Did you ever wonder how some writers make it to the top of the bestseller lists? Or how they manage to sell more than the average 300 books per year? Of course, you have. It isn’t just with a good idea and good writing. Not any more—not for nonfiction. It takes great promotion and a good business plan.
Jonathan Fields began writing after leaving a high-powered job as a lawyer in New York. His first book, Career Renegade: How to Make a Great Living Doing What You Love, was named a Top 10 Small Biz Book by Small Business Trends. His latest book, Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance, has generated extraordinary praise for its provocative, science-meets-art approach to embracing uncertainty as a catalyst for innovation and action. It’s a must read for authors.
I read Uncertainty and was intrigued by the information offered in this book’s pages on how to make the uncertainty we all feel at times less unpleasant and to use it as a way to move us forward creatively. As writers, we feel uncertainty often—each time we come up with a new idea, begin a new book, pitch that project, send out a query, see our book or article get released to the public. In Uncertainty, Jonathan shows readers how to make changes to their workflow to reach their creative potential, build supportive groups to help their creative process, tap into social technology, and develop a set of personal practices and mindset shifts so we can use uncertainty as a “catalyst for genius.” No more letting uncertainty hold you back! I’ve long been interested in the subject of moving through fear (find a short booklet I wrote on the topic here), so I was thrilled to read this book and to discover how to not only move through uncertainty but actually use it to fuel my creative process.
I had a chance to chat with Jonathan, a dad, husband, author, speaker and serial-entrepreneur who blogs at JonathanFields.com and who has been featured in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek, FastCompany, Inc., Entrepreneur, Forbes, USA Today, People, CNBC, FoxBusiness, Vogue, Elle, Self, Fitness, Outside, O Magazine and thousands of other places. He runs a book marketing educational venture TribalAuthor.com, where he shares what he has learned about marketing his books and becoming a successful author. I asked him to discuss this topic—book marketing—with me so we could all learn from his expertise. What follows is our conversation, during which he talks about what it takes to create a bestseller: an author’s platform, a business model, hard work, great release strategies, and a great book. Read on to learn more.
When you work with writers on book marketing, you tell them they need to create an author enterprise. What is that exactly, and why does an author need an author enterprise?
An author enterprise has really come to be two things. One is the platform, and it can be built in a number of different ways. These days we see folks investing a lot of energy in the online world because you can trade time for money and gain a huge amount of reach, direct connection, without spending a lot of money. So it’s that but combined with an intelligent understanding of what your author’s business model is and how your book interacts with that business model. Are you in it just for the books and the royalties and the sales or are you in it because there’s something bigger that the books will feed? Getting a really good understanding of what the business model is, creating a business model if you don’t have one, which a lot of authors don’t, and then developing your platform in a way which serves your business model so you can accomplish what you want to accomplish, create what you want to create as an author, but also earn enough to live on in the world—that’s the second thing.
In your marketing material for Tribal Author, you say writers need to understand how to tap that enterprise to launch a book in ways they may “have only dreamed about being able to do just a few short years ago.” Can you elaborate on what you mean by that statement?
For the entire history of the publishing industry there has been a disconnect between the author and the ultimate purchaser of their work. An author would write a book, and then they’d go through a publisher and the publisher would go through either a distributor or direct to the retailer, and the retailer would go to a book buyer in the store. The crazy thing is that nobody in that entire chain knew who the reader was; they didn’t have the names or the contact information. The author was entirely disconnected. Nowadays, certain booksellers, like Amazon, do have the contact information of the ultimate buyer, but they’re the only ones that have it. They don’t pass it to publisher. They don’t pass it to the distributor. They don’t pass it to the author.
One of the beautiful things about building your platform, especially a digital platform, is you have the opportunity and—in my mind, if you want to control your career as an author—the responsibility to go out there and leverage social media. And you have a bunch of other things to build direct relationships with your potential readers, so that when it comes time to bring your book to life, you not only know who they are, but you’ve built a relationship with them. They like you, they like what you write about, they like your voice, and they’re lining up to potentially buy your book and also become a big supporter and evangelist.
