5 Steps to Develop Compelling Nonfiction Book Writing Ideas

by Bennett R. Coles

Book Writing Ideas

Coming up with great nonfiction book writing ideas is, fortunately, more science that art. Once you master the best practices shown in this article, you’ll be able to research and develop powerful and compelling ideas for your upcoming nonfiction book.

What’s a Compelling Nonfiction Book Writing Idea?

A compelling idea causes readers to have an emotional response or, better yet, an emotional connection with your book.

Nonfiction books are in the perfect position to create this type connection because their readers typically look at them as a vehicle for finding solutions to their problems.

Once you uncover your compelling book writing idea and then place your book in front of the right audience, you’ll have a success in your hands.

The 5 Steps to Creating Compelling Book Writing Ideas

Follow the five clear steps below to develop a compelling book writing idea that your readers will find irresistible.

Step 1: Clearly Identify Your Target Audience

You want to write a nonfiction book to take your business and your career to the next level and you have many great ideas swimming around in your head. They all have potential and you already have a short list with your favorites, so you’re ready to pick the winner.

Here’s my advice: stop! It’s not really your job to choose your book’s idea.

Now you say, what? This is my book and I have every right to choose my own idea!

Here’s the problem with that line of reasoning. Yes, it is your book and your content we’re talking about – nobody will ever take that away from you. But, your own book writing ideas aren’t really relevant to your publishing success.

The reason is that for your book to succeed, 1) it must be targeted to a specific audience, 2) it must address a specific problem that they want to solve and 3) the problem must be causing your target audience a great deal of pain.

Unless you get this trifecta nailed down, your chances of success will be minimal at best.

In short, the writing idea that you choose for your book must address a problem that your readers currently suffer from with a high degree of pain, not an idea in isolation that you think would be great for them.

Remember, you’re not writing your book for yourself, not even tangentially. You’re writing it exclusively for your audience.

Start with Your Clients

Start With Your Clients

Now the question is, how do you identify your target audience? The answer: begin by looking at your past and present clients. You’ll need to find the answer to the following questions:

  • What keeps them up at night?
  • What do they fear the most?
  • What are their aspirations?
  • What are their daily challenges?
  • What are their hopes and dreams?
  • What issues do they have to contend with?

Tell clients that you feel would be open to helping you that you’re writing a book and that you need their input.

Then sit down with them to have a discussion and make sure that you lead it with open questions. Tell them that all their responses will be anonymized and that you’ll only need to associate age and gender with their answers with no other identifying characteristics.

Next, begin to build a profile of your target audience using this initial information.

Do Online Research

Then, go online and look for forums that cater to your audience and the problem that you’re seeking to help them solve. Read through the threads and see if you can use that information to enhance your profile.

Often times, forums will have an introductory thread where people who joined will tell other members about themselves (this information is typically anonymized).

Depending on the subject matter of the forum, members may disclose their age, gender, profession, whether they have kids or not, their main worries, what they’re battling, what keeps them up at night, their aspirations, and so on.

Depending on your subject, you may find a treasure trove of highly valuable information about your target audience in these public forums.

Public Facebook groups can be another valuable source of research, although they tend to be less valuable since the information isn’t typically anonymous.

Next, Create an Avatar


Once you’ve obtained as much profile information as possible about your target audience from all available sources, it’s time to create your target audience “avatar.”

This is a simple text document that shows the following information about an “ideal” member of your target audience:

  • Their name (you’ll make this up)
  • A headshot (pick an appropriate close-up photo from a free stockphoto site and paste in the document)
  • Age and marital status
  • Profession and income level (annual family income)
  • Children if any, their status and their living arrangements (single, married, working, studying, living at home, living away)
  • Homeowner? What’s the value of the home? Renter? How much do they pay in rent?
  • Any pets? Hobbies?
  • Any health or other issues?
  • What keeps them up at night?
  • List their hopes, dreams, fears and challenges
  • What are their main aspirations?

This avatar will be the audience for your book – you’ll be thinking about them whenever you write. You’ll be addressing your book to this individual and this individual only.

Your avatar will be your audience of one, the composite of your entire target audience into a single person (you’ll need two avatars if your book is targeting both genders).

