The Right (and Wrong) Way to Market A Book

A Comprehensive Guide to Creating a Bestseller


I love books. Probably too much for my own good. I’ve written three, edited several others and also had my fair share of success helping turn books into bestsellers (cumulatively, the books I’ve worked on or advised have sold well over five million copies).

I know how hard authors work on their books and how far out of their element many are when it comes to doing the sales and marketing. So when I see someone doing it wrong, and giving bad advice, I do my best to help—even when they’re not my clients.

As authors, we’re all trying to fight against obscurity and outside distractions, but it’s a tough battle. Watching well-meaning authors follow in the footsteps of someone going in the wrong direction breaks my heart.

I’ll give you a specific example: Jose Casanova recently wrote an article on Medium explaining how he “growth hacked” his book (about growth hacking), mainly by drafting off the success of my most recent book (about growth hacking). I don’t fault him for doing this, in theory this is actually a pretty smart technique.

The problem is that he happens to be wrong. Jose Casanova has internalized a lot of bad advice about book writing and book marketing and then attempted to pass it along to others. I thought I’d use this as an opportunity to explain how this happens, and the lessons to take away from it, because authors who take him at his word are going to be led astray. I hope he won’t take offense, but I am going to use his book as example to explain everything I think authors—particularly self-published authors—need to know about marketing a book.

Bear with me because this isn’t a short post, but I think it’s important. As I said, there is a lot of bad advice out there and it takes time to knock it all down. The last thing I am doing is laughing at or criticizing what Jose has accomplished with his book—I’m happy for it. But I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that listening to someone whose self-published book that has 11 reviews on Amazon might be a mistake.

I’m picking Jose because I happen to have written a book about the same topic so I can use that campaign for contrast. Growth Hacker Marketing: A Primer on the Future of PR, Marketing, and Advertising, has now been the #1 marketing bestseller on Amazon for several weeks in a row. It has already earned back its advance from my publisher, Penguin/Portfolio. It’s been written about or featured in Fast Company, Inc., Forbes, Huffington Post, Betabeat, BoingBoing, Mashable, Marketwatch, Shopify, Thought Catalog, and Medium, was the most viewed presentation on Slideshare, and translated in four languages and brought out as an audio book. I still want more for it, but it is doing well enough to learn from.

Now, let’s get into how to market a book and how not to market a book.

Writing IS Marketing

For starters, this quote from the first paragraph of Jose’s article reveals a really dangerous assumption of book publishing. He writes: “Did I do much marketing for it? Not at all.”

The most common error I see authors make is they think of marketing as a separate and distinct animal from writing. They go into a cave for two years and write their book and only begin to think about marketing when they emerge. You have to understand that as an author you’re competing for attention with so much other media, you can’t afford to just sit on your ass and pray. Book marketing is such an essential part of the process Seth Godin—and this might be an extreme view, I understand—says you should start marketing your book THREE YEARS before it comes out.

The most important marketing phase of a book actually comes while you’re writing it. If you don’t realize that now, it’s a big missed opportunity.

Write Something Good

Also, Jose seems to gloss over, well, writing the actual book: “Once the content of the book was completed, so [sic] our next step was design.” Whoa there, buddy. Books take time. The single best marketing decision you will make is to take the time to write an amazing book. Don’t worry about beating someone to market—think about owning the market by creating an indispensable book. Like Paul Graham says, “Make something people want.”

By doing that you create the only marketing that matters: word of mouth. And the great thing about ebooks is you can see if your writing resonates with people very easily by what they highlight on Kindle. People apparently love GHM. Writing in a clear, concise and helpful way—a way that elicits the reaction “Oh, that’s great I need to highlight that so I remember”—is a marketing choice. You can tell just by looking at a book’s Kindle page whether the author accomplished that. Sadly, they often fail.

Writers should write books because they have something they have to say. Ideally, they should be the only person who can say it in their unique voice. Jose admitted that he decided to write his book because “growth hacking” was showing a surge in traffic on Google Trends (That’s almost as bad as people who write about stuff because it’s trending on Twitter, for SEO reasons or because other blogs are writing about it.) Books last because they have a unique voice, solve a common problem, and stand the test of time, not because of something as ephemeral as a trending topic.

