Rob Fitzpatrick has written three successful non-fiction books: The Mom Test, The Workshop Survival Guide and Write Useful Books. In this interview, you’ll discover his secrets to writing a successful problem-solving book and his writing strategies.
For Rob, who lives in a tiny mountain village in Spain, every day starts with a pint of weak American brew, a walk with the dogs and a couple of online chess games.
When he’s in the process of writing a book, he spends the following four hours writing. “That’s the beauty of being a writer,” he says. “You wake up every day knowing what your top priority is.”
Context control is essential to make the most of those hours. During that time, Rob only uses equipment for writing (i.e. a notebook or laptop). Often, he’ll go to a place without internet, and he’ll leave his phone. At home, he is very distractable because he uses his laptop for other things like gaming and Netflix.
When he lived in big cities like Barcelona or London, he used to walk from café to café to find inspiration in between writing sessions. He now lives in the mountains, so he walks in nature and jumps in the cold rivers to find focus.
Pro tip: Plant an idea in your head before leaving for a walk.
Google Docs on steroids
While he used a range of tools in the past, Rob now uses nothing but Google Docs to write and publish books.
It’s a great tool because you can use it for everything from writing and editing to sharing with beta-readers and making the book ready to publish*.
With his third book, however, he introduced a new tool to his stack again. Because beta-reading with Google Docs can be a mess, he co-created www.helpthisbook.com.
First, this tool shows readers prompts to increase the amount of negative feedback. It also indicates where readers stop reading (and probably got bored). I know this sounds like a massive kick in the face of your ego, but this is exactly what you need to know to make your book better.
“First drafts are always wrong and will still be wrong, just more beautiful if you do the revisions yourself.”Rob Fitzpatrick
Initially, readers might make it halfway. Your goal is to improve and aim for your next group of beta-readers to make it a bit further. Reiterate until readers make it all the way through.
Finding what to write about
Rob Fitzpatrick wrote three books that each solve a different problem. All three books started with a teaching process.
His first book is called The Mom Test. It’s a book about asking the right questions to test your product.
The idea for this book started around the time his Y-combinator-funded business failed. Rob was doing sales for his team, but as an introvert, the existing books about sales didn’t work for him.
He did gather some experience during the process, of course, and in meetings with other techies, he noticed this was a broader problem. So he started explaining his tactics and used several metaphors to do so. “The Mom Test” was by far the most popular metaphor, so it became the book title. (If you read Write Useful Books, you’ll find out why this wasn’t a good title.)
When Rob was on holiday in Bavaria (Germany), he was bored. There was no internet, no entertainment and he didn’t know his travel companions very well. He used boredom as a tool to start writing his book.
That week, he wrote about four to six hours per day in longhand based on what he had been teaching in the previous months. That was enough to finish the first draft. Nine months later, his first book baby was born.
In between his first and second book, Rob ran a bootstrapped education agency. They discovered some unique things about education design worth sharing. When he was bored on holiday again, in Thailand this time, he started writing a draft. He was done with teaching by that time, but he wanted to capture what he had learned before moving on. That’s how The Workshop Survival Guide came to life.
The idea for his third book germinated when a friend asked for advice on writing a book. Because Rob wanted to make the most of their scheduled meeting, he wrote a 10-pager with bullet points.
His friend was so impressed she asked if she could share this with friends. People kept asking more questions. As a result, he got early input about what people wanted to know. His beta-reading process started even before the writing process.
Just short of two years after that meeting, Write Useful Books saw the light of day.
Writing a recommendable book
Rob has earned more than half a million in royalties from The Mom Test. He hasn’t done any active marketing or advertising in years, yet sales keep growing each year.
How’s that possible?
Because the book is its own marketing. Everything is based on word of mouth because the book is recommendable.
The most straightforward way to writing a book people will recommend is by solving a problem.
Writing a problem-solver is like choosing a start-up idea. It needs some guesswork in advance, but the rest can be tested. Treat your book as a business and test everything in advance.
Make sure you’re not solving a temporary problem, though. If you want to make sales for many years to come, you need to solve a long-term need and avoid trends.
Marketing your non-fiction book
To reach the top of the charts and create a passive income, you do need some money and time investments initially.
People won’t recommend a book unless they’ve read it, right?
So you need to hustle a bit to get those first 500 to 1,000 readers. Rob’s favourite tactics for that are giveaways, beta-reading and Amazon PPC ads.
