How to Create a Perennial Bestseller
Note from the editor: The following is a guest post by Ryan Holiday. Ryan (FB/IG/TW: @RyanHoliday) is the bestselling author of six books, including The Obstacle Is the Way, Ego Is the Enemy and The Daily Stoic. His books are used by many NFL teams, including the Seahawks and Patriots, and was read by members of the Warriors on their way to NBA championship in 2017. His work has been translated into twenty-eight languages and has appeared everywhere from the Columbia Journalism Review to Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as multiplatinum musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world.
His latest book, Perennial Seller: The Art of Making and Marketing Work that Lasts is a meditation on the ingredients required to create classic books, businesses, and art that does more than just disappear.
Nobody sits down to make something they hope will be immediately or quickly forgotten. Elon Musk compares starting a business to “eating glass and staring into the abyss of death,” and no one would willingly do all that if they thought their efforts were going to disappear with the wind.
The vast majority of creative work, sadly, is not only forgotten, it never had a chance to be anything but forgettable. In the United States alone some 300,000 books are published on average per year. Roughly 300 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. Since it launched in 1985, some 6,000 films have appeared at Sundance. How many of these products endured for years or decades? Not many.
But some people do figure it out. The publishing industry, the music industry, the movie industry, despite what you read in the newspapers, are successful not because of the hits that come out each week, but because of their library of content—what insiders call “perennial sellers.”
Perennial sellers are movies like the Shawshank Redemption, artists like Iron Maiden, startups like Craigslist, books like the 48 Laws of Power, (and The 4-Hour Workweek, which is 10 years old and still sells more than 100,000 copies per year in the U.S. alone). Look at Craigslist, now 20 years old, which makes annual profits of over half a billion by monetizing just 2-3 categories of listings. These are the kind of products that customers return to more than once, and recommend to others, even if they’re no longer trendy or brand new. In this way, they are often timeless and unsung moneymakers, paying like annuities to their owners. Like gold or land, they increase in value over time because they are always of value to someone, somewhere.
All my life (and career) I have been studying these kinds of perennial sellers. Not just because it’s what I do for a living as an advisor to writers, musicians and entrepreneurs, but to incorporate them in my own writing. What follows in this post are some of the lessons we can learn from the creators who have made things that last—not for months but for years. I’ve split them into two distinct buckets, how to make something that lasts and the kind of marketing required to develop a loyal audience that lasts.
The Work Is What Matters
It was the great Cyril Connolly who would tell writers that, “the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and that no other task is of any consequence.” This is true of anyone setting out to produce a perennial seller in any space in any era. Phil Libin, the founder of Evernote, has a quote I like to share: “People [who are] thinking about things other than making the best product never make the best product.” The legendary investor and Y Combinator founder Paul Graham explains why, “The best way to increase a startup’s growth rate is to make the product so good people recommend it to their friends.”
The point is: The first and most essential step of a perennial seller is creating something truly great. As my mentor Robert Greene put it, “It starts by wanting to create a classic.” If you’re sitting down to make something and thinking about how famous it’s going to make you, how rich you’re going to get, how fun it’s going to be, or all the people you’re going to prove wrong, you are thinking about the wrong thing.
Frank Darabont, the director and writer of The Shawshank Redemption, was offered $2.5 million to sell the rights so that Harrison Ford and Tom Cruise could be cast as the stars. He turned it down because he felt this was his “chance to do something really great” with his screenplay and the actors of his choosing. Turning down that kind of money couldn’t have been easy, but that’s the difference between what might have been a forgettable mid-level blockbuster to one of the most enduring and popular movies of all time.
Think Long Term, Don’t Chase Trends — What Doesn’t Change?
Darabont’s decision probably seemed crazy at the time. Hollywood says “We want to give you a bunch of money to put these two movie stars in your film,” and he rejects it? Why? He didn’t want to make a movie dependent on big names. He wanted to make a movie that captured the essences of Stephen King’s book, a movie that wasn’t about flash and marketing but rooted in something deeper.
Consider Amazon, now arguably the most valuable company in the world. Jeff Bezos’ dictum to his employees is not to focus on what will make the most money right now, he’s not rushing to capture every fad or opportunity. Instead, he has this surprising command: “Focus on the things that don’t change.”
