Don’t Have Time Right Now?
Book publishing is currently at the beginning of the biggest shift since the rise of Amazon and self-publishing, and this article explains both its present and future.
The goal is to help you choose the best publishing path for you and tell you exactly how to launch your book once you choose your publishing path.
In Part 1 of this piece, I’ll lay out what the current publishing landscape looks like right now.
In Part 2, I’ll explain the new things I see some Authors doing by presenting case studies with exact numbers.
In Part 3, I’ll help you understand how to pick the book publishing option that’s best for you. My main thesis is that there is no “right” publishing option, that all of them are right in different circumstances and the “right” option depends on what you want to accomplish.
Then, in Part 4, I’ll tell you exactly how to think about marketing your book and lay out the launch strategies that we see working for Authors right now (both with and without platforms).
Table of Contents
Traditional vs. Self-Publishing
The conventional wisdom is that if you want to publish a book in the current book publishing landscape, you have two basic options: traditional publishing or self-publishing.
The two approaches differ in many ways, but the most important differences are:
2. Creative control
Traditional publishing: In this model, you sell the rights to your book to a publishing company. This means the publisher gets most of the royalties from the book (the Author gets 15% of hardcover, 7.5% of paperback, and 25% of ebook and audiobook) and has full creative control over the book. The reason Authors give all of this up is that publishing companies give you money upfront and (usually) do a competent job publishing and distributing the book. Contrary to a popular notion, in almost all cases, they do not do much (if any) marketing of the book.
Self-publishing: In this model, you retain all the ownership in your book, and thus you keep all royalties and retain full creative control. This sounds great, but the downside is that you have to figure out a way to get all the work of publishing a book done—and there is a lot that goes into publishing a book (especially if you want it done in a professional manner).
I’ll explain each of these conventional approaches in more detail and tell you how some Authors have found a different way than these two methods.
Traditional Publishing Explained
“Traditional publishing” usually refers to a set of companies that have been publishing books for a long time and that most people think of when they say “book publishers.”
Companies like Hachette, HarperCollins and Penguin/Random House (which just acquired Simon & Schuster) are the biggest, though there are many traditional publishing houses that are much smaller and less well known but work on the same model.
The basic process for traditional publishing non-fiction is this:
1. Author writes a book proposal: This can take anywhere from a month to a year in some cases, and very often you must hire a specialized writer to help you with it, costing anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000 and that is only for the proposal. [Important note: The steps for pitching fiction differ significantly, as first-time writers almost always need a finished fiction manuscript before starting the sales process. This piece covers non-fiction only.]
2. Author finds an agent: Traditional publishers, for the most part, do not take submissions unless they are from book agents. Because of this, once the proposal is done, the Author takes the proposal and uses it to find a book agent to represent them and their book proposal to traditional publishing companies. Note: sometimes the Author gets an agent first and then does the proposal with guidance from the agent.
3. Agent and Author pitch traditional publishers: The agent takes the proposal, and pitches editors at several traditional book publishing companies on “buying” the book. This sometimes includes in-person or Zoom pitches and usually involves the Author as well.
4. Traditional publishers make an offer (or not): Agents are good at their jobs and don’t take books out to traditional publishers unless they’re confident they will get at least one offer. Because of that, many books that make it to this stage get an offer (but a large percentage do not; it’s not guaranteed). An “offer” from a publisher means the publisher offers a publishing deal with terms that are usually pretty standard across the industry (ownership, royalty rate, etc), and an “advance against royalties.”
5. Understanding the advance: The big negotiation point for most publishing deals is the “advance against royalties.” This is the money the publisher will pay the Author upfront for the publishing rights to the book. Advances generally range from $5,000 to $500,000, but in some cases get into the millions (usually for celebrities or established writers with a track record of success). An advance is not a loan. It is literally an “advance against royalties,” which means that if the advance offer is $10,000, then the Author gets $10,000, no matter how many copies the book sells. But if the book does sell well, the Author does not get any additional royalties until the book has sold more than $10,000 worth of royalties for the Author. After it “earns out” its advance, the Author gets their regular royalty rate on sales. Note: there are many traditional publishing companies that offer small or no advances and instead offer better-than-standard royalty terms to Authors. This is becoming more and more common.
6. Author accepts the offer (or not) and the writing process begins: If the Author accepts a deal, then the writing process begins. The Author writes the book themselves, usually with only marginal content editing help from the publisher (though this can vary widely depending on the publisher).
7. Writing is done; publishing and distribution start: Once the Author is done with the manuscript, they turn it in to the publisher, and the publisher process begins. This usually includes (some) content editing, copy editing, book layout, book cover design, etc. The quality of these services varies widely between publishers. The publisher also does the printing and distribution services for the book, which usually means getting the book in bookstores and on Amazon, handling payments, etc.
8. The book is released: The book is then released to market. Contrary to popular belief, the marketing is almost all done by the Author, not the publisher. In some rare cases, the publisher contributes marketing support, but that is usually reserved for the Author they pay the biggest advances to (seven figures or more).
Advantages of Traditional Publishing
1. You get paid before publishing: In a typical non-fiction deal, the Author gets an advance on royalties of anywhere from $5,000 on the very low end to $500,000+ on the high end—with some very very rare deals for celebs or established Authors getting into the millions. For most non-fiction Authors who can get an advance, the advance ranges between $100,000 to $300,000.
2. Highest prestige option: This used to be a big advantage but has decreased substantially in the past 20 years. There are still certain fields where who the book publisher is makes a huge difference to the prestige of the book and Author (academia, for example). But for the most part, there’s little to no prestige with readers based on who published your book.
I’ll prove it: think of your favorite book. Who published it? If you’re like most people, you have no idea. Readers don’t care about who publishes your book (though bestsellers lists do—see next point).
3. Access to major bestseller lists: A full discussion of how bestseller lists work is way beyond the scope of this piece, but in short, they are not actually lists of bestselling books. They are curated, editorial lists—meaning that places such as the New York Times will actively alter their lists to reflect their editorial preferences, while places like the Wall Street Journal tend to list books more in line with sales but at a minimum still decide which books they want on their list and which ones they don’t. This is a place where traditional publishing has an advantage over self-publishing: many of the major lists are still very hesitant to include books not from traditional publishers.
4. Highest chance of bookstore placement and widest distribution: This was definitely true in the pre-Covid-19 days, and it is still true now: bookstores tend to overwhelmingly stock books that come from traditional publishers. In fact, if there is one thing traditional publishers are truly great at, it’s selling and distributing books to bookstores.
Furthermore, traditional publishers tend to have well-established distribution networks and can get your book into most online places that take books.
Drawbacks of Traditional Publishing
1. Very hard to get a deal: The hard fact of life is that there’s almost no chance for the average Author to get a traditional publishing deal. It’s not about the content. A traditional book publisher’s decision hinges on one simple fact:
Does the Author have an existing audience (or other assets and skills) that show a very convincing marketing path to guarantee a large quantity of book sales?
Traditional publishers focus on this fact almost to the exclusion of all others because they do not know how to sell books to readers (only to bookstores). This is not my opinion; this is the industry now and has been for years. A book agent I know who has repped several #1 New York Times bestselling Authors, said this:
“Publishers aren’t buying anything that doesn’t come with a built-in audience that will buy it. They don’t take risks anymore. They don’t gamble on Authors. They only want sure things. I won’t even take an Author out unless they have an audience they can guarantee 25,000 pre-sales to.”
If you don’t have a built-in audience of people who have bought from you before or a very reliable way to sell a lot of your books for the publisher, then you have almost no shot at getting a deal.
2. Long publishing cycle: Even if you get a deal, most Authors are looking at least 18 months from the time they begin their proposal until the book is published. Often, 24 months. Traditional publishing moves slowly because they move according to the retail sales cycle of physical bookstores (there are exceptions to this, like books about elections, but that tends to be very rare).
3. Limited financial upside: You do get money upfront, but that money is an advance against royalties. The publisher is “advancing” you a portion of your royalties upfront, and to make more money than that advance, you must sell more books than they projected you would.
