[Part I] How To Become A Top 444 Author: How To Turn Your Breakthrough Ideas Into A Best-Selling Book (According To The World’s First Non-Fiction Study)
Why some ideas scale and others don't—and how to ascend up the 7 categories of best-selling books.
Dear Friend, Subscriber, and Category Pirate,
Whether you are an Obvious or Non-Obvious writer, creator, entrepreneur, or executive, the pinnacle of sharing your insights with the world is writing a book.
All three of us have written books (individually first, and then collectively), and despite achieving success in other areas of life, there is a remarkable difference in the way people’s eyes light up when they discover each of us is an “author.” Pirate Christopher has two #1 ranking business podcasts and when he tells people he is a podcaster, they sort of shrug and say, “That’s cool,” because hey, anyone with a smartphone and an internet connection can start a podcast. But when he tells people he is an author, their focus narrows and their voice gets quiet and the whole color of the room changes. Hence why so many people, whether they actually enjoy writing or not (or have anything valuable to say) want to publish a book at some point in their lives. Saying you are an author is special.
Now, obviously we are not here to tell people how to crap out 200 pages of platitudes, slap a cover on it, and give themselves a new badge (“author”) to wear at tomorrow night’s dinner party. Writing a book for the sake of writing a book is a waste of your time, and the reader’s.
Instead, if you want to make a difference in the world (first) and you want the best possible shot at producing a best-selling book, we want to give you a framework for turning your Obvious and/or Non-Obvious insights, perspectives, and stories into an asset that not only gives you the title of “author,” but changes the way people think AND pays you dividends long into the future.
How did we come up with this framework?
By analyzing the top 444 best-selling business books in the last two decades.
(It is important for you to know that most people in the idea / creation / innovation / writing business will never consume the game-changing insights you are about to read. Of the few who do consume this, even fewer will internalize and take action on these insights. That creates a massive advantage for you.)
A Category Science Study Of How Ideas Scale
If you have no ambitions of being a writer or author, you may feel the impulse to dismiss what we’re about to share with you.
Here’s why we would encourage you not to.
No matter what career path you choose, or what industry you’re in, or what role you command (whether you’re an intern or a C-level executive), the trajectory of your professional life is a direct reflection of the quality of your ideas. Intellectual capital. And the lens most people use for evaluating ideas is the same lens they use for naming their cat.
“Do I like this? Or do I not like this?”
And this is 100% appropriate for naming your cat. However, if you want to make a difference and share ideas with the world that have a transformative effect (communicated in book form or not), using the same lens you use to name your cat is unproductive. (And we have sat in a lot of rooms with a lot of “smart people” who suddenly forget how to be smart and decide to evaluate the company’s category, POV, messaging, and that quarter’s creative campaign through the lens of: “Do I like this? Or do I not like this?”)
But coming up with unique, compelling, understandable ideas is only 50% of the game.
The other 50% (which almost never gets talked about) is how to come up with ideas that scale. Because, as it turns out, a brilliant idea that never gets talked about, shared, and implemented isn’t actually “a great idea.” (If a drunken Pirate falls overboard at sea, does he make a sound?) Meanwhile, a not-so-great idea that successfully captures the imaginations of modern society has the power to change the world.
Whether we like it or not, we are all in the “scaling ideas” business.
Unfortunately, a ton of information exists on how to come up with great ideas. But very little information exists on how to come up with ideas that scale.
Ask Malcolm Gladwell what makes him Malcolm Gladwell, the best-selling author who has sold millions of copies of unique, differentiated thinking, and he can’t tell you. Don’t believe us? Watch his MasterClass, or James Patterson’s, or Dan Brown’s, or Judy Bloom’s (all writers and thinkers we deeply respect), and what you’ll walk away with are a few tactical golden nuggets: “Write for the reader and don’t be afraid to leave them hanging.” But ask these authors what makes one of their ideas (books) more successful than the others, ask them what caused some of their ideas to scale, and they all repeat the same answers:
“The world was ready for something like this.”
“I guess it was just a better story.”
“We did a lot of marketing for that one.”
