get the information I need. It’s simple to find all sorts of information, like list price, the formats available (paperback vs. hardcover vs. eBook vs. audiobook), and book reviews.
The first thing I do is pull up a spreadsheet. I create columns for all of the data I’m collecting, which often includes:
I also have software that I use to pull up the number of sales each book has, and I make sure to record that data, too. (I’ll be talking more about that software next week, so make sure you tune in.)
Once I have my spreadsheet set up, I dig in. Often I’ll have a general idea of what categories a book should fit into, and I’ll head to those categories to start my research. But occasionally, I won’t know what the best category is. In that case, I do a couple of searches for related keywords to see what categories similar books are listed in. For example, if I’m helping a client with a book on intermittent fasting, I’ll do a quick Amazon search to see if other books on intermittent fasting are in a special diets category in the cookbooks section or a health and fitness category.
Then, I start collecting data on the books that are the closest competitors to my (or my client’s) book. I fill in as much information as I can on my spreadsheet. I also make sure to read the book’s description to get a sense of what the book’s about and what’s covered in the book’s content. If there’s a preview of the Table of Contents available, I make sure to look at that, too. I might keep a notebook by my side as well to write down any ideas for the topics and content that should go in my book.
Like I suggested above, I try to keep a time limit on the amount of research I do. I’ve found that there are diminishing returns when I spend more than an hour or two doing my market research. My research time is best spent looking at the books that are doing well and that readers are really enjoying. And, my time overall is best spent focusing on my own book, not the other books that are out there. Again, don’t get paralyzed by all of the information and books out there! Go in, get what you need, and move on to the important work—creating your book.
Speaking of not getting paralyzed by information, let’s make it easier for you to apply what you’ve learned in today’s episode.
If you haven’t already, make sure you dive in and go through the three types of research I’ve outlined here. It might take you a couple of hours to do this research, but I promise you your book will be so much better for it. Taking the time to do the right research will help you write a well-planned book with great messaging that makes selling that book incredibly easy. A few hours of your time now are going to really simplify your life a LOT down the road.
If you see how important it is to do this research but you really don’t have time to do it yourself, I can help. Both my “Your Best Book Plan” Strategy Sessions and my Book Mapping Sessions include done-for-you market and topic research to make this part of the process fast and easy for you. (And, the “Your Best Book Plan” sessions are $50 off for a limited time.) If you just need the research and not the strategy, I can help out with that, too. Head to my services page to learn more about how I can help you or to sign up for your strategy session.
Finally, be sure you tune in next week. I’ll be telling you all about the one tool you need to find a profitable nonfiction book topic. This tool is so valuable for all sorts of book research, but it’s especially helpful when you’re trying to narrow down what you should write your book about. And, even if you have a general idea of what you want to write your book about, this tool can help you figure out if you need to niche down further to have a truly successful book. I’ll tell you all about the tool and how to use it in next week’s episode.
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