The Sideways Table of Contents, or the Future of the Expert Author, Part 3

by | Dec 13, 2013

Ed: You might want to read the first part of this article and the second part before starting this one.

Now it’s time to change our terminology a little bit to help us see the new possibilities I’ve been pointing to in these articles.

When I said earlier that you can “think outside the book,” I meant to think of all the different ways the same basic content can be presented, often in ways that are better suited to your readers, than simply bound up between covers or in an ebook.

Research on how people learn has shown that different people have vastly different preferences for mastering new topics, skills, or procedures. Some people prefer to read, others to listen, and some prefer watching.

I know that I use all three of these modes of learning for different kinds of topics, and I bet a lot of other people do also. That’s an important consideration for any author who intends to teach something that they really want readers to benefit from.

This also leads to the question of whether a bound book is really the best vehicle for the kind of information you are developing. For instance, an audio recording of how to stretch your pizza dough into a 12 inch round might be of limited value.

In a book, you could add color photos that clearly show the process, but that brings up other problems like the cost of developing and producing the book, and the necessity of charging a pretty high price for it in the end.

On the other hand, a simple 5-minute video would be ideal for this task because students could just watch an instructor do it, and they can play the video over and over to make sure they have it right.

A long interview on the different kinds of flour used in baking might make a great audio that you could learn from while driving somewhere. So the kind of content you have, in addition to learner preferences, determines the best way to teach each particular skill or idea.

Changing Titles

Okay, we’ve got topics in a chronological order. Now suppose instead of “Chapters” we call them “Modules”?

This gives us more of a training course in pizza making, with 8 modules. And instead of “sections” we call the individual topics within each module “lessons”?

Now our “book” looks something like this:


Simply by exposing the chronology and reframing the terminology we were using to describe the book, we’ve leapt from a fixed, bound presentation to a dynamic, flexible structure for presenting the same material.

But this arrangement—and yes, it’s basically a training course—has huge benefits over the book-only model.

10 Big Benefits of Turning Your Book Into a Training Course

Copyblogger, creators of the excellent Teaching Sells training program, call these training courses “interactive learning environments” and that’s a pretty good name for them.

And it’s the interactivity, in addition to the flexibility of the environment, that power most of these advantages.

  1. You don’t have to complete the entire project before you sell it.
    As soon as you have a lesson outline and the first couple of “modules” finished, and can create the copy for a sales page that will explain the appeal and the scope of the course—in other words, the exact same material your would need to pitch this book to a publisher in the hopes of an advance—you can open up registration. As long as you are quite sure you’ll be able to produce the rest of the course on schedule, there’s no reason not to do this and some good reasons for it.
  2. Participants will supply ongoing feedback on your content.
    In the book-only model, you have to try to get peer review, or crowdsource feedback, but in a live training course you’ll quickly see which approaches to teaching your subject work well, and which are disjointed, hard to follow, missing prerequisite skills or concepts, or just plain don’t work.
  3. You can orchestrate the kind of media you use for each type of learning.
    For your chapter on stretching out your dough, you can create a short video. For your interviews, create audio. For basic concepts and explanations, use text. The strategic choices you have available to really help your participants get results are powerful and extensive.
  4. Every type of learner can get the kind of instruction that suits them best.
    Within the environment of your training program, you can offer many of your “lessons” in a variety of media, so learners with different learning preferences are all included. You can supply background reports as text downloads for those who prefer a searchable, printable text document, demonstrations as videos, everything can easily be hosted together.
  5. You’ll be able to build your platform as you launch your course.
    One of the most consistent pieces of advice you’ll receive from marketers, book promotion experts, literary agents, acquisition editors, and self-publishing consultants is to build your platform before you publish your book. But when you offer a training course, you start building your platform at the same time you’re creating the product. Certainly if you already have a robust platform it will be far easier to sell the course, and you’ll already have a good relationship with your audience. But this is a huge advantage for authors with only a small platform.
  6. You can make a significant amount of money without having to write a “bestseller.”
    How much do you think you’re going to get from a publisher as an advance on a niche-topic instructional book? No, not much, I reckon, not these days. And most of these books, no matter how useful, rarely achieve “bestseller” sales status. But when you turn the book into a training program, the entire model changes. Consider that for a $495 program—and each needs to be priced for its own audience—you only need to sell 20 people to gross $10,000.
  7. Your participants will pay to help you create the course.
    Since you’ve only created an outline, one or two lessons, and some sales copy, your audience is, in effect, paying you the “advance” that allows you to take the time to create the product itself.
  8. Being the creator of a training course will enhance your reputation.
    You probably already know that being the author of a book confers a certain prestige, and has helped many subject matter experts raise their fees, gain more authority, and open doors to new opportunities. Building a training course will also contribute to your standing in your field, a thought leader and trusted advisor.
  9. You’ll definitely keep on schedule. If you’ve sold your course to a couple of dozen people and now have to create it module by module, it’s going to get done. When writing by yourself, especially on a big project like an instructional book, it’s all too easy to get sidetracked, to lose focus, and to miss deadlines. But if you know Susan and Dale and Maria and all the rest of your students are awaiting the next group of lessons, believe me, you’ll produce them right on time.
  10. And best of all, at the end you’ll have your book, too. As you work through the modules and lessons, everything you’re writing can be repurposed to become chapters and sections. By the end of the course, you’ll have at the minimum a first draft of your book ready to go.

