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How to create a non-fiction bestseller


Yes, book sales are way down across the board in tech books (actually all books, but tech books especially), but that doesn't mean the market's gone. It does mean there are far fewer guarantees of success, though. Even those who still have tech jobs are probably having to pay for books out of their own pocket, unlike the days when employers let us login to Amazon to click and buy with abandon. So you can't just get something out there and expect it to sell, even if it is on the hottest topic, and even if you do have an established name and reputation, and even if your publisher is committed--with marketing bucks and a plan--to making a hit.

But what prompted me to write this is a disturbing trend toward viewing technical books as a crap shoot. A big gamble. You roll the dice and assume that most books won't be bestsellers, but hey--you might get lucky.

Luck has nothing to do with it!!

(Well, I'll qualify that: luck is a factor if you're writing about a new, unproven topic because you're trying to get a jump on the market, and you're betting on the fact that the topic/technology will take hold.)

First, a disclaimer for those who don't know me: I'm a relative newcomer to books, (two years), and what I'm about to say conflicts with what many of the most experienced people in this industry are suggesting. However, my partner Bert and I have five current bestsellers--which is extremely rare in the tech book world today--and all of these books are still in their first editions (correction, we just released a second edition of one of our books (Head First Java), and it's just starting to show up in bestseller lists, so temporarily at least, we have six bestsellers, although the second edition will eventually cause the first edition to drop out).

In fact, every book we've put out has been an instant bestseller, and taken over the top slot in its category. But that's not the amazing part. The amazing part is that we're not good writers, and we aren't established "names". But we refuse to believe that we just keep getting ridiculously lucky. We're making our living on this, so we can't afford to leave it to chance. We believe there's a formula, and that almost anyone can follow it. Oh yes, one more disclaimer: the word "bestseller" doesn't necessarily mean "big bucks", because the total size of the market has dropped so low. (I'll say a little more on the numbers later.) But a "bestseller" today does mean the difference between a book that doesn't even earn back its advance, and one that gives you and your publisher a nice steady source of income long after you've finished it and moved on to something else.

The formula?
It's multi-part. What to do and what not to do.

First, don't listen to this advice from Dave Taylor (although you should listen to virtually everything else he says... they guys knows frickin' everything about everything, and has written way more books than we have. This is the only area where I violently disagree with his advice):

"...don't go into writing a technical book with the expectation that you'll make any money. ... unlike the heyday of the late 1990's, a technical book that sells 5,000 copies is considered a success in the industry today. So why write a technical book? One good reason is because it's a great calling card, a demonstration that you're a thought leader in your field and an expert on the subject."

I hear this same thing everywhere from virtually every other tech book author I know, see, or read about. It's a trap! I hardly know where to begin, but I'll try...

1) It's unethical.

Unless you're self-publishing, you are risking your time (and opportunity costs) while your publisher is risking real money. Your publisher is not in business solely to help you pursue your career goals and build a better resume. Would you willingly and enthusiastically go into business with someone who said, "well, it's not like it's going to make any money, but at least it'll be good on my resume."? But that's what you're asking your publisher to do. And believe me, the downturn has hurt these folks hard. Our main publisher is O'Reilly, and we feel like we're in a partnership with them. We want them to do well because it benefits everyone. They're a fabulous, innovative publisher interested in getting knowledge from one person and spreading/sharing it to others. I believe that doing a book with the attitude that "it isn't going to make money, but it'll help me" is taking advantage of the publisher. There are lots of people at O'Reilly we care about who have jobs they'd like to keep. (Same with Osborne/McGraw-Hill, who published our very first book.)

But let's say you don't care about the publisher, and maybe you've even heard they have a reputation for ripping people off at every turn. That's not our view, but it might be valid for publishers we don't know anything about. So there's a far more important reason to not have this attitude, and it's the one that affects you the most:

2) It's self-fulfilling.

