The wonderful Jane Friedman shared a link to a blog post the other week that was really impressive in providing the step-by-step process of how they successfully launched a book. This is the post:
Exactly how I self-published my book, sold 180,000 copies, and nearly doubled my revenue, which was written by Michael Bungay Stanier.
The post is 7,000 words. Go ahead and read it. I’ll wait.
Okay, welcome back! It’s a great post, right? There was so many wonderful things in it, and I wanted to dig into a few of them. The following things jumped out in reading about his book launch:
The Foundation for Success Takes Years to Develop
When Michael mentioned the getting endorsements for his book, I was astounded by the names he shared:
“I… reached out to some Big Names. Brené Brown. David Allen. Bob Sutton. Dan Pink. What I had going in my favor is that these are all people I’ve been in touch with for at least five years. I’ve had them on my podcast to help them promote their own books. I’ve found a way to meet them when we’ve been in the same city at the same time. In short, I’ve been able to be a champion for them in my own small way. So I was able to ask for a favor in return, to which they were all gracious enough to say yes.”
This is a “small detail” that is HUGE. How on earth did he get these people to provide blurbs? Oh, a podcast. Hmmmm, let’s look into that…
Yep, Michael has had a (mostly) weekly podcast for years called The Great Work podcast. I had to dig a little to find out how long he has been doing this — since 2009!
Scrolling through the list of people he has interviewed on the podcast, there are so many authors, so many recognizable names. For years and years, Michael has been forging relationships and giving back to those who would eventually provide endorsements for his own books.
This cannot be overlooked, the sheer number of years of hard work that paved the way for the success of his most recent book. Nowadays, it seems that everyone is launching a podcast, but here was Michael doing it for 8 long years, laying the groundwork.
Success begets success. He invested in his podcast and in forging relationships for years, which laid the groundwork for the success of his books. But…
Success Doesn’t Guarantee More Success
Michael’s first book had been published in 2010, and it did really well, selling 90,000 copies. But he couldn’t make a deal with his agent or publisher on his next book:
“The next three years were spent in back-and-forth between me, the agent, and my publisher, and I failed to make any progress. I wrote proposals. The agent turned them down. I wrote more proposals. The agent and the publisher turned them down. I wrote entire books. My editor told me they “loved them” but didn’t “love them.”… Honestly, the rejection left me feeling pretty bruised. I’d proven myself as an author who could write a good book and sell it, but it turns out that wasn’t enough.”
Many writers I speak to are trying to make it to a “next level,” which is always just a step above where they are now. They seek the validation of getting an agent or a publisher; of finishing and publishing their book; of launching it and selling a certain number of copies, of receiving positive reviews.
The hope behind reaching a “next level” is that once you reach it, you remain there. What Michael’s experience illustrates is that too often, with each new project, you have to work just as hard as you did in the beginning.
To be a writer is to put yourself out there, and face the risk that is involved in seeking to create something. But that isn’t easy.
You Have to Invest
Michael decided to self-publish his next book, and decided up front that he would spend at least $20,000 to do so. He hired Seth Godin’s editor. He hired an award-winning cover designer, and still rejected the first 20 designs that were presented.
I would say that any author has to invest in their book in these four categories:
- MONEY. This is the one we tend to obsess about most, even though it is no more important than the other three in this list. Regardless of your publishing path, each decision you make will have financial implications. If you invest zero dollars and sign a deal with a big publisher, you have just signed away rights to your creative work. That is a financial transaction, even if you don’t see any money leaving your bank account.
- TIME. After money, this is the one people tend to obsess about next. Again, it is no more important than the others. When you choose your publishing path, you are trading in time as much as anything else. Michael talks about the three years he wasted trying to please an agent and publisher, before deciding to self-publish is 2nd book.
- ENERGY. This is the one I obsess about most. Where do you put your creative energy each day, each week, each month, each year?
- COLLABORATION. This is the one that scares people a lot of people. Many people I know would define themselves as introverts; they are driven by social fears that have barely evolved since high school. None of us wants to be the odd man out; none of us want to seek out social rejection; none of us feel comfortable showing vulnerability. But the success you seek requires collaboration. I always think about this John Green video when I consider how the work of an author is one of collaboration, not solitude.
Seek Quality, Not Quantity
This jumped out at me: Michael said his criteria for writing his book was to “be the shortest book I could write that would still be useful. It’s 26,000 words.” He even hired a research assistant to find stories to share in the book.
When I wrote Be the Gateway, I had an initial goal of 40,000 words, and it ended up being around 45,000. Even then, I was still kind of self-conscious that it looked barely long enough to be considered a “proper book.” When the first print proofs arrived, I was terrified that I would open the box and find that it felt merely like a pamphlet, not a book.
Yet, here is Michael selling 200,000 copies of his latest book, and has more than 500 amazing reviews on Amazon. And it’s 26,000 words.
I just shows that if your work resonates with people, that other “standard practices” simply don’t matter. Quality over quantity.
There is so much else in Michael’s post that resonates with advice I share with authors:
- Play the long game and commit to a year (I tend to work with authors a full-year before the publication date of their book.)
- Build a team (here and here)
- Do the research everyone else skips with comps (here)
- Challenge “best practices” (He did pre-order bonuses, and found it didn’t work for him. This is an entire chapter of my book, but here is an older post from 2010.)
Thank you Michael for sharing such an amazing look into your process. And if all of you folks want even more in-the-trenches insights from a successful author, check out Chuck Wendig’s post, “What I’ve Learned After 5 Years and 20 Books: 25 Lessons.”