Is it possible to engineer an instant bestseller on a limited budget?

In 2004, Ramit Sethi started the blog I Will Teach You To Be Rich out of the need to help his fellow college students at Stanford take better care of their money. He started posting regularly to the blog and promoting it everywhere he could. Over the course of the following years his readership steadily grew and in the spring of 2008 he signed a deal with Workman Publishing Company to write a book also titled I Will Teach You To Be Rich. On March 23, 2009 his book was launched and promptly made it to the #1 selling spot on all of Amazon.com and subsequently made it to both the Wall Street Journal and New York Times bestseller lists.

How did an unknown and first-time author engineer a campaign that put his book on all of the major bestseller lists?

In 2005 there was a little over 300,000 books published worldwide. In 2009, just four years later, there was over 1,000,000 books published. 1,052,803 to be exact. What are the ramifications of this kind of explosion in products across the publishing industry?

One of the first problems is your book now has less than a 1% chance of being stocked in the major book stores like Borders and Barnes and Noble. The size of these stores aren’t growing and their shelf space is staying the same, yet the amount of books on the market is exploding. There just isn’t enough room to shelve all of those books. Not to mention, these stores are actually selling there shelf space. That’s right. All those books laid out on those tables when you first walk into the stores paid to be there. So unless you are an author that the publisher is willing to spend a lot of money on, you probably won’t be able to get your book on the shelves and definitely not laid out on one of those tables when people first walk in.

This brings us to the second point – publishers aren’t going to be spend a lot of time and money promoting your book. This is certainly not a knock on publishers; it’s simple math. The amount of books being published every year is sky rocketing while the overall number of books being sold every year is going down (12% sales decline between 2007 and 2009). The publishers simply don’t have the resources to make your book a priority.

In fact, I was speaking to a client recently who relayed a conference call he recently had with his publicist from a very large, well known publishing brand. His publicist that had been assigned to him by the publisher asked, “Have you hired a publicist yet?”. Yes, you read that right, his publicist was recommending that he go out and spend another $60,000 to hire another publicist. This is not rare! The publicist assigned to your book by the publisher has very, very limited time and can not do a whole lot to help sell your book.

How can this be? How can a publisher not be willing to try and sell your book? Because they know the secret. They know well over 80% of the books published don’t make back the money the publisher spent on them. They are relying on the less than 20% that actually make a profit to make of the difference. You are one of a hundred other books they are throwing against the wall to see what sticks and actually makes money.

So what is the result of this upheaval in the publishing industry?

The burden of marketing a book now sites squarely on you, the author.

I’ve spoken with several book agents now who have relayed this very troubling fact. When the authors first meets with a publisher to pitch their book proposal, the first question asked by the big publishing houses now is not “What is the book about?”, it is “What is the author’s platform?”. They want to know how the author plans on selling their own book before they even want to know what the book is about. If the author doesn’t have a marketing plan of their own, they aren’t going to publish the book. It doesn’t matter how good it is.

So with more competition than ever before in the publishing world and the marketing burden falling squarely on the shoulders of you, the author, what is there to do?

Well the first option is to spend a lot of money to market your book and, indeed, this works. I watched the campaign of a recent book very closely. It was from a first time, unknown author and the book made it into the top 10 on the New York Times bestseller list in the first week. How did the author do it? By spending $500,000 on marketing the book. Wall Street Journal full page ads, New York Times full page ads, huge media spend on major websites, spots on popular network television, high end publicist, etc etc.

He bought his way onto the bestseller lists.

So this is an option. Spend enough money to get your book in front of enough people all at the same time and you will definitely sell enough copies of your book to hit the major lists. The problem is, most of us don’t have an extra half million dollars lying around to spend on a book launch.

And really, is this the way you want your book to become popular? It’s cheating right? You didn’t get the 5,000+ book sales it takes to hit the major lists because your book is any good. You just bought your way onto the list.

So assuming you’re like the other 99.9% of authors out there that don’t have the resources buy your way onto the major bestseller lists, what are you to do?

One of the more popular ways, that still works to some degree, is to hire a really great publicist. These are people that will get you on the television shows, get your name in print and, generally, work hard to get you a lot of exposure around the time of your book launch. While this is definitely an option, I see three major flaws with it:

  1. While it doesn’t cost $500,000, you’re still going to drop upwards of $50,000 for a really good publicist. That’s a lot of money.
  2. The effectiveness is diminishing. I recently went to a workshop for book publicists and most of what they discussed was how hard it is to get media coverage now and they cannot guarantee anything no matter how much you pay.
  3. Most importantly, it’s a one time flash in the pan. The next time you come out with a book, you have to go back and drop another $50,000 to hire the publicist to get you on the television shows and in print so you can sell your book again. You have very little to show for your investment in a long term fashion.

So assuming you don’t have an extra half million dollars to buy your way onto the lists and if I’m making the argument that a high priced publicist isn’t the right way to go either, what option is left?

I’m glad you asked.

Remember Ramit Sethi? He was a first time, unknown author. He didn’t hire a publicist and he definitely did not buy a full page ad in any of the major papers, yet he still was able to launch his book to the bestseller lists.

He had a huge online platform of fans who he had direct access to so when the time came for his book launch, all he had to do was mobilize his community to make his book an instant bestseller.

Here’s the interesting part, he is not the only one that has done this:

These are just a few of the many, many first-time, unknown authors that have leveraged their online community to launch a successful campaign for their book — and they all did it on a very small budget.

One of our clients is Barbara Corcoran. She is one of five venture capitalists on ABC’s hit show, Shark Tank. Every episodes entrepreneurs come in and pitch their business idea to the “Sharks” hoping that they will invest in their idea.

Here’s what is amazing to me: the prototypes.

So many of these entrepreneurs walk in to the room with working prototypes of their products. We all dream of coming up with some great product that has never been done before and selling a million of them. For me, the problem has always been the prototype. I have no idea how to get an idea out of my head and into an actual working object in my hands.

Apparently there are hundreds of ways to do this. There are firms and people that specialize in this. You can buy books that teach you how to do it and you can even wing it and try to find a factory somewhere in Taiwan that will make one for you.

It’s a big scary process that is shrouded in too many options, too much random advice and what seems like a lot of wasted time and money.

This is how you may feel about online marketing. You hear buzzwords like “word of mouth marketing” and “tweeting” or even see stats like 300 million people are now using Facebook. You’ve heard how email marketing is all the rage and then you read an article about how email is dead and blogging is what everyone should be doing.

While I write this, there are over 190 social networks listed on Wikipedia. 190! Not to mention options like podcasting, blogging, video blogging, email marketing, etc. Search Google for “online marketing” and it will return 270,000,000 results. There are just to many options and too many ways to do online marketing so it quickly becomes overwhelming.

Then you hear crazy success stories like Ramit Sethi’s and Chris Brogan’s and scratch your head at the mystery of how they took all of this mysterious online marketing stuff and actually did something useful with it!

Ramit Sethi was the first author I ever worked with. My firm had been developing websites and helping companies with their online marketing for several years when I joined Ramit’s team a year before his book launch. I got a behind the scenes look at everything Ramit did to launch his book to all the bestseller lists.

From there I’ve gone on to work with bestselling authors like Hugh MacLeod, Dan Pink, Dan Ariely, Barbara Corcoran and many others. I have also spent countless hours interviewing other authors, researching launch campaigns and figuring out what works and want doesn’t.

The result of all of this: I know the secrets for moving your book from complete anonymity to instant bestseller.

I have developed the following step-by-step framework on how to successfully build an online platform that will move your book to instant bestseller status. Here are the steps:

1. Find where communities already exist and go there.

This is the core of what Tim Ferris did when he launched his book, Four Hour Work Week. He targeted some of the most widely read blogs and websites and went after guest articles, interviews and other content published on them. This was the key to the success of his book launch.

