How I Wrote and Self-Published a Bestselling Book — as a First-Time Author
What I Learned Along the Way, and How You Can Replicate My Success
In May of 2015, I published The Connection Algorithm, a book about taking risks and rejecting the 9–5 desk job. The book quickly became a #1 bestseller in several categories on Amazon, including Entrepreneurship, Management, Knowledge Capital, and Personal Success. It has ranked as high as #1,002 overall out of over 12,000,000 books, putting it in the top 0.01% in terms of sales.
I did this without a publisher, without an advertising budget, without an editor, and without any social presence. While the book’s sales have far exceeded my expectations, it could be performing much better if I had known then what I know now. This post is for anyone working on a non-fiction book. Follow the guidelines below, learn from my mistakes, and you’ll hopefully be able to match, or surpass, my results.
Note: If a section title is followed by a (+), it means the elements in that section are mandatory for great success.
Ever heard the term “overnight success?” Well, it doesn’t exist. Writing a book is a big undertaking. This isn’t a two or three-month process. It’s realistically over a year of work, on the conservative end. I say this because there’s a bunch of prep work that contributes to a successful launch and sustained sales.
Beyond the content of the book, you need a marketing platform. I learned this the hard way. I thought if I wrote compelling content, I’d be able to find an agent or a publisher who would promote the book for me. Unfortunately, that’s not how the industry works. Publishers and agents want to see that you already have an established following. Otherwise, they won’t pick you up. I had friends in the industry and I still couldn’t get signed, so if you’re a first-time author without a massive following, go ahead and remove traditional publishing from your game plan. Now, when you don’t have a publisher, a personal following becomes even more critical. So no matter how you slice it, you need an online presence.
What should you do to build your online presence? Start blogging — yesterday. I can’t stress this enough. I didn’t blog much because I was worried my book would fail and I’d look like an idiot. But this logic makes no sense. If the book didn’t sell, no one would have known about it anyway. Do you know the names of the movies starring Tom Cruise that flopped? No. You only know the hits. If you don’t have a blog, you’re just giving yourself a higher mountain to climb. There’s literally no downside. When you blog, you establish yourself as an influencer in your field. A blog can also prompt new content for the book itself. And perhaps most importantly, you can use your blog to start building an email list.
Build a List +
Most of the successful authors on Amazon have an email list. I know this because they blog about it. I didn’t have one. I grossly underestimated its importance. I thought I’d be able to post on Facebook and Twitter and get plenty of sales and reviews to get things jumpstarted. If you’re lucky, 1–5% of your friends and followers will help you promote your book and/or purchase it. The other 95–99% will ignore you. This isn’t because they don’t like you. It’s because they’re busy. There’s also a ton of noise on social media these days, so it’s hard to get people’s attention — even if you’re doing something worthwhile.
Building an email list from blogging will help you reach beyond your friend circles. It will also deliver higher conversions when you launch your book. It’s counterintuitive to think that strangers would be more receptive than friends, but your friends simply aren’t the most targeted audience. Just because someone likes drinking with you on Friday nights doesn’t mean they’ll want to read your book. By maintaining a relevant blog, you’ll be attracting people who are passionate about your book’s topic.
Build a Brand+
Your blog shouldn’t just be a blog. It should be your entire online brand. Think of it as your home base on the web. You should post a nice photo of yourself. Let people know who your are and where you come from. Tell your story. I did this after the book was launched, and I absolutely should have done it beforehand. I recommend using Wordpress to set up your site. For some reason, I chose Wix, but I want to switch. Wordpress seems to be more compatible with most third party plugins. As an example, I was recently trying to add SumoMe to my site. SumoMe generated some simple integration code to drop into the header of my site (very common), but Wix amazingly doesn’t have the option to add code into the site’s header. Wordpress does.
Take Personal Brand Photos (Headshots)
Doing a professional photoshoot is a great way to strengthen your brand. I’m lucky enough to have an amazingly talented friend, PJ Russ, who shoots famous authors like Tim Ferriss. He’s not cheap, so if you’re on a budget, this isn’t your guy. But there are plenty of photographers out there who can do a good job. Having professional photos, not surprisingly, makes you look more professional and successful.
Everything you just read should ideally be happening at least a year before your book is launched. The next step is to start writing.
