I owe my interest in mission-driven literature to the fact that I spent the first 15 years of my career working for nonprofit organizations in the UK and the US. At 35, I took a career break to return to my first love—literature—and write a novel, but when I had finished it and decided to launch my own writing and editing business, my first thought was, How can I use my skills to help nonprofits? Old habits die hard, for sure. This led to my creating the Embark Editorial Agency, which for two years (until major life stuff took over) helped new copyeditors build their professional experience by doing pro-bono work for nonprofits.
My enduring affinity with the nonprofit sector is why this post is a tip of the hat to Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s current chief operating officer (although, in light of the recent Cambridge Analytica revelations, perhaps not for much longer ... ) and author of not one but TWO books that spawned nonprofit organizations that further her books' respective missions.
Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will To Lead
Lean In is essentially the story of how Sandberg came to understand workplace gender politics. It is less of a memoir, more of a treatise, and her central thesis is this: The world would be better with more women in power. But women can only attain this power by first changing their attitudes towards themselves. She states: “We move closer to the larger goal of true equality with each woman who leans in.”
This message alone and the justification for it that Sandberg provides would have been sufficient to admit Lean In to the canon of books with spine. But what makes the book even more exceptional is the author’s commitment to her mission post publication.
While many authors might write their book and move on to the next one, Sandberg set up a 501c(3), www.leanin.org, to support a global movement helping women achieve their ambitions. One of the main activities of the nonprofit is to support the 35,000 so-called Lean In Circles that have sprouted up worldwide. These are actual meetings of women, not online communities (ironic for the COO of the biggest social networking site on the planet). Many circles now exist within male-dominated corporations with the aim of enabling more women to be heard and move up the hierarchy. The nonprofit also engages in further research to discover the barriers for women and ways of overcoming them.
Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy
Published in 2017, this second book is not about business. Sandberg was compelled to write Option B when her husband died suddenly and she had to deal with her loss while also helping her children through theirs. Sandberg offers her personal insights, while her cowriter on this project, Adam Grant, provides the research about resilience that makes this book more than a memoir of grief.
The success of the Lean In movement has clearly inspired Sandberg to go further. Her second book, Option B, adopts the same nonprofit strategy as the first (www.optionb.org) that offers readers three ways to take what they learned in the book and get involved:
1. Share their story of resilience with others
2. Connect with people who understand
3. Learn how to build resilience
If a reader has been affected by a book, they may wonder what to do next. Obviously, not every author will have Sandberg’s considerable resources and influence to be able to set up a global nonprofit to further the mission of their books and donate all the sales revenue to the mission. Nevertheless, authors of books with spine could—and arguably should—consider how they can enable readers to take meaningful action if they have been inspired or moved by what they’ve read. This can be something simple, such as directing readers to a donation page of a relevant established charity, or creating a social media space where readers can form a community around the issue and develop ways of addressing it in their local area.
I admire Sandberg for the commitment to her missions. She did not treat either book as the ultimate expression of her dedication to the causes she cares about: they were launchpads.
So, if you’re considering writing a mission-driven book, ask yourself whether the book is an end in itself or the means to an end. Does the power of your book lie solely within its pages? Or might there be a way its power can ripple outwards into the real world to create meaningful and lasting change?
When I am exploring a nonfiction book idea with a new client, one of the first things we discuss is the hook. What makes your book different from the hundreds of others that also deal with your topic? What can you do to grab the attention of the potential buyer? In all honesty, a lot of clients struggle in this conversation, and it goes back to the point I made about originality in an earlier post (Tony Robbins Doesn't Need Your Help): although you may not have a unique subject, you can be unique in how you address it.
A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon a book with spine that struck me as truly different: Chapter One: You Have the Power to Change Stuff by Daniel Flynn (Thankyou Group, 2016). Flynn's business, thankyou., began by selling water to help alleviate the world's water crisis and now sells more than 55 products to support a campaign to end poverty. According to Flynn, he began his company with no business experience, only an awareness of global poverty and the simple question, "What if that were me?" Unlike many social enterprises, thankyou. gives 100 percent of its profit to its mission. Respect.
Flynn states that the purpose of Chapter One is to encourage readers to "Dream with us. Write with us. Change stuff with us." This book fits within the social entrepreneurship genre that will feature prominently in this blog (Walk a Mile in Blake Mycoskie's Shoes), but it takes a really interesting approach and has several "hooks" I've never seen before. If the company itself is half as innovative as the approach it took to this book, it could do amazing things for the world.
One. Unlike Mycoskie's book that was written when his business had become successful, Flynn's book is about his brand's beginnings ... hence the title, Chapter One. His idea is that he will write sequels (Chapter Two, Chapter Three, and so on, presumably), chronicling the fortunes of the company as it grows. It's a brave move, given the high failure rate of startups, but I like the idea that, over time, Flynn will create a complete business biography.
Two. There is no recommended retail price; instead, people pay what that want to. By asking purchasers, "How much are you willing to invest in an idea that could change history?", some people may pay a dollar, but others might pay thousands simply because they believe in the company's mission and want it to continue doing good work. The "pay what you like" approach was possible because, cleverly, the company pitched the idea to Australia's largest book retailer, which liked what the company was trying to do. I haven't seen the sales figures on this and can't say how effective the idea has been, but I'm impressed by Flynn's commitment to thinking differently about bookselling, a mindset which reflects his entire business ethos. (The downside, of course, is that selling via Amazon and other such platforms won't allow buyers to pay what they like.)
Three. The interior of the print edition is laid out horizontally. This is the most gimmicky aspect of Flynn's approach, which he spends some time justifying at the start of the book. Just as with the pay-whatever tactic, the purpose of the landscape layout is to challenge the reader to depart from the norm and think differently, however uncomfortable that may be. It's a great idea for the printed version, but readers of the ebook have to settle for imagining the reading experience that Flynn describes in the introduction.
Chapter One shows that you do not have to confine your "hook" to the content. There are other ways to differentiate a book from the crowded literary category you might be competing in. But beware: a hook can too easily become a gimmick if it's not done in the proper spirit. However, I believe Flynn gets away with the gimmicks because they fit squarely within thankyou.'s business model, which is founded in thinking outside the box, and I sincerely hope that the company is around long enough for us to find out what interesting ways Flynn can find to write Chapter Two and many more chapters thereafter.