Bezos isn’t rushed, and he is thinking long term. He knows that customers will, always prefer cheap prices, fast shipping and reliable service. That’s what he is optimizing for, not what’s trendy right now. The great writer Stefan Zweig once recounted a youthful conversation with an older and wiser friend. The friend was encouraging him to travel, believing that the experience would broaden and deepen Zweig’s writing. Zweig believed he had to write right now and he needed to finish his book as quickly as possible. “Literature is a wonderful profession,” the friend explained patiently, “because haste is no part of it. Whether a really good book is finished a year earlier or a year later makes no difference.”
It doesn’t make a difference because really good stuff is timeless. It doesn’t need to be rushed.
Who was rushed? All the people who started “businesses” right before the first dot-com bust, or apps for Myspace pages. Or Groupon clones. Or QR codes. Or gourmet cupcakes. Or published adult coloring books. Or people selling fidget spinners.
Take the Star Wars franchise. In one sense, the films were undoubtedly futuristic and took advantage of then cutting-edge special effects. But George Lucas borrowed far and wide…and new and old. He acknowledged that his initial conception of the movie was for a modern take on the Flash Gordon franchise, going as far as trying to buy the rights in order to do so. He also borrowed heavily from the 1958 Japanese movie The Hidden Fortress for the bickering relationship between R2‑D2 and C‑3PO. Yet for all these contemporary influences, Lucas’s most profound source material was the work of a then relatively obscure mythologist named Joseph Campbell and his concept of a “hero’s journey.” Despite the special effects, the story of Luke Skywalker is rooted in the same epic principles of Gilgamesh, of Homer, even the story of Jesus Christ. Lucas has referred to Campbell as “my Yoda” for the way he helped him tell “an old myth in a new way.” When you think about it, it’s those epic themes of humanity that are left when the newness of the special effects fall away. Why else would ten-year-olds—who weren’t even born when the second set of three movies were made, let alone the original trilogy—still be captivated by these films?
As Rick Rubin said on Tim’s podcast, he urges his bands not to listen to the radio while producing an album. He doesn’t want them thinking about what’s popular right now. “If you listen to the greatest music ever made, that would be a better way,” he says, “to find your own voice to matter today than listening to what’s on the radio and thinking: ‘I want to compete with this.’ It’s stepping back and looking at a bigger picture than what’s going on at the moment.” He also urges them not to constrain themselves simply to their medium for inspiration—you might be better off drawing inspiration from the world’s greatest museums than, say, finding it in the current Billboard charts.
As you are deciding what to make, it’s essential that you root it in what is timeless. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter how great it is in the moment—it won’t last.
Seek Out A Blue Ocean
Creators gravitate towards competition because it seems safe. If pop punk is popular, they re-tool their band because they think that’s what labels and fans are looking for. If venture capitalists are funding VR or drones, that’s the company they start. Unfortunately, this makes it harder to break through the noise.
As famed investor Peter Thiel has said, “competition is for losers.”
An essential part of making perennial, lasting work is making sure that you’re pursuing the best of your ideas and that they are ideas that only you can have (otherwise, you’re dealing with a commodity and not a classic). Not only will this process be more creatively satisfying, it will be better for business. In 2005, business professors W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne described a new concept that they called Blue Ocean Strategy. Instead of battling numerous competitors in a contested “red ocean,” their studies revealed that it was far better to seek fresh, uncontested “blue” water. Can you redefine or create a category, rather than compete in one?
To tell another Rick Rubin story: In 1986, he was signed on to produce the first major label album for Slayer, then a notoriously heavy but obscure metal band. The natural impulse for many would be to help the band make something more mainstream, more accessible. But Rubin knew that would be a bad choice both artistically and commercially. Instead, he helped them create their heaviest album ever—maybe one of the heaviest albums of all time: Reign in Blood.
As he recounted later, “I didn’t want to water down. The idea of watering things down for a mainstream audience, I don’t think it applies. People want things that are really passionate. Often the best version is not for everybody. The best art divides the audience. If you put out a record and half the people who hear it absolutely love it and half the people who hear it absolutely hate it, you’ve done well. Because it is pushing that boundary.”
