How Does a Bestseller Happen? A Case Study in Hitting #1 on the New York Times

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Last Friday, the impossible happened and a lifelong dream came true: The 4-Hour Workweek hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list! Thank you all for your incredible encouragement and support.

More unbelievable, this week 4HWW is simultaneously #1 on the NY Times and #1 on the Wall Street Journal business bestseller lists.

How is this possible? How could a book from a first-time author — with no offline advertising or PR — hit both of these lists and stick for three months and counting?

The book was turned down by 13 of 14 editors, and the president of one large book wholesaler even sent me PDFs on historical stats to “reset my expectations”–it could never be a bestseller. The odds seem impossible: there are more than 200,000 books published each year in the US, and less than 5% ever sell more than 5,000 copies. On a given bestseller list, more than 5 spots could be occupied by unbeatable bestsellers like Good to Great or The Tipping Point, which have been on the lists for years.

On a related note, how could a blog that didn’t exist six months ago now be #2,835 on Technorati with 874 incoming links and an Alexa ranking of 9,615?

Is it all luck? I don’t think so. Luck and timing play a (sometimes big) part, but it seems to me that one can still analyze the game and tilt the odds in their favor. I don’t claim to have all of the answers–I still know very little about publishing–but I’ve done enough micro-testing in the last year to fill a lifetime.

The conclusion, in retrospect, is simple… It all came down to learning how to spread a “meme“, an idea virus that captures imaginations and takes on a life of its own.

First, let’s looks at how the bestseller status unfolded. Here are the stats and timing for all of the bestseller lists the 4HWW has hit since release date on April 24, 2007. Skip below the numbers to the how-to bits, if you like:

Barnes & Noble
Hardcover Non-fiction
List date #
July 26, 2007 10
Aug. 2, 2007 7

BookSense
Hardcover Non-fiction
List date #
July 5, 2007 43
July 12, 2007 34
July 19, 2007 45
July 26, 2007 39
Aug. 2, 2007 24

NCIBA
Hardcover Non-fiction
List date #
July 14, 2007 13
Aug. 4, 2007 12

New York Times
Hardcover Advice
List date #
May 13, 2007 15
May 20, 2007 8
May 27, 2007 10
June 3, 2007 12
June 10, 2007 10
June 17, 2007 4
June 24, 2007 6
July 1, 2007 9
July 8, 2007 5
July 15, 2007 5
July 22, 2007 5
July 29, 2007 7
Aug. 5, 2007 5
Aug. 12, 2007 5

New York Times
Hardcover Business
List date #
July 2007 2
August 2007 1

Publishers Weekly
Hardcover Non-fiction
List date #
June 11, 2007 15
July 9, 2007 14
July 16, 2007 13
Aug. 6, 2007 12

San Francisco Chronicle
Hardcover Non-fiction
List date #
July 15, 2007 6

USA Today
General
List date #
May 10, 2007 126
May 17, 2007 134
May 24, 2007 136
May 31, 2007 115
June 7, 2007 102
June 14, 2007 123
June 21, 2007 144
June 28, 2007 134
July 5, 2007 100
July 12, 2007 114
July 19, 2007 99
July 26, 2007 96
Aug. 2, 2007 63

Wall Street Journal
Business
List date #
May 4, 2007 9
May 11, 2007 3
May 18, 2007 7
May 25, 2007 12
June 1, 2007 7
June 8, 2007 1
June 15, 2007 3
June 22, 2007 5
June 29, 2007 3
July 6, 2007 1
July 13, 2007 1
July 20, 2007 3
July 27, 2007 4
Aug. 3, 2007 1

Wall Street Journal
Hardcover Non-fiction
List date #
June 8, 2007 9
June 29, 2007 14
July 6, 2007 9
July 13, 2007 11
July 20, 2007 14
July 27, 2007 7
Aug. 3, 2007 8

Those of you who have been here for a while know that I’m fanatical about analytics and imitating good models (in the business sense, not the Naomi Campbell sense).

Before I began writing 4HWW (I sold it before I wrote it, which I explain here), I cold-contacted and interviewed close to a dozen best-writing authors about their writing processes, followed by close to a dozen best-selling authors about their marketing and PR campaigns.

I asked several questions of the latter group, but one of the assumption-busting homeruns was:

“What were the 1-3 biggest wastes of time and money?”

This led me to create a “not-to-do” list. Number one was no book touring or bookstore signings whatsoever. Not a one. All of the best-selling authors warned against this author rite of passage. I instead focused on the most efficient word-of-mouth networks in the world at the time–blogs. The path to seeding the ideas of 4HWW was then straight-forward:

* Go where bloggers go
* Be there with a message and a story that will appeal to their interests, not yours
* Build and maintain those relationships through your own blog too

These three observations are from PR pundit Steve Rubel’s excellent summary of the 4HWW launch on Micro-Persuasion, titled “The 4-Hour Workweek – Behind the Meme.” Interested to know which events I chose and what the Amazon and Technorati numbers looked like at each step? Check it all out here.

