BookNotes Writing

Book Notes: Write Useful Books Changed How I’ll Write Non-Fiction Going Forward

Written by Mark McElroy

Write Useful Books offers concise strategies for non-fiction writers who want to craft books readers will love.


Author: Rob Fitzpatrick and Adam Rosen
Domains: Non-Fiction, Non-Fiction Writing
Source: Write Useful Books on (affiliate link)
Post Type: Mark McElroy’s Reading Notes

The Book in a Paragraph

Writing out loud (that is, putting content on public display as you create it) engages enthusiastic readers, and the commentary they provide can improve your book even as it’s being written. These early responses, combined with the practice of using beta reader feedback to identify what resonates most, helps eliminate unnecessary revisions of your work. When you create a useful manuscript with content shaped by readers and pair this with thoughtful launch and sales optimization practices, you end up with a book that essentially markets itself.

Top Five Best Ideas

  • Use iterative design and agile work principles (experiment, learn, adjust, loop) to write more useful books.
  • As you write a book, deploy that content (as tweets, as blog posts, etc.) to build a platform and generate interest.
  • When using beta readers, find a tool that helps you monitor what they liked and disliked … and tracks where they gave up.
  • The key to high Amazon sales ranks is sustained sales over time; favor launch tactics that will build steady, sustained sales over strategies that produce dramatic, short-term spikes.
  • To boost sales over time, pay closer attention to titles, subtitles, covers, and Amazon sales page content.

Useful Insights & Applications

Writing out Loud

Ever since I was the first to write a NaNoWriMo novel out loud — writing live, online, with chapters published every day — I’ve known about the power of creating in front of an audience. While writing Family Thais, the steady stream of fan mail, feedback, and reader interest kept me moving forward, even when times got tough.

I’ve longed to incorporate more “writing out loud” in my work! In fact, I’d like to take the concept even further by:

  • setting myself “writing office hours” daily, and actually composing my books in a setting where the audience can see the words appearing as I type them.
  • have a way for the audience to highlight passages, indicate their feelings about them, and leave comments for me.
  • having statistics (word counts, progress meters) visible to keep me accountable to the promises I make to my readers.

My most recent experiment in writing out loud — writing and publishing a novel called Parallel Lines on a daily basis — didn’t work out as planned, but taught me a lot. I allowed a vacation to upend my daily writing schedule, and, after that, progress went from steady to fitful. If writing Parallel Lines “out loud” was a kind of literary high wire act, I fell off the wire and dangled so long that all but two audience members lost interest.

Trying to “write out loud” in and publishing daily chapters to the web using Obsidian Publish was easy. But, as a platform for writing out loud, the site I created with Obsidian Publish lacked good branding, contact information, traffic stats, and a system by which readers could subscribe to new chapters or leave comments for me. For all its ease, Obsidian Publish lacked a level of functionality I missed.

While I’ve resumed writing Parallel Lines (slowly, and in my closet instead of “working out loud”), I do think I want to write my next book — a handbook for improving meetings, making better decisions, and designing responsive strategies — out loud, chapter by chapter, online … in a setting where people can interact more directly with the text.

Author Rob Fitzpatrick is designing a new service called, which offers better tools for managing beta readers and their feedback. I’ve applied for access to the beta.

Applying Agile Principles to Writing a Book

At the day job, I’m an evangelist for agile approaches to getting work done. One of the most powerful principles I coach is the experimental process: identifying a tension, proposing a solution, getting consent that the experiment is safe to try, implementing the solution, learning from it, tweaking it, and looping back to identify new tensions and start the process again.

Write Useful Books applies this principle to writing non-fiction:

  • You identify a tension — a problem the reader needs to solve.
  • You propose a solution: the text of your book
  • You share the work as you create it, allowing interested readers to provide you with insight into what works and what doesn’t
  • You tweak and improve the text based on that feedback
  • You loop through this process over and over until the book is truly useful.

In addition to helping you write a better book, this process builds a community of readers who are hungry for the finished product and ready to recommend it to friends. In essence, books written this way market themselves.

Self-Publishing Makes Sense

I know this from first-hand experience, and it’s good to see the idea supported by a more serious author’s hard data.

Whenever I say I’m a published author, people ask, “Did you have a publisher, or did you publish this yourself?” (I’ve done both.) In the minds of the general public, there’s a certain stench associated with self-publishing, rooted in the “vanity presses” of old that would charge authors an arm and a leg to push out printed copies of their manuscripts.

But the truth is this: using widely available tools, you can publish a book with very little money down. (The printed books aren’t actually printed until they’re ordered.) And the percentage of sales you keep from self-published work is much, much higher than what you get from a commercially published book.

At this point, I don’t know why anyone is interested in conventional publishing — except as a way to get an already successful book into the hands of an even broader audience.

My biggest self-publishing take-away from Write Useful Books was this: I don’t charge enough for the ebook and print copies of my self-published work. I’ve raised prices accordingly.

Writing More Useful Books

A lot of my earlier non-fiction books — especially the ones related to Tarot — could have been more useful.

Why does A Guide to Tarot Card Reading start with a short history of how the Tarot deck came to be? As a contextual thinker, I’m intrigued by the history and evolution of the tools I use … but that material won’t always interest someone who just wants to get started reading the cards.

In some ways, writing commercially-published non-fiction actually taught me some bad habits. Commercially-published books have to be a certain length for the economics of commercial publishing to work out … so authors are encouraged to pad them with extra material.

Ever read a book and said, “That would have been a great 10,000-word blog post … but it’s a terrible 75,000-word book?” That happens a lot … and it’s because the industry encourages it.

Especially now that I’m self-publishing, I can do a better job of cutting out what’s non-essential and creating a book that pulls the reader right into what he or she bought the book for.

Applying What I’ve Read: A To-Do List

  • Write my next non-fiction title out loud, and enlist the help of readers to make it as good as it can possibly be.
  • Make sure the book, in all formats, is designed to support and encourage readers to get in touch (and stay in touch) with me. Contact info should be easy to find.
  • Optimize my web sites to help people find me, find my services, and keep in touch. I’m seriously thinking of switching to the Ghost platform and leaving WordPress behind.
  • Do a better job of making quick, efficient YouTube videos to make points and answer questions.

Non-Fiction Writers Should Read This Book

This is a short, useful book, packed with good info, from someone whose work demonstrates the value and impact of the content.

If you’re writing (or planning to write) non-fiction, you should give Write Useful Books a read before starting your next project. It’s changed the way I see my own work … and it’ll have a big impact on my work going forward.

About the author

Mark McElroy

I'm a writer and professional facilitator. I'm the author of a dozen or so non-fiction books and hundreds of corporate video scripts. As a professional facilitator, I coach individuals, committees, and teams to change how they meet, make decisions, and plan, so they can get out of their own way and do work that really matters. I use this site to write about writing, adaptive strategy, travel, and spirituality ... and to "learn out loud" by sharing works (and what doesn't).