Become Known For A Niche You Own: Why Legendary Writers Use Languaging To Design New & Different Categories
Most writers spend their entire careers thinking in the context of “better.”
Dear Friend, Subscriber, and fellow Category Pirate,
Standout writers are category designers.
And standout category designers are writers.
Peter Drucker is considered one of the greatest management “thinkers” of all time.
He is best known for being a distinguished teacher—first as Professor of Politics and Philosophy at Bennington College, then as Professor of Management at the Graduate Business School of New York University, and Clarke Professor of Social Science at Claremont Graduate School in California. But if there is one overarching concept Drucker is best known for, it's his belief that every person was responsible for his or her own acquisition of learning.
How Drucker did this himself was through writing.
He is the author of 39 books, including the best-seller (must read), The Effective Executive. He also held a column in the Wall Street Journal for more than a decade—while also frequently contributing work to Harvard Business Review, The Atlantic, and The Economist. By the end of his lifetime, his writings had been translated into more than 36 different languages, and been read all over the world.
So why did Drucker write so much, if he was really a teacher and educator first?
Because writing was his way of clarifying his thinking.
Most writers spend their entire careers thinking in the context of “better.”
Writing education programs promise to help you become a “better” writer.
Agents and publishers encourage writers to (this drives us mad), “Mention books similar to yours” when trying to land a book deal.
Conventional wisdom in the world of words is that in order to “make it” as a writer, you need to find what worked for someone else and then do that. Or, find what worked for someone else and then do the same thing, but better. (Good luck being a “better” writer than Shakespeare, Dickens, or Dickinson.)
In reality, this advice is why the vast majority of writers live in poverty.
According to the New York Times, “The median pay for full-time writers was $20,300 in 2017, and that number decreased to $6,080 when part-time writers were considered. The latter figure reflects a 42% drop since 2009, when the median was $10,500. These findings are the result of an expansive 2018 study of more than 5,000 published book authors, across genres and including both traditional and self-published writers.”
What studies like these fail to take into account (similar to articles like The Creator Economy Needs A Middle Class in HBR) is that hierarchies and social class structures only exist in “better” games. Measuring the median pay for full-time writers only matters if you want to be “better” than the competition. But “better” is rarely what unlocks exponential rewards for writers (or for anyone, in any industry).
Instead, your goal as a writer should be to be different.
More specifically, your goal should be to illustrate different *thinking*—not just say what has already been said, “better.” Drucker wasn’t a “better” management writer. His point of view was that “big business and nonprofit enterprises were the defining innovation of the 20th century,” which led him to pioneer social and management theories that ended up changing the way the world thought about work, teams, business responsibilities, labor leverage and laws, and more. He was even the one to Frame, Name, and Claim the term “knowledge workers”—meaning laborers who do not use their hands, but their minds in combination with scalable technologies.
Peter Drucker wouldn’t have become “Peter Drucker” had he regurgitated the same old, same old “management best practices” that came before him, “better.” No matter how talented of a technical writer he may have been.
The reason he became THE ONE AND ONLY “Peter Drucker” is because he was not easily compared to anyone already in the category of business writer.
Because if you are comparable, that also means you’re replaceable.
And if you’re easily replaceable, then you’re one of the many writers who fade into nothingness (and end up earning less than minimum wage for your work in the process).
Frame it, Name it, and Claim it.
In our last letter, we wrote about the power of Languaging.
Languaging = the strategic use of language to change thinking.
Most writers don’t realize differentiation in writing has very little to do with the actual words on the page, and has everything to do with the words you use to illustrate different thinking. For example, The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell is one of the best-selling books of our time, and has sold more than 3 million copies to date. If you haven’t read it, the book is about “that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire.” Said differently, the book is basically an explanation of how word-of-mouth marketing works.
Is that a novel idea?
Not really. There are lots of books on “word-of-mouth” and even more on “marketing.”
What made it seem novel was the new & specific language (the Framing, Naming, and Claiming) Gladwell used to redefine (or redesign) the topic. Had Gladwell been playing the “better” game, as so many writers often do, the title of his book likely would have been something like: Better, Faster Word-Of-Mouth Marketing. He’d have fallen right into the “better” trap, and likely become a statistic: “The median pay for full-time writers was $20,300 in 2017.”