If you go in with the attitude that you're doing it solely for your reputation, and not to have it earn out, it dramatically increases the chances that this is exactly what you'll get. A book that doesn't (or barely) earns back its advance. We've met many tech book authors who say they've written multiple books that have never earned back their advance. That is beyond our comprehension. Given that these folks usually have way more real talent than we do, what's the difference? For one thing, we hadn't actually heard that advice when we started. We were too ignorant to know that this is supposedly the reality, so we went in with the attitude of, "OK, we plan on earning back our advance and having this book do well, so what can we do to help guarantee that this happens?" This is dramatically different from asking, "I can't expect this to make money, so what can I do to make sure it helps my career/reputation.?"

We asked a different question, and got a different answer.

But there's more to it than that. It's not just that doing-it-for-the-resume isn't as likely to produce a successful book... writing a book with the motivation of enhancing your reputation is more likely to HURT the book. I won't go into all the details, but I said a lot about this in an earlier post, Users Shouldn't Think About YOU. The main problem is this: the more focused you are on demonstrating how smart YOU are, the less likely you are to help the READER feel/become smart. And that's a formula for hurting sales. The more you make the book about how much you know, the less you have something the reader can benefit from. We write our books from virtually the opposite perspective--we don't care what they think about us. All we care about is that they have an "I Rule!" experience, and that can come only from them truly learning and understanding in a meaningful, efficient, and enjoyable way. We care about their life, more than we care about anything else. And that is the formula.

The downside (if you care about it) is that approaching books this way won't do as much for your reputation. On any given day, we usually have five of the top ten bestselling Java books. On many days, we have the top five bestselling Java books. Yet, virtually nobody in the Java world thinks of us as The Java Experts. No, they think of us as the people who've written the books that have helped me learn this well, and actually made it easier and even enjoyable... " They don't think of us as the experts. But they thank us for helping THEM become experts. And that's the rest of the formula.

Because when they start talking, and they will, they'll tell their friends, co-workers, and everyone else they talk to online that they know more because of your book. And that carries a lot more weight than telling their friends that you, the author, sure know your stuff.

So here's the formula:

The Author Kicks Ass: The book might earn out.

The Reader Kicks Ass: Bestseller.

Have I oversimplified? Of course. But not as much as you might think. I will put some assumptions/qualifiers on this just for completness:

1) The topic must be of interest to enough people.
I can't expect to earn out on a book about "Blogging to improve your bowling scores." (although Robert Scoble just might be able to pull that one off. The rest of us couldn't : )

2) The publisher keeps the book available.
Besides the authors who keep claiming you can't expect to have a bestseller, I also disagree with publishers who claim that a book's success today is about the publisher's marketing reach combined with the author's following. That can help, sure, but you can see from my graphic that I put those things on the weakest end of the factors contributing to a bestseller. (Yes, I'm even disagreeing with the publisher who (to use the cliche) has forgotten more about this business than I'll ever know.)
But where the publisher is especially monumentally important is in keeping the book in stock. And apparently that is no easy task. The publisher's reputation with the booksellers is vitally important, and this is where a great publisher can really make a big difference. Key publishers like O'Reilly, Wiley, Pearson, etc. can make sure that once word gets around about your book, people can get their hands on it! Now, there are some books, especially consumer books and those purchased by older/less-web-aware folks for whom discovering it in the store is the most important factor, but I'm not really addressing that. I'm talking about technically-oriented books likely to be bought by those who are connected to one or more online communities in such a way that if word spreads about a book, they're likely to hear it.

3) The author knows, or learns, how to show the reader what the reader needs and wants.
There are some skills here, of course, but the most important one isn't writing! I'd put writing skills fairly low on the list, assuming some baseline capability equivalent to, say, a sophomore in high school who might get a B in basic grammar/writing. The most important thing is in teaching/communication/information design. And that's a lot of what we talk about in this blog. (But in another post, I'll offer more resources if you're still looking to improve in these areas.) And perhaps the best advice I can give to our authors is to simply not go into some kind of "writer mode". Most people who have a subject they want to communicate, could explain it just fine to a colleague over lunch, with a pencil, a napkin, and a conversation. But something gets lost when they try to "write" about it, especially if they're trying to impress others with their serious level of expertise. Say it in your book almost exactly the way you'd explain it to a friend, and you're way way way up the curve.

