Julien Smith on Methods for Becoming a Bestselling Author

I believe many writers don’t publish their work out of fear. Fear of failure, and fear of success. Thus, when I read Julien Smith’s latest book, The Flinch, which he published as a free ebook with Seth Godin’s Domino Project, I was quite taken by both the topic and by the writer. I would describe The Flinchas a book about moving through fear, but Julien says it’s “about our pathological lack of courage as individuals…really it’s a book about how to break out of bad habits and break into good ones.”

I’d been trying to interview Julien for a few months already, so I was excited to finally land an interview with him—and to discuss what it takes to become a bestselling author. Julien is the New York Times bestselling author of Trust Agents: Using the Web to Build Influence, Improve Reputation, and Earn Trust, which he co-authored with Chris Brogan, as well as of The Flinch. He is also a consultant and speaker who has been involved in online communities for over fifteen years, from early BBSs and flash mobs to social web as we know it today. One of the first Twitter users and one of the first people to podcast in 2004, he has worked with numerous media publications, such as Sirius Satellite Radio, GQ, CBS, Cosmopolitan, and more.

I published one part of my interview with Julien yesterday here, in which he discussed how blogging and publishing allow risk-taking writers ready to genuinely and candidly reveal themselves an opportunity to create change. Today, he discusses methods for creating a bestselling book—including giving one away, getting involved in new media, the origin of his ideas come, and the discipline it takes to become an author. (A third part of my conversation, this one on moving through fear and being a change agent, will be published on my other blog, As the Spirit Moves Me, on a the end of the week.)

As a best-selling author yourself, what would you say is the most important thing writers need to do to increase their sales?

There’s this book called Grouped: How small groups of friends are the key to influence on the social web (Voices That Matter) that describes this phenomenon of small groups of tightly knit friends. The people that do best in the book world now find ways to hit the reader or the potential reader from multiple different angles. So, at one point, it was The New York Times Review of Books, or it was getting a full-page advertisement in The Wall Street Journal or something like that. Now I read twenty five blogs  a day, and if you’re on fifteen of those blogs on the day of your launch, then everyone who reads those blogs will pick up your book.

That, to me, is the most significant thing I’ve done to reach high levels of sales or downloads or reads on my blog or what-have-you. You can do it by becoming close to the people that have that power. You cannot convince enough people on your own. What you have to do is find multiple angles and multiple sort of groups of people that might be interested in your message.

Let me give you an example. A friend of mine is working on a book on how to avoid school and still have some of the success that school gives you. He would go to meet people who are home-schooling their children, and he would go to the people who want continued success in business, and he would go to all these different groups, and he would say, ‘You know, I have a message for these people.’ He’s crafting different messages for different groups that all relate back to his core project. If he can do that, and he can hit all those audiences all at the same time from multiple different blogs, from multiple different media platforms, he has a success on his hands as a result of it.

You gave your newest book, The Flinch, away for free. What’s the strategy behind that?

The strategy is that authors make a dollar per book, and, at most, they might make two or three dollars per book. If they self-publish, quote-unquote, they make fifty percent. So, they might make ten dollars on a book. But the reality is that the real thing that an author has that is valuable is not even their book; it’s their name. And if my name is in the hands of a hundred thousand readers, it’s significantly more powerful to me than even the hundred thousand dollars that I would get from the potential sale of those books. I would rather get [the book] out quickly, and get people talking about it as much as possible, and then capitalize on the success of that later on. The idea is to monetize a link, to defer monetization in order to be able to sort of get what you’re doing out as quickly as possible and effectively as possible.

Price is friction, and you want to reduce friction.

How did new media play into your success as an author?

With a growing platform, when something is just being built, it’s much easier to develop audience inside of it because there’s only a few people doing what you’re doing. You immediately sort of grow by being close to the other people who are doing it, which are inevitably people who are experimenters by nature. They will grow alongside the platform, and you will grow alongside the platform.

