Forget going viral. Here’s how to create work that lasts forever
Most people are focused on hits. They want to write a bestselling book, create a blockbuster movie, make hit products, create hit articles that do millions of views. This is understandable.
It’s also a mistake.
The economics of most creative industries show that the money isn’t in hits. At least not directly and not how you might understand it from watching an episode of Entourage or Empire. Actually, the money is in the library—the backlist of dependable titles that make money year in and year out.
Seth Godin, whose books like Purple Cow and The Dip are great examples of backlist titles, has explored publishing from all angles, from self-publishing to running an imprint at Amazon. Godin once estimated that when measuring book sales, 90% of the revenue of the $70-billion-a-year publishing industry comes from the backlist. Back of the envelope math aside, the publisher Jane Friedman, who formerly ran Knopf and Harper Collins, describes the strength of their backlist as the “backbone” of a publisher.
It’s true in the music business too. In 2015, catalog albums combined to outsell all the year’s new releases. Michael Jackson’s estate has made billions of dollars since his death because of the copyrights he assiduously acquired throughout his life. Ted Turner’s empire is built around the fact that he purchased the movie studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and immediately sold it back for what looked like a major loss—except he’d kept the film rights and used them to build TNT and TCM.
The money is in the so-called perennial sellers.
In an average week, I sell between 4,000-5,000 books in the US alone, more than enough to put me near the top of most bestseller lists. Except you will rarely find me there. Why? Because those book sales numbers are split across five titles.
Broken down specifically for a random week in July:
Trust Me, I’m Lying (released July 19, 2012): 209
Growth Hacker Marketing (released September 3, 2013): 319
The Obstacle Is the Way (released May 1, 2014): 1,279
Ego Is the Enemy (released June 14, 2016): 858
The Daily Stoic (released October 18, 2016): 1,368
Total: 4,033 in the US alone (excluding audiobooks). And more or less what the sales look like week in and week out these days.
Again, you wouldn’t know it from the New York Times bestseller list, but in the years since they’ve been published, my books have sold more than 500,000 copies in more than 25 languages and continue to sell steadily day in and day out. In fact, the sales are accelerating: The Obstacle Is the Way has sold more copies in 2017 than it did in 2016, and more in 2016 than it did in 2015 and 2014. It’s been a slow build though. My first book, Trust Me, I’m Lying, got relatively little support from my publisher because I was an unproven author, but by the time my third book, The Obstacle Is the Way, came out, I started getting more attention. By my fourth and fifth books, I had a strong enough track record that I began to get strong retail placement and larger marketing budgets. Now with my sixth book, Perennial Seller, I’m able to write my own ticket marketing-wise, they want to keep me happy, rather than the other way around.
Weekly sales of The Obstacle Is the Way building over time
This strategy is not as glamorous and it requires a deeper commitment to your art and your products. Other authors chase the lists—or gaming the lists—and measure their success in days and hours. To think longer term means you’ll be underestimated and will require much more patience. It might even mean being dismissed as a flop or a “miss.” Some people can absorb that ego hit and some people can’t, but the ones that can position themselves not only for greater sales but a greater legacy.
What I want to talk about in this post then is how to build a library of books (or really any product) that are more than just “hits.” I want to show how to make things that are perennial. Things that sell year in and year out, whether or not they were blockbusters when they were first released. This list of strategies below is by no means comprehensive, but this essay will cover many of the most important ones.
Strategy 1: Create timeless work
Strategy 2: Launches matter but keep going past them
Strategy 3: Get (the right) press
Strategy 4: Find your champions
Strategy 5: Use discounting to build your audience
Strategy 6: Keep making stuff
Strategy 7: Keep your platform in mind
Strategy 1: Create timeless work
The first problem is that most people make things that don’t have a chance of lasting. Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s Founding Fathers, produced hundreds of thousands of words over the course of his short five decades on this earth, much of them intended to defend the institutions he and the other founders were creating at the time. As his biographer Ron Chernow observes, it’s rather shocking to realize that almost all his work was “journalism”—essentially responses to current events. But his “topical writing has endured”—works like The Federalist Papers and George Washington’s farewell address (mostly penned by Hamilton himself)—“because he plumbed the timeless principles behind contemporary events” (emphasis mine).