In the short term, this choice almost certainly cost them some radio play. But when Rubin says that the best art divides the audience, he means that it divides the audience between people who don’t like it and people who really like it. Ultimately, it was the polarizing approach that turned Reign in Blood into a metal classic—an underground album that spent eighteen weeks on the charts and has sold well over two million copies to date.
When I decided to write a modern book that relied heavily on Stoic philosophy, I knew I didn’t want it to be like other books on the subject. First off, the originals like Seneca and Marcus Aurelius are so good that they are essentially impossible to beat. It would have been suicide to compete with them. Many of the subsequent books about stoicism seemed to be content to retread what these great thinkers had said and thus only reached a small niche of hardcore philosophy fans. I decided to take a different route entirely—I would illustrate Stoic principles through historical and business stories. This has angered many fundamentalists in the academic Stoic community—but that’s OK. They weren’t who I was trying to reach anyway. By creating something fresh and new I was able to find an audience that had never considered philosophy.
In the last three years, The Obstacle is the Way has sold more than 300,000 copies and is translated in more than a dozen languages. It sold more copies in 2017 than it did in 2016, and more in 2016 than it did in 2015 and 2014. That’s what can happen when you sidestep competition and create something new—while still basing it on timeless principles and ideas.
Know Your Audience
It’s important to “scratch your own itch” as the saying does, but are you actually sure people share your itch? I know you’re not going to be satisfied selling just one copy. Whatever you’re making is not for “everyone” either—not even the Bible is for everyone.
Paul Graham of startup incubator Y Combinator, which has funded over a thousand startups including Dropbox, Airbnb, and Reddit, says that “having no specific user in mind” is one of the eighteen major mistakes that kills startups: “A surprising number of founders seem willing to assume that someone—they’re not sure exactly who—will want what they’re building. Do the founders want it? No, they’re not the target market. Who is? Teenagers. People interested in local events (that one is a perennial tar pit). Or ‘business’ users. What business users? Gas stations? Movie studios? Defense contractors?”
It pays to be specific.
Think of Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines, who has an incredibly clear mission statement illustrated via one question: Will this help us be the lowest-cost airline? As he put it, “I can teach you the secret to running this airline in thirty seconds. This is it: We are THE low-cost airline. Once you understand that fact, you can make any decision about this company`s future as well as I can.” Because of this, his employees knew who their customers were and what those customers needed.
What to Expect When You’re Expecting is for soon-to-be parents. The person who sat down to write the song Happy Birthday was creating something for people at birthday parties (and created an incredibly valuable copyright in the process). When Susan Cain published her book about introversion, she had a very specific audience in mind: introverts. (Which has since sold over a million copies and launched a massive TED talk.) The Left Behind series is obviously for Christians. Its films, novels, graphic novels, video games, and albums are preaching with a very specific choir in mind.
The famous music promoter and later movie producer Jerry Weintraub (The Karate Kid and the Ocean’s series) has a good story in his memoir When I Stop Talking, You’ll Know I’m Dead. He once proposed renting out Yankee Stadium for a celebrity softball game with Elvis. On a day the stadium wasn’t in use, the owner of the Yankees took Weintraub out onto the field and forced him to look at all the empty seats—each one symbolizing someone who would have to be marketed to, sold, and serviced. It was a formative lesson, he said. “Whenever I am considering an idea, I picture the seats rising from second base at Yankee Stadium. Can I sell that many tickets? Half that many? Twice that many?”
What if you can identify a perennial problem and solve it? If you can create something for an audience that renews itself each year (like college grads or people turning 50)? Then you’ll have something that can last and sell by word of mouth.
The more important and perennial a problem (or, in the case of art, the more clearly it expresses some essential part of the human experience), the better chance the products that address it will be important and perennial. As Albert Brooks put it, “The subject of dying and getting old never gets old.” The filmmaker Jon Favreau, who created Swingers and Elf and directed Iron Man, has said that he aims to touch upon timeless problems and myths for specific groups of people in his work, and that all great filmmakers do as well. “The ones who get the closest to it,” he said, “last the longest.”
If You Don’t Care Enough To Market Your Work, Why Should An Audience Buy It?
Let’s stipulate that you have made something amazing. In some ways, now you have an even harder job ahead of you—because now you have to make people care. Art is a kind of a marathon where, when you cross the finish line, instead of a getting a medal placed around your neck, the volunteers roughly grab you by the shoulders and walk you over to the starting line of another marathon: marketing.
