Writing Your Own Portal Book
So, what’s a “portal book”? A portal book, at the risk of sounding too sci-fi, is a book that leads you to read more books. As I read Doug Wilson’s latest work, Wordsmithy, I added thirty books to my wishlist. I realized that many of favorite books all have some basic things in common and that they all open the door to more books.
Think about your own personal canon – those books that have influenced and changed you beyond the actual ideas on the page. What did they have in common? How did they influence you and change you after you closed the book? I bet that most, if not all, were portal books that lead you to read even more. Here are a few of my personal favorite portal books . . .
First of all, the Bible informs all aspects of my life, including what books I read, how I read them, and how they change my own life. In some ways that makes the Bible my ultimate portal book because it lead to everything else on this list, but for the purposes of this discussion I am interested in books other than the Bible.
The Holiness of God by R.C. Sproul. This portal book opened me up to great contemporary authors like Sproul, Piper, and even Doug Wilson. It changed the way I think about theology, Christian books in general, and made me passionate about reading. One of the things that Sproul does really well is to build upon other church fathers and constantly refer back to them. By building and quoting other works, this book served as a jumping off point to many others in my reading list. Sproul does not recommend other authors outright, but by tying this book so closely to his ministry, the church, his other books, and his peers it fits my definition of a portal book.
The Four-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferris. This book changed the way I think about business, life, and it introduced me to many different authors and books. Some of them include Ramit Sethi, Seneca, books on Applied Psychology, books focused on the Pareto Principle, The Four-Hour Body, The Magic of Thinking Big, and dozens more. Ferris recommends many books in his own book, but also did an excellent job of connecting readers of the book with his blog where he continues to make recommendations.
The Personal MBA by Josh Kaufman. This is a book that I actually found via another portal book, Anything You Want by Derek Sivers, but it has led to more reading then the first. Kaufman includes a list of 100 book recommendations at the end of his book, and all that I have tried so far have been excellent. Not only that, but he updates the list yearly on his blog. As good as the book is, the further study that he provides is more valuable then its content.
So, what do portal books have in common?
1. They recommend other books. Recommending other books shows that you build on other people’s work, recommend well qualified peers, and provide a way for readers to study further. Your book becomes a turning point in someone’s life instead of a one-time read that was mildly interesting.
2. They aren’t focused on selling the book primarily. Portal books focus on building a core audience and changing people’s minds. Would you rather change the minds of 100 people or sell 10,000 books that don’t go beyond one reader? Portal books focus on connecting readers to the author in one way or another.
3. They say something new. Each book that fits into this category, while building on past work and giving credit to peers, has a unique voice. The author gives credit where credit is due, but stands alone at the top of a network of recommendations.
4. Push the reader to change. Every portal book asks the reader to change a position. In the three examples from my own list above, these books ask the reader to:
Change what you think about God, Evil, and Holiness.
Change how you live, everything you know about business, and how you think about life, death, and retirement.
Change how you think about education, the value of books and reading, and business.
As you are writing your own book, follow these principles and your work has a chance to be a portal book. Push the reader to change how they live and think, say it differently then anyone else, focus on your fans not on your sales, and recommend other books or resources. It’s a simple formula, but it is not an easy one.