The Three Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Write a Book

Writing is hard. Landing a publishing deal at a major house is harder. Selling books and making the New York Times bestseller list is perhaps the hardest of all. This reality prompts many questions about what it takes to succeed in a crazy, ever-changing book world. After all, no one wants to write a book that never gets read, and it’s fair to say that the vast majority of people who dream of basking in the glory of authorhood would prefer the traditional route of attracting a literary agent and earning a nice advance from an established publisher before they contemplate going it alone independently. So is there a secret to know before you try?

Indeed, there is.

But it’s not what you might think, and of course there are never any guarantees. To discover the magic formula for making your ideas accessible to as many readers as possible, look no further than asking yourself three fundamental questions from which the road to success commences. Your answers must be succinct and preferably written down:

  • What is your book about?
  • Why are you the person to write it?
  • Why now?

If you can respond to each of these questions in no more than a paragraph (and avoid generic statements like “Because I’m an expert”), you’re on your way. Don’t be fooled by the simplicity of these inquiries. You’d be surprised at how challenging it can be to complete this assignment. These are the questions all successful authors have to resolve when they begin the proposal phase of their books—long before they are ready to shop their fabulous ideas in New York. Even fiction authors and memoirists with finished manuscripts have to address some version of these questions when they promote their works (or try to sell option rights to Hollywood). Most authors can pull a manuscript together relatively quickly compared with the time it takes to labor over a book proposal in which these three questions are answered in a persuasive, provocative fashion


Your ability to come up with engaging, compelling, hard-to-resist, gotta-know-more responses will go a long way to prepare you for a successful book, as well as a rock-star book campaign that has a chance at the bestseller lists.  You’ll be able to use these replies in pitching your book to agents, publishers, and the media when it’s done. But again, take your time. Aim for answers that are fresh and convey a strong sense that your idea is ready for the world. Remember, ideas may be as free as the air, but the ones that land in bestselling books must be written, pitched, packaged, and marketed well. And finally, another question to keep in mind when you do this assignment (and to ask yourself repeatedly just to be sure): Who is your audience? Who are you writing for? And pretty please, don’t say everybody!

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