My 10-Step Book Publishing Strategy

In The Four Pathways of Modern Book Publishing, I described the main routes for a writer to get published today, and in The Case for Traditional Publishing for Full-Stack Freelancers I explained why I believe that for full-stack freelancers like me, traditional publishing makes the most sense.

With that foundation, here are the steps I’m planning on following for my own book, based on my online course Building a Second Brain:

1. Work with a well-known, established editor who worked on the best-selling book in my genre

I emailed this editor directly, and she agreed to work with me based primarily on my online following, a brief explanation of how my idea relates to the books she has worked on, and a video call in which I made my case. I’m waiting on a formal proposal and expect to begin working together in mid-April.

The value she provides is the credibility and network that comes with her experience in the industry. She has shepherded many best-selling books in my genre into the market, and I am depending on her intuition about what people respond to as we develop the proposal together. 

2. Hire a veteran agent who knows everyone in the industry and has many years of experience in nonfiction and self-development

I was introduced to a literary agent by an established author whose podcast I was on, who introduced me with a strong recommendation. After an introductory call she agreed to work toward representing me. The prerequisite is that I hire and work with the aforementioned editor on the proposal first, which I am happy to do.

This agent represents many of the most well-known nonfiction authors in the self-development genre, and is known herself for investing in longlasting, recurring relationships with them. There are a couple hurdles for me to navigate first, but I am confident that she’ll represent me starting later this year.

The value she provides is again in her network and experience. She personally knows and has worked with many of the top executives at major publishing houses, and will know which doors to knock on and which angles to take when it comes time to negotiate. These contacts could also come in handy when I seek testimonials and partnerships with established authors. 

3. Work with both the editor and agent to create the strongest possible book proposal, with the goal of starting a bidding war

I already have a 63,000-word book manuscript, compiled from various blog series and other things I’ve already written. I’ve learned that having a full-length manuscript is actually a liability in traditional publishing: publishers don’t look favorably upon a fait accompli – they want to feel like they had a hand in shaping and influencing the writing of the book they’ve purchased, not just a take-it-or-leave-it decision. 

This means that I need to take a step back from the manuscript, and focus my attention on writing a compelling proposal. I skipped this step, but can see in retrospect that it is actually essential: the manuscript is “stuck” on certain decisions that I’ve had a difficult time making on my own, such as:

  • Who is the ideal reader of this book?
  • What is the one key message from the book?
  • What is the biggest pain this book resolves?

These seemingly simple questions distill a vast number of considerations, priorities, values, and strategic variables that I am incapable of evaluating objectively. The very immersion that allows me to write such a book makes it very difficult to think from the point of view of a novice. Once we make these key decisions in the book proposal, and that proposal is accepted by a publisher, we’ll know which direction the manuscript needs to take to make it the last 20% of the journey.

4. Seek the highest possible advance, to make sure publisher has skin in the game

At first, I didn’t care much about the advance. I have a profitable business and many other ways of making money besides a one-time upfront payment. But in speaking with successful authors, they helped me see that the size of the advance is a symbol of something much more important: the publisher’s commitment to marketing and promoting your book.

There’s the old saying, “If you owe the bank $10,000, they own you, but if you owe them $10 million, you own them.” Something similar works in this case, since a book advance is essentially a business loan predicated on the projected success of the book. With so many competing priorities, so many high-profile authors clamoring for investment and attention, it is difficult to get significant support in selling your book. A larger advance, and therefore more risk on their part if the book doesn’t do well, is the best way to make sure they have as much skin in the game as I do. You want to make it in their interest to help you.

5. Adapt the manuscript toward a much more mainstream, novice audience 

My editor and agent (and possibly publicist) constitute my team, and together our mission is to pivot the existing manuscript toward a more mainstream audience that is encountering the idea of a “second brain” for the first time. We’ll use the proposal as our vehicle for this, trying out different framings and approaches.

I imagine this process will include tying this book to large-scale shifts in society and the world, such as information overload, digital hoarding, and content creation. We’ll look for emerging trends that are naturally controversial, interesting, or under-addressed, allowing us to tap into existing demand for knowledge on these topics. We’ll look at existing groups or communities that would be primed to respond to the book as early adopters.

6. Use the book as a marketing engine and monetize readers with other products/services

Much of the discussion around the profitability of books centers on the book itself: its royalty rate, sales volume, price, and cost to produce. I think this misses the true purpose of a book in the modern, digital age: to serve as a frictionless marketing engine.

The greatest strength of a book is its technological UNsophistication: it doesn’t require any special technology to read, doesn’t depend on an internet connection or device, and can be easily passed from person to person.

