7 Cardinal Publishing Rules—And Why You Might Want to Break Them

You’re so lucky to know everything to make your book a success. I wish I knew what you did.

When I read the message, I laughed to myself and wondered how to respond.

I admit it. I’m not the typical first-time author. As the CEO of library powerhouse OCLC, Inc., I know libraries and publishing. As the former CEO of Ingram Content Group, I know distribution, wholesaling, print-on-demand, and most of the book retailers around the world. I’ve been a keynote speaker at numerous publishing conferences for years. Oh yeah, I also have a leadership website with significant traffic that I built in my spare time.

Bragging? Not at all.

I’m about to publish my first-time book, and it’s more terrifying than I could ever imagine.

And I did it by ignoring, or modifying, the publishing rules I learned for decades.

Rule 1: Write what your audience expects.

Unless you’re living in a cave somewhere, you’ve heard that you should build a platform. The point of building a platform is to have a built-in market for your work. It’s logical to write what they expect, what they are asking for.

My first book breaks this rule completely. When my Leadership Insights website broke 100,000 hits per month, I started seeing more publisher interest in me writing about leadership. Instead, I wrote a story that teaches success principles.

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Rule 2: Your book title should be positive.

Most books with negative titles fail. This makes abundant sense. Most of us don’t want to pick up a book about losers, complainers, liars, and failures. That’s the common wisdom.

My new book, The Book of Mistakes: 9 Secrets of Creating a Successful Future breaks the rule with the negative word “mistakes” in the title. When I first floated the idea, I immediately was challenged about the word mistakes. The debate continued throughout publishing circles and for months. I stuck to the original title. People want to know what mistake they are making that may limit their future.

Rule 3: Write the proposal first.

This is wise counsel. It forces you to think through your intended market, your platform, and your marketing plan. It follows Stephen Covey’s rule to “Begin with the end in mind.”

I broke this one, too, since I wrote most of the first draft of the book on a long international flight long before I even thought about a book proposal. I could have watched four movies and read some books, but instead I wrote one. That meant I wrote it without any consideration of the business end of publishing. It came from my imagination and heart, designed to help and inspire and not to sell books.

Rule 4: Listen to critical voices.

Paying attention to early criticism is important. It can redirect our efforts and fuel our success. Well-intentioned advice can be a powerful way to improve. On the other hand, it can also be a demotivating force, causing distraction, distress, and even disaster if it stops our progress. Some negative voices can pop the balloon of our dreams before they have a chance to launch.

In my case, I tuned out some of the negative and tuned into the positive. A few friends were positive, offering constructive advice in such a way that it fueled my progress and helped me refine my story and message.

Rule 5: Write in a clear category.

Writing in a clear category helps everyone in the book business. Bookstores know where to display your title. Consumers understand what they are buying. If you’re traveling to Europe, you walk into the travel section, right?

My new book isn’t easy to categorize and breaks this rule. It’s a success manual of sorts, but written as a story. The publisher debated and changed categories a few times. Is it self-help? Business? For entrepreneurs? Is it about becoming a better leader? Yes, it can be all of those and more.

Rule 6: Write with one person in mind.

Interviewing many famous authors, I have learned that writing for a single person is helpful. This focuses your message and tone and often improves authenticity.

I wrote this book with someone in mind, but I really was thinking about anyone at an inflection point: those about to graduate, ready to launch a business, those experiencing a mid-life crisis, or even retirement—because all these inflection points offer the opportunity for introspection and redirection.

Rule 7: Write a little every day.

Some of the most famous authors I have interviewed are extraordinarily disciplined. They write a certain number of words every single day, like clockwork. In my dreams, I am like them. In reality, far from it.

Instead, I write in bursts. Inspiration whispers in my ear and I fly. If I don’t write in that pocket, it’s gone. So, most of my book was written in one continuous sitting. Now, I edited, changed, and redid it more times than I can remember, but each time was in a burst. I think we all need to find what works for us.

Pablo Picasso said it well: “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

Each rule is designed with a purpose, a guardrail to ensure your success. But if the rules drain your energy and limit your expression, cast them aside to be yourself and live your dream—because every writing rule that doesn’t fuel your passion is one worth putting aside.

Skip Prichard is the CEO of OCLC, a prominent leadership blogger, and the author of The Book of Mistakes: 9 Secrets to Creating a Successful Future. Learn more about his book at www.thebookofmistakes.com.

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