A few days ago, an industry colleague of mine named Brent Underwood published his first Amazon book. It hit #1 almost immediately. Now he can tell everyone he’s a bestselling author and start reaping the rewards, right?
Well, not quite.
See, the book Brent published wasn’t actually a book. It was a picture of his left foot. Its cover was the same picture, plus some colored lines and the book’s title, Putting My Foot Down. And to hit #1, it sold a whopping three copies at $0.99 apiece.
Think about that for a second. This book is a #1 Amazon bestseller.
(Photo credit: Brent Underwood/NextShark)
How did Brent do this? By picking an obscure book category with no other books in it, then buying one copy and getting two friends to buy it as well. Three sales is more than zero; voila, instant bestseller.
But the question isn’t how he did it. The question is why. I mean, it’s kind of a crazy thing to do, right?
Yep. Crazy like a fox.
See, Brent is a marketer for books. And he’s pretty good at it. Brass Check, the company he runs with the likes of Ryan Holiday and Nils Parker, is one of the top book marketing companies around. And like several other people in the book creation industry (myself included), Brent was fed up with the ever-growing torrent of Amazon “bestsellers” that are literally all style and no substance.
So in an article about this foot-publishing experience, Brent delivered a swift kick (pun intended) to the way self-publishing success has been defined for the last 8+years. He spilled the beans on what till now has largely been an open secret, known to book marketers and Amazon data mavens and available for the general public to find, but rarely discussed openly. Now, everyone knows that becoming an Amazon bestseller doesn’t necessarily mean you wrote a great book — it can also mean that you published something, anything, and used sketchy marketing tricks to get it to hit #1.
So while not every Amazon bestseller has achieved its status the way Brent’s did (far from it), the possibility now exists in all readers’ minds that any Amazon bestseller could have. The automatic credibility supposedly conferred by Amazon bestsellership is suddenly suspect. Authors, book marketers, self-publishing programs, and book creation businesses now need to redefine not only what self-publishing success looks like, but also why they write and market books in the first place.
And I, for one, couldn’t be happier about that.
Full disclosure: I run a book creation company, and I’ve done editing and ghostwriting work for a few others over the last couple of years. Some of my closest friends and most meaningful role models work in this same industry. And I love the fact that a whole industry exists to help wannabe writers become published authors.
But I hate how preoccupied that industry is with the idea that making quick money and getting famous fast are the only metrics of authorial success. Google “book marketing coach” or “self-publishing program” and you’ll be inundated with people and programs offering, for a fee, the so-called keys to getting two things: residual income and Amazon bestseller status.
There are four major problems with that trend.
Problem #1: “Amazon bestseller” doesn’t mean what it used to
As we’ve now seen, it’s no longer enough to be any old Amazon bestseller. That standard by itself is too low to indicate true worth anymore. Amazon bestsellers will, at the very least, need to indicate which category they reached #1 in, and if theirs isn’t one of the 30 main site-wide categories containing thousands of books (e.g., Self-Help, Business & Money, Health & Fitness, etc), they probably won’t be taken seriously. They’ll also need to show how long they remained a bestseller in that main category. Amazon’s lists refresh every hour, so any book that hasn’t stayed near the top for at least a few days (or better, weeks) will likewise be discounted.
So while a low-level cheap hack Amazon bestseller means nothing, an Amazon bestseller that hits high rank in a site-wide category and stays there for a while is actually worthy of the “bestseller” title. It is incumbent on authors and readers to understand that difference. It’s also incumbent on book coaches and marketers to design our services with the second result in mind — and to consider very carefully whether such an achievement can or should be guaranteed. Anything less is doing our clients and their readers a disservice bordering on fraud.
Problem #2: For most authors, book sales income is negligible
In traditional publishing, the only way to make money is by selling a LOT of books. So traditional publishing companies only publish books that they think will sell to a broad audience for $20-$30 apiece hardcover and $10-$12 paperback.
In indie publishing, the opposite is true. You can publish a book on anything for anyone, but trying to sell a lot of copies of that one book (unless you’re already wealthy and successful, which most indie authors aren’t) won’t make you a lot of money. For one thing, the accepted marketing practices of launching a book on Amazon involve discounting your book’s price to either $0.99 or free — boosting sales for a while, but not income. Even if you do have a really successful book launch, you’re likely to make maybe a few hundred dollars over the first couple of months, and then at most a few dollars a month residually. The money you make from self-publishing a book (if you make any to speak of) comes from that book getting you new clients or speaking gigs, not from sales.
