What Makes A Bestselling Nonfiction Book? Insights From A Big Publisher

After 2.5 long years, Buy This, Not That: How To Spend Your Way To Freedom, is now available for purchase! Pick up a hardcopy on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or your local bookstore (call ahead). To celebrate, I’d like to share what makes a great nonfiction finance book based on insights from my Portfolio Penguin Random House editor, Noah Schwartzberg!

Back in 2012, I looked for a literary agent in order to get a book deal. I was three years into writing Financial Samurai, had just left my banking job of 11 years, and felt I had a unique message to share.

After putting together my pitch about teaching people how to negotiate a severance, I contacted over two dozen agents. I waited for a couple of weeks and heard the sound of blackness under a pale moon light.

Not one to be deterred by rejection, I decided to work together with my father and wife to write How To Engineer Your Layoff: Make A Small Fortune By Saying Goodbye. The book is now in its 5th edition and has helped thousands of people break free from jobs they dislike with money in their pockets.

The ebook has also generated over $500,000 in net profits since it first came out. Not bad if you are considering self-publishing a book, yeah?

For those of you who are told “no,” don’t listen. If you want to create something special, do it! Don’t let the gatekeepers hold you back. The internet is making more things possible for more people.

The Process Of Making A Bestselling Nonfiction Book

When Noah Schwartzberg, an editor at Portfolio Penguin Random House imprint contacted me about writing a book in December 2019, I was intrigued. The normal course of action for an author is to first get a literary agent, a feat in and of itself, who then pitches the author’s book idea to editors. By some counts, less than 10% of agents successfully pitch a book deal.

Given I had failed to even get a literary agent in 2012, I decided to take Noah up on his offer and hammer home a book deal. Even though I knew writing a book would be a tremendous challenge, especially while taking care of two young kids during a pandemic, I knew if I said no that I’d look back and regret not trying.

During my book-writing process, I read a dozen bestsellers on what made them great – from book length, to story telling, to action items – I incorporated them all in my book over the next two years.

Unlike producing a movie, where there is a tremendous cost to reshoot scenes, my team and I continuously refined Buy This, Not That (BTNT) by re-writing chapters and re-ordering words to make the book great. Overall, I had the input of three content editors, three copyeditors, a design team, and my wife to make sure the book could sing.

In the end, Buy This, Not That, became a #1 bestseller on Amazon in the competitive Retirement Planning category and a #1 new release in a couple of other categories. And the book hadn’t been released yet! But now it’s time for all to pick up a hard copy. BTNT is also tracking to be a WSJ Bestseller, but I won’t know until the end of the month.

Taking A Risk With The Book Length

Despite taking in as much advice as possible, I stubbornly veered off course by not sticking to Portfolio’s guideline of writing 70,000 – 80,000 words. Instead, I wrote about 120,000 words and cut it down to ~110,000. I broke the tried and true nonfiction book length formula at my own risk.

As someone who seeks to get the most value out of anything I buy, I thought readers would appreciate more advice rather than less at a set price. You see, the vast majority of nonfiction finance hard copy books are priced between $25 – $29.

Further, while doing my research, I noticed many books were largely focused on one subject. The subject would then be drawn out over ~250 pages when it could have been written more succinctly.

Buy This, Not That, on the other hand, tackles multiple subjects using my 70/30 decision-making framework. It’s not just a book about saving and it’s not just a book about investing in index funds. Because of my background in finance, I go beyond the basics by talking about ways to make more money through investing and entrepreneurship. If you want to build great wealth, going on the offensive is key!

My book also tackles many of life’s biggest dilemmas, such as whether to invest in real estate or stocks, join a startup or an established firm, and whether to have children early or later. You might say it is like getting two books for the price of one.

A longer book length means that it will take longer to read. But that’s OK because money and big dilemmas are too important to not be thorough. I want family and friends to read the book together and discuss their beliefs.

Finally, a longer book length means the book is harder to produce and costs more, thereby cutting into a publisher’s profit margins. But as an author who is 100% focused on providing the best value for readers, I pushed on!

What Makes A Great Nonfiction Finance Book According To Portfolio Penguin Random House

If you’re considering reading a great nonfiction finance book or writing your own book, here are some insights from Noah Schwartzberg, editor at Portfolio Penguin Random House. Writing a book falls under the Create Your Products category for passive income, one of my favorites.

How To Get The Attention Of A Publisher

How many pitches do you receive and review a year? And how do you decide on which pitch to accept? What are the most common things in a pitch that make your eyes roll?

Acquiring editors see a constant flow of pitches. 

There’s no simple formula for success. But when it comes to the more square-peg sort of business book, I want to answer the following questions: What problem does this book solve? Does it offer a solution for a clear demographic?  Why is the author the best person to offer this solution? Do they have a platform and a loud enough megaphone to reach this target audience?

If I can answer these questions, and if you are someone who has built up an actively engaged audience around your idea set, I’ll sit up and pay attention. 

What makes me toss out a pitch? Maybe if the subject has been done to death, if it seems clearly derivative and doesn’t add anything new to the topic, or if it feels like one big ego trip.

