Perennial Seller – by Ryan Holiday
How strongly I recommend it: 8/10
See my lists of books for more.
Go to the Amazon page for details.
It’ll help you to define and structure your projects, and make it last. It’s the kind of book that you’ll reread again and again.
People claim to want to do something that matters, yet they measure themselves against things that don’t, and track their progress not in years but in microseconds. They want to make something timeless, but they focus instead on immediate payoffs and instant gratification.
A Better Way, a New Model
In other words, classics stay classic and become more so over time. Think of it as compound interest for creative work.
The brilliance of it is that perennial sellers—big or small—not only refuse to die or fade into oblivion; they grow stronger with each passing day.
Part I: THE CREATIVE PROCESS
From the Mindset to the Making to the Magic
The more books we read, the clearer it becomes that the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and that no other task is of any consequence.
The worse it is, the more time you will have to spend marketing and the less effective every minute of that marketing will be. You can count on that.
The Work Is What Matters
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.
Crappy products don’t survive. If you have phoned in the creative process, disrespected it, built a mediocre product, compromised, told yourself, “Hey, we’ll figure the rest out later,” then the project is likely doomed before it’s even finished. The battle will be futile—and expensive.
It’s why all the pre-work matters so much. The conceptualization. The motivations. The product’s fit with the market. The execution. These intangible factors matter a great deal. They cannot be skipped. They can’t be bolted on later.
As legendary investor and Y Combinator founder Paul Graham explains, “The best way to increase a startup’s growth rate is to make the product so good people recommend it to their friends.”
Above all, they have to want to produce meaningful work—which, I can say from experience, is often not the goal of people in the creative space.
Ideas Are Not Enough
An aspiring creator once wrote to the filmmaker Casey Neistat about whether he could pitch him about an idea he had. Casey’s response was swift and brutally honest: “I don’t want to hear youridea,” he said. “The idea is the easy part.”
If great work were easy to produce, a lot more people would do it.
If you are trying to make something great, you must do the making: That work cannot be outsourced to someone else. You can’t hire your friends to do it for you. There is no firm that can produce a timeless work of art on your behalf for a flat fee. It’s not about finding the right partner, the right investor, the right patron—not yet anyway. Collaboration is essential, but if this is your project, the hard work will fall on you. There is just no way around it.
“Lots of people,” as the poet and artist Austin Kleon puts it, “want to be the noun without doing the verb.” To make something great, what’s required is need. As in, I need to do this. Ihave to. I can’t not.
What Will You Sacrifice?
These industries are vicious precisely because so many people want to be in them. Their ranks are filled not just with those great creators who are actually doing the hard work, but with legions more who will do literally anything to avoid that work while maintaining their positions (or illusions) of power. Together, they form a suffocating gauntlet that swallows up the many who enter naively or with all sorts of entitled ideas about how important they are to an industry that is, at best, utterly indifferent to their dreams.
Great Things Are Timeless and Take Time
Like me, Zweig believed he had to write right now and that he didn’t have the time to wait—he was feeling the urgency of a first-time writer too. “Literature is a wonderful profession,” the friend explained patiently, “because haste is no part of it. Whether a really good book is finished a year earlier or a year later makes no difference.”
Art can’t be hurried. It must be allowed to take its course. It must be given its space—and can’t be rushed or checked off a to-do list on the way to something else.
The old idea that “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right” is at the core of great businesses. It certainly makes things a bit more intimidating, but necessarily so if lasting greatness is your intention. As Larry Page, the cofounder of Google, explained, “Even if you fail at your ambitious thing, it’s very hard to fail completely. That’s the thing people don’t get.”
Short Term vs. Long Term
“If you focus on near-term growth above everything else,” he has written, “you miss the most important question you should be asking: Will this business still be around a decade from now?” (See, ten years is a theme.)
This idea of going back to the core of our shared humanity is a commonality in masterpieces like Star Wars as well as in the music of everyone from Johnny Cash to Black Sabbath and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Rick Rubin, the record producer who has worked with all of those musicians, urges his artists not to think about what’s currently on the airwaves. “If you listen to the greatest music ever made, that would be a better way,” he says, “to find your own voice to matter today than listening to what’s on the radio and thinking: ‘I want to compete with this.’ It’s stepping back and looking at a bigger picture than what’s going on at the moment.” He also urges them not to constrain themselves simply to their medium for inspiration—you might be better off drawing inspiration from the world’s greatest museums than, say, finding it in the current Billboard charts.
Creativity Is Not a Divine Act. It Is Not a Lightning Strike.
Are there some exceptions? Sure, Rocky was supposedly written by Sylvester Stallone in three and a half days, but this is the kind of exception that proves the rule. Very few great things were ever created at a hackathon.
Young aspiring writers like to point to Jack Kerouac, who supposedly wrote On the Road in a three-week drug-fueled blitz. What they leave out is the six years he spent editing and refining it until it was finally ready.
Indeed, many studies have confirmed that creativity isn’t like a lightning strike. A creative work usually starts with an idea that seems to have potential and then evolves with work and interaction into something more. I asked Scott Barry Kaufman, a leading psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on creativity, about how ideas happen.
“Insights rarely occur fully baked,” he explained. “The creative process is often nonlinear, with many detours along the way that inform the final product. The creator often starts with a hazy intuition of where he or she is going, but breakthrough innovations rarely resemble the seed idea or vision. This is because creative ideas, by their very nature, evolve over time, reflecting the colliding of seemingly disparate ideas. The best we can do is sit down and create something, anything, and let the process organically unfold. Tolerating ambiguity, frustration, and changes in the grand plan and being open to new experiences are essential to creative work. Indeed, they are what makes creativity work.”
What the poet John Keats called “negative capability”—the holding of multiple contradictory ideas in your head at the same time—is an essential phase of creativity: the part where your mind is a whirl of ideas. You have to be able to tolerate this and then refine your idea like mad until it gets better.
The Drawdown Period
To wrestle with all these conflicting, difficult ideas that go into creating, you often need real silence. Meditative isolation, where you sit and wrestle with your project. The gangster Frank Lucas called this “backtracking.” He’d lock himself in a room, pull the blinds, and tune everything out. He’d look forward and inward and outward and just think. That was where he finalized what became known as the Cadaver Connection—an operation importing heroin directly from Southeast Asia in imitation coffins smuggled onto U.S. Army jets, which cost a tenth of other methods. On the other end of the creative spectrum, the brilliant military strategist John Boyd utilized what he called “drawdown periods.” After a one a.m. breakthrough, he’d spend weeks just looking at an idea, testing whether others had already come up with it, identifying possible problems with it. Only after this period ended would he begin the real work on the project.
In the way that a good wine must be aged, or that we let meat marinate for hours in spices and sauce, an idea must be given space to develop. Rushing into things eliminates that space. Another reason for the drawdown period is simply to prepare for the mammoth nature of the task ahead. A book takes months or years of writing. Movie productions may take longer. Scientific discoveries might take decades to properly articulate. This is not a process we ought to plunge into unknowingly. Just as we take a big breath before we dive underwater, we need to grab some air before we bury ourselves in a creative pursuit.
For one of my books, I gave myself a January 1 start date for the writing. Two months before, in November, I entered my drawdown period. No more reading or rereading. Just thinking. Long walks. Resting. Preparing. I wrapped up the business that I needed to get off my plate. Excited as I was, I couldn’t conceive of what the structure of the book would look like. I just wasn’t sure that I was ready. I was nervous.
Then one night at the end of December, I had a dream. It was set in the movie Interstellar. Everything felt exactly like the previews of that movie. An earth that had begun to fall apart. A crisis was brewing. I was selected as an astronaut. I said good-bye to my children (which I didn’t yet have). I put on my helmet. I walked to my spaceship. As I arrived, I found that the spaceship wasn’t being launched out of the atmosphere. In the way that things can make sense only inside a dream, this rocket was going to be launched into the depths of the earth.
I have the journal entry I wrote the next morning detailing this strange dream. It’s dated December 19—just a few days before I was scheduled to start writing. My subconscious was telling me that I was ready. That it was time to end the drawdown. The dream marked the day that I had to truly embark on the project with everything I had.
Test Early, Test Often
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.
The proper approach is to have a clear idea of what you’re trying to accomplish, so you can parse the constructive criticism you need from the notes you need to ignore.
The approach has some benefits in other domains too. If you’re a chef, it might not be an amazing idea to pour your life savings into your first restaurant venture when you can start a food truck or a pop-up shop first. Don’t spend months building a website—start with a landing page, or rely on free social media platforms.
Creating is often a solitary experience. Yet work made entirely in isolation is usually doomed to remain lonely.
This is good news. It means that your perennial seller does not have to be birthed in some single episode of genius. Instead, it can be made piece by piece—or, as Anne Lamott put it in her meditation on writing, “bird by bird.” You don’t have to be a genius to make genius—you just have to have small moments of brilliance and edit out the boring stuff.
How we put this into practice is simple: Ask questions. How can I give people a sample of what I’m thinking? How does the idea resonate in conversation? What does an online audience think of it? What does a poll of your friends reveal? These might seem like small questions in the face of a big task like creating a classic work that lasts—but classics are built by thousands of small acts. And thinking about them in that way allows you to make progress.
As Robert Evans, the movie producer behind films like Love Story and The Godfather, put it, “Getting into action generates inspiration. Don’t cop out waiting for inspiration to get you back into action. It won’t!”
The Question Almost No One Asks
Dialing in this kind of domain dominance doesn’t happen accidentally. An audience isn’t a target that you happen to bump into; instead, it must be explicitly scoped and sighted in. It must be chosen. There is a small publisher whose slogan is “Find your niche and scratch it!” I suspect if Mary Appelhof knew about this publisher when she wrote her book in 1982, it might have been the first place she went with her manuscript.
Successfully finding and “scratching” a niche requires asking and answering a question that very few creators seem to do: Who is this thing for?
Instead, many creators want to be for everyone . . . and as a result end up being for no one.
