7 steps to write a book that lasts for ever
Today I am going to teach you how to write a book that sells forever. But first I need to take you back around ten years.
You see, about ten years back I told the guys in my Men’s Group that I wanted to write a book. They suddenly got very serious with me. You need to make a commitment… You need to write 3 pages a day… You need a deadline…
But something didn’t feel right.
Maybe I was trusting my intuition.
But more likely I was scared.
And I didn’t write the book.
But I did keep writing.
I wrote to my clients.
I wrote to the students in the coaching schools where I was on faculty.
I wrote for myself.
Two years later, one of my mentors, a man named Steve Chandler, said to me, “Do you want to write a book together, Rich? You’ve already written half of it…”
I immediately said, “Yes!”
We agreed to each write everything we could about creating clients. Much of what I wrote, I had learned from Steve.
And then we agreed to meet at a hotel to discuss what we’d written.
I printed out every single page and laid them out on the floor of the conference room. As I did, I began to see patterns. And I moved sections together where they seemed to have a natural connection. And the book literally began to take shape in front of our eyes.
Several days later, we had our first draft.
And within a year, we were ready to publish.
In May 2013 the book was released and a grand total of… 20 copies were purchased!
The first 18 online reviews were probably written by family and friends. They were gushing. The next two were scathing!
I called Steve to tell him that we’d had two terrible reviews and to ask what we should do. He said with a smile, “We’ve made it, Rich! Once people have started to criticise us, we’ve created something great.”
101 copies were purchased the next month and 504 copies the month after. I was elated. And then the month after that only 242 copies were purchased. Apparently the sales of a book could go down as well as up.
However, by the end of 2013, 1,716 copies of The Prosperous Coach were out in the world.
Here are the sales in the following years: 4,787, 9,779, 12,898, 12,199. Things slowed a little in 2018 and 2019, with sales of 9,851 and 10,834. But in 2020 we sold 13,766 copies, the best year ever for the book.
As I write, The Prosperous Coach has sold 75,830 copies. I am very proud of the badge that we now get to put on the front cover. Of course, if you purchased the book without the badge, you own a little bit of history!
There’s a powerful heuristic called The Lindy Effect. Nassim Taleb describes it, as follows, in his book Antifragile:
“If a book has been in print for forty years, I can expect it to be in print for another forty years. But if it survives another decade, then it will be expected to be in print another fifty years… Things that have been around for a long time … ‘age’ in reverse. Every year that passes without extinction doubles the additional life expectancy.”
In simple terms, books increase in life expectancy with each passing day.
So, create a great book!
Ryan Holiday wrote a great book, called Perennial Seller: The Art of Making and Marketing Work that Lasts, about how to create and sell a classic work.
I want to share with you some of his distinctions, through the lens of creating a book that has kept selling for eight years.
- Do great work
- Know your problem, know your audience
- Write before you write
- Write to one person
- Write counterintuitive truths
- Success vs stardom
- Only one thing matters: word of mouth
1. Do great work
“To be great, one must make great work, and making great work is incredibly hard. It must be our primary focus. We must set out, from the beginning, with complete and total commitment to the idea that our best chance of success starts during the creative process.” – Ryan Holiday
A friend once told me of a client who had been a guest on the Oprah show. She asked for his guidance because her book had sold well, for a week after the show, then sales dried up completely. She couldn’t understand it.
He said, “Send me a copy of your book.”
It was awful, he told me.
Steve and I worked on The Prosperous Coach together for two years. But we were writing the content for that book for years before we made the decision to write it together.
Counterintuitively, if you want to create great work, start by creating crappy work.
Don’t edit while you write. Just write.
Once the book was complete, I spent months editing it. I removed every sentence that didn’t add to the previous sentence. I removed every word that didn’t add to the previous word.
Did you know that the only reason business books are almost always 300 pages dates back around 50 years?
When business books first began to be sold they needed to be seen on the crowded shelves of a bookstore. Less than 300 pages and the spine was too narrow to be noticed. So that became the formula for a non-fiction book: it has to be 300 pages long. Which is why you see so many books that describe a great distinction or idea—and then pummel it to death with dozens of stories and examples, to pad out the next 250 pages!