For a good take on my blogging approaches, both as a book author and blog writer, see my multi-part interviews with Darren Rowse over at Problogger.net:
Part 1 – from the day prior to the official publication date (good for seeing how I prepped the market)
Part 2 – from about one weeks ago, after hitting the big lists (good for learning how I’ve built traffic)

4HWW created enough noise online that it was then picked up by offline media ranging from Wired and Outside magazines to Martha Stewart radio and The Today Show. To create a fast-acting meme, I’ve come to believe that you need to do a few things well. Here are the highlights, ordered to recreate the familiar acronym PPC with a certain Don King-esque flavor:

1. Phenomenize:
Identify and name a legitimate societal shift or new phenomenon. To best spread a message or product, sell around it by discussing larger issues surrounding its creation: the person (me in this case), the changing social landscape, and emerging trends. No one cares about your new software, but the reasons it needs to exist might make for a great TV segment on 20/20. Naturally, the software would be mentioned. Mission accomplished without the hard sell.

2. Polarize:
Good stories and trend-spotting, told unapologetically, will create both supporters (“That’s the solution!”) and attackers (“It’s a fraud!”). The battle and ongoing debate this generates is the fuel needed for word-of-mouth wildfire. Don’t piss people off for the sake of offending, but don’t sacrifice the edge of your message to avoid offending. My discussion of personal outsourcing, as one example, gets people hot and bothered. Good. I just want as many people as possible asking the important questions I believe can change the world. Love me or hate me, I just want a strong unadulterated response.

3. Communitize:
Help create base camps for believers. Organic communities grow fastest when natural leaders are identified and encouraged to become leaders. I fostered reader-only communities on the forums of the official book site, but I also encouraged readers (see the bottom of the post here) to create their own tribes on the social networking site Ning. This is how more than 22 demographic tribes (I call them “demotribes”) came to be, including “4HWW for Programmers,” “4HWW for Families,” and “4HWW for Students.”

Do you want to create your own bestseller, whether a book or a product? Here are a few closing thoughts:

1. To make a bestseller, there are more customers than just your customers:
Selling to the end-user is just one piece of the puzzle. In my case, I needed to first sell myself to the publisher to get marketing support and national retail distribution. I then learned that a mention from an A-list blogger might sell thrice as much on Amazon as a national TV appearance, but the latter is what drives book chains to purchase more books and give better placement.

2. Distribution can make you a juggernaut… or it can kill the best product:
The more books there are on shelves, the more will be sold. Once you get to the level of The Secret and have 40-100 copies in many stores, managers have almost no choice but to put them in prime real estate like front-of-store, end caps, or front window. If the top chains increase prime placement of 4HWW this month, I can virtually guarantee that sales will at least double in the next 3 months (especially with some of the crazier things I have planned). No exaggeration. For my next book, if I write one, I’ll spend much more time strategizing distribution and placement upfront. Could you offer an exclusive to the 800-lb. gorilla distributor in your industry in exchange for favorable payment terms, prime placement nationwide, and in-store merchandising?

3. Marketing can grab customers, but product multiplies them:

Clever marketing and PR stunts can get customers… but only for so long. It’s the product that will create long-term word-of-mouth and the groundswell needed for a global phenomenon. Don’t save your best for volume two. I asked myself the following while writing the 4HWW: “If I were hit by a bus the day after I turned in the manuscript, would I be happy with this as my legacy?” I held nothing back and spared no details. I’m no Tolstoy, but I did my best. The manuscript was cut from about 420 pages to the 300 in the final product. One editor who turned the book down looked at the planned table of contents and said “You have five books here. Why not split it up?” Because of the bus. Have a focus, but don’t save the best for later. There is only one chance to make a publishing first impression. Remember: marketing might be important, but product is ultimately king.

###

Last but not least, remember: Just because they say it can’t be done doesn’t make it so. Just because it’s labeled “impossible” doesn’t make it even remotely impossible. Do your homework, micro-test like a mother, and trust your conclusions. You could be wrong, and you often will be, but… what if you’re right?

lemon1.jpg
But what if you’re right?

[Want more insider stories and guerrilla how-to? Please take 10 seconds and vote for this post here!]

Posted on: August 6, 2007.

Watch The Tim Ferriss Experiment, the new #1-rated TV show with "the world's best human guinea pig" (Newsweek), Tim Ferriss. It's Mythbusters meets Jackass. Shot and edited by the Emmy-award winning team behind Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Here's the trailer.

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192 comments on “How Does a Bestseller Happen? A Case Study in Hitting #1 on the New York Times

  1. Phenomenal Tim. Hats off to you on achieving your goal!

    I expect some will accuse you of gaming the system but as we know, the system is a game – you played a blinder. ;)

    Well done – you deserve it!

    Like

  2. Tim,

    Congrats. I’m glad to have been a part of this recent accomplishment, as I convinced four of my friends to get themselves a copy, and I feel that my contribution really pushed you over the top.

    Dan

    Like

  3. If I could only choose one, I would choose … wait … where’s the option for … love?

    As in: I love my unique and distinctive bark. As in: I love being right! As in: I love my best-selling book! ;-)

    Ay to go, Tim!

    ###

    Hey Chris,

    I hope I didn’t come off sounding like that! I do love being right, but I love getting the desired outcome more (this is especially important for working with large bureaucracies). I’m also not overly in love with 4HWW — I’m happy with having conquered my own writing demons, but I have a lot to learn as a writer and thinker.

    Here’s to unique barks all the same ;)

    Tim

    Like

  4. Congrats. I’ve read a lot of books in this genre. You’re book is simply the best. Like so many people here I’ve done my best to spread the news ;-)
    Personally, I’ve bought 7 copies to give as gifts ;-)

    Like

  5. Tim:

    Congratulations. Just finished the book myself last week and it has helped reawaken parts of me that’d been dormant for way too long. My life’s been a flurry of doing stuff since then and I can’t remember being happier.

    QUESTION. Why did the authors you contacted advise skipping the in-store signing/book tour stuff? Also, you say blogs were the most efficient word-of-mouth engine “at the time.” What about now?

    ###

    Hi Ian,

    The bookstore signings take a ton of time and money, and you might sell 20-30 books if you’re well known. It’s just not worth the flights or hotels, etc. I can drive people to specific stores with the blog if I have to.

    As for blogs being the most efficient “at the time”, other tools are coming into the game, like Twitter, http://www.ustream.tv, and tons of others. I think blogs will still be a big piece of the puzzle, but their uber-dominance will balance out more over the next 1-2 years.

    Cheers!

    Tim

    Like

  6. Congrats Tim!!

    I bought this book at the end of April when I was searching for a book on a new career since I don’t like the job i’m working at now. I didn’t realize it was a new release at the time but almost didn’t buy it because I was actually a bit turned off by the title!! But a few days later after my another day at the office that pissed me off I went back and picked up the 4HWW and sat down in a chair and read the first chapter in the store, immediately bought it, took it home and started reading.

    Like most people I started telling other people to buy it because the book just made so much sense and actually kind of talked about ideas that I already had but other people told me was “impossible” or that “most people don’t like their jobs” but those answers didnt satisfy me!!

    Fast forward a few months, I am about a 6 weeks away from launching my first product and a lot of people I’ve talked to say I have a great product so we’ll see! Also, my gf and I are planning a mini-retirement to europe next summer.

    I keep the 4HWW next to my bed haha and read a chapter or 2 if I start having doubts or get off track, so I don’t become the old guy in the red BMW…

    It must be incredible to write a book that so many people say has changed them!!!

    Like

  7. I just ordered your book from Amazon yesterday, didn’t realize it was this high on the bestseller list. What convinced me to buy it was your blog, which I started readin just 2 weeks ago, the comments on Amazon (the negatives as well) and the recommendation of a friend I trust for books in this area – so obviously you did your PR very well. Congratulations on your achievement.

    Like

  8. Tim,
    First let me congratulate you on your book sales. I must admit that I love hearing about people who break the mold.

    As to choosing what I would desire most in your latest poll. I would like to add another choice.

    Wisdom

    Being a student of the Bible I find in 1 Kings 3:1-14 (http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?book_id=11&chapter=3&version=31) that Solomon asked for and received wisdom, this pleased the Lord and he received all the other things as a bonus.

    Once again, congratulations on your accomplishments and I look forward to applying some of the “wisdom� you share now and in the future to help me realize my dream also!

    Like

  9. Tim,

    Nicely done. You encourage everyone out there to listen to the spirit self and know that Dreams come true. So if we never give up and work 4 hours a week we will reap a harvest. I am not much into “luck” since I believe God ordains all things but I think I know what you are saying.

    Thanks for all the great information and creating a map for us to follow.

    Wes

    PS HI Adam! LOL

    Like

  10. Hi Tim,
    Congrats on #1! I bought the book while I was at the store looking for someone else’s book when I read the inside cover. I still bought the other book, but have not read it yet; while yours has been read 3 times, and I sent 3 people a copy when I heard you were shooting for #1 :)

    My younger brother has not been able to read his copy yet, it seems that our father grabbed it while he was at work.

    Anyway, thanks for the inspiring book… Keep it coming!

    Like

  11. Tim,

    You are the man!!! Congrats bro. Yet again you have proven that you can and do accomplish anything you set your mind to. I especially appreciate the fact that you take the time to write and teach the rest of us how to do the same.

    Hagos

    Like

  12. Tim, you rock! I love it when someone does the “impossible” and proves naysayers wrong! You deserve the top spot, and I’m sure we’ll see you there again.

    I also love that you didn’t spread your material out in five books, which you clearly could have. Thanks for giving us all the goods up front!

    Like

  13. Congratulations Tim!

    I will be giving copies of 4HWW as birthday presents for a while!

    I’d love to purchase a copy of 4HWW from you with an autograph, and maybe a second one to give out on my blog.

    Like