March 12, 2022

The Right and Wrong Problems for Your Book

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There are four defining features of bestselling personal development books:

  1. They are written for a distinct audience.
  2. They solve a sticky problem that is a constant source of pain in their readers’ lives.
  3. They propose a novel approach to solving that problem.
  4. They cut through the clutter with simple genius.

Last week, we talked about your reader. Hopefully you know your reader pretty well, and you have a good sense of what’s important to them, and what they want their lives to look like. This is critically important, because nearly every decision you make for your book needs to be filtered through the lens of your reader’s eyes.

And your reader has a problem.

Right now, your reader’s life does not look like what they want it to look like. There’s something big standing in the way of them getting what they want. It’s multifaceted and complex—something not easily solved. When your reader needs a new phone or a hamburger or a change of scene, they just go out and buy it. But not so with this problem. If it were easy for your reader to get what they want, they would just go out and get it, and you wouldn’t need to write a book about it.

Sticky Problems

Your reader has what I like to call a “sticky” problem. One that won’t just go away. One that’s going to haunt them until they get the answer. One that is a perpetual thorn in their side.

This is the second necessary element of bestselling personal development books. Let’s take a look at just three of the top selling nonfiction books right now, as of March 2022:

  1. Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear (#3 on the Amazon Bestsellers chart)
  2. From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life by Arthur Brooks (#4 on the NYT Bestseller List – Nonfiction Hardbacks)
  3. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel Van der Kolk (#9 on the Amazon Bestsellers chart, #1 on the NYT Bestseller List – Nonfiction Paperbacks)

You can see the problems clearly identified in these titles! You know exactly what problem these books are addressing, and that’s a key part of their allure:

  • For Atomic Habits, you read it if you have bad habits you want to break and/or good habits you want to build. (And isn’t that all of us?!)
  • You’ll read From Strength to Strength if you’re in or approaching your second half of life, and wondering how to redefine yourself.
  • In The Body Keeps the Score, you’re learning about how to heal from trauma.

But the lesson here is not about the clarity of the book title (although that really helps!). Think about the weightiness of those problems for a minute. Bad habits can be debilitating if they get out of control. There’s a reason people have a “mid-life crisis”—because getting older can trigger all kinds of existential questions. And if you have suffered from any kind of trauma, then you know how disruptive that is to your life.

These problems are pressing; they haunt your reader. There’s an urgency to getting them solved. The reader knows that as soon as this problem goes away, their life will transform, and not just a little bit. This will be a radical, life-changing transformation. The solution to this problem represents a new life of peace, comfort, and happiness in some way.

That’s the kind of problem your book should seek to solve.

But sometimes, when we choose a book idea, we have problems with our problems.

The Wrong Kinds of Problems

It is possible to choose a book topic that tackles the wrong kind of problem. The wrong problems are:

  • Too small or narrow
  • No longer relevant
  • Not best solved by a book
  • Not a priority for your reader

Problems that are too small

Problems that are too small don’t have enough complexity to them—they are too contextual. They might be just as easily solved by a blog post or an article online, and really don’t require the length of a book to get the job done. Here are some examples of too-small problems for books:

  • Making the perfect French Onion soup. You don’t need a whole book about this; you probably just need a single recipe.
  • How to style a home decor photoshoot
  • New beauty products for sensitive skin

Problems that are no longer relevant

Sometimes, the world has moved on and certain topics are already passé. If you come to me wanting to write an instructional manual on using a typewriter, I’m going to tell you no. Not enough people use typewriters anymore.

A good way to check if your topic is no longer relevant is to search Amazon books for the same topic. If the most recent book was published over 5 years ago, I would think twice before pursuing that idea.