In a recent interview, the novelist Ian McEwan complained lightheartedly about what it was like to go out and market a book after spending all that time creating it: “I feel like the wretched employee of my former self. My former self, being the happily engaged novelist who now sends me, a kind of brush salesman or double glazing salesman, out on the road to hawk this book. He got all the fun writing it. I’m the poor bastard who has to go sell it.”
Fortunately, this is a learnable skill, and there is a process that greatly increases your likelihood of success. I’ve used this process with dozens of New York Times bestsellers, musicians whose work has been downloaded millions of times, and products and brands that have grossed hundreds of millions in sales.
Now, the bad news: no one “trick” will do the job. Marketing isn’t about hacks.
As renowned venture capitalist Ben Horowitz says: “There is no silver bullet. We’re going to have to use a whole lot of lead ones.”
What Do We Have To Work With?
The first thing you should do at the launch of any product is to sit down and look at your assets, and ask: What are we working with here? The first thing anyone planning a launch has to do is sit down and take inventory of everything they have at their disposal that might be used to get this product in people’s hands.
This asset assessment can also be used to make great products, and the process is similar, so let’s begin with an example. This was director Robert Rodriguez’s approach—now famous as the “Rodriguez List” approach—to making his award-winning movie El Mariachi. As he told Tim on their podcast together, “I just took stock of what I had. My friend Carlos, he’s got a ranch in Mexico. Okay, that’ll be where the bad guy is. His cousin owns a bar. The bar is where there’s going to be the first, initial shootout. It’s where all the bad guys hang out. His other cousin owns a bus line. Okay, there will be an action scene with the bus at some point, just a big action scene in the middle of the movie with a bus. He’s got a pitbull. Okay, he’s in the movie. His other friend had a turtle he found. Okay, the turtle’s in the movie because people will think we had an animal wrangler, and that will suddenly raise production value. I wrote everything around what we had, so you never had to go search, and you never had to spend anything on the movie. The movie cost, really, nothing.”
The point is: Not every launch is the same and every launch should be tailored around your specific needs. For instance, when we launched The 4-Hour Chef, Tim was looking at a tough retail situation because the book was published with Amazon. We put our heads together and thought about who we knew who could help. Matt Mason, then the CMO of Bittorrent was an old friend of mine. I connected him with Tim and bam—the first Bittorrent author bundle was born and was downloaded more than 2 million times. (Also see the “free” section below for more on this kind of approach.)
Without that brainstorming, one of the single best marketing strategies of that campaign never would have come together. So kick things off by doing a deep dive into:
- Relationships (personal, professional, familial, or otherwise)
- Media contacts
- Research or information from past launches of similar products (what worked, what didn’t, what to do, what not to do.) (Ramit Sethi’s Growth Lab had an excellent post recommending that you pick a competitive product to yours and track all the places they got press, all the things they did to move units and use that to form the basis of your campaign. No need to learn by trial and error if someone has already done some of it for you.)
- Favors you’re owed (if nobody owes you favors then you should pause your launch and go help other people. Build up debt you can call in to help promote your stuff. Adam Grant’s book Give and Take describes this well.)
- Potential advertising budget
- Resources or allies (“This blogger is really passionate about [insert some theme or connection related to what you’re launching].” And if you don’t know who the influencers and gatekeepers in your space are? That’s a bad sign! Don’t leap into a pool you haven’t familiarized yourself with first. Study the terrain.)
It is essential to take the time to sit down and make a list of everything you have and are willing to bring to bear on the marketing of a project.
Aside from racking your own brain, one of my favorite strategies to kick off this process is simply: ask your world. I call this the “Call to Arms”—a summons to your fans and friends to prepare for action (see Platform, later in this post). I create a quick online form and I post it on my blog as well as on my personal Facebook page and other social media accounts. In a previous era, different tools would have been used (a physical Rolodex?), just as there will doubtlessly be newer, different tools in the future. Regardless of the tools used, though, what you’re saying is the same:
“Hey, as many of you know I have been working on ______ for a long time. It’s a ______ that does ______ for ______. I could really use your help. If you’re in the media or have an audience or you have any ideas or connections or assets that might be valuable when I launch this thing, I would be eternally grateful. Just tell me who you are, what you’re willing to offer, what it might be good for, and how to be in touch.”
