Why You Should Write a ‘Big Idea’ Book to Launch Your New Category

Book Writing

Your big decision when planning to write the book to introduce your new category is to decide what type of book to write. Business books are categorized as nonfiction, and the most common type of nonfiction business book is the “how-to” book. In a “how-to” book, you teach the steps about how to achieve something that your company can do for your market. The idea behind teaching people how to do what you already do with your product or service is to demonstrate your expertise in the topic. If your market sees you as the expert, they tend to decide you’re the best person for the job, and they’ll hire you.

But in these pages, we’re talking about the power of introducing a brand new category to the market through a Startup Book. You can’t write a “how-to” book if your market isn’t already sold on your new category. Which presents a dilemma: what type of nonfiction book can you actually write to persuade your target market to buy into your point of view on the world, and accept your new category as the ideal way to solve a problem that afflicts them?

I suggest you write a ‘Big Idea’ book.

The Four Nonfiction Genres

Tim Grahl and Shawn Coyne. Source: Jeff Goins

Shawn Coyne and Tim Grahl, partners of The StoryGrid, broke down nonfiction books into four high-level nonfiction genres: Academic, How-To, Narrative Storytelling, and Big Idea book. Let’s look at each one individually to see their structure and purpose, and then I’ll explain why I think the ‘Big Idea’ book is the best book structure for introducing a new category.

The Academic Book

If you’re a medical researcher, an archeologist, a nuclear physicist, a political scientist, an economist, or any number of research-oriented professions, the academic book is for you. These are books written with academic rigor. The authors base their material on detailed first-hand research and experiments based on the scientific method. Their purpose is to advance their field, and their audience are other practitioners in the field. Doctoral dissertations follow the ‘Academic Book’ structure.

The ‘Academic Book’ is aimed at a very specific, narrow audience. They typically don’t include lots of background information to provide context. Authors assume their audience already knows and understands the context. ‘Academic Book’ authors also use the insider language of the profession, without the need to explain terms, since it’s assumed the audience already knows the terms.

The ‘How-To’ Book

The ‘How-To’ book is like a course in book form. It aims to teach a novice audience how to do something, such as “How to create mind-blowing ChatGPT prompts,” or “How to Feng Shui Your House.” 

The authors of ‘How-To’ books take the posture of an expert teaching a newbie audience, and sets themselves up as the authority in the space.

Narrative Nonfiction

“Narrative Nonfiction” books look like fiction books, but they’re actually real-life stories. They read like a novel, but explain actual events. This genre is based on the ‘New Journalism’ of the ‘60s and ‘70s, in which the journalist is more of a subjective protagonist in the story, rather than an objective reporter.

Examples of narrative nonfiction are “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” the often shocking look at the California flower power movement of the 1960s, and “Killers of the Flower Moon,” which spurred the movie of the same name, starring Robert DeNiro and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Big Idea Nonfiction

What is big idea nonfiction, and why do I recommend you write a big idea book for your category-defining manifesto? With a big idea book, you introduce a new idea, a new paradigm, a new way of looking at the world that breaks with established or accepted ways of seeing the world. The author takes you on a journey of discovery, like an adventure story in which the author is the protagonist, and encounters a cast of characters, such as academics, regular everyday people, and other experts and non-experts, to reveal, little-by-little, how this new way of looking at the world actually works.

Shawn Coyne and Tim Grahl, in a series of podcast episodes on their Story Grid Writing Podcast, discussed big idea nonfiction by analyzing Malcolm Gladwell’s best selling book “The Tipping Point.” In the “The Tipping Point,” Gladwell takes you on an adventure, with himself as the author/protagonist, discovering these strange viral events (like the sudden resurgence in popularity of Buster Brown shoes), and discovers, through interviews, research, news stories, and observations, how these viral events happen, and how you can engineer them for yourself.