And finally, the most important assumption:

The author genuinely, deeply, truly cares about enhancing the lives of the reader.

So, creating a bestseller is not such a big wild-ass gamble. And the best news is that it's a win for everyone if you follow that formula. The publisher doesn't bleed money on the book, the author is well-compensated for the time they spent, the reader's life is improved through your work, and--most importantly--you get the indescribable joy of knowing that you made someone's day/week/job/even life a little brighter. And if you follow this formula, they'll tell you! Once again, let this be my huge thank-you to all our readers who take the time to write and tell us how they feel about the book (good and bad, although -- gotta tell you -- we prefer the good ; )) or that they passed the exam, got a new job, or even just that they found themselves smiling while reading about a technical topic, and how they were delighted and surprised by that. YOU are why we do this, and having the books be bestsellers means we get to continue. Wow, I couldn't possibly enjoy my work more!

(And thanks to O'Reilly for sharing this attitude and making this possible.)

Posted by Kathy on February 25, 2005 | Permalink


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This is it.

When I hired speakers for conferences I looked at people who shared themselves and their knowledge. You nailed it.

I hope our book nails it too. If not, we'll know about it up front cause our readers will point out when we're not doing well.

Posted by: Robert Scoble | Feb 25, 2005 12:11:40 PM

Just freaking "wow"... Or as Tom Peters would put it... WOW!!!

This is why I'm on O'Reilly's list to review everything in the Head First series. Armed with a HF book about a particular subject, I *do* feel like I can *kick ass*. It's also the reason I've pushed this book hard in my intro Java sessions when I speak, and why it's always the first title gone.

I'm glad you exist, Kathy...

Posted by: Thomas "Duffbert" Duff | Feb 25, 2005 5:06:56 PM

Thomas, you're a not-small part of *why* we exist. As our brave early adopter and well-respected reviewer/speaker, you played a key role in helping evangelize the book to an audience we didn't even know existed. The one really important thing I didn't put in this blog (but will do a whole post on) is that there *is* a bootstrapping process for getting the book out there. It has to start somewhere, and a big part of getting the word out is getting it to the right people early on. People who have listeners of their own. Lots of people trust you, Thomas, so it *means* something when you recommend one of our books. Thanks!!

And Robert, I can't wait for your book : ) [p.s. I was always more fond of the "Blog or Die" title, so I'm glad your publisher picked that one.]

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Feb 25, 2005 5:15:12 PM

I've enjoyed reading your blog for a while now. This particular post seems to warrant a commment. Of the two approaches to getting published, the one you critique and the one you advocate in its place, yours is clearly the preferrable place to stand. There is though the tiny problem of how few writers will be able to write best sellers. This is built into the structure of ranking books by how many copies they sell. It is, by design, a "winner take all" model. And much like the situation in which every talented teenage basketball player isn't going to become Michael Jordan or Tim Duncan, writers have to, at the end of the day, find viable niches. The substance of what I hear you saying still applies though, which I believe is: Pick a strategy that is about really winning and not simply settling for the "a half loaf is better than no loaf" approach that conventional wisdom would advise, and beware especially of advice that urges settling for a half loaf, but delivers no loaf at all.

Posted by: John Gibbs | Feb 26, 2005 5:38:03 AM

What a compelling publishing stories, told through the words and deeds of real people....thanks Kathy

Only the people with exotic spelling survive ;-)

Posted by: Jozef Imrich | Feb 26, 2005 5:39:49 AM

Kathy, I applaud your logic, but... I think writing a book for reasons other than money is perfectly valid. I certainly am not in it for the money, even if I'm currently talking to publishers.

I like to think of the book idea as similar to a blog i.e. an opportunity to "spread pollen".