Eric Barker, author of Barking Up The Wrong Tree, sent a similar note to his 300,000 person email list prior to his launch. He replied to each offer to help—but there was so many he actually got temporarily blocked from his his own gmail account! Yet this process unearthed a number of podcasts, book clubs, speaking opportunities and interviews that helped the book debut on the national bestseller list. Depending on the size of your platform, the number of messages you get might range from a few dozen to a few thousand, but there will almost always be something of use in there.
Free Is One Of The Best Ways To Get Fans
How much does the thing you’re selling cost? Twenty dollars? Fifty dollars? A thousand dollars? Whatever the price, that is not the full price. In addition to the actual dollar cost, there’s also the cost of buyers’ time to consume the product—there are all the things they’re missing out on by choosing to consume your product (what economists call opportunity costs). I can’t ever get two hours of my life back if the movie isn’t good. Life is short, and we can read only so many books—by choosing one, I’m choosing explicitly to not read another. That weighs heavy on consumers.
There’s another cost that creators tend to miss too: How much does it cost for people to find your work? To read the reviews or read an article about it? How much time does it cost to download, wait for it to arrive, or set up? These costs—discovery and transaction costs—exist even when your work is free! Think of the free concerts you haven’t attended, the samples you didn’t bother to walk over and try, the products you didn’t buy even though they were 100 percent risk-free, love it or get your money back, no money down. When you think about it this way, it’s really amazing that people buy or try anything at all!
Tim has posed an interesting related question: “If TED charged for their videos from the beginning, where would they be now?” The answer is probably closer to “obscurity” than ubiquity—they’ve racked up billions and billions of views since the first videos went up. Why should our work be any different?
When we say, “Hey, check this out,” we’re really asking for a lot from people (time, attention, opportunity costs,etc.). Especially when we are first-time creators. Hugh Howey, author of the wildly popular Wool series and one of the first big creators in the self-publishing era, has said that it’s essential for debut authors to give away at least some of their material, even if only temporarily. “They’ve gotta do something to get an audience,” he’s said. “Free and cheap helps.” So does making the entire process as easy and seamless as possible. The more you reduce the cost of consumption, the more people will be likely to try your product. Which means price, distribution, and other variables are essential marketing decisions.
Why do you think Steven Pressfield gave away nearly 20,000 copies of a special edition of his book The Warrior Ethos to soldiers? Because he knew they were his target audience and he knew that if a small percentage of the millions of vets and soldiers in the US Army read his book, it would spread by word of mouth from there (first month it sold 37 copies, five months in it was selling 500 copies per month and now it sells 1,000-1,500 copies per month five years post launch.)
Sure, free is an easier strategy for some products than others. The indie musician Derek Vincent Smith aka Pretty Lights did this so often and so prolifically, it not only built him a huge audience for live shows, but also earned him a Grammy nomination. Starting with his first album in 2006, Pretty Lights has given all eight of his albums and EPs away for free on his website. “I knew I’d probably have to support myself and my music through live performance, so I wanted to get it through as many speakers as possible,” he told Fast Company.
Starting in 2008, his music was available for paid download on iTunes and Amazon, while still being free for anyone to download from his website. This gave his fans a choice of supporting him financially while still growing his audience through free downloads. By 2014, Smith was averaging, per month, 3,000 paid album downloads, 21,500 single downloads, and three million paid streams on platforms like Spotify. His album A Color Map of the Sun was nominated for a Grammy in 2014, after being downloaded free more than a hundred thousand times in its first week of release.
Of course, you don’t have to do “free” to succeed, but it’s worth considering how you would if you had to.
Find Your Champions
When the New York Times profiled me and my book The Daily Stoic, it took the book to about #1,500 on Amazon. When Tim posted a picture of the first page of The Daily Stoic on January 1st on his Instagram, it took the book to #44. Below is a chart of The Daily Stoic’s weekly book sales:
When he shared a photo of the “memento mori” coin that DailyStoic.com produced, we were seeing orders come in practically every minute for most of the day. When a real person, a real human being that many others trust says, “This is good,” it has an effect that no brand, no ad, no faceless institution can match.