The book is by far the most universally used and loved format for knowledge transfer ever invented. This makes it the perfect marketing tool: it can find its way into the nooks and crannies of society like no other communication medium. 

As technology analyst Ben Thompson says: “The future of publishing will not be about monetizing pure words but rather about using words to gain fans that can be monetized through other harder-to-discover media.”

7. Use the book to enter institutions and schools

A major reason I will be seeking a traditional publisher is that the places I most want to reach are the most sensitive to signals of authority. I can reach early adopters on the internet on my own, but ultimately I want these principles to be taught where most people actually learn how to manage information (or rather, don’t learn): schools, universities, government agencies, libraries, after-school programs, companies, and other organizations. 

These institutions look for official approval and mainstream acceptance before jumping on a bandwagon. I’ve begun making small inroads into some institutions, but this has been hampered by my limited time and attention (for live trainings) and by the complexity of the online course. The book will be a self-contained, self-explanatory package that will help me escape these bottlenecks.

8. Invest all book proceeds back into promotion and marketing

I intend to use this book, converted into every possible format and language, to reach the widest possible global audience. Every bit of profit I will reinvest back into promotion and distribution, pushing it as far and as fast as I can. It is important to me that the disadvantaged and underprivileged people of this world gain the skills and tools I have to offer, since they need them more than anyone else.

I will rely for revenue on a certain percentage of people seeking other products and services, most of which I already have in place: my Building a Second Brain online course, Praxis subscription membership, other ebooks and courses, and coaching and consulting services. I’ve heard stories of authors with bestelling who soon after were completely broke, because they had no system to capture and hold people’s attention (and wallets). I’ve gone the opposite direction: the parts of the engine are in place, now I just need the book to supercharge it with fuel. 

The advantage of this strategy is that I don’t need the book to make money. Because I’m free to give up the most important chip, I believe I’ll be free to bargain for other things that are almost as important: control, access, time, attention, promotional support, and the best expertise. I’ll still fight tooth and nail for the overall profitability of the book, but with the option of reinvesting that profit into its continued success.

9. Change the online course to more accurately reflect the book, and create multiple tiers so it’s accessible

For the last two years I’ve invested heavily in the Building a Second Brain online course, which has become my main source of income. I could continue to invest in it, adding features and improvements and promotions. But I think this would actually take it in the wrong direction, making it more complex and daunting for newcomers to consume.

I believe that I need to take it in the opposite direction: making it simpler, more distilled, and easier to implement. What this really requires is a much more fundamental redesign of the course, stripping it down to the bare essentials that have slowly emerged from hundreds of student anecdotes and experiences. I needed all these people to try it out and tell me their feedback for me to know what the essentials actually are. In a way, these two years have been a massive beta test, funded by customers bold enough to try out something new.

I plan on using the book writing process to define the “official” BASB methodology. Books are inherently simplifying, because you have to include everything between its covers that an unknown reader needs to make sense of what you’re saying, without the expectation of two-way communication. Writing and editing a full-length nonfiction book demands a level of distillation that is almost impossible to achieve when working in more interactive formats.

Once the official methodology is in print, I can pivot back to the course. The fact that the first edition of the book will be “set in stone” and unchangeable for at least a few years is a priceless forcing function: I can decisively stop thinking about what to tweak, and focus my effort on making the course consistent with what I’ve written. Knowing exactly where the book leaves off, I can make the course the perfect stepping stone for those that want to move from reading to applying. I can re-design and re-record the course to be as user-friendly and intuitive as possible, incorporating all the feedback from students and readers.

Once that’s done, I believe I’ll be able to lower the price of the course as well, since students shouldn’t need as much live support.

10. Create other complementary products and services at every price point and in every format

Once the book is published and the course is redesigned, I’ll be able to fill out the rest of the product ecosystem. With a source of passive revenue in place, I’ll be able to take my time creating checklists, templates, specialized guides, case studies, interviews, and many other useful resources for people to put these ideas into practice.

Instead of listing a few lame “discussion points” at the end of each chapter, or including these resources as an afterthought at the end of the book, or doing free giveaways that people don’t really value, I’ll be able to offer them as complementary products in their own right. I might self-publish them through Amazon or sell them directly on my own website (through a service like Gumroad), relying on incoming traffic from the book. These complementary products can exist at every price point, providing the exact level of support for each person’s needs and budget.

Eventually, I’ll translate both the book and these complementary products into every possible format: into other languages, recorded as an audiobook, printed in hardcover and softcover, and distributed digitally around the world. 

This is how I plan on reaching the greatest number of people possible, with the strongest and most helpful product line, meeting them at any price point, while maximizing my own profitability and without sacrificing my freedom.

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