Today I am going to review the details of the specific tactics that one nonfiction author used to get his book onto The New York Times Best Seller list. He shares what worked, what didn’t, and how expectations did and didn’t meet with reality.
The author is Eric Ries, whose book The Lean Startup came out in September. Everything listed below is directly from an interview he did with Andrew Warner at Mixergy.com, who was kind enough to allow me to outline the items discussed in the interview in this blog post. His original interview with Eric is embedded below, and I highly recommend you watch it.
The Lean Startup reached number two on the New York Times’ “Advice, How To, and Miscellaneous” Best Seller list and I have seen it at various places on the overall Best Seller list. Here are the lessons Eric shares on how he achieved this:
- Set the Specific Goal of Becoming a Bestseller
Eric defined his ideal audience, and felt that being on the best seller list would be an ideal way to build his credibility and reach them: managers, investors, policy makers, the people who have a big impact on the entrepreneurial ecosystem. He asked himself, “Why do we have these bestseller lists?” His answer was that most people only read a handful of books per year, and that the bestseller list is a way for people to filter what is best. These are the books people will be talking about. So he worked backwards from that goal, to understand the mechanics of how to become a New York Times Best Seller. Here is what he found:
- All books are published on a Tuesday, because the NYT calculates best sellers as the books that sell the most from Tuesday-Saturday of each week.
- People who pre-order books count as a book being sold on the first day (or first week.)
With this, he set out his path: get as many pre-orders as possible. This is critical for authors, and something I talk about with all of the writers I work with: you have to define your goals and audience up front.
- The Only Form of Payment Eric Would Accept is Book Orders
Eric didn’t luck into being a bestseller, he spent an entire year focused ONLY on this goal. This is where his time and resources went. In fact, the only way that anyone could pay Eric for anything for the entire year was through book sales. He describes his speaking and consulting fees as “outrageously expensive,” and he wouldn’t accept payment for them for the entire year. Instead, as I will describe below, book sales were the only currency he cared about. So for many promotional efforts, he would only do them if the organizer could guarantee that a certain number of books were sold (in this case, pre-ordered.)
- Build a Movement Before Writing a Book
Eric’s book is the culmination of a movement that has been building in the tech startup, and entrepreneurship worlds: that of “the lean startup.” Basically, its the idea of building products and companies by testing ideas early, and iterating your way to success by constantly talking with your customers. He has become something of a celebrity, and is highly sought after as a speaker and consultant. The lean startup was a movement started with Eric’s ideas, but was very grassroots in how it spread. Eric shared his ideas again and again via articles, blogs, interviews, and speaking events. He gave away everything well before he wrote a book about it. He didn’t covet his ideas, saving them for “the book.” Because he gave it all way, because it was so compelling, that is what allowed him the opportunity to actually get a book deal and become a bestseller.
- Turn Awareness Into Sales
His strategy in growing awareness and sales of his book: “Use early adopters to drive the message to the gatekeepers of the mainstream.” He had been blogging for 2 years prior to the book and is a popular speaker. But, Eric points out that engaging people via a blog post is one thing, getting them to pull out their credit card is another – much harder – task. “It took me a long time to learn how to talk about the book in a way that it would get people to buy it without coming off as some jerk self-promoter,” he said.
- Set Up a Website to Test What Sells Books, and What Doesn’t
Eric attributes creating a custom website for the book as the biggest thing that worked for him. But this wasn’t just any website, it was where he tested which marketing campaigns and messages sold books, and which didn’t. So he spent an entire year running experiments (A/B testing) designed to get people to pre-order his book. Again and again he ran experiments and campaigns in order to answer the question: “what would influence people to buy the book?”
He actually sold the book via his website long before Amazon even had it listed on their site, which he said was a lot to manage and would not recommend others do. He didn’t know what the price would be, and then had to deal with customers directly. But it was the only way to really research – start to finish – what gets people to buy the book.
Many of his tests were about the cover and the subtitle – the two things he thought would be most impactful, and two things that are traditionally hard to analyze to determine the best of each. He describes how he fought with his publisher over “horrendous” covers that were presented to him. He was thrilled to have empirical data to show them, based on what people reacted most favorably to – what ACTUALLY drove book sales. In the end, they tested and tested until he found something that he liked, the publisher liked, and actually sold books.
What’s more, he shared the data on his experiments, and used this too to sell books. One idea that really sold a lot of books for him was offering people to see this data if you pre-ordered a book. So Eric offered people a chance to go behind the scenes to see the book marketing testing that he was doing on the site. Due to the nature of the book, testing ideas that work, this really resonated with his audience. All the data can still be accessed on his website, including experiments and trends among his book-buying customers.