What are the “other things”?
It depends. Social media is great for relationship building, and it also allows you to swap time for money, and a lot of authors and aspiring authors don’t have a lot of money to put out there. If you understand what your bigger business engine is, you may, in fact, realize that you do have money that you can put into this because you’re not just looking for royalties or sales off your self-published book, but you’re looking to use your book as a tool to bring people into a larger regeneration funnel for other services or products which would generate substantially more money over the lifetime of a particular reader. When you do that analysis, you may realize that you have money to spend, and that you actually are able to lose money on every book that you sell. If a certain percentage of books sold turns into a reader who turns into a customer who turns into somebody who ends up being a client who exchanges thousands of dollars a year for your services. When you have that option and you understand that model, you start moving beyond social media and saying how can I leverage other parts of the online world for paid media, for paid search, for advertising, for all sorts of other things, to actually more-aggressively build out your platform or your outreach or your launch campaign.
On your marketing page for Tribal Authors you mention a “marketing code.” To what does this refer?
It’s said as a joke, actually. There are all sorts of promises out there that you can go out and crack the book marketing code, but it doesn’t work that way. There’s a lot of hard work, but there’s no instant anything. I don’t promise instant bestsellers, and anyone who does is lying. Being an author, being a successful author, takes work and effort, and the people who are willing to put that work in are the ones who are going to succeed long-term, the people who understand the work you need to put in are the ones who will not only succeed over time but also who gain a substantial amount of control above and beyond what authors have ever had in the history of publishing. To me, there’s no more exciting time to be an author because we have the opportunity to create control over our careers in a way we’ve never had before.
With your first book, you got the deal the traditional way—you wrote a query letter, a proposal and found an agent. With the second book, however, the publisher came to you. Both books, however, had had tremendous sales. To create bestselling books and to get the deals that you got, what do aspiring authors need to do?
I spent years building up relationships on different levels. First, I built direct relationships with potential readers and evangelists—thousands and thousands of followers and people in the community that blog, tens of thousands across social media, all over the place, and those people that I interact with directly every day. I get to build a relationship with them. I get to share different tidbits. I get to tease them a little bit sometimes when something’s getting closer to being released.
Then, there’s the second level of people, which is people who are influencers within their own communities. I have the opportunity to build relationships with them and over time. I’m not just building those relationships because I want something from them, but because we connect. We’re like-minded, we like talking about writing and building similar things. And social media is a great way to find those people and build those relationships with them. Then when you have something to share that would be of value to your community and potentially to their communities, it’s much easier to go to that person and say, “Hey, would you mind sharing this?” Because you have a relationship, you’re friends with them already.
So part of it is things that you do on the community and the platform-building side, and then when you’ve built that over a period of months or years, when it comes time to launch your book, we move into what we call tactical launch phase. If you have the time to do it, and we suggest even if you’re an aspiring self-published author, that you do not just hit publish the moment your book is ready, but you actually calendar out some advance time to prepare the market. It will take time to create a really intelligent release, where you can let people know, you can give them time to read early copies of your book. We can actually produce galley copies and give them to people, release digital copies and give them to people with long enough lead time to read them and understand them, and then set up a schedule where people can share them and promote them and write about them. A lot of people would just instantly start churning out stuff, and if you really want to help the people who are large influencers, and you want to give people a chance to read and promote, it tends to work a lot better if you schedule things out.
Also, with my last book, I prepared a whole bunch of really high-value content to release over time in a staged way. That builds a huge amount of anticipation and buzz about the book long before the book was ever out, a couple months before the book hit, I had thousands of people piling into a list of people who were waiting to pre-order the book. There’s a time when, if you have three to six months before a book comes out, if you actually have the ability, it’s great to be able to do that and then create this very specific content which is designed and created purely as part of your sort of staged book launch campaign.
To make your books bestsellers, you say that you did what 99.9 percent of other authors don’t want to do. What types of activities are you alluding to?