I’m not suggesting that no one is going to be writing instructional or how-to books in the future, they have a guaranteed future.

What I am saying is that taking your content outside the confines of a book can yield surprising advantages. One doesn’t preclude the other. A book might become a great vehicle for selling the course itself. And many readers will pay to get access to you, as the expert, through a course structure, too.

These courses work well either as text or using more diverse media. I’ve bought and profited from a number of courses that delivered virtually all their content as articles or blog posts, straight text.

But seeing your work as a multi-media training course, one that you can sell at the beginning of the process, that will help you build your platform, and for which you’ll get instant and real market feedback, is pretty amazing.

And all you have to do is turn your table of contents sideways to get started.

Photo by photo credit: Sean Molin Photography via photopin cc

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Nina Amir

    I love how you explain this, Joel. I’ve been writing about something quite similar on my blog–basically how to take content from your blog and build out to courses.

    However, I wrote my last book, The Author Training Manual, as I taught the course, Author Training 101, and I created the Author of Change Transformational Coaching Program and now plan to write the book based on the course–as I teach it again live. So, basically I’m using, and have been using, this sideways model you discuss, and I’ve written a bit about this as well. I like your terminology and the way you’ve explained it immensely.

  2. Ruth Schwartz

    Joel – Thank you so much for this totally fascinating series. It certainly sparks a few ideas over here, not only for myself, but for some of my clients. I would be interested in your further thoughts about and

    Setting a product like this up from scratch is a sizable undertaking, even for someone like me that knows their way around Internet marketing to some degree. Wondering if you are planning a new training program of your own to address this very nifty niche . . .

    • Joel Friedlander

      Hi Ruth,

      I think that’s the beauty of sites like Udemy. You still have to record the videos or screencasts yourself, but the rest is done for you. When I set up a site to deliver my Self-Publishing Roadmap course, it took me about 4 months and a lot of frustration, even with paid help available. And no, I haven’t thought about teaching it, but who knows?

  3. Alison Gillespie

    Joel, I appreciate the thought provoking nature of this three part series. But I would give it a friendly poke in another direction.

    Not all non-fiction books are how-to books, and as I’ve read over these posts I keep wondering how your advice might be used a bit differently for the non-fiction book that is more of a journey of discovery. (I’m working on such a book myself right now, so of course that is where my brain is…)

    I think the best non-fiction out there is not from so called experts giving advice on hobbies. Those books are great, and worthwhile ventures and would very much benefit from what you describe.

    But the non fiction book that follows an author through the exploration of a particular topic would maybe have to turn your advice upside down to work. Maybe.

    Just to make it clear, I’ll give you an example from the traditional publishing world of the type of book I mean. I just finished reading the excellent book The End of Night by Paul Bogard. What a great book… and its not that he’s an expert. He’s just someone who cares deeply about the topic and he takes the time to go talk to those who are experts on dark skies and light pollution and then he writes about what they tell him. He also does a lot of travelling and tells us what he finds in dark areas of the world. It helps that he’s a fantastic writer. You want to keep reading because his sentences are beautiful, even if you don’t know exactly where he’s leading you.