“I suppose it connected with the reader.”
“I poured my heart and soul into that book.”
These answers are mildly inspirational at best and unconsciously misleading at worst. They may provide relief during a Q&A of an author talk in an auditorium, but they do not shed any analytical insight into why certain ideas scale and others go nowhere. Furthermore, isn’t it interesting that some of the most successful writers and thinkers in society struggle to engineer serendipity twice? They write a best-selling book sharing a breakthrough idea, only for their follow-up book(s) to fall flat. Why is that?
Because nobody really knows why some ideas scale and others don’t. Not the authors, not the editors, and certainly not the publishers.
Like a lot of the things we write, what we are about to share with you operates on multiple planes of thinking at the same time. This is the most extensive research done on why certain ideas scale and others do not, leveraging modern business data through a Category Science lens. If you want to understand how to create a different future for your readers, customers, and/or clients, you need to understand how those new and different futures must be presented in order to maximize scalability and impact. Otherwise, you will waste years of work (leading up to the launch and after the launch) and tremendous resources trying to scale an idea that is very likely flawed at its root.
Books are the most professional and powerful way to present new ideas through a point of view. And why we were fascinated by studying the best-selling business books of the past 20 years is not solely because we wanted to create a framework for engineering success ourselves. We also wanted to objectively understand how new category POVs succeed or fail based on how that POV gets presented and who the presenter is. And what we learned is that a breakthrough idea communicated by the wrong person doesn’t scale. And neither does a conventional idea by someone with all the credibility in the world. Analyzing the sales data of the Top 444 best-selling business books of the past 20 years is emblematic of what breakthrough POVs scale and do not.
The First Breakthrough Study: Analyzing The Top 444 Best-Selling Business Books Of The Past Two Decades
A little backstory:
The three of us are “driven achievers.” Meaning no matter what it is we do, it is crucial to us (like breathing) that our actions accomplish three goals:
Our work helps other people, and produces legendary outcomes for those we reach.
Our work is radically different, and impossible to substitute with a “next-best alternative.”
And our work is profitable, rapidly growing, and capable of unlocking life-changing outcomes for ourselves and our families.
When the three of us first met, we connected over a shared desire to help entrepreneurs, executives, marketers, thinkers, creators, and writers create new categories, exit “The Better Trap,” and build businesses that created new and different futures for humanity. We were tired of hearing intelligent people give unintelligent advice, and share business and marketing “thinking” we knew (from years of experience) to be wrong. And not just wrong, but dangerously unproductive. Category Pirates became our vehicle to educate those who were willing to “think different” a new lens through which to see the world and produce legendary results).
Of course, as driven achievers, this was only the beginning.
The more time we spent together, the more “mini-books” we wrote and published, and the more Pirates who hopped aboard this Pirate Ship, the more we realized the opportunity in front of us: to be the first “writing band” to produce decades of work—together. And not just meaningful work, but best-selling work. We have one volume setting, and it’s 11. So about a year into writing together, we set our first big, hairy, audacious goal: to write a business book that sells over 1,000,000 copies.
Maybe it will be this book you are reading right now. Or our next book, Intellectual Capitalist. Or one of our many books after that.
The point is: we don’t know when we will reach that first island. All we know is that if we keep sailing in this direction, we will. But to improve our odds of success (the last thing we want is to die from dysentery while out at sea), we thought it would be a good idea to study the best-selling business books before us and see if we could spot any recurring themes and create a repeatable model for producing best-selling books.
And what we discovered was a goldmine of insights.
The Study (Category Science)
To get our hands on a reliable data set, we partnered with NPD BookScan, the “gold standard” in tracking sales data in the publishing market. We sourced the top 500 best-selling business books from the past 20 years (some books had duplicate best-sellers due to varying formats: paperback, hardcover, eBook, etc., bringing the total down to 444). The data covers all measured “consumer” channels (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other retail outlets where consumers shop for books), and it excludes “business to business” sales (like a large purchase by a single corporation or by one conference for a speech) and resale data.