Let’s look at these and a few more in detail:
When the finish line is in sight, you want to start inviting more influential people in your beta-reading group. Once the creative process is over and only technical stuff is left, you can also start thinking about pre-sales.
Content marketing and writing in public
Create a platform for your book and share content as you go. As Autin Kleon suggests, just take ten minutes at the end of the day and share something you’ve worked on. Show progress. This can be about some research you’ve done, a new tool you’ve discovered or something you struggled with. This works best when you already have an audience.
A podcast book tour is a beautiful way to tap into new audiences. (Coffee & Pens reader, meet Rob Fitzpatrick).
When you wrote a book, you have something with value, a problem-solver. Podcast hosts always need new content, so it’s a win-win.
PPC ads Amazon
Investing in some Amazon ads until you reach a certain number of sales makes a lot of sense when you’re self-publishing.
As a self-published author, you have higher margins than traditional publishers. Hence, you can easily outbid them and get eyes on your book. Just make sure you have a scannable cover with readable text.
The fastest way to reach those first couple of hundred readers is by giving away your books for free. Rob gave away 800 copies of The Mom Test, for example.
If you find a relevant event, they might even pay for the printing costs, so you’re not making any loss.
After using these tactics, your book should become recommendable. If it doesn’t, then maybe the book’s just not good enough. Fortunately, you can avoid this…
How to write useful books
Teach it first
Teaching the content first isn’t a must, but Rob highly recommends it. The teaching process helps you anticipate problems and concerns. As we remember from the interview with Ramli John, teaching also helps you test metaphors and examples.
Thanks to the teaching process, writing your book becomes a lot easier. Writing is a lot quicker.
There are a few ways to teach: one-on-one coaching, online courses, via emails or blog posts like Arvid Kahl.
If you wonder how to get started, just reach out to a few people who are interested in your topic. You’re not asking for their help; you’re offering to help them. For free. If no one’s taking you up on your offer, it means you probably shouldn’t even start writing.
We already discussed the how of beta-reading. Here’s why:
The more contact you have with your readers beforehand, the lower the risk. When people don’t understand something during this stage, you can explain it and change the manuscript. One’s your book is published, that’s going to be a lot harder.
The beauty of this is that you can largely avoid negative Amazon reviews. Firstly, because flaws have been avoided and boring parts deleted. Secondly, because the beta-reading process helped you select your audience.
When you can avoid selling to the wrong people, you avoid negative reviews.
“If you don’t feel like hanging out with your readers, maybe you need another book.”Rob Fitzpatrick
Rob Fitzpatrick’s writing and publishing tips
1. Get an editor and proofreader. It’s not such a big investment (under $1,000 for a short book), but it will save you a lot of time and stress.
2. Teach before you write. Serve your reader. Get involved.
3. Start with value, not with beauty. Give your reader something they can use from the start. “A strong start can keep folks going through a weaker ending, but a strong ending can’t save a disappointing start.”
These are Rob’s tips to make your book a success. But first, you need to write it. These are his writing tips:
- It’s better to have a small writing session every day than one big session once a week. Consistency is key.
- Step away from the computer now and then. Writing on paper is magical.
- Remember why. You’re writing to help your reader. Not to sound smart.
- Respect the reader’s time. A short book is an advantage. “A lot of making a great book is removing the garbage around your ideas.”
- Turn off alerts. You need deep focus. Turn off the internet if you have to.
His secret is based on two ideas.
According to Seth Godin, most books fail immediately, but some break this pattern and are long-lasting. These are called back catalogue books. With only 2% of marketing effort, they make up 90% of publishing profits because they sell through word of mouth.
According to Alexander Osterwalder, most business books fail because the authors are too in love with writing. Rob thinks this means they are more focused on writing than on value perceived.
So his secret: Be humble in your writing and aim to write a back catalogue book by product-testing your ideas.
Do you feel inspired by Rob’s quest to put more good books on this floating rock? You can join Rob’s community of non-fiction authors or ask him a question personally. He’ll probably make a short video to answer your question and publish it to his YouTube channel.
Books: The Mom Test, The Workshop Survival Guide, Write Useful Books
Author: Rob Fitzpatrick
Personal website: www.robfitz.com
*Resources and Google Docs publishing: www.writeusefulbooks.com/resources
Buy his books: