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

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If you want to write a bestselling book, don’t reinvent the wheel.

I get at least a dozen email a week from friends who want to write books.

After three #1 bestsellers from 2007 to 2012, and publishing in 35+ countries, I’ve tried a lot. Having experimented with everything from “traditional” (Random House) to Amazon Publishing, from BitTorrent Bundles to self-publishing audiobooks, I’ve developed strong opinions about…

– What works and what doesn’t.
– What sucks and what doesn’t.
– What makes the most money and what doesn’t.

This post is intended to answer all of the most common questions I get, including:
– “Should I publish traditionally or self-publish?”
– “How does a first-time author get a 7-figure book advance?”
– “How do I get a good agent or publisher? Do I even need an agent?”
– “What does the ‘bestseller list’ really mean? How do you get on one?”
– “What are your top marketing tips if I have little or no budget?”
– “What are the biggest wastes of time? The things to avoid?”
– And so on…

My answers are grouped into sections, all of which include resource links. Here are the four sections of this post:
MARKETING
PR AND MEDIA
TRADITIONAL PUBLISHING VERSUS SELF-PUBLISHING
THE CREATIVE PROCESS

As a prelude, here are two books I found useful when selling The 4-Hour Workweek, both as a proposal to publishers and as a finished book to the world:

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

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

MARKETING

A few quick points to get us started:

  • Wrangling book blurbs or cover testimonials is one of the biggest wastes of time for new authors. Take the same number of hours and invest them in making a better product and planning your marketing launch. I think one quote per book is more than enough, and a passionate quote from a credible but lesser-known person is FAR better than faint “meh” praise from a famous person.
  • If you only have time to read one article on marketing, make it 1,000 True Fans by Kevin Kelly, founding editor of Wired Magazine.
  • In my experience, more than 50% of the CEOs who have bestselling books buy their way onto the lists. I know at least a dozen of them. See The Deception of Bestseller Lists for more detail. I’ve never done this, as I aim to have books that are bestsellers for years not two weeks. That said, if you’re busy and simply want “bestselling author” on your resume, it can be had for a price.
  • If your book is mediocre, you can still market/promote a book onto the bestseller lists…but only for a week or two, unless you’re mega-rich. Long term, book quality and pass-along value is what keeps a tome on the charts. I value the Amazon Most-Highlighted page more than my NYT bestseller stats. The weekly bestseller lists are highly subject to gaming. I’d love to see a shift to monthly bestseller lists.

Now, the meat of this MARKETING section:

12 Lessons Learned While Marketing “The 4-Hour Body”
How to Build a High-Traffic Blog Without Killing Yourself
How Tucker Max Got Rejected by Publishing and Still Hit #1 New York Times
How Does a Bestseller Happen? A Case Study in Hitting #1 on the New York Times (Skip down to “What were the 1-3 biggest wastes of time and money?”)

Behind-the-scenes mechanics:

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

PR AND MEDIA

What does one week of a real launch look like for me?

Here’s the first week of The 4-Hour Chef launch. It features a complete list of media, in chronological order and broken down by format.

Now, here’s how I get that done:

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

The success of The 4-Hour Workweek is often attributed to an early wave of tech “influencers” who spread the word. Pursuing such influencers requires thoughtfulness, and you can’t be overeager. Sadly, most people oversell and make an asshole of themselves, pissing off busy people and getting rightly shunned. Here’s how to avoid pitfalls and do it right:

Marc Ecko’s 10 Rules for Getting “Influencer” Attention (Be sure to read his interactions in the comments)

TRADITIONAL PUBLISHING VS. SELF-PUBLISHING

Let’s showcase four success stories, all using different approaches:

If you’re going to use a crowd-funding platform like Kickstarter or Indiegogo to fund your book (and get pre-paid orders, as well as a reader database), the following scripts and tools could save you hundreds of hours:
Hacking Kickstarter: How to Raise $100,000 in 10 Days (Includes Successful Templates, E-mails, etc.)

Now, let’s look at the nitty-gritty economics of publishing, as well as how to weigh the pros and cons of self-publishing:
How Authors Really Make Money: The Rebirth of Seth Godin and Death of Traditional Publishing
Tim Ferriss and Ramit Sethi on Self-Publishing vs. Big Publishers (Hint: there are some benefits to big publishers)

For those of you considering selling a book chapter by chapter, here are some relevant thoughts:
A Few Thoughts on Content Creation, Monetization, and Strategy

If you opt to self-publish, you might also need the below.  Remember: you’ll be your own marketing/PR/advertising department, and you need to know what you’re getting into. Never bought advertising? You might have to learn. Not sure on margins? Get sure:
Jedi Mind Tricks: How to Get $250,000 of Advertising for $10,000
The Margin Manifesto: 11 Tenets for Reaching (or Doubling) Profitability in 3 Months

ON NEGOTIATING CONTRACTS, FINDING AGENTS, ETC.

If you’re going the traditional route (Read “How Authors Really Make Money” above), you will have to negotiate.

Many books have been written on the subject — I quite like Getting Past No — but here are the two most important things to remember:

  • He or she who cares least wins. Have walk-away power and figure out your BATNA.
  • Options are power. If you can avoid it, never negotiate with one party. Get competing offers on the table.

If you’ve decided on traditional publishers, I also suggest getting an agent.

I pay a 15% commission on my royalties because I want an experienced, diplomatic bulldog to fight my publishing battles for me. Selling a book to a publisher is easy — if you pitch the right editors, you only need an entertainment attorney to review contracts. But getting a book distributed properly nationwide? Getting the cover you want?  Pushing important editorial decisions in your direction? Getting commitments for end-cap displays or seasonal in-store promotion?

All this stuff is massively time-consuming.  Epic pain-in-the-ass stuff.

I view my “agent” more like the COO of my publishing business, not as a simple commissioned salesperson. This is one reason I opted to go with a smaller agency instead of a large entertainment agency. The latter tends to be (but is not always) exclusively focused on selling your book rights to the highest bidder. Once that one-night stand is over, they move on to fresh commissionable meat/deals, leaving you to fight the publisher on your own.  And trust me: the road from contract to bestseller list is a LOT harder than anything that comes before it.

You can find good agents by looking for contact info under “Major Deals” on Publishers Marketplace/Lunch. I also suggest reading the “Acknowledgments” section in books that you like; the agent will often be thanked. Here’s an old story about how I found my agent.

Another reason to have an agent — you’ll have your hands busy writing the damn book! That’s where your creative process will make or break you.  Take it seriously.

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

If you want a “bestselling book” that’s worthy of that label, you need a good book.

In my opinion, a mediocre book is more of a liability than no book at all. As the author of The E-Myth Revisited, Michael Gerber, once said to me, “If you’re going to write a book, write a fucking book.”  Good advice.  Follow it.

My stuff isn’t Tolstoy quality, but I do take pride in the work I do.

My general recommendation is this: If you can’t dedicate at least a year of full-time attention to a book (which might be 70/30 split between writing and PR/promotion), don’t bother writing it. There are exceptions of course. Some cocaine-fueled novelists I know can knock out a rough draft of a book in 1-2 weeks (!). I’ve seen memoirs completed in 1-2 months. But, alas, I’m not fast. I’m slow, what Kurt Vonnegut might call a “basher” or a “plodder,” and I write how-to content that requires a shit-ton of research and first-hand experimentation.

To do that reasonably well, I budget 1-3 years per book project.

It’s worth noting here, even though I write my own books, you don’t have to. “Ghost writers” exist solely to write books that are credited to other people. Here’s a good example of such services. If a current CEO publishes a book, it’s fair to assume that they had a professional ghostwriter interview them and pen “their” book.  If you’re not sure, you can check the acknowledgments or simply compare the writing to their speaking style in interviews.  Don’t match?  Grammar a little too good?  Use of “whom” a little conspicuous?  That’s a ghost at work.

Now, moving onward.

Here are some techniques, tricks, and resources that I’ve found helpful for nearly any type of writing…

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

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

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

AFTERWORD

And that’s it!

Did you enjoy this post?  Any favorite parts, or things missing?  Do you have your own tips about publishing and writing?

Please let me know in the comments!  I’ll be reading them all.

Posted on: February 4, 2014.

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

  1. This is amazing Tim. I like the way you linked everything back to this post – it looks like a great road map!
    “I think one quote per book is more than enough, and a passionate quote from a credible but lesser-known person is FAR better than faint “meh” praise from a famous person.” – what a great piece of advice. I have never considered this approach – it makes so much sense though! Thanks, I’m gonna implement it in my new info products.

    Like

  2. Love how you share openly without trying to have others buy your advice and knowledge. Tim, you truly understand that old saying that a rising tide raises all boats. The universe is so blessed by the stuff you are putting out. Great karma

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is great Tim! Thanks so much for sharing! I will definitely be using your resources to help me as I move forward with writing my own book this year on graphic design.

    Like

  4. Tim, this is possibly the best post you’ve done! I just finished writing my book so I will be using this as my road map! Thank you for always having incredible content, I have read nearly every post on your blog!

    Like

  5. Just awesome, Tim. Thanks very much for putting this together. As someone who’s writing my f’ing book right now (editing my first draft), this couldn’t come at a better time. I’ve found that before all of these awesome resources comes the willingness to just write a first draft – no matter how horrible. That was a big hurdle for me to get over first. If that head game doesn’t get in your way, you’re already ahead of a lot of people. Good stuff, Tim, as usual. Hope you’re well man.

    Like

  6. Thanks for putting everything in one place :) I find entering competitions great creativity motivators for writing. My first novel was written for NaNoWriMo and now I’m busy editing trying to make it good enough for entry into the Amazon writing competition.