- Don’t Rely on the Book Tour to Sell Books
Eric assumed that if he did an in-person talk, then plugged the book, that people would immediately go online and pre-order it. It turns out, he felt that this is one of the worst ways to sell a book, and rarely works for authors that he has seen in a pre-order scenario. People either got annoyed at the sales pitch, or they chose to not pre-order because they wanted to wait until the book was out to see if others think it is good. What this taught Eric, months ahead of his actual book launch, is to not rely on his book tour to sell books.
- Events That People Pay for Are More Impactful Than Events That are Free
Because the book tour idea didn’t work, Eric began asking event organizers to charge $25 for admission to see him speak, and then provide the book for free. (He would include these numbers as pre-sale orders.) At first, he got a lot of push-back from event organizers who don’t believe in charging for events. For Eric though, he knew that this strategy would guarantee pre-orders, turning his personal time into guaranteed book sales.
He would only go to events that were guaranteed to sell a certain number of books. It seems that 250 books was the number to hit for Eric. If the organizer would charge $25 admission, and guarantee 250 attendees (eg: books sold), then Eric would pay his own way to fly out to the event. He experimented in other ways too, sometimes not charging admission, but getting sponsors to pay for the books. This actually allowed him to attend events, conferences, and meetup groups that otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford his regular speaking fees, since it was entirely feasible that a small group could move 250 books.
- The Biggest Thing he Thought Would Work, But Didn’t: Social Media Integration Tools
Eric was convinced that building social media integration tools into his website would create book sales in a viral nature. The idea was that you could do campaigns to sell books within your circle of friends, much like someone would organize those they know to raise money for a charity race, donations, or Kickstarter project. Eric set up the site so that you could get your own personal page for the campaign, import your contact list, and reach out to your community to get involved in the lean startup movement. In the end, Eric said it looked brilliant on paper, but got no traction whatsoever.
- Challenge Your Own Beliefs: Choosing the Subtitle
For the subtitle, Eric was CONVINCED he had the right tagline for the book: “The Lean Startup: The movement that is changing how new products are built and launched.” It turns out it did worse in testing than anything else they tried. He kept insisting they test again and again, and other subtitles always lead to more book sales. It turns out, Eric’s favorite subtitle didn’t have key words that would resonate with his audience, such as “innovation” or “entrepreneurship,” and that the term “movement” means different things to different people. Also, his subtitle didn’t state a direct benefit to the reader. The subtitle they eventually settled on: “The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses.” So you can see the key words in there, and the direct statement of benefit to the reader.
- The Value of Bundling
Eric copied the “landrush” strategy from author Tim Ferriss. The idea is that you create a limited-time promotion right before the book comes out, by finding partners who will offer free promotions in exchange for how many books you buy. For example: access to a free webinar if you buy 10 books, or a free speaking event with Eric if you buy 1,500 books.
Eric did a lot of bundling experiments over the course of a year, preparing for the “landrush,” assuming that it would push him onto the best seller list. In reality, Eric found he sold more books via the bundling experiments than he did in the actual “landrush” promotion at launch. Driving awareness of the bundles was “way harder” than he thought it would be. He assumed a great offer would spread virally, but instead, most people were confused as to what the offer was. In fact, a logistical problem meant that most of the books bought in his landrush didn’t even end up counting for the first week’s sales numbers.
Something Eric mentions a couple times in the interview is that if he had put all his eggs in one basket – the landrush promotion, the book tour, the social sharing integration tools, or any other strategy he was convinced would work – he would not have made the best seller list, because each didn’t work as he expected. Overall, it illustrates how even good ideas will not guarantee results.
In fact, he found that directly asking his audience to simply buy the book was one of the best tactics that actually sold books.
Are each of these things “rules” that you should follow? Nope. This is just Eric’s experience after spending a year experimenting on his topic, with his book, targeting his audience. I encourage you to try your own experiments.
Clearly, not everyone will have the time and resources to devote that Eric did. But his story does underly that the book business is just that: a business. Yes, it has amazing and wonderful effects on our culture, our legacy, our future. But when having a successful book needs to become the cornerstone of one’s career, there is the very real need to attract attention, and convert that attention into sales.
This sounds like a brutish way to talk about books. But sometimes I feel that there are too many unicorns and butterflies surrounding the idea of a book, which almost belittles how multifaceted and powerful they are. A book is many things, including a business. Also, Eric’s story underscores the amount of work that can be required to go from being a “writer,” to becoming a “bestselling author.”
What I like most about the interview with Eric is that his passion seems undaunted, even though he clearly illustrates that none of this was easy. He spent considerable time and money to earn his achievement. He went through bouts of what have been frustrating experimentation and choices. And the result goes far beyond having his name on some list. It is clear that this passion is what drove a true movement to form in the first place. That his work extends beyond the list, beyond the book, beyond revenue.
His work will clearly have a legacy. And I imagine this to be the highest calling of any writer.
Here is the entire interview with Eric: