How nonfiction authors can give their nonfiction book a distinctive edge, differentiating it from competing books filled with “gray” pages of text, from top to bottom and side-to-side.Boost Your Nonfiction Book’s Sales by Turning Content Chaos into Content-Driven Design by Roger C. Parker

Nonfiction books often suffer from content chaos. Content chaos occurs when reference books contain several topics, or “big ideas,” each accompanied by numerous details. The titles of these books often contain words like Guide, Essential, Complete, Handbook, or Encycylopedia.

Content chaos books make details difficult to locate. Important information are often introduced by subheads within long chapters. They often appear in a random order rather than the order that readers are likely to encounter them.

Instead of being able to visually “scan” the pages, looking for graphics associated with the details, readers must spend more time searching for appropriate keywords. It’s the difference between thumbing through the pages in a catalog versus reading each word to pick out relevant terms.

Content chaos not only makes details harder to locate, it undermines the credibility of both the book and its author. Content chaos is a sign of haphazard planning, writing, and editing. It undermines book sales plus the credibility of author and publisher. It sends the message that the author and editors) either didn’t care or they didn’t understand their readers.

On the other hand, the visual emphasis of content-driven design emphasizes relevance and sequence. Readers don’t have to search through chapters to find desired information looking for text cues. Instead, content-driven books let readers visually locate desired details using drawings, charts, icons, or photographs.

Content driven design is similar to the difference between casually leafing through a catalog, allowing visual images and serendipity to help you quickly desired information, and sitting down for a a time-consuming reading session.

How to Avoid Content Chaos

There are three steps you can take to simplifying the presentation of content that contains a mix of important “big ideas” and the specific details readers need to accomplish a goal or make an intelligent purchase.

Step 1: Rethink the structure of your chapter

The solution begins by discarding traditional idea of chapters. Traditional nonfiction books are divided into a handful of chapters—often between 7 and 15. Each chapter can contain 6 to 30 pages, although chapters can include over 40 go 50 pages. Each chapter covers a major topic and its supporting details.

When re-planning the chapters of your content driven-book, you can simplify your work by first creating a list of chapter titles, supported by indented text for each detail. No details are needed at this point, just the nouns that describe each task. Or, use a mind map to work more efficiently.

Step 2: Limit the number of pages in each chapter
Instread of allowing content to dictate the number of pages in each chapter, the content-drive design to content chaos involves limiting each chapter to just 2 pages! Each chapter occupies just two pages—a left-hand page and a right-hand page.

  • The left-hand page contains the chapter title plus a column of text introducing and describing the topic and its relevance. The introductory text can include 3 to 5 paragraphs (depending on the length of the paragraphs). Often, the “teaser” for each chapter is set smaller than the headline but larger than the type in the text column.
  • The right-hand page is used for visuals and captions communicating the details associated with each topic. These details can range from maps or graphics highlighting where the topic occurs in the production sequence. You can also include graphics emphasizing the setting where the topic appears in the production process or in the user’s home, factory, or office. Small photographs, drawings, or icons can illustrate the steps associated with creating or using the product or service.

Limit the captions associating the smaller graphics to a single, short sentence.

Step 3: Strive for variety

The above left-hand and right-hand structure described above offers a lot of content and design flexibility. There’s no reason to model one 2-page spread after another! Subtle differences can continually re-engage the reader’s attention. For example:

  • The length of the text on the left-page can vary and you can use the space below, or to the right of the text, for describing the context or importance of the chapter and details associated with the topic. You can also include appropriate in-progress photographs illustrating the topic. Or, you can include testimonials and quotes or from satisified users.
  • You can vary the number, placement, and size of the graphics on the right-hand page. You can insert a large vertical or horizontal photograph at the top of the right-hand page to anchor the reader’s eye.
  • Below the key photograph, you can insert grid of three, four, or six smaller photographs and captions. You can number the photographs if appropriate.
  • Or, you can replace the large photograph with a grid of smaller photographs. You can align the smaller photographs vertically or horizontally.

How can you save time creating 2-page chapters?

Although the visual impact of a “content-first” books is very reader-friendly, the structure is very efficient. This is because, after you plan the sequence of topics, you don’t need to spend as much time writing.

So, if you’re anonfiction author, you can spend
more time planning, but less time writing!

And, you’ll likely find writing a content-drive design book less stressful. Although you need more topics and details, you won’t need as much text.

When you sit down to write a new chapter of a traditional nonfiction book, you’re faced with a blank slate. You don’t know how much text it will take to complete a chapter. In most casses, you don’t know what points you want to cover. You’re also faced with continual decisions like “Am I writing too much?” or “Am I skipping important points?”

With a content-driven design, knowing the maximum number of lines of type or the word count for the text column, you’ll find the text easier to write. Constraints, knowing the number of words or the number of lines of text, encourages concise writing. You’re ”gamifying” the writing process! Instead of writing to “fill space,” you’re now playing with words and sentences, actively engaged in making the most of every word. You’ll may find you finish more than one 2-page chapter during each writing section.

What about graphics?

You may be concerned about the identifying and producing the graphics required for the design-based right-hand pages. However, you may be able to delegate the selection and sizing of graphics to a co-worker, freelancer, or a friend/family member familiar with your area of expertise. They may welcome the opportunity to contribute to select appropriate graphics and captions for a high-profile, design-conscious nonfiction.


The following books are recommended for examples.

You might also explore the back-list of graphic design and marketing books published by Rockport Press and similar publishers for more examples.

Author Bio:

Let Roger C. Parker help you create a content-driven nonfiction book that will set you and your ideas apart. Roger’s first book, Looking Good in Print, played an important role in the popularity of desktop publishing and the creation of new careers for individuals throughout the world. His later books, include Desktop Publishing and Design for Dummies and the original Microsoft Office 97 for Windows 7 for Dummies. Call 603-866-6046 or email for an experienced, fresh perspective. I’ll also send you a PDF of sample left-hand and right-hand pages.

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