The nuance here most people fail to notice is that Gladwell successfully created a new term for an old idea. And in doing so, he became known as “The Tipping Point guy,” first, and “a really great writer,” second. If you take Gladwell’s MasterClass, you will learn some pretty cool things about how to improve your writing (that is to say: become a “better” writer). But what you will not learn is how Malcolm became “Malcolm Gladwell”—which happened by using languaging to give this familiar, unoriginal idea a new definition.
He called it something different.
He made it fresh and “new.”
And since he was the one to create the distinction, he became known for the idea—which, to a reader, appears as different thinking. Say “The Tipping Point,” and someone in the room will undoubtedly say, “You’ve read Malcolm Gladwell!”
Why Every Writer Should Master The Art Of Languaging
All three of us Pirates write.
We do lots of other things, too. Pirate Christopher has two chart-topping podcasts, gives keynote speeches here and there, runs workshops with Silicon Valley venture capital firms, and advises a couple of startups on category design. Pirate Eddie advises Fortune 500 executives and venture capital and private equity backed category creators looking to go public on how to grow revenues and their valuations using category design principles. He also gives keynote speeches, and (on occasion) appears on CNBC to talk about company performance in the public markets. And Pirate Cole co-runs the largest daily writing habit cohort-based curriculum for writers on the Internet, while ghostwriting for C-level executives, founders, and investors (while also writing his own books and viral Twitter threads).
But in addition to our entrepreneurial endeavors, we have used writing (and more importantly, languaging) to further separate ourselves from any and all comparison—and simultaneously clarify our own thinking. Pirate Christopher has contributed to Fortune, and is the author of two must-read business books, Niche Down and Play Bigger (which is in the top 1% of business books). Pirate Eddie has contributed to Harvard Business Review for years, and is the author of Superconsumers with Harvard Business Review Press. And Pirate Cole has written more than 3,000 articles online, including 400+ for Inc Magazine exclusively, and is the author of The Art & Business of Online Writing, the must-read beginners guide to anyone looking to become a writer in the digital age.
As a result, we have all become known for niches we own. (Pirate Cole, the “digital writer;” Pirate Eddie, the “category guru to the Fortune 500;” Pirate Christopher, the “category design godfather to tech startups.”) Our individual success is not based exclusively on the quality of our work. Lots of people are “good” at the things we do.
We are successful because we are known for niches we own.
Languaging + Category Design = Legendary, Differentiated Career
Pirate Christopher has dyslexia. (And dyscalculia, and ADHD.)
When Pirate Eddie landed a column with HBR, his wife said, “How? You’re a terrible writer!”
And Pirate Cole didn’t know the difference between “your” and “you’re” until he was almost 21 years old.
There are a lot of writers who are “better” than we are at writing. A lot.
Do you know their names?
Neither do we.
Another way of thinking about this would be: lots of writers are “better” than the 3 of us at different aspects of writing down words. But where else can you read about Languaging, and Superconsumers, and The Magic Triangle of category design? Our writing doesn’t have to be “better.” It illustrates different thinking, and it’s not easily replaceable. That’s why you value it, fellow Pirate. It was done on purpose. We didn’t wait for the world to “discover” us. We didn’t compare ourselves to business writers/thinkers of the past. We got busy evangelizing our “different.” And when enough people “got” our point of view, our careers as writers/creators tipped. ARRRRRRRR!
When you write, you are engaging in the process of clarifying your thinking. When you clarify your thinking, you have the opportunity to differentiate your thoughts from other unclarified thinkers and writers. When your thoughts become more and more differentiated than anything that currently exists, people listen. And when people listen, you become “the authority.”
However, in order to become known for a niche you own (which is what separates the wealthy 1% of creators from the impoverished “creative middle class”), you must take this one step further and invent new language to draw clear distinctions between what you’re saying and what everyone else is saying. When Pirate Christopher calls his podcast a “dialogue podcast,” he is inventing language that separates what he does from what everyone else does (which is edit their podcasts and remove the little riffs and tangents that make dialogues authentic). Or when Pirate Cole calls himself a “data-driven writer,” he is inventing language that separates how he approaches writing (using data gathered on social platforms) versus how “the old world” writes (alone, wearing a chapeau, smoking a corn cob pipe, staring out the window waiting for inspiration to strike). When Pirate Eddie calls consumers who know your category better than anyone else and are willing to spend 30%-70% for your products/services “Superconsumers,” that’s languaging.
