How to Write a Chess Book

Today I want to share some “lessons learned” that I got from writing my first chess book, Tactics Time! 1001 Chess Tactics from the Games of Everyday Chess Players [Kindle Edition], which you can check out here:  These tips mostly apply to writing a chess book, but could be applied to most books.
Tactics Time Chess Tactics Chess Book
  • Pick a topic that you are interested in.  I really love looking at chess tactics, and the chess games of amatuer players, so it wasn’t a huge burden to work on.  Even though the book took hundreds of hours to make, it was fun for me.
  • Pick a “micro niche” in your subject.  It is a bad idea to try and write “the chess book for everyone” or “the only chess book you will ever need”.  When you try to speak to everyone, you speak to nobody.
  • Have a “unique selling proposition” (USP)  What makes your book different than all of the other chess books out there?  With TT1001 the USPs were the book was specifically designed for Kindle, with hundreds of problems, all from real games, from real players, at a very reasonable price.
  • It is important to define what the book is, and what it is not.  With TT1001 it is not a book for people who don’t know how to play, it is not for people who want to learn about openings, it is not for Master level players, etc.   
  • Set a deadline for yourself.  Anthea and I started the project in late summer 2012, and the goal was to get it done by Christmas 2012 in time for people who were getting a Kindle reader.  There is a management rule called Parkinson’s Law which states “Work contracts or expands given the time to do it”,
  • Don’t skimp on the cover.  I held a design contest on and let my readers choose the cover they like best.  Unless you are a professional designer, don’t try to do it yourself.  It will just look half assed.  So many good chess books are ruined by terrible covers.
  • Don’t wait until you are done with the book before you start to promote it.  I made  announcements before the book was written or available to build anticipation and interest.  I also build an email list, twitter following, blog following, etc, before launching the book.  Most people write a book then say “OK now I am going to promote it”.  By then it is too late.  The two have to go hand in hand.
  • Listen to feedback.  I got really good feedback from Joel Johnson and Geoff Chandler, which really made the book a lot better.  Try to make the book as good as possible, but also encourage people to help point out the typos and any little errors.  It is almost impossible to make a book by yourself with no errors.  This takes advantage of the idea of crowdsourcing,
  • Learn the computer tools.  There is no way I could have made this book without knowing how to use Microsoft Word, Chessbase, Fritz, etc. 
  • Don’t overuse the computer.  You want to use the computer to check things, but remember you are writing the book for humans, not computers.  Too many chess books are filled with too much computer analysis.
  • Write about something that other people are interested in as well.  You might be interested in the theoretical novelties after 22. Bg5! in the Basman variation of the Grob, but your audience might be limited if you choose this path.  You want to narrow the niche, but not to the extreme.
  • Keep the price as low as possible.  Our goal was to keep the price so low and provide so much value that buying it is almost a “no brainer”.  Right now the book is about the cost of a fancy drink at Starbucks.  You might not make as much per book, but you can make more on the volume of sales.  Also the more people who buy the book, the more “word of mouth” you will get (assuming the book is good).
  • Don’t be too clever with the title.  The title should clearly explain what the person is getting.  With our title, the person knows they are getting 1001 chess problems from real players and real games.  Keep it simple.
  • Don’t be deceptive with the title.  Books like “How to Beat your dad at chess” sound like they are for beginners, but it is actually about “The 50 deadly checkmates”.  This is called a “bait and switch” in sales. (BTW it is an excellent book, the title is just misleading)
  • Use “keywords” that people are looking for in the title.  For me the keywords were “chess tactics”, and the words “Chess” and “Tactics” are actually in there twice, without it being too obnoxious.  This will help you rank with the search engines.
  • The book will take longer than you think it will.  This is knows as Hofstadter’s Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.
  • While you want to listen to advice from others, especially people who have already done what you are trying to do, keep in mind that “opinions are like *noses*, everybody’s got one”.  You are not going to be able to please everyone.  The challenge with chess is that everyone is at a different level. So what is “too easy” for player X, is “too hard” for player Y. 
  • Pick a “customer avatar”, and write the book for that person.  In the case of Tactics Time 1001, that customer avatar is a chess player in the 1200-1400s, who wants to get to the next level, and really nail down the fundamental tactics that happen all the time in class player games. 
  • Work on the book everyday if possible.  Get up early, skip mindless tv shows, and find the time everyday to make it better.  Writing a book is like eating an elephant – you have to do it one bite at a time.
  • Consider working with a co-author.  This can help keep you accountable, and you will come up with additional ideas while brain storming together.  Ideally you want someone who will complement your own strengths and weaknesses.  For me, Anthea was a great partner to work with.  She had a lot of experience in publishing books – both chess books, and on Kindle, which I did not.  Our personalities worked well together too.  On the Myers-Briggs test, I am more of a ISTJ  (Introvert, Sensing, Thinking, Judging), and Anthea is a ENFP (Extrovert, Intuition, Feeling, Perceiving).  I am good at things like using the computer, and Anthea is more of the creative type.  Being an extrovert, Anthea isn’t afraid to promote the book in ways that I would be too shy to do.  So it is a good team.
  • Have a thick skin.  People will surprise you.  People you have known and been friends with for years will have little to no interest in your book, and total strangers will become your biggest fans, and be the ones who write nice reviews.
  • Don’t try to promote and sell it yourself on your own website.  Let amazon do the “heavy lifting” of promoting, hosting and selling the book.  Sure, they will take a percentage, but they get so much traffic and deal with all the customer interaction that they more than deserve this percentage. 
  • Have fun!  I learned a lot writing this book, and it was a lot of fun for me.  If you have ever wanted to write a book yourself, I think now is the perfect time!

If you haven’t got your copy of “Tactics Time! 1001 Chess Tactics from the Games of Everyday Chess Players” yet, go get it now!

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