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

189 Comments

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!]

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

  1. Very Inspirational! I really liked your closing thoughts! Guess Im going to have to check out more of your work now!! p/s..Capoeira is awesome!

  2. It’s hard to believe you’ve achieved this much success. As someone with ambitions of their own, your story is a total inspiration. Reading your blog honestly makes me feel like some of the dreams I’ve had on the shelf for a while might not be so far-fetched. Thanks.

  3. I must admit that this book brought in a big revolution. I found myself astonished seeing the number of personal assistant services companies cropping up after the release of this book.

  4. I helped write a best seller last year. Best sellers are not really best sellers. We bought 50,000 copies of our own book. The “bestsellers” lists are a sham – I know first hand.

    • Not everyone buys 50,000 copies of their own book. There are book that are bought onto the list, yes. There are also books that sell perennially without author purchases. The 4HWW will be 4 years straight on the NY Times within the next three months.

      Best,

      Tim

      • Yeah, buying 50,000 of my own book just to get it on a list? Come on….this serves no purpose. You then have to sell that 50K cvopies just to get back to ground zero.

        If you have followed Tim’s rise and history over the last 4 years you would see that there is much more than the proverbial ‘flash’ of making it on a best seller list. However, the list is not the destination…it is only a stop on the journey to free yourself from the traditional binds that exist in our world.

        I read the book 3-4 times. I am due again.

        Tim…congrats on 4 years on top…..I bet the view up there looks great. If you come down from the mountain-top and land in Atlanta GA, would love to hook up for a beer…..I’m a stay at home dad….I subscribe to some of the ideology presented in your book. Being a Dad, Husband, Entrepreneur you have to be the master of efficiency and you have to be creative on how to find free-time where none previously existed.

        I have shared your book, my copy, with a few friends too….and they all claimed to receive benefit from it.

        Either way…..take care!

  5. You dont get it if you think the list is the goal. That is only a ‘stop’ on the journey to the final destination…which is freedom from the binds and constraints that this technologically advanced world can place on you. From cubicles, to email, to the phone growing out of your ear and or hand. It is a guide on how one man successfully did it….

    It provides the ability to both unplug AND stay up with your business without worrying that something fell between the proverbial cracks.

    I am a stay-at-home dad, an entrepreneur, a husband, are part time bartender and etc…..I have 0 time to waste. This is a guide on how you can find time where there is none….and then you should be a proper steward of that time by doing something you have always wanted to do but didn’t have the time or guts.

    Get your life back….remember those dreams you had when you were younger? Go find them…

    Tim…if you find yourself in Atlanta lets grab a beer.

    Ciao

  6. Tim – Just saw this a few minutes ago, almost 4 years after you wrote it!

    Great stuff. (You’ve probably heard this several million times over)

    i liked every bit of it, your post and all the comments, including the buying 50,000 copies of your own book comment!

    By the way, I was trying to get a hold of you on Facebook but it said you’ve gotten too many requests. I was wondering if I may have the honor to have a 1-on-1 interview with you and have you share your story.

    Let me know (you have my email).

  7. Great article!! I am going to selfpublish my first book, “How to Avoid Murdering Your Mother-in-Law”, and have been trying to figure out what the most effective marketing techniques would be. Your information is great.

    Thanks,
    Victoria Pressley

  8. I actually thought that best seller lists were a real measure of sales, so it is a bit shocking to hear that one comment about them being a scam. I am going to do some searching on that because I have never heard that before.

  9. I’m done reading the book myself a week ago and it has help me out stir up parts of myself that’d been undeveloped for a long time.

    My life’s been a spell of doing things as then and I can’t consider being at an advantage.