You might say he was an early practitioner of Jeff Bezos’s advice to focus on the things that don’t change.
Yet most creators don’t do this. Adult coloring books are popular so they rush into that space. They hear somebody is making money in online courses so they rush to copy them. They see that author Mark Manson’s mega-bestseller has the word “Fuck” in the title so they try to do something like that. They don’t realize that what they’re doing is not only rushing headfirst into unnecessary competition but also dating themselves.
There’s a certain immediacy and availability bias inherent in the decisions that many creators make—it seems right right now—but time is rarely kind to those choices. I hear people say, “Oh, this book is a business card for me.” Great. But no one has ever paid for someone’s business card.
So if you want to sell, you have to find a theme or concept that’s going to last. My first book was an exposé of the media system—based on Upton Sinclair’s similar exposé from 1913. Growth Hacker Marketing isn’t about the latest marketing tactics, it’s about how the old style of marketing is obsolete. Ego Is the Enemy, The Obstacle Is the Way, and The Daily Stoic are rooted in a 2,000+ year old ancient philosophy. That’s how they’ve all managed to continue to sell. Even if I was the greatest marketer alive, if the books had an expiration date, it would have been for nothing.
Strategy 2: 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, is that a good thing? That’s what launches are about—getting attention sooner rather than later. Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power took a decade to start to hit bestseller lists. By building up his email list, reaching out to influencers, doing some smart advertising, and doing a big preorder push, 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).
From a marketing perspective, a proper launch is essential—much more than simply picking a random day to go live. Yes, “launch windows” are artificial. But just because something is constructed, as I once heard a wise person say, doesn’t mean it isn’t important. In fact, the artificial notion of a launch is almost more important now than ever—customers have so much choice, they tend to choose what appears to have momentum. There’s that saying, “nothing draws a crowd like a crowd,” that’s really what a launch is about. You want to show: “Hey, this has heat, people like you are enjoying this.” It draws people who otherwise might have discovered your book or product on their own later to check it out sooner.
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 just months.
I’ve seen this play out with my own launches. Looking at my five previous books, all have sold more than 90% of their total sales in the weeks AFTER launch week and that’s actually skewed if you consider that Ego is celebrating its 13-month anniversary and Daily Stoic is still approaching one year. For my most successful book, The Obstacle Is the Way, over 98% of sales have happened since launch week.
The Obstacle Is the Way (released May 1, 2014)
Launch week sales: 3,250
Total sales: 182,711
1.78% of sales came during launch week. And if you were to include UK and audiobook sales, the first week’s sales become almost laughably small—under 1% of the total and shrinking every day.
Growth Hacker Marketing (released September 3, 2013)
Launch week sales: 2,221
Total sales: 61,322
3.62% of sales came during launch week.
Trust Me, I’m Lying (released July 19, 2012)
Launch week sales: 2,862
Total sales: 51,628
5.54% of sales came during 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. You have to keep going. You can’t stop at launch week.
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Strategy 3: Get (the right) press
In my experience, almost everyone—from brands to artists—overestimates the value of traditional PR. Much of the press that people chase is ephemeral and ineffectual, yet expensive and time-consuming to get.
Yet, if you are going to pursue a press-centric strategy, please listen to my advice on this: Start small.
NBC Nightly News is probably not the first outlet to pitch, and it’s not the one you’re most likely to succeed with. Instead, you will have more success with PR if you treat it the same way you treated your product design: Identify your core audience and start there.