As explained, if you get a $100,000 advance, you don’t get any royalty checks until after you have made $100,000 in royalties. For most books, assuming you make about $2 royalty per book (an average across all mediums and deals), that means you have to sell 50,000 books before you start to see additional money.
As stated before, in a typical traditional publishing deal, the Author gets 25% of the royalties on ebooks and audio sales, 15% of the royalties on hardcover sales, and 7.5% of the royalties on paperback.
4. Lack of marketing support or control: This is one of the most frustrating things about traditional publishing and what I hear the most complaints about from Authors: they expected their publisher would help them with marketing, but they end up doing almost nothing.
Even worse than that, many publishers will actively hamper your marketing efforts. The reason is simple: they only make money on book sales, so they don’t want you to do anything they perceive as hampering book sales. I tell aspiring Authors that the only thing you can count on them doing is mailing free books to advanced readers or media outlets—outlets that you reached out to in the first place.
Want to do a book giveaway for your fans? You will usually have to buy the books from the publisher (though not always—I have had publishers work with me on this).
Want to do discounts to drive sales? It won’t be easy to convince them to do that in most cases.
Want to give some content away to drive interest? Pray for a publisher who understands that.
This quote from an Author I helped get a major, record-breaking publishing deal tells the whole story:
“You told me this would happen, but I truly thought you were exaggerating. It was worse than you said. I don’t know how they sell any books at all the way they operate.”
An important point here: most traditional publishers now are very upfront that they don’t do much marketing help, but Authors still have that misconception.
5. Lack of creative and content control: This varies widely depending on the publishing company and the Author. Some publishing companies are very Author friendly and let their Authors do anything reasonable. Some are very hard to work with and insist on major changes to a book or push a terrible cover on an Author. Regardless of how a specific publishing company operates, understand that you do not have final say on anything in your book. At best, your agent can attempt to negotiate clauses in the contract that provide for “mutual agreement” on certain aspects, but that will usually include modifiers like “not to be unreasonably withheld” or somesuch.
6. Lack of ownership: When you take a publishing deal, the publishing company owns your book, not you. I can tell you, as someone who has been in this world for nearly 20 years, not owning the rights to your creative work can and does create some major problems. Though rare, you can sometimes carve out a piece of the pie and retain that ownership and control. For example, Tim Ferriss has been able to retain audiobook format rights for his last few books, but this negotiating position is usually earned only after multiple bestsellers, if at all.
“Self-publishing” is a publishing model where the Author retains the rights to their book but manages the whole publishing process themselves.
There is no agent needed, no pitching or permission needed, and no upfront money paid by any publisher, and the Author retains all rights and all creative control. A long time ago, this publishing model used to be called “vanity publishing” because it was only possible for people who spent huge sums of money.
But then two things happened, right around the same time (about 25 years ago): the digital computer revolution made it cheap and easy to create books, and Amazon made it cheap and easy to distribute books, giving people a way to sell books outside of bookstores. These two changes basically created a whole new market for self-publishing.
Since then, self-publishing has flourished. Millions of self-published books have been created by tens of thousands of Authors, and some of those have been huge successes. In fact, some of the bestselling books of the past generation were self-published, at least at first (for example Fifty Shades of Grey, the Wool series, and The Martian, among many others).
Self-publishing has many different forms, but the basic process works like this:
- The Author writes a book.
- The Author finds and pays an editor to help them edit it (or edits it themselves).
- The Author finds and/or pays a proofreader to help them proofread it (or does this themselves).
- The Author finds and pays a cover designer to design the cover (or designs it themselves).
- The Author finds and pays an interior layout designer to design the interior (or uses software to lay it out themselves).
- The Author finds and pays a copywriter to help them write the book description, Author bio, and all other assorted copy for the book (or does it themselves).
The Author finds and pays a distributor to distribute the book, usually through a service like Amazon, IngramSpark, or BookBaby.
Advantages of Self-Publishing
1. You get all the royalties (minus distribution costs): You don’t have to split your royalties with anyone (obviously distribution platforms like Amazon still take a cut of sales). And you don’t even have to split your profits with Amazon if you don’t want to—you can just sell your book on your own site, directly to your readers, with no distributor in the middle.
Generally speaking, if you’re the publisher of your book, you are making anywhere from 40% on the low end to 100% on the high end of the sales revenue from the book.
2. You have creative control: When you self-publish, there is no one to answer to and no one to negotiate with or have to change to accomodate. You get to do what you want to do.
3. You have marketing control: Same goes with marketing. If you want to give your book away for free—which is often a great marketing technique—then you can. If you want to syndicate your book content to an email list, you can. You have limitless options because you can decide where to prioritize your time and money and not just have to focus on book sales.
4. Fast to market: You can go very fast to market with self-publishing. It’s possible to self-publish a book in a few months.
5. Total freedom & ownership: Most of the advantages above derive from the total freedom of choice that you get from retaining full ownership of rights and royalties of your book.
Drawbacks of Self-Publishing
1. Potential unprofessionalism: This is the crucial question for self-publishing, one that trumps every other: is the book professional or not?
The saying is right: everyone judges a book by its cover. But not just the cover. The title, book description, Author photo, blurbs, and even Author bio all tell a story about how credible and authoritative that book is—and thus it reflects on the Author. The totality of the book is a direct reflection of you in many ways (fair or unfair).
If you can do a professional job with your book, then self-publishing can be a great choice.
If you can’t do a professional job, that can be very limiting for your book, both in terms of book sales and in terms of the other benefits you get (status, prestige, media, etc).
A professional book makes you look professional. An unprofessional book makes you look unprofessional.
2. Difficult and time consuming to get right: A self-published book does not automatically have to be unprofessional. But the reality is most of them are. Why?
Because it’s very difficult to publish a book. Once you’re done writing the book, you have to edit it (both for content and for spelling/grammar), design a cover, lay out the interior, write all the copy, and do a hundred other little things that require deep domain expertise.
The best way to do this is to hire good people who are experts in each area. Well, where do you find them? How do you vet their expertise? How do you explain what you want? How do you manage their work? How do you know you are doing it all correctly?
These are solvable problems, but they take time and require you to learn a lot. It doesn’t just happen by itself, and most Authors who self-publish get stuck here, dealing with the actual process of doing the book themselves. It’s a quagmire for an amateur.
You have probably seen ads claiming to help you self-publish a “bestseller in a weekend” or “write and publish your book in 30 days.” That is possible—but not if you want a good book. Those programs produce books that are universally terrible. You cannot do a highly professional, well executed book in that short of a time frame. There is a reason all of those ads come off as scams—they are.
3. Expensive (if done right): Furthermore, if you hire good people to help you, they’re expensive.
For example, you can get a book cover on 99 Designs for anywhere from $250 to $750. But those covers will be, at best, decent—good enough for doing comps and seeing ideas laid out, but (usually) not good enough for a finalized, highly professional book cover.
Compare this to an accomplished freelance book cover designer, one who has major bestsellers under her belt. She will charge anywhere from $1,500 to $3,000 for a book cover. The very best cover designers will sometimes charge $5,000 or more.
I argue they’re worth it, but the fact remains: that’s expensive. Here’s a blog post that breaks down the costs of self-publishing a book when you do it yourself.
4. Limited distribution: Self-publishing often limits you to distributing on Amazon and some of the independent book distributors like Ingram. This precludes bookstores, as most bookstores will not stock self-published books (mainly because of the professionalism issue but also because of how they handle returns). This is changing, as independent distributors like Ingram are beginning to offer services that mimic traditional publishers to some extent, but nonetheless, it is difficult to get expanded distribution with a self-published book.
5. Almost no bestseller list access: As stated above, most of the major lists refuse to acknowledge self-published books. This is not a hard-and-fast rule, and there are definitely exceptions, but not many.
The New Third Option
What if you want to get the best of both worlds? What if you want complete creative control over your book and to keep the bulk of the profits but also want a highly professional book, with wide distribution, and ideally you don’t have to manage the process yourself but have experts do it?
If you wanted this in the past, it wasn’t really possible. But recently some major Authors have done something very different than in the past: they’ve published highly professional books, with wide distribution, but also retained all their rights, had full creative control, and made maximum profit.
