In this email I’m going to tell you how I colluded with Russians to sell 4000 copies of my first book, and why it was a big mistake. But first, let me tell you a story…
“Can I have the WiFi?”
I heard a story recently that resonated with me, and also draws attention to one key insight I’ve been screwing up for years, so I want to share it with you. A friend of mine was in Cancun, Mexico, which has a bunch of beach-side clubs with fancy pillows and lounge chairs. One of these clubs was getting sick of tourists asking for their WiFi password, so they did something clever: they created a cocktail called “The WiFi.” That way, whenever anybody asked for the WiFi, they’d hand them the drink they ordered, along with the bill.
An alternative version of this, was to actually make the WiFi password “buyadrinkfirst” – so when people asked for the WiFi password, the waiters could say “Buy a drink first.” Tourists though they were being told to buy a drink, when they were actually being given the password.
What’s the point?
It’s SO much easier to sell things if you create products that match what people are already searching for.
This took me YEARS to learn, and I still get it wrong often. I told you earlier about my failed book and why I gave up writing. I actually revised that book for my MA thesis and tried again. This time, I knew more about book design (so at least I got that part right). But I made a critical mistake with my title.
I tried to be clever. Aristotle considered metaphor a sign of genius, believing that the individual who had the capacity to perceive resemblances between two separate areas of existence and link them together were gifted. I’d always considered myself creative because I have this ability; it’s by far one of my greatest strengths. It’s also what I used to do with oil painting, like in these beauties.
So I created a juxtaposition that was surprising, even a little shocking. I thought it would stand out and get attention. I was right. But it also confused people. They didn’t know whether to support it or hate it; it alienated everybody, even those who would have loved the topic. Fueled by confidence in my own genius, I attended international book fairs, advertised, submitted the book to awards and review sites, and got quite a bit of publicity. Based on this publicity, even before the book was published, I believe, one of Russia’s largest publishing companies made me an offer for a 4000-copy print run to have the book translated.
Pretty good, right?
I was skeptical at first, but the check cleared and I made some money. Unfortunately, when I stopped promoting the book and the press died own, sales dried up. This is because nobody was looking for what I’d published. Long term, organic visibility is about knowing what people are searching for, and using those keywords in your title and subtitle. I made the same mistake with my first fiction; choosing weird or hard to pronounce words like “Orpheum” or “Prescient.”
I don’t do that anymore. In fact, now I do everything backwards. For fiction, I start with covers I know will sell (remember that “one-click” feature I talked about earlier? With amazing covers, most of your work is done for you). Incidentally, recently in my Facebook group someone asked about a famous writer who was selling like crazy:
“He is a mediocre writer. He writes medium niche. He has no author platform. No ads, no list, no nothing. How did he get there? He just has amazing covers, that’s it.”
I told him he answered his own question and was underestimating the power of great covers. But after I know I have great covers, I’ll do research to find out what readers are searching for.
I made a video/article about that process here: “The really weird tip I use to publish bestselling books.” I haven’t implemented all those yet, because I’m still catching up on older projects, but I also know my new stuff will sell by itself, without promotion or marketing, just because I’m getting smarter about positioning and packaging.
Here’s what it looks like in real time. A couple years ago I put out a short manifesto to creative success. I called it “You’re f#cking awesome: do something that matters.” There are lots of problems with that title, including the fact that people aren’t searching for those keywords, aren’t comfortable saying it out loud, and aren’t attracted to the benefits.
It’s a balance…
You want something that resonates with your audience, is immediately obvious and attractive, easy to say and remember, and also matches keywords they’re searching for. I’ve basically used that short book as a free offer to my audience, but right now I’m in the process of revising it into something better that will get more visibility (so my platform grows on autopilot, and people find my work organically, instead of me needing to pay or work to reach every new reader).
So first, I need to focus on what creative people actually want or need help with. I’ve broken it down into three main categories.
#1: Unleash your genius: create work that matters.
The original manifesto was based on my work at Creativindie. If you want an introduction you can read this post: “You’re awesome, do something that matters.”
The main idea is that most creative people are making things for themselves; and after years of being a starving artist, I realized it was far easier to focus on providing value. Instead of looking at art as divorced from cultural reception, I evolved towards an appreciation of art as inherently social: work has value based on how much it matters or resonates.
You may not agree, and that’s fine for now – that’s actually part of my problem. Creative people don’t want to be told to consider the market. BUT creative people are also routinely challenged with selling their work. Everybody wants to sell their work, but they can’t get anyone to buy it. This is the challenge I’ve spent most of my life wrestling with: how to do work I love and also earn a good living (so I can create full-time without worrying about a paycheck).