Sure, there are 190 social networks, but where are the people that you want to talk to? If you’re writing a book for entrepreneurs, you can probably skip the classic cars social network. You need to find out where entrepreneurs are hanging out online and start getting involved there.

There are websites and communities for every walk of life and every niche possible. Facebook has groups and pages on all kinds of topics. There are millions of Twitter users talking about all kinds of topics. The goal is to show up in these places and start getting involved and adding to the conversation.

Another very useful tactic is to start writing guest posts on other popular blogs and websites. This gives you direct access to huge amounts of traffic and a large community of people that you wouldn’t otherwise have been introduced to.

Other things you can do are more “real world” stuff. Start spending time emailing journalists of major publications to build a relationship and become a resource. Start attending conferences, workshops and meetups where your core audience already goes.

The eventual goal in all of this is to introduce yourself and your ideas to people, build some rapport and trust and then invite them to step #2.

2. Setup a blog and write regularly

In 2007, Leo Babuata started the blog, www.ZenHabits.net. He wrote fantastic content on a very tight schedule and quickly grew his base of subscribers to over 130,000. He used this platform to launch his very successful book, The Power of Less.

Your blog (or website) is your home base. This is where your potential fans can learn about you and you can establish yourself as an expert. By writing a blog regularly, you will start getting found in search engines like Google and Microsoft’s Bing. Other bloggers and writers will start linking to your blog posts and your readers will start to share them across their various networks.

Your website is where you should be inviting people to come and learn more about you and then keep coming back to read what you write.

3. Setup your email marketing

Hugh MacLeod has run a successful blog, www.gapingvoid.com, for longer than the word “blog” existed. This is also one of the ways he launched his book to the Wall Street Journal bestseller list. However, with this fact in mind, he recently shared with me that he should have started an email list instead.

You need to gain direct access to your fans. In Seth Godin’s book, Permission Marketing, he makes a rock solid case for the idea of gaining direct access to your fans so you can market to them over a long period of time. The best, most cost effective way to do this for an author is to start an email list.

Where most people may not check your website every day (or every week), people check their email every five minutes. By gaining permission to email people directly, you are gaining direct access to them.

This is what makes my method so much better than hiring a publicist. Once you have access to people, you have it forever. By growing your email list, you are essentially building your bestseller list. These are the people that will buy your book when it comes out!

4. Train your community to get involved

Chris Guillebeau recently launched his book, The Art of Non-Conformity, and it sold out the first print run within the first week. His book tour consisted of stops in all 50 states. The interesting part was he had someone from his community host each one of the stops. They were in charge of getting the event together and making sure it went off without a hitch.

You are only one person and can only spread your message so far. There is no way you can successfully market your book completely on your own. You have to teach your community that they can’t be passive consumers, they need to be actively involved. By teaching your community that they have an active roll in spreading your message and promoting your book, you are setting yourself up to have exponential growth in your marketing power.

This can start small with getting your followers to fill out an online survey or respond to a Q&A, but you need to ratchet it up over time.

5. Cultivate your top 1%

Pamela Slim went so far as to invite her core group of followers to help her write her book, Escape From Cubicle Nation. These people, more than ever, were motivated to help her sell her book.

As you begin to grow your community and train them to get involved, you will begin to see a few people start showing up over and over. They are the ones that are really signing onto your vision and wanting to get heavily involved. The key is to let them!

These people should have special access to you and you should constantly be communicating with them about how they can get more involved in spreading your message.

This is your army or your “street team”. They will sell more copies of your book than you ever could on your own.

6. Connect your fans to each other

You aren’t building a list of disconnected drones. You are building a fan based community. That means interaction.

Give your fans ways to interact with each other. The more you do this, the better the results you will have. They will encourage one another, share ideas, grow their excitement and so on. By connecting your fans to each other, you will grow the passion and inter-connectivity that comes from being part of a movement.

So there you have it. That is the framework that, when executed effectively, will launch your book to an instant bestseller.

If you would like more tactics, step-by-step advice and case studies – click here to sign up for me FREE email workshop and I will send you a new email every week.