How to Write a Bestselling Book This Year — The Definitive Resource List and How-To Guide

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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:
MARKETING
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:

Write the Perfect Book Proposal: 10 That Sold and Why
Author 101: Bestselling Book Publicity

For the first meaty section, we’ll cover marketing, as it’s where I get the most questions.

MARKETING

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 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:

12 Lessons Learned While Marketing “The 4-Hour Body”
How to Build a High-Traffic Blog Without Killing Yourself
How Tucker Max Got Rejected by Publishing and Still Hit #1 New York Times
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?”)

Behind-the-scenes mechanics:

How the Various Bestseller Lists Work — New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Etc.
Behind the Scenes: How to Make a Movie Trailer for Your Product (or Book)
How to Create a Viral Book Trailer (or Get 1,000,000 Views for Almost Anything)

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:

From First TV to Dr. Oz – How to Get Local Media… Then National Media
How to Create a Global Phenomenon for Less Than $10,000
Public Speaking — How I Prepare Every Time

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:

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:
Hacking Kickstarter: How to Raise $100,000 in 10 Days (Includes Successful Templates, E-mails, etc.)

Now, let’s look at the nitty-gritty economics of publishing, as well as how to weigh the pros and cons of self-publishing:
How Authors Really Make Money: The Rebirth of Seth Godin and Death of Traditional 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:
A Few Thoughts on Content Creation, Monetization, and Strategy

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:
Jedi Mind Tricks: How to Get $250,000 of Advertising for $10,000
The Margin Manifesto: 11 Tenets for Reaching (or Doubling) Profitability in 3 Months

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 Good:
Tim Ferriss Interviews Neil Strauss, 7x New York Times Bestselling Author, on the Creative Process
Neil Gaiman – The Best Commencement Speech You May Ever Hear (20 Minutes)
The Odd (And Effective) Routines of Famous Minds like Beethoven, Maya Angelou, and Francis Bacon
Paulo Coelho: How I Write

The Bad (But Critically Useful):
“Productivity” Tricks for the Neurotic, Manic-Depressive, and Crazy (Like Me)
So…You Want to Be a Writer? Read This First.

The Ugly (But Necessary):
The Ugly New York Times Bestseller — The Creative Process in Action
Tim Ferriss: On The Creative Process And Getting Your Work Noticed

AFTERWORD

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.

Posted on: February 4, 2014.

Please check out Tribe of Mentors, my newest book, which shares short, tactical life advice from 100+ world-class performers. Many of the world's most famous entrepreneurs, athletes, investors, poker players, and artists are part of the book. The tips and strategies in Tribe of Mentors have already changed my life, and I hope the same for you. Click here for a sample chapter and full details. Roughly 90% of the guests have never appeared on my podcast.

Who was interviewed? Here's a very partial list: tech icons (founders of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Craigslist, Pinterest, Spotify, Salesforce, Dropbox, and more), Jimmy Fallon, Arianna Huffington, Brandon Stanton (Humans of New York), Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Ben Stiller, Maurice Ashley (first African-American Grandmaster of chess), Brené Brown (researcher and bestselling author), Rick Rubin (legendary music producer), Temple Grandin (animal behavior expert and autism activist), Franklin Leonard (The Black List), Dara Torres (12-time Olympic medalist in swimming), David Lynch (director), Kelly Slater (surfing legend), Bozoma Saint John (Beats/Apple/Uber), Lewis Cantley (famed cancer researcher), Maria Sharapova, Chris Anderson (curator of TED), Terry Crews, Greg Norman (golf icon), Vitalik Buterin (creator of Ethereum), and nearly 100 more. Check it all out by clicking here.

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182 comments on “How to Write a Bestselling Book This Year — The Definitive Resource List and How-To Guide

  1. It is really amazing how you are able to make the “barriers to entry” into virtually anything, seem methodical and simple. Like so many, I would love to be a world-class author, but have no idea where to begin, nor the attention span to spend years writing a book followed by years of learning what to do with it when it is finally finished. For the ADD generation that I am a part of, your blogs/ideas give us hope of achieving greater things than we imagined. Thanks brother!

    Like

  2. Thank you for this great post Tim. Having written five books and working on a sixth regarding supercharged charter schools with an emphasis on females entering tech careers, I am trying to break through to my own literary success but its been hard. Self publishing is tough and I managed to get a Doctorate in Education and work with some schools but I have much higher aspirations. Thanks for your work and your enthusiasm. Its very inspiring.