The upshot of this is that writing one book and then expecting to retire on sales income is like buying one Powerball ticket and expecting it to pay off every time new numbers are chosen. Not only is it very long odds, it doesn’t keep offering new odds over time. The only authors I know who get enough income from book sales to live on are the ones who’ve written at least a dozen books, most of whom have other income streams as well. Offering passive income as a lure for a one-shot book marketing or self-publishing program is misleading. Authors need to know that and marketers need to take care how they talk about it.
Problem #3: Those are awful reasons to write a book
Problems #1 and #2 lead into Problem #3, because writing a book to become a bestseller and/or make a fortune from book sales is the literary equivalent of buying that same Powerball ticket so you can keep up with the Kardashians. Not only will it almost certainly fail, it creates no value for anyone and its motivation is too shallow to be worthwhile.
If sales and bestsellership are your only reasons for writing a book, you don’t want to write a book. You want to have written one. You might as well publish a picture of your foot for all you care about actually creating something valuable.
There are three good reasons to write a book: authority, following, and passion. That is, either you want the book to help position you as a voice in your industry that says things others aren’t saying (authority), you have a message you want it to start building a movement around (following), or you just can’t not write it (passion). You’ll notice that while all three of those have the potential to get you money (sales) and fame (legit bestsellership) eventually, neither money nor fame has anything to do with the reasons themselves.
If you don’t have one of those reasons behind you, don’t write a book.
Problem #4: It won’t matter how good your marketing is if your book is terrible
Which brings us to the mother of all these problems. Somewhere along the way, the idea that authors actually need to create quality books has gotten buried under an avalanche of bestseller-preoccupied marketing.
Problem #4 represents what I hate most about my industry. Far too many people working in it — authors and industry experts alike — gloss over quality creation on the way to marketing. Many self-publishing programs encourage authors to pay insultingly low fees for editing and design. Ones that include coaching on how to write a book often hold their writers to one-size-fits-all systems that ignore the individuality of the creation process. And very, very, very few programs even address the importance of creating a quality book, instead focusing on quick and cheap book creation so they can get started marketing ASAP.
But as project managers have known for years, when you make something quick and cheap, it’s not going to be good quality. If you create a low-quality, unpolished book and market the heck out of it, you’ll get two things: (1) an empty, meaningless Amazon bestseller status a la Problem #1, and (2) the knowledge that every single person who bought your book not only wasted their money but also now knows you’re a cheap hack who couldn’t be bothered to create real value for them. What do you think that will do to your authority, your following, your credibility?
That’s right: nothing good.
As Brent put it, “the best marketing tactic you can use for a book is to write a great book that actually sells over the long term…[don’t] lose sight of the importance of quality and authority in your work. Anyone can be a one-hit wonder; focus on crafting a book that will sell for decades.”
Ways to do this include:
- Write for one or more of the three reasons we talked about in Problem #3
- Really learn your craft and industry, so when you write about it you’ll have valuable things to say
- Learn to be a great storyteller, so people will enjoy reading what you write
- Don’t try to please a broad audience; instead, find a small, tight, niche group of people who need to hear what you’ve got to say and write exclusively for them
- Set a schedule if it helps, but take all the time you need to create
- Spend as much time preparing (before) and revising (after) as you do writing (during)— more, if possible
- Hold your own writing to the highest personal standard you have
- Get the best professional guidance and help you can afford, especially for editing, ghostwriting, and design
- Play the long game — your book will be around for years, so make it worth the longevity
- Care about the book itself, not just what it can get for you
- Above all, do the best you know how to do, and don’t half-ass things in the interest of speed or thrift
- Oh, and do all that before you start marketing the book
It is my fervent hope that my book creation industry colleagues — and the authors we serve — will take this new bestseller development as a challenge to step up our collective game. We have the power to raise the standards of quality writing across Amazon itself. In time, we can make “Amazon bestseller” mean something worthwhile again. But we can’t do that without first shifting our focus from expedience to excellence.
I’m up for that. Who’s with me?