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Good Books Solve Problems: The Formula for Influence, Part 9
2023-09-14 Invite Champions Weekly
1. What’s Your Problem?
The number one request of every author used to be, “Get me on Oprah.” Now it is, “Get me on Good Morning America.” Of course, publishers do not employ the producers of such shows, and have no control over these decisions. But as a writer, I get the urge.
The better question, and one we can control is, are the viewers of Good Morning America your prime audience? To whom do you write? This is a question of genre, and will be our focus for the next few weeks. The more well-defined your genre, the bigger your potential.
First, not every book even needs to be on GMA. Most of the books we publish speak to smaller audiences: an example is the upcoming Karen Bartlett title, When Spirituality and Trauma Collide. It is informative, well-written, and designed for professionals at the intersection of Christianity and psychology. GMA’s producers probably wouldn’t choose it for an on-air package (sorry Karen). But that is okay. Her title’s value is not determined by its publicity, most publicity doesn’t offer direct ROI anyway, and many people will benefit from the book even without a GMA appearance.
The larger question, “What’s your problem?” begins with, to whom are you writing? Decide this early on: Are you writing to a niche, or do you want to swing for the fences?
If the latter, let me give you a rubric to think about, using a study of the top 500 best selling “business” titles of the last 20 years.A note before we proceed: I prefer to broaden “business” to trade non-fiction, which is built around problem solving, or “how-to.” How-To is one of four main categories of non-fiction publishing. It is also the biggest and the easiest to create. I can cover the other three later - remind me.
In problem solving books, of which yours is probably one, the main question is, What problem are you trying to solve? The book study keeps to business books and the source data comes from industry standard NPD BookScan. Think about such classics as Good to Great or Rich Dad Poor Dad. The authors of the study wanted to find out, what makes some books stand the test of time, while others die quickly?
The biggest revelation is how universal the best selling business books are. The top books answer basic, human questions. In fact, there’s a relationship: The size of the question you answer dictates the size of your audience.
Today’s bottom line: When you write to solve a problem, the size of the question you answer dictates the size of your audience.
(This assumes you know what question you are trying to answer to begin with.)
While the study analyzed business books, the revelation applies to books in any category, including books about Christian faith. How big is your question?
The study goes on to name seven distinct categories. They are:
We could spend weeks on this dataset. But for today I want to start with the top category only, Personal Development.
Think Clear’s Atomic Habits or Sinek’s Find Your Why. It accounts for 23% of the titles in the study and 31% of revenue. It is over a third better revenue than it its “fair share.” In other words, Personal Development books generate 35% more revenue while using the same amount of real estate, analog or digital, as any other book. It’s why they hang around so long—they’re great for retailer profit margin.
But be careful. As an author, you can easily convince yourself that your book fits “personal development”. There is a significant difference between books defining a concept that may have personal application and books written directly to the reader. To use Invite examples, Telos by Leonard Sweet and I is a book about an idea: we’re defining “the end” biblically and theologically—the fulfillment of all things in relationship to both the kingdom of God and today’s cultural chaos. It has some personal application, but we didn’t built the book around “do this” lessons. On the other hand, Dynamite Prayer is a book on how to achieve “breakthrough prayers” and is written directly to the reader. (Maybe we should have written ours this way. Dynamite Prayer is a fourth of the size of Telos and is exponentially outselling it.)
While not every book needs to be built around steps 1-2-3, every book does need to understand its own genre and audience. You’ve got to train yourself to think in terms of genre or category. Most authors don’t. As evidence, ask yourself: to whom am I writing this book? If your first answer is “everyone” then you haven’t thought through genre yet, nor the problem you’re trying to solve.
If you choose to speak to personal development and want to write to the reader, make the story you tell about them, not you. It’s not that people don’t like you; they’re just too busy thinking about themselves. If you can introduce a question that intersects with their own perceived needs, then you can begin to affect change in their lives. As the study’s authors conclude, “if you want to write a best selling book, the reader needs to understand how and why it’s going to help them directly. Books about interesting topics that don’t give the reader anything immediately actionable to their own lives fall flat.”
To be clear, I am not recommending that all books are prescriptive. Simply, you need to understand what you are trying to accomplish.
You might even consider doing both. Karen Bartlett’s first book is aimed to professionals; she has also written a trade book with a personal development focus which we will publish in 2024. That one might even make it on GMA.
Takeaway: As you write, make some decisions: to whom do you write? What problem do you wish to help that group of people solve? And, do you prefer to introduce them to a broad solution, or give them specific steps to follow?
2. Championing Invite
While it’s always a bit scary to declare a pub list final three months out, our fall Invite Press list is shaping up well. From August to December we have 14 launches, including 10 new titles and 4 “plus one” kits, supplementals and foreign language editions to existing titles. Our new titles are:
The Five Congregational Types: Ancient Revitalization for the 21st Century, by Michael Adam Beck
Astonished by the Word: Reading Scripture for Deep Transformation, by Brian D. Russell
The PING Life: How to Pick Up the Signal When God is Calling, by Shane L. Bishop
Heads and Tails: Following and Leading in Kingdom-Formed Organizations, by Richard Kriegbaum
Come Alive: Ruth, Esther, Jonah, by Talbot Davis
When Spirituality and Trauma Collide: A Guidebook for Practitioners of Soul Care, by Karen Bartlett
How (Not) To Ruin Your Christmas, by Dan Metzger
Trail Guide: 1 Peter, by Shane Bishop
Authentic Manhood, by Steve Snider
Wisdom in Crisis, by Mac Brunson
Our Plus Ones are:
The PING Supplemental Kit, including a journal, Small Groups Leader Guide, and more
The Thief Within Kit
The Secret Power of Kindness Kit
Dynamite Prayer, Spanish Edition
Christopher Lochhead, Eddie Yoon, and Nicolas Cole, Snow Leopard: How Legendary Writers Create a Category of One (San Francisco: Category Pirates, 2022).