The best authors in this space are passionate about solving problems for their readers. 

The Ingredients Of A Great Nonfiction Book

Please share several must-have elements you’ve found in common in all the great books you’ve worked on.

Non-fiction is a big category within which there are numerous sub-categories with different requirements. For example, a nonfiction book of reportage isn’t going to have the same “must haves” as a personal finance book or a leadership book. 

While there’s not one formula for success that can be applied across categories, any successful book delivers on a clear promise. For non-fiction books in the business space, that promise tends to be both aspirational and utilitarian.

For example, becoming a better leader, or optimizing your finances. Winning business books make complex ideas seem simple, memorable, and actionable. They present readers with real-life use-cases to illustrate ideas in action and a toolkit to put them into practice. In essence, these books are like operating manuals or field guides for ambitious people. 

Certainly not all great books are successful, and not all successful books are great. But in an ideal scenario, the ingredients for a book to be both great and successful have some combination of the following: a clear and compelling promise delivered in a clearly actionable manner by a uniquely credible authority with a deep and ongoing relationship with a defined audience that can be scaled to reach a flywheel effect of steady organic sales growth.    

That’s a mouthful but I think it gets close to the heart of it. 

The Ideal Book Length Of A Nonfiction Finance Book

What is the thought process as to why most nonfiction books are between 200 – 300 pages? If a book addresses multiple topics as mine does, can the length increase? For reference, the biggest bestseller of all, the Bible, has 783,137 words (vs. ~110,000 for BTNT)!

A good starting place is to consider why a book is a book and not, say, a blogpost, online article, or Website. In other words, why does a particular idea set deserve to be a book? What special value can a book offer in a world of infinite googlable information? 

Consider that people have a nearly limitless amount of information at their fingertips and yet they also have a very limited amount of spare time. So, one of the things that a book can do is offer synthesis and a digestible means to bridge theory and practice. 

There’s no one proper length, and some books deserve to be longer and more comprehensive, depending upon the subject matter and target audience. But as a rule of thumb, if you can deliver more value with less verbiage, that’s always going to be worth more to a busy reader.

Book-Writing Strategy Recommendations

What are your thoughts on these types of book-writing strategies: 1) an author who shares their own experiences versus 2) an author who brings the experiences of others into the book but doesn’t share much of their own and 3) the combination of both. Is there an ultimate strategy for story-telling?

It really depends upon the nature of the project. For your average square-peg non-fiction business book, you probably want some combination of both. In your case, Sam, I think part of your credibility comes from how you road test your advice. At the same time, you also make a point of learning from the experience of others. That’s an effective combination. 

I’d strongly advise first-time authors against trying to make themselves out to be omnipotent experts. Many of the most successful authors come across as self-deprecating on the page. By their honesty and willingness to share their defeats and foibles, they come across not only as being relatable but also trustworthy, since it implicitly carries the idea that their book is in the service of its readers rather than being mainly in service of its author’s ego and ambition.

How To Manage Disagreements With An Author

How do you politely tell an author who thinks one way, but you know better, that they are wrong? For example, let’s say the author insists on tiny font for aesthetics, which has shown to turn off 20% of the reading community who has a more difficult time seeing. How would you successfully argue for a larger font size and get your way?

A good author-editor relationship is built on trust. I always feel I owe my authors a sensible explanation as to why I think a certain decision is the right one and to help connect the dots between the different areas of decision-making so the process feels holistic.

In turn, I hope they trust I’m coming from a place where I have their best interests at heart and they appreciate that my team has many years of combined experience when it comes to book publishing. There’s a lot of evidence and proven best practices when it comes to certain areas of decision-making. One of the strengths of a publisher like Portfolio is our deep expertise in our subject areas.  

Sometimes authors and editors don’t see eye to eye — and that’s okay! The most important thing is everyone comes to the table with a mutual degree of respect and thoughtfulness. At the end of the day, it’s the author’s name on the cover and their reputation in the spotlight.  

To that end, I always try to be clear about priorities and goals. Most hills aren’t worth dying on. You want to save your chits for when they really matter most. All things being equal, editors and authors need to remember and respect the expertise each party brings to the table. They all want the same thing: making a great book that’s a hit with readers. 

A Balance Between Utility And Entertainment

With nonfiction books, what is the right balance between providing entertainment and introducing actionable steps to improve the readers’ lives? I’m more bent on reading for advice, but I understand that books that make people feel good do incredibly well.

There’s no one right answer. As an editor, when it comes to square-peg business books, I tend to favor books with a practical utility, although ideally they should also be entertaining enough to keep readers turning pages. If a book lacks any real practical utility, however, it had better deliver on all cylinders when it comes to entertainment value, otherwise why bother, right?  

I have a teaching background and this informs my editorial approach. Does each chapter have a clear learning outcome? Are there opportunities for readers to check their comprehension and demonstrate “wins” along the way? Is the information organized in a logical and digestible manner so that readers can easily put these lessons into practice? 