For any project, you must know what you are doing—and what you are not doing. You must also know who you are doing it for—and who you are not doing it for—to be able to say: THIS and for THESE PEOPLE. In some cases, that might be an enormous niche. In Miranda’s situation, it’s people looking for a very different kind of Broadway show. In Appelhof’s situation, it was people looking to get into composting. Regardless of what it is, you have to know. You have to choose. Having this clarity allows you to focus your creative energy in a very narrow, effective way. It allows you to focus that energy on making the right thing for the right people.
Paul Graham of startup incubator Y Combinator, which has funded more than a thousand startups, including Dropbox, Airbnb, and Reddit, says that “having no specific user in mind” is one of the eighteen major mistakes that kills startups: “A surprising number of founders seem willing to assume that someone—they’re not sure exactly who—will want what they’re building. Do the founders want it? No, they’re not the target market. Who is? Teenagers. People interested in local events (that one is a perennial tar pit). Or ‘business’ users. What business users? Gas stations? Movie studios? Defense contractors?”
Let’s be clear: You can’t afford to wait until after it’s finished to figure out who what you’re making is for. Why? Because too often the answer turns out to be: no one. You have to think about it now. Before you’ve made it. While you’re making it.
The absence of an intended audience is not just a commercial problem. It is an artistic one. The critic Toby Litt could have been talking about all bad art and bad products when he said that “bad writing is almost always a love poem addressed by the self to the self.” What audience wants that?
The best way I’ve found to avoid missing your target—any target—entirely is to identify a proxy from the outset, someone who represents your ideal audience, who you then think about constantly throughout the creative process. Stephen King believes that “every novelist has a single ideal reader” so that at various points in the process he can ask, “What will ______ think about this?” (For him, it’s his wife, Tabitha.) Kurt Vonnegut joked that you have to “write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.” John Steinbeck once wrote in a letter to an actor turned writer, “Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death, and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person—and write to that one.”
Not Just, “Who For?” Also, “For What?”
“always be for the purpose of something.”
Just as we should ask “Who is this for?” we must also ask “What does this do?” A critical test of any product: Does it have a purpose? Does it add value to the world? How will it improve the lives of the people who buy it?
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve gotten as a creator was from a successful writer who told me that the key to success in nonfiction was that the work should be either “very entertaining” or “extremely practical.” Notice they didn’t say, “Should be very fulfilling to you personally” or “Should make you look super smart” or “Capitalize on some big trend.” Those concerns are either secondary or implied. It’s better to be focused on those two timeless use cases of enjoyability or utility.
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.
So the creator of any project should try to answer some variant of these questions:
- What does this teach?
- What does this solve?
- How am I entertaining?
- What am I giving?
- What are we offering?
- What are we sharing?
In short: What are these people going to be paying for? If you don’t know—if the answer isn’t overwhelming—then keep thinking.
Bold, Brash, and Brave
An essential part of making perennial, lasting work is making sure that you’re pursuing the best of your ideas and that they are ideas that only you can have (otherwise, you’re dealing with a commodity and not a classic). Not only will this process be more creatively satisfying, it will be better for business.
Yet far too many people set out to produce something that, if they were really honest with themselves, is only marginally better or different from what already exists. Instead of being bold, brash, or brave, they are derivative, complementary, imitative, banal, or trivial. The problem with this is not only that it’s boring, but that it subjects them to endless amounts of competition.
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?
Brashness, newness, boldness—these attitudes are not at all at odds with perennial sales. In fact, it’s an essential part of the equation. Stuff that’s boring now is probably going to be boring in twenty years. Stuff that looks, sounds, reads, and performs like everything else in its field today has very little chance of standing out tomorrow. That’s exactly what you don’t want.
People want things that are really passionate. Often the best version is not for everybody. The best art divides the audience. If you put out a record and half the people who hear it absolutely love it and half the people who hear it absolutely hate it, you’ve done well. Because it is pushing that boundary.”
“Either you’re controversial,” as the perpetually controversial writer Elizabeth Wurtzel advises creatives, “or nothing at all is happening.”
It’s interesting to think of how audacious this work is, but also how conventional it is. Blue Nude was provocative because of its use of color, of race, of ambiguity. It’s not also fifty feet wide and painted with a machine. Orson Welles’s broadcast was the length of his normal radio program; Truman Capote didn’t decide to publish his book anonymously and without a cover; Airbnb didn’t launch as a homesharing service that accepted only cryptocurrency. No, these groundbreaking innovations were unconventional in just a few particular, targeted ways, and that was enough.
The point is that you cannot violate every single convention simultaneously, nor should you do it simply for its own sake. In fact, to be properly controversial—as opposed to incomprehensible—you must have obsessively studied your genre or industry to a degree that you know which boundaries to push and which to respect. There’s a reason that shows on Netflix and HBO—even though they don’t have commercial breaks—are still roughly thirty or sixty minutes long. In the self-published era, authors can theoretically do whatever they want, yet in most cases they don’t. Why? Because not every convention is worth questioning, and, usually, questioning too many at the same time is confusing and overwhelming to the consumer. (They still want their book to seem like a real book.)
So we ask ourselves: Why are things the way they are? What practices should be questioned and which should remain sound? This allows us to be both exotic and accessible, shocking but not gratuitous, fresh without sacrificing timelessness.
If you do push boundaries, it’s important to understand that not everyone will love it—not right out of the gate, anyway. After publishing my first book, which was incendiary, I received a picture from Ford’s head of social media—he’d thrown the book in his trash can, he was so angry about it. One reporter physically accosted me after I gave a talk. I was challenged to a debate by one person in the book; another threatened legal action. It was scary. But it was also exhilarating—and validating.
I’ve come to realize that these are the tracking signs of a work that lasts. You want to provoke a reaction—it’s a sign you’re forging ahead. A famous scientist once warned his students not to worry about people stealing their ideas: “If it’s original, you will have to ram it down their throats.” Not only does that go back to our previous discussion of why mere ideas are not sufficient, but it connects to one of the realities of being provocative and new. Your work may shock people, they might not be willing to accept it right away—but that’s also a sign that you’ve created something fresh and truly original.
Is It the Best You Can Do?
Deep, complex work is built through a relentless, repetitive process of revisitation.
As one agent I work with put it to me, “Spend three times longer revising your manuscript than you think you need.” He’s right. It will be the best time you spend almost anywhere in the project. There’s a famous bit of advice from Stephen King to “kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” Basically, he’s talking about the tough decisions that creators must make as they create, as they ruthlessly edit and evolve their creations until they’re as good as they can possibly be.
Ignore what other people are doing. Ignore what’s going on around you. There is no competition. There is no objective benchmark to hit. There is simply the best that you can do—that’s all that matters.
One Last Thing
These words of Steven Pressfield in his wonderful book The War of Art are a haunting and humbling reminder: “The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.”
They’re scared because creative work is as terrifying as it is gratifying. You’ve put a large piece of yourself into this project. What if people don’t like it? What if someone tries to force you to change it? Creating was done in private, but soon you’ll have to explain and discuss in public. What if that’s painful? What if you can’t do it justice? This fear isn’t comfortable, but it’s a good sign. It will make you diligent.
The hunger and drive to create something great, coupled with the sincere belief that you can do it, can very quickly trip into delusion and hubris if you’re not vigilant. The more nervous and scared you are—the more you feel compelled to go back and improve and tweak because you’re just not ready—the better it bodes for the project. Because your goal is one that should make any rational person tremble a bit.
Let that feeling guide you. Honor it.
Meanwhile, those who think they can rush their way to that finish line—or have complete confidence they will get there without breaking a sweat—end up disappearing just as quickly. It takes time and effort and sacrifice to make something that lasts.
Part II: POSITIONING
From Polishing to Perfecting to Packaging
The artist seeks contact with his intuitive sense of the gods, but in order to create his work, he cannot stay in this seductive and incorporeal realm. He must return to the material world in order to do his work.
Halfway to Halfway
Audiences can’t magically know what is inside something they haven’t seen. They have no clue that it will change their lives. You can’t be the self-conscious wallflower in the corner, hoping that people will see through the act and just know how great you are. Someone is going to have to tell them. It has to be obvious!
It’s not “promotion” we’re talking about here—that comes later. Instead, prior to release, considerable effort needs to be spent polishing, improving, and, most critically, positioning your project so that it has a real chance of resonating with its intended audience.
We have to take this thing that means so much to us and make sure that it is primed to mean something to other people too for generations to come. That it will stand out among a crowded field of other creators sincerely attempting to do the exact same thing. That it will be the best that it is capable of being and that the audience it is intended for is primed to love it.
And the best person in the world to accomplish this difficult task? You.
You’re the CEO
At a very basic level, if you’re not amazing in every facet, you’re replaceable. To publishers, studios, investors, and customers alike.
Seth Godin explains that “being really good is merely the first step. In order to earn word of mouth, you need to make [your product] safe, fun, and worthwhile to overcome the social hurdles to spread the word.”
Find Your “Editor”
Why? Because when people are close to their own projects or their own talents, they can lose the ability to see objectively. They might think they’ve taken a project or their talent as far as it can go, and, strictly speaking, given an individual’s limitations and inexperience, this may be true. But ultimately, to take a project where it needs to go, you’ll need to rely on an editor to help you get there. This is the most counterintuitive part of any creative process—just when you think you’re “done,” you’ll often find you’re not even close to being finished.
What are the chances that your prototype is perfect the first time? The Great Gatsby was rejected several times. WD-40 is named after the forty attempts it took its creators to nail the working formula. None of my books were immediately accepted by my publisher—and they were right to kick them back at me. In being forced to go back to the manuscript, I got the books to where they needed to be. I know that now, but at the time it was infuriating to be told, “It’s not quite there yet.”*
As infuriating as it may be, we must be rational and fair about our own work. This is difficult considering our conflict of interest—which is to say, the ultimate conflict of interest: We made it. The way to balance that conflict of interest is to bring in people who are objective. Ask yourself: What are the chances that I’m right and everyone else in the world is wrong? We’ll be better off at least considering why other people have concerns, because the reality is, truth is almost always somewhere in the middle.
Remember: Getting feedback requires humility. It demands that you subordinate your thoughts about your project and your love for it and entertain the idea that someone else might have a valuable thing or two to add.