    Like

  3. Hi Tim,

    This is my first time leaving a comment. I was very impressed by your book (4HWW). I still apply your information diet advice and it is very helpful.
    I just listened SPI episode and it was good one.
    I have just published my first book and this article really helped me a lot.
    Hope to talk to you soon.

    Jun Han from Korea

    Like

  4. I find this post very helpful. You were able to digest the ways and means as well as the pros and cons, in your own words and the way you see it,on how to write a best selling book for this year.

    Like

  5. I wish I had this when I was writing my book. Of course, I never fancied myself a writer. I only did it because the 9 year anniversary of my husband’s death was looming, and I needed a project to for my daughters and myself to get our minds off of our grief. My book is helpful, and has great ideas, but; it mediocre at best.

    Like

  6. As someone that is hesitant of wading into the waters and writing my own book, reading this was very timely. Very motivationg. Thanks Tim

    Like

  7. Thank you Tim for this fabulous outline for authors (and want-to-be authors like myself). It is so overwhelming! Writing the book is great; honestly all of the choices and details around getting it published are what holds me back from putting it out there. I appreciate your willingness to share your personal thoughts as an experienced author. Thanks again.

    Laurel

    Like

  8. There’s a ton of useful tips here. Thanks, Tim. I’ll be gleaning as much as I can from several of the links!

    If I was going to pick out a criticism, it’s that the number of links is a little overwhelming and detracts from the flow. But paradoxically, that’s also a strength, it has to be said.

    Cheers!

    Like

  9. Thanks Tim! Damn bro, that was loaded!

    On another note, I was a little late but I watched the latest Random show yesterday…and I am totally down for a post on the microbiome. Would apply greatly to me (and probably a lot of people) as I also have had to take antibiotics lately…reluctantly.

    Thanks again.

    Like

  10. Tim, thank you for always being so generous about sharing your expertise. It is greatly appreciated. I keep you book on my desk as a reminder of what great resources your provide.

    Like

  11. Thanks Tim,

    This is a timely post. I’m exploring many options right now and I really value your thorough evaluation of traditional and self publishing.

    Write on!~

    Lisa Manyon

    Like

  12. Tim… just started getting my Audio program Cold Calling for scaredy Cats transcribed into a book… wow is this ever the right time to get a road map!

    Thanks so much… if you are ever in Perth – paradise on earth – I would love to share a Margaret River merlot with you

    Like

  13. Very cool resource. It will take some time to go through the many links so I’ve bookmarked it. I’ve written and self-published a few books, but no where with the level of success you’ve had, so I’ll be using several of these sections much more in the future.

    Like

  14. WOW. Thanks for being such an open-door resource and helping others gain from your experiences. Just to let you know, Molly and Ted Fienning of the company Babiators spoke at an entrepreneurial seminar at Harvard last January and mentioned your book “The 4-Hour Workweek” as one of two MUST read books if going into biz for yourself. Proudly, I could raise my hand and say I’d already read it. I think you might be my hero. Do you wear a cape? If not, why the hell not?

    Like

  15. Tim –
    Thanks so much for this…really. Thanks for the hard work you lived to prep it and then for passing it on freely. I wish you much MORE success. You deserve it. Thanks for remembering that we are where you were and how hard it was. …I believe in that, too.
    ~Marissa Hale

    Like

  16. A whole heck of a lot to digest but much appreciated…i released a new CD last year and could’ve used a lot of this info…very useful and “actionable”. Keep it up dude!

    ~ GSRV

    Like

  17. Thank you Tim! Does your advice apply to children’s books? Do you or anyone reading comments have opinions either way about purchasing courses such as the one offered by Jack Canfield or Peggy McColl? Thanks again.

    Like

  18. Absolutely brilliant post mate. I’m ready to get this proposal down and then hit up a few agents now that you’ve helped me understand the process much better. As my idea transfers across different platforms: the book, seminars, developing an app and so much more that allows me to tap into different markets…how much of this would you recommend I demonstrate? I’m aiming to build a platform with this book for national exposure across the US develop a brand and soon after, aiming for global expansion (it’s a really big idea and the book is simply the beginning). Any advice on how I should approach an agent?

