Six Core Actions to Define Your Book Category Before You Write

To Make a Book That Changes the World (or your corner of it), You Must Reject a Current Premise.

Why do certain books spread while others languish in obscurity?   It’s the question most authors wrestle with at the start of their book journey — and a question that often causes paralysis among writers. You could argue that it’s the writing, it’s the author, it’s the topic, it’s the timing, or it’s the combination of all of these that cause a book to spread.   We believe books that spread nearly all define a new category. The trick is designing a book that defines yours (don’t worry, you’ll have help!)

What is Category Design?

Category design is an emerging business strategy companies and individuals have employed to stand out and gain market share (rapidly) in large, crowded, competitive markets. Often confused with ‘going after a niche,’ category design is best described as a holistic approach to examine at a narrow initial opportunity through a brand’s products, culture, storytelling, and business model. By beginning with a narrow initial opportunity, category designers can quickly grab market share and expand rapidly. Per Wikipedia, Category design was first proposed in the book Play Bigger The book lays out a justification for why category creation is an important strategy and includes a step-by-step guide to applying design thinking to category creation:
  • discovering and defining a category problem,
  • creating a clear story (called a point-of-view) that explains and sells the category idea,
  • defining a category blueprint,
  • driving the category strategy across a company's stakeholders (mobilization),
  • shaping customers' thinking (lightning strikes).
The concepts tie back into recent writings about how our brains work, particularly cognitive biases as described by Daniel Kahneman. The good category takes advantage of cognitive biases such as the choice supportive bias and group think bias. An example of category design in new products is Dr. Squatch soap and men's products. Seeing a gap in the market for men’s soap, Dr. Squatch has built a rapidly growing, multi-million dollar business by designing a category around soap for men. They successfully built their business with storytelling, hyper-targeted internet advertising, and an expanding product suite of extension products. This approach of designing a category has led other mass-market soap companies to ‘follow’ their lead with new products. Dr. Squatch did not ‘go after a niche’ (as it did not necessarily exist), but they holistically developed a category around an underserved or underappreciated market. Dr. Squatch defined a new category by rejecting the current premise that soap is soap.  In particular, category design is critical because it enables an upstart to stand out in a relatively crowded market. What we know from category design in business/innovation is that there are usually a set of ‘winners’ in newly defined categories (the ‘law of six to ten’). Wikipedia goes on to say: Data research shows that "category kings" (companies that dominate a market category) that go public when they are between six and ten years old create most of the value among all VC-funded tech companies. Companies that go public sooner than six years old often lose value; companies that IPO after ten years old create little value for shareholders. The reason is thought to be that categories take around six years to develop, and most of a category's growth happens in that six to ten year timeframe. After ten years, a category is established and growth slows, so share prices level off. This was discussed in a Harvard Business Review article titled "How Unicorns Grow."

What Is a Book Category?

First, let’s talk about what is not a Book Category: the category or subcategory your book is listed under on Amazon or shelved under in a bookstore. While those are categories , . . they are not designed categories. We define your book’s designed category as a niche the author owns (or attempts to own). If this were an Amazon category, you’d be the only book in it (or one of a small handful) . . .and if it were a category in the bookstore, yours would be the only one on the shelf (or one of a very few).   Second, the best way to think about defining a book category is to fill a meaningful gap in the knowledge market. Books that offer an unconventional, underappreciated, or new approach to a substantial problem can define a new category of thinking. Category-defining books often elicit a reaction from their early fans of “I always thought that too . . .” We typically find books that define new categories are based on two distinct approaches:
  • Defining a type of person
  • Defining a type of action

Type of Person

Category-defining books often describe a new type of person, a person who your readers may aspire to be or become. Examples include: Originals by Adam Grant; Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell; Untamed and Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle; and even the Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins defined a new fictional character persona through Katniss Everdeen (the pure heroine).