Nobody creates flawless first drafts. And nobody creates better second drafts without the intervention of someone else. Nobody.
Polish and Perfect, Test and Retest
Not only should you be testing your project as you create it, you must most seriously test your creation as it begins to resemble a final product. So you know what you have—so you can improve it. So you know what you have—so that you might figure out what to do with it. So you know what you have—so you can adjust your expectations.
Does a summary of the book work as a talk? Are the early users you’ve given prototypes to already addicted to their early versions of the product? Does what you made scratch your own itch in a way that suggests it will do the same for others?
One Sentence, One Paragraph, One Page
There is a fundamental question of knowledge that goes all the way back to Plato and Socrates: If you don’t know what you’re looking for, how will you know if you’ve found it?
Sometime after the bulk of the creative production is done but before a work is fully wrapped up, a creator must step back and ask: “OK, what was I trying to make here? Did I get there? What do I need to change or fix in order to successfully do so?”
A similar exercise that I like to do with all my projects is one I call “One Sentence, One Paragraph, One Page.” It goes like this:
Put the website or the beta version of your app or your manuscript aside and grab a piece of paper or open a blank Word document. Then, with fresh eyes, attempt to write out exactly what your project is supposed to be and to do in . . .
This is a ______ that does ______. This helps people ______.
Fill in this template at the three varying lengths. It’s best to do this exercise in the third person, creating a bit of artificial distance from the project so you can’t fall back on, “Well, I think that . . .” Deal with facts instead.
If I may go off on a tangent for a minute, perhaps the most essential part of the sentence above with blanks is the first one—the part that says what the project is. Is it a book? Is it a big-budget Hollywood movie? Is it an experimental piece of modern art? In short, What genre does it fit in?
Genre matters. If you’ve written a great rock album but more than one of the songs on it are about Jesus, people are going to put it in the Christian rock genre. If that’s your intention, fantastic. If it isn’t, you might want to make some changes. If you’re attempting to write a definitive Pulitzer Prize–worthy biography of a famous historical figure but it’s only 126 pages, you’ve probably violated the unspoken qualifications of that genre of work. Is this a coffee shop or a coworking space or a members-only private club? It probably can’t be all three—not without confusing or alienating the customers who are looking for just one of those options.
In a podcast discussion with screenwriter Brian Koppelman, Seth Godin explained, “Everything that has a clear path to commercial success is in a genre.” We need to be able to put things into categories so we know where they fit. And you as the creator need to be clear and honest with yourself about where this work is going to fit for people.
Who Are You Aiming For?
The intended audience is the final blank in the “This is a ______ that does______” exercise. It’s what ties the rest all together: “This is a ______ that does______ for ______.”
For my first book, Trust Me, I’m Lying, I knew I was specifically targeting media folks, publicists, and a new generation of social media employees. Here’s the exact language I laid out in that proposal:
Jobs in social media are one of the hottest-growing sectors in the economy. . . . This growing workforce eagerly eats up whatever information it can learn from—these young workers have not yet begun to grasp how the industry really works because the industry is only in its infancy. Fundamentally different from the preachy-and-useless books from media critics and “—for Dummies” style how-to books, Confessions of a Media Hit Man is not only an instructional manual for mastering the wild world of social media but an honest warning of the dangers—written by someone who has personally been there. Marketed as intended, Confessions of a Media Hit Man is poised to inspire and define a generation of workers in the style of its predecessor, David Ogilvy’s Confessions of an Advertising Man, which became the bible of the advertising and public relations industry, is still in print more than fifty years after publication, and sold more than one million copies.
The title of the book eventually changed, and the book was written and rewritten over the course of a year in order to fulfill my admittedly grandiose pitch, but the audience stayed the same. I had to work my ass off to hit that target—and that was possible only because I had first articulated said target.
You must be able to explicitly say who you are building your thing for. You must know what you are aiming for—you’ll miss otherwise. You need to know this so you can make the decisions that go into properly positioning the project for them. 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.
Is Bigger Better?
As creators, we seem to fall into two camps: Either we have dreams of utter dominance and stardom, or we retain a sort of hipster disdain for popularity. I think both of these extremes are silly.
For creators, it’s typically easier to reach the smaller, better-defined group. If you reach the smaller group and wow them, there will be many opportunities to spread outward and upward. (In many cases, your fans will do this for you, recommending your work to people like them, but not exactly like them.) The key to this is to service the coreaudience first and do so in a way that does not alienate the others—only then can you emanate outwardly from the center.
Regardless, you must start somewhere—ideally somewhere quantifiable. By which I mean: Who is buying the first one thousand copies of this thing? Who is coming in on the first day? Who is going to claim our first block of available dates? Who is buying our first production run?
The number is going to differ for every kind of product and for each different niche. But there are rules of thumb. For books, the superagent and publishing entrepreneur Shawn Coyne (Robert McKee, Jon Krakauer, Michael Connelly) likes to use ten thousand readers as his benchmark. That’s what it takes, in his experience, for a book to successfully break through and for the ideas in it to take hold. Remember, a lot is not a number.
What I came to realize about his brilliant approach was that he wanted every single reader to find someone they could relate to in his books. He wanted them to see themselves across his pages. (There is nothing more badass for a reader than to see themselves as the hero.) He also wanted them to be able to see their friends, family, and colleagues—so they could recommend it to them.
You must create room for the audience to inhabit and relate to the work. You must avoid the trap of making this about you—because, remember, you won’t be the one buying it. In that way, Robert’s insistence on diversity wasn’t coming only from his very real sense of fairness and tolerance. There was a genius business logic to his choices as well: Each master was a conduit into a new community to whom the book might appeal and be promoted. This was a marketing asset—or rather, a pre-marketing asset—built directly in during the writing and editing phases.
Are you really sure that you have features and scenes and material that are relevant to your core audience? And to your potential audiences? And to your audience’s potential audiences? If you don’t have this, then you need to fix it now, or may God help you. Because you’re going to need divine intervention.
Positioning, Packaging, and the Pitch
Today, in order to even have a chance at people’s attention, your project has to seem as good as or better than all the others. Three critical variables determine whether that will happen: the Positioning, the Packaging and the Pitch.
Positioning is what your project is and who it is for.
Packaging is what it looks like and what it’s called.
The Pitch is the sell—how the project is described and what it offers to the audience.
Bret Taylor, one of the engineers responsible for creating Google Maps, explains that breaking through is not as simple as just making something great. “You might be ten times better,” he says, “but your customers may not even understand why it’s important that you’re better.” How could they be expected to understand if they haven’t tried it yet? That’s why it’s critical that you be able not only to clearly and concisely explain who and what you are, but also to show it, too.
Infinite shelf space means there is no availability bias. It means that audiences are busy and entitled and making split-second decisions about whether to consume this or that. How you present yourself has an enormous influence over whether you will be chosen or ignored. It’s how you teach people that you are better. It’s how you separate yourself from the others. It’s the face and the name tag you put on your work.
The differences between doing it well and doing it poorly are enormous. The same article with a slightly different headline can have a tenfold spread in readership. One stands out; the other doesn’t. That saying “You can’t judge a book by its cover”? It’s total nonsense. Of course you can judge a book by its cover—that’s why books have covers. They’re designed to catch people’s attention and draw them toward the work—and away from all the other works that stand equal on the shelf.
When it comes to attracting an audience, the creators who take the time to get their positioning and packaging right—who don’t just go with their first instinct and hope—are the ones who will win.
This may cost you some money and time, but it’s worth it in the long run. When Steve Jobs launched NeXT—his first company after Apple fired him—he spent something like $100,000 on a logo from one of the best designers in the world. When Marissa Mayer was in charge of product at Google, she once tested forty-one different shades of blue to see which one users responded to best—because at a large scale, those differences matter. One of my clients, Tim Ferriss, spends hundreds of hours rigorously testing everything from his title to his cover ideas to his chapter titles. This process produced the title for his first book—the runaway mega-bestseller The 4-Hour Workweek—and set him up with perfect branding for an entire franchise (The 4-Hour Body, The 4-Hour Chef). You get a sense of what generates a response and what doesn’t by creating multiple cover options and bringing in a sample of friends with good taste and expertise to vote on them (tools like SurveyMonkey and Google Docs make this quite easy). Another client, Neil Strauss, spent nearly a year agonizing over whether to title one of his books Game Over or The Truth—both titles had advantages and disadvantages, and he knew it would take time and brainpower to figure out which was best. I remember shouting in exasperation at one point, “Neil, just choose!” But he’s the multimillion-bestselling author for a reason.
Looks are important, but they are only a fraction of this discussion. At some point in every project I work on, I find myself recommending that the creator take the time to consult the book The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing. The first seven laws of this classic marketing tome deal with the art of positioning and packaging. Not branding or style, but something deeper and also broader.
Law 2, for instance, is about the art of categorization. “If you can’t be first in a category,” the law states, “set up a new category you can be first in.”
It’s not easy to change your name or hire a new design firm midway through a project. But it’s far better to feel the pain now instead of later, when despite all your efforts the marketing just isn’t working.
Consider how someone would describe your book, movie, restaurant, campaign, candidacy—whatever—at a party. Consider someone trying to tell someone else about it in just 140 characters. What would they say? Will they feel stupid saying it? It’s a ______ that does ______ for ______. Have you made filling in those blanks as easy and exciting as possible? Have you done the hard work for them?
The reason I wanted to walk you through the One Sentence, One Paragraph, One Page exercise was not only for your own internal clarity. At some point in the near future (the third section of this book), you’re going to have to describe to other human beings what this project is in an exciting and compelling way. You’re going to need to explain to reporters, prospective buyers or investors, publishers, and your own fans:
Who this is for
Who this is not for
Why it is special
What it will do for them
Why anyone should care
The one sentence and one paragraph can be taken and tweaked for public consumption. It’s creating a literal elevator pitch: You’ve got fifteen seconds to catch an important person’s attention.
