I don’t expect this will be a perennial bestseller. Fairly shallow marketing and writing advice, I’d recommend reading something else.
So if not with a keen eye toward marketing, where do we properly begin our pursuit of a perennial seller? As my mentor Robert Greene put it, “It starts by wanting to create a classic.”
“Lots of people,” as the poet and artist Austin Kleon puts it, “want to be the noun without doing the verb.” To make something great, what’s required is need. As in, I need to do this. I have to. I can’t not.
Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, reminds his employees: “Focus on the things that don’t change.”
You don’t have to be a genius to make genius—you just have to have small moments of brilliance and edit out the boring stuff.
Miranda answered: “’Cause I picked a lane and I started running ahead of everybody else . . . I was like, ‘All right, THIS.’”
any project, you must know what you are doing—and what you are not doing. You must also know who you are doing it for—and who you are not doing it for—to be able to say: THIS and for THESE PEOPLE.
John Steinbeck once wrote in a letter to an actor turned writer, “Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death, and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person—and write to that one.”
key to success in nonfiction was that the work should be either “very entertaining” or “extremely practical.”
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 well.
So the creator of any project should try to answer some variant of these questions: What does this teach? What does this solve? How am I entertaining? What am I giving? What are we offering? What are we sharing? In short: What are these people going to be paying for? If you don’t know—if the answer isn’t overwhelming—then keep thinking.
Srinivas Rao, a writer and podcaster, put it well: “Only is better than best.”
The higher and more exciting standard for every project should force you to ask questions like this: What sacred cows am I slaying? What dominant institution am I displacing? What groups am I disrupting? What people am I pissing off?
“Either you’re controversial,” as the perpetually controversial writer Elizabeth Wurtzel advises creatives, “or nothing at all is happening.”
Because not every convention is worth questioning, and, usually, questioning too many at the same time is confusing and overwhelming to the consumer. (They still want their book to seem like a real book.)
A famous scientist once warned his students not to worry about people stealing their ideas: “If it’s original, you will have to ram it down their throats.”
Our goal here is to make something that people rave about, that becomes part of their lives. The buried insights found in those other great works were not put there on the first pass. Work is unlikely to be layered if it is written in a single stream of consciousness.
As one agent I work with put it to me, “Spend three times longer revising your manuscript than you think you need.”
Meanwhile, those who think they can rush their way to that finish line—or have complete confidence they will get there without breaking a sweat—end up disappearing just as quickly. It takes time and effort and sacrifice to make something that lasts.
The way to balance that conflict of interest is to bring in people who are objective. Ask yourself: What are the chances that I’m right and everyone else in the world is wrong? We’ll be better off at least considering why other people have concerns, because the reality is, truth is almost always somewhere in the middle.
“Remember: When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”
Nobody creates flawless first drafts. And nobody creates better second drafts without the intervention of someone else. Nobody.
subjects his nearly finished songs to something he calls the LA Car Test, where he blares the song through the stereo of a car racing up and down a beautiful stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway in Los Angeles. How does it sound? What does it add to the experience?
We need to have our own test: Does a summary of the book work as a talk? Are the early users you’ve given prototypes to already addicted to their early versions of the product? Does what you made scratch your own itch in a way that suggests it will do the same for others?
A similar exercise that I like to do with all my projects is one I call “One Sentence, One Paragraph, One Page.” It goes like this: Put the website or the beta version of your app or your manuscript aside and grab a piece of paper or open a blank Word document. Then, with fresh eyes, attempt to write out exactly what your project is supposed to be and to do in . . . One sentence. One paragraph. One page. This is a ______ that does ______. This helps people ______.
This is where an editor (or any early eyes on the project) comes into play again. You say to them: “Here’s what I’ve been aiming for. Do you think I am close? What do I need to change with my [writing, design, music, art, etc.] to get where I’m trying to go?”
The intended audience is the final blank in the “This is a ______ that does ______” exercise. It’s what ties the rest all together: “This is a ______ that does ______ for ______.”
my first book, Trust Me, I’m Lying, I knew I was specifically targeting media folks, publicists, and a new generation of social media employees. Here’s the exact language I laid out in that proposal:
When it comes to attracting an audience, the creators who take the time to get their positioning and packaging right—who don’t just go with their first instinct and hope—are the ones who will win.
Looks are important, but they are only a fraction of this discussion. At some point in every project I work on, I find myself recommending that the creator take the time to consult the book The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing. The first seven laws of this classic marketing tome deal with the art of positioning and packaging. Not branding or style, but something deeper and also broader.
Consider how someone would describe your book, movie, restaurant, campaign, candidacy—whatever—at a party.
As Peter Drucker put it: “[Each project] needs somebody who says, ‘I am going to make this succeed,’ and then goes to work on
Fine, I’ll buy your book @jamesaltucher. Now stop being EVERYWHERE ON THE INTERNET like you have the past two weeks
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.