This has created a “third way” for book publishing, and this third way is going to be the future of publishing for many (but not all) Authors.
I call it “professional publishing” to differentiate it from traditional and self-publishing.
Professional Publishing Explained
With professional publishing, the Author retains ownership, full creative control, and full marketing control and can maximize the money they make. These are the main benefits of self-publishing.
The Author can also get high quality professional book creation support, full distribution support, access to bestseller lists, and even high media visibility and (most of) the high status that comes from working with established companies. These are many of the main benefits of traditional publishing.
Professional publishing is not perfect, and there is a trade-off, of course. The main downside to professional publishing is that it’s expensive. Getting these sorts of services costs money that usually has to be paid upfront.
Let’s look at the advantages and disadvantages of professional publishing before I give you some examples.
Advantages of Professional Publishing
1. You make all the profit: Same as with self-publishing.
2. You have full creative control: Same as with self-publishing.
3. You have marketing control: Same as with self-publishing.
4. Fast to market: Same as with self-publishing.
5. Total freedom & ownership: Same as with self-publishing.
6. Access to bestseller lists: This is often not the exact same access as a traditional publisher but much more than being self-published. For example, my company and others like it have helped dozens of Authors get on every major bestseller list (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today), but we’ve found it generally takes about 1.5x to 3x the number of sales for them to put our books on their lists than it does for a traditionally published book.
7. A chance of widespread distribution and bookstore placement: Again, not exactly the same as traditionally published books, and this can vary widely depending on which professional publishing company you work with and what book you decide to write.
Disadvantages of Professional Publishing
1. Expensive: This should not be overlooked: Professional publishing costs anywhere from $10,000 on the low end to $150,000+ on the higher end.
2. Upfront investment: It’s not only expensive, but the investment has to be made before the book is published. Generally speaking, you can expect to pay for all the services before you make one dollar from the book. You can do it without a company, but it will probably be even more expensive (examples below).
3. Few reputable companies, many scammers: As of right now, there are very few professional publishing companies that have a reputable track record. I know of only two, and that includes the company I founded (the other one is Page Two Books, discussed more below).
There are a lot of companies that claim to offer these services but have a lot of unhappy customers, do not offer high-quality services, or have very little experience—or all three.
Don’t be fooled by companies that offer professional publishing services but have cheap-looking websites, have only published a few books, have only Authors you’ve never heard of, and have unprofessional-looking covers. Pay attention to the track record of any company in this space.
You must be very careful when picking a professional publishing company to work with because you’re investing a lot of money upfront and often relying on the company to do their work even after they’ve been paid. That’s a combination of factors that makes the space ripe for scammers.
4. Hard to do alone: You can professionally publish by yourself, but it is very hard to do. In the next section, you’ll see two examples of Authors who did this themselves, and the common thread was that it was much harder than they thought it would be.
Professional Publishing Case Studies
There are two different ways to do effective professional publishing, and they are very different approaches. I will explain the approaches using case studies and examples from a few Authors who’ve done this recently.
Approach #1: Build Your Own Publishing Company
Case Study: The Aviary Cocktail Book
Possibly the most impressive thing I’ve seen in my publishing career is what the team behind The Aviary Cocktail Book accomplished.
I don’t know Nick Kokonas or Grant Achatz, but they’re people after my own heart. In short, they created and run some of the most iconic and successful restaurants in America (including Alinea, which is generally regarded as one of the top 5 restaurants in the world) and were approached by traditional publishers to do a book. Kokonas hated the standard deal terms of traditional publishing, but instead of just accepting them or complaining, he decided to do something about it: start his own publishing company.
I won’t give you the full rundown of everything they did, mainly because Nick details it better than I ever could both in this Medium piece and on their ridiculously comprehensive blog.
In the Medium piece specifically, Nick goes into deep detail about the problems of traditional publishing deals, why they can be so bad for Authors, and the winding, remarkable path they took to create their own publishing company.
Then in the blog, they detail every issue they had with publishing. If you are serious about doing a professionally published book by yourself, this blog is a great master class in what it takes to do it perfectly. I know publishing inside and out, and I’m deeply impressed by everything they did.
They have since used these capabilities to create many more books, all of which I own and all of which are just as high quality as the first.
~90,000 copies sold (of just The Aviary Book)
Total Gross Sales:
~$10,000,000 (the book sold for over $100 a copy, thus the high gross sales)
Case Study: Shane Parrish (Farnam Street)
Shane Parrish runs one of my favorite blogs on the internet, Farnam Street. He often writes about mental models, and his fans asked for a book about them. So he decided to do a four-part series of books on mental models where he would detail every mental model he could find.
But he didn’t just want to do a book. He asked the question, “What would a book look like if we weren’t trying to make money on it, and instead we were just trying to build a brand? What if we made the best looking book possible at the lowest price possible?”
In addition to great content, he wanted a book that would be a truly beautiful physical object, something that would be an heirloom for people, the type of book people would treasure. Full color, the highest-quality paper, special cover and bindings, etc. And it would be cheap for readers to buy.
The problem? This wasn’t possible with a traditional publishing deal.
Doing a great book wasn’t impossible with traditional publishing, but to make the type of book Shane envisioned possible, his publisher would have to charge $40 or even $50 to make the economics work. He wanted to price the book such that it was within reach of the average person, so more of a $20 to $25 price point.
So he decided to do what the Aviary team did and essentially create his own publishing company. And he learned what everyone who tries to build a high-end publishing company learns: it’s very hard to do.
He hired all the designers, sourced special Italian paper, got it printed in Latvia, and encountered endless problems that took years…but eventually ended up with a truly beautiful book.
He has also had issues with distributors, Amazon keeping the book in stock, and all the other issues with publishing you would never expect when you try to do this yourself.
He helped solve the financial problem by getting a sponsorship from the company that owns WordPress, Automattic. They pay for the printing of all the books, and in return, their name is on the back.
The good news is that the books are really awesome, and he’s had some solid success with them: The Great Mental Models Volume 1: General Thinking Concepts, and The Great Mental Models Volume 2: Physics, Chemistry, and Biology:
Total Sales (in all formats):
~50,000 copies sold (of both editions)
Total Net Royalties:
[Source: phone conversation with Shane]
The royalty rate is very low given the number of sales, but the reason is because he is selling a very expensive book for a very cheap price. He pays about $7 per book to print—compare this to the average hardcover, which generally costs about $2 to print in large quantities. Amazon buys the book for $12, and his distribution partner takes about $2 per copy, which leaves him with a little less than $3 per copy profit.
Had Shane chosen to sell the book for $40, the royalties would have more than tripled (because the fixed costs don’t increase with the price).
Approach #2: Hire a Professional Publishing Company
Nick and Shane decided to professionally publish on their own, which is always an option. In fact, until about 5 years ago, it was the only real way to get a professionally published book: you had to manage the process yourself.
But starting around 5 years ago, some companies sprung up that focused on creating a professional publishing experience for Authors. As of this writing, there are really only two reputable companies that do this at a high level: Scribe Media, and Page Two Books (I have no association with Page Two other than I know their work and find it very good). I’ll share case studies from both companies.
[Note: there are definitely individual people who can (and do) perform professional publishing services at a high level, but they’re almost all freelancers and only do a few books a year. Scribe and Page Two are the only companies that do it at scale with quality.]
Case Study: Michael Bungay Stanier
Michael is a well-known executive coach and corporate consultant. He wrote one book with a traditional publisher (Do More Great Work), which sold 90,000 copies. He naturally assumed he’d write another with the same publisher.
But over the course of three years, he couldn’t come to an agreement with his publisher. He spent three years writing proposal after proposal, as the publisher and agent endlessly changed their minds about what they thought his book positioning should be. Michael called it “a colossal waste of time that I could have spent growing and improving my business.”
Michael details his entire journey to professionally publish his book The Coaching Habit here, but he sums up the exact philosophy of professional publishing five years before this article, at the very beginning of its development:
“This time, I was determined to publish as a professional. I wanted everything that a regular publisher would contribute—top-notch editing, design, distribution—but without any of the timidity and the ‘do what we’ve always done’ spirit that so often comes as part of the deal.”
