👇 Below is an excerpt from Write Useful Books.
📑 For more samples, see the table of contents.
📘 To learn it all, buy the book.
From Chapter 2:
Useful books are a problem-solving product
You can divide nonfiction books into two categories by their purpose to the reader:
- Pleasure-givers (“interesting”, “fascinating”, “beautiful”)
- Problem-solvers (“useful”, “helpful”, “actionable”)
This division determines how the book should be designed and refined, as well as how it will behave at launch and in the marketplace. Pleasure-givers are crafted like art or literature, whereas problem-solvers are designed and tested like products — or at least, they should be.
To become a big hit, pleasure-givers typically rely on either PR momentum or a famous author. If everyone is talking about the biography of Steve Jobs (i.e., PR momentum), then everybody else starts to wonder what it’s all about. A savvy, well-positioned author can ride that wave to great success. Or if someone like Malcolm Gladwell (i.e., a famous author) releases a new title, their long-time fans are likely to give it a look. This obviously works out rather well for the fortunate few, but it’s an unforgiving, winner-take-all environment for new authors.
Problem-solving nonfiction behaves differently; its success is more meritocratic and within your control. This category of books can be reliably designed, tested, and proven to be useful for your readers, even prior to publication, which allows you to largely guarantee that your book will sell, grow, and succeed. This completely changes the risk profile, profitability, and marketing requirements of a successful book.
Confusingly, nearly all of the advice you’ve ever heard about “writing a book” is actually about writing a pleasure-giver. But that advice is at best irrelevant and often harmful when it comes to problem-solvers. So let’s put aside all that faulty intuition and start from scratch.
Make a clear promise and put it on the cover
The first type of book, the pleasure-giver, is always making approximately the same promise. These books will entertain, interest, fascinate, and amuse.
A problem-solver, on the other hand, promises to help the reader deal with a specific and well-defined problem. This could include helping them to:
- Achieve a goal
- Answer a question
- Develop a skill
- Resolve a fear
- Understand a concept
- Undergo a process
- Inspire a change
- Improve their life
Beyond the obvious genres of how-to and tutorials (called “prescriptive nonfiction” in the publishing industry), the category of “problem-solver” can include books within nearly every style, topic, and genre of nonfiction, so long as they make a clear promise. Consider a few examples of popular problem-solvers:
- The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, by Julia Cameron, helps readers reconnect with childlike creativity through a series of daily journaling exercises
- The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics, by Mesquita and Smith, equips readers with a mental model for understanding why politicians make such seemingly insane decisions
- Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain, uses a combination of anecdotes and academic research to help introverts understand, appreciate, and leverage their natural strengths
- The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich, by Tim Ferriss, shares case studies and tools to reassure disillusioned office workers that another path exists
- The Personal MBA: Master the Art of Business, by Josh Kauffman, offers a concise summary and reference of everything covered in a full MBA program
Your book’s promise can be either narrow or broad, so long as it exists. And even if the source material or topic doesn’t feel like a natural fit for a problem-solver, you can generally still find a way to reframe it around clear learning outcomes. For example, a collection of sixteenth-century essays by Michel de Montaigne is, for most readers, a source of “entertainment” in the form of philosophical reflection and humanized history. But by repurposing that same source material around a clear value proposition, Sarah Bakewell created the wonderful philosophical problem-solver How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.
Will and Ariel Durant even applied this tactic to their own books. After spending more than fifty years researching and writing their eleven-volume magnum opus, The Story of History, they distilled it down into a short, 100-page problem-solver called The Lessons of History. Despite the latter taking roughly a fiftieth of the time to write, its sales have outstripped those of all their other books combined. Why? Because it offered readers an outcome instead of just a story.
Specificity is good. When I was learning to sail, I didn’t buy an encyclopedic tome about how to do everything with boats. Instead, I bought a handful of focused problem-solvers with titles like Manoeuvring at Close Quarters Under Power (Johnson), Single-Handed Sailing (Evans), and Living on Twelve Volts with Ample Power (Smead and Ishihara). These books were valuable not in spite of their specificity, but because of it.
My all-time favorite nonfiction title: How to Stay Alive in the Woods, by Bradford Angier. Can you guess what that book is promising? Are you able to judge its relevance to your needs and goals? Can you guess which of your friends might enjoy hearing about it? Of course! Because its author was bold enough to declare who it’s for and what it’s going to achieve for them. And it has sold 800k copies across twenty years despite competing against plenty of similar books that are arguably better. In my view, that’s the direct result of making a clearer promise on the cover.
Here’s the secret to a five-star Amazon rating: be clear enough about the promise that people can decide they don’t need it. It may seem counterintuitive to try to drive potential readers away. But good books receive bad reviews after making too broad of a promise and tricking the wrong people into buying. You can’t fully prevent bad reviews from ever happening, but you can certainly make them a rare exception by knowing who your book is for.