What is a “how to book”? I’ve heard the how-to book called procedural nonfiction (Ouch! That sounds both technical and painful!) and prescriptive nonfiction. But basically, all how-to books have the same goal: to teach readers how to accomplish something such as building a house, sculpting the perfect body, or overcoming the fear of speaking. How-to books exist in most every section of the bookstore and, as you might have guessed, the self-help section is bursting with how-to guides (How Not to Give Up, How Proust can Change Your Life, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk). A few novelists have borrowed the “how to” spirit and created novels that sound like how-to guides: How to Train Your Dragon, Be a Perfect Person in Just Three Days! and the brand new How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.
What the How-to Book looks like: How-to books can be organized in a gazillion different ways, depending on your project. Here are three popular how-to book formats along with examples for each one:
1. One process, multiple projects. These books tackle a single process, such as artistic doodling (Yoga for Your Brain), present the necessary tools, teach the basic skills, and then offer multiple projects.
Example: Container Gardening by Stephanie Donaldson. Much like a recipe or an exercise book, Container Gardening includes sections on techniques and supplies and then presents many projects. Each project is accompanied by photos and instructions.
Best format for: Topics with a simple process but a whole host of expressions such as baking, cooking, crafting, and exercise.
2. One topic, multiple lessons. These books present multiple lessons centered around a single unifying topic.
Example: Complete Do-It-Yourself Manual: Completely Revised and Updated by the Editors of The Family Handyman (Reader’s Digest Books). This book teaches readers how to fix just about anything in their home from the plumbing to the furniture. The sections cover necessary tools and then move to areas of the house, with a special section in the front for emergency repairs.
Best format for: Topics that are broad enough that they need lots of lessons such as first aid, car repair, or jewelry making.
3. One process, multiple steps. These books take a topic or skill and teach it over multiple chapters.
Example. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Wine and Food Pairing by Jaclyn Stuart and Jeanette Hurt. The “For Dummies” and “Complete Idiot’s Guides” publish a large number of how-to books. Both companies have created chapter templates to help the reader understand a system or topic. In this book, the writers break down the topic—wine and food pairing—into four easy-to-follow sections. The chapter titles are both descriptive and poetic (To Decant or Not Decant?) and help the reader find the information quickly.
Example: Marathoning for Mortals: A Regular Person’s Guide to the Joy of Running or Walking a Half-Marathon or Marathon by John Bingham and Jenny Hadfield. This book is divided into four parts with a selection of training plans in the back. It packs loads of information into each of its short chapters along with sidebar stories from real runners (called Mortal Miracles) and a checklist at the end of each chapter (Know Before You Go).
Best format for: A topic or skill that is more complicated or takes multiple steps to achieve. This is a typical structure for self-help how-to books.
Questions to ask yourself BEFORE you write that “how-to” book:
1. Does my topic fit the how-to book format?
*Do you want to teach people how to do, create, or accomplish something? Your topic can be external (how to fix a car) or internal (how to fix a broken heart) but it must be something that can be taught.
*Can my topic be adequately covered in a single book or would it be better suited to a program, audio or video class?
*Is my topic big enough for a how-to book or should it be an article, blog post, or workshop?
2. What’s my competition? No doubt you won’t be the first to write a book on this topic. No worries—other books or programs demonstrate that there’s a market for your work. Before you move forward, check out:
*How many books and programs are on the market?
*How well do they sell? Publishing houses and book distributers keep this information a secret. But you can find numbers on Nielson Bookscan. Search for the book via any major search engine and see how many pages pop up. Check Amazon bestseller rank. Visit Goodreads to see how many people have checked the book as “read” or “to-read.” Finally, visit your bookstore and talk to the booksellers about how well books in this category or on this topic sell.
*Is the market saturated? In other words, are there too many books on the market in this topic or do readers still want more information?
3. How will my book stand out? Let’s face it, most people aren’t going to buy another book on how to fix their car if they already have one UNLESS your book really rocks. Even if you plan to self-publish, you have to convince book buyers that they need to buy your book. Ask yourself
*How is my book different from the other books and products on the market?
*How is my book better than the other products available?
*What will make my book irresistible to my ideal audience?
4. Why am I the right person to write this book? I’ve heard one too many entrepreneur say: “If you’ve read one book about a topic, you know more than 90 percent of the population, and you’re an expert.” You might know more than most of your friends, but do you know enough to write a book? Consider:
*Do I understand this topic well enough to explain it to readers?
*Am I so passionate about the topic that I’m willing to spend oodles of time researching, writing, publishing, marketing, and selling a book on the topic?
*Do I know the people who will be my ideal readers and do they trust my work on this topic? (Yes, this is that platform question.)
*Am I able to connect regularly with my ideal readers before, during, and after writing this book?
A final word. The how to project may seem like a fairly easy project at first glance. After all, most elementary school children write short how-to books when they are learning about nonfiction. If they can do it, we can too—right? Not so fast. Just like a great dancer can make complicated moves look easy, great writers make creating how-to books look effortless. It’s not. More than with almost any other type of book, the how-to book requires you to put yourself into the mind of the reader. You need to think: how would a novice see this? Where would a newbie get confused? How can I make this understandable for the readers? When you can do that, you are ready to write the how to book!
Your turn: What questions have you asked before deciding on the how-to book format?