None of these choices can be rushed. There is no room for compromise or “good enough” here. You might be inclined to just go with your first instinct and be done with it. Your investors, your publishers, your employees, your family and friends might push you to finish quickly and get it out into the world. They don’t understand that you may have only one shot at this. The choices you make here can’t be compensated for in the marketing later. In fact, they are the marketing.
In this way, you must be willing to be a big enough jerk—ahem, enough of a perfectionist—to say: “No, we’re not moving on from here until we get this right.” Because you know that nothing else will matter—the quality of your product, the strength of your marketing—if the premise and the pitch of the product are wrong.
Why Are You Doing This?
Elon Musk knows that his mission is to get a human being on Mars, and he believes that the future of humanity rests on it. That’s the kind of clarity you want.
I’ll give you my explicit mission for Trust Me, I’m Lying. I told myself: I am writing an exposé of the media system that will shock and appall people who follow the news or are trying to market something—because I’m the only one in the world who can do it. I also consciously told myself that I was writing this book at this time (instead of later) because it was the right book to launch my writing career. I knew I would write more than one book in my career, but this was closest to my immediate expertise and had the greatest chance of commercial success. The secrets I carried were a weight on my chest that I wanted to remove, and I believed that the timing and priority made this the right moment to do it.
There are many different missions. Whatever yours is, it must be defined and articulated.
Once that has occurred, there is one last thing you must do. You must deliberately forsake all other missions. If your goal is to make a masterpiece, a perennial seller for a specific audience, it follows that you can’t also hope that it is a trendy, of-the-moment side hustle. If your motivation is a selfless desire to reach a mistreated group, you shouldn’t also be telling yourself that a big payday is around the corner. If you’ve committed to doing something incredibly difficult that countless others have failed at before, you probably also shouldn’t be juggling five other projects at the same time. You’ll need to put 100 percent of your resources toward this one.
Nothing has sunk more creators and caused more unhappiness than this: our inherently human tendency to pursue a strategy aimed at accomplishing one goal while simultaneously expecting to achieve other goals entirely unrelated.
Seneca wrote that what’s required is “confidence in yourself and the belief that you are on the right path, and not led astray by the many tracks which cross yours of people who are hopelessly lost, though some are wandering not far from the true path.”
With a perennial seller as your goal, the track is clear: lasting impact and relevance.
This will help in a number of decisions, some minor and some major. Consider: If you’re looking at two different deals, one of which is for a lot more money and the other of which is with someone who can’t afford to pay as much up front but who genuinely understands what you’re trying to accomplish, take a pass on the money. If you have a launch date looming and everyone around you is “all systems go” but you feel some serious doubt that you’re not ready, please make the difficult choice to stop the presses and take the time to get it right, even if it means extra costs. If you’re deciding between two names—one that feels trendy, cool, and safe and the other risky but fully expressive of what you know in your heart is the truth of your project—go with the latter. Knowing what your goal is—having that crystal clear—allows you to know when to follow conventional wisdom and when to say “Screw it.”
Another Jobs lesson: He didn’t think about what other people would do. He didn’t think about what he should do. He did what he felt was right for the company over the long term. He wanted the computers to be beautiful down to the circuit boards, even though no one would ever see that. Consider your mission—consider each decision with some distance, from Cyril Connolly’s perspective a decade out from now. Wouldn’t you rather have done the difficult thing than taken a shortcut?
Coming to Terms with Commercialism
The fashion designer Marc Ecko has good advice: We can’t prioritize the gatekeepers (the media) over the goalkeepers (the audience). To do so is foolishly shortsighted.
One of the things I love about rap music is that there is none of this. Rappers don’t just make music and “hope” they’ll be successful. They’ve got hustle. Artists know that image and branding are just as important as the music itself if they want to sell millions and be known by millions. In one of his songs, Kanye West asks the audience what they think he raps for, “To push a fucking RAV4?” He wants to do it big—he wants more than to just survive making his art. Good for him.
Don’t let that inner hipster critic hold you back either. You cannot expect to sell unless you’ve put the work in and made the sacrifices and decisions that allow success to happen. You have to be ready for what comes next: the real marathon that is marketing.
One Last Thing
Though Churchill was not as talented as a painter, he found it to be a great source of personal satisfaction and expression—and he traveled with his brushes and paints wherever he went.
This was a man who knew how hard it was to create something, what it took to produce great work and then put it out into the world. No better words about the creative process have been produced than when he described starting a project as an adventure. “To begin with,” he said, your project “is a toy and an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling it to the public.”
Part III: MARKETING
From Courting to Coverage, Pushing to Promotion
Customers will not come just because you build it. You have to make that happen and it’s harder than it looks.
Every creator faces the problem of “Who will enjoy what I have made?” Marketing is the solution. It’s not only how you ensure your work finds its audience when it launches, but also how it will continue to find and have one as time passes. Marketing is both an art and a science, and must be mastered by all creators who hope their work will find traction. Without it, how is anyone going to hear about what you’ve made? Why should they choose it over any of the amazing other work that’s out there? Especially if the makers of those works are themselves hustling to spread the word?
Marketing Is Your Job
Look around, Peter Thiel tells startup founders in his classic book Zero to One. “If you don’t see any salespeople, you’re the salesperson” (emphasis mine) for your product. Even if there are salespeople working for you, you’re still the boss and will have to lead from the front.
“‘If you build it they will come’ can happen, but to count on that is naive,” Jason Fried explained to me when I asked how he built 37signals, now Basecamp, into a platform with millions of users after pivoting from a web design company to a web app company in 2004. “In order for the product to speak for itself, it needs someone to speak to.”
Al Ries and Jack Trout, likely two of the greatest marketers who’ve ever lived, acknowledge that CEOs are very busy. They have meetings, phone calls, business dinners, and countless other day-to-day responsibilities. So, naturally, CEOs delegate the marketing to other people. But this is a huge mistake. “If you delegate anything,” Ries and Trout say, “you should delegate the chairmanship of the next fund-raising drive. (The vice president of the United States, not the president, attends the state funerals.)” You can cut back on a lot of things as a leader, but the last thing you can ever skimp on is marketing. Your product needs a champion. As Peter Drucker put it: “[Each project] needs somebody who says, ‘I am going to make this succeed,’ and then goes to work on it.”
Anything Can Be Marketing
Is giving the book away by hand to the military really marketing? Sure it is—because ultimately it moved a lot of product. Bonobos, the high-end pants retailer, sold many of its first pairs literally by hand because its founder carried a duffel bag of them with him wherever he went. At a friend’s wedding? Check. At a poolside brunch? Check. It worked and got customers, so it’s marketing.
Wayne Dyer, whose first book sold some six million copies, started the same way, peddling the book out of the trunk of his car. Once a Runner, the cult classic novel about running by John Parker Jr., got traction in the parking lots of track meets and running events in which Parker was participating. In fact, Nike itself started that way, with Phil Knight selling the shoes himself at track meets out of the back of his Valiant. He’d been rejected from all the local stores, but found that when he spent time actually talking to runners and coaches he “couldn’t write orders fast enough.” Jay Z sold CDs out of his car before anyone would give him a record deal; so did the founders of Cash Money Records. A founder hustling like a door-to-door salesman? Again, if it works, well, then it’s marketing.
Only One Thing Matters: Word of Mouth
If you’re like most people, it’s not from advertising or even from PR. It’s because people you listen to, trust, or respect talked to you about it. We discover things by word of mouth.
A product that doesn’t have word of mouth will eventually cease to exist as far as the general public is concerned. Anything that requires advertising to survive will—on a long enough timeline—cease to be economically feasible. As Jonah Berger, one of the leading scientists on viral sharing, has put it, “[Companies] live or die by word of mouth.”* In fact, he found that in some industries, like skin care and phones, word of mouth was twice as effective as paid advertising. (And remember, those industries spend billions in ads.)
As Seth Godin has written, creating successful word of mouth begins with a single customer. “Sell one,” he says.
“Find one person who trusts you and sell him a copy. Does he love it? Is he excited about it? Excited enough to tell ten friends because it helps them, not because it helps you? Tribes grow when people recruit other people. That’s how ideas spread as well. They don’t do it for you, of course. They do it for each other.”
I think the point is: There’s nothing impressive about not breaking through. Building a huge commercial audience is incredibly difficult—and not everyone manages to do it. The strategy of perennial success is about trying to create work and products that will sell over the long term, but ideally we also want to sell in the short term. Put differently: Selling in perpetuity and launching strong are not mutually exclusive.
History shows that good work eventually finds its audience, but, as John Maynard Keynes so accurately expressed it, the market “can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent.”
as Truman Capote reminds us, “A boy has to hustle his book.”* The same goes for whatever you happen to have made. Gotta hustle it.
“People also tend to like things that other people like,” Cass Sunstein observed in his fascinating study of how Star Wars became the sensation it is. “Whenever there is a big fuss, most of us want to know what it is all about.”That is the reaction our marketing is aimed to create.
In order to sell over the long term, we knew the faster we hit critical velocity, the better our chances of making it would be. That meant waiting and it meant coordination. I remember a few occasions talking to James about a potential article he wanted to write or an interview he wanted to do in the run-up to the release. Let’s wait, I would tell him. Let’s put it out all on the launch date—that’s why we have one.
From a marketing perspective, a proper launch is essential—much more than simply picking a random day to go live. Yes, “launch windows” are artificial. But just because something is constructed, as I once heard a wise person say, that doesn’t mean it isn’t important. In fact, the artificial notion of a launch is almost more important now than ever—customers have so much choice, they tend to choose what appears to have momentum. As Sunstein observed, people choose what others are choosing.
Record labels know that the more times you hear a song, the more likely it is to be a hit. That’s why they hold tracks back until they get a number of stations committed to playing it. It’s the same thing with the marketing of any product. You’re doing a lot of work in advance so that to the public it feels like you’re suddenly everywhere.
This requires you not only to give yourself a proper launch point, but enough runway to hit it. The component parts of a launch—media, relationships, influencers, advertising, creating content—all take time and effort. They would take time even if a creator were to do them poorly. To do them right, to line them up right, to coordinate them properly is like a military operation. Do not gamble. Do not rush!
What Do We Have to Work With?
