When I first encountered Bessel van der Kolk’s “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma,” it appeared to be a specialty book targeting a narrow market of psychologists, psychologists, and neuroscientists.
After all, with the word “trauma” in the title and containing over 420 pages, how could it be more than a niche-market book?
But, then I began to notice the title frequently showing up in nonfiction bestseller lists like the one published each Sunday in the New York Times Book Review section. I vowed to read it because I’ve been asking myself, “Why have so many New York Times readers have seen it and purchased it?”
Currently, for the third week in a row, “The Body Keeps the Score” is Number Two on the Times Nonfiction Bestseller List.
Where do all “The Body Keeps the Score’s” readers come from?
Stated another way, what did Bessel A. van der Kolk do right, that many nonfiction authors might ignore or learn from?
After reading it, I am – once again – impressed by the way the success of The Body Keeps the Score. It proves once again that nonfiction book publishing success involves careful organization, clear writing, and consistently following best practices. The following are some of the techniques Bessel van de Kolk M.D. employed.
Sixteen ways to ensure the success of your nonfiction book
- Success requires authors expand the topic so it will appeal to the largest possible market. If The Body Keeps the Score just focused on the causes of trauma, it wouldn’t appeal to a large, non-professional market. Instead, it describes the results that trauma create and summaries of research that have the highest potential for success. To satisfy a non-professional reader, it has to highly organized. Chapters have to be short and terms have to be fully explained.
- The Body Keeps the Score addresses current problems that are too obvious to ignore. The signs are everywhere: newspaper headlines and photographs showing sidewalk cities, interviews with returning soldiers who can’t hold a job, and adults who can’t put aside their memories of childhood abuse or violence are everywhere. The crises wasn’t in the past, nor is it a prediction that might not come true. The crises is now.
- Be the first book to appear on the topic. Think in terms of cresting waves at the beach. When your book is first with a fresh approach, for a limited time, your book can have a monopoly on the topic or the approach. Your book will be the one that other books are compared to. Once the wave has crested, however, the power of the wave is considerably weakened. Suddenly there is strong competition. When I wrote Looking Good in Print: A Guide to Design for Desktop Publishing, for example, there were no comparably written and priced books on the topic for over a year and a half. Then, the floodgates opened, but Looking Good in Print was the standard.
Tips for writing a best-selling nonfiction book
- Share your familiarity with your topic. Build your credibility by describing your previous experiences with the topic. Have you participated in research programs? Have you worked with returning soldiers who find difficult to study or manage simple tasks? How long have you been active in your field? Bessel van der Kolk has been has been conducting research and counseling patients for over 30 years.
After working with the Veterans Administration, he became the founder of the Trauma Institute. His friends include Trauma researchers around the world.
- Describe the origins of the problem. When did the negatives become obvious? What were early attempts to solve the problem? When did the first attempts to solve the problem take place? What kind of success did early attempts become deliver. Bessel van der Kolk is a frequent presenter at events where recent trauma cures and resources are discussed.
- Focus on people, not numbers.
Numbers are useful for communicating the extent of a problem or comparing the results of research, but stories are more are more memorable. Each chapter contains one, or more, transcripts of patient consulting. These emphasize the pain that often accompanies trauma. Note: the author protects the patient’s identify by using random names or initials.
- Explain new terms the first time they’re used. Chapter Four, ‘‘Running for Your Life: the Anatomy of Survival,” simplifies the different parts of the human brain, and how they focus. His descriptions of the different tasks are accompanied by illustrations describing their role in both healthy and traumatized brains.
- Write short chapters, short paragraphs, and short (ever day) words. Writing a general book for both professional and nonprofessional readers requires balancing the needs of both markets. Although I was unfamiliar with the neurology of the brain, I quickly became comfortable with the brain’s structure and how it functions under normal and compromised circumstances. As for short paragraph, I often reread a paragraph looking for adjectives or adverbs and I couldn’t find one. Yet, the writing was comfortable.
- Include graphics when appropriate. Photographs and illustrations can communicate better than words. Photographs and illustrations can part-whole, like the location and size of different parts of the brain.
- Share likely best and worst outcomes. One of the refreshing points of “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma,” was the refusal to predict best-possible or worst-possible outcomes. He freely admitted that more research was needed before it was possible to accurately predict future outcomes. All too often, nonfiction books appear written to achieve the author’s goals.
- Include a detailed Appendix. The Appendix of your book should include notes to including Notes, an Index, and Resources. (Notes help readers locate specific pages of your book; Resources help readers locate supporting or alternative viewpoints. (An Index helps readers find specific terms.) “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma” contains 84 pages of Appendix information—a record unsurpassed by most nonfiction books.
Tips for marketing a best-selling nonfiction book
- Build your visibility online and offline. Visibility builds credibility. No matter how successful your book becomes, it’s success can be reinforced by articles, formal papers, and keynote addresses to both professional and non-professional audiences. As described in The Body Keeps the Score, personal and professional relationships don’t have to be geographically limited. He frequently describes his research partners as his friends in Australia or Europe.
- Select the best designer and editor you can afford. The front and back covers must make a good first impression. The colors and layout must preview the author’s approach and the reader’s intended emotional response. The design of the inside pages must be easy to read and reinforce the image the covers project. The layout of the inside pages must support the graphics. The layout of the covers must be compatible with the anticipated size and number of graphics to be incluted.
Editors do more than check for typographic errors and mislabeled graphics. The right editor can help a nonfiction auhor turn a routine manuscript into a best-selling book. A professional editor reads with an open mind and can speak up when they notice topics or words that are introduced too early or too late. Professional editors can help authors avoid the hard-feelings when family members and friends point out errors or inconsistencies in their friends’s book.
- Share your current and previous involvement with the topic. Building your visibility involves more than a paragraph or two summarizing your background on the back cover of your book. Prepare one, or more, single-page background sheets that highlight significant experience in several categories.
- Prepare “suggested questions” for an interview host to ask you. Prior preparation can spell the difference between widely quoted interviews and overlooked interviews. This is especially true if you are talking about new research topics as well as your background.
Benefits of planning, writing, and marketing a best-selling nonfiction book
It’s not always about money. Money is often of secondary importance. Experienced nonfiction authors recognize that ancillary income, i.e. earnings beyond publisher royalties and direct sales, is likely to outperform income from book sales. Examples of ancillary include subscription newsletters, speaking, consulting, workbooks, podcasts, audios and videos, academic professor ships and department deans.
Most important, however, is that a successful nonfiction book paves the way for future books. Future books might result in a higher advance and royalty rate. In a fast-moving world, new editions of book might be created every year. A successful first book also paves the way for a series of books…books with your name on the cover, but written by others. This is an easy way to maintain your visibility while freeing you to spend your time on consulting or patient care.
- Prioritize your writing. After the initial euphoria of signing a publishing contract, it’s very easy to plan on writing when you “find the time” after you complete your usual ongoing research or patient-care tasks. Resist the impulse. Consider your writing as important or even more important-as your most important client. Commit to specific times each week for working on your book. It’s not the length of time that you commit to writing that counts, but the consistency of your writing. A half hour every day will take you much further than a two-hour session that takes places every week. The former will create the writing habit and keep you on schedule. The latter will result in missed writing episodes, reduced quality, and-inevitably, asking your publisher for extra time.
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.