By “unique voice” I mean: what is the book that only you are qualified to write? Initially my publisher wanted me to do a complete guide to growth hacking. Midway through my research it struck me that this would not be an honest or authentic thing for me to do. I am not a born “growth hacker”—my background is in traditional marketing. I did some hard thinking and realized that the best and most marketable book I could write would be about the transition from traditional marketing to growth hacking. So I sat down and wrote a book about my journey, rather than pretending to be something I wasn’t.

Write Something New

Do yourself a favor and choose to write a book with a totally new and unexpected hook. This bakes marketing and word of mouth into the content and sets you up for a perennial seller. The first place to start is the thesis or overarching idea of your book. Especially for nonfiction books, your thesis has to be a simple, spreadable, articulable idea to generate word of mouth. If your thesis is confusing or unclear it makes it very difficult to market. An unclear thesis also makes it hard for your readers to talk about it and recommend it to other people, which is the main thing that drives book sales.

For example my first book, Trust Me, I’m Lying, isn’t just another social media or marketing book. Its a part-expose, part-confessional about our current media system and the role I played in it. But the material in the book could have easily been framed differently to make it like any other marketing book. You can even bake marketing into the cover of your book like when Greg Smith used an eerily similar font to Goldman Sachs’ for his expose Why I Left Goldman Sachs. Ask yourself: What’s exciting about what I am saying? What will make people share my insights with their friends? How can I use that to get more attention? When I’m writing I come back to these types of questions over and over because its essential to understanding marketing. Baking marketing into your content helps create word of mouth, the only marketing that matters.

But there are limits to this. Seeing a book pop up on Amazon and quickly writing something just to beat it to market? This kind of short-term thinking dooms many writers who cut corners in essential areas…like you know, writing a good book or not.

Write Something Well

My guess is that Jose didn’t hire a professional to edit his book or even proofread it himself, because it’s riddled with needless grammatical errors. Professional editing is essential for self-published authors because it’s the easiest way to separate the professionals from the amateurs. Take it from the pros: “Without strong editors, writers are like cars with accelerators but no brakes.” The distinction in the publishing industry today isn’t published vs. self-published, it’s professional publishing vs. unprofessional publishing. If your book looks amateur and doesn’t read well, it doesn’t matter how well you “growth hack” your book, it’ll be dead on arrival.

A great example of an author putting in the effort to professionally self-publish a book is James Altucher’s Choose Yourself. In contrast with some of his previous efforts, James hired professionals to edit his book ruthlessly and design it from cover to cover. The results? Choose Yourself debuted on the WSJ bestseller list and sold over 40,000 copies the first month. There is still a stigma around self-publishing because readers think your book wasn’t good enough to get published. Self-published authors have to clear this hurdle and the best way to do it is to make your book look like it was done by a big publisher and get social proof from credible people that the book is worth reading. You might not be able to get the CEO of Twitter to write the foreword to your book, but you have to form relationships with other successful people in your space. (Nils Parker is who I recommend for editing)

Packaging & Positioning

Every content decision you make as an author has marketing implications. It was encouraging to see Jose understand this in regards to book cover design, “You can’t skimp on design! Why would you spend all this time writing a book, and then get a shitty cover design?” That’s the exact right approach.

So while it seems like Jose understands how important design is, I think the takeaway here is how important execution is. I would not let one of my clients, and certainly not one of my own books, see the light of day with a cover like this. Why? It’s boring, but still busy, which is a major design flaw. Perhaps worst of all, it does not catch your eye as an Amazon thumbnail (the primary point of sale for this book). The problem is that wanting good design, and getting good design, aren’t the same thing.

In addition to a book’s cover, the title is an essential aspect of book marketing. Bestselling authors like Tim Ferriss and Eric Ries relentlessly test the titles and subtitles of their books to ensure that their audience will respond to it once its on the shelves. By contrast, Growth Hacking: A How To Guide On Becoming a Growth Hacker is a less than ideal book title. Perhaps fatally so. A subtitle is supposed to contextualize the main title, telling the reading what the books central promise is. More importantly, it should be active (No “becoming,” at the very least it is “How to Become”).