Create an Outline+
Don’t underestimate the importance of an outline. People have different styles, but I believe a good outline significantly increases the probability of crossing the finish line. Without one, it’s easy to get lost, lose momentum, and fizzle out. Your outline will change over time, and that’s okay. Mine changed dramatically. As a starting point, you should ask yourself the same question every business founder asks when they launch a company: “What problem am I solving?” The book’s outline/structure should answer this question in a logical, sequential format.
Hone Your Tone+
I’ve noticed that the authors of most bestselling business/lifestyle books write with a colloquial, or casual, tone. This is counterintuitive. We’re taught to use proper English in school. We’re trained to use big words with lots of syllables so we sound smart. If you’re writing a scholarly paper, that’s fine, but it’s not what the masses want to read. And if you want to reach a lot of people, make a difference in people’s lives, and make a boatload of money in the process, you have to write for the masses.
When I say “the masses,” I don’t mean everyone, and I don’t mean you have to write for an audience that reads at a third-grade reading level, either. I mean you should be writing as if you’re talking to a close friend — someone at your own basic level of intellect and understanding. When we speak with friends, it’s common to throw in some slang and profanity. There’s often a light-hearted tone, and some humor. This type of interaction is engaging, and it’s exactly how you should be writing. Successful authors like Tim Ferriss and Taylor Pearson, among others, have championed this approach, and I’m onboard with it too. People don’t like to read serious stuff. We like to read entertaining, engaging, thought-provoking, and cleverly crafted stuff.
Make a Promo Video
Once your book’s core purpose is clear and your tone is established, you can consider making a promo video. I worked with Adam Patch to create mine. Adam is expensive, but there are cheaper options. One alternative is Simplifilm. I use my promo video all over the place. It’s on Amazon, Facebook, and my website, and it was a big part of my KickStarter campaign.
*Note: Consider reaching out to a book designer at this point. This way, you can ensure the promo video will be consistent with the book’s cover design and branding.
Pre-Launch with KickStarter
If you don’t have a following, or want to grow your existing following, you can consider launching a KickStarter campaign. I did this several months before my book officially launched. I found it useful for building a list of dedicated fans and creating social proof. Most of my book partners mentioned my KickStarter campaign when we first spoke, so it clearly boosted my credibility and helped me attract team members. In terms of fundraising, KickStarter didn’t yield amazing monetary results for me, but that’s okay.
Develop a Writing Routine+
I think patterned writing (and patterned behavior in general) is a good thing. I would write in the mornings and in the afternoon. I’d wake around 6:30–7 AM and go through my morning routine (pee, drink a glass of water, wash my face, brush my teeth, meditate, intake 30g of protein, stretch, and shower). I’d usually start writing by 9AM and continue until noon. I’d then workout for 60–90 minutes, eat a big lunch, and write for 2–4 more hours in the afternoon. Every two hours, I’d break for a quick stretch and a snack. At night, I’d often find myself processing what I had written earlier, or thinking about deeper, overarching concepts.
Writing is incredibly draining. I find I’m usually only productive for a few hours at a time. Occasionally I’d get into the Zone and write for six or more hours straight, but that didn’t happen often. I talk about the importance of health and daily routines in my book, but Daily Rituals is another great resource for exploring the routines of famous artists and creatives. It’s worth a read.
Beware of Unnecessary Fluffing
I don’t believe there’s a correct length for a book, but most non-fiction books fall into the 50–75K word range. My book is right around 50K. I’m mentioning this simply to give you a benchmark. Please don’t fill your book with fluff to hit a desired page count or word count. That definitely won’t help your sales. For my book, I cut over 40% of the content I had originally written, and I wish I would have cut more. I’m a strong believer in the power of less.
Build Your Toolbox
There are some basic software tools I used to write my book. I used Google Docs for my actual manuscript, which I loved. (I can’t stand Microsoft Word.) I formatted my document to look as close to a true print version as possible. This helped me visualize how the book would actually feel in print and helped me find good paragraph breaks (which I tried to keep short in most cases). Formatting your document isn’t necessary, but I found it very helpful.
I’ve heard good things about Scrivener, but haven’t tried it. To store random notes, I use Evernote. To bookmark relevant articles or websites, I use Pocket. For general project management and goal-setting, I use Asana.
Invest in Book Design
While the book is being written, you should reach out to a book designer. I worked with Michelle at Digital Dragon Designery, and she was awesome. There’s a lot to know about designing a book. There are all kinds of standard styles and conventions for fonts, spacing, quotes, margins, etc. Michelle knows all about this stuff, and her rates are very affordable. She helped me design the book in both print and digital formats. Note: You can design your book yourself using CreateSpace, Amazon’s one-stop-shop for self-published authors. I didn’t go this route because I wanted my print version to look super professional, and because I didn’t want to make rookie mistakes on the digital version. The cost of hiring a professional book designer like Michelle was — for me — well worth it.
Create Either an Uncommon or Ultra-Common Book Cover+
When creating a cover, there are two approaches: 1. Create a cover that looks very different from other books in your genre, or 2. Create a cover that looks very similar to other books in your genre. I chose to make a cover that looks different. Most notably, it’s dark.
For some reason, business and lifestyle books tend to be lighter in color. Perhaps producers and publishers believe this will feel more welcoming and positive. I decided to go the complete opposite route, making my book dark and mysterious. It’s modeled after The Matrix (which I quote heavily throughout the book). The theme of The Matrix is that humans are living false lives. We walk around like zombies in a fake world, while machines rule the actual world. This was a perfect parallel to my concept of Institutionalized America and boring desk jobs, which I call “ZombieLand” in the book.
On Amazon, my cover stands out in the rankings pages. It’s usually one of the only dark covers on the page, so it really pops.
The graphics and text are deliberately large. This is important because most people will view the thumbnail before seeing the cover at full size. After my book hit #1 in a major category, I added a bright magenta sticker graphic that says “A #1 Best Seller in Personal Success on Amazon.” This sticker is not only eye-catching; it also creates further validation that the book is worth purchasing.
Distribute your Book+
There are a handful of platforms where your book can be distributed. Most sources online will tell you to publish your book on all platforms to get the widest possible coverage. I don’t recommend doing this. Amazon is the undisputed leader in the space. Trying to figure out the rules and processes for every platform is a huge time sink. Not worth it. Focus your energy on mastering distribution through Amazon.
Optimize Amazon Categories+
On Amazon, you can choose up to two categories for your book. You want to choose categories that are relevant, but not overly saturated with high-performing books. Essentially, you want to find categories in which you can compete. You don’t want to be going up against Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller in the #1 spot. So, find a category where the #1 spot is held by a book with a low ranking. To find good categories, you should:
- Go to Amazon and click into the Kindle Store. On the left, you’ll see categories.
- Start perusing the categories and find ones that look relevant to your book.
- Click into a category and go to the sales page of the #1 book. Scroll down and look for the book’s overall ranking.
- Add the ranking into a spreadsheet and keep a running list. After you’ve searched 20–30 categories, you’ll have a good sense of your best options.
Optimize Descriptions, Keywords, and Subtitles+
When you go through the process of launching your book, you’ll need to fill out a bunch of form fields to create your sales page. A few of the important fields are: Book Description, Keywords, and Subtitle.
Spend time on the book’s description. I can’t say for sure, but I believe it’s a big factor in sales, both algorithmically and in terms of the customer’s perception. I’ve read articles that say you should add keywords into your description. For example, if your book is about taking risks, you should include words like “risk” and “risk-taking” in your description. There’s a separate section where you can include up to seven additional keywords. Again, choose words that are relevant to your book. Finally, you can include a subtitle. This is an opportunity to add more search terms with high volume.
I used a tool called MerchantWords for finding good keywords. It allows you to enter search terms and then it returns the number of queries for those terms on Amazon. By selecting high-volume terms, your book will theoretically appear more often in organic searches.
I haven’t seen much of a correlation with descriptions/keywords and my search rankings. Even though my book ranks incredibly high in terms of sales, it doesn’t show up near the top of search results for the keywords I selected. If anyone has any insight into why this might be the case, let me know. The only clear correlation I’ve noticed relates to the title and subtitle. So, it behooves you to create a title and subtitle with relevant, high-volume search terms. (Note: It’s important to look into this early, because the book designer will need the title info when designing the cover.)
Here’s the spreadsheet I used to optimize my Amazon content. It will show you exactly how I recorded things to maximize my results. Feel free to use it for your own book.
Endorsements shouldn’t matter, but they do. Pretty much every successful book I’ve seen carries endorsements from at least one relatively high-profile person. I have endorsements from Tony Horton and Brad Feld. It’s possible that this happens because smart and capable people know other smart and capable people. Therefore, people who write good books naturally know high profile people in their given field. That’s my theory, at least.
So, if you don’t know any high-profile people, you should start figuring out how to meet them. It’s possible to cold-call someone and get their help. I’ve done this many times in my life, but you have to be doing something meaningful to get anyone’s attention. This is a catch-22. You want to get endorsements from powerful people to promote the meaningful work you’re doing, but you have to have done meaningful work for anyone to endorse you. The hard truth is that you have to build up value on your own first. This is where blogging again comes into play. The more quality content you have available online, the more legitimate you look.