Other than the “when,” the most important part of a launch is the “what”—as in: What are we working with here? The first thing anyone planning a launch has to do is sit down and take inventory of everything they have at their disposal that might be used to get this product in people’s hands. Stuff like:
Relationships (personal, professional, familial, or otherwise)
Research or information from past launches of similar products (what worked, what didn’t, what to do, what not to do)
Favors they’re owed
Potential advertising budget
Resources or allies (“This blogger is really passionate about [insert some theme or connection related to what you’re launching].”)
It is essential to take the time to sit down and make a list of everything you have and are willing to bring to bear on the marketing of a project. Aside from racking your own brain, one of my favorite strategies to kick off this process is simply to ask your world. I call this the “Call to Arms”—a summons to your fans and friends (see Platform, Part IV of this book) to prepare for action. I typically create a quick online form and I post it on my blog as well as on my personal Facebook page and other social media accounts. In a previous era, different tools would have been used (a physical Rolodex?), just as there will doubtlessly be newer, different tools in the future. Regardless of the tools used, though, what you’re saying is the same:
Hey, as many of you know, I have been working on ______ for a long time. It’s a ______ that does ______ for ______. I could really use your help. If you’re in the media or have an audience or you have any ideas or connections or assets that might be valuable when I launch this thing, I would be eternally grateful. Just tell me who you are, what you’re willing to offer, what it might be good for, and how to be in touch.
Depending on the size of your platform, the number of messages you get might range from a few dozen to a few thousand, but there will almost always be something of use in there.
Maybe you have an influential account on a certain social media site. What about all the email contacts you’ve built over the years? Maybe the newspaper in the town you grew up in loves to write about local success stories—that’s an asset, even if you’ve never spoken with them before. The sooner you know about all these, the sooner you utilize them.
However many of these relationships you have, however tenuous or weak you might feel they are, put them all in a spreadsheet. Lay it all out—names, outlets, promises, debts—and see what you’ve got to work with. If it’s a tiny spreadsheet, that’s okay. If that is the case, though, I’d take a minute to consider what this says. Is it that you’ll need to go it alone and make up for this lack of resources with extra hustle and intensity? Or would waiting until you’re better supplied and prepared make the most sense?
A general wouldn’t even think about going into battle without knowing how many troops and weapons and supplies he has. And he certainly wouldn’t go into battle if he determined that he didn’t have enough of any one of those things to make the difference. Discretion, they say, is the better part of valor.
The other asset you have—that every good product has—is the product itself. If you’ve actually succeeded in solving a problem (or problems), then what you have in your hands right now is worth a lot to a significant number of people—ideally, to a significant number of many different types of people. When that happens, the product can do double duty at the center of one of the most powerful and counterintuitive marketing strategies I have ever seen.
Free. Free. Free.
Ideally, with the work we’ve done in the first two parts of this book, we’ve made our books, movies, products, comedy, or artwork as addictive and captivating as they can be. Quality is no longer the issue. Our problem is that most people have noidea our stuff even exists. They haven’t had a taste yet, so how could they?
The publisher and technologist Tim O’Reilly puts it well: “The problem for most artists isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity.” In other words, we spend a lot of time insisting that nobody steal our work or get it for free . . . but we forget that being unknown is a far worse fate for an artist than being underpaid.
When we say, “Hey, check this out,” we’re really asking for a lot from people. Especially when we are first-time creators. Why should anyone do you this favor? Why should they trust you? Why take the risk? Hugh Howey, author of the wildly popular Wool series and one of the first big successes in the self-publishing era, has said that it’s essential for debut authors to give away at least some of their material, even if only temporarily. “They’ve gotta do something to get an audience,” he’s said. “Free and cheap helps.” So does making the entire process as easy and seamless as possible. The more you reduce the cost of consumption, the more people will be likely to try your product. Which means price, distribution, and other variables are not only essential business decisions, they are essential marketing decisions.
For books, the free strategy is possible in a variety of iterations. Authors can give away whole chapters, excerpts as articles, or a free preview—or they can give the whole thing away for free to a select audience, or have events or sponsors buy copies that are in turn given away for free. In one form or another, my own books are almost entirely available for free online. If there is good content inside the book, I want to publish it for free online because it’s my best sales pitch. My books are often uploaded to pirate sites (you may be reading a pirated copy right now), and I’ve also done big giveaways in the past.
“Although it’s hard to turn fame into money in the arts, it’s impossible to turn obscurity into money in the arts. It doesn’t matter how you plan on making your money—selling books or downloads, selling ads, getting sponsorship, getting crowdfunded, getting commissions, licensing to someone else who’s figured out how to make money—you won’t get the chance unless people have heard of your stuff.”
“Having content that is free and shareable is an important part of the equation, though it’s important to emphasize that it’s only free to the reader. My writing costs me a lot to host and maintain because I don’t monetize it with ads. I make that clear on my website, so it communicates to the reader two things: 1) that I’m sacrificing for my writing, which means that I write because I have something to say, and 2) I’m sincere with my message.
“Not having ads and fulfilling that promise also builds trust with my audience. That trust is extremely valuable when it comes to my product endorsements, which are few and far between. That’s why when I endorse products, services, or people, it’s usually extremely successful.”
And that’s been true not just for the millions of dollars in T-shirts he’s sold through his websites, but also for the New York Times bestselling (and now perennial-selling) books he’s produced and marketed through the site.
If Not Free, Cheap
The question, then, is: What is the right price to create a perennial seller? This is going to be controversial, but my answer is: as cheap as possible without damaging the perception of your product. (And by the way, with the exception of ultra-high-status premium brands, I think damaging the perception of your product through price is very hard to do.)
The reason for this is that a classic of any kind has two characteristics: 1) It’s good, and 2) it has been consumed by a lot of people (relatively, at least). One of the best ways to build a readership, viewership, listenership, user base, or customer base early on is by making it cheap.
The first Bic pen was priced at nineteen cents. A half century later, it’s roughly the same price when you adjust for inflation. Keeping the price low has made it the default pen for millions of people. Instead of running expensive celebrity ad campaigns, Bic’s marketing strategy is simply to keep its price low—and that’s not an easy thing to do.
As a general rule, however, the more accessible you can make your product, the easier it will be to market. You can always raise the price later, after you’ve built an audience.
Find Your Champions—The More Influential, the Better
When a real person, a real human being whom others trust, says “This is good,” it has an effect that no brand, no ad, no faceless institution can match.
Most endorsements are organic, accidental even. The question is: How do we draw influencers to our work and increase our chances of it happening to us? How do we increase the odds for these accidents?
The first step is the hardest: making something really awesome that exceeds the expectations even of busy, important people with exacting taste. We spent the first half of this book on that idea—and it matters here most of all. There is no fiercer battle for attention than here, with influencers (and no one with higher standards).
bloggers often get a cut of affiliate revenue when they link to products they like. If you can make something that will make them look good? There’s a real possibility of something happening.
Kathy Sierra, a well-known programmer and game developer, has spoken about needing to consider “your audience’s audience” when designing and marketing a product. She says that creators shouldn’t be thinking “Does this make me look good?” When they are pitching or producing they should be focusing on making their audience look good. Even better, forget the “looking” part—just make them good, period. Or, as Sierra puts it, make them “badasses.”
The next step—when you have something that is likely to make an influencer look like a badass, or benefit that person through a recommendation—is the research. I’m often puzzled by the trouble that creators have identifying the influencers in their space. If you’re living and breathing the work you do, the answer should come naturally to you. (Ideally, the influencers should be people who influence you too.) But if you don’t know, it’s time to comb the web and compile dossiers of potential targets. Who seems to have a big following? Who has a reputation as a tastemaker or trendsetter? Who seems to be highly connected or to hold a position of prominence in your industry? Who seems to have a hunger for films, apps, food, or services like yours?
Again, these people don’t have to be famous, but they should matter a great deal to the audience you are trying to appeal to. Then comes the tough part: the reaching out.
Making the Ask (And What to Do When You Hear Yes)
Marc Ecko built his clothing brand Ecko Unltd. into a billion-dollar company and a staple of street wear and music by perfecting what he called the “swag bomb”—a perfectly tailored and targeted package to the person he was trying to impress. His first influencer was a popular New York City DJ named Kool DJ Red Alert. Marc was addicted to his weekly show, which often featured the latest and coolest trends in hip-hop. To get attention for his company, Marc would camp out in Kinko’s and fax in special drawings he made to Red Alert’s station fax machine. Then he started sending airbrushed hats and jackets and T-shirts. He never asked for anything—he just made great work and sent it to select influencers he knew might appreciate it. Eventually, he got his first shout-out on the air, and the brand was never the same.
Marc wasn’t just sending out random stuff to random people—he knew who mattered and he knew what they liked. When Spike Lee directed the movie Malcolm X, Marc “sent him a sweatshirt with a meticulously painted portrait of Malcolm X on it.” The sweatshirt took two days of work to make—even though there was no guarantee Spike would even see it. It turned out that Spike loved the gift and sent Marc back a signed letter. Two decades later, Spike Lee and Marc Ecko are still working together.
Of course, it’d be great if the president added your book to his summer reading list or Oprah gave you her stamp of approval. These can be dizzying, life-changing windfalls for creators—and that’s why so many people chase them. But the whole reason those lists matter so much is because they don’t take solicitations.
There are plenty of other, less exclusive ways to access influencers that will still move the needle. We might not have cultivated Kanye at American Apparel, but I did spend thousands of hours and tens of thousands of dollars cultivating relationships with tastemakers and trendsetters. One of the best ways I found to connect with people was very simple: I’d notice who was already wearing our clothes or wearing similar products. I’d email them to say hello and invite them to the factory and give them personal tours (something other companies couldn’t do). I’d send them nice emails and free products. If a celebrity needed something for a tour, we might custom-fabricate it for them and not charge (again, since we had our own factory, we could do something other companies couldn’t). I wasn’t asking them for anything—I was making offers.
When you find an influencer who likes your product, hold on for dear life. (Send them more stuff than they know what to do with—chances are they have influencer friends!)