Type of Action

Category-defining books often describe a new type of action, an action your readers may aspire to do or do more. Examples include: Start with Why by Simon Sinek; Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert; Daring Greatly by Brene Brown; Atomic Habits by James Clear; and even novels like Ready Player One by Ernest Cline defined a new action in virtual reality, and They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera defined a new YA story genre about living vs. dying.   To be clear, these are not the only reasons these books did well, but by defining a new category it enables them to capture an underserved niche quickly. Most of these books mentioned above have had ‘fast followers’ of other books similarly themed and designed to capture the momentum they created.  

How Can You Design a Book Category?

To make a book that defines a new category, you must reject a current premise. We define this process as establishing the book’s tension statement. A tension statement is how your book will reject conventional wisdom. It’s a challenging proposition, but also core to defining a new category.  For example, Dr. Squatch had to reject the proposition or premise that soap is soap is soap. Instead, Dr. Squatch has made every aspect of its advertising, marketing, branding, and storytelling around the idea that modern men should reject the premise that soap is soap (if you watch their advertising, they go after body wash, non-masculine scents, and chemicals).   Similarly, Simon Sinek rejected that you start with how, Adam Grant rejected that originals are risk takers, Brene Brown rejected that courage is rejecting fear, and even Suzanne Collins rejected that young heroines need saving in Hunger Games. That’s why the core of designing a book category is explicitly attacking conventional wisdom:

Nearly everyone thinks or believes _____.

And in fact _____.

But based on my research, experience, hunch, and interviews, I believe _____.

I saw this in my own life when ______.

And you even see this in the experiences of ____ and _____.

For example, in Super Mentors (Koester, 2022), the tension statement is that “nearly everyone thinks you need a mentor, but I’ve found you actually need a project.” In Pennymores (Koester, 2022), the tension statement is that “nearly everyone thinks you cast magic with a wand, but in Pennymores, you write magic with a quill.”

How Does the Positioning Process Help You to Define Your Book Category?

I find there are six important steps in the process of defining and validating your book’s category.  
  1. Define your tension statement, and test it through conversations and sharing elements of the tension statement on social media for reactions.
  2. Research stories of others who ‘fit your category.' Through that process, you'll work to identify 20-30 stories from podcasts, interviews, TED Talks, panels, and articles of individuals who also reject convention and operate in this unconventional manner.
  3. Interview individuals who ‘fit your category.’ You’ll learn from conversations and discussions with experts in the field.
  4. Write personal stories that align to the unconventional aspect of your own story.
  5. Write your introduction to make the case for this new category.
  6. Define the sub-elements of the category through your working Table of Contents.
The important thing about defining a category for your book is recognizing that it is not about being completely ‘unique’ — meaning just because others are offering a similar thought process or thinking. It’s not about finding a niche — looking to tap into a specific audience. Defining a category for your book involves rejecting a current premise, and making the case why you’ve spotted this trend early, and soon others will see this too. You don’t need to be the only; you need to be early. * * * This process is challenging, but thankfully, we’ve been able to help hundreds of authors do just this . . .leading them to meaningful early success in their categories and for their businesses. We describe this process as helping ‘orient your compass.’ How will you know your book has the potential to define a category? You need to understand conventional wisdom, have a clear way to reject it and propose a different path, framework, or way of thinking. Then you’ll need to build evidence of this future state through research, interviews, conversations, and stories. You’ll need to write the book . . . and spread the message to others who feel similarly, relying on them to continue to spread it for you.   You will write a category-defining book. But defining a new category through that book requires conversations, collaborations, speeches, writing, book tours, products, and much more (that’s the fun and challenging part). But you must start with a process to write a category-defining book first . . . otherwise, you won’t have the opportunity for it to help you define a new category.
Eric Koester is the founder and CEO of Creator Institute, a b-corporation whose mission is to inspire, teach and support tomorrow’s creators — authors, podcasters, speakers, entrepreneurs, corporate innovators and course builders. Through his work he’s coached nearly 1,000 first-time creators. He is also a Professor of Entrepreneurship & Innovation at Georgetown University and the school’s only two-time entrepreneurship professor of the year, faculty at Growth University, and the executive director of the Intrapreneur Institute, which researches, trains and develops future innovation leaders.
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