Which leads to option two…
#2: Paid to Create: from starving artist to creative genius.
This is a little better, because it’s an inherent value that’s attractive to most creatives. It’s not the MAIN thing, but most artists and writers would love to know how to sell more work, without spending all their time marketing, so they can spend their time creating, not selling. This is the major nonfiction book project I hope to tackle next (I already have over 80K of historical research and trivia, and it follow the six-step path to creative independence I mapped out when I started my blog years ago.
Recently, however, I realized something interesting: most creative people never get to the marketing phase, because they’re still stuck in the actual creation part – mostly due to fear, doubt, anxiety, productivity and procrastination problems, or even just struggling to find time to finish the work. This is something I ignored for a long time: I thought if you focused on providing value and made stuff people actually wanted, a lot of the fear and uncertainty wouldn’t be a problem. But now that I’m at stage 5 going on 6, I’m finding that getting the work done is a big challenge. I have lots of great resources to share, which leads to option three:
#3: Create with Confidence: how to stop procrastinating and finish your best work now.
That one is self-explanatory. Those three topics are pretty good, but #1 is weak – so I’ll probably redo my free manifesto as “Create with Confidence”, to help people finish the work, and “Paid to Create” to help them sell it. But first, I need to do keyword research. I used KDProcket to test keywords, both in Google and Amazon, and made a list of results.
- Creative: 3349 / Create 7980
- Anxiety: 32,487
- Depression: 1,107
- Make money online: 5641
- Make money: 6159
- Artist: 4829
- Courage 7700
- Fear: 4469
- Doubt: 4235
- Procrastination: 11,913
- Confidence: 6324
- Productivity: 3946
- Motivation: 19869
- Freelance: 6355
- Genius: 17,220
- Success: 8232
- Artist: 4829
The results show me that anxiety is a major problem, and that I probably shouldn’t avoid the word “Genius.”
After that, I want to hit as many keywords as possible, without keyword stuffing (keywords are important to get organic visiblity, but once visible, too many keywords can be off-putting, and it’s more important to focus on specific benefits that resonate with my audience.
Here are some new ideas:
Creative Courage: Overcome anxiety and discover unlimited motivation to do your best work now.
Create with Confidence: Remove anxiety, defeat procrastination, increase motivation and ignite your creative genius now.
Paid to Create: From starving artist to beloved genius: sell more work without selling out. (A historical and practical guide to creating work that matters).
Paid to Create: build things that matter, make money online from anywhere, earn a living doing what you love, and finally enjoy the freedom you deserve.
These aren’t perfect, because you want one clear title and subtitle (not two subtitles or benefit statements… it should read like one good sentence). Also sometimes things are stronger when kept simple: “Sell more work without selling out” will probably resonate with creatives more directly than specific keyword benefits like “make money online.”
As an example of the fun/shocking titles I love to use but are probably a bad idea, the other title I’m tempted to use came from a discussion with a friend in the Austrian castle we rented, “How to be a failed artist without becoming Hitler.” It has an immediate punch, is kind of funny, but would also be a bigger risk.
Here are some quick mockups I threw together. Compare them with Elizabeth Gilbert’s book on the far right. Using LESS keywords and jargon looks more professional – Elizabeth hits all the same benefits as my books with only four words, “creative living without fear.” She can do that, however, because she has a large platform, is traditionally published, has a beautiful cover that makes an emotional connection, and sells books at events.
I usually tell nonfiction authors and new entrepreneurs that there are two kinds of books: the Benefit book and the Brand book. When you’re starting out, you need specific, practical guides that teach people what you want to become known for (I have several of these, for writing, publishing and book design). Most people try to start with the “Brand” books – a manifesto of their lives or business, trying to be cute or clever, but without tangible benefits to readers.
The thing is, people don’t care about you. First you need to show up and offer them what they think they want. Then, once they’re listening, you can prove your credibility and lead them towards what they actually need. And once you’ve provided significant value (while also getting them to like and trust you with entertaining or useful content), eventually they’ll support a book you’re more passionate about.
Once you HAVE a platform, you can test out titles, subtitles and covers with them (you can’t always listen to everybody’s feedback, but it’s still a good idea to increase engagement prior to launch). If you have a way to drive visibility already, or plan to go big with ads, you can focus on copy that converts and creates a powerful emotional hook. I like to get free visibility with keywords because I’m lazy – but having too many keyword benefits may look unprofessional and convert less, so it’s a balance.
A 5-minute Amazon hack to triple sales
I want to leave you with something specific and actionable, so here’s a video I made recently. It’s so simple it seems ridiculous, but few authors do it. The trick is to include keywords in your subtitle, and as close to the top-left of your book description.