Always put yourself in their shoes: How would you feel if everyone wanted a piece of you? How would you feel if you got dozens of emails a day from total strangers trying to trick you into endorsing products, essentially for free? You’d be overwhelmed. Or you’d be jaded. The fact that most creators—especially big companies—just hire PR agencies to do this pitching for them is an opportunity for the DIY creators who don’t. Be a person. Be nice. Think relationship first, transaction second.
The only time I’ve ever explicitly asked an influencer for anything—“Would you post this for me?” or “The book is out next week; we should be able to share?”—I was able to say it the same way I might have asked someone to water my plants while I was out of town. Because we were friends and we do stuff like that for each other.
I’ve always found that a critical part of attracting influencers is to look for the people who aren’t besieged by requests. Authors are inundated with requests for blurbs from other authors; meanwhile, generals, academics, and CEOs are asked much more rarely. Who would be better to go after, then? Try to find the people least likely to get a request from someone like you, and approach them first, instead of going where everyone else is going. Be bold and brash and counterintuitive not only in how you create your work, but also in who you use to market it.
The last part of the successful utilization of influence is how you use it. It’s great to have important fans and champions, and their willingness to put your work in front of their audience is a huge advantage. But it doesn’t end there.
In my experience, the most effective use of influencer attention is not simply in driving people to check you out, but instead as a display of social proof. A blurb on the back of a book isn’t bringing new fans to the book; it’s there to convince an interested reader, “Hey, this thing is legit.” Katz’s Deli has photos of the owner with all the celebrities who’ve eaten there—but they’re hanging inside the restaurant. It’s to reaffirm to the customers: You’re in a special place. Special people eat here.
Instead of talking about all his accomplishments, he thanked them and made the speech about them and what they do on the court. The other coaches marveled at the subtle message Calipari was sending: Play for me and you can end up like these guys.
That is the kind of message we want to send to the people we’re trying to recruit to our work. We have to look for creative opportunities to do it.
Getting Media Coverage
In any case, since customers aren’t paying to consume media anymore, media definitely won’t pay you or me for letting us be in their pages or on their airwaves. But there’s an opportunity here. While other creators waste their time chasing media that doesn’t work, there are plenty of PR strategies that do work—and, better yet, are easier and often costless.
OK, I Still Want to Get Press
If you are going to pursue a press-centric strategy, please listen to my advice on this: Start small.
NBCNightly News is probably not the first outlet to pitch, and it’s not the one you’re most likely to succeed with. Instead, you will have more success with PR if you treat it the same way you treated your product design: Identify your core audience and start there.
The way I describe this process is “trading up the chain.” In an interconnected media age, outlets pick up and re-report on each other’s stories. By starting with a small podcast where I could tell the story on my own terms, which led to a pickup on a small site that covers a niche, and then sharing and spreading that piece so it was seen by the right people, I was able to ultimately go from a tiny show to one of the biggest and most influential outlets in the world. Even without that big payoff, this was a great success—because it was selling books along the way, first to the loyal fans of the podcast and then to die-hard Pats fans. No publicist required.
When my company works with musicians, we start by finding the most obscure and specific outlets you can think of. That’s how we get buzz going—we want to create the appearance that interest is bubbling up organically (which, because of our approach, it is). We know that these sites feed into the bigger ones, which feed into bigger ones still. The hard work there is finding the influencers of the influencers—and that can be done only with real research by people who actually care about the market they are trying to penetrate.
The other upside is that it adds an element of momentum to your narrative. Where far too many projects experience a flash of publicity and popularity only to disappear under the pressure and expectations of that attention, the steady drumbeat is better. The last thing you want is to get a large hit and for viewers to feel like there is less to the story the more they dig in.
The angel investor, former TechCrunch reporter, and partner at Google Ventures M. G. Siegler actually advises startups to avoid angling to be featured or highlighted by Apple in the App Store for this reason (arguably the ultimate editorial placement for apps). Sure, it seems like getting the Apple bump would be amazing, but that isn’t always the case.
What you don’t often hear about is the flipside: When Apple does bestow a coveted featured spot upon your app, you get to rise above the noise, but the result of that is a lot of noisy would-be users . . . The masses may not be asses, but they can be fickle.
It’s better, he says, to start with smaller media and smaller features, then work your way up to the big score. I agree.
It’s About Grabbing Attention, Not Getting It
What many creators fail to realize—and it becomes clear only when you’ve spoken to many reporters over a long period of time—is that the media is desperate for material. Reporters sit around all day hoping to find good stuff, anxious to beat their (many) competitors in getting to it. In this way, the modern media is really a seller’s market. Reporters want stuff. Their bosses expect them to jump on leads that fall in their laps, because they need them to publish a lot more than they ever have before. They crave page views. In fact, if they don’t get page views, they’ll soon be out of a job. If writing about you or covering your work in some way gets them what they want (i.e., readers), they’re not doing you a favor by covering you. On the contrary, you’re doing them the favor.
And yet, hungry as they are for fresh stories, these reporters are incredibly busy, underpaid, and besieged with requests from other people who want the same attention you’re seeking. While none of them has ever said “Man, there’s just too much great stuff out there. I can’t cover it all,” they rightfully become jaded after the four millionth press release announcing the release of some revolutionary product with a dumb name. Writing about you and your supercool, awesome masterpiece might be good for them, but they don’t know it yet. It’s on you to take up the burden of explaining to them—rather, showing them—why.
That’s what happens when preparation meets relationships meets opportunity. Asking a reporter in New York City simply to write about some new book that was coming out (or the rising trend of atheism) would likely not have worked. But when someone who is writing a book and is an embodiment of that trend does something as provocative and unusual as hosting an atheist church service in the Bible Belt? The most important outlets in the world ask if they can write about you. They ask your permission.
It can be even better than that. Sometimes they ask you to write about it yourself.
What all these stories have in common is that instead of hoping—or pitching, a more active form of hoping—that the media would cover these wonderful folks for their intrinsic merits and worth, they took matters into their own hands. They did things that created media opportunities for reporters. They did something that broke through the noise, that made a statement, and they did most of the legwork to boot. The sizzle sold the steak.
But what makes something interesting? What makes for something newsworthy? Those are the essential questions for which I’ll give you an easy answer: The most newsworthy thing to do is usually the one you’re most afraid of. The thing you joke, “But of course, we can’t do that.” (One of my most famous stunts began with those exact words.) And then you have to actually do it.
Just as Casey Neistat chastened would-be creators about the worthlessness of their ideas compared with their execution, no one gets coverage for thinking about maybe doing something. You get coverage for taking a stand, for risking something, for going out there and creating news where there wasn’t any before. You don’t get coverage for what you feel or what you believe. Only what you do with those beliefs or feelings. During the 2016 election, I didn’t sit in my house hoping that someone in the media would ask me my opinion about the candidates. I wrote an open letter to my father titled “Dear Dad, Please Don’t Vote For Donald Trump.” It just so happened that the Trump campaign got one outlet to refuse to print my letter, and a media controversy erupted. More than one million people eventually read the letter as a result, and I got emails from a number of influential people who I didn’t even know were reading my writing. The best part? NPR called to talk to me too—the same NPR who we’d pitched unsuccessfully about my recent book. With the letter in hand, they were suddenly much more interested.
I bring all these stories up not to brag but to encourage you—and to assuage any fears you might have. There’s no reason to be intimidated by the big media machine. You can make it work for you. Don’t be afraid of pissing people off either. I’ve made a lot of people mad over the years—I’ve been through it all, and it’s not as bad as you’d think. It can actually be fun, as long as what you’re doing is consistent with the principles of your work. So create a stir. Make some noise. With the timeline we’re considering—years and years of relevance—in the end no one will remember being “offended” by something. The world will just remember having heard about it in the first place.
The Art of Newsjacking: Making It All About You
A broader definition of “newsjacking” would then be: when people and the media are all talking about a certain topic, insert yourself into that conversation by connecting what you do with what they’re already talking about.
A clever example: As a new and novel innovation, drones quickly became a massive media trend. The word inside the newsrooms was that drone stories were traffic gold. This was obviously on Amazon’s mind when, on the eve of Cyber Monday—one of the biggest online shopping days of the year—it made a commercial that showed its drone delivery system dropping off Amazon-branded packages on doorsteps across America. Here’s the thing: This drone delivery system did not exist. Even as I write this, it still does not exist. But that was never the point. Amazon was hijacking the news to its advantage. Everyone went along with it—including 60 Minutes, where the commercial debuted—because the company had done it so well.
The Art of Paid Media
I’ve bought quite a lot of it over the years (at least $20 million worth on behalf of clients), but as an effective tool for the launch of a product, advertising almost never works. It’s far more effective when there is already a considerable audience or sales track record.
But maybe you do have some money to burn. In which case, here’s a crazy idea: Actually put it in a giant pile and burn it, then post the video online. Title it “Here’s What We Did with Our Advertising Budget.” Or give the money to an orphanage and track the impact of your donation on these children on your website for the next decade. Watch how much attention that gets. When you do something unexpected or surprising, it almost always does better than going dollar for dollar against advertisers, who spend millions of dollars a year like it’s nothing (because to them it is nothing—they’re not spending their own money the way you are).
Newsjacking and advertising can intersect as well. At American Apparel, we once got word that a college student in Wisconsin had been attacked while wearing one of our “Legalize Gay” T-shirts. Springing into action, we bought the back page of the school newspaper and ran a large “Legalize Gay” ad condemning the attack and supporting the students. We offered a free T-shirt to any student on campus—to be picked up at the LGBT center. It was advertising that got attention, that gave a special product directly to future customers, and that was the right thing to do.
If I were spending my own money on a billboard—let’s say for my marketing company—I probably wouldn’t mortgage my house to afford whatever ghastly amount it costs to advertise in Times Square. What I might do instead is buy a small billboard in the town where I grew up that said “Dear Teachers of Granite Bay High School, Thanks for Not Believing in Me. Look at Me Now.” It’s the kind of thing that would get picked up in the local press and then online and people would talk about it forever. Especially if a “concerned citizen”—nudge, nudge—took a photo and sent it to a handful of media outlets the day it went up. You’d be surprised how far “a concerned citizen” can get letting a local paper know “about an outlandish, offensive billboard that made my daughter cry.”* Anyway, that’s just an idea—I haven’t actually done that, but I might!
