If you want to write a bestselling book, don’t reinvent the wheel.
I get at least a dozen email a week from friends who want to write books.
After three #1 bestsellers from 2007 to 2012, and publishing in 35+ countries, I’ve tried a lot. Having experimented with everything from “traditional” (Random House) to Amazon Publishing, from BitTorrent Bundles to self-publishing audiobooks, I’ve developed strong opinions about…
- What works and what doesn’t.
- What sucks and what doesn’t.
- What makes the most money and what doesn’t.
This post is intended to answer all of the most common questions I get, including:
– “Should I publish traditionally or self-publish?”
– “How does a first-time author get a 7-figure book advance?”
– “How do I get a good agent or publisher? Do I even need an agent?”
– “What does the ‘bestseller list’ really mean? How do you get on one?”
– “What are your top marketing tips if I have little or no budget?”
– “What are the biggest wastes of time? The things to avoid?”
– And so on…
My answers are grouped into sections, all of which include resource links. Here are the four sections of this post:
PR AND MEDIA
TRADITIONAL PUBLISHING VERSUS SELF-PUBLISHING
THE CREATIVE PROCESS
As a prelude, here are two books I found useful when selling The 4-Hour Workweek, both as a proposal to publishers and as a finished book to the world:
For the first meaty section, we’ll cover marketing, as it’s where I get the most questions.
A few quick points to get us started:
- Wrangling book blurbs or cover testimonials is one of the biggest wastes of time for new authors. Take the same number of hours and invest them in making a better product and planning your marketing launch. I think one quote per book is more than enough, and a passionate quote from a credible but lesser-known person is FAR better than faint “meh” praise from a famous person.
- If you only have time to read one article on marketing, make it 1,000 True Fans by Kevin Kelly, founding editor of Wired Magazine.
- In my experience, more than 50% of the CEOs who have bestselling books buy their way onto the lists. I know at least a dozen of them. See The Deception of Bestseller Lists for more detail. I’ve never done this, as I aim to have books that are bestsellers for years not two weeks. That said, if you’re busy and simply want “bestselling author” on your resume, it can be had for a price.
- If your book is mediocre, you can still market/promote a book onto the bestseller lists…but only for a week or two, unless you’re mega-rich. Long term, book quality and pass-along value is what keeps a tome on the charts. I value the Amazon Most-Highlighted page [Ed note: The page no longer exists. The link will take you to a snapshot of the original page in the internet archives. Please allow longer-than-normal load times.] more than my NYT bestseller stats. The weekly bestseller lists are highly subject to gaming. I’d love to see a shift to monthly bestseller lists.
Now, the meat of this MARKETING section:
How Does a Bestseller Happen? A Case Study in Hitting #1 on the New York Times (Skip down to “What were the 1-3 biggest wastes of time and money?”)
PR AND MEDIA
What does one week of a real launch look like for me?
Here’s the first week of The 4-Hour Chef launch. It features a complete list of media, in chronological order and broken down by format.
Now, here’s how I get that done:
The success of The 4-Hour Workweek is often attributed to an early wave of tech “influencers” who spread the word. Pursuing such influencers requires thoughtfulness, and you can’t be overeager. Sadly, most people oversell and make an asshole of themselves, pissing off busy people and getting rightly shunned. Here’s how to avoid pitfalls and do it right:
Marc Ecko’s 10 Rules for Getting “Influencer” Attention (Be sure to read his interactions in the comments)
TRADITIONAL PUBLISHING VS. SELF-PUBLISHING
Let’s showcase four success stories, all using different approaches:
- How a First-Time Author Got a 7-Figure Book Deal (traditional-ish)
- How to (Really) Make $1,000,000 Selling E-Books – Real-World Case Studies (self-published e-book “product”)
- How to Self-Publish a Bestseller: Publishing 3.0 (a hybrid)
- How to Crowdfund a Book (John Biggs, who describes the experience more in “The Crowdfunder’s Dilemma”)
If you’re going to use a crowd-funding platform like Kickstarter or Indiegogo to fund your book (and get pre-paid orders, as well as a reader database), the following scripts and tools could save you hundreds of hours:
Now, let’s look at the nitty-gritty economics of publishing, as well as how to weigh the pros and cons of self-publishing:
Tim Ferriss and Ramit Sethi on Self-Publishing vs. Big Publishers (Hint: there are some benefits to big publishers)
For those of you considering selling a book chapter by chapter, here are some relevant thoughts:
If you opt to self-publish, you might also need the below. Remember: you’ll be your own marketing/PR/advertising department, and you need to know what you’re getting into. Never bought advertising? You might have to learn. Not sure on margins? Get sure:
ON NEGOTIATING CONTRACTS, FINDING AGENTS, ETC.