When I work on narrative nonfiction projects, my approach is different, and here I am focused primarily on helping authors with their storytelling and hitting the right beats and dramatic notes, making sure everything ties together in a coherent package that supports our media narrative. 

Regardless of the type of nonfiction book, the package should be compelling and honest. Essentially you want to entice readers to sit down for a meal and for them to leave feeling satisfied. Say the menu offers a hearty solution but all you serve is a fluffy pep talk. Readers are going to leave hungry and disappointed. But if readers have come for a light snack of feel-good fluff, then a frothy pep talk should do the trick. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

The Debate Between Quality Content Or Amazing Marketing

What do you think is more important and why: the quality of content or the marketing? Can great marketing overcome a poorly-written book? Can an amazingly-written book overcome poor marketing? Please address the role of a book cover and book blurbs.

Great marketing and publicity, and a strong author platform, can make all the difference in the world. However, if a book doesn’t deliver on its promise, it might do well out of the gate but it probably won’t backlist. (Meaning, it won’t keep selling over the long run once the author takes their foot off of the gas.)

Can great books overcome a lack of marketing and publicity? Yes, absolutely, but it takes a heckuva lot of word-of-mouth and even more luck. Like so much else in this world, publishing success isn’t meritocratic. It takes a lot of people pulling on a lot of levers.  

In terms of packaging, the most important thing is having a great title and subtitle that captures the book’s value proposition. Jacket copy and blurbs need to tell a story that connects the dots between that value proposition, author, and target audience. The copy should be punchy, memorable, and concrete. Try to avoid generalizations in favor of specifics. (Make better money choices? How exactly? Be more productive? In what areas, by what tricks? Etc., etc.) 

Blurb-wise, it’s better to have a few great quotes than a dozen mediocre ones. Endorsements shouldn’t be chosen merely for star power; ideally they should also speak to the material, feel credible, and add up to a convincing story that answers the potential reader’s “why of the buy.” 

Ideally, the cover design pops and everything works in concert to create a memorable package. 

Why Is Buy This, Not That A Great Book?

No two authors are alike and there’s no one right way of collaborating. But I was pleased to find that you brought the same curiosity and doggedness to writing BTNT that you bring to Financial Samurai week in and week out, asking great questions and digging for whatever details you feel you need to make an optimal decision.

Your focus remained on writing a great book that would provide your readers with maximum value. It was always about the book’s message and utility, as opposed to serving your ego. As an editor, that made my job easy!

Buy This, Not That Wall Street Journal Bestseller

Thoughts On Traditional Publishing versus Self-Publishing

For aspiring authors, what are the merits of going with a traditional publisher versus self-publishing?

Start by asking yourself: “why a book?” Why not a newsletter, website, or some other media? Can a book offer a special value that ties in to and reinforces your ecosystem of professional practice? Nine out of ten times, it makes better sense starting in a short form medium to build your audience. Then develop a deeper understanding of their pain points, and hone your brand — which will, in turn, increase your chances of eventually being able to secure a solid book deal. Or it will at the very least set up a successful self-publishing venture.  

Upsides to self-publishing include a lower barrier to entry, near total creative control, and a larger share of total net profits. For many people, self-publishing makes good sense. So, why forgo a larger piece of the overall money pie to work with a traditional publisher?

There are many good reasons beyond sheer prestige. On top of the advance on future royalties that authors receive, authors are also benefiting from an enormous investment of time and expertise on the part of a large group of experienced publishing professionals. These professionals know the business world better than anyone and give every book a unique focus not only to the manuscript editorially and with a customized promotional plan, but also to the packaging and positioning. 

Authors at traditional publishing houses also benefit from the support of audio, foreign rights, and sales teams all loudly banging their drums on their behalf. Plus you get the muscle of our legal team in cases of copyright infringement. And then there’s the big one: marketing and publicity.

Publishers like Portfolio have deep relationships with national TV, radio, print/online, and podcast media contacts and can secure robust review coverage and harness the power of an author network to build anticipation and sustain a long life after publication. 

The book business remains healthy, thank goodness. And all things being equal, I’m inclined to believe traditional publishing still has potential for the biggest upside when everything clicks. 

The Writing Of A Bestseller Takes Tremendous Focus

I want to thank Noah for taking the time to provide so many insightful answers to anybody who has ever wanted to get a book published. Throughout this entire 2.5-year process, Noah has always been extremely helpful. Most of all, he has always made me feel welcome.

Noah took a chance on me when nobody else would. For this, I am forever grateful. If there is ever another book in me, Noah will be the first person I will work with.

I hope you got a good taste of what goes on behind the scenes of creating a bestselling nonfiction finance book. Thank you again to the Financial Samurai community for purchasing a hardcopy of Buy This, Not That. It has been an honor to serve you!

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Penguin Random House is the largest publisher in the world. The Portfolio imprint has produced a number of popular titles from authors such as Seth Godin, Arthur C. Brooks, Emily Chang, John Doer, Michael Dell, Kumiko Love, Cal Newport, Arthur C. Brooks, Ryan Holiday, and many more.

What Makes A Bestselling Nonfiction Book? Insights From A Big Publisher is written by Financial Samurai for

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