One Last Thing
There’s a great exchange involving the philosopher Epictetus that encapsulates my approach to thinking about marketing. “Tell me what to do!” the student says. Epictetus corrects him, “It would be better to say, ‘Make my mind adaptable to any circumstances.’” It is true for marketing, just as it is for life. Principles are better than instructions and “hacks.” We can figure out the specifics later—but only if we learn the right way to approach them.
The best strategy is to try everything and see what works for your project—because it’s going to be different for every single project. When you find something, stick with it. Marketing is the art of allocating resources—sending more power to the wheels that are getting traction, sending it away from the ones that are spinning. And investing in each strategy until the results stop working. Then find the next one!
Part IV: PLATFORM
From Fans to Friends and a Full-Fledged Career
I had acquired what, to my mind, is the most valuable success a writer can have—a faithful following, a reliable group of readers who looked forward to every new book and bought it, who trusted me, and whose trust I must not disappoint.
Becoming a perennial seller requires more than just releasing a project into the world. It requires the development of a career. It means building a fan base both before and after a project, and it means thinking differently than most people out there selling something.
Where other bands relied on radio, on being on MTV, on being timely or on trend, Iron Maiden focused on one thing and one thing only: building a cross-generational global army of loyal fans who buy every single thing they put out. Other acts are dependent on promotion—PR, advertising, store distribution, artist collaborations, and big-budget music videos—to stay relevant and reach an audience, but Iron Maiden cultivated a direct and intimate connection with their fans that allows them to skip those tricks. The result is that the band is killing it.
The question, then, is: How do we build our own loyal audience? How do we communicate with this fan base, and how do we develop the body of work required to support it over the course of a perennially selling career?
What’s a Platform?
Today, people think of a “platform” a bit differently. Many see it as how many social media followers you have, or the ratings of a television show. I would argue that this definition is almost equally simplistic.
In my definition, a platform is the combination of the tools, relationships, access, and audience that you have to bring to bear on spreading your creative work—not just once, but over the course of a career. So a platform is your social media and the stage you stand on, but it also includes your friends, your body of work, the community your work exists in, the media outlets and influencers who appreciate what you do, your email list, the trust you’ve built, your sources of income, and countless other assets. A platform is what you cultivate and grow not just through your creative work, but for your creative work, whatever it may be.
The ability to access and draw on our assets—whether they are social media or an email list or a phone call to a loyal ally or simply a popular body of work—is what makes an artist successful over the long term. It’s also what allows our work to endure even the most heinous attempts at censorship or oppression. A platform is what gives us the ability to launch our work into the world and keep it going once it has been launched so that it may reach perennial status.
As with everything else in this book, the only person who can set this platform is you. Only you can develop your own army of what Lady Gaga calls her “Little Monsters”—the die-hard fans who hang on her every word.
Why You Need a Platform
Everyone wants a platform when they need one. People want to have a big list—they just don’t want to lay the groundwork for one beforehand.
You see this a lot in film. Hollywood assumes that because they put somebody famous in a movie, that movie will be a success. But fame and platform are not the same. Star Wars has a platform of loyal diehards; your average romantic comedy does not and never will. Arnold Schwarzenegger has a platform, one he has meticulously built over the years, allowing him to conquer Hollywood, government, and now social media. Meanwhile, other famous actors, like Charlie Sheen or Katherine Heigl—as well known as they are—have no ability to do something similar.
Casey Neistat was once an up-and-coming filmmaker destined to be the next go-to indie director. He’d created a successful show for HBO. He’d had a film at Sundance. He’d premiered two movies at Cannes. But he left that behind to distribute his work on YouTube. Why? Because the grind of making stuff and then hustling for funding and negotiating with agents and finally waiting for a distributor to get it to an audience was exhausting. It’s hard to be an artist when a middleman gets to decide which pieces of your art make it to viewers.
On YouTube, however, he could release his videos directly to his fans. He could line up subscribers. He could reach people directly on social media and via email. Online, he has a platform—one he owns and operates, no middlemen allowed. And you know what? It works to great effect. For over a year he put up a video every single day to millions of subscribers. His daily vlogs racked up hundreds of thousands of views within hours of going live each morning. There’s no promotional apparatus here, he doesn’t lobby a studio for a marketing budget, there’s no vying for a release date against the rest of a distributor’s slate. Today he’s one of the most influential directors on the planet—even if most people who aren’t his fans would have trouble recognizing his name.
This is the highest—and over the long term, most profitable—kind of artistic freedom. Casey isn’t hoping that YouTube will help him get noticed by Hollywood. He doesn’t need it. As he said, “Platform is not a stepping stone. It is the finish line.”
That’s a powerful—and powerfully counterintuitive—way to think about your work.
Build Your List. Build Your List. Build Your List.
If I could give a prospective creative only one piece of advice, it would be this:Build a list. Specifically, an email list. Why? Imagine that, for reasons entirely outside your control, there was a media and industry blackout of your work. Imagine that, due to some controversy or sudden change in public tastes, you were suddenly persona non grata. Imagine if no publisher, no crowdfunding platform, no retailer, no distributors, and no investors would touch what you’ve made.
In any normal scenario—until very recently, in fact—you’d be screwed. You’d have no way to release your product, no way to get your message out into the world. All would be lost.
Ideally, an email list is something you build up over the years, comprised of real, hard-core fans who know the real story about you and are never going to abandon you as long as what you make continues to be good. Right now, as of this writing, it’s the single most important and effective way to communicate with your potential audience and customers. That list is a lifeline, one that can help you thrive when times are good and survive when times are bad.
Remember taking stock of all your assets in the marketing section? The things you were putting in your spreadsheet? Your email list should be the first entry on the sheet.
“The only way to guarantee longevity online is to retain control of your own engagement channel. Mainstream media is learning the hard way what happens when you outsource audience engagement to search engines or social media. For example, my local newspaper has totally trained me to only find them through Twitter. If Twitter decides to start charging them for access to this engagement channel, they’re done.”
Eight- and nine-figure social media metrics can be very intoxicating, but we should be wary of overinvesting in social platforms, because they come and go—ask all the folks who had large Myspace followings—and it’s entirely outside our control. Their policies can change; they can get acquired or go bankrupt. They can suddenly start charging you money for services that you once expected would be free. When we evaluate which platforms to jump into as we build our audience, our old friend the Lindy effect is a fitting rubric to apply. If something has been around for only a month, extrapolating that it’s going to last for at least another month isn’t exactly encouraging given how busy we are and how important the success of our creation is to our career. Meanwhile, email is approaching its fiftieth birthday. Seriously. Email is almost fifty years old.
How to Build It So That They Will Come
You can build a list about anything. A lot of lists are about the people who made them, naturally. There’s no reason to sign up for Iron Maiden’s list or to friend them on Facebook unless you like Iron Maiden. People who subscribe to Casey Neistat’s YouTube channel are interested in getting only his videos. People who give their address to Bed Bath & Beyond are asking to be mailed coupons and informed about upcoming sales. If you want people to consume your work and to know what you do next, you have to make it possible for them to hear about it as easily and regularly as possible.
My friend Noah Kagan, the expert marketing mind behind the company AppSumo, calls this “amnesia marketing.” Because you keep forgetting your customers, you have to find them over and over again for each project. There is an impulse that is common to those who are prone to this mistake: paying someone to build your list for you. I urge you to avoid compounding one mistake with another. Building your list is not someone else’s job. People will not beg you for the opportunity to join it. You can’t buy subscribers. No list is built entirely through advertising. It will take work—sometimes years of work—for it to pay off. But it will be worth it.
The best way to create a list is to provide incredible amounts of value. Here are some strategies to help you do that:
- Give something away for free as an incentive. (Maybe it’s a guide, an article, an excerpt from your book, a coupon for a discount, etc.)
- Create a gate. (There used to be a Facebook tool that allowed musicians to give away a free song in exchange for a Facebook like or share—that’s a gate. BitTorrent does the same thing with its Bundles—some of the content is free, and if you want the rest of it, you’ve got to fork over an email address.)
- Use pop-ups. (You’re browsing a site and liking what you see and BOOM a little window pops up and asks if you want to subscribe. I put such pop-ups at the back of all my books.)
- Do things by hand. (I once saw an author pass around a clipboard and a sign-up sheet at the end of a talk. It was old-school, but it worked. Also, at the back of my books I tell people to email me if they want to sign up, and then I sign them up by hand.)
- Run sweepstakes or contests. (Why do you think the lunch place by your office has a fishbowl for business cards? Those cards have phone numbers and email addresses. They give away a sandwich once a week and get hundreds of subscribers in return.)
- Do a swap. (One person with a list recommends that their readers sign up for yours; you email your fans for theirs.)
- Promise a service. (The last one is the simplest and most important. What does your list do for people? Promise something worth subscribing to and you’ll have great success.)
Lists vary in size and quality, but they all have one thing in common—they start at zero. I asked Noah, who has built multiple seven-figure businesses off his email lists, how he’d recommend getting your first email subscribers. To get your first one hundred subscribers, Noah recommends doing this:
- Put a link in your email signature. How many emails do you send a day?
- See which social networks allow you to export your followers and send them a note asking them to join.
- Post online once a week asking your friends/family/coworkers to join your mailing list.
- Ask one group you are active in to join your newsletter.
- Create a physical form you can give out at events.
That’s a pretty decent start, requiring very little effort.
Make no mistake—this list you are building can become, over time, incredibly valuable. I’ve seen clients sell literally hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of products in a single day from a single email. I’ve seen authors sell their critical first hundred or thousand copies of a book. I’ve seen startups get traction right out of the gate, while their competitors struggled, because they had better access to a base audience for whom they had already created great value.
So start building now. Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing.
Your Network Is Your Net Worth*
There is a second kind of “list” that matters just as much as the list I’ve been describing: your list of contacts, relationships, and influencers. You know that saying “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know”? Well, it’s true.
My friend and client Tim Ferriss is probably the greatest and most awe-inspiring example of this. When I met Tim, I was nineteen years old and somebody’s assistant. Tim was a successful but mostly unknown entrepreneur putting the finishing touches on a book nobody thought would sell (it had been rejected by twenty-five out of twenty-six publishers).
What brought us together was the South by Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin, Texas. For me, it was the first real conference of my life. Tim, well, he was on what I might now describe as a networking tour. Instead of spending money on advertising or publicity, he was traveling from conference to conference to meet as many influential people as possible, developing relationships, learning, and doing favors. He even spent time with me, a total nobody at the time, because my boss was important. Within a few months, he would have a debut New York Times bestseller and unbelievable amounts of media coverage and online attention. Within a few years, that book would be translated into more than forty languages, sell millions of copies, and transform countless lives. And almost all of that success can be attributed to the network he built on that conference tour. (That network wouldn’t help just with books; it led to advising and investment deals worth millions of dollars as well.)
Some of Tim’s strategies:
Never dismiss anyone—You never know who might help you one day with your work. His rule was to treat everyone like they could put you on the front page of the New York Times . . . because someday you might meet that person.
Play the long game—It’s not about finding someone who can help you right this second. It’s about establishing a relationship that can one day benefit both of you.
Focus on “pre-VIPs”—The people who aren’t well known but should be and will be. It’s not about who has the biggest megaphone. A great example for me was meeting Tim. He hadn’t sold millions of books then and didn’t have a huge platform. Now he does.
Relationships Are a Platform Too
No one is entitled to relationships only because their work is genius. Relationships have to be earned, and maintained. If your goal is to become a grand master of important relationships, make sure you’re playing chess and not checkers.
Why should someone do me this huge favor? The only proper answer to that question is: Because I’ve done them favors in the past—because I’ve built up karmic debt.
Think about it this way: You can pay for influence the way you can pay for sex, but from what I understand neither is quite the same as when you get it the old-fashioned way. Just as earned media is always better than paid media, cultivating real influence and relationships is far better than paying for eyeballs and fake friends.
The Most Important Relationship
Hard-won reputations can be undone. Fans, once chewed up and spit out, do not come back. Conversely, the more intimate and personal the connection between creator, work, and fan, the more the relationship can endure. You do not want to be on the wrong side of the ledger when it comes to your relationships and karmic debt. You never want to owe.
Settle In for the Long Haul
As Seth Godin has written:
The launch is the launch. What happens after the launch, though, isn’t the result of momentum. It’s the result of a different kind of showing up, of word of mouth, of the book (or whatever tool you’re using to cause change) being part of something else, something bigger.
I remember early on I asked my agent Stephen Hanselman what separated his bestselling clients from his smaller ones. He said, “Ryan, success almost always requires an unstoppable author.” Throughout my career, I’ve seen this played out not just in books but in all products.
Marketing Can’t Stop. The Work Can’t Stop. The Hustle Can’t Stop. It Must Go On and On.
Once you have started to see the slow accumulation of success for a work over the long haul, you can’t quit on a project. There are many things you can do to continue to update and expand your work.
Build a Body of Work
Let me explain. An author kills himself to write a book, throws everything he has into marketing it, and then, in a conversation with another, much more successful author, asks: “What else should I do? How can I make sure my book keeps selling?” It is at this juncture—reached by many an author over the years—that this well-meaning creator is given one of the most frustrating pieces of advice ever designed: The best marketing you can do for your book is to start writing the next one.
It is frustrating because it is depressingly, frustratingly true. More great work is the best way to market yourself.
Likewise, the best thing an actor can do—whether it’s after an enormous blockbuster or an enormous bomb—is to find her next role, unless she wants to be defined by the previous role.* Same goes for the entrepreneur—whether her company has just sold or just failed, the best thing she can do for her career? Start the next company.
This was an explicit part of Steve Jobs’s business strategy as well as his personal strategy. As he said, “If you do something and it turns out pretty good, then you should go do something else wonderful, not dwell on it for too long. Just figure out what’s next.” Think about Woody Allen—he does a movie nearly every year, and has for decades. He explained that he goes for “quantity” as a way to get to quality. “If you make a lot of films,” he said, “occasionally a great one comes out. Films never come out in the end how you expect them to at the start.”
As I see it, not everyone who publishes a book is an author. He or she is just someone who has published a book. The best way to become an author is to write more books, just as a true entrepreneur starts more than one business. The best way to become a true comedian, filmmaker, designer, or entrepreneur is to never stop, to keep going. Obviously there are exceptions to this—there are plenty of brilliant creators who have made only one thing. They are still entrepreneurs just as Harper Lee is clearly an author. But wouldn’t the world be a better place if Ralph Ellison had written another book? Hopefully Mark Zuckerberg will start another company someday. Why should anyone’s first product or project be the end of it?
It’s not enough to make one great work. You should try to make a lot of it. Very few of us can afford to abandon our gift after our first attempt, convinced that our legacy is secured.* Nor should we. We should prove to the world and to ourselves that we can do it again . . . and again.
Reach Out to New Fans
In this way, marketing is an ongoing process. The responsibility of finding and reaching new fans is an endless task. It’s why successful people often collaborate with one another—in order to swap audiences.
As Goethe’s maxim goes, “The greatest respect an author can have for his public is never to produce what is expected but what he himself considers right and useful for whatever stage of intellectual development has been reached by himself and others.” This is true for any type of creative person. After all, repeating yourself is rarely the recipe for winning over new fans. Jerry Seinfeld and Louis C.K. figured this out early on, which is partly why they have been so consistently successful for so long.
That means: Don’t be afraid to try crazy things. Don’t let your brand tie you down to the point where you don’t explore or experiment. It is precisely these little endeavors that might illuminate a new direction for your career. They might expose you to a new community or group who will eat up your other work. Keep yourself from getting stale. Choose never to become so settled into a rut or routine or type that you are constrained by it.
Some people are not your fans and never will be. But there is still something to be done there: Colonel Parker, the infamous manager of Elvis Presley, came up with the idea to sell “I Hate Elvis” memorabilia so that Elvis could profit from his haters too. Everyone should know who their detractors are and rile them up every once in a while just for fun.
Build an Empire
There’s another reality of creative businesses that we need to consider: Most of the real money isn’t in the royalties or the sales. For authors, the real money comes from speaking, teaching, or consulting. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs might do well by their business, but they might do even better investing in their friends’ companies. For musicians, the money isn’t in records; it’s in touring, T-shirts, and eventually endorsements and other products.
But for a lot of artists, a fixation on the purity of their craft both prevents them from capitalizing on these channels and actually holds them back from exposing their work to more people. In the 1980s, artists and critics used to sneer at bands like Iron Maiden, Metallica, and AC/DC who “sold more T-shirts than albums.” This was somehow supposed to be a slur because, coming from people who love music, if you’re not a big seller, you must suck.
Well, the joke was on them. Not only are the margins a lot better on shirts than they are on albums, but shirts are free advertising for the band. There are people walking around in vintage Iron Maiden and AC/DC shirts they’ve had for twenty years. Other people see those shirts and check the music out—then go to concerts and buy their own shirts. It’s that expanded empire of products that has helped these bands stay relevant even in the decades since radio stopped playing their stuff. This entrepreneurial mindset—in the case of bands, a willingness to explore potential business opportunities outside of just writing and selling music—is something that every creative needs to consider. Especially in a world where technological innovation has disrupted the markets for selling things like music, books, or products.
Steven Johnson recently produced an extensive study for the New York Times on the boom of creative industries. Instead of the rise of the internet destroying the market for creative work—as many predicted—he found it’s had the opposite effect. For some artists anyway—not all. Why? As Johnson observed, “[Our] new environment may well select for artists who are particularly adept at inventing new career paths rather than single-mindedly focusing on their craft.” In other words, it’s favoring people who can move horizontally and integrate vertically, who can create innovative empires, not just produce work.
Some questions to ask yourself:
What are new areas that my expertise or audience would be valuable in? (Think of celebrities investing in companies or starting their own.)
Is it possible to cut out the middleman like a label or a VC and invest in myself? (Like when musicians buy back their masters or authors get their rights reverted. Jay Z has a famous line that says if you don’t own your masters, you’re a slave—which is partly true.)
Can I help other artists or creatives achieve what I have achieved? (Be a consultant, coach, or publisher/label head/producer.)
What are other people in my field afraid to do? What do they look down on? (These are almost always great opportunities.)
What can I do to make sure that I am not dependent on a single income stream? (You never know what can happen.)
If I took a break from creating, what would I do instead? (Maybe there is some long-lost passion to rekindle.)
What are parts of the experience or community surrounding my work that I can improve or grow? (Live events, conferences, memberships, personalized products, etc.)
Every industry has its own opportunities. Academics consult. Literary authors teach at universities. Hemingway and Steinbeck both appeared in advertisements; Hemingway even wrote them. Michael Lewis and Malcolm Gladwell both contributed to a campaign for Chipotle. Gladwell is a regular on the speaking circuit. Bruce Dickinson, the lead singer of Iron Maiden, has a radio show, has written a young adult novel, has led a successful solo career, nearly made the British Olympic fencing team, is a professional pilot, and has founded his own aviation company with revenues of $6 million per year.
In my own career, I was able to take a much lower advance for my second book—a book about Roman philosophy—because the company I had founded around my first marketing book was making enough to support me through the writing process. My empire didn’t corrupt my art; it funded it. In fact, that book ended up far outselling the previous one.
What I mean to say is that sometimes the best way to monetize your work—and we do have to make money to live—is not from the work itself, at least not in the short term. We know that perennial sellers can be immensely profitable over time, but they need room to grow, and what better place to grow them than in the fertile ground of your own budding empire?
One Last Thing
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. Having an audience that we own? That we’re bound together with like hand and fist? That is life. Yet as I’ve said before: This does not just happen. It must be built.
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. Build it now so that you might create multiple works like that. Build it so you can have a career—so you can be more than just a guy or gal with a book or movie or app. Because you’re more than that. You’re an entrepreneur, an author, a filmmaker, a journalist. You’re a mogul.
Don’t just make it. Make it happen.