Mark O'Neill

90% of what I do is daydreaming. The rest is typing.

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Having an idea for a non-fiction book

If you want to create your own indie-published non-fiction book, you first have to have an idea. But how do you come up with great ideas?

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

If you want to create your own indie-published book, you first have to have your idea. This is obviously the hardest part of all. When you ask a writer where they get their ideas from, they naturally get defensive or evasive because they don’t want to tell you. Or there’s the Terry Pratchett answer when he was asked : “in a small shop off Marylebone High Street.” However, I am not so defensive about this subject, so we will go into it a bit today. Let’s first discuss non-fiction.

Here’s where you have to be careful. If you write non-fiction, you have to have some kind of established credential or experience in your subject. If not, why should anybody listen to you and your opinions? You have to prove that you know what you’re writing about. I wanted to write a non-fiction history book when I was a naive teenager, and a publisher bluntly asked me why anybody should listen to the historical opinions of someone barely out of high school. At the time, the criticism stung, but I’ve come to realise she was right.

[bctt tweet=”If you write non-fiction, you have to have established credentials or experience in your subject. If not, why should anybody listen to you and your opinions?”]

The three questions to ask yourself

photo of man in deep thoughts
Photo by Vanessa Garcia on

So if you want to write non-fiction, ask yourself:

  • “What are my specialist subjects?”
  • “What do I have experience and/or qualifications in?”
  • “What subject would someone take me seriously in?”

Look at your current job, past jobs, hobbies and interests, things you’ve accomplished, things you’re obsessed about…everybody has at least one obsession.

For me, it would be:

  • Technology and the internet (since I’ve worked in the field since 2004.)
  • Self-publishing (since I have done it since 2017.)
  • Health (since I have various health ailments and can speak from experience.)
  • Being a foreigner in Germany (since I have lived here since 2001.)

You get the idea. Brainstorm your possible specialist subjects. Even if the initial list sounds chaotic by the end, it doesn’t matter. Just get it all out on paper, including that idea about knitting jumpers for badgers. You can edit it later.

Now start hacking away

person holding pen above white open notebook page

Once you have your list, take a red pen to it like your teachers did at school, and start seriously considering each one. Cross out the obviously irrational ones (sorry, badgers. Make your own jumpers), and come up with two or three credible subjects. Doing one based on your current job is always good because you can use the book to further establish yourself in your industry. You can hand out copies at conferences and other meetings. You can promote yourself and your company (if it’s your company.)

But if you like to play the ukulele in your spare time, and want to write a book on that, nothing is stopping you. Tap into what genuinely interests you – if the subject matter bores you to tears, that will show in the writing and readers won’t be motivated to read what you wrote. They’ll also be demanding a refund or leaving a scathing review online. Just be aware that the more niche the subject, the more difficult it will be to get book sales.

Now start writing. Yes, I know it’s scary. But once you get started, you’ll be surprised at how easily the words flow. In the next article, we will discuss fiction, which is arguably the easiest genre to break into.


Can you sell a story idea to someone?

You can’t legally own a story idea. If the story has been done before, copying the idea word-for-word is plagiarism, and THAT will get you into serious legal trouble. But having a unique story idea is not something you can legally own until you publish your book and you have the copyright. So, no, you can’t sell an unpublished story idea to someone.

How do I protect my book idea from being stolen?

The simplest answer is just not to tell anyone about it. But these days, story ideas are not 100% unique, so if someone did write something based on your idea, it would most likely not resemble what you were planning to write. So you can still go ahead and write your own version.

Can I copyright my book idea?

Book ideas are not copyrightable. When the actual book is published, you will have the copyright. But when it is still in the idea stage, there is no copyright protection. The best strategy is to just tell nobody about the story idea and get on with writing it.

Can you use ideas from other books?

You cannot use the exact same story idea, as that is plagiarism which will get you sued by the author of the original idea. However, you can take the concept of the idea and put a new spin on it. No idea is ever 100% unique. It is always an element of many ideas that came before it.

Mark O'Neill

Mark O'Neill

Mark O'Neill is a bestselling award-winning self-published author of the Department 89 spy thriller series. He has also written two other series - The Scorpion and The Undertaker. His books have been translated into German and partly into Spanish. Mark lives in Germany with his wife and dog.

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