Less is more.
But less is extremely time consuming. As the French philosopher, Blaise Pascal, once wrote: “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.”
Cut out the fluff. Cut out the padding. Remove the introduction. No one reads introductions. Start every chapter with a story that grabs your reader by their heartstrings, their balls or their ovaries and pulls them in…
2. Know your problem, know your audience
“The bigger and more painful the problem you solve, the better its cultural hook, and the more important and more lucrative your attempt to address it can be.” – Ryan Holiday
Once our book was complete we spoke to several PR experts who all tried to convince us that we had made a terrible mistake in calling it, The Prosperous Coach.
Re-title it The Prosperous Entrepreneur and we can get you featured in Entrepreneur magazine and Forbes and Inc… they promised us.
But we knew our audience. We knew the problems that they faced because we had faced them. We knew their dreams, their desires, their doubts, their fears and their insecurities. Because they were our dreams, our desires, our doubts, our fears and our insecurities.
And we had a track record in solving their problems.
So we stood strong and we turned down all the offers. And I’m pretty certain that if we’d published The Prosperous Entrepreneur, you’d have never heard of it.
Write the book that you need to read.
3. Write before you write
“Creative people naturally produce false positives. Ideas that they think are good but aren’t. Ideas that other people have already had. Mediocre ideas that contain buried within them the seeds of much better ideas. The key is to catch them early. And the only way to do that is by doing the work at least partly in front of an audience. A book should be an article before it’s a book, and a dinner conversation before it’s an article. See how things go before going all in.” – Ryan Holiday
The very reason Steve asked me if I’d write a book with him is that he’d witnessed my writing for more than two years.
I hadn’t been writing in order to get published, I’d been writing to help people.
That’s part of the secret to great writing.
Write to help people. Not to publish a book.
Write and then share your writing. It doesn’t need to be perfect. It’s best if it’s not perfect, in fact. You’ll get feedback along the way.
4. Write to one person
“Identify a proxy from the outset, someone who represents your ideal audience, who you then think about constantly throughout the creative process… You must be able to explicitly say who you are building your thing for. You need to know this so you can edit and refine the work until it’s so utterly awesome that your target group cannot resist buying it. Marketing then becomes a matter of finding where those people are and figuring out the best way to reach them.” – Ryan Holiday
She doesn’t know it but I am writing this article for Angela.
Always write to one person.
Here’s the funny thing. Do you get value from reading what I write? If you do, that’s because I am writing to one person. Even if I didn’t know it was you when I started writing!
5. Write Counterintuitive truths
“Stuff that looks, sounds, reads, and performs like everything else in its field today has very little chance of standing out tomorrow.” – Ryan Holiday
Remove every quote by someone who isn’t you. (Before you comment, I am writing an article, not a book!) Almost every quote you are thinking of putting in your book has been quoted a thousand times by people before you.
Avoid generalities. Get really specific.
Think problems. Think solutions.
Look for counterintuitive truths.
Write them as, “Most people think _______. But the truth is _______.”
Here are three of the most fascinating counterintuitive truths, I see time and again in my own clients:
- Most people think… it’s wonderful to be admired. The truth is…if you’re the most interesting person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.
- Most people think…that when they have enough money, success, or recognition, they’ll finally be happy. The truth is…you can have everything you ever wanted but still feel empty inside.
- Most people think…that success means no longer having to feel fear. The truth is…successful people head in the direction of their fear.
In Ryan Holiday’s words:
“The higher and more exciting standard for every project should force you to ask questions like this:
- What sacred cows am I slaying?
- What dominant institution am I displacing?
- What groups am I disrupting?
- What people am I pissing off?”
Steven Kotler is a multiple best-selling author, who puts it this way:
“If you want your book to be sticky and impactful, you need to create a powerful frame. Take my book The Rise of Superman… the real topic is flow science. But… it’s framed as a book about ‘an underground revolution taking place within the action sports community that is radically expanding the limits of human potential. More compelling right?’”
Kotler proposes that you make your core idea more interesting to your reader by answering a really BIG question.
6. Success vs stardom
“Promotion is not how things are made great – only how they’re heard about.” – Ryan Holiday
I love that quote.