And like Malcolm Gladwell and “The Tipping Point,” languaging is how you become known for a niche or an idea bigger than yourself.
Being a Skilled Writer is Not the Same as Languaging
There is a difference between being a skilled writer and a writer who has the skill set of languaging.
We’ve met many skilled writers throughout our careers. They are incredible at what they do, and their talents are important. But that doesn’t mean they are legendary at languaging (and is why many spend their whole careers earning a modest salary writing for a major publication or working at a marketing agency instead of becoming known for a niche they own and achieving financial freedom).
Furthermore, we know many excellent writers with far more impressive credentials than the three of us combined: PhDs in English/Literature from Ivy League Schools, editors of top tier publications, and so on. These folks play an important role in helping currently established voices and entities tell their stories “better,” but in the end they can’t create content that stands alone (in the sense that if their entire livelihood was based upon customers paying for their words, they wouldn’t be able to buy groceries or pay their rent). They help write books, but they don’t write books themselves. They can critique, but they can’t create. They don’t change the course of the world.
This is because they have no point of view. They have nothing to say.
There are thousands of great writers. But there is only one “Tipping Point guy.”
While we’re talking about writers in this Category Pirates “mini-book”, this applies to every type of creator and every type of company.
Because every creator and every company is, and needs to be, a media company. A creator or a company without a media component today is like a creator or a company without a website. Part (if not all) of being a thought leader means “sharing your leading thoughts” aka your Point Of View with the world, because the creator or company that sets the agenda in the space creates the space and dominates the space.
How do you do that? With words.
And how do you distribute those words? By becoming a valuable media company.
And while the Direct-To-Creator model applies to writers and creators, it also applies exactly to corporations.
If you aren’t earning six figures or more as a writer, you don’t have a writing problem.
You have a languaging problem.
You could be the most talented writer on the planet, but if you are not strategically using language to change the way people think about and perceive who you are and what you write about, you are failing to draw a distinction between you and everyone else. Worse, you are probably doing the opposite of languaging, which means you are using unclarified, undifferentiated language and unconsciously inviting in comparison: you are telling the world you’re “the same” as everyone else, which means you are easily replaceable. And anyone or anything that is easily replaceable is perceived to be “not rare” or “not valuable.” A commodity.
Languaging & category design is about creating the opposite of a commodity.
To put a fine point on it: becoming known for a niche you own is not dependent upon you achieving anything externally. It’s not about getting the blue checkmark on Twitter, or having a column with The Atlantic, or even becoming a New York Times best-selling author. It’s about inventing new language to represent new and differentiated ideas, and educating people on the differences between what you’re saying versus what has been said before (old vs new).
When you do this, and you refine and clarify your thinking (through writing) over the years, you “write the book” on the subject.
And he or she who writes the book on the subject is perceived to be the leader.
As Isaac Morehouse, CEO of Crash, puts it: “Be your own credential.”
Why The Traditional Publishing World Is Dying—And Direct-To-Creator Is Thriving
The traditional publishing world played a mean trick on writers.
Over the past ten years, books (in every genre: health and wellness, psychology, relationships, life advice, but most especially, business) have gone from being “books” to glorified business cards. Writers have been taught (languaging used for evil, not good) that selling books is hard, readers don’t buy books anymore, and it’s far better to think of your book (or any of your intellectual property) as a means to an end: attracting clients, landing speaking gigs, “positioning yourself as a thought leader,” and so on.
The myth here is: “You don’t want the value of what you wrote. You want the value of the opportunities your writing creates.”
Which means becoming a mercenary, not a missionary.
But if selling books is so hard, and readers don’t buy books anymore, then why does Penguin Random House publish 15,000 new titles every year?Because these companies make money off the value of what you wrote—and the less you value it, the easier it is for them to acquire it from you.
The single greatest misstep writers, authors, and business leaders make in the world of “content” is trading (or misvaluing) ownership over their scalable assets.
Writers think “books don’t sell,” and would rather take the perceived credibility of being published by a traditional publisher to warrant higher speaking and consulting fees.