Marc Ecko built his clothing brand Ecko Unltd into a billion-dollar company and a staple of streetwear and music by perfecting what he called the “swag bomb”—a perfectly tailored and targeted package to the person he was trying to impress. His first influencer was a popular New York City DJ named Kool DJ Red Alert. Marc was addicted to his weekly show, which often featured the latest and coolest trends in hip-hop. To get attention for his company, Marc would camp out in Kinko’s and fax in special drawings he made to Red Alert’s station fax machine. Then he started sending airbrushed hats and jackets and T‑shirts. He never asked for anything—he just made great work and sent it to select influencers he knew might appreciate it. Eventually, he got his first shout-out on the air, and the brand was officially born.
Marc wasn’t just sending out random stuff to random people—he knew who mattered and he knew what they liked. When Spike Lee directed the movie Malcolm X, Marc “sent him a sweatshirt with a meticulously painted portrait of Malcolm X on it.” The sweatshirt took two days of work to make—even though there was no guarantee Spike would even see it. It turned out that Spike loved the gift and sent Marc back a signed letter. Two decades later, Spike Lee and Marc Ecko are still working together.
The story of John Fante, one of my favorite writers, is a heartbreaking one. A great novelist’s career was partly ruined by Hitler—and the world was deprived of many great books. Yet there is another wrinkle in that story that gives it a somewhat happy ending. After fifty years of languishing in obscurity, Ask the Dust was discovered in the Los Angeles Public Library by the writer Charles Bukowski. Bukowski was blown away and began to rave about Fante to everyone he knew—including his editor. What ensued was a resurgence of Fante’s work. He spent his dying days finishing one last novel, and today there is a public square in downtown Los Angeles named after him—a man who was nearly forgotten by history.
I heard about Fante from another one of his champions, the writer Neil Strauss, who had called Ask the Dust his favorite novel in an interview. I picked it up because of that recommendation. In turn, I have become a champion of Fante and helped sell thousands of copies of his work to my own fans. I tell this story to illustrate the power of champions—it can bring art back from the dead.
Some networking strategies from I’ve learned from Tim that I think help with influencer relationships:
Never dismiss anyone — You never know who might help you one day with your work. Tim’s rule was to treat everyone like they could put you on the front page of The New York Times . . . because someday you might meet that person.
Play the long game — It’s not about finding someone who can help you right this second. It’s about establishing a relationship that can one day benefit both of you.
Focus on “pre-VIPs” — The people who aren’t well known but should be and will be. It’s not about who has the biggest megaphone. A great example for me was meeting Tim in early 2007 before The 4-Hour Workweek was published. He hadn’t sold millions of books then and didn’t have a huge platform. Now he does and I am writing this post.
In my experience, one of the most effective use of influencer attention is not simply in driving people to check you out, but instead as a display of social proof. A blurb on the back of a book isn’t bringing new fans to the book; it’s there to convince an interested reader, “Hey, this thing is legit.” Katz’s Deli has photos of the owner with all the celebrities who’ve eaten there—but they’re hanging inside the restaurant. It’s to reaffirm to the customers: You’re in a special place. Special people eat here. In the middle of the restaurant there’s also a sign hanging from the ceiling that reads, Where Harry Met Sally . . . Hope You Have What She Had!
Social proof sells. The perennial seller acquires it by being legit, and then comes up with interesting ways to use it to their advantage.
Fun Ways To Get Media Attention
One of my previous guest posts on Tim’s site dealt with the process of getting media so I won’t repeat it all here, but I do want to give some some high level thoughts on the subject:
- Media is a seller’s market — It might not seem that way, but trust me, no reporter has ever complained that there are too many good stories out there. They want to write about you…if you’re interesting and cool and nice.
- One size does not fit all — If you’re sending press releases or standardized pitches, you’ve already lost. You’re just contributing to the noise. Really study the work of the people you want to write about you. Don’t pitch people who don’t cover what you do. Build a relationship (before you ask for anything). Be a human being.
- Focus on what’s unique and special — Remember, competition is for losers. Whatever is most special about you, lean into it with your pitch.