Posted by: hugh macleod | Feb 26, 2005 7:35:05 PM

Ah... Hugh, I agree--I'm not suggesting that money is the *reason* to do the book. The reason that leads to a bestseller is "enhancing the reader's life". But I am saying that it's usually a bad idea to go into it with the attitude that it *won't* make money.
You said: "... opportunity to spread pollen". That's very different from "... opportunity to make a bigger name for myself." And that difference is EVERYTHING. If your book is a bestseller, that means more pollen, and the chance to (if you want) do more. We figure we have a LOT of "pollen" (passion) we'd like to keep spreading, and because the books are bestsellers, we're able to keep doing it.
Your book, Hugh, has a message that a lot of people want--and need--to hear. Why *not* go into it with the attitude that it can be a bestseller? (which, by the way, doesn't seem like it's gonna be much of an issue ; )
Is that so different from what you might suggest to your clients? I'd say, "Do [whatever it is that you make/do/sell] for the right reasons--give your users something real to believe in--and the money to keep doing that will be a natural result." Don't do it for the money; do it to involve more people in the conversation. A bestseller means a lot more people at the party having a great time : )

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Feb 27, 2005 12:31:10 AM

hi Kathy

i am in love with HF books, i have all the four books and i read them all the time. You are abosultely right - the books make me feel smarter, confident, and educated. Reading HF java i came away thinking one thought - someone finally figured out how to explain technical concepts to mere mortals.

Thanks so much!! keep the books coming - i am looking forward to a head first web services with java - there are way too many non-reader friendly books in that space


Posted by: Vijay | Feb 27, 2005 6:50:06 AM

I dunno... the word "Bestseller" kinda short circuits my brain... I associate it with celebrity cookbooks, "Chicken Soup For The Soul" franchises and (ugh!) the literary novel market.

Every now and then an excellent book comes along and surprises that market ("Tuesdays with Morrie", or "Trainspotting", for example).... but for every "Tuesdays" there's a 15 dozen "Bridges of Madison County" or "The Da Vinci Code".

I see publishers as middlemen. I see there are people who already want my book, and people who will want it once they see it in front of them. Reaching these people is my reponsibility- it's my job, first and foremost, not the job of some big city marketing ninja.

So my question to a publisher is always going to be the same, namely, "How are you going to make my job easier and what's your cut?"

Don't get me wrong; I've made lots of mistakes and false starts over the years. Education is expensive etc.

But I do think a major hindrance to first-time authors trying to break into publishing is their own mis-delegation of responsibilty to these hypothetical whizz-kids in New York who (a) they've never actually met in person and (b) don't actually give a damn about them.

What's that line I like to use? "Power is never given. Power is taken"...? That's what I'm talking about.

I appreciate your vote of confidence for "How To Be Creative". We'll see what the market says, once it's printed and hoisted onto trucks.

Posted by: hugh macleod | Feb 27, 2005 9:46:39 AM

As someone who has written several books (all but one made back their advance) I would interpret your message as a suggestion to publishers to avoid certain demographics of writers. Those who consult as part of their day job are motivated by increasing their own self worth. It is all about return on investment and making change on book sales is secondary.

Maybe publishers should focus on authors who work for Fortune 500 enterprises. They have nothing to sell per-say like consultants or CTOs of software companies, aren't required to be published like university professors and for the most part would only write in the spirit of giving back to the community.

I would also ask for the acknowledgement of the fact that some people have talent for writing books tend to not be ones that could make a lot of money in consulting. The inverse tends to also hold true.

James McGovern

Posted by: James | Feb 28, 2005 5:00:28 AM

Post that all writers, not only technical writers, should find useful. On the lighter side, It reminds me of the time when no one would publish my book and I was worried.

When my friend Brig Mukhtar foud out about the cause of my worry, he asked, "do you have any bank ballance, any thing you can sell or any assent that you can liquidate." My answer was of course NO. He siad, "You are already leading a poor life, go get loan and publish." I did just that. I am happy that I did that. I had to print two edition of Reet Pe Tehreer (Urdu).

