Friday, March 7, 2008

Chapter 4: No platform? Then out-research the competition.

How Research Helped My Book

My music book stood out for its research. At the time, church leaders who spoke on controversial music issues based their opinions on personal opinion and personal experiences, while throwing in an off-beat psychological study or two to try to give it some intellectual credibility. This left a niche (see chapter 3) for me to fill.

I proposed taking the arguments pro and con for the church using modern music, subjecting them to rigorous research in the appropriate fields, and reporting my findings in an objective manner. I actually felt that a respected professor of Psychology, another of Church History, and other scholars should collaborate. But fifteen years ago, the intellectuals weren’t taking the issue too seriously. Christian rock was just a bunch of leftover hippies from the Jesus Movement who decided to mix their new-found faith with rock music. If the big intellectual guns bowed out of the fray, I felt somebody needed to dive in.

So I used Georgia State’s Psychology library to go through decades of research on the psychological and physiological impact of music. I used Emory’s excellent religious library to study the history of church music, discovering that most of the hymns we consider traditional today were often taken from tunes already popular in the secular world at that time.

By pulling together the legitimate research that had already been done in various fields, I offered something of value that others didn’t.

Some of you who aren’t research nerds like me, are asking, “Do I really have to do all that mega research for my book?” Not necessarily. Plenty of popular books are based solely upon personal experience. Some don’t have high profiles. But documented research is a great way to make your proposal stand out from the crowd of purely personal experience books.

In fact, many high platform people depend so heavily upon their platforms that they write sloppy work without doing their homework. Some advice by high profile financial writers is hysterical until I realize that someone may actually take their advice and ruin her financial life. Doing some research and documenting your sources can set you apart from many high profilers and position you as the expert on the subject, giving you a wonderful platform from which you can market your book.

I believe that my objective, dogged research is what motivated people in other countries to translate it into their languages. It’s also why about 30 radio stations wanted to interview me in the months following its publication. I didn’t have to call them. They contacted my publicist at Tyndale House. Positioned as an expert, I also took advantage of speaking opportunities in such neat locations as Holland and Moscow.

A Great Model for Self-Help

Want a great model of a successful self-help book? Take a second look at what some refer to as the daddy of all self-help books, How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie. This time around, don’t read it to get help with your relationships. Read it to figure out why it’s one of the all time international best-sellers, having been translated into almost every live, written language. Although first published way back in 1937, this publishing phenomenon is still ranked #125 (the last time I looked) in Amazon sales, almost 70 years after its original publication!

I attended a conference on Web-based social networking a few weeks ago with about 250 techie types in attendance. At one point, the keynote speaker asked how many people had read Carnegie’s book. From my vantage point, it looked like every hand went up. Techies and entrepreneurs. Not Psychology majors and salesmen.

Now doesn’t that strike you as odd? So much Psychological and Sociological study of relationships has been done since the publication of this book. And culture has changed significantly since 1937. Wouldn’t you want to read something more current? What’s the appeal?

First, it’s simply a collection of well-told stories of the relational techniques of great and fascinating people. That makes it imminently understandable and interesting. But secondly, he convinces us in his preface that this is no book of fluff. He did exhaustive research. Allow me to read from Carnegie’s preface, where the master influencer is going to try to influence me to take his book seriously.

“In preparation for this book, I read everything that I could find on the subject – everything from newspaper columns, magazine articles, records of the family courts, the writings of the old philosophers and the new psychologists. In addition, I hired a trained researcher to spend one and a half years in various libraries reading everything I had missed, plowing through erudite tomes on psychology, poring over hundreds of magazine articles, searching through countless biographies, trying to ascertain how the great leaders of all ages had dealt with people. We read their biographies. We read the life stories of all great leaders from Julius Caesar to Thomas Edison. I recall that we read over one hundred biographies of Theodore Roosevelt alone. We were determined to spare no time, no expense, to discover every practical idea that anyone had ever used through the ages for winning friends and influencing people.”

