Discover more from Len Wilson
Don’t Focus on What Its About: The Formula for Influence, Part 8
2023-09-07 Champions Weekly
1. The Fruit Not the Seed
When I worked at the United Methodist Publishing House, we ran a survey to 75,000 people on our email list. Among other things, we found out that the average buyer purchased 11 books a year, but only read 2.
Most book buying is aspirational.
Why do we buy? My theory is that, most of the time, we buy a book because we are curious. We think it may solve a question. But the question isn’t really that urgent. We want to dive in. We will even leave the book on our nightstand for two months and begin to feel like we’ve read it simply because we’ve stared at the cover for so long. But when it comes down to it, the book’s premise lacks urgency, so it gets buried under other choices.
Let me interrupt myself for a moment to say that some industry publishers don’t care. They’ll say, the purpose is the purchase. I disagree. Invite is a ministry. Our desire is for readers to actually care, then share. This is in part why our mission is to share the promise of Christ’s new creation.
Anyway, back to the urgency question. How do we overcome ennui? Successful books solve real and urgent problems. They pass the “so what” test for readers, or as my friend and Invite advisor Forrest Pool says, they pass the WIFM test: What’s In It For Me. We want books that offer a clear solution to what for many is an urgent problem.
Your Key Discovery
Last week I addressed how the cover is the visual representation of a solution you’re offering to the world. Which begs the question: to nail the cover, you’ve got to know what your solution is. Sounds simple, but naming a single clear solution that you’re offering the world is one of the harder things to do as an author. Our problem as writers is that we tend to bury the lede. We don’t realize what we’ve got until later.
Partly, this is just what happens. The old axiom to “write what you know” isn’t really accurate. What mostly happens is that we write about what we learn. Writing a book is an intellectual adventure, and the manuscript is the journal. Most books end up becoming a list of features—attributes of our thesis. A checklist of writer pit stops along the trail.
Don’t focus on what it’s about; focus on how it helps others. Having documented the journey, the shift for the creator is to reframe your message around the key discovery. Lately I have been wondering if it is perhaps better, having written the first draft of the manuscript, to identify the solutions you’ve named and then rewrite the entire book around the key discovery. The downside is that this takes another six months, when most authors (and publishers) are eager to get to market.
Features vs Benefits
To use marketing language, it is a question of “features versus benefits,” or as I call it, the fruit not the seed.
Today’s bottom line: Readers want the end result. They’re looking for the fruit, not the seed.
To help process this a bit, consider the simple apple. What are its attributes? An apple is…
crispy and red
full of vitamins
Maybe you have other descriptions. These are the features that tell us what an apple is. But what does it do?
keeps you regular
helps you lose weight
helps you live longer
keeps the doctor away
These benefits are what an apple does. Features describe what something is. Benefits suggest how it will make your life better. The process of writing a book reveals the attributes of your thesis. But what readers purchase are the ways it applies to their problems.
To help people, and to sell more books, think not in terms of features but in terms of benefits. Features come from the developer’s perspective. Benefits come from the user’s perspective. Features are insider. Benefits are outsider.
This core concept is simple yet surprisingly difficult to implement. You’ve got to train yourself to spot the difference.
I used to speak about the creative use of screens in worship. I had a lot of grandiose ideas about why screens were vital to worship and ministry and the role of art and aesthetic experience in spiritual formation. But nine times out of ten, in the subsequent question and answer session, I’d hear the same question: Now, what kind of projector do you recommend?
I’d get annoyed at the “101” nature of it all. In my enthusiasm, I’d fail to recognize that people aren’t insider like me. I wanted to talk about details, nuance and the finer points of the features. But the people to whom I was speaking were rarely there with me. They were beginners; they wanted the basics. They needed clear benefits.
I would complain to friends, but in my complaints I lost sight of the reason I was invited to begin with. Readers want the end result. They’re looking for the fruit, not the seed.
Takeaway: What is the end result for the reader if they spend their precious time engaging with your idea?
2. Championing Invite: How to Reframe Your Work Around the Key Benefit
Perhaps you’re thinking, how do you spot the fruit of your work? In an entree orchard, you might have one perfect apple. That’s the one to use!
The way you find it is to field test.
Over the months or years you develop your work, constantly test your writing with little elevator conversations. What bubbles up? What do you end up talking about the most? Most manuscript proposals that come to Invite Press are not field tested. I often tell prospective authors to try their book out: run a workshop. If a pastor, do a sermon series. Cook it more.
At Invite Press, we have been guilty of releasing a book too early. We have learned a lot of hard lessons, and spent a lot of money, in starting a press from scratch. Some of our early titles, in particular, became guinea pigs to our market tests.
Our second release was Solid Souls, by Arthur Jones. (That’s it: no subtitle. Oof.) The book is a well written and insightful exploration into not only what a soul is, but why it matters for your life. But here I am explaining why it should be interesting to you. You wouldn’t know it by the title, would you? We learned the features vs benefits lesson the hard way.
Even worse, the concept of the “soul” is the feature, but there’s no mention of the benefit, which is life trajectory.
Arthur uses the shriveled up, gray characters from C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce as an example of what happens when you “spend” your soul in life. Then he encourages the readers to make life choices that lead to a more solid soul. They way it works is the key, though—you can make a choice in life that seems to make no difference to your soul, one way or the other. But it does, in little increments. It’s a question of trajectory. The choices you make in life put you on a trajectory toward an end that is rich and flourishing, or an end that is hollowed out.
I have found myself telling my teenagers about trajectory—it’s a highly useful lesson from the book. Are they making choices that put them on a good trajectory or not?
Arthur discovered the life trajectory piece as he was writing. The book presents it as a feature—one of many pit stops from his intellectual adventure. Turns out, it’s the key benefit. As his publisher, I didn’t realize it at the time—it was only later, when I found myself using it to parent, that I realized we had highlighted the wrong thing. We should have reframed the entire book around life trajectory.
Here’s a bonus takeaway for this week: field test your book. When forced to quickly summarize your book to friends and acquaintances, what do you talk about most often? Maybe that’s the benefit, and what you should build your book around.