In reality, undifferentiated books don’t sell. Differentiated books sell like hell!
And if you have a differentiated book, and you knew it was differentiated, wouldn’t you want to own 100% of it (just like a differentiated startup)?
Harry Potter would have sold millions of copies regardless of whether or not it was traditionally published—it was that “different.” Same with word-of-mouth-wildfire books like The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck (6 million copies sold), or Atomic Habits (2 million copies sold).
Were these authors still financially successful despite their deals with traditional publishers? Of course they were. A six-figure advance and making a million bucks in royalties is an amazingly rare outcome.
It just feels like peanuts when you know, while you made a million, your publisher made ten.
The direct-to-creator business model is (slowly) making writers realize their treasure chests have been getting looted.
For the first time in history, the digital revolution has created agency around ownership and monetization of content. Self-publishing on Amazon creates agency. Self-publishing on Substack creates agency. Launching a website in 15 minutes on Squarespace, uploading an eBook or PDF document for sale, and processing payments via Stripe creates agency.
Now, the myth writers got sold—”write a book, lose money, and you’ll get more clients”—is proving false.
And the mega-category tailwind accelerating this shift is the move from Native Analog to Native Digital.
In a non-scalable, analog environment (the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, for example), an argument could be made for giving away your intellectual capital to get more analog work: consulting, speaking, and so on. But everyone in 2021 knows what you really want (the holy grail of 21st century “work”) is to scale your digital business and shrink your analog business. Why would you trade valuable IP with a 99% profit margin and an increasing returns business model for an analog business that requires you to trade hours for dollars (regardless of the premium)?
In the same way Native Digitals (Millennials and Gen Zers) are 180 degrees different from Native Analogs (Baby Boomers and Gen Xers), the new model for becoming a legendary writer, creator, and even company is 180 degrees different from the old model. So much so, that writers who continue to associate themselves and their writing with old, analog platforms and business models (like writing for an undifferentiated publication like Inc or Forbes) now run the risk of damaging their digital reputations (Pirate Cole and Pirate Christopher both stopped writing for these types of undifferentiated publications a long time ago). In writing for these analog platforms, and adhering to business models that take advantage of the creator, you are (unconsciously) announcing your lack of differentiation to the world. Maybe more importantly, you’re also announcing that you believe you need THEIR brand to build YOUR reputation.
Which, by definition, means you are not legendary (and bad at business).
“Eagles don’t flock.” — Rick Bennett
Now is the greatest time in history to be a writer.
Languaging in the context of category design combined with a direct-to-creator business model is how you build a legendary career.
Few writers think this way.
Instead, the vast majority want to feel “discovered” and validated by a 3rd-party publisher, magazine, company, or platform. They are willing to trade this feeling of acceptance for a) becoming known for a niche they own, b) having agency and freedom, and c) leveraging the new direct-to-creator business model and actually making money. They would rather have the blue checkmark of approval than have people actually listen to what they have to say and be financially rewarded for their ability to successfully do so.
This same phenomenon exists in the marketing world.
There are many ads and campaigns that win awards and receive prestigious recognition at fancy industry events and festivals (Cannes Lions, for example) that were not successful at making the cash register sing. For example, in 2011, Jell-O launched a campaign called “Pudding Face,” created by another-advertising-agency-named-after-its-founders (Crispin Porter + Bogusky), complete with an interactive website & interactive billboard downtown New York City.
The idea of the campaign was to create a “Mood Meter” that measures how the world feels at any given moment based on the number of smiley and sad-face emojis posted on Twitter—the “Pudding Face” being updated in real time on the billboard. Jell-O would then tweet unhappy Twitter accounts with promotions to claim their free pudding (and turn that frown upside-down).
Was this campaign creative?
People in the world of advertising sure seemed to think so. “Pudding Face” led to a lot of back-patting when it first launched. And in 2012, when Saatchi & Saatchi hired away Brittany Poole, the copywriter behind the “Pudding Face” campaign, they touted her accomplishments in various press releases, emphasizing how lucky they were to have such a decorated copywriter joining their team. “In 2011, she won a Bronze Young Gun for her JELL-O Pudding Face Mood Meter campaign.”