    I think that if you write a book with that is a journey of discovery, you might find that you can release it in full, and the use one of two chapters (or sections of chapters) as teasers on websites. Maybe, for example, you post a chapter on your own blog for free. Or maybe you make a connection with others in the same field and then post one of your chapters or a section of one of your chapters on their blog/s. This could pull in readers. You could end your post with a note that the full book is available, and then give them a link for purchase, etc.

    There are other ways: I could imagine, for example, doing a podcast where you interview someone about the topic you write about, and then posting that with a similar link to the purchase portal for your full book.

    One could also write an opinion piece for another publication, with an bioline that says you’ve written a book on the same topic.

    A journey of discovery can take a much different kind of chronology… one that even the author doesn’t foresee or expect before beginning the task of research and writing. But this often what makes those books so readable and fun, even for those who know the topic pretty well already.

    Your thoughts?

    • Joel Friedlander

      Hi Alison, thanks for your thoughtful comment. Certainly this series of articles is aimed squarely at authors of instructional, self-help, and how-to books. It’s pretty useless to fiction authors, memoirists, and lots of other writers.

      Some of your ideas on marketing a nonfiction “book of discovery” are good ones, and the subject of book marketing occupies lots of articles on my blog, and is probably the most frequently requested topic. But that’s not what I was writing about here.

      However, the articles do touch on the necessity of building a platform for your work, and how that will make your publishing much more productive and more fun, too. So podcasts, interviews, sample chapters, and all the other marketing initiatives we use all come into play, but they work so much better if you already have the base of an audience to talk to.

  4. Jeff Bach

    Inkling’s platform comes really close to this, if not nailing it exactly. At least to my research. I think they even have an ala carte per chapter purchasing option. It looks to me like they started with textbooks, but every time I visit there are new offering from new authors with new topics. It’s new but I think authors are catching on fast.

    I have a paddlemaking book in progress on that platform. Certain topics like handle, blade and finishing are the same regardless of paddle, but some people want canoe, others want paddleboard. Some people want straight shaft, others want bent shaft. So there’s a core set of chapters that apply to all and then there are chapters you can pick or not depending on which paddle type you are building. I couldn’t ask for a better platform to do this sort of non-fiction project.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Hi Jeff,

      I’ve just been exploring Inkling, and it looks fascinating. Another one that’s very popular right now is Udemy. The virtue of these platforms is that they solve the technical problems authors really shouldn’t get bogged down with. And as with your example, the intersection of the exploding online instruction market with expert authors who are willing to make the leap “out of the book” presents some unique and exciting possibilities.

  5. Greg Strandberg

    Hmm, lots of good ideas, but I’m going to give you a friendly challenge on them.

    If I put something on my blog tomorrow telling people to give me $50 for an online training course I’d probably get the fewest hits on any of my articles for that month. In fact, I think I’d turn-off visitors before they even became users. Would $250 be better? I don’t think so.

    I’m not sure who you’re writing this for, but it certainly isn’t me. I guess it’s big sites with loyal and indoctrinated followers, blogs with moderated-only commenting sections, and really those copying everyone else but trying to charge for it.

    I mean, I can’t help but think of this as a webinar, which anyone who’s been put through one by an employer probably knows how hellish they can be. I also think there’s a lot of chances to lose credibility here. Really, you’re trying out your rough drafts on people. That’s for beta-readers, not people paying you.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Hi Greg, thanks for your comment.

      -As a practical matter, I would not attempt to sell a course or almost anything else from a blog, that’s not what a blog is for, in my experience.

      -I’m writing this for entrepreneurial authors of instructional, self-help and how-to books. I don’t try to “indoctrinate” my readers, I try to provide them with useful information that will make their books, and their publishing, better and more profitable.

      -Not sure where you got the webinar idea, although webinars—ones you attend out of interest, not out of employment obligations—are excellent and enjoyable ways to present content to an interested audience. You should try one sometime, like for your tarot readers. I made a point in the article of mentioning this plan can work just as well with text.

      -All the feedback I’ve received from actual buyers of this type of program, where we are actually creating the course together, have been extremely positive. It seems that people really enjoy being part of the process.



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