Step 2: Identify the Main Problem for Your Target Audience

As stated above, the key to the success of your book writing idea is to identify the right problem to solve for your audience.

This problem must meet the following two criteria:

  1. It must be a problem that keeps your audience up at night
  2. It must cause them a high level of pain

Let’s go over the above criteria in detail:

1. The Problem Must Keep Your Audience Up at Night

The problem that your nonfiction book tackles must be something that’s somehow existential for your audience. In other words, it must be something that’s constantly interfering with their enjoyment of life.

Little problems are never big motivators and few people will seek solutions for them that they’re willing to pay for. Big hairy problems, on the other hand, are a different story altogether.

Consider this: while it’ll take you approximately the same amount of effort to write a book for either kind of problem, only one will result in sales and the other one will be ignored.

2. Your Audience’s Problem Must Cause Them a High Level of Pain

Now, what if your audience has a number of problems that they want to solve. Which one will they take the most action for? The answer is: the one that inflicts the most pain.

While humans are wired to go away from pain and toward pleasure, pain is a much more powerful motivator.

So here’s what you have to do. Sort the problems you want to solve for your audience from a scale of 1-10 (10 representing the highest level of pain), then pick a level 9 or 10 problem to solve.

Step 3: Identify Your Solution


Once you find what your audience’s most pressing problem is, then you’ll have to formulate a solution that takes advantage of your knowledge and experience.

Make Your Solution Unique

For your solution to get traction and rise above the noise of the competition in your niche, you’ll have to come up with a fresh approach that’s different than your competition’s.

This doesn’t mean that you’ll have to make a new scientific discovery in order to be successful; it means that you may have to combine two or more known strategies to create a new one.

For example, one known approach to weight loss is to follow a balanced diet (a mix of protein, carbs and good fats), another one is portion control (naturally shrinking the size of the stomach), and another one is meditation (using the mind to control the body’s hunger signals).

Your new approach could be to incorporate all three into one. Now you’ll have something that’s not out there yet (assuming this is the case) and thus you’ll enjoy a first mover advantage.

You Must Be Able to Prove You Can Solve the Problem

Now, it’s time to gather proof that you’re well-qualified to solve this problem so that you’re credible in your niche.

The best way to show evidence that your solution works is through social proof from existing and past clients.

You’ll need to pepper your book with testimonials, case studies and anecdotes from clients who’ve overcome the audience’s problem using your unique solution.

Step 4: Turn Your Solution Into a Compelling Idea

Compelling Idea

Great, you’re almost there!

Let’s recap: you’ve clearly identified who your target audience is, you’ve clearly identified their most painful problem that you’re qualified to solve, and you’ve come up with a solution that introduces a new approach.

Now it’s time to turn your solution into a compelling book idea.

Phrase Your Idea So that It Reflects the Aspirations of Your Target Audience

The most compelling book idea is one which best reflects the aspirations of your target audience. This idea will be verbalized in the title of your book.

When searching for a book, readers are going to feel consumed by their problem and therefore won’t be interested in what your solution is or how it works. But they’ll be definitely tuned into what your solution will do for them.

They’ll be more interested at first in the outcome of your solution, not the solution itself (that’ll come later). In other words, the main driver behind nonfiction book purchasing decisions is self-interest.

I’m not implying that you should try to manipulate people’s egos to make a sale, but that their motivation is driven by their deep desire to put an end to their pain.

For your book idea to be really compelling to your audience, it has to clearly reflect the aspirations of your target audience.

Interestingly, their first impulse to get your book will be driven by this aspiration and not by the solution itself. The job of your book title, then, is to catch their attention at an emotional level.

Once they’re hooked on your title and want to learn more about your book, their intellect will engage and they’ll then seek to learn more about your solution.

Now, your solution will have to be something they’ve never heard of before. Otherwise, they’ll dismiss your book with a “been there, done that” reaction.

Here’s an Example of a Great Book Idea

Tim Ferriss is the author of “The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9–5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich,” a book based on how he was able to quit the proverbial rat race and generate sufficient income to cover his lifestyle while enjoying a lot more free time.

Notice how his unique solution isn’t mentioned in his title. In fact, all he wanted to achieve at this stage was to reflect the aspirations of his target audience, which he managed to do exceedingly well given his sales.