In 2014, I started getting emails from coaches in professional sports telling me that they’d read my book The Obstacle Is the Way and that it was helping their teams win. I had a hazy vision of what this might one day mean: Wouldn’t it be amazing if Sports Illustrated or ESPN did a piece about how my book was a cult sensation in football, basketball, and baseball? I’d seen it happen for other authors, so I knew it was possible. It was also a long reach for me at that point, however much I might have wanted it. What I did next mattered, but first I’ll tell you what I didn’t do: I didn’t immediately call up those outlets and beg them to anoint me with a trend piece.
Instead, I responded to those coaches by offering them as many free books as they wanted. I reached out to other coaches who I’d heard might have been reading it and offered to send more. If I saw a player tweet about the book, I direct-messaged him and offered to send some to his teammates. My publisher and I must have sent hundreds of copies over the next year to athletes, coaches, and managers as the news made its way through the sports grapevine that all they had to do if they wanted copies of my book was to ask for them.
Then, a friend of mine who works in sports broadcasting asked if I wanted to appear as a guest on a podcast she was doing for a small show in Minneapolis. I said yes, and on the episode we talked about the book’s influence on the New England Patriots, one of the teams that had emailed me. This episode made its way to a small fan blog that covered the Patriots, and when they wrote about it I worked hard to have everyone in my network share and comment on the piece. Finally, nearly two years after the journey began, I pitched the story to Sports Illustrated and they were into it.
That article—“How a book on stoicism became wildly popular at every level of the NFL”—sold so many books that the publisher ran out of copies for nearly a month.
The way I describe this process is “trading up the chain.” In an interconnected media age, outlets pick up and re-report on each other’s stories. By starting with a small podcast where I could tell the story on my own terms, which led to a pickup on a small site that covers a niche, and then sharing and spreading that piece so it was seen by the right people, I was able to ultimately go from a tiny show to one of the biggest and most influential outlets in the world. Even without that big payoff, this was a great success—because it was selling books along the way, first to the loyal fans of the podcast and then to die-hard Pats fans. No publicist required.
Sure, would it have been wonderful to get this kind of PR on launch day? Absolutely. But the truth is that any resources spent towards making that happen would have likely been wasted. I had to go out there and earn the article, and had to create a real trend before there was going to be a trend piece.
Great press takes patience. It also requires thinking about the long haul of your book, not chasing some little pop or forgettable mention somewhere.
There is a way to attract earned media in the short term that can have returns over the long term too: a technique called “newsjacking,” popularized by the marketing thinker David Meerman Scott. He defines the concept as “the process by which you inject your ideas or angles into the breaking news, in real time, in order to generate media coverage for yourself or business.”
In my experience, the breaking-news element is important but not essential. Trends and popular themes are also powerful forces to piggyback on. A broader definition of “newsjacking” would then be: when people and the media are all talking about a certain topic, insert yourself into that conversation by connecting what you do with what they’re already talking about.
Here are two examples to illustrate this concept:
Example 1: Milo Yiannopoulos
In February 2017 the internet was buzzing about the controversial antics of right-wing blogger Milo Yiannopoulos. Seeing how he was using many of the tactics outlined in my first book, I wrote my weekly column for the New York Observer, “I Helped Create the Milo Trolling Playbook. You Should Stop Playing Right Into It.”
The article blew up, attracting attention from a variety of outlets including BoingBoing, Alternet, and On The Media, a big syndicated show on NPR. Now, would I have written the piece even if it sold zero books? Of course—I thought the topic was important and it was something I had expertise about that I felt needed to be shared.
It was really a bonus then that the new media attention led to a sustained spike in sales, which lasted for the ensuing month. Not bad for a book that had already been out for almost five years.
Example 2: Ship your enemies glitter
In January 2015, the internet was outraged and fell in love with the website shipyourenemiesglitter.com. The premise was for $9.99 you could ship a benign glitter bomb to any friend or enemy anywhere in the world. Time.com covered it, and so did Fast Company, The Telegraph, Huffington Post, and TechCrunch.
