the recipe

A published book, good or bad, is the culmination of a staggering array of decisions, from scope to subtitle to, well, every single word of the manuscript. The sheer potential of any yet-to-be-written book, short or long, stuns and boggles the mind. Writer's block—ha! The problem isn't too few possibilities but far, far too many. Writing a 500-word newsletter is already infinite choices. One's brain aches for useful constraints.

History's visionaries—Jobs, Holmes, etc.—seemed to prefer black turtlenecks. In theory, this was intended to avoid the decision fatigue involved in getting dressed. Franklin was smarter—he sat around buck naked. Personally, I don't find it taxing to choose between my blue sweatpants and my gray ones, but that took practice. It's the book I still find so perplexing. Like, what should one be about? And what should it be called? And, perhaps most important, what should go inside of it?

Given the opportunity, who wouldn't opt to paint-by-numbers?

So we hunt recipes. Look at any forum where writers may be found. I recently took an excellent short story class with Writing Pad and found myself doing the same thing. "What's the recipe for success? Just tell me what words to put in what order and I'll take it from there. Is that so much to ask?"

Publishers love a good recipe, too, of course. For every breakthrough hit, a slew of also-rans soon crowd the same shelf. Half an editor's time is spent figuring out how to say old things in a catchy new way.

One of the long-running themes of the Maven Game is that books don't succeed for the reasons people think. When an unfamiliar new title suddenly climbs to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, it's rarely because of its clever title or conceit. There are dark forces at work.

Surely that isn't always true, you argue. Clever book ideas succeed all the time. Yes, and so do many software entrepreneurs who dropped out of college. In defiance of logic, however, the world focuses on the one dropout who founded a tech giant and ignores the 999 wearing the barrel with the straps.

(Apparently, that's known as a "bankruptcy barrel." Who knew?)

Certainly, some book recipes are better than others. The question is, how many successful books succeeded because of their recipes?

Plenty of excellent books end up in bankruptcy barrels. Rather than rue the fickle marketplace, we model our work after the winners even if there's nothing there worth modeling, imitating books whose success makes no apparent sense—Who Moved My Cheese?, to mention an example so old I can't possibly be offending anybody reading this—if you remain unaware of those dark forces.

A book doesn't have to be a global bestseller to offer a useful model to authors. If you want a recipe superior to most, look no further:

Cover of "Read This If You Want to Take Great Photographs"
Read This If You Want to Take Great Photographs.

What a martini of a package. If Hemingway could have written a book, that's what he'd have called it.

After buying my own copy of this slim manual, I discovered that it's actually part of a series of books on creative skills ranging from drawing to writing. Having launched a couple of series for publishers myself over the years, I bow down in the presence of the masters at Laurence King in the UK. This is exceptional. Learn from it.

Clearly, we can't all package our books with this exact title formulation and its brilliantly bare-bones design. Still, Read This... represents an invaluable lesson in the essence of a book's value proposition. Stop worshiping these mostly false idols and buy a copy of this instead. Staple it to your wall. Keep it line-of-sight as you work. (Personally, I'm tempted to tattoo the cover on the back of my hand, where all the things we know best belong.)

During the mammoth feat of intellectual engineering required to create any book, it's all too easy to lose the thread, to let the process center on "what to write" over "why to read." If you can't sum up your work-in-progress in a sentence as "cool and clean" as this one, refine your blueprint until you can.

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