There’s something very comfortable about the typical hierarchical structure of nonfiction books, i.e. sections, chapters, and topics within each chapter.

But, as Peggy Lee used to sing, “Is That All There Is?”

Let’s step back for the moment, and explore ways to organize the content and structure of your nonfiction book.

Alphabetical formats

There are four basic ways to organize a nonfiction book. One of the best is the alphabetical structure popularized by Sue Grafton in her bestselling series (admittedly, about a fictional private detective). Beginning with A is for Alibi, B is for Burglar, and continuing through Y Is For Yesterday, Sue Grafton proved the power of a book series approach that spanned several decades.

The alphabetic approach, used in a different way, also provides a structure for nonfiction books. One of my favorite examples is Doug Patt’s How to Architect: All About Architecture. In this case, the “alphabetical” contribution is to discuss the key architectural topics in alphabetical order.

The key takeaway is that each topic is covered in five pages, including text and graphics. Why is this important? Because it creates an inflexible structure that actually makes the planning and writing the book easier. It also introduces a game-like element, challenging the author to with creative challenges instead of looking for ideas to include. The odd number of pages also ensures that the first page of each chapter appears on the right-hand page.

A variation on the “one topic per letter in the alphabet” is Scott Abel and Rahael Ann Baillie’s The Language of Content Strategy. In this case, what could have been an overwhelming complex editing task topic was made practical by Scott’s decision to invite content marketers to submit topics describing the core concepts of content marketing.

Scott maintained control over the book by limiting each contributor to 250 words, plus a one-paragraph contributor profile. There were 52 topics addressed by 52 authorities. By contribution was as limited to a specific word count. In the book, each topic occupied two pages, usually related to each contributor’s area of expertise. The terms, of course, were alphabetically arranged. (And, yes, Q and  Z were omitted, in case you were wondering.)

Figure 03 Making of The Language Content Design

For more information about the creation of the above book, Scott created an excellent, highly-detailed SlideShare presentation, The Making of The Language of Content Strategy. Scott uses the term “Engineering Content” to explain the philosophy behind efficiently writing a book that created a win-win situation for everyone, the book’s editors, the book’s contributors, and—most important—the book’s creators.

Another alphabet variation is the structure used in Universal Principles of Design (revised and updated). In this case, there are multiple entries for each letter of the alphabet. The topic was introduced on the left hand page, graphics and captions appearing on the right hand page. As a testament to the popularity of the logical structure, the current edition is enjoying the title’s 25th year of publication. The current edition contains descriptions of 125 graphic design concepts and techniques.

Figure 04 Universal Principles of Design

Numeric formats

We’re probably all familiar with titles promising readers easy attainment of desired goals, i.e.,   3-Steps to Success. (Often step involves several steps to accomplish, but we’ll excuse them.)

One of the best books of the numeric genre is Susan M. Weinschenk’s 100 Things Every Presenter Needs to Know about People. Although it first appeared in 2012, it remains a popular topic.

Perhaps readers (and prospective readers) appreciate it’s upfront honesty, i.e., stressing 100 rather than a unrealistically low number like 3 or 4. Another noteworthy characteristic of Susan Weinschenk’s book is that each topic occupies either 2 or 3 pages—although most are 2 pages. Each topic is completed with a list of concise, actionable tactics.

100 Things concludes with 5 steps to implement her approach to presentations and a 90-day Improvement Plan. I mention these closing resources to emphasize that the numeric format –like the previous alphabetical formats–doesn’t present an obstacle to including additional information that doesn’t fit within the numeric framework. The six pages of recommended references are exceptionally complete.

As a reader, if you are given a choice of reading a 260 page book divided into 10 long chapters, versus a 100 concise topics covered in 2 or 3 pages each, which would you prefer?


Deadline books

You’re probably also familiar with Deadline books. Deadline books share “how to do it” information by organizing the contents in ways that permit readers to realize how quickly success they can achieve their goals or address their challenges. Options include:

  • in 30 minutes a day
  • In a weekend
  • In 7 days
  • In 30 days

Needless to say, your nonfiction title will gain credibility if you restrain the tendency to over-promise how quickly readers can solve their problems or achieve their goals. After all, few Ph.d. candidates achieve a doctorate in a weekend, or even 7 days.

Reader-focus books

A final approach to creating successful nonfiction books is to identify the reader category either by definition (i.e. age,income, occupation) or by the goal they want to achieve or the problem they want to solve.

Rather than a generic “how to” book, which lacks a competitive position, i.e., your title and contents can resonate with prospects who identify with the book and recognize it’s relevance to their needs rather than a textbook that sacrifices action for completeness.

For example, searching for “cookbooks” on Amazon results in 60,000 entries—quite a competitive field, one where it might be difficult to establish your book’s success.

When you consider cookbooks aimed at busy people, recipes from abroad, recipes appealing to residents of various US regions and states, income levels, time availability, and preferences, you may begin to appreciate the importance of identifying your ideal readers based on their challenges, characteristics, and preferences.

Questions to ask yourself…

  • Who are your ideal clients? The starting point for a successful book is to identify the best client’s you’ve served in the past. What characteristics did they share with other highly-regarded clients?
  • What types of challenges and goals did your best clients need help addressing? Can you identify both their obvious, and the often hidden challenge.
  • What kinds of products and services helped you create “win-win” relationships with your best clients?

After you’ve answered the above questions, it’s time to see whether or not one of the four types of “formulaic” books can best solve their needs.

Successful books aren’t written in isolation. Nor are they written by studying the best-seller lists and mimicing current bestsellers. Instead, successful books reflect a partnership between your experiences and goals…and your goals involve the type of clients you want to serve in the future.

Best-selling books come and go, but strong client relationships can enjoy decades of mutual profitability.

Author Bio:

Roger C. Parker’s mission is to help you write a book that deliver lasting benefits to your career. Make my acquaintance on LinkedIn! I’ve worked with both first-time authors and “cubicle escapees” interested in gaining more control over their future. See my LinkedIn article, Before You Start to Write, Be Sure You Answer the Following 6 Questions.