Once we received the data, we started by tagging the books with dozens of different variables to see if we noticed any high-level trends:
Average number of pages
Week 1 sales
Month 1 sales
Year 1 sales
Year 3 sales
Year 5 sales
Year 10 sales
Number of Amazon reviews
Reviews per book per author
Author 20-year revenue
And dozens more…
The big question we were trying to answer was: “What makes some writers stand the test of time, and others hit the New York Times best-seller list and then fizzle out months (or weeks, or even days) later?” If we were going to commit to spending the next 10, 20, 30+ years writing legendary business and “thinking” mini-books and big-books, how could we maximize our contribution with our limited time here on earth? What causes a book to make a difference (to “scale”) for a moment versus a book that makes a difference for years, decades, or centuries? And how could we create a new framework based on data for ourselves so that everything we write, every idea we come up with, has the highest percentage chance of “scaling” and reaching readers all over the world?
What Business Book Publishers Do Not Know, Wish They Knew, And Don’t Want You To Know
The entire reason writers sign with traditional publishers is because they think the publisher knows something they don’t (they have “the secret recipe”).
What this study (shockingly) revealed to us is that the publishing world, as well as the business world at large, doesn’t know the first thing about writing books that make a giant difference (ourselves included, despite the fact that we’ve sold hundreds of thousands of books long before we did this study). In fact, just about everything we have written up until this point is riddled with “mistakes” through this new lens and framework. Even the major publishers (we’ve been published by a few) don’t know what separates a book that sells a million copies from a book that sells 10,000 copies (and certainly don’t have a reliable framework for engineering serendipity twice).
Which is why we are so excited to share it with you.
Here’s what we found:
*Note: These insights, and this new framework, applies to all non-fiction books in just about every subcategory imaginable. For the sake of focus however, we are not including fiction at all here. That’s not to say there aren’t applicable takeaways that can be applied to fiction, we just want to be clear that our study did not include any fiction titles.
The 7 Best-Selling Business Book Categories
Before you set out to write a best-selling book (or a viral blog post, or a newsworthy press release, or any other kind of asset you want to have a giant impact), it’s worth considering whether the topic you are excited to pursue has any “scaling potential.”
Now, we want to be very clear about something: not every book or idea needs to be a grand-slam sales home run. There is absolutely something to be said for writing a niche book (especially if you self-publish it and reap 100% of the financial upside). For example: Pirate Cole’s book, The Art & Business of Online Writing, is a niche book for digital writers. It has sold a little over 10,000 copies (at the time of our writing this) after being in the market for about 2 years, and continues to generate roughly $2,500 in sales income per month, every month. However, that book has been very effective at amplifying Pirate Cole’s position as the Category King of the “Digital Writing” category, as well as opened doors for other lucrative business ventures and opportunities—such as attracting high-paying ghostwriting clients and startups looking for help with their category languaging.
Writing a niche book can be a great first step to your path of becoming a successful writer, creator, entrepreneur, and industry thought leader.
Just don’t be surprised when it fails to scale.
But if you want to swing for the fences, then your big idea needs to fall into one of these 7 categories:
Almost all of the Top 444 best-selling business books of the past 20 years can be organized into these 7 buckets. This is not an accident. As Pirate Cole says often: “The size of the question dictates the size of the audience.” Which means in order to reach millions of readers, or write a book that unlocks millions of dollars in revenue, you need to answer big, universal questions. If you don’t, it doesn’t matter how “good” you think the book is—the question the book is answering doesn’t have enough scale.
Now, these 7 mega-categories are not all equal.
Some are much larger than others, and some inherently sell more copies over longer time horizons (versus becoming a best-seller for a year and then sales falling off a cliff).
So let’s break each one down.
The Personal Development category of business books is the largest and most profitable category. Of the 444 top selling business books since 2004, it makes up 23% of the titles, 25% of Amazon reviews, 28% of unit volume sold, and 31% of revenue.
Personal Development captures ~35% more of its fair share of revenue in the business book category (31% of revenue divided by 23% of book titles) and has +3% higher share of revenue vs. share of units—making it the most productive and most profitable unit economics of any category of business book.
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