Coyne, over more than five episodes of his podcast, teaches Grahl, his partner in their company Story Grid, a self-proclaimed “….struggling writer trying to figure out how to write a story that works,” (I love the premise of the podcast), that a big idea nonfiction book combines all three nonfiction genres:

  1. They borrow from Academic Nonfiction by diligently researching, or surveying the existing research, to make the factual argument for their case. Gladwell researches the academic literature about how things go viral by reaching a ‘tipping point’ through a combination of factors, like The Law of the Few, The Stickiness Factor, and The Power of Context.
  2. They borrow from How To Books in that a big idea book teaches you how to achieve the thing discussed in the book.
  3. They borrow from Narrative Nonfiction because they take elements of storytelling commonly used in fiction, to capture reader’s attention and make them part of the story.
Slow Productivity by Cal Newport

I recently read Cal Newport’s new book, “Slow Productivity: The Lost Art of Accomplishment Without Burnout,” a big idea book that beautifully follows the structure described by Coyne. 

“Slow Productivity” is a wide-ranging tome about how our frenetic pace of work in the 21st Century is all wrong, and how knowledge workers (there’s a term coined by Peter Drucker in one of his many books about management), especially those of us involved in creative pursuits, such as writers, software developers, designers, researchers, academics, need to slow down, do less, and focus on quality in order to produce our best work.

Newport opens the book with a scene straight out of fiction – an ‘inciting incident’ if you will – that sucks you into the drama of The New Yorker magazine writer John McPhee:

In the summer of 1966, toward the end of his second year as a staff writer for The New Yorker, John McPhee found himself on a picnic table under an ash tree in his backyard near Princeton, New Jersey. “I lay down on it for nearly two weeks, staring up into the branches and leaves, fighting fear and panic,” he recalls in his 20127 book, “Draft No. 4.

This opening sequence uses a classic narrative technique that places the reader right in the middle of a story. It gets you asking yourself: “Why is this guy just laying on his picnic table for two weeks? Shouldn’t he be writing articles? Will he get fired? Why is he fighting fear and panic?

McPhee had received an assignment from his editor “…which tackled the impossibly broad topic of the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey…” But McPhee “..was attempting to do much more.”

Instead of writing a focused profile, he had to weave the stories of multiple characters, including extensive re-creation of dialogue and visits to specific settings. Instead of summarizing the history of a single object, he had to dive into the geological, ecological, and even political backstory of an entire region.

A truly daunting task.

After eight months of research and interviews (he had gathered “enough material to fill a silo”), and two weeks doing nothing except staring at the branches of the trees in his backyard from his picnic table, he finally found an answer to how to tackle this overwhelming project. It came to him in a flash.

What Carl Newport does with this opening sequence is set the stage for the big idea of his book (what Coyne describes as “the controlling idea”): 

This initial insight developed into the core idea that this book will explore: perhaps knowledge workers’ problem is not with productivity in a general sense, but instead with a specific faulty definition of this term that has taken hold in recent decades. The relentless overload that’s wearing us down is generated by a belief that “good” work requires increasing business – faster responses to email and chats, more meetings, more tasks, more hours. But when we look closer at this premise, we fail to find firm foundation.

And then Newport succinctly describes the big idea, the premise, for his book:

Slow Productivity

A philosophy for organizing knowledge work efforts in a sustainable and meaningful manner, based on the following three principles:

  1. Do fewer things.
  2. Work at a natural pace.
  3. Obsess over quality.

When you write your big idea book, you’re introducing a new concept that contradicts current received knowledge about the world. Newport’s premise about slow productivity contradicts the current obsession with ‘hustle culture.’ And the opening scene makes us feel uncomfortable: why is McPhee lazing around on his picnic table when he should be writing? 

The rest of the book is a delightful journey, or rather adventure, in which Newport takes us to the ancient Greek philosophers, scientists from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, modern knowledge workers, research, interviews, and his own experiences. 

An important thing to notice about big idea books, is that authors like Cal Newport, Malcolm Gladwell, and others, don’t set themselves up as the “experts,” handing down knowledge on tablets from high on the mountain like Moses did. They set themselves up as characters in the story, inviting you and me, as equals, to join them on an adventure. In fact Gladwell, when discussing his book in an interview, said “…I like to think of it as an intellectual adventure story.”