Jell-O’s “Pudding Face” might have been “creative,” but it didn’t accomplish the goal of increasing sales. Instead, it scared children, and led to a sharp decline in sales. And less than three years later, CNBC reported the business had just seen a double-digit percentage drop in revenues.
Any awards Jell-O, Crispin Porter + Bogusky, or copywriters like Brittany Poole received from the campaign were just more examples of peers congratulating peers.
All awards are based on playing the “better” game.
When this becomes your measure for success, your entire headset is oriented toward impressing your colleagues and peers with your “better” work—which they judge.
Therefore, your self-worth (and your net worth) is 100% dependent upon your ability to receive their validation.
Legendary writers, creators, and entrepreneurs don’t care about any of this.
What legendary writers, creators, and entrepreneurs care about is moving the world forward—regardless of whether or not they receive a pat on the back from their colleagues and the platforms responsible for handing out awards to those who “win.” What they care about is making a difference. What they care about is having agency in their lives, and control over the profitability lever of their business.
All of which means, as a writer, if you value awards, titles, and recognition from your peers, then you value the “better” game. And if you value the “better” game, then you value being published by a traditional publishing company (books, magazines, digital publications, etc.) more than you value becoming known as unique and distinct, changing the world (however big or small), owning your intellectual property, and making money. Because if you valued any of those things, you wouldn’t in a million years sell 90% ownership over your intellectual property to someone else.
So which do you value?
Or differentiating yourself and building a legendary business?
Differentiated Thinking + Languaging + Direct-To-Creator Business Model x A Growing Library Of Content = $$$$$$
Let’s do some fun Pirate math and play the “which buried treasure is more valuable” game.
Let’s say the three of us weren’t Pirates, but folks pursuing prestige and credibility (as most who write and publish books with traditional publishing houses do). Conventional wisdom here is to write a book proposal (in private—don’t you dare share your ideas with anyone, you mercenary, lest they might steal them!), work with an agent, and sell your manuscript-in-progress to a traditional publisher. Industry standard deal terms here are an advance + 5-15% royalties after the advance has been paid out (said differently: you are selling 90% ownership in your product in exchange for the money they give you upfront). And industry average advances for first-time authors range from $5,000 (or sometimes $0.00) on the low end to $50,000 on the higher end. Six-figure advances are few and far between, and seven-figure advances are reserved for celebrities and social media stars with huge audiences (and the fact these individuals take these deals is a clear sign they’re paying “the better game,” since they’re the last people who need help with distribution).
These non-Pirate authors would have to sell ~30,000 copies of the book at $17 per book to “earn out” their $50,000 advance and start receiving royalties. For context, this is ten times the industry average. Most traditionally published books only sell ~3,000 copies.
“But publishers help with distribution!”
No, they don’t.
They help the top 1% of their authors with distribution (and, for context, Penguin Random house publishes over 70,000 digital and 15,000 print books each year—they proudly proclaim their strained resources on their website). For everyone else, they give a $5,000 to $50,000 advance in exchange for 90% ownership and then expect you to use your advance to market the product you no longer own.
But for argument’s sake, let’s assume they do help with distribution, and they hit “upload” on Amazon for you. (An intern somewhere is very proud of the contribution they’ve made toward the success of your work.) Now (because your royalty split is only 10%), you need to sell 10x more copies in order to make the same amount of money.
You “get more distribution,” but your path to profitability just got exponentially harder.
So the question becomes: which obstacle do you want to face? Having more distribution, but needing to sell 10x more copies to turn a profit? Or “not having as much distribution,” but needing to sell a fraction of the copies (online) to earn the same amount of money? For what it’s worth: how publishers get you into bookstores is by calling them up and asking them to carry your book. And what causes the bookstore to carry your book is how well your book is selling, or is projected to sell. So if bookstores really mean that much to you, or you firmly believe bookstores are what propel sales (what generation are you living in?), you can call them up yourself. You can also upload a copy of your book to IngramSpark, and bookstores can order copies to carry.
Now let’s say you are a Pirate! (ARRRRRRRRR!)
Instead of giving up 90% ownership for a paltry advance, you leverage the direct-to-creator business model.