Problems that are best solved another way

Books are an extremely versatile medium—but they are not the answer to everything. Sometimes, an online course, Youtube video, or other format is a better option. For example, the following problems are solved much more efficiently through video:

  • Setting up a blog
  • Fixing your sink
  • Building a garden bed

Problems that aren’t a priority for your reader

Sometimes, problems are meaty and complex, but just not weighing on your reader’s minds. For example, if you try to write a book about gardening for astronauts, you’ll quickly run into two issues: 1) not many people are astronauts, and 2) it’s difficult to garden in space.

The problem with this type of problem is that sometimes we are persuaded that our reader should care. For example, you might write a book on stewarding the environment for outdoor sports enthusiasts—which is certainly a weighty, meaty idea and worthy of attention—and might catch the eye of some conscientious sportsters—but would probably be a hard sell to the majority of your readers.

Ask yourself, “How important is this topic to my reader? What other priorities do they have going on in their lives, and how urgent is this problem?” You might try interviewing several of your potential readers, or again searching Amazon for other similar books to see if they’ve sold well.

The Right Kinds of Problems

The right kinds of problems for a book are going to be:

  • Urgent
  • Weighty
  • Complex
  • Relevant to your reader

I already shared how three of the bestselling nonfiction books right now fulfill each of these criteria. Let’s look at some more examples:

Urgent Problems

When schools (and just about everything in our lives!) shut down in March 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone panicked—including teachers, who had to transform their classes from in-person to online. Very few teachers knew how to do that, especially in a matter of days! Schools were scrambling to figure out how to communicate with families, how to get Zoom set up, how to manage 30+ kids in a virtual learning environment, how to deliver learning materials to students who needed them, and a whole host of other problems.

Longtime educators and bestselling authors Doug Fisher, Nancy Frey, and John Hattie knew it was a sticky problem that needed solving NOW. Educators were at the ends of their ropes. So these authors worked tirelessly for two weeks to draft The Distance Learning Playbook, which was published in record time by Corwin. It sold over 200,000 copies in just the first couple months, and reached #1 on the Publisher’s Weekly Bestseller List.

That is a perfect example of an urgent problem for a book.

Weighty Problems

Good problems are also weighty; as I mentioned above, they tend to haunt your readers. They’re the thing keeping your readers up at night. These problems tend to have an existential element to them. They might be something like:

  • A broken relationship with a loved one
  • Fears about the future
  • Struggling through a transition
  • Limiting beliefs holding you back in your life

Complex Problems

These kinds of urgent, weighty problems are also inherently complex; a blog post couldn’t even begin to address these kinds of problems (although many try!). Think of Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly, which addresses our fears about being vulnerable. There is a lot to unpack there! Vulnerability has several mini-problems related to it:

  • Societal expectations
  • Our personal histories with others
  • The shame we feel about being vulnerable

Her book works as a book because she has to delve into addressing these problems in order to address the overall problem of vulnerability.

Look at a book like The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. The main problem this book addresses is the disproportionate incarceration of young men of color, especially Black men. But in order to address that problem, Alexander has to unpack several underlying problems as well:

  • The hidden caste system in the U.S.
  • The history of racism in incarceration
  • How politics influence public perceptions around incarceration

As you consider a good problem for your book, think about how many mini-problems it can break down into. What are all of the underlying factors? If you can list a good handful, then your topic is probably complex enough for a book.

Relevant Problems

Finally, sticky problems are explicitly relevant to your reader—meaning they are a high priority in your reader’s life. Think again about The Distance Learning Playbook; that book was targeted directly at a deeply felt need that educators were facing. The authors didn’t try to make it applicable to parents as well; instead, they focused on completely covering the specific problem that teachers faced with teaching online.

A book addressing the problem of young Christians leaving the church would be another good example of a problem very relevant to pastors who are concerned about their congregations getting smaller.

Addressing the right problem is one of the most important decisions you can make for your book, and is absolutely key to ensuring your book is a bestseller.

But it’s not enough to address the right problem. You also have to identify a great solution. That’s what we’ll talk about next time with identifying your novel approach.