In Perennial Seller, Ryan recommends giving away work for free, as the best way to build an initial audience. I’ve spent the past ten years sharing the very best of my thinking for no cost. You can still read my newsletter, listen to my podcast, or watch my videos without paying a penny.
“To do our work without a platform is to be at the mercy of other people’s permission. Someone else must fund us, someone else must give us the green light, someone else must choose to let us make our work. To a creative person, that is death. So don’t wait. Build your platform now. Build it before your first great perennial seller comes out, so that you have a better chance of actually turning it into one.” – Ryan Holiday
Don’t do marketing, build a community. That’s been my approach for 15 years.
I feel immensely sad when I watch coaches spend hours and hours pouring their heart into creating a wonderful book, to share their very best wisdom, while they do nothing to create a community to read that book.
Publishing a book without first building a community is like putting a message in a bottle and dropping it into the ocean, in order to create clients. Once in a while someone might see it but it’s a pretty long bet!
1,000 true fans
Kevin Kelly is a futurist and the founding executive editor of Wired magazine. He created this valuable distinction:
“To be a successful creator you don’t need millions. You don’t need millions of dollars or millions of customers, millions of clients or millions of fans. To make a living as a craftsperson … or entrepreneur … you need only thousands of true fans.
A true fan is defined as a fan that will buy anything you produce.
1,000 true fans is an alternative path to success other than stardom. Instead of trying to reach the narrow and unlikely peaks of platinum bestseller hits, blockbusters, and celebrity status, you can aim for direct connection with a thousand true fans. On your way, no matter how many fans you actually succeed in gaining, you’ll be surrounded not by faddish infatuation, but by genuine and true appreciation. It’s a much saner destiny to hope for. And you are much more likely to actually arrive there.”
Here’s the Seth Godin corollary:
“You need to alter what you do and how you do it so that 1,000 true fans is sufficient to make you very happy.”
7. Only one thing matters: word of mouth
“The best marketing you can do for your book is to start writing the next one. Creating more work is one of the most effective marketing techniques of all.” – Ryan Holiday
Before we’d finished editing The Prosperous Coach, Steve had started writing his next book. He’s written at least half a dozen books since. I’ve not published a second book (yet) but I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words since—in my newsletters, blogs and private articles for members of 4PC.
Optimize for volume, not content. Make it your mission to write one article a week for the next ten years.
Optimize for longevity, not attention. Write articles that are timeless. Not ones that are focused purely on the news cycle, or what’s happening for you today.
Optimize for clients who inspire you, not clients you can inspire. Write to the people who scare you, not the ones who are already impressed by you.
Make these commitments and you’ll build a community of people who are fascinated by you. And when people find you fascinating, they talk to others about you…
PS. Create your next client—or fill your next program—by joining me at our only Intensive in 2021. I will challenge and provoke you. And I’ll surround you with our community of extraordinary coaches. I’m running our first Accelerator call on Feb 17—so reserve your spot now.
PLUS… Whenever you’re ready… here are 4 ways we can help you build the confidence, skills and the powerful language you need to enroll high-performing, high-fee clients.
- You’ve been preparing for uncertain times your entire life. And we’ve got your back. Read Rich’s Rules—a playbook for you and your clients—on the other side of success.
- Tell your story with power & impact… Every superhero needs a powerful origin story… Would you like to have me tell your story with such impact that you create clients by telling it – for the rest of your life? What if you could speak with such confidence, power and clarity, that dream clients call you? You can. I can help.
- Do you want a Thinking Partner? Some people don’t need a year of Deep Coaching. They need someone to challenge their thinking. Several of my clients have PhDs. Some coach billionaires. One runs an aerospace company. Many have built and sold multi-million dollar businesses. And, when they need help, I am the one they call… If you want someone to push you and stretch you – intellectually and emotionally – then you and I should have a conversation. One spot available.
- Transition Excellence: I designed TE for high-level leaders—with a track record of success behind them. You’ll have 6 months of self-paced learning on how to be a high-performing, high-fee coach. Plus, monthly teaching from me and my faculty. And a private Facebook group for connection and support. Read the Transition Excellence Prospectus.