This doesn’t only apply to self-published authors, publishers—like any committee—have a tendency to screw these things up too. (This is my favorite example of a publisher killing an awesome title, and worse still the author doesn’t even realize what a mistake it was.) For the title of my book, I looked to include every marketing keyword I could naturally squeeze in without sacrificing the authenticity of the work. I have “marketing,” “growth hacking,” “advertising,” and “PR”—or every possible reading audience I could want. This has helped with with search traffic in a major way—and better, signaled to many different prospective readers that the book has something it it for them. “Growth hackers” are a small crowd. Marketers are a much bigger audience.

Distribution & Partnerships

Amazon as a distribution platform is pretty great, but most self-published authors like Jose think once their book is on Amazon their work is done. In today’s digital marketplace you have to get your book in multiple channels to generate sales.

Think about the results of the BitTorrent package I put together for the launch of Tim Ferriss’ 4-Hour Chef:

2 million downloads

1,261,152 page visits

880,009 Amazon impressions

327,555 Tim Ferriss website impressions

293,936 book trailer impressions

Using BitTorrent as a distribution platform opened up Tim’s book to a whole new audience and allowed them to share his content, which created viral attention.

Partnering with BitTorrent may seem out of reach, but something as simple as tapping into a friend’s email list can help drive impressive sales for your book. For Choose Yourself, James Altucher partnered with Porter Stansberry’s email newsletter and sold 20,000 copies through it. The point is to partner with other people in your space and give them incentive to work with you. For example, James did a 50/50 profit split with Porter, making it a no brainer for him. For GHM, I sent out an email to my own email list of 10,000 people to announce my book, which I built by just recommending books over the years.

It’s also important that you reach out and incorporate other people’s platforms in your book. I went out of my way—even though I probably could have gotten some of the information elsewhere—to interview every single major growth hacker I could reach. Why? Because they were my potential audience and I wanted to make sure my book was great. But also, I knew that by interviewing them they would be more likely to support and recommend the book to their friends, followers and fans. Indeed they did, I got tweets from basically every major, influential growth hacker in the book which certainly helped sales.

When writing your book look for influencers in your space that have a deep, passionate following. Working with them will drive way more sales than getting a review in the New York Times. Ramit Sethi, author of the bestseller I Will Teach You To Be Rich, agrees: “The Holy Grail is a single-author blog with a large audience that is highly focused, and the author loves your stuff. If you can make friends with them and show them that your stuff is great and relevant to their audience, that can really propel you from one level to the next.” Build relationships as you’re writing your book and provide value to others in your space you can partner with them and their assets when it comes time to launch your book.

Promotion & Marketing

Thinking short term and rushing your book to market also prevents you from coordinating a good launch. Velocity is crucial when your book hits the market, so you have to concentrate your sales push to the first week because this helps you get hit bestsellers lists (not just the New York Times but on Amazon and Goodreads), which drives even more attention. Because of the velocity I was able to generate with my launch GHM was #1 marketing bestseller on Amazon, which at one point put me at #1 on Amazon’s Author Rank in Business and Investing, above authors like Malcolm Gladwell and Sheryl Sandberg. I was then able to put a banner on my book cover with the #1 marketing bestseller designation, giving my book even more social proof.

Being a #1 bestseller is good and all, but using Amazon rankings as your metric for success obscures some of the more valuable goals to work toward when launching a book. In Jose’s article he bragged that his book reached #21 in the marketing category on Amazon. Weeks later, how is that accomplishment helping his brand or business or even book sales? Authors should measure success by the assets they’ve accumulated via the platform they’ve built. This means emails collected, partnerships made with influencers in your space, speaking gigs, evergreen content placements on blogs, etc.

The question you have to ask yourself before starting a book project is: for what purpose am I writing this book? Is to grab some quick book sales with a subpar book, or to build a brand or business around it? I’d choose the latter.