On Christmas Day, for example, five million Kindles were opened. The question for any writer is why would you charge even a penny if you could reach ten, five, twenty times as many people by putting your book out for free and then be the person that people are downloading on the day where they open their Kindle on Christmas? They will all be looking for books, right? Why would you allow any friction to come between you and them? It’s stupid.

Build a platform while the platform is growing, and right now the Kindle platform, and other platforms like iPads and other tablets, are growing. Publishing is being demolished by these technologies. You’re in this situation where you can play both sides, why would you not do that?

On that note, do you think traditional publishing or self-publishing is the way to go—e-books or print books.? You’ve done them both.

I have, and like I said, whatever has power is the side that you go to. If e-books have a certain power, which is let’s say ‘free,’ then at that point you use ‘free’ to be able to get to a large audience. Then you use that audience in order to be able to sell something to the traditional people… and then you use the traditional people to make you look bigger on the free side, and then you sell even more books on the free side, or on the internet e-books side. you go back and forth, doing this over and over again. Whatever side is working, whatever platform is currently either desperate, number one, or growing, number two, you use. You use both sides against each other.

Usually, one of them is sort of an old-school gatekeeper with a bunch of money and no idea what to do to change their business model. The other side is doing something on a new experimental level which is cool. You have to play both of those.

You’ve written some pretty awesome books. Tell me a bit about your writing process. Do you feel a strong sense of passion and purpose? Do you get inspired and just sit down and write, or do you strategize first about the market?

I find ideas by finding something I think is amazing. Then I work to refine that idea and give it its ultimate expression. The Flinch is one example of that.

Then, for example, I’ve always been a huge traveler. I’m writing a sort of travel adventure now as well, which I’m pitching to the publisher later on. At the same time I’m writing a book about media, and it’s sort of the saturated media environment…Either I just find the ideas or sometimes the ideas are something I personally find that I’m passionate about. That’s how I come up with my ideas. That’s sort of haphazard.

However, if the writing process is led haphazardly, then you’re really f—king it up, because you’ll never be passionate enough to write a hundred thousand words; it just doesn’t work that way. Instead you have to sit down, whether you like it or not, and write.

So how do you get from concept to finished product? Do you have a time that you sit and write?

Every day, except for Saturdays, I always sit down. It’s the first thing that I do. I sit down. I take coffee, and I write. And I turn off my internet access, and I turn off everything, and I don’t let anything interrupt me until I am done. When I’m done, then I go on with the rest of my day. Then I can go around and do my groceries or whatever, but that is a sacred time that has to exist. Most people, I would argue, need the same series of habits.

If you take nothing else away from what Julien said, put his last tip to use. Sit down every day and write. Then consider publishing your work somewhere–in a blog, on CreateSpace. Let someone read it. Let groups share it. You might be amazed at what happens.

Have you published something for free? Tell me about your experience in a comment.

Please remember to pre-order a copy of How to Blog a Book to get your $30 discount off the upcoming “Blog Your Way to a Book Deal” 4-part teleclass, which begins next week.  For more information, click here.


  1. I wish Amazon would let everyone make their book free always like they did with Julien. I know that you can get the 5 day free promo if you enroll in KDP Select, but that’s not enough. Julien got the deal because he was published through Godin and Domino. I want the same option! 🙂

  2. This is a very interesting and inspiring blog. I love Julien’s strategising methods also. I use Protagonize to share poetry. I have joined a mere 72 hours and already I am on top rated poetry lists to do with the topic love. People from across the pond are fans of my work and I feel very cherished and boosted with confidence in what people have to offer in terms of feed back. Sharing your work to get ANYTHING good from it is definitely recommended!

    • Thanks, Rhiannon! That’s super that your poetry is already receiving such high acclaim. Sharing work seems to be the way to go these days, which is why I am such a big proponent of blogging. Good luck! Nina


  1. […] following interview is part of a three part interview. You can read the other parts here and here. In this part, Julien talks about our bad habit of “flinching” when we expect […]

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