Is your book topical or evergreen? Timely or timeless?

There are two basic ways to approach the content that goes into a book.

You are creating topical content that’s relevant based on current trends and events.

Or you are creating evergreen content that will have value for many years to come.

If I can shamelessly steal terminology from Scott Monty’s estimable podcast and Substack, are you timely or timeless?

Considerations for topical books

There’s enormous benefit in connecting your book to a current trend. I saw this myself in my first book, written with Charlene Li, Groundswell, which addressed the practical applications of social media just as people were beginning take it seriously. The result was a runaway success that sold 150,000 copies. The trend was new enough that there was no other decent and comprehensive book on the topic, so we had the field to ourselves.

If you can jump on a trend like this early, you have the potential to be the top voice in the field, with a book that redefines how people look at it.

There are any number of new trends that this might apply to, notably, AI, hybrid workplaces, low-code application development, American fascism, . . . the list is endless. But the very fact that I can list these trends with just a moment’s thought means they’re already past their peak, as far as publishers and readers are concerned. How many AI books do you think will come out in the next two years? How many books about the death of American democracy? Standing out from that crowd will be very difficult.

If you’re are planning a timely, topical book:

  • Remember that books take time. The question is not, Is this trend peaking now? The question is, Where will the trend be in 12 or 24 months when this book is published?
  • Write about a trend that’s not yet visible. If you are the first to see something, you’ll have a better chance to get recognized. Of course, the risk here is that you jump on a trend that never takes off (who’s buying all those metaverse books right now?).
  • Write and publish fast. Six months could make a huge difference in your competitive position. Either work with a nimble hybrid publisher or find a traditional one that’s willing to move quickly. (Charlene and I asked one traditional publisher we were pitching when they’d need a finished manuscript to get the book out within a year. Their answer was “Six months ago.” Unsurprisingly, we went with a different publisher.)
  • Differentiate. Even if your timing is perfect, there will be lots of competing books. What’s your point of differentiation? Lots of case studies? A new framework for understanding the trend? A focus on a particular vertical, like financial services? Practical how-tos? Warnings of doom? It’s not enough to the be the first book, you need to also find ways to stand out in the reader’s mind.
  • Keep yourself visible while you’re writing. By the time the book is published, you should already have a following that believes you’re the top thought leader on the trend. The best way to do that is to write, speak, and pursue media opportunities well before you actually publish. Newsjacking is a great strategy for this.
  • Extend your shelf-life by writing strategically. Books on timely topics go out of date quickly. So don’t write about today’s news — write about the long-term trend. ChatGPT features will shift from week to week, but AI strategy for the enterprise isn’t going to become obsolete in a month.

Considerations for evergreen books

Skills books don’t suffer from the same challenges as topical books. If you’re writing about how to gain confidence, how to write better, how to manage people, or how to become an inspirational leader, it doesn’t matter if your book comes out in April or September. So you can do your research and write on a less frantic schedule.

Of course, that cuts both ways. You’ll be lacking the urgency and news hooks that can propel a topical book to prominence.

If you’re are planning a timeless, evergreen book:

  • Focus intently on differentiation. A book on leadership has a thousand previous books to compete with — your differentiation problem is far more intense than with topical books. The primary question evergreen authors need to answer is, What makes this book better than all the ones that came before?
  • Build a robust platform. Many evergreen book authors are popular public speakers on the topics they cover. I’ll go further: if you don’t have a solid reputation in a field already, it’s going to be excruciatingly difficult to break in. Academic positions or regularly contributed columns can position you to get the attention your ideas deserve.
  • Consider topical hooks. If the challenge for topical books is shelf-life, the challenge for evergreen books is timeliness. Why should we buy and read your book now? So it pays to include some topical elements to bring your book up-to-date. How is Slack changing leadership? What are the particular confidence challenges for Gen Z? How is writing different when we’re all watching videos on TikTok?

Don’t try to split the difference

You must know before you start whether you’re crafting a topical book or an evergreen one. That decision colors everything, from the examples you will cite to the types of publishers you will pursue to the promotional strategies you’ll execute.

Is there even an example of a topical, evergreen book? That would imply a huge shift in everybody’s thinking that was new, but permanent. Let me know if you think of a book like that; I can’t recall one.

In the meantime, figure out which kind of book you’re writing before you do anything else.

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One Comment

  1. I’ve had this very discussion with my friend Scott Berkun. He wrote an excellent book on innovation a while back (hardly the first on the topic). At the time, I had just put a bow on Too Big to Ignore, a book that arrived as Big Data was gaining steam. Timely vs. timeless is a great way to compare the books. I can’t think of any book that threads both needles.