Today, books are used as a tool for first-time authors to build a platform. It’s not enough to just write a book that sells some copies. In GHM, I put a page at the end that gave a bonus to all the readers who made it that far—transcripts of all my interviews with growth hackers, plus the first chapter of my other book. The result? Nearly 1,000 people signed up for my email list in case I ever do a sequel or a physical print version. (I also did a similar version of this in my first book and that list now more than 10,000 people).

Build Your Brand

If you read Jose’s book, he purports to be a “seasoned digital executive, entrepreneur, author, leader, and strategist,” but you’d never know this by looking at his book’s Amazon page because he failed to even write a bio for himself, missing a tremendous opportunity to build his brand. Authors should not make this mistake. Your bio and your Amazon page are like business cards. Brand yourself, reinvent yourself, whatever. Just don’t waste the opportunity. You will be shocked at how often these self-descriptions are borrowed and repeated in the media until they become true.

Perhaps he was busy or perhaps he felt that as a first time author he could not get them but for some reason there aren’t any blurbs about the book on its Amazon page. You’d think blurbs would matter less in 2013 but in fact they matter more. There were 400,000 self-published books released in 2012. So how do you differentiate yourself from the crowd? With social proof. One way to do this is with blurbs from established, respected individuals. Blurbs say: someone who’s time is valuable read this book before you and liked it. This is why I gave up a significant portion of the 2,000 characters Amazon allows to give space to blurbs from Tim Ferriss and even the guy who invented the phrase that my book borrows its title from.

Another big mistake I see plenty of authors make is they leave the job of writing the cover copy (the book description section on Amazon) for their book to their publisher or don’t put in the effort and do a crappy job, but this is critical to the success of your book. Amazon only gives you 2,000 characters to sell ebooks, so you better make sure every one of them count because it’s your sales page. For this I recommend doing the classic copy writing exercise of one page, one paragraph, one sentence to describe your book. Or even better, use Amazon’s “working backwards” approach, where product development people have to write the press release for the product BEFORE Amazon approves the project. This crystallizes your value proposition to the reader and helps you make decisions throughout the book marketing process.

Remember as a first time author, discovery is your big hurdle. An eternity in obscurity is the fate for most authors. Why should people give you their cash? Why should they give you their time? It’s crucial that your pricing makes your book accessible, especially early on. Do not discourage people from taking a chance on you. So while it was smart for Jose to initially make his book free on Amazon, I think it was a huge mistake to price his ebook $9.99 and then have paperback at $12.99. Most ebooks are priced at $2.99 because you get a 70% royalty from Amazon instead of 35%. For Jose to sell his book for more than triple that puts it at a price point that will prevent people from buying his book. And while there’s a lot to be said for pricing based on value, when taken to an extreme you end up hurting sales. Lower prices brings more revenue, more new readers, and a better sales ranking. Since ebooks cost you nothing to distribute, price them lower to encourage discovery. Physical books can be sold at a premium because the people who have to have it will gladly pay.

There is a reason that Growth Hacker Marketing is $3. I learned this lesson with my first book. I asked the publisher why, after my marketing campaign had made the book the most talked about marketing book of the year, sales did not explode (they did well, but they weren’t explosive)? They admitted that they’d probably priced it too high. Jose’s book, as a first-time author, is a $9.99 ebook…and $12.99 paperback. James Altucher’s last book—which was also self-published and debuted on the WSJ bestseller list—picked a better ratio with a $2.99 ebook version and a $9.96 paperback.

PR & Media Stunts

When an author signs with a traditional publisher, they think that their publisher will handle the marketing for them. Bad news: that’s still on you. Even if you hire a publicist, the creative part of the marketing efforts are your responsibility.

But that’s fine because the media is a SELLER’s market. It isn’t hard to get legitimate coverage. Blogs can publish an infinite number of articles and want good stories. In other words, when Business Insider writes about you, you are doing them a favor. You don’t have to orchestrate publicity stunts that I talk about below. But, what you pitch bloggers has to be interesting and provocative, because they are incentivized by pageviews. The “Unknown Author Writes First Book” pitch will never work. So, find out what’s interesting or relevant in your book and pitch it.

