So my aim with this new blog series is to analyse what makes great nonfiction great. I hope to take books that have been really well received – mainly prescriptive or ‘problem-solving’ nonfiction (like business or self-help books) – and work out why they’ve done so well. How have these authors managed to write a book that readers really value? The inspiration for this came from something the highly regarded editor Jennifer Lawler said in one of her courses, which is that one of the best ways to become a better editor is to read books in your genre and then read reviews of those books, to help understand why they work (or don’t).
I’m sure this has been touted as good advice for writers too, so I’m hoping these blog posts will be of some interest to other nonfiction editors and writers out there.
I decided to start with April Dunford’s Obviously Awesome: How to nail positioning so customers get it, buy it, love it after watching Rob Fitzpatrick's great interview with April here; Rob says this is the book he's heard being recommended more than almost any other in the entrepreneurial space. It’s a book about how to position products (which is basically a marketing strategy to influence how customers view your product). It was published in 2019 and to date has an average rating of 4.7 on amazon.co.uk (from over 500 ratings).
April has kindly added some thoughts below on why she thinks the book’s done so well.
I think this is one of the words that best sums up Obviously Awesome. Here are some of the reasons why.
The book is easy and quick to read. That’s one of the things that Amazon reviewers like about it. It isn’t too long. There are huge inspirational quotes that each take up a page. I’m not sure what I think about these quotes (‘We have the power to imagine better’ etc.), but at the very least they help to break up the text. And there’s something satisfying about being able to turn a page after only reading 6 words. Key sentences are in bold, helping you to navigate (or skim) your way through the book.
April’s writing is straightforward, simple and clear. This is another thing that Amazon reviewers appreciated. The writing makes the book a joy to read. There’s a nice touch of humour. April succinctly explains why it’s important to do things in a way that’s not at all condescending but entirely accessible to someone like me, who didn’t know what the word ‘positioning’ meant before picking up this book.
The process of positioning is broken down into small, simple steps. For example, step 2 of the 10-step process is essentially ‘form a team’. Another step is simply ‘list the competitive alternatives for your product’. This makes the whole process seem doable. Sure, it’s probably been simplified – there must be a lot more depth and nuance to positioning than this book lets on – but as an accessible introduction that makes positioning seem achievable, it’s perfect. The overall message is: this isn’t scary. Anyone can do it. Even if you haven’t got a lot of time or resources to throw at it.
The book opens with some non-business-related analogies that help to introduce the theory of positioning in a fun yet powerful way. For example, April teaches about how context matters through cake. She explains how the same product can be thought of as ‘cake’ or ‘muffins’ and how that makes all sorts of differences when it comes to marketing. Cake is far enough outside a business frame of reference that readers are unlikely to get hung up on the details. But the story still makes a powerful and relevant point, in a way that everyone can understand. It eases you into concept of positioning really nicely.
You realize that you’ve actually made supreme chocolate muffins instead of better chocolate cake … The product hasn’t changed much – it’s the same batter – but almost everything else about your business has. Why? Because we changed the mental frame of reference around the product from “cake” to “muffin”… (p.26)
Obviously Awesome starts with some theory about what positioning is and why it’s important, but the main focus of the book is the 10-step positioning process, which walks you through the steps you can take to position a product. It’s intensely practical, and that seems to be a large part of why people like the book.
The case studies (or ‘positioning stories’) that April’s added throughout help to ground everything in reality. They’re nice real-world examples that help to illustrate April’s points, and they also show why positioning is important and how it can make a difference. This motivational aspect to the case studies ties in with the overall message of the book, which is that yes, positioning can make a difference; yes, you can do it; and here’s exactly how.
One of our Amazon reviewers says that ‘The author clearly knows her stuff.’ Creating a sense of trust is one of the most important things a nonfiction author needs to do. How does April do it?
Firstly, the book comes across as professional. It’s very nicely designed; the cover looks professional; it’s been well edited and proofread; and it’s very nicely written. All these things are important (even if only on a subconscious level) and help an author to come across as credible and authoritative.
Secondly, the book has clearly been borne from experience.
April uses stories from her own past and is confident enough to share her own early mistakes. (For example, talking about how a startup she once worked for failed to position its database well, and the difference that was made once they realised how to reposition it.)
Through bashing the commonly used positioning statement, April proves that she knows standard positioning theory.
April shows that she knows her audience, both empathising with and occasionally poking fun at them.
April positions herself as part of that audience, which is a powerful way to create a sense of trust (for example, just the use of the word ‘we’ makes a difference in sentences like ‘We are terrible at positioning because we have never been taught how to do it’).
April brings in her experience as a positioning coach in a natural way. The second half of the book takes us through the positioning process that she uses as a consultant. Weaving in comments like the ones below help the reader to trust this process as something that’s clearly been trialled, tested and proven to work in the real world:
I’ve talked to dozens of companies that have gone through the exercise of documenting their positioning statement, and not one did anything useful with it once it was completed (p.44)
When I go through this exercise in workshops, teams will often want to create an exhaustive list of every possible alternative (p.93)
It’s not uncommon for this exercise to produce just a single value point (p.107)
I’ve found that this step tends to be either the easiest or the most difficult to work through (p.116)
Let’s briefly dissect the Introduction because there are a few things that it does brilliantly.
The first is that book doesn’t start by telling you what positioning is. It starts by telling you why it’s important. That’s not the usual way you’d go about teaching a new concept, but it works perfectly as a hook because the first thing the book does is succinctly explain why positioning matters to the success of your whole business. That’s going to make you want to keep reading much more than an explanation of what positioning is.
The Introduction explains why this book is different (in essence, because it actually tells you how to do positioning), and in doing so, April weaves in her authority to write the book in a natural way. She manages to make you want to keep reading – and to trust that she knows what she’s talking about – without sounding too arrogant or salesy about it.
I also like that the Introduction lists exactly who the book is for – both in terms of who you are and where your business is at (e.g. you’re a CEO of a startup who needs help in getting potential clients to quickly understand why your product is unique). This shows respect for readers by helping to make it clear whether they’re about to waste their time or not if they keep on reading. Narrowing down your audience and then defining it in this way is one of the best ways to make sure your book is focused and targeted and genuinely useful for whoever it’s aimed at.
Q&A with April Dunford
Why do you think Obviously Awesome has been so successful?
I had spent years working on my methodology for positioning so I knew that many companies struggled with it and I knew that my way of doing it worked. I had also spent years teaching positioning to startup founders, so during that time I really worked on how to keep the message simple and straightforward so that anyone could understand it. I think that helped make the content more consumable and understandable for my audience.
Secondly, I focused my marketing energy on only a couple of things that I knew I could do well – in my case that was public speaking and promotion through social media. Focusing on just a couple of marketing channels that I knew would work helped me get more visibility there, I think. I also made an effort to market consistently for an entire year – not just the week of the launch.
What are your three top tips for nonfiction writers who want their books to succeed?
It helps to try to teach your material first before you write about it. The process of teaching a class will help you understand what works and what doesn't and how you can simplify your concepts.
Build a marketing plan in advance and keep it realistic. If you don't already have a big email list, then maybe email isn't going to be a main marketing channel for you. If you don't already have a big following on social media, you aren't likely to get much action from that channel. What worked for other authors might not work for you so pick your channels based on where you are most likely to get good results.
A book launch is more than a 1-day event. You can start marketing before the book comes out and just keep going for months after the book has been published. A sustained marketing effort will get the best results.