The week after the website went live, I interviewed the creator for my column with the New York Observer. It turns out he had read Trust Me, I’m Lying (and credited it with inspiring his idea) and we did the first major interview on how he was able to attract all the media attention. Since the topic was still fresh in the news, the article blew up and sold over 400 copies of the book that week and sustained an increase in sales for the week to come.
This piece also led to the book being optioned as a TV show by a great screenwriter and it was quickly sold to ABC (though like most Hollywood projects, it ultimately went nowhere). The point is, don’t give up on your book. Keep finding ways to make it relevant and keep it in the news.
Strategy 4: Find your champions
Influencers and champions have always been a way to launch a product or even a career. Think of Johnny Carson and his famous endorsement of calling a talented comedian over to his couch. If this happened to you, your career was made. Think of the clothing entrepreneur Marc Ecko and his trademark “swag bombs” where he would painstaking design special products like shirts and jackets for celebrities he wanted to reach. One jacket he made for Spike Lee, which was sent unsolicited by Marc—then a nobody—kicked up a two-decade long friendship and collaboration between the two artists. It also helped launch Ecko Unltd as the cultural sensation it became.
My books have had a lot of champions over the years who’ve probably driven more sales than just about anything else. I’ll tell you one story that might seem unattainable, but it actually isn’t.
In 2013, Tim Ferriss and I were both speaking at the same conference in Amsterdam. The night after the event a group of us were sitting at the hotel bar talking. Tim asked me what I was working on and I told him about this book I was doing about Stoicism. I explained why I was so excited about this topic and for the next few hours the two of us nerded out about this philosophy that we were both big fans of. At the end of the night, I sent him the manuscript, which I was just finishing. I didn’t ask for anything. I didn’t make any kind of pitch. The next day, he had a crazy idea: What if he bought the audiobook rights from me?
Actually, I didn’t think it was crazy but my publisher sorta did. I knew that it was a great idea. It took a lot of convincing and negotiating with Portfolio to get them to try this unproven approach. It was a risk for me too. Although Tim had a large audience, he was not a publisher and if something went wrong it could cost me many sales. But my feeling was that a person publishing and promoting an audiobook meant a lot more than some brand name or imprint doing it.
In May 2014, the week after the book’s publication, Tim announced The Obstacle Is the Way as his fourth selection for the Tim Ferriss book club and also released a podcast episode related to the book. Combined, the result was a bump in sales higher than all the orders leading into and including launch week. Tim has continued to be a big champion of my books and is a large part of why they have sold well in many different formats. I’ll give you another example: 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, it took the book to #44.
What I am not saying here is: Go ask Tim Ferriss to promote your book. That was a magical confluence of circumstances. What I am saying is that when a real person, a real human being who many others trust says, “This is good,” it has an effect that no brand, no ad, no faceless institution can match.
Today in publishing there is a name for the phenomenon: The Tim Ferriss Effect. It might also be called the Charles Bukowski Effect for the way he single-handedly saved the career of the great John Fante, a novelist who had been completely forgotten. Bukowski found a copy of Fante’s Ask the Dust on a shelf at the Los Angeles Public Library and fell in love. Through his raving about it in interviews, and introducing Fante to his editor, Fante’s work was brought back into the light and he was able to finish one last great book before he died (and now there is a square named after him in Downtown LA). That’s the power of champions.
It’s essential that a book is “vetted” by people with good reputations (this is what blurbs are) and it’s also a much more effective way of getting access to large audiences. You don’t get someone like Ramit to endorse your book because you sent a bunch of annoying emails begging for it though, that’s not how it works. You have to make something that really meets the needs of important people—and you have to do such an amazing job that it blows their mind (because they are often jaded and have very high standards). It’s something that happens mostly organically too. (Great piece here on Instagram influencers and books.) You don’t want to be Fyre Fest, paying a bunch of Instagram stars to promote something that sucks. Influencers are the long game—but they make a big difference. My own career is an example of that.
Strategy 5: Use discounting to build your audience
As a general rule, the more accessible you can make your product, the easier it will be to market. You can always raise the price later, after you’ve built an audience.