    Like

  7. Great article. I haven’t had as much success as you but I have managed to sell over 800,000 copies of my books and to have them published in 22 languages in 29 countries.

    These quotations are particularly true when it comes to being successful at self-publishing.

    “Book writing is not a get-rich-quick scheme. Anyone who decides to write a book must expect to invest a lot of time and effort without any guarantee of success. Books do not write themselves and they do not sell themselves. Authors write and promote their books.”
    — Dan Poynter

    “The vast majority of self-published books sell less than ten copies a year online and through traditional retail channels, and that probably disappoints a lot of self-publishers. But it shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s hard enough for traditionally published books to register meaningful sales, and they have huge built-in advantages.”
    — Jeff Herman, Literary Agent

    “Write without pay until somebody offers pay. If nobody offers within three years, the candidate may look upon this circumstance with the most implicit confidence as the sign that sawing wood is what he was intended for.”
    — Mark Twain

    “Even the most careful and expensive marketing plans cannot sell people a book they don’t want to read.”
    — Michael Korda

    “It’s better to do a sub-par job working on the right project than a great job working on the wrong project.”
    — Robert J. Ringer

    “No amount of money or marketing can overcome a book that doesn’t deliver. So your first challenge is to write a book that your networks assure you is as good as you want it to be. The content of your books will determine how you sell them to publishers and promote them to book buyers. Content precedes commerce.”
    — Rick Frishman

    “People think that just because they’ve written something, there’s a market for it. It’s not true.”
    — Cathy Langer, Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver

    “When starting out, don’t worry about not having enough money. Limited funds are a blessing, not a curse. Nothing encourages creative thinking in quite the same way.”
    — H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

    In short, to be a success at self-publishing, one must write a great book and know how to creatively market it to the right readers so that it generates word-of-mouth advertising for many years to come.

    Ernie J. Zelinski
    The Prosperity Guy
    “Helping Adventurous Souls Live Prosperous and Free”
    Author of the Bestseller “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”
    (Over 200,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
    and the International Bestseller “The Joy of Not Working’
    (Over 250,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Great stuff Tim. I’ve been really getting into the PR side of things of late, and it’s certainly paid off. You mention influencer attention, do you have any other resources that you’d recommend in this area?

    Like

    • I agree with the influencer strategy – it seems so key. Also good to know more about building a platform, but that also seems to be a questions of putting in the hours. I’ve just finished reading “Write, Publish, Repeat” as a guide to self-publishing (concentrated slightly on fiction) and I must say it is great. Just when I thought there was nothing more to learn. They also have a podcast: http://selfpublishingpodcast.com/
      I’d also like to hear more about typical costs. I found an editor who now freelances but used to edit for Penguin. She wants 5 grand to edit my book and I want to pay her. But have to save up a bit and it feels like it’s all on hold until then…
      There’s also a nice post from James Altucher on self-publishing:http://www.jamesaltucher.com/2013/07/how-to-self-publish-a-bestseller-publishing-3-0/
      Best of luck, y’all
      John

      Like

  9. Tim, thanks!

    How much of this applies to making a kick ass KickStarter campaign? I’ve got one in the works, and I’m really trying to use my time efficiently.

    Plea: I bet siccing mind on something like IndieGogo/KisckStarter would = tons of value. Can you please master it, and then tell me how it’s done :).

    Like

  10. My favourite parts are the Marketing and Creative Process, as I personally have the most fun with those. I definitely have a lot to learn when it comes to PR and Media attention so I will be sure to spend some extra time there. The article with Mark Echo was amazing and helped me to design some beautiful swag bombs that got sent out to 20 local restaurants. Are there any other PR experts that you learned from when you were starting out?

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  11. Fantastic advice, Tim! As usual from you, a ton of resources and real-world advice.

    I am on the cusp of finishing my book, and you are helping me answer many of the questions I have. I think I am going the amazon createspace print on demand and Kindle ebook route to start with.

    I have spent over 20 years of research on my subject, with just a small fraction of it getting into the book.

    One thing that I don’t think you addressed, and that is turning your book into a film. That is my intention for my story. I am thinking that I may or may not need an agent for the book, but may well need one to sell movie rights.

    By the way, I’d like to list you in my acknowledgements; you have been a great inspiration to me for several years now. Thanks!

    Like

  12. Thanks Tim, great information and resources for the uninitiated! My book has been a work-in-progress for a few years, mainly because I get overwhelmed by the mine-field process in actually getting it out there, in the quality that I want and finding the right information, resources and people. A great help with researching and cutting out some of the B.S.!

    Like

  13. Freaking strange to see this.

    Both this post and my discovering of James Altuchers blog/recent book, along with my recent want to tackle a legitimate book must be signs that it’s time.

    Question — What’s the best way to transition from a niche to a wider market? (Or are there any books/articles/blogs on the subject you recommend?)

    This is an ace post. Evergreen at it’s finest. I can smell the fir. Thanks for sharing your success.

    Like