Spreading the Word (Part IV of Series on Book-Writing)

This is the fourth article in a series of posts covering the topic of writing a non-fiction book as a business owner.

This article and the entire series were written in the belief that certain principles and maxims are more useful to the aspiring author than very specific instances of advice. There is a framework of approaching marketing that governs the way most books are rolled out, and established presses and individual authors alike have perfected it over the years. Much of the credit for the ideas in this piece goes to Ryan Holiday, whose excellent book “Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator” explains in detail how the competition for eyeballs on the Web forces bloggers and other writers to produce clickbait-y infoporn instead of valuable long-form content.

Although you can influence your book’s sales figures by expending effort, the size of your potential audience will be to a large extent defined by your book’s content. If you’ve produced a very technical text in a specialty field, you need to manage your expectations realistically, as that title likely will not make it to the popular bestseller lists. Bestsellers, by definition, must sell to a very broad section of the population, which means that the ideas contained in them are simple enough for most people to digest or have been dumbed down to appeal to an unsophisticated readership. Good books, then, are out of fashion or underappreciated, and the best ones are forbidden or hated. I like to say that if your writing hasn’t insulted somebody, you probably haven’t said much.

Violation of conventional norms, controversy, and outrage are at the center of any given book’s marketing effort. When a title is released, the publishing company at hand aims for a large “pop”—an impressive number of copies sold in the first week of sales. Around that time, and weeks before that, the team involved in the project generates buzz and hype, the book is reviewed by prominent publications, and the author gives interviews to various media outlets. People’s attention on the Web and on paper tends to follow conflict, scandal, and erratic behavior, so in one way or another the team will try to use that to boost sales—by coming up with a provocative subtitle or the old-school trick of getting the book banned in a country like China without serious repercussions for the author.

Media features come from relationships, and relationships take time and effort to foster but understanding empathy is key to cracking that problem. Journalists and bloggers get paid based on the popularity of their articles and posts, and popularity is driven by the sexiness of their content. The sexiness of their content, in turn, is determined by the information in it, the individuals involved, and the quality of writing. You can’t impact the last one but you can definitely offer valuable information or yourself as a person. Fame fuels itself, and you must start out small, getting featured on local blogs and news sites, social media, and so forth. Eventually, you’ll swing to more prominent media outlets and build your presence from there.

There are handy online tools available to you that will facilitate the process of getting mentioned and discussed on the Web. Two favorites are “Help a Reporter Out” (HelpAReporter.com) and “SourceBottle” (SourceBottle.com) which act as brokers between people seeking comments and people looking to give them. Journalists and reporters sign up and post queries on specific topics, looking for comments from, say, experts in sleep medication or single mothers living in Phoenix. Alerts are conveniently sent to your inbox after you’ve signed up, and you can set the frequency of emails as well as the type of queries you want to receive. Once you’ve found a relevant query, you send your pitch to the journalist in question.

When pitching and at other times, never hesitate to give information away for free. The more you try to guard your ideas and refer people to buy your book instead, the more resentment you’ll build among them. Nearly all commercially successful authors share their ideas free of charge via blogs, speeches, interviews, or lectures, and this compels the readership to buy the books they talk about. There’s no real magic to this—by dropping gems of advice, you’re doing others a favor, and a lot of people reciprocate favors, whether or not they are consciously aware of it.

A particularly compelling example of this effect occurred just last year: Peter Thiel, the famed venture capitalist behind Facebook and other businesses, wrote “Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future” after the notes for a class he taught at Stanford University went viral on the Web. Thiel’s reputation and his publisher’s aggressive marketing turned the book into an instant bestseller and the talk of the town in Silicon Valley. What is most striking about the book’s commercial success, however, is that the initial notes were freely available on Tumblr by Blake Masters, the student who had posted them, and were more comprehensive than the book itself. Whether you consider yourself altruistic or guided by purely selfish motives, giving your ideas away and expecting nothing in return will actually be hugely rewarding for your audience as well as yourself personally.

Anthony Simola is CEO of Simola Technologies Inc. He is the author of “The Roving Mind: A Modern Approach to Cognitive Enhancement.”

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