    Like

  19. My suggestion is to be cautious about relying on pop-culture references in your effort to be ”accessible”. It ends up having the reverse effect – limiting your readership. Like all of us I admire and have benefited a lot from Tims 3 books particularly the latter 2. But I keep tripping over pop-culture references I assume I am supposed to know but instead appear to be specific to a very certain demographic within north america. Of course I could use an internet search engine to figure out the meaning – but why should I? To be fair I have been able to skip over the strange phrases without missing the points I need. However, for example i live in Australia, I know a lot about good music and good films. It’s not like I live in a wood cabin. But off the top of my head, some examples are ”Nor-Cal” (a military industrial complex?) Dakota Fanning (Is that a place?) F-bombs (no idea but it sounds horrible) . Oh “dim mak” is another one but i happen to know what that is because I studied it 🙂 Technical terms are different – Tims books are full of great technical stuff designed to inform us – thats the whole point – but I include dim mak because I seem to recall there was, again, an assumption it was a regular part of peoples vocabulary. Quality writing and quality writers do not need to lower themselves to popculture references to be memorable. This is intended as a positive, constructive feedback because I’m a fan and bothered to track down this post to write this cos its bothered me for years:)

    Like

  20. Love your work Tim. I’m keen to get my BBQ cookbook out there and reading this post, has giving me a huge boost of motivation.

    Like

  21. Somebody sent me a link to your page and I have to say. Very disappointing. I was hoping to read some solid material. Instead I got a lot of rah rah rah a bit of waffle with a few snippets of useful information and masses of links to sometimes outdated resources. Surely you can write the complete answer to your how to without all those crazy links

    Like

  22. Dear Tim,

    I hope you’re well. I’m a student and first time author. I just completed my first poetry book with fellow university students. It’s the first time both the university and myself are engaged in a project similar to ours. We’ve had the support from our student union and it has allowed us to cover some costs however more needs to be done. I followed the steps provided by this article and thank you for taking your time to describe the process so thoroughly. Two weeks from now I’m launching my kickstarter campaign. Could you please help us promote it by having a post about it? I can send a e-mail containing a very thorough description of our project (background info, the concept, the aim, the outcome desired, etc..)
    I look forward to hearing from you.

    Kind regards,

    Rui

    Like

  23. Wow, I’m working on my second book and this post is really inspiring. My first book is very technical an niche oriented, so I didn’t make much money with it, yet I pride myself with the content it has. Now I’m working on a “more comercial” second book and your blog is becoming to me something like having a digital map while I explore in a jungle. Keep inspiring us!

    Like

  24. I’m so excited I ran across this post. I’m in the process of finishing my rough draft and decided I don’t want to rush the process. I’m committed to putting out Great content that will help change people lives. Your blog encouraged me to stay on the path of quality content. Also, thank you for the advice as it relates to PR, Media, Marketing and self publishing.

    Like

  25. This. “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.” Was my favourite part.

    Epic article which I shall bookmark and return to several times. Thank you, you astonishing soul, for putting this all together.

    Like

  26. Dear Tim,

    I am a Dutch girl that’s writing a Business plan regarding the self-help industry and how to enter the US and doing business with the Americans.
    You helped my so much by writing this article, thank you so much!

    Domi

    Like

  27. Thank you for this post and offering your advice for free! But then again, if we had money to buy advice we would probably already be on some bestseller list….
    Greatly appreciated,
    Kris

    Like

  28. Thanks Tim for the really condensed resources here. I’m in the midst of my third book on a very niche topic, and have been so undecided about whether to do the traditional (like my first) or self published route (like my second) for this one. After re-reading your views and resources here, I’m again leaning towards self-published but it doesn’t completely feel 100% right.

    My dilemma – I plan to do an extended self funded book / speaking tour about the up-and-coming total solar eclipse of 2017 in the US, and plan to have all three of my books available for sale at all my events. Do you (or anyone else) have a view on whether traditional or self publishing is the preferred option when doing extended book tours? I am aware that a traditional deal will support me with PR, practical support and book supply and that is quite appealing. But are there other reasons why one is preferred over the other? I have no interest in getting on instant best seller lists.

    I’ve also loved reading the comments here – so many well informed, capable and inspirational people to be found in your tribe. Thanks again. Kate

    Like

  29. Thanks Tim. You’ve just skimmed hundreds of hours off my research schedule. Thank you also for being so generous with your experiences and knowledge – you’re a beacon of light to all inexperienced bloggers, authors, dreamers and manifesters!

    Like

  30. Thanks so much, Tim, for your generous sharing! Helpful breath of fresh air. Scary blunt, but GOD, do I need to hear all of it. FYI, I always use WHOM when it’s called for, and I ain’t no ghost. 😉

    Like

  31. I had a really harsh 2015 (I blogged the summary list, but I won’t post the URL in this comment text). Over the next year, I am going to put what I have learned into a series of self-help articles with the idea of building a book on how I came back. What I am struggling with is the “hook” to tie together this Rebuild of health, finances and relationships into a unified theory. Any tips for how to brainstorm for a way to tie it all together?

    Like

  32. Hello,
    I have been trying, for the past couple of years, to write on my experience as an Infantryman in Iraq. My goal since enlisting, was to write about what its like to be in combat. So my question is, how in the world does someone write a book? And more specifically how do I write an honest book without pissing off people I like?

    Like

  33. I’m loving the content here, most definitely. I will say, that so far much of this applies to literary fiction and nonfiction. I’ll reread the entire post, complete with links and the rabbit hole, but my question would be, how would any of this differ if you were writing romance?

    Thanks and as I said before, really solid content!

    Like

  34. Hi Tim,
    Before you wrote your book, you were already very successful which allowed you to have the high-level connections necessary to meet certain people in the publishing industry like, Jack Canfield. Unfortunately, it seems nowadays for non-fiction books, it’s all about platform. I mean, Kim Kardashian can write about her rear-end tomorrow by hiring a ghost writer and sell a million copies. It all feels like a bit of a catch 22. What do you recommend I do to increase my chances of meeting a good agent?
    By the way, your book 4 HWW changed my life since in 2007.

    Like

  35. I have a dilemma. If I want to create a course and sell the box (book, DVD, CD) online and in stores (with an exclusive merchant), should I consider it a book and do signing tours and the whole author game, or should I consider it a product and bypass all that? I don’t necesssarily want to be a celebrity among authors. The more invisible the better. I simply want to sell a course.

    Like

  36. Got this link out of today’s Five Bullet Friday (which is a great little resource for me). It’s great you share your experience and know-how – thanks for your generosity. I’m writing a book that’s gonna be a movie when it grows up and when I want a break from writing or run into a little block – I can still use my time productively reading or listening to the content on these links. Happy Friday.

    Like

  37. Hi Tim, I was waiting for the guide how to “write” the book, not promote it (at least that’s what I searched in google and this came out as the first result)

    Like

  38. I’ve developed an accelerated learning system to teach a person how to connect the entire guitar fretboard for improvisation using simple shapes in just a couple of hours (this can normally take years). Was still waiting to refine it until I saw this Greek guy on Facebook marketing his own system with some shapes similar to mine (he seemed to have started from the same ideas but then went off in another, more complex direction). Took me fifteen years to develop this thing so I freaked out and rushed to write it (it was easier than I thought), translate it into Portuguese (I’m half Brazilian, half American) and have it registered at the Biblioteca Nacional here in Rio.

    That was the easy part. Now I’m having all the doubts you wrote about here, so finding your article was awesome.

    I contacted the most traditional Brazilian music books publishing house two weeks ago by email and they said they’d get back to me. Called last week, same reply.

    Tried getting in touch (phone, email, Facebook) with the American consulate here in Rio to get information about having the book registered in the U.S., they wouldn’t give me the time of day. The lady who works in the Library of Congress office at the consulate couldn’t help directly, but was very nice and pointed me to the LOC site.

    Still have to get this thing – both the name and the system – copyrighted (had no idea, thought it was enough to register the book). There’s a cost, and I have no budget.

    Do I self publish? How do I pay for everything? I also considered crowdfunding. But what do I crowdfund? A physical book? An ebook? A YouTube channel? An app? All the above…? I’d love to see my idea spread far and wide, but love don’t pay my bills…

    So yeah, I’m definitely gonna be reading every single link you posted here! Thanks!!

    Like

  39. This is probably the best comprehensive,easy to digest guide that is available anywhere on the planet, and it is freaking free! Love it. Just love it. Can not get enough of reading, it is like falling down the rabbit hole, the further you go, the more you realize how much more is out there and it never ends, i mean the advice, the tactics, strategies ideas, etc. Mind blowing…

    Like

  40. Though this is an older post, it’s still relevant today. I’m wondering how many of us have heard this before but never followed through on the steps to get there? Lately I’ve been moving forward in baby steps. But mostly I follow what I am passionate about at the moment. Currently it’s a children’s book and some coloring books. So far I’ve given away more than I’ve sold, but I don’t mind. By pursuing what I like, the journey is interesting.

    Like

  41. Thanks, Tim! I’m about to start writing my first How-To book, without necessarily knowing how to start. This really helps.

    Like

  42. Tim Ferriss is always the first port of call when learning the ‘how to’ for any new project and he delivers again big time! Few top authors would be a generous with their knowledge and resources. This is phenomenal. Many thanks Tim

    Like