"If the book needs repair before going to press, what did the writer do wrong?" is the most common question authors ask me when they find out that I review almost-ready-to-print non-fiction manuscripts, a sort of objective yea-nay court of last chance.
I'm Gordon Burgett. publisher, editor, and author, and while I've never kept an itemized tally, these seem to me to be the most frequent problems:
(1) Three things: the book needs a sharper organizational structure, more (often better) research, and a more compelling reason to be bought or even read.
(2) As often, the authors forgot to write the book to its most likely buyers. They expect buyers to pay for their words but it's not clear why they should. Missing are the benefits a buyer would receive, or the problems or frustrations they would solve or resolve, from reading those pages. Selling hooks don't seem to be hanging anywhere.
(3) If their book has a workable and salable format, too often it still has a labored flow. (This is the easiest to fix, if the purpose is clear.) They must envision what the reader must (or wants to) know in what order. If the book tells how to sweep a house, the writer must first decide if the house will be swept from attic to basement, or the reverse, and why-and will the reader use a broom or a sweeper? It's as simple as mentally going from room to room and keeping track of the order, then adding in all to be done before, during, and after. Writers too often fail to stand in the sweeper's shoes.
(4) Far too many proposed titles are dull, unintelligible, negative, or endless. I ask the writer to create a dozen (or two dozen) titles that anybody reading them would know what their book is about. Aim for six words or less. A subtitle, longer, can further define or reinforce with sizzle, but it alone can't sell the book.
(5) Too many of the sentences are eternal, the Black Forest of unneeded words. Many paragraphs are too long too. Think newspaper, one to three sentences a paragraph, and at 6-9 paragraphs, a short section title.
(6) Newbies give themselves away. They are enchanted by semicolons, which they then use incorrectly! New writers love dashes but use hyphens. They should use em dashes-two right here-and not make them float (like the English) by putting spaces before and after. Too many exclamation points (one max, rarely), too many chapters that don't earn their keep, humor scattered too irregularly, tables of contents that need translation, no index, and too little backbone sharing their truths.
(7) About a quarter of the books I read are hopeless without massive rethinking. Most of the rest need more furniture, with most of it moved around. Maybe 10% are ready to go as is-though all must still survive a cranky proofreader, if self-published, or a crankier editor (then proofreader), if being published from on high.
(8) Another point: many of the books might do much better as four very specific e-books (re-edited into a masterpiece later). Or as the talking core of a hands-on seminar or workshop offered often to find the actual book(s) that others really need (or want). Sometimes a series of related articles might help find the slant most likely to get book traction.
(9) Even those ready to go don't often make the author much money. But they can be great give-away or positioning tools from which to assemble larger empire-building platforms, including profitable speaking or product creation.
(10) Am I one of those too-cranky editors, missing the genius for all the misplaced commas? Maybe. Since they come to me because they need a hard eye before investing print money and marketing time, I may see a disproportionate number of books in obvious need.
My advice? If your book is nearing the finish line, see if any of these shortcomings apply, and fix them en route. Better yet, at the outset create a ready-to-go blueprint (with selling purpose subtly injected) that leaves no room for errant or missing bricks or for buying doubt!