I took on the responsibility of treating my career as an author as a business and everything that goes along with treating it as a business—understanding what your business model is, allocating, treating it like a business professionally, waking up and doing all sorts of tasks that you don’t want to do–building my platform, building relationships with people, going to conferences. The truth is that it takes work to do this intelligently. It’s not a lot of work, though. If you really want to, you can take an hour or two a day and do a pretty decent job of this, over and above just your writing. But you have to do it.
Most authors are authors because they don’t want to be around people. Very often they don’t want anything to do with business; they consider themselves artists, and a lot of authors will look at anything that’s smacking of commercialism or considering the likes or desires of potential readers as bastardizing the creative process. [That decision] affects you, and you must be comfortable with and accept the fact that when you make that decision, you also may be making the decision that you will preserve a hundred percent of your art the way you want it to be, but you may never find a market for it. Make that decision deliberately and intelligently. I respect that decision and understand all it may bring you and all it may take away from you in your ability to live well in the world.
I found that I can find a pretty nice sweet spot between creating what I love to create and also observing what people like to consume. When I do that, and I do it more deliberately, then I find that not only can I do great work and create books that I’m proud of and experiences that I’m proud of, but I can also create opportunities to succeed financially as well.
I tell my readers and my clients all the time that they have to act as business people as well as writers, so I’m glad to hear you say that.
Yeah, nobody wants to be a business person, and also if you’re an author and you say that, then all of a sudden you’re not an artist… I’m 46 years old, I have a daughter to take care of in New York City. I’m not going to start living hand to mouth at this point in my life, and there’s a way you don’t have to.
Without giving away your whole Tribal Author course, can you offer maybe three or four tips that aspiring authors or publishing authors can use to move them along?
One, start to blog. And it doesn’t have to be text. You can video blog. You can podcast, but commit to at least a two-to-four-time-a-month frequency at a bare minimum of putting out some sort of valuable content that has the effect of building a rapport, establishing a readership and demonstrating your unique voice.
Two, get on Twitter, and go through Hootsuite or TweetDeck. Learn how to use them, and set up search columns for people who talk about things you like to write about.
Three, use social media to find out who the ten or twenty major influencers in the area you write about are. Find them online. Find them in social media. I should say, listen to their conversation, and over time, if it’s appropriate—meaning if you’re like-minded and you have something to share—join in those conversations so you become known to them.
The last thing—more tactical: When it comes time to actually launch the book, rather than just hitting publish the moment you’re done, allow a larger window of time and either print physical galleys or create some digital galleys that you can offer to a select number of people. Give them enough time; obviously first ask them if they’re willing to do it, and then once they are, send it to them and then give them enough time to read and be able to create some sort of intelligent review or post or something around it.
Do you want to add any other advice?
The single most important thing you can do to market your book is to write the hell out of your book. All the marketing in the world, all the relationships in the world, won’t make a bad book good. So take the time you need to write the best book possible, rather than a book that you feel is decent enough, and then hope you can rely on marketing to make it succeed.
Comments or questions about this post? Leave them below! I’d love to hear what you have to say. And watch for another part of this interview–this time on blogging and blogging a book–posted at www.howtoblogabook.com tomorrow!
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Kathleen Pooler says
Nina and Jonathan,
I appreciate this excellent and timely interview about treating a career as an author as a business. I agree that most writers prefer to see themselves as artists and would rather leave the business/marketing tasks to someone else. This interview clearly spells out the rationale for taking responsibility for our own careers, a non-negotiable requirement these days. It also highlights the opportunity we have to create a business fine-tuned to our own needs and wants. This says it best: “Creating what I love while observing what people like to consume.” Thank you both for a very enlightening and practical interview. I am very intrigued by Jonathan’s book trailer on Uncertainty and have put it on my to-read list.
Nina Amir says
Thanks for your comment, Kathleen. Jonathan did, indeed, lay it on the line and highlighted the unique opportunity we have today to pursue our dreams and create a career for ourselves as authors–if we are willing to wear both a writing hat and a business hat (something most writers/artists tend to be unwilling to do). He also gave us lots of tips on how to market our books well. Good luck to you! Nina