I was lucky enough to go through the TechStars program at a young age, which allowed me to connect with very high profile people in the tech/business industry. This is how I connected with Brad Feld. But Tony Horton was a cold call. I gained 40 pounds of muscle with Horton’s famous workout program, P90X. When I sent him my body transformation photos and told him about my book, he responded. So, I got my endorsements from real-world connections and from cold calling. In both cases, I had to work hard and do something meaningful to enable the connection.
Here’s the email I sent Tony to get a response. You can use it as a template if you’re reaching out to someone for an endorsement.
Push for Reviews
Reviews are damn hard to come by. My best advice here is to follow-up with people who show interest in the book, and politely ask them to leave a review. You should provide them with the direct link to the review page to remove as much friction as possible. There are review exchanges, but I don’t recommend doing that. You’ll end up with reviews that aren’t authentic, and that can work against you. The number of reviews matters, but the quality of your reviews matters more.
Run a KDP Free Promo+
You should launch your book with ‘Kindle Direct Publishing Select’ (KDP Select). This is a special program within Kindle. When enrolled in the program, you have to sell your digital book exclusively on Kindle. But in return, Amazon gives you some perks. Remember, Amazon is the undisputed leader in digital book sales and I don’t recommend selling anywhere else, so if you subscribe to that reasoning, using KDP Select is a no-brainer. It also has a three-month enrollment period, so you can remove yourself from the program after three months if you want.
One of the perks of KDP Select is the ability to run free promotion days. You’re allowed to offer your book for free for up to five days per three-month enrollment period. I recommend running all five promo days in a row as part of your initial launch strategy. Running a five-day free promo at launch will help boost your sales (people like free books). When your book moves up the free charts, it will start showing up in other areas of Amazon’s site, such as “Hot New Releases” and “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought”. When you switch from free to paid, all of the product placement will remain, leading to paid sales, which will improve your paid ranking. Here’s an example of my book appearing throughout the site after moving up the rankings.
This is why maintaining a high ranking is so important for sustained sales. See that orange “#1 Best Seller” banner? Yeah, that helps too.
I recommend going free from Thursday to Monday. Why? People tend to buy more on the weekends when they’re relaxing. There seems to be some carryover into Monday too — maybe people are just in the mood to buy non-fiction on Mondays because they want to be productive and motivated at the start of the week. Tuesday and Wednesday are typically my slowest sales days. The week is in full swing at that point, and people are busy. Then sales pick up again on Thursday and into the weekend.
You should promote your book like a maniac during your free days. Understandably, people are much more willing to download a free book. Your friends will also be more willing to promote something that’s free to their networks. I used Facebook and Twitter heavily on my free promo days, and also reached out to my KickStarter backers for additional support. Contacting blogs 1–2 weeks ahead of time is also a good idea. I didn’t do that, and I’m sure it hurt me.
Promote with KickStarter, Facebook Groups, Twitter, and Blogs+
Twitter is overrated for promo, unless you have a massive or highly-targeted following that will be interested in your book. That said, I do have a list of Twitter handles that promote free books (you can get the list from the link below). I’d suggest focusing instead on Facebook, email lists, and KickStarter fans (if you did a KickStarter campaign).
You can also reach out to authors who blog, or friends with large followings. Just be sure to send them the book way in advance of your launch so they have some time to read it. I’d also recommend sending only a few chapters, instead of the whole book. An entire manuscript can feel overwhelming.
Advertise with Facebook and Amazon
Honestly, I haven’t done much advertising. I experimented with both Facebook and Amazon, but it’s unclear to me whether or not they’re contributing to my sales in a meaningful way. On Amazon, I spent around $50, which yielded about $25 in direct sales. Even though this is a losing equation, it has the benefit of bumping up my rankings, which could contribute to organic sales through search. It’s harder to measure the ROI of Facebook advertising. Unfortunately, there’s no way to add a tracking pixel to your Amazon sales page, so you can’t really tell if any of the clicks on your Facebook posts are converting into sales. For now, I’m pausing my Facebook efforts. I may continue to experiment lightly with Amazon campaigns. I’ll update this post if I learn anything new about ad optimization/effectiveness.