How did he do it? By using an aspirational title (who wouldn’t want to work only 4 hours a week while getting all their bills paid?) plus adding imagery in the background showing the outline of a person lying on a hammock between two palm trees with the sun setting in the background.

His book cover clearly reflects the aspirations of people who are fed up with the stress and the intensity of the rat race and who are desperate to find a way out.

This is your goal. You want your book cover and title to connect with the emotional needs of your readers, to compel them to pick up a copy and check it out.

Once they do, it’s the job of your table of contents and your book introduction to close the deal by demonstrating why your book (i.e. your solution) is different than anything else they’ve tried before.

Step 5: Create a Subtitle That Expands on Your Main Idea

In the past, before online bookstores became ubiquitous, a book’s title was sufficient to carry its entire message (e.g. “How to Win Friends and Influence People” or “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”).

The role of sub-titles was merely symbolic, e.g. “How to Win Friends: The Only Book You Need to Lead You to Success” or “The 7 Habits: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change,” and weren’t really needed to add context to the title.

In this day and age of online bookstores and online book searches, though, book cover images have been reduced to thumbnails, therefore long titles (6 or more words) have become nearly illegible when looking at the search results.

To solve this problem, publishers have been trending towards short titles (less than 5 words, often even a single word).

While this change has made titles legible within thumbnails, they’ve become more cryptic due to their short size, so the sub-title has become more necessary than ever before.

Nowadays, sub-titles are used to expand or even explain the full meaning of titles. Here are some examples:

  • Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley
  • The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win
  • Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking

Now that You Know How to Create a Title and a Subtitle, it’s Time to Test Them

Title Subtitle

While you’ll be settling on a single book idea, you shouldn’t settle on a single title. In fact, you should try to express your book idea through multiple titles.

The reason is that you’ll never know which title will connect the most with your target audience until you test them.

For example, “The 4-Hour Workweek” wasn’t Tim Ferriss’ only title. It wasn’t even his favorite. He tested a number of versions with his target audience and let the resulting test data make the decision for him.

You should follow this best practice as well. Never pick a final title because you like it the most – remember, your book is not about or for you but about and for your target audience – so let them decide.

Select a group of members from your target audience by using your network and run a number of titles by them to choose the winner. To make the selection process easier, only show each candidate two titles at a time and make them choose the best.

Then keep the partial winner and add a third choice and go through this selection process again and again until you run out of titles. The title that’s left standing will be the winner.

Next Steps

Once you’ve settled on your book writing idea, it’s time to write a great nonfiction book that will be of great service to your audience for years to come.

In order to do that, you’ll need to follow a clear roadmap. The world of book publishing can be quite complicated and without one you can quickly feel lost.

To help you get started in the right direction, I’ve created a companion article that shows you how to go step by step from main idea to printed books:

How to Write a Compelling Book in 12 Steps: A Must-Read Guide for Nonfiction Authors”

Best of luck!

If you enjoyed this article and are in the process of writing a nonfiction book, be sure to check out my free nonfiction success guide, drawn from years of experience editing books for bestselling authors (including a New York Times bestseller) and ghostwriting for CEOs and politicians. Simply click here to get instant access.


Leave me a comment below if you have any questions or a specific need that I can help you address – I operate an author services firm that specializes in helping entrepreneurs, professionals and business owners who want to publish books as a calling card for prospects, to establish their status as an expert or to just to generate additional leads for their businesses.

Here are some related posts I highly recommend:

How to Come Up With Killer Book Titles for Your Nonfiction Book

How Long Does it Take to Write a Book to Help Grow Your Business?

The 10 Must-Have Writing Skills for Nonfiction Authors

The 7 Key Rules for Writers of Outstanding Nonfiction Books

Bennett R. Coles is an award-winning author of six books published through Harper Collins (New York) and Titan Publishing Group (London). He is also the publisher at Promontory Press, editor for multiple bestselling authors (including a NY Times bestseller), ghostwriter for CEOs and politicians and the founder of Cascadia Author Services, a boutique full-service firm that specializes in premium author services specifically designed for busy professionals. Our end-to-end services include writer coaching, ghostwriting, editing, proofing, cover design, book layout, eBook production, marketing, printing and distribution.

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