You’ve been writing for a while now. You’ve clarified and differentiated your thinking. You’ve used languaging to draw further distinction between what you’re saying that’s new versus what has been said before and is old. And now, you want to be in the business of owning that intellectual property as it spreads across the Internet.
Any copies you sell on your own, or on your website, you earn 100% of the profits. But let’s say the majority of the sales come from a platform like Amazon, which takes 30% of the transaction. To be clear: Amazon does not own your content. You’re free to do with it whatever you please elsewhere on the Internet, and can continue to monetize it over and over again. The 30% take is purely a middle-man fee for processing the transaction on their platform. Assuming you sell the *same amount of copies* as you did with a traditional publisher (30,000 copies at $17 per book), this would generate total revenues of $500,000.
That’s 7x more than if you sold your IP to a traditional publisher. (Who, by the way, is going to do the same exact thing: take your ebook/book file and upload it to Amazon for you.)
Now, let’s take this a step further.
When you’re a Pirate operating with a direct-to-creator business model, this means you can do whatever you want with your content. You can chop it up, slice it and dice it, and most importantly, monetize it dozens of different waysand multiple times in the future.
Content can be sold via newsletter.
Content can be republished behind Medium’s paywall.
Content can be combined and sold as an ebook/book.
Content can be stripped apart and sold as stand-alone downloads.
Content can become podcasts.
Content can become the foundation of curriculums, courses, communities, and more.
For example, Pirate Cole has been republishing his entire library of articles behind Medium’s paywall for more than 2 years—and has made more than $100,000 doing so. This means he is collecting royalties on intellectual property he wrote historically. And as more social publishing platforms launch their own direct-to-creator models, he will be able to do the same thing again and again.
So now let’s assume, as a Pirate, you decide to flip the publishing model on its head.
Instead of writing a book, first, you decide to create shorter-form content and distribute it via paid newsletter (on a platform like Substack). This allows you to a) tighten your audience feedback loop and refine your content & thinking as you go, b) build your audience along the way opposed to in the 11th hour right before your book comes out, c) maintain 100% ownership over the content, and d) start generating revenue day one. Said differently: instead of trading 90% ownership of your content for an advance that buys you a year of time to write your book and then having to use your advance to fast-track your audience building and marketing, you maintain 100% ownership and generate the same or more as your advance would have paid you, while refining your content and building your audience along the way.
Now let’s take Pirate Eddie’s Superconsumer math and say that the top 10% of customers generate 70% of sales. This rings true, as the vast majority of our own books were big bulk orders by the top venture capital firms, Fortune 500 companies, and large conferences (if you want to know how New York Times best-sellers juice the rankings, this is how they do it). In other cases, Superconsumers repeatedly buy the same book over and over again as gifts for their friends and colleagues.
(By the way, we love you and are grateful for you all!)
Of the 30,000 books you sell, we can assume 21,000 (70% of sales) are bought by the top 10% of your consumers—your Superconsumers. To keep the math simple, let’s say that each Super bought 21 copies for themselves, their companies, and as Christmas and birthday gifts for their friends and family members. That is 1,000 Superconsumers. And since a Superconsumer of 1 category is a super of 9 other categories, we can also assume the 1,000 Supers who bought your book are also subscribing members of your paid newsletter.
At $200 per year for your paid content, that’s another $200,000 in annual revenue that you get paid to write your next book (because newsletter content can become book content).
Through this new category lens, each book is a breakthrough product innovation (you are creating it with your audience vs by yourself in your apartment with no feedback loop), written with a breakthrough business model (paid newsletters), that creates a breakthrough data flywheel (your email list).
You’re just successfully prosecuted The Magic Triangle as a writer.
Differentiated Thinking + Languaging + Direct-To-Creator Business Model x A Growing Library Of Content = $$$$$$
Before we dock this ship and bring out the rum, let’s take a look at what this business model looks like over the course of a decade.
Let’s say you stay a Pirate for ten years and you put out a book each year for a total of 10 books.
Each year, you generate $350,000 in book sales per year, adding an incremental 1,000 new Superconsumers to your paid newsletter. This math gets us to $3,500,000 in book sales and 10,000 paying subscribers at $200 per year—or $2,00,000 per year, or $11,000,000 cumulative over the 10-year period. That is $14,500,000 in cumulative revenue for the course of the decade.
That’s what we call buried treasure!