If you’re going the traditional route (Read “How Authors Really Make Money” above), you will have to negotiate.
Many books have been written on the subject — I quite like Getting Past No — but here are the two most important things to remember:
- He or she who cares least wins. Have walk-away power and figure out your BATNA.
- Options are power. If you can avoid it, never negotiate with one party. Get competing offers on the table.
If you’ve decided on traditional publishers, I also suggest getting an agent.
I pay a 15% commission on my royalties because I want an experienced, diplomatic bulldog to fight my publishing battles for me. Selling a book to a publisher is easy — if you pitch the right editors, you only need an entertainment attorney to review contracts. But getting a book distributed properly nationwide? Getting the cover you want? Pushing important editorial decisions in your direction? Getting commitments for end-cap displays or seasonal in-store promotion?
All this stuff is massively time-consuming. Epic pain-in-the-ass stuff.
I view my “agent” more like the COO of my publishing business, not as a simple commissioned salesperson. This is one reason I opted to go with a smaller agency instead of a large entertainment agency. The latter tends to be (but is not always) exclusively focused on selling your book rights to the highest bidder. Once that one-night stand is over, they move on to fresh commissionable meat/deals, leaving you to fight the publisher on your own. And trust me: the road from contract to bestseller list is a LOT harder than anything that comes before it.
You can find good agents by looking for contact info under “Major Deals” on Publishers Marketplace/Lunch. I also suggest reading the “Acknowledgments” section in books that you like; the agent will often be thanked. Here’s an old story about how I found my agent.
Another reason to have an agent — you’ll have your hands busy writing the damn book! That’s where your creative process will make or break you. Take it seriously.
THE CREATIVE PROCESS
If you want a “bestselling book” that’s worthy of that label, you need a good book.
In my opinion, a mediocre book is more of a liability than no book at all. As the author of The E-Myth Revisited, Michael Gerber, once said to me, “If you’re going to write a book, write a fucking book.” Good advice. Follow it.
My stuff isn’t Tolstoy quality, but I do take pride in the work I do.
My general recommendation is this: If you can’t dedicate at least a year of full-time attention to a book (which might be 70/30 split between writing and PR/promotion), don’t bother writing it. There are exceptions of course. Some cocaine-fueled novelists I know can knock out a rough draft of a book in 1-2 weeks (!). I’ve seen memoirs completed in 1-2 months. But, alas, I’m not fast. I’m slow, what Kurt Vonnegut might call a “basher” or a “plodder,” and I write how-to content that requires a shit-ton of research and first-hand experimentation.
To do that reasonably well, I budget 1-3 years per book project.
It’s worth noting here, even though I write my own books, you don’t have to. “Ghost writers” exist solely to write books that are credited to other people. Here’s a good example of such services. If a current CEO publishes a book, it’s fair to assume that they had a professional ghostwriter interview them and pen “their” book. If you’re not sure, you can check the acknowledgments or simply compare the writing to their speaking style in interviews. Don’t match? Grammar a little too good? Use of “whom” a little conspicuous? That’s a ghost at work.
Now, moving onward.
Here are some techniques, tricks, and resources that I’ve found helpful for nearly any type of writing…
The Bad (But Critically Useful):
The Ugly (But Necessary):
And that’s it!
Did you enjoy this post? Any favorite parts, or things missing? Do you have your own tips about publishing and writing?
Please let me know in the comments! I’ll be reading them all.
The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.