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.
A smart business friend once described the art of marketing to me as a matter of “finding your addicts.”
uploading his own songs to the early pirating platform LimeWire, but he deliberately misnamed the tracks so users thought they were getting free downloads of the latest 50 Cent and Britney Spears singles.
The author Paulo Coelho didn’t freak out about piracy—he actively pirated his own books on torrent sites in countries like Russia.
Today, smart creators realize that the bigger the audience they can reach with their music, the better. On campaigns in the past, I’ve partnered with BitTorrent, one of the biggest piracy tools in the world, to give away music and books and other content for precisely this reason.
This is going to be controversial, but my answer is: as cheap as possible without damaging the perception of your product. (And by the way, with the exception of ultra-high-status
I’ve watched an Instagram post from an influential person take a book to the top of Amazon; meanwhile, a New York Times profile about the same project had next to no impact.
The first step is the hardest: making something really awesome that exceeds the expectations even of busy, important people with exacting taste.
If you’re living and breathing the work you do, the answer should come naturally to you. (Ideally, the influencers should be people who influence you too.)
But if you don’t know, it’s time to comb the web and compile dossiers of potential targets. Who seems to have a big following? Who has a reputation as a tastemaker or trendsetter? Who seems to be highly connected or to hold a position of prominence in your industry? Who seems to have
What’s the best way to ask someone to endorse or share your work? Trick question. The best way is not to ask. Nobody
One of the best ways I found to connect with people was very simple: I’d notice who was already wearing our clothes or wearing similar products. I’d email them to say hello and invite them to the factory and give them personal tours (something other companies couldn’t do).
The only time I’ve ever explicitly asked an influencer for anything—“Would you post this for me?” or “The book is out next week; we should be able to share?”—I was able to say it the same way I might have asked someone to water my plants while I was out of town. Because we were friends and we do stuff like that for each other.
Authors are inundated with requests for blurbs from other authors; meanwhile, generals, academics, and CEOs are asked much more rarely.
In this sense, traditional press is clearly overrated. As I said, there are also other senses where it might be underrated. One of those places is actually a very big deal: credibility and status.
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.
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.
It’s better, he says, to start with smaller media and smaller features, then work your way up to the big score. I agree.
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.
I’ve bought quite a lot of it over the years (at least $20 million worth on behalf of clients), but as an effective tool for the launch of a product, advertising almost never works. It’s far more effective when there is already a considerable audience or sales track record.
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.
Advertising can add fuel to a fire, but rarely is it sufficient to start
But maybe you do have some money to burn. In which case, here’s a crazy idea: Actually put it in a giant pile and burn it, then post the video online. Title it “Here’s What We Did with Our Advertising Budget.” Or give the money to an orphanage and track the impact of your donation on these children on your website for the next decade. Watch how much attention that gets. When you do something unexpected or surprising, it almost always does better than going dollar for dollar against advertisers, who spend millions of dollars a year like it’s nothing (because to them it is nothing—they’re not spending their own money the way you are).
What I might do instead is buy a small billboard in the town where I grew up that said “Dear Teachers of Granite Bay High School, Thanks for Not Believing in Me. Look at Me Now.” It’s the kind of thing that would get picked up in the local press and then online and people would talk about it forever. Especially if a “concerned citizen”—nudge, nudge—took a photo and sent it to a handful of media outlets the day it went up. You’d be surprised how far “a concerned citizen” can get letting a local paper know “about an outlandish, offensive billboard that made my daughter cry.”* Anyway, that’s just an idea—I haven’t actually done that, but I might!
Which is why if you have to choose between spending money to pay for a publicist or buying your own products and giving them away to the right early adopters, you should go with the latter every time.
Where other bands relied on radio, on being on MTV, on being timely or on trend, Iron Maiden focused on one thing and one thing only: building a cross-generational global army of loyal fans who buy every single thing they put out.
All of this is why publishers and investors increasingly ask questions geared toward this topic when they are considering working with a creator or entrepreneur. They want to know: What’s your platform? Who is your audience? What’s your long-term plan?
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. He hadn’t sold millions of books then and didn’t have a huge platform. Now he does.
It is frustrating because it is depressingly, frustratingly true. More great work is the best way to market yourself.
“If you do something and it turns out pretty good, then you should go do something else wonderful, not dwell on it for too long. Just figure out what’s next.”
In other words, it’s favoring people who can move horizontally and integrate vertically, who can create innovative empires, not just produce work. Some questions to ask yourself:
For a set of detailed case studies on books that I’ve worked on (which have sold millions of copies worldwide) plus additional, extended interviews with many of the brilliant experts quoted in this book, just send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also go to perennialseller.com/gift.
Then consider joining the 19,000 other people getting the Monday Medley newsletter. It's a collection of fascinating finds from my week, usually about psychology, technology, health, philosophy, and whatever else catches my interest. I also include new articles, book notes, and podcast episodes.