Michael did find an editor and a book cover designer on his own, but the big thing that really helped him was hiring Page Two Books. Michael gives them immense credit for the success of his book, as they expertly guided him through the various parts of the publishing process that are required to make a book look and feel professional.
That’s the point of professional publishing after all, and Page Two did an excellent job with his book. Everyone I know who worked with them had similar things to say about the experience, and like I said before, that is very rare in this space.
While giving him expert guidance, they also held to a hallmark of professional publishing: they listened to him and let his knowledge of his own clients guide the process. Co-Founder Jesse Finkelstein told me:
“Publishers are not necessarily the ones who should be calling the shots when it comes to pivotal marketing decisions such as a book’s launch timing or the way it’s priced.
We’ve known many traditionally-published Authors who regret that their book cover design doesn’t reflect the brand identity they’ve worked so hard to establish in their business, for example, or who feel that its price and format are wrong for their customer base.
We believe the best result comes from a meeting of minds: a scenario in which the publisher does their best work to produce, market and sell the book, while the Author informs and ultimately chooses every part of the strategy with their market knowledge.”
I could not agree with her more. Michael used that approach to great benefit in many ways, including changing it as time went on:
“I’m able to change the call to action included in my book (ed note: Michael literally changed the text in his books, which can be done). At first I asked people to leave a review on Amazon, and that really accelerated the reviews. But at a certain point, at around 1,000 reviews, I thought that didn’t matter anymore, so I changed the call to action to contacting the company, signing up for lead magnets, and several other things that drove results. I got to test what helped people engage in the book beyond the book. That’s a flexibility that is not available through any method other than professional publishing.”
Total Book Sales (all formats—physical, ebook, audio):
Net Royalties Paid to Michael:
When I talked to Michael about this, he said:
“I would tell you, but honestly, Tucker, I have no clue what the book has made from sales. I suppose I could look up the numbers, but I don’t care. I measure the success of the book two ways:
1. Has it helped people become better coaches? Based on the feedback I get, it has done that.
2. How many people come to my company for our consulting work? The last I checked, we have more than $10 million in work directly attributable to the book, from major clients like Microsoft. They hired us literally because someone there read the book. No other reason.”
This sentiment is a very important point for how to pick your publishing option, and I will talk about it more in Part 3.
If I were to hazard an educated guess based on his sales numbers and normal royalty rate for books priced at his level for Authors at Scribe, I’d say Michael made around $4 to $5 million in net royalties from book sales.
Case Study: Nassim Taleb
Nassim Taleb is a well-known Author who has written four traditionally published New York Times bestsellers: The Black Swan, Fooled by Randomness, Antifragile, and Skin In The Game.
I met Nassim through a mutual friend (the late Seth Roberts), who knew he was not happy with some of his experiences with traditional publishing. Nassim had some very specific requirements for his next book and realized that traditional publishing could not accommodate him. These requirements—for us, in this case—were:
- He wanted 100% control over every decision. Nassim cares deeply about the aesthetics of his work and wanted to be able to completely control that process and result.
- He wanted to print on the highest-quality paper, even if it’s not economical.
He wanted to be able to update his book quickly as he made changes (he’s already done 3 updates to the book he did with us).
- He wanted to be able to facilitate reliable international shipping to any country from a store he controlled (outside of Amazon). He ended up intentionally taking a small loss to be able to ship worldwide affordably.
- This was going to be a technical math book that was mainly for math experts—many of whom would be students—so he wanted to make sure the PDF was available and free to anyone who wanted it.
- He wanted to do the layout himself in LaTeX and did not want us to touch one aspect of it when he was done.
- Most important to him was nobody telling him what to do or making him jump through hoops. He wanted a service company experience.
We discussed every angle on these requirements, and though we were able to accommodate Nassim, we also made it clear there would be some serious trade-offs to his decisions.
Giving a free PDF of his book away would drastically increase the reach of the book but also substantially decrease sales of the physical copy. He was fine with that.
His exacting requirements for the paper and printing would make the book very expensive for those who did want to order a physical copy. He was okay with that as well.
And the fact that he was doing the layout himself and did not want us to touch any of the copy meant that errors would show up in the final text. He was fine with that, and that was why he was so insistent on making changes quickly: he wanted this book to get feedback from readers so he could change and improve the book over time.
In June of 2020, exactly in line with his specifications, Statistical Consequences of Fat Tails was published.
Nassim got pretty much exactly what he wanted, and the reviews have been very good—not just for the content but for the aesthetic quality of the book and the fact that he gave the book away for free to anyone who wanted it.
Total Book Sales (all formats—physical, ebook, audio):
9,560 sales (only actual physical sales, not free downloads, which are at least 12x that number)
Net Royalties Paid to Nassim:
Estimated Net Royalties on Same Sales with Traditional Publishing:
Choose Your Author Identity to Find Your Publishing Approach
It might seem overwhelming deciding which is the best publishing method for you. When I help people think through this issue, I get them to think about it in terms of identity and result.
Who do you want to be, and what do you want your book to get for you?
There are a few useful identities to help you understand the path for you (and each has different results):
In this context, a professional writer is someone who writes books for a living. This is a person who makes a large chunk of their income from writing books and from the other activities that come from being a professional writer, like speaking at conferences.
The defining desire of this identity is to be seen as a professional writer, live that life, and achieve the markers of success traditionally associated with that career path.
For these people, traditional publishing is often the best option. Since their primary goal is to sell as many copies as possible and hit major bestseller lists—because these are the markers of success for professional writers—they require all the things traditional publishing excels at: wide distribution, media credibility, and sometimes large advances and therefore guaranteed upside.
Just a few examples of professional writers are Tim Ferriss, Malcolm Gladwell, or Brene Brown in non-fiction. In fiction, there is Lisa Jackson, Janet Evanovich, or James Patterson.
I want to point out that to be a professional writer, you don’t have to start with traditional publishing. You can begin with self-publishing and move up.
Ben Hardy is a great example of this. Ben was a grad student writing blog posts on Medium that did very well (for a few years he was the most-read writer on Medium). Early on he didn’t have a big enough platform to get a traditional publishing deal, so instead he published a short book on Amazon called Slipstream Time Hacking that ended up doing very well, getting downloaded over 200,000 times and garnering 325 reviews on Amazon in only 4 years.
The sales of this book, plus the growth of his platform, led to him signing a traditional deal with Portfolio Books (a division of Penguin/Random House). And I mean that literally—an editor at Portfolio read Slipstream Time Hacking and reached out to Ben to do a traditionally published book.
With them he’s written two more books (one a Wall Street Journal bestseller) and co-Authored another Wall Street Journal bestselling book with the legendary entrepreneur coach Dan Sullivan, Who Not How—all by starting with self-publishing.
The defining desire of the “professional writer” identity is to be a full time writer, use writing as their primary means to make money, and do all the things a professional writer has to do to make that career work.
Best Publishing Option: Traditional publishing is usually the best path if you can get a deal. If you can’t, then start with self-publishing and move to traditional after you prove yourself.
This is someone who is writing just for fun and sees everything else that comes from writing books as a bonus. Usually this person wants to write novels, sometimes a memoir, or perhaps a family history, usually just in their spare time. It’s okay with them if they don’t sell a bunch of copies (though obviously they’d be happy if they did).
The defining desire of this identity is to write the book and see it published and out in the world, regardless of how it gets there.
Best Publishing Option: Self-publishing. You can self-publish very quickly and cheaply, especially without all the bells and whistles that a professional writer or a high level professional needs.
I’m not using the term “status” pejoratively. There are many people who write books with the primary purpose of raising their status, and that is totally fine.
For example, academics would not be classified as professional writers, and their books rarely sell many copies, so they are not doing it for money, but they do get a lot of benefit from them in terms of status—namely status in their profession.
The same is true for famous celebrities or many people who work in the media. The book is a marker of status, and that is the main benefit they get from it (you’d be shocked at how poorly most celebrity books actually sell).
They often don’t care about the money from a book and instead want the prestige of being “picked” to have a major traditionally published book.
I am not criticizing this desire in any way—simply recognizing it so that the people for whom it is a consideration can make the best decision for themselves.