Of all the cool marketing campaigns I’ve done over the years to sell books, the single most effective strategy I’ve employed time after time is discounting. To develop a back catalog of work that sells year after year you need to be continuously bringing new fans into your work. That’s how we build an audience and gather momentum.
I’ve seen it repeatedly with my own books:
Trust Me, I’m Lying
On March 7, 2017, with help from my publisher, we discounted the price of the Trust Me, I’m Lying e-book to $1.99 for two weeks, March 5 – March 19. The book was also featured on eBookDaily.com and in their newsletter.
The Obstacle Is the Way
In anticipation of my fourth book Ego Is the Enemy, which came out in June 2016, we changed the price of The Obstacle Is the Way e-book to $1.99 (from the standard $9.99) from April 23, 2016 – May 21, 2016.
We advertised the discount to a number of websites that specialize in promoting discounted e-books to large email lists. (BookBub is the biggest and most popular but I just had an assistant research a list of similar ones—it was not hard.)
The result was a sustained bump of interest, which helped bring new customers into my back catalog leading up to Ego Is the Enemy being released.
Ego Is the Enemy
Growth Hacker Marketing
December 15, 2015: We discounted the price and included in BookBub & Book Gorilla email blasts.
Strategy 6: Keep making stuff
Let me paint a picture. An author kills himself to write a book, throws everything he has into marketing it, and then, in a conversation with another much more successful author, asks: “What else should I do? How can I make sure my book keeps selling?” It is at this juncture—reached by many an author over the years—that this well-meaning creator is given one of the most frustrating pieces of advice ever designed: The best marketing you can do for your book is to start writing the next one.
It is frustrating because it is depressingly, frustratingly true. I know this because I’ve gotten this advice right as I finished the launch of my first book, right when I thought it was time to enjoy myself and watch the sales come in as I rested. But the author who told me that was right: More great work is the best way to market yourself.
Likewise, the best thing an actor can do—whether it’s after an enormous blockbuster or an enormous bomb—is to find her next role, unless she wants to be defined by the previous role. Same goes for the entrepreneur—whether her company has just sold or just failed, the best thing she can do for her career? Start the next company.
In fact, creating more work is one of the most effective marketing techniques of all. Bestselling author of The 48 Laws of Power Robert Greene saw his sales really begin to grow after his third book. This was enough for his previous books to be seen as a series. The three books provided enough of a combined sales record for retailers to run promotions around them. Nassim Taleb’s four bestselling books—Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan, The Bed of Procrustes, and Antifragile—are now known and marketed collectively as the Incerto: “four nonoverlapping volumes that can be accessed in any order.” But remember, this was built by publishing one book after another.
The idea that good work compounds itself is not just anecdotal. A study done by economists Alan Sorensen and Ken Hendricks explored this phenomenon in music. It turns out that with each new album, the sales of a band’s previous album will increase. As the researchers wrote, “Various patterns in the data suggest the source of the spillover is information: a new release causes some uninformed consumers to discover the artist and purchase the artist’s past albums.” In fact, sales of non-debut albums increase by an average of 25% because of this additional discovery and exposure.
Think about Apple—they didn’t just make the iPod. They made iTunes to support it. And because people became familiar with using Apple software they were more open to the idea of Apple OS and Apple laptops. Then the iPhone sealed it for many people, drawing them completely into the Apple universe, potentially for life.
It’s not enough to make one great work. You should try to make a lot of it. Once you’ve done that you don’t just sit there and wait. That’s not how work becomes a perennial seller. You have to build to that. You have to keep going.
Strategy 7: Keep your platform in mind
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 email list. It’s the most durable of the 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 five weeks on the Wall Street Journal list and without really any other marketing, the book now sells 1,000-1,200 copies per week.
Becoming an author
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 abandon 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 hear from lots of people who say they want to be a writer—but they aren’t doing any writing. Not enough of it anyway. Meanwhile, the writers I respect and admire report for the grind every single day. They never stop.
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.”