Is your book idea timely or timeless?

Timely books tap into readers’ urgent needs. They also become obsolete more quickly.

Timeless books have a longer shelf life, but they’re harder to promote.

Here’s how to think about them.

Use strategic thinking to extend the life of timely books

Now would be a great time for a book about hybrid work, autonomous cars, AI-generated graphics, or the geopolitics of Ukraine. But before you rush out and write a book about TikTok memes or the Mar-a-Lago raid, consider a few downsides.

The first is that books take time. A traditional publishing deal typically contemplates a publication date 15 to 18 months in the future. Will your book still be topical a year and a half from now? (I’d hate to be writing a book on the future of Ukraine right now, since anything I write would likely become obsolete well before the book is published.)

You can reduce the time lag by choosing hybrid publishing or self-publishing, but those choices create challenges in distribution, scale, and cost.

The other challenge is that timely books have an expiration date. Events can make them obsolete.

I’ve personally experienced this. Please don’t buy the book I coauthored on mobile strategy. There has been rapid and profound change in consumer adoption of mobile, the technology for delivering mobile interactions, and the strategies available to companies. Eight-year-old advice on mobile is embarrassing.

Despite these issues, there are significant advantages to creating books that address hot trends. Their timeliness means they’ll sell more when they’re launched, even if those sales taper off after a few years. They’re far easier to promote, since every day’s news includes hooks you can write about. Authors like that get lots of opportunities to get quoted in news articles, place op-eds, or generate buzz with blog posts, podcasts, or newsletters.

If you’re working on a timely book like this, think strategically. What can you write about that will stand the test of time? Write about TikTok as part of a marketing strategy, not memes of the moment. Write about the geopolitics of central Europe in a historical context, not what happened in the latest war offensive. Discuss Justice Department strategies towards former government officials and presidents, not the latest ruling on the Mar-a-Lago raid.

That kind of thinking kept our social media strategy book Groundswell relevant for years, even though the technology was changing rapidly during the book’s development and release.

If you write a timely book that catches on, start planning an update. Groundswell had an expanded and revised edition that allowed me to say more about Twitter, which was too new to get much coverage in the first edition.

Find news hooks to promote timeless books

Timeless books on topics like productivity, investment strategy, and branding can keep selling for years. The challenge is, how do you get people interested in reading them right now?

The secret here is newsjacking — making the topic of the book relevant to what’s happening right now.

I’m helping the author of a timeless productivity book right now. His book didn’t mention “quiet quitting” but it’s full of ideas that are relevant to that discussion. So his timeless book becomes a timely book with a little clever promotion.

Which kind of book should you write?

You should write about what you know best.

When I was an analyst, I wrote about rapidly changing technology. So it was natural to write books on topics like mobile and social technology. My colleagues and I could find completely new and interesting case studies and survey results — which made the books fresh and intriguing.

My book Writing Without Bullshit was a lot less stressful to write. Nothing in there was going to become irrelevant or obsolete in a couple years. I stand by 99% of what I wrote there. (I said never to use emojis in a business context; that’s the only thing I’d change.)

Either type of book can be successful. But as you’re writing, be aware of the shelf life of what you’re writing and the opportunities you’ll need to find to promote it, because timely and timeless books demand very different strategies.

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