Well, consistent with his title, he just won me and influenced me by that paragraph. But there was more to his research. He interviewed people. He prepared a short talk on people skills and encouraged the attendees to try out the principles and report back, so that his book “grew and developed out of that laboratory, out of the experiences of thousands of adults.”

Now, are there books out there that exhibit no research at all, but simply relate personal experience, that sell well? Yes. But to make your odds better, and to publish a book that might last past the first printing, do some research. To make your odds really great, do fabulous research.

Collecting Research on Your Web Site

Beyond your book, I’d encourage you to start collecting helpful resources on your Web site. I’ll hit it lightly here and come back to it later under building your platform. But since you can’t put everything you researched into your book, why not put the rest on your site?

I found it easy to get permission from the great authorities in my fields to use their articles on my sites. Thus, on my ministry site, I’ve got over 150 articles by top youth workers. By collecting articles, your site becomes sort of a trade association for your subject. Search engines love that wealth of excellent content and will direct people to your site. On money management, I’m writing book summaries on the books I’ve read. This is very different from Amazon book reviews. I actually summarize their financial advice. Let’s say you want to compare Dave Ramsey’s financial advice with that of Clark Howard or Warren Buffett. You can go to my site and see.

How does putting that information on my site help a publisher take my book seriously? Because about 1000 people visit my sites each day. My book will be advertised on the sites. If publishers see that you’ve collected research on your site that thousands of people draw from, they’ll start thinking, “This guy’s got a platform. If we publish his book, I can keep my job and my children can eat.”

Research and Novels

Does research enhance the quality and respectability of novels as well? I think a large part of the DaVinci Code’s popularity was that author Dan Brown claimed up front that it was all based on solid research. Thus, in reader’s minds, it could have actually happened.

I would hear people quoting the DaVinci Code, a novel, as fact and I thought it was some kind of confusion of genres, sort of like saying that Bart Simpson is a great actor. But when I saw in his preface that he claimed it was all based on fact, I understood how he pulled people in.

(Now, when you look at his sources, you find that they’re actually laughable. The sources he describes on his site read like a who’s who of quacks and revisionist historians. At least one of his sources was used at Berkeley as an example of hokey research. He quotes “ancient societies” which were actually formed in the 1900’s on the basis of revisionist history.)

But my point is that even his claim to have done solid research made his novel more compelling.

Add Some Original Research

Now maybe you’re not as obsessive a researcher as Carnegie. It doesn’t have to be that extensive. Let’s say that, in writing a book about how to manage your money, you get input from several large Senior Adults ministries at area churches. Nobody asks those folks for their wisdom and they’d love to give you some. So you stand at the front of a class and say, “Could you tell me one thing you’re glad you did with your finances and one thing you regret.” Or, “Tell the younger generation what you wish you’d known in your youth about personal finance.”

Now you can put a couple of sentences in your preface that give your book added authority. “In preparation for this book, I got input from over 100 senior adults, representing well over 7000 years of personal experience.” And it may have taken you only a few weekends of getting input. Since it’s fresh research, you can write an article, “Personal Finance: The View from the Far Side of Life,” and a big magazine just migh pick it up. Why? Because you’re offering the results of fresh research that they won’t get from Warren Buffett or Dave Ramsey.

I don’t remember if it was an acquisitions editor or just an informed book buyer who said, “The first place I look in a book is the acknowledgements page.” Why? Because that’s where you’re likely to find if this author’s just writing off the top of her head or if she’s indebted to a host of others she’s learned from.

Benefits of Great Research

  • You appeal to a wider range of people.
  • Big-time reviewers may take you seriously.
  • Libraries will take notice.
  • Schools may use you.
  • You can publish your research in multiple ways: Web content, articles, etc.
  • You become a respected authority (think: “platform”).
So that acquisitions editor has five proposals for books on personal finance, all of which seem equally compelling and well-written. But only one is documented with top authorities or includes original research. Which does he choose? It’s a no brainer.

Input: Respond below with your ideas or questions.

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