Play with Pricing+
Amazon permits you to price your book between $2.99–$9.99, with a 70% royalty, or $0.99-$200.00 with a 35% royalty (yeah, it’s weird, but that’s how it works). My sweet spot in terms of maximizing units-sold AND profit appears to be $2.99. If I go over 2.99, my units-sold drops. If I go below 2.99, units-sold increases, but I earn less at a lower percentage royalty. It seems that more established authors can charge a lot more, but if you’re a first-time author, I recommend starting with $2.99 when you switch from free to paid. You could also try starting at $0.99.
I use my hardcover book to create the illusion of a deep discount on the Kindle version. When you have more than one version of your book available on Amazon, they show the full price of the print version on the Kindle page, crossed off. Then they show the percentage discount. So, it looks like this:
People love to feel that they’re getting a deal. It creates the perception of saving a ton of money. I’m not concerned with print sales right now. Eventually, I’ll lower the print price and produce more print books. For now, I have a relatively small inventory of hardcopies and I’m deliberately trying not to sell them because I don’t want to pay for another production run. By pricing the hardcopy high and the Kindle version low, I’m pushing everyone to buy the Kindle version, so my sales are focused (as opposed to distributed), which maximizes my Kindle rankings.
I’ve noticed other authors dropping the price of their book during launches or during the weekends. I’ve been experimenting with this. Amazon allows you to change your book’s price whenever you want. So far, I’ve dropped the price on the weekend, and seen good sales. My next test will be offering the discount on Tuesdays and Wednesdays (my lowest sales days). When I drop the price, I add bolded text to my book’s description section. So, for example, it might read: “We’ve dropped the price to $0.99 for the weekend. The price will increase on Monday.” This creates urgency. If you do this, be sure it’s the first line of your description. Otherwise it might not show up. (Amazon hides most of the description, forcing users to click a ‘more’ button to see the whole thing).
My overarching recommendation with pricing is to optimize for volume over profit in the early days. Your goal should be to climb the rankings, not to fill your bank account. That’s been my approach. Once I’ve exhausted all options for climbing the rankings, I’ll switch to optimizing for profit.
Some Info on Sales
My sales for the book have been better than expected, but they could be much better. Here’s a snapshot of my sales for the past month:
I’m on track to sell around 1,500 units this month, and sales appear to be trending upward as I continue to experiment. This graph only shows Kindle sales. It doesn’t include hardcopies or Kindle Unlimited revenues, which I consider supplemental and negligible channels right now. I’ll be experimenting with increasing both of those channels in the future.
At roughly $2 in profit per unit (Sale price of $2.99 with a %70 royalty), I’ll net roughly $3,000 this month. With some price tweaking, or increased volume, or additional formats (audio version), or additional books, you can see how this could turn into a substantial revenue stream. It’s encouraging to know that it’s possible to survive (or even live well) on book sales, without hitting The New York Times Bestseller list. But you have to be pretty high up, and the curve is steep. Based on some other blogs I’ve read, books ranked in the top 300–500 are selling somewhere in the range of 250 units per day. At that volume and a $2.99 price tag, I’d be earning $500 per day, or $182,500 per year in profit. It’s possible, but I have a long way to go.
I’ll be creating an audio version of the book for further distribution. I’ve also signed with a Korean publisher to translate, publish, and distribute the book in Korea. These are experiments and I have no idea what to expect. I’ll report back when I have some results.
Final Thoughts and Lessons
I spent over $25,000 producing my book. Looking back, I could have done it for far less.
More than half of my budget went to my promo video. I love the video, but it may not have been necessary as a first-time author to spend that much.
I spent a ton of time writing the book, and very little time writing blog posts, creating my online brand, and building an email list. I should have allocated way more time to the latter.
My KickStarter campaign was a success in terms of building a list of fans, but it wasn’t helpful monetarily. If I ever write a second book, I’ll still likely use KickStarter again. Assuming my online presence grows, future campaigns should theoretically be more successful.
Facebook friends and Twitter followers are overrated. You should still grow those channels, but place more value on establishing your online brand and building an email list. I’ll link to Kevin Kelly’s 1,000 True Fans here in case you want to better understand the importance of having a modest base of super fans, vs. a massive Twitter following.
A final bit of advice: You have to be passionate about your content. This is one of the core messages of my book. If you aren’t emotionally engaged and revved up, your readers won’t be either. So find something that gets your juices flowing, edit your prose relentlessly, build your brand, and put the time and effort into crafting a base of fans to push you up the rankings when you launch. After you’re live, play with free promos and variable pricing to lift yourself even higher. Good luck!