- Don’t be afraid of controversy — As Elizabeth Wurtzel put it, “Either you’re controversial, or nothing at all is happening.” Not all press is good press, but most of it is.
- Take advantage of the cycle — Almost every day Google gets press for its Google Doodles—because they celebrate a theme, or a historical event, a famous person’s birthday. If there is a big story about cybersecurity in the news and that’s what your product does, jump into the fray. My third biggest week ever for my first book Trust Me I’m Lying came 4+ years after release because I wrote an article about the violent protests in Berkeley (see: David Meerman Scott’s newsjacking.)
- Start small — In 2015, I appeared on a small podcast to discuss The Obstacle is the Way’s impact in professional sports. That led to this piece on PatriotsGab.com which led to a Sports Illustrated piece headlined: “How a book on stoicism became wildly popular at every level of the NFL.” It sold so many books the publisher ran out of stock—but that wouldn’t have happened had I pitched SI. The story had to be traded up the chain.
Now, I’ll now touch on two other things: paid media (advertising) and publicity stunts.
The most important thing to remember if you have a budget for your work: Advertising can add fuel to a fire, but rarely is it sufficient to start one. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s editor Maxwell Perkins once wrote to one of his authors the following, comparing advertising a product to a man attempting to move a car,
“If he can get it to move, the more he pushes the faster it will move and the more easily. But if he cannot get it to move, he can push till he drops dead and it will stand still.”
That’s how you should think about advertising. It’s not how you launch your product—it’s how you keep it going once it has already broken through. Ian Fleming, the commercially minded creator of the James Bond franchise, advised his publisher to advertise for his books after they’d begun to sell well, not only offering to share the costs (£60 for every £140 the publisher put in), but even submitting some of his own ad copy:
Ian Fleming has written 4 books in 4 years. They have sold over one million copies in the English language. They have been translated into a dozen languages, including Chinese and URDU. No. 5 is called FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE.
As for getting media attention, my strategy is this: If you want to be in the news, make news. Reporters sit around all day hoping to find good stuff, anxious to beat their (many) competitors in getting to it. In this way, the modern media is really a seller’s market. Reporters want stuff, but you have to catch their attention.
A fun example: I was working with a band called Zeds Dead and I saw an article about a woman who had worn a Fitbit while having sex. The article blew up online. So we had Zeds Dead put heart rate monitors on their fans during a show. The subsequent piece from BoingBoing, the biggest blog in the world, did great. One of the things we did when James Altucher launched Choose Yourself! was to announce that James was accepting Bitcoin payments for the book. He was one of the first authors to do it, and even though James only had about ten readers actually take him up on offer, the stunt got him on CNBC to talk about that and the book itself. This certainly moved a lot more units. But again, neither of these stunts would have mattered without a great product to back them up.
There are lots of cool stunts you can do with advertising even. Look at Tim’s decisions to buy actual billboards featuring answers to his famous podcast question: “What would you put on a billboard?” It resulted in a video that did close to 80,000 views and all sorts of social media impact. Neil Strauss bought a billboard on the Sunset Strip for his book The Truth that said, “ON BEHALF OF ALL MEN, I APOLOGIZE.” American Apparel’s controversial advertising got it all sorts of publicity, and that publicity, in turn, introduced lots of people to the brand.
If you’re interesting and provocative enough, the pitch is easy: just email reporters and tell them what you’re doing.
Keep Your Platform in Mind
After the comedian Kevin Hart experienced several disappointing career failures in a row, he was at a crossroads. The movies he’d expected to make him a star hadn’t hit; his television deal hadn’t panned out. So he did what comedians do best—he hit the road. But unlike many successful comedians, he didn’t just go to the cities where he could sell the most seats. Instead, he went everywhere—often deliberately performing in small clubs in cities where he did not have a large fan base. At each and every show, an assistant would put a business card on each seat at every table that said, “Kevin Hart needs to know who you are,” and asked for their e‑mail address. After the show, his team would collect the cards and enter the names into a spreadsheet organized by location. For four years he toured the country this way, building an enormous database of loyal fans and drawing more and more people to every subsequent show.
As his name grew, Hart began to take television gigs that he thought would allow him to grow his platform. In 2011, he hosted the MTV Music Awards and snagged, by his count, more than 250,000 Twitter followers in one swoop. Across social media and e‑mail, Hart’s fan-by-fan ground game—in his words, “years of me building and building and building and reaching out to my fans on the personal level”—built up a platform of more than fifty million people, people he can launch each of his products too.