But as a starting point, you have to understand how your marketing efforts affect sales. Jose seems to have confused correlation with causation when he writes, “Once we finished the book, we launched it using the KDP program that Kindle offers. This helped rocket the book to #1 of all (free) Kindle books for 3-5 days. This enabled us to get ranked on Hacker News and Reddit /r/ startups.”

First off, getting on Reddit isn’t hard, all it requires is submitting a link to your work. Places like r/startups love great content and if you provide it, they’re happy to have you. But he’s right it is good marketing—I did a Reddit AMA for my launch. However, putting your book up for free on Amazon does not cause you to get attention on Reddit, its the other way around, an important distinction.

Also, book publishing isn’t a zero sum game so I agree with Jose when he writes, “I didn’t see Ryan Holiday’s book as competition but opportunity. Why? The Amazon description showed that Ryan’s book was only about ~60 pages, this gave me the opportunity to provide a longer and more comprehensive book for readers that wanted more.” No author should look at other authors as adversaries—books complement each other rather than compete. In fact, I tell a lot of my clients that they should look for recent books like theirs and pitch them to the media together. To a reporter, one book is an anomaly. Two or three is a trend piece.

Creating controversy—provoking a reaction—is only one way create a discussion around your book, and often its counterproductive. It only works with some books when the material calls for it. In his own way, Jose did this well by writing his Medium post. It motivated me to write a response—so I respect his hustle there. Otherwise I would have had no reason to ever write about him. For GHM, I deliberately positioned my book as an attack on traditional marketing. This helped drive attention to my book and created a media narrative that gave that attention some staying power.

For TMIL I created numerous media stunts for two important reasons. The first is the obvious one: to get attention and media coverage for my book. The second reason was to prove the concept of my book in real time as my book came out. For example, long before my book was to come up I had begun a controversial experiment: signing up for Help A Reporter Out, a service connecting journalists with sources, I was able to get quotes into numerous publications, even the New York Times, about subjects I had not idea about. I proved that the “experts” you see quoted in the news are often not really experts at all. When the story broke on Forbes it became their most popular story that week and I was able to stay in the news cycle for weeks with responses from both sides. (Thanks Peter Shankman, you did me a huge favor)

In my book I also called out Irin Carmon for the role she played in creating controversy about women employees on The Daily Show, among other things, which generated a response from her in Salon and got even more attention for my book. Or the stunts I’ve done for my clients, like the Planned Parenthood stunt with Tucker Max that dominated the news for a week, or the Twitter stunt I created for the release of his last book. If you want to be in the news sometimes you have to create news yourself.

You may not think can pull off a big media stunt as a self-published author, but you don’t have to. You can what this author did and turn your book release party into a game where fans take sides from characters from your book. Or turn your book into a dress and have an impromptu photo shoot like this author. You can even make waves by demanding that readers not buy your book on Amazon.

Whatever works for you—go for it!

None of Jose’s mistakes are stupid or malicious. In fact, they’re all very common. But make no mistake, they were mistakes and he made a lot of them unnecessarily. I get it, no one—least of all publishers—teaches authors how to market books, and the fact is, almost all the information out there about book marketing is either misleading, ineffective, wrong, or worse, counterproductive. It’s a tough gig and this lack of accurate information forces people to take wild guesses at what works. But we’ve got a lot on the line with our points—our life’s work in some cases—and we want them to succeed.

That’s why I wrote this piece, to try to help tip the scales towards better information. When you’re thinking about writing a book, you have to think about marketing it in tandem. As we have just seen, the content and design decisions you make in the beginning of the process fundamentally shapes what you are able to do with your book down the line. The focus should be on concentrating your forces for the first week to create some velocity—to literally launch your book. Its also important not to make short-sighted decisions when marketing your book. You want to build a platform, not just get ranked on Amazon. Its about building assets that you can use for years to build a legitimate business.

Hopefully I helped shed some light on the aspects of marketing a book people don’t talk about and we won’t make these kinds of mistakes in the future.

Ryan Holiday is a bestselling author of Trust Me I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator and Growth Hacker Marketing and is an adviser to many brands and bestselling authors. His company is Brass Check Marketing.