  10. Hi Tim,

    Bonjour, de France ! :)

    Je suis actuellement en train de lire le “Write the Perfect Proposal” et je me demandais si tu pouvais – pourquoi pas – nous mettre à disposition (dans un post, ou autre) TON PROPOSAL pour la Semaine de 4 Heures.
    J’imagine que comme d’habitude, tes travaux sont de véritables modèles du genre. J’ai hâte de voir ça ! ;)

    Ps : If you come un France, i suggest you to visit Aix-en-Provence : it’s like “le paradis sur Terre !!” :)

    @+

  11. OMG! That was phenomenal advice! I’m a self-published author and it has been such a struggle. I appreciate you sharing your heart. I’ve been trying to so hard to get my book in the best shape possible, it takes money to get professional help. I would love your comments on my book. I can give you access to it for free if you have the time. This is my first book and I really want it to be a great blessing for people suffering from the recession. I appreciate your help in advance. Thank you. Michele Beauvoir.

  12. Hi Tim, I’ve just discovered your article/blog in my search for information on how to become a NYT #1 best seller.

    It was great to read about your publishing/marketing process. The information you provide is valuable to me as I’m finishing off my first book and am standing at the threshold of publishing and marketing.

    I was happy to learn about the idea of a meme – that was new to me. I have one too, but it’ll be the content of my second book.

    This is going to be an exciting adventure:)

    Wishing you all the very best in all things!!

    Gabrielle Holmefjord

  13. 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.

  14. The book that first launched Knut Hamsun in the European literary scene was Hunger. When asked about the book, he told a friend, “What interests me are my little soul’s endless emotions, the special, strange life of the mind, the mysteries of the nerves in a hungry body.” And that is exactly what the book is about. An extremely strange book, and a literary revolution in the making when it was written – a lit torch thrown right in the face of the predominantly social-realist European literary establishment of the time. Its refreshing viewpoint and impulsive, lyrical style had an electrifying effect on European writers.

  15. Very helpful stuff, Tim! I am finding the whole process of ‘publish to Kindle and be your own marketing expert’ both interesting and time-consuming. Sometimes, disheartening. It is harder with a fiction work that a non-fiction as self-help stories seem to race off the virtual bookshelves despite being swamped with competitors. My book, ‘Calandra’s Spring’ has done well in the free promo days, certainly, but that won’t be paying my rent! I like your succinct style. So many of these ‘how to’ books waffle on to fill their pages. Thanks for sharing your ideas so generously.

  16. Thank you Tim for the encouragement.

    I have a book I’m doing my part to push to bestseller status.

    LIFE: AS FRAGILE AS DUST will become a bestseller. Period!

  17. What’s Taking place i’m new to this, I stumbled upon this I’ve discovered It positively helpful and it has aided me out loads. I am hoping to give a contribution & help different users like its aided me. Good job.

  18. Great write up and I enjoyed the book tremendously. In fact, upon graduation it helped me test, start, and automate a business which grossed nearly $1,000,000 in its second year. However, due to the nature of the business, it being a fad, I see the writing on the wall. That being said, last year, after reading the ‘One Minute Millionaire’ I started an investment group which at the present time is moving forward quite well. Thank you.

    In your opinion, at the present time would you suggest going the traditional route when publishing a book -that being via a Literary Agent- or would you recommend self-publishing via Amazon as you have recently done. My goal for the book would be the have a very strong concentrated following and of course make money.

  19. One thing I cannot seem to find on your site: In the book you tell about the dehydration technique you used in China, and that you posted before and after pictures on this site. I cannot seem to find them?

  20. Hi, I’m an aspiring childrens book writer. I’ve recently been working on my second edit of a manuscript that a large publisher is somewhat interested in. Where/how do I begin as far asa blog goes? No idea really how I could get my book out there! Thx for any advice.

  21. Hi, Tim

    Thanks for your post.

    I’m a first-time author in Taiwan and I have bought your book and have been your fan since 2009.

    After reading your book, I always think you are so cool to make the films for your books – especially the one for the book ” 4 hour body”.

    As a result, I also make one small film for my new book (you can check it in my website).

    Although it is not so professional as yours and I am still not a bestselling author since my book just published 1 week ago, I know I love my book and so are some friends.

    I don’t know whether you will see this letter, but I really appreciate what you have written while it keeps on inspiring me.

    Next time , if you come to Taiwan and want to find a local guide, please feel free to let me know.

    I would be more than happy to see you.

    Your fan,

    Thomas Lin