Posted by: Shirazi | Mar 1, 2005 2:05:57 AM

This was an excellent post and covers lots of points that authors (first time or otherwise) can take to heart. I'd like to add one more.

I've gotten 6 books published. I never actually got an advance as I was working for Aetna then Microsoft and never thought to ask for one. The single most important thing I worried about as a writer/author was hearing the following from my young daughters:

"Daddy, why is your book in this pile for a dollar?"

Now THAT was motivation.

Posted by: Rick Segal | Mar 20, 2005 3:33:14 PM


I've written 50-something non-fiction books (11 in sociology and 40 something on computers), and while what you say is wonderfully encouraging, and I'd say the right way to go about things, I still don't have a clue as to why things work well or not with books. Your books (Head First series) are brilliant because they get inside my head and lead me to understand complex issues--and you make it fun. I used to think that the closer I was to a novice programming wise, the better the book. I could joke around with the reader and get inside her head because I was her head shortly before I wrote the book. On one level that was (and still is) true, but now I realize that I wish I could have that same closeness to the reader and be a more sophisticated programmer.

My first computer book sold over 100,000 copies in 6 months, and my second sold 350,000 copies in the same period of time. At the time I was new to programming (about 2 years worth) but I was able to make that connection. Other books that I thought did the same thing, failed to spark (and sparkle). Then I tried something new, and got lucky and took the first royalty check and bought an airplane. The second edition of the same book went south. The others became a blur, some doing great, some ok, and some pretty bad.

However, tapping into the reader's passion, and I think the absolute fun in learning, is the way to go. Every now and then I can make that connection--even trying to do so every time. As for bestsellers, they're important, especially for the publisher whose investment in you is important. But trying to write a bestseller may not be the best way to write one. Marketing wonks have the goofiest ideas that are at best based on what has gone before them -- I don't believe that the Head First approach was from the brain of a marketer. The wonderful (and original) DOS for Dummies has become a creepy series that lost the connection to the reader that the original forged.

Enough of this. I will end with my favorite quote -- from the crystal mind of Dorothy Parker. When asked if she liked to write, she replied, "No. I like to have written."

Same here.


Posted by: Bill Sanders | Jun 3, 2005 2:46:02 PM

Very much enjoyed your perspective on achieving best sellers. I've had significant success developing a
variety of training and non-fiction products (courses,
seminars, workshops, books, videos, etc...) and you
are certainly correct in pointing out the critical factor
of putting the reader first.

Find a compelling subject, understand exactly the sorts
of questions and reasons why your market asks those
questions makes the task of writing non-fiction so much
easier than other genres.

Great article - there is much traditional thought on
writing non-fiction that seems to have undergone perpetual
mis-direction, your article begins to unravel the truth.

Posted by: Jeff | Sep 6, 2005 7:32:35 PM

It is fantastic. The guide for writing best seller is available on line. It is more than 100% correct that readers enhancement must be kept in mind for writting a book. I can not undersatnd that why anybody should write book and publisher publish it just for the sake of publication. Book must be written for others.
It is correct that ideas should be original and personal. One must have lived with these ideas for sometime. He must have sleeped with these ideas peacfully. He must have grown and prospered with those ideas for sometime. Then only it is worth putting in the form of a book and making them available to people.
I have lived with such ideas for 20 years. I have written in the book form. It has come up very interesting that is what I feel. They all are very useful for all the readers who are going to read them. Being in the country like India, I am searching a publisher for last four months. Till now I have not been able to search one. But the day I get them, I believe that the book will be hit.
In developing country like India, any such new ventures takes lot of efforts and time. That is not good for the nation. The country must come out of these limitations. Hope, the situation will improve in the days to come. I am available at [email protected], it would be pleasure to respond. Thanks

Posted by: KK Verma | Oct 19, 2005 5:12:54 AM

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