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).
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 PersonCategory-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 ActionCategory-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.
- Define your tension statement, and test it through conversations and sharing elements of the tension statement on social media for reactions.
- 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.
- Interview individuals who ‘fit your category.’ You’ll learn from conversations and discussions with experts in the field.
- Write personal stories that align to the unconventional aspect of your own story.
- Write your introduction to make the case for this new category.
- Define the sub-elements of the category through your working Table of Contents.
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.