The problem is people want to have a platform, they don’t want to build one. How many bestselling books came out in 2007? Many, but few took the time to build a blog around their book, featuring other writers no less, but it was Tim’s decision to do that that was instrumental in the book continuing to sell over time.
You’re probably familiar with Kevin Kelly’s theory of 1,000 True Fans: “A creator, such as an artist, musician, photographer, craftsperson, performer, animator, designer, videomaker, or author—in other words, anyone producing works of art—needs to acquire only 1,000 True Fans to make a living.”
Look at a band like Iron Maiden—they haven’t been on the radio in decades, but they built a platform of loyal fans. As Bruce Dickinson, their lead singer, would say, “we have our field and we’ve got to plough it and that’s it. What’s going on in the next field is of no interest to us; we can only plough one field at a time. We are unashamedly a niche band. Admittedly our niche is quite big.”
With one thousand true fans—people “who will purchase anything and everything you produce”—you’re more or less guaranteed a livable income provided that you continue to produce consistently great work. It’s a small empire and one that must be kept up, but an empire nonetheless.
And if I could give a prospective creative only one piece of advice, it would be this: Build a list.
Specifically, an e-mail list. It’s the most durable of platforms and it’s the most direct. Sure, that could change, but I think email (over four decades old) is a safer bet than Facebook or Twitter (just one decade old). With my book The Daily Stoic, we built a 40,000 person email list by sending out one additional free meditation every single morning. This is an incredible amount of work—basically, one additional book written per year—and I do it totally free. BUT—it helped the book spend 5 weeks on the Wall Street Journal list and without really any other marketing, the book now sells 1,000-1,200 copies per week.
Launches Matter But Keep Going Past Them
History shows that good work eventually finds its audience, but, as John Maynard Keynes so accurately expressed it, the market “can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent.” If an artist starves to death before the world comes around to appreciating her genius, it doesn’t help the artist much. Launches are about getting attention sooner rather than later. Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power took a decade to start to hit bestseller lists, but with some slight shifts in his approach, we were able to get Mastery to debut at #1 on New York Times (and 4 years later it is regularly ranked sub-1000 on Amazon.)
Record labels know that the more times you hear a song, the more likely it is to be a hit. That’s why they hold tracks back until they get a threshold number of stations committed to playing it. It’s the same thing with the marketing of any product. You’re doing the work in advance so that to the public it feels like you’re suddenly everywhere.
At the same time, it’s worth remembering that Star Wars was beaten at the box office by Smokey and the Bandit. A launch is important, but we must bear in mind what Kafka’s publisher wrote to his author after poor sales: “You and we know that it is generally just the best and most valuable things that do not find their echo immediately.” In other words, it is far better to measure your campaign over a period of years, not months. If you don’t have the patience for that, at least months over weeks or days. I’ve seen this play out with my own launches. Looking at my 5 previous books, all have sold more than 90% of their total sales in the weeks AFTER launch week. For my most successful book, The Obstacle Is The Way, over 98% of sales have happened since launch week.
I remember early on I asked my agent Stephen Hanselman what separated his bestselling clients from his smaller ones. He said, “Ryan, success almost always requires an unstoppable author.” Throughout my career, I’ve seen this played out not just in books but in all products.
As I see it, not everyone who publishes a book is an author. They’re just someone who has published a book. The best way to become an author is to write more books, just as a true entrepreneur starts more than one business. The best way to become a true comedian, filmmaker, designer, or entrepreneur is to never stop, to keep going. They hustle, they keep creating. Very few of us can afford to abandoning our gift after our first attempt, convinced that our legacy is secured. Nor should we. We should prove to the world and to ourselves that we do it again…and again.
I’ll leave you with one last thought related to that and it’s from Craig Newmark. I asked him what it felt like to know that he had created something used by millions of people, something that’s still going strong after twenty years, his answer was the perfect note to end this post on: “It feels nice for a moment, then surreal, then back to work.”
Related and Recommended
The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 700 million downloads. It has been selected for “Best of Apple Podcasts” three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it’s been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.