23 ways to differentiate your nonfiction book
Is your book the same as other books on the market? If so, why are you bothering to write it?
Every book needs to be differentiated. Every book needs a superlative. It must be the first, best, biggest, most comprehensive, most practical, most intriguing, or best illustrated book of its kind. This is not something you figure out at the end. It is something you need to plan for at the beginning of your project. You must intentionally create a book that’s different.
Be explicit about that differentiation. If you’re pitching publishers, the differentiation should be in your book proposal. It will affect your title, subtitle, and cover. It will affect your table of contents, the research you do, the graphics you choose to include, the tone in which you write, and a thousand other details. And of course it has a big impact on how yo promote the book once it’s published.
So stop, right now, and write down how your book is different.
To make that a little easier, I’ll share a list of possible ways you can differentiate your book. This is not a complete list; there are an infinite number of possible ways to stand out. But perhaps these ideas will get you started. And yes, you can use more than one of these points of differentiation in the same book.
If you publish a book that’s the first on its topic, you have a clear field and no competition.
1 The first. This is the most common and most powerful way to differentiate — to create the first book of its kind. Is your book the first book about crypto finance risks? The first independent biography of Andrew Yang? What will you do in your book that no one has ever done before?
2 New idea. If no one else has had your idea, be the first to write about it. Think of The Long Tail or The No Asshole Rule. Jay Baer’s Hug Your Haters expressed the unique idea that satisfying your most unhappy customers creates a huge source of advantage. These were books that made you say, wow, I never thought about that before.
3 Current event. If it’s happening right now, you have the chance to write the first book about it. Write the first book about the financial crash of 2022, or the January 6 committee’s findings.
If there are already books out there on your topic, you can differentiate by the approach you take.
4 Practical. Is your book the first to provide a complete how-to guide on how to do something, like change careers or become a TikTok star?
5 Corporate. Are you explaining how a trend applies to companies and organizations? My book with Charlene Li, Groundswell, wasn’t the first book on social media, but it was the first with practical advice for companies.
6 Historical. Can you provide a perspective on how we got here and where we’re going?
7 Economic. What effect will your concept have on the world economy? Which industries and nations will it affect most, and how?
8 Political. How will your concept change the way governments and politics work? Will it change who we choose to put in power?
You can differentiate by bringing source material that hasn’t been shared before, revealing new insights with data and research.
9 Inside story. I’m Feeling Lucky was the first book written from inside Google. If you’ve seen what no one else has seen, your perspective will be unique.
10 Data. Do you have access to data sources unavailable to others? Everybody Lies was revealing since it was based on data from Google and Pornhub searches. Predictably Irrational succeeded because it revealed the results of surprising experiments in behavioral economics.
11 Case studies. If you have access to a lot of client stories, you can often see detailed patterns and tell fascinating stories that no one has read before.
12 Journalism. Reporters can often build detailed and compelling narratives based on the extensive research they do in the course of their jobs.
Even if you’re writing about a topic that’s common to other books, if you can present the material in a unique way, you can find an audience.
13 Graphical. Do you have unique diagrams or flowcharts that make it easy to follow your advice? You can appeal to the visual learners that glaze over looking at text-heavy books.
14 Photographic. Unique photos can set your book apart, especially if it’s a narrative of real-world events, a cookbook, a gardening book, or any other narrative where seeing the details makes all the difference.
15 Structural. Do you have a unique way to present existing concepts? Melanie Diezel’s The Content Fuel Framework took the reader through a unique 10-by-10 matrix to generate content marketing ideas.
16 Quiz or evaluation. Lots of people want to know where they stand. You can hook them with a self-evaluation and advice based on their score.
Even if you’re telling a story people may have heard before, if you can tell it with verve, you’ll gather an audience.
17 Novelistic. This is the hallmark of writers like Michael Lewis. It’s why his nonfiction books become movies. His nonfiction stories are so rich and well told, they read like novels.
18 Shocking. James Fell wrote a book about what happened on each date in the calendar. That’s not new. But his profanity-laden smart-assy style in On This Day in History Sh!t Went Down is so entertaining that you can’t help but get sucked in.
19 Witty. People want to read anything Bill Bryson writes. He’s just quirky and entertaining, and you know you’ll enjoy it.
20 Funny. Mel Brooks’ autobiography is full of jokes. Most people can’t do this, but if you can, you’ll stand out. There’s a reason why people will read anything David Sedaris writes — because they know they’ll be chuckling two pages in. Go ahead, write a funny version of how macroeconomics works. I’d read that.
Ordinary books with extraordinary promotion get read.
21 Celebrity. Matthew McConaughey’s book Greenlights has been on the Amazon bestseller list for 84 weeks. That’s at least partly due to the fact that everybody’s heard of him.
22 Media platform. Is Bill O’Reilly really a good author? Or is he just a guy who everyone watched on TV every night for a while?
23 Social platform. Got a few million followers? Whether it’s Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, or Twitter, if you can mention your book every once in a while, you’ll build an audience.
Differentiation should always be top of mind
Writing is hard. Writing a book like all the other books is wasted effort.
Whether you’re planning, pitching, researching, writing, or promoting — always ask “How will this set my book apart?”
Every moment spent on that steers you in a productive direction. And that’s worth doing.