Today I want to share a step-by-step guide to publishing a bestselling book. There are just 6 steps, and I will be clear about each one. As a model for this guide, I am going to use one of all-time favorite stories of creative success. Please bear with me here… I want to use the story of Meat Loaf’s 1977 album “Bat Out of Hell” as a guide. Why? Because this story is one of my all-time favorite stories of a creator who persisted through rejection to find massive success on their own terms.
Is a 1970s rock album the perfect guide for selling a bestselling book today? Maybe, maybe not. But I feel there are important lessons here that absolutely apply to the journey that authors take in creating, publishing, and sharing their books.
It’s worth noting that I’m not particularly a fan of this album or artist. I respect them, I can appreciate their music, but I don’t think I’ve ever knowingly played their music on purpose. I share this story because it holds some deep truths about creative success. Okay, let’s dig in…
Step #1: Totally Commit To Your Idea
The album was a concept put together largely by writer/composer Jim Steinman, Meat Loaf as the singer, and Todd Rundgren as producer. The idea came from Steinman and was big and bold. It didn’t fit within the market. It would be expensive to create. It was just… different. But Jim, Meat, and Todd all believed in it completely, and spent years making it become reality, even as the rest of the world ignored them. At times, laughed at them. Worth noting here is that they weren’t chasing trends. They didn’t envision how this work would be so easy to fit into what everyone was already talking about. They were reminded again and again that they should abandon this work because it simply doesn’t fit in. When you choose the book you want to write, I encourage you to commit to it completely. What you are capable of creating is unique to who you are. Believing in that is a gift you can give yourself, and the world.
Step #2: Collaborate
The most certain path to failure is to try to do everything on your own. Now, I completely understand that writing a book is often a largely solitary endeavor, at least until you get to the editing phase. Of course, create in a manner that feels right to you. But collaborators are a critical way to ensure your work gets finished, gets published, gets shared. So many doors open when you collaborate. In the case of this album, Jim found his muse in Meat Loaf. Then they found unwavering support (financial, musical, and otherwise) in Todd Rundgren. I encourage you to have colleagues: others who create work similar to yours that you can at least talk to. As you move down the path to publishing and sharing your work, consider the kind of help you may need along the way. This is important regardless of the publishing path you take: indie, hybrid, traditional, etc. These are relationships that will open up opportunities in ways you least expect, and most need. They also become the foundation for your support system as a writer.
Step #3: Be Persistent and Get Used to Rejection
I know, I know, this one is so difficult. In the past, I’ve written about successful authors who found their agent only after a long search. This was the case for Janae Marks. Today, she is a New York Times bestselling author. Back when I interviewed her, she told me how she had to query 70+ agents before she got one. Imagine that: you create your list of “top 10 agents” to query. Then have to research 10 more. Then 10 more. Then 10 more. Then 10 more. Then 10 more. Etc. You would feel reasonable at query number 35 to conclude: “Why am I wasting my time? The world is giving me a clear message to stop.” But 35 rejections was only the half-way mark to success! And thank goodness Janae kept querying! Her writing is making so many readers happy today.
For Meat Loaf’s album, every record label heard it, and every one of them rejected it. Sometimes in an offensive manner. There is a famous story of one of the biggest record industry hitmakers of all time telling Jim and Meat that they don’t even understand how to write music. They tried to get someone to make this record for years, and people kept rejecting them.
How did the album eventually get made and released? It was because of two people: Todd Rundgren heard it and decided to pay for producing it. But even though he tried, he couldn’t get it released. After rejection after rejection, finally record executive Steve Popovich decided to publish it after hearing only part of one song.
If you are struggling with your work, remember it only takes one person to change your life and get behind your work.
Step #4: Don’t Compromise in Order to “Fit In”
Every record label and producer who this album was presented to wanted to change it. Jim and Meat didn’t even consider the changes. Once the album was released, it didn’t really fit in to the marketplace. The songs were incredibly long. In an age of the 3 minute pop song, the songs that became hits for this album were 5 minutes, 8 minutes, and 9 minutes each. Even edited down for radio, they were much longer than other songs the stations would play.
Likewise, the album never cracked the Top 10 in album sales, and none of their singles did either. As measured by big short-term metrics, this album didn’t “make it.” But, it sold, and it kept selling for years. This album didn’t “fit in,” yet, it somehow worked. For writers, there are countless examples of this. It is absolutely fine if you want your work to fit in. But don’t worry if it doesn’t.
Step #5: Give People Something to Talk About
When listening people describe the album, you often hear words like: cheesy, theatrical, over the top, a guilty pleasure, and so on. This album succeeded because of these things, not in spite of them.
Meat Loaf as a performer didn’t fit into norms at the time. The music was theatrical, and Meat Loaf’s performance took that to an entirely new level.
Meat was an actor, and if you watch a performance of him from 1978, the parts he isn’t singing are just as engaging as the parts he is. He is embodying the characters in the songs completely. (Go ahead, watch some of this 1 hour and 45 minute concert to see for yourself.)
The album didn’t do well at first when it was released in October 1977. When did it take off? After the world saw Meat Loaf perform on Saturday Night Live in March of 1978. To me, this is a reminder that we want creative work to stand on it’s own, but sometimes it needs help to get noticed. Give people something to talk about.
Step #6: Bring Your Creative Work to the People
Producer Todd Rundgren has said that a surefire way to sell records is to play live shows at towns again and again and again. This has been a standard part of how the music industry has operated for decades: get in a van and play small shows to 20 people. Then return to those towns a few months later and play to 40 people. And so on…
For writers nowadays, you have more opportunities than ever to bring your writing to the people. We have Substack newsletters, Instagram Reels, online webinars, in-person events, conversation series, collaborations, and so much more. Do you have to use any of these? Nope. But I find that sharing your work regularly, connecting with real people, sometimes create wonderful moments that build awareness of your writing.
To me, all of this is an important reminder to follow your own path, and to remember that if success isn’t happening at the moment, that it doesn’t mean that you are failing. Keep going.