Best Publishing Option: Almost always traditional publishing.
For these types of people, they do have to ask how status is measured in their field to be sure they are picking the right type of traditional publishing option. For example, with academics, status is measured by which journals and publishers pick up your work and how many citations you get. So if you are looking for status in that field, academic publishers (which is a form of traditional publishing) are the way to go, as opposed to regular traditional publishing, which is often seen as low status in the academic field.
A “knowledge-share Author” is someone who doesn’t necessarily want to be a professional writer but wants to write a book (or several books) because they have knowledge to share that can help other people (and sharing that knowledge usually helps them as well, in many different ways).
Generally speaking, these can be business owners, consultants, executives, doctors, lawyers, farmers, tradespeople, or anyone like that who has a difficult or intellectually intense job or a business of their own. Their books are informative non-fiction that teaches something valuable to the reader.
And by writing this book, they can benefit themselves. For example, they can use a book to help them:
1. Raise visibility: Books can increase visibility in any number of ways, like making it easier to gain media exposure or raise your profile in your niche.
2. Increase authority/establish credibility: Books help an Author establish authority and gain credibility within their field.
3. Get new clients/opportunities: Books can easily help generate new business and other opportunities across a variety of platforms and venues in multiple ways.
4. Get speaking engagements: A book is almost a necessity for becoming a paid speaker or often getting booked for any public speaking at all.
Best Publishing Option: For these people, professional publishing is almost always the best option.
Knowledge-share Authors are professionals, so they need professional books. They usually don’t have the time or desire to do pure self-publishing and can afford high level services, which makes professional publishing the perfect option.
Many knowledge-share Authors are curious about traditional publishing. But what they find is that it’s a poor option for many reasons. The long publishing cycle and the lack of creative control put many off. And the fact that most don’t have a large audience waiting to buy a book from them means traditional publishing isn’t even an option for them, as they could not get a deal to begin with.
For a knowledge-share Author, the point is not to get into the business of selling books but instead to use the book to market themselves. By focusing on writing a really good book that teaches their knowledge to a specific audience, they will attract the attention of those people.
Books like that (usually) don’t sell millions of copies or hit major bestseller lists, and because of this, traditional publishers usually don’t want them.
Again, Michael Bungay Stanier’s book is a great example. His publisher didn’t want his second book, thinking that a book about how managers can coach their employees better would have a limited audience (900,000 copies later, they obviously made a huge big mistake).
But what’s funny is that even Michael will say getting turned down for a traditional deal was the best thing to happen to him. He’s very happy that his book sold well, but he only cared that his book helped people become better managers in their work and that it helped him get clients for his businesses.
Jesse Finkelstein summed it up like this:
“Authors like Michael believe in choosing themselves. They’re investing time and money in building their profile and businesses—that takes considerable self-belief. Authors with this mindset aren’t interested in waiting around for a traditional publisher to choose them and deem their book worthy of readership. They hire the best teams to help them publish well, on their own terms.”
You can see more stories of successful knowledge-share Authors who used professional publishing to help them succeed here and here.
These are Authors who can usually get traditional publishing deals but who have different creative and financial goals than most Authors who take traditional publishing deals (e.g., professional writers and status-seeking Authors).
They either want complete creative freedom, or they want to keep most of the profit, or some other combination of factors that make traditional publishing a bad choice.
The prior examples of Shane Parrish, Nick Kokonas, and Nassim Taleb all fit right into this category. Shane, Nick, David, and Nassim all turned down offers from publishers simply because their goals did not align with the traditional publishing business model.
Best Publishing Option: Professional publishing was invented for entrepreneurial Authors.
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Lessons Learned From Thousands of Book Launches
The new book publishing playbook wouldn’t be complete without a discussion about book marketing. The #2 question I get—after “How do I publish my book?”—is “How do I market my book?”
The problem with most book marketing advice is that it focuses on the wrong things and explains how to market if you are already a big star. But that doesn’t help most people.
And honestly, a “star plan” is not even guaranteed to work if you are a star!
I can list dozens of examples of Authors who are very famous and have very large followings whose books did not sell very well at all (mainly because they violated rule #2 discussed below).
So how does someone actually market a book so it will sell to an audience?
I’m going to give you the best current thinking on this, based on my long experience creating my own hits and helping others create theirs.
First, I’ll tell you the top 4 marketing tactics every successful Author uses.
Then, I’ll tell you the top 3 mistakes Authors make that limit their success.
Finally, I’ll give you a list of different techniques and tricks that we’ve seen Authors use to move books. Some of those will work for you and some won’t, but it’ll be a good starting place to think about how you will market your book once it’s written.
The Top 4 Marketing Tactics Every Successful Author Uses
1. Focus on Word-of-Mouth Marketing Over Tricks
The primary reason that books sell is not fancy tactics or cool tricks. The primary reason books sell is word of mouth. People read the book and then tell their friends to read the book. Every successful book of all time has that one factor in common.
If you want a successful book, write a book that people want to tell other people about.
That’s it. That’s the secret.
Simple to understand but not that easy to do. So what’s the core skill that creates great word of mouth?
Book positioning is the key.
2. Nail Book Positioning
Book positioning is defined as knowing who your audience for the book is and why they will want to buy the book and then writing the book that meets that need for those people.
This may sound complicated, but honestly it’s no different than product-market fit for any product in any field. Does the book meet a big need for a group of people? If so, then it has a great shot of selling. If not, it won’t.
I’ve written in depth about book positioning in other places, but for most Authors, this means defining a very narrow niche they can own. Very few people have a book in them that will be appealing to a lot of people, so their best bet is to write one that is very appealing to a small set of people with very clear needs. That’s a very achievable goal for most people.
But what if you don’t have a clear niche you can write for but want to sell as many books as possible? That’s pretty hard, but there is a way to approach it.
There’s no repeatable formula for this because great positioning boils down to saying the thing that people want to hear, when they want to hear it, when no one else is saying it. If there was an absolute formula, I would have written 20 massive bestsellers (instead of only 4). Even though there’s no checklist for this, here are a few things to really consider:
Ask yourself what’s already popular. What have people shown a clear desire to read about?
Then look at these categories, find one that appeals to you (because it’s always better to write about something you care about) and ask what the open spaces are in those known and popular categories. What large groups of people have needs or interests that have not been addressed with books in this category?
One of my favorite examples of a non-famous Author figuring out a great book positioning that turned into a major sales is Eric Jorgenson, who wrote The Almanack of Naval Ravikant.
Eric was a huge fan of Naval Ravikant and the gems of wisdom he dropped on podcasts, on Twitter, and in other places, and when Naval said he wasn’t going to write a book, Eric decided to do it for him (with his cooperation and consent, of course).
The positioning was obvious: a lot of people liked Naval, so Eric assumed those people would pay to read a book of his wisdom all collected in one place.
And he was right. As of now, he’s sold over 50,000 copies (and given away a minimum of 250,000 more because the ebook can be read here for free).
Another example, Phil M. Jones, Author of Exactly What to Say: The Magic Words for Influence and Impact, took a laser-focused approach to positioning in a field where there are already tens of thousands of books: sales.
Rather than coming up with a new concept around sales, he instead focused on what so many people feel is true about sales: they just need the “magic words.”
In fact, instead of even calling his book a sales book, he chose the words “influence” and “impact,” which are very intentional. They attract people far beyond sales while still appealing to sales people.
This book speaks to a real and immediate problem that a lot of people have (they want more influence and impact) and tells you exactly how it will solve the problem (say the magic words).
It worked. Phil has sold over 750,000 copies.
Mind you, this was not just a marketing gimmick. The best positioning on earth doesn’t work if the book is bad, and Phil’s book is very good.
If your only goal is to write a book that drives sales (as opposed to writing a book that dominates a niche for secondary business reasons), you can find books like this waiting to be written. They are out there. You just have to look for them.
3. Run A Long-Term Plan
Many people envision book marketing like a movie launch, where you want everyone to go the first weekend. That’s not really the goal at all (unless you’re primarily concerned about bestseller lists). Movies are only in theaters for a short time period, but published books are for sale on the same platforms essentially forever.
Because of this, book marketing is best seen as a long-term practice, not a short-term burst. Think about this basic fact: for the whole life of your book, the chances are that the majority of your ideal audience will not have heard of it. In essence, at any given time, no matter how much marketing you’ve done, most of your potential audience still doesn’t know about your book.
Which is actually pretty exciting—it means there are always new people out there who will want your book once they learn about it.
If the book is properly positioned—meaning you know exactly who the book is for and why they want to read it—then the goal of a marketing plan is to get the book in front of those people.
Unless you have a lot of money and a lot of influence, that will just take time. Very few people are out there looking for new books to read.
What they are looking for is something to help make their lives better, and over time, as your book keeps popping up as a solution to a problem they have (as a word-of-mouth recommendation or something they hear about in the media), they’ll eventually decide to buy it.
The best proof of this is actually counter-proof: how many books—especially by famous people—have you seen with a massive launch week campaign, where you hear about the book everywhere for one week…and then never hear about it again?
I can think of hundreds. How many of those do I own?
I never buy a book the first week it comes out (unless it’s by an Author I already know I like). Like most people, I wait.
Once I’ve heard about a book three, four, five times or more over several months, then I finally break down and buy it.
Long term works.
4. Take Daily Action
This is a part of having a long-term plan, but people often leave it out. Successful Authors do something—at least one thing, if not more—every single day.
The Authors who look at book marketing as a “big thing to do” or try to batch their book marketing to one day a month almost never get anything done.
The ones who take small actions every day tend to see compound returns that get great results.
Daily action can be as simple as responding to emails from people who read your book, pitching 5 podcasts, or putting a link to your book in your email bio. I am not talking about big action every day—just some action.
If you assume that it may take you years to get your book in front of the people that really need it, then doing a few things a day over time is something totally doable.
The Top 3 Traps Unsuccessful Authors Fall Into
After he read the first draft of this article, a friend asked me a very interesting question: “Why do some books not sell? What goes wrong? What are the common mistakes?”
Honestly, the answer to that question is almost the direct inverse of what I said above, but it’s helpful to really be explicit about the major mistakes Authors make because we see them all the time.
1. Focus on themselves, not the reader
This is a hard truth every Author should learn: no reader cares about you or your book; they only care what your book gets them.
Think about it: have you ever bought a book only for the Author? No.
Yet so many Authors, when they sit down to write, forget this and focus only on themselves and what they want. The complete self-focus means they write a book for themselves, about stories they want to tell or about things only they find interesting, with no regard for their desired reader.
There’s nothing wrong with writing a book only for yourself. But that’s a diary, and there’s no need to publish it.
Don’t get me wrong: you can write your book to get something for yourself (like authority, credibility, or book sales), but in order to enable you to get anything like that from a book, you must write a book that’s appealing and beneficial to the reader.
Because why else would they buy it?
2. Don’t know why their audience will buy their book
Yes, I said this above in the section about positioning, but it’s so crucial I can’t say it enough:
If you don’t know exactly why your audience will want to read your book, they won’t.
The problem is that so many Authors want to write a book they think people should want. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say, “This is what people need to know!”
They may even be right, but people never buy books they should want. They only buy books they do want.
There is an old marketing adage: “Sell them what they want; give them what they need.”
This adage is not telling you to fool or trick people; it’s telling you that you must understand the primary driving need of your reader and position your book for that—and not what you think they should buy it for.
I made this exact mistake with the book about dating I wrote with Dr. Geoffrey Miller. It’s the best book out there on dating for men, but it didn’t do well because we positioned the book completely wrong.
It’s positioned as “Here is what you need to know to become attractive to women,” but the problem is most guys don’t want to buy that. They want to buy something that makes them feel powerful or dominant. We tried to sell them what they needed, not what they wanted, and it didn’t work (which is really depressing because every guy who actually bought the book and applied it completely changed their life for the better).
Had we positioned it more in line with what books guys wanted to buy—even if the book was the same content—it would have sold substantially more.
Not knowing precisely why an existing group of people will want to buy your book is the opposite of good positioning in every way, and it leads to marketing failure.
3. Focus on the marketing, not the message behind it
There is an idea some people have that the content of the book doesn’t really matter; it’s only the marketing that matters.
I have no idea where this came from, but I’ve never seen a poorly positioned book that was marketed well end up selling a lot of copies over time. Never. I cannot think of one example.
I would even go so far as to say that the most important book marketing is book positioning. I’ll say it this way:
For books, the message is the marketing.
In my experience, it’s impossible to market a poorly positioned book, no matter how much you try. Whereas a well-positioned book often takes on a life of its own and seems to market itself.
Note that a good book positioning happens before you even write the book. Understanding your market and precisely how you serve them is the core of positioning.
Good book positioning makes marketing easy. Bad positioning decisions make marketing impossible every time.
18 Ingenious Sales Tips & Tricks From Successful Authors
So what if you have a perfect book positioning. How do you market your book then?
Again, I wish there was a checklist I could give you, but there’s no “one correct way” to market a well-positioned book.
The reason is your audience determines your marketing efforts. If your book is positioned for teenage guys, you’ll do very different things from an Author who wrote a book for middle-aged moms.
For reference, here are some of the basics and fundamentals of a book launch that all Authors should be doing. Like I said above, start with the fundamentals and work those first.
But once you’ve done everything on that list, what else can you do? What are some innovative—but realistic—ideas that could help any Author get more traction?
Here are 18 of the most effective marketing strategies I’ve seen Authors do recently. These are all real examples from real Authors, and I tried to heavily weigh them toward things that almost anyone can do, regardless of your financial situation or relative fame.
1. Publish books in all three mediums
This is something that many Authors don’t spend much time considering: what format(s) to publish in.
Of the three dominant formats—ebook, audiobook, and physical (hardcover or paperback)—Authors will often pick one or maybe two—usually ebook and physical. Many Authors fail to publish in all three formats.
In our experience, this is a mistake. We’ve published over 850 books at Scribe Media (all non-fiction), and our data points to a clear conclusion: most Authors should publish their book in all three formats.
This might not seem like a marketing tactic, but it is because the data shows that publishing in all three formats increases sales of all books.
I’ll start with why all three are important: increased audience size. The fact is that in 2021, there is an audience who only buy audiobooks or strongly prefer them. Across all sales that we are able to track, we see this as an average split among formats when all three are offered:
That split is very different from the data even 10 years ago, when audio was still a relatively small percentage of sales. Audio as a percentage of the book landscape has drastically increased over the past 5-7 years and fundamentally altered many assumptions about format.
But remember, those numbers are an average only across millions of books sold. There are some books—for example, books for a younger audience or books for an audience that doesn’t generally like reading (e.g., sales)—where the audio sales are even higher (some track as high as 70% of total sales). And then there are other books where the audience is tilted in favor of people who tend to enjoy reading (e.g., legal and medical books) where the audio sales were as low as 30%. But those numbers reflected the most common outcome for Authors.
That may be the split when all three are offered, but what happens to total sales when only ebook and physical are offered, as compared to all three?
That’s, of course, a difficult hypothesis to test, so I looked at the data we have on sales books only, and the pattern was pretty clear. Across 23 books with “sales” in the title or subtitle, we found that total sales across all formats was 37.4% higher in the books that offered all three formats as opposed to only ebook and physical. Granted, this is only in sales books, which do tend to be audio-audience friendly, but that is still a big difference.
The shocking thing from this data was that for most of these books that had audio formats, the ebook and physical often sold more than the books with only ebook and physical. That suggests that offering your book in audio actually helps the other formats sell as well.
There’s a way to tease this out: by measuring the increase in all formats of sales when a new format is released.
We were able to get data for 5 books where the Authors released their books in ebook and physical first and then at least 6 months later (or longer) released an audiobook. Our assumption here was that the audiobook would get all the sales from the “audio only” audience but not have any impact on sales of the other formats.
Granted, this was a small dataset, but this assumption was proven wrong in all 5 cases.
Our data showed that when an audiobook was released at least 6 months after the ebook and physical formats, the ebook and physical format sales both went up and stayed up for months, on average by 8%. That is an astounding increase, especially considering we didn’t think it would exist at all.
We have two guesses as to why this happens.
One is that many people like to buy both audio and another format, and by having the option available, the Author can capture the sales they would otherwise miss.
The other speculation is that having all three formats listed on Amazon or other sales platforms is a signal of credibility to a buyer.
Regardless of the reason, clearly one of the best things you can do to sell books is offer your book in all three major formats.
2. Get on exclusive podcasts
Podcasts are some of the most effective media outlets to sell books (far better than most TV shows, in most cases). Of course, the biggest podcasts tend to sell the most books (because they have the most listeners). So how do you get booked on the biggest podcasts if you aren’t already a big star?
Chad Willardson got himself on several major podcasts and dozens of midtier podcasts—a much better result than a first time Author writing about finance could expect—and he did it by a very simple outreach technique anyone can copy.
He identified a podcast he wanted to be on and then recorded a personal video for the podcast host explaining why he loved their podcast and why he thought he would be a great guest—focusing on the value he could bring to their podcast listeners. The video was sent with a one-page PDF that gave some background on Chad, example questions, and a quick summary of his book (pictured below), along with a free link to the audiobook and ebook for them to check out.
He also asked for their mailing address and followed up by mailing a small gift package that included that one sheet, a signed copy of his book, and a nice handwritten note.
- Scheduled 65+ podcasts in 3 months
- Sold thousands of books directly from these appearances
- Got several new clients who heard him on the podcasts and read the book
- A 100%+ increase in organic search as a result of the SEO from the 65+ podcast hosts sharing and promoting his episodes.
3. Offer a “buy one give one” promotion
Quan Huyhn did nearly the same thing but did it in a different way. He literally gave the chapters in his book away as he finished them and generated thousands of sales from this.
He began by emailing a few friends his chapters. They loved them and forwarded the emails to others, who signed up to be on Quan’s email list and get the chapters as well.
As a quick aside, if you think this will stop people from buying your book, you are wrong. Quan had a “marketing guru” friend of his tell him that he was devaluing his work by giving it away and that he would get less sales. Quan felt he was not giving the book away but rather proving to someone why they should buy it and read it.
He asked me what I thought, and I said, “That person has sold zero books. Ignore them. The problem at your level is getting attention. You solve that with abundance thinking, not scarcity thinking.” Quan took my advice and continued to share chapters each week, and it worked.
He also went further and combined this idea—sharing his book with everyone he knew—with another great idea to get thousands of sales during launch week.
So before I tell you the idea, you have to understand some background. Quan’s book is called Sparrow In The Razorwire. It’s about the 16 years he spent in prison for murder, and he wrote the book to help men who are doing long or life sentences. But those men were not his target customer, as there is no way to market to them. And he didn’t feel comfortable marketing to the families of the incarcerated.
So he decided to take a page from Toms Shoes, and he told his email list that for every book they bought, he would buy a book and donate it to the men still inside that he wrote the book for.
The people on his mailing list loved the idea and told him they were so moved by both what he had written and what he was doing that they would purchase a bunch of books to help him get more books into the hands of prisoners.
By the day of launch, there were 4 times as many books purchased for donation as there were people on Quan’s email list. He ended up donating 1,326 books to men in prison from his first week of launch sales and has since passed 6,000 donated books.
4. Give away your knowledge as you write
Iona Holloway started her book writing process with zero online presence and used the writing and publishing of her book as a way to not just promote her book but create her platform.
But she didn’t make the classic mistake that so many Authors make: they use social media to exclusively talk about themselves.
She instead used social media to teach the concepts in the book. Here is a great example of how she did it.
As a result, she went from virtually no social media presence to a small but dedicated group of women who not only bought her book but also bought a coaching program she created from the material in the book.
She is proof you can start from nothing and get real traction if you are writing things that help people.
5. Use the 100×100 Strategy
This is a strategy that my friend Clay Hebert uses with his clients. He calls it the 100×100 strategy, because he uses it as a way to sell 10,000 books for his clients.
Though podcasts really work to sell books, the problem is that smaller podcasts with few listeners don’t tend to move many books. So what do you do when you can’t always get on the biggest podcasts that move a ton of books but you do get invited on all the little podcasts that don’t tend to move copies?
If you get approached by the host of a smaller podcast, they will usually try to sell you on saying yes by saying how large and engaged their audience is. Instead of saying yes and agreeing to the interview (and then blindly hoping for book sales), you tell them that if they can pre-sell a minimum of only 100 books to their tribe, you’ll do two things:
- You’ll do the regular podcast.
- You’ll do a private Zoom master class session or Q&A for all of their listeners who bought the book.
The important thing is you’re not wasting your time on tons of podcasts that won’t move the needle. You’re handing the host the baton back to go sell 100 copies to their audience. If they do it, they get what they want, and you also get the chance to make more fans.
This may not work for everyone, but it works very well for in-demand people, and it can work for anyone with very valuable knowledge in their book. You don’t have to be famous; you just have to have valuable knowledge that people want.
6. Target local media instead of national
I asked Author David Burkus what techniques he uses to sell a lot of books, and he told me this:
“When it comes to publicity, I focus on local media. I hired a firm with connections to local television and other media, and then any time I traveled to a different city my PR agent crafted a specific pitch around my book and the local companies that were either featured in it or practicing what it recommends. Not only did I get way more good media hits than my previous book where I hired a big national firm; I sold way more books, and I paid way less money.”
Local PR works, and it sells books—as long as you frame your book around a local angle.
7. Use the book to build a platform
Many Authors think they have to have a platform before they can launch a book. That’s definitely necessary to get a traditional book deal, but you can actually use a book to build your platform if you do it right.
Author Leah Dean did this very thing (combining many of the strategies outlined here). Like Iona above, she used social media as a tool to teach and create value for people. She shared every moment of her book launch process on social media, announcing a book cover and when it arrived at her home and giving away copies to neighbors—but she did it all from the positioning of teaching people how she did it. This way she wasn’t bragging about herself; she was teaching people something they wanted to learn.
She even gave away a free first chapter to people and generated thousands of emails from this (which led to hundreds of sales the first week).
She also used the local focus David Burkus recommended and dominated the media on the island of Bermuda (where she lives) for weeks on end.
8. Make bulk sales to relevant companies
Many Authors can sell thousands of copies of their book just to their networks if they really think about who would want it and how to position it properly.
Author Ron Thurston has done an amazing job of leveraging his network. His book is about how and why people would spend a career in retail, and over his career in retail, he developed hundreds of relationships with execs from all sorts of different retail chains. So he persuaded them to buy bulk copies of his book for their teams—who obviously would be interested in the subject, considering they had retail careers—and even added in book club discussions or workshops for free if they bought enough copies (similar to the first strategy). This has resulted in thousands of copies sold and massive word of mouth for both Ron and his book.
Author Darius Mirshazadeh did something very similar. He wrote a book about how to build a great company culture and then called every CEO in his network who he knew had culture problems at their company. He told them if they bought a copy of his book for everyone in their company, he would do training and follow-up calls for his executive team on how to implement the culture process in the book, and do follow-up calls.
It’s a simple proposition and extremely effective: Darius sold 7,300 copies of his book—before it launched.
9. Have them “pay in books” for a speech
This is a very common strategy that high-level speakers and coaches have used for years to move books: they sell a speech or a training session and then either have the company “pay in books” or negotiate a higher price if they throw in books with the speech.
If the company “pays in books,” it means that instead of paying your speaking fee, they will buy a set number of books at a specific price. So for example, if you charge $10,000 for a speech, you can often get a company to buy $12,000 or even $15,000 worth of books because they see this as a value add—they get to give copies of the book to everyone in their company as well as have you speak.
You can also book a speech or a training and get them to buy books for a slightly increased fee. So you book your speech for $10,000 and then offer to sell them 500 copies of the book for only $10 a copy, which is an additional $5,000 in revenue. This is very similar to the above, except that you are negotiating the book buy as a different, add-on component to what you are selling.
There are hundreds of Authors who have done this, but Author Cameron Herold has turned this into an art form. Because he professionally published all his books, he can also work big deals with companies and give them a 50% discount on list price—selling the book for $10 instead of $20—while he still makes a $6-$8 profit (because he can buy and ship his books for as low as $2 a copy).
10. Use your book as a gift
This may be somewhat counterintuitive, but giving your book away can often lead to a lot of sales.
At Scribe, we give away the PDF of our Wall Street Journal bestselling book, The Scribe Method, and it works astoundingly well. We’ve given away 217,250 digital copies and still sold over 40,000 hardcopies.
But I mean giving actual physical copies away can also help sell books.
The iconic example of this is Author John Ruhlin. Over 5 years, John has given away about 2,500 copies of his book Giftology—every year. That’s nearly 13,000 books over the last 5 years, which is honestly an incredible amount. So what’s he gotten for it?
He has over 720 reviews and has sold 83,000 copies. And he can tie the sales directly to the gift copies—at least 60% of those sales have come from bulk buys from companies and organizations like YPO, places he initially got attention with a gift copy.
But even better, John very conservatively attributes at least $6 million in revenue to his company from these gift copies and sales. That’s a pretty incredible ROI.
Warning: this can be expensive (and a risky proposition for some people). You must target your audience properly, and the book has to be good. If you send a book to the wrong people, you will waste your money. And far worse, if you send a bad book to the right people, it can hurt you.
Also, I would mostly recommend this strategy for people whose book also helps them get other forms of business, like speeches, clients, or things like that. That will get you the best overall ROI.
Here is a picture of the amazing book packet John sends out, along with a leather bag and handwritten note on a metal card:
11. Use online quizzes to drive interest
One the bestselling books of all time got to be that way because of an online quiz. The Five Love Languages has sold tens of millions of copies worldwide, and one of the primary drivers of its success are the online quizzes they give away.
The quizzes are very simple. You spend five minutes answering some questions, and they tell you what “love language” you speak, which means how you like to receive affection and connection from others. This, of course, invariably leads to the quiz-taker buying the book to learn more about their language.
Quizzes do not work for every book, of course, but for the ones that they work for, they work very well.
12. Help people give the book as a gift
If you can figure out a way to help people give your book as a gift, it can often drive a lot of sales. Kayvan Kian offered his readers a deal: if they bought his book as a gift for a friend, he would personalize it and mail the copy to them himself.
This simple offer ended up helping him sell hundreds more books, with the added benefit that since they bought the books directly from him, his profit margin was much higher than had they been purchased on Amazon.
13. Build a powerful army of influencers
Melanie Deziel, built a launch team of a few dozen people, some of whom were bloggers and influencers. Here’s what she said on on how she put the launch team together:
“I started sourcing my launch team about two months before the book launched. I created a Google form application to collect contact information and details on how people might support the launch. And I shared the link to the application across my social platforms, by email, and then in a Facebook group that I ran.
I ultimately invited about 25 people into a Facebook group, where I provided them the PDF copy of the book and lots of other resources to help support the launch. This included things like imagery featuring the book, sample text to inspire social posts, prompts to make writing a review easier, and more. I used the FB group to provide reminders and check-ins for the launch team leading up to launch day, encouraging them to write their reviews in advance and post them in the group for accountability.
On launch day and the days after, I was very active in the group (including live video) with gratitude, updates on ranking, and reminders that now was the time to show their support on social media and by posting their reviews. Other types of support from the group included blog posts, social posts, videos, and more.
In addition to having the launch team, I also replied to anyone sharing praise for the book on social media, asking for them to also share that praise in an Amazon review.
It’s worth noting, of course, that my book launch coincided with the Covid-19 lockdown here in the United States, which caused delays in shipping and a disruption of our plan for a five-city book tour, conference book signings, etc.
But we pivoted and made the best of it! I appeared on 60+ podcasts and nearly 20 live video shows between February and March to promote the book. I increased activity on social media and also experimented with uploading photos that featured the book on stock photo websites for added visibility. (To date those photos have had more than 1 million impressions. The details are in this thread.)”
- Book launched February 24
- 33 reviews by February 26
- 50 reviews by March 8
- 100th review by November
Rankings One Day after Launch:
- #1 New Release in Creativity
- #1 New Release in Communication Skills
- #3 in Marketing
- #2 in Web Marketing
- #7 in E-commerce Professional
- #2,275 overall
14. Reach large audiences through the organizations that connect them
Brant Menswar is a performance coach and speaker whose book launched during the Covid-19 pandemic. Under normal circumstances, Brant would have sold thousands of copies at his speaking events, but as events moved online and the associations that usually hired him faced financial strain, he needed to shift his strategy.
Brant offered an incentive to the members of associations who usually booked him as a speaker. He set up customized direct-sales webpages for each association, and in exchange for the associations’ promotion of the book to their members, Brant shared the book sales proceeds with the associations, providing them with a fundraising opportunity.
As a result, he built additional loyalty among the associations and their members, generated thousands of additional sales, and promoted the book to thousands of people he might not otherwise have been able to reach directly.
15. Incorporate shareable content around other people in your book
There are a couple of ways to think about this. One is that you can include material in the book that is easy to parse as byline articles when it comes time to market your book so that you’re developing the book content and marketing content at the same time. The other is that you might want to include people in the book who will feel invested enough in it to share the book with their own networks when it releases.
Komal Singh, a Google engineer who wrote a children’s book, included real-life female superheroes in her first book who then became part of the marketing campaign by promoting the book to their networks and participating in media interviews.
The characters she included are all prominent Google staff, including:
Parisa Tabriz, Engineering Director, Google
Diane Tang, Google Fellow
Marian Croak, VP of Engineering, Google
Kripa Krishan, Technical Program Director, Google
As a result of this, Google created this video trailer to feature the real-life characters and shared it on their social channels of over 2 million followers.
Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls shared clips about the hero characters and talked about the book.
Some of the heroes mentioned the book and their characters in their keynotes at tech conferences—notably, the keynote by Marian Croak at the Anita Borg conference, which is the biggest gathering of women in tech.
16. Invest in premium store placement, especially in airport bookstores
Many Authors want to see their books in airport bookstores. The problem is that airport stores are pay-to-play and very expensive (currently about $7,500 per month for paperback table placement and over $10,000 for hardcover), so the investment doesn’t always pay off in book sales, but the exposure can be worth it for other reasons.
Author Liane Davey invested in several months’ placement in Hudson airport stores when her book launched. She felt the investment was worthwhile when a client hired her to do a $75,000 consulting gig after discovering her book in an airport store.
I deeply hesitate to recommend this to people because it almost never results in book sales, but it can convert well if used the way Liane did.
17. Place your book at the center of an ecosystem of products and services
Heather Plett, published her book while developing a complex ecosystem of other products and services that supported both her book and her business.
This included a Center for Holding Space, a card deck, a journal, and a certification program for the Holding Space methodology. The certification program has helped to grow the book’s international reach; she and her partner have trained people from six continents, and they use the book as the primary textbook for the program.
People who go through her programs then use the book in their own facilitation work, so they often get subsequent orders from clients, friends, and coworkers of those in their programs. This is a great long-term driver for sales.
18. Ask for reviews
Reviews sell books. The more reviews you have, generally, the more books you sell. It is a virtuous cycle that can be hard to start, but it works great once it’s going.
There are a lot of ways to drive reviews (Michael Bungay Stanier, mentioned above, had a call to action about them in his book), but one method that is available to everyone and very effective is to respond to every single message and ask for one.
Ben Crawford took his whole family on a hike of the Appalachian Trail. Ben had no platform and no audience (outside of a small YouTube channel) but was (and still is) a maniac about responding to every single Instagram, Youtube, Twitter, Facebook, or any other social media comment with a personal reply. And he always says, “I’d love to hear what you think of the book in an Amazon review.”
As of this writing, his book has been out almost a year and already has over 500 reviews. That’s phenomenal considering he started from (near) nothing.
I hope this helped you get a great survey and understanding of the book publishing space and some ideas for how to publish and market your book.
This is a very long piece, but you can use it, reference it, and come back to it again, and again.
And again, I cannot emphasize this enough: the point here is not to tell you the “best” way to publish or market your book because there is no “best” way. There is only the best way for you, given your goals.