Publishing 2.0: Tim Ferriss on Using a Viral Idea to Create a Best-seller

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By Leo Babauta

It’s pretty rare that a first-time author, a virtual unknown, can have his book rapidly climb to the top of just about every best-seller list. But that’s what Timothy Ferriss of The 4-Hour Workweekdid in 2007, and the way he did it was just as remarkable as what he achieved.

Ferriss created an incredibly powerful idea and crafted the perfect book title. With the power of that title (and of course, the great content to back it up), Ferriss set it up so that all the work he did promoting his book was multiplied many times over … because many others ended up promoting his book for him.

His book took off in the blogging world — perhaps because many of us bloggers are the perfect audience for such a book — and as a result he got tons of positive reviews, interviews and even spin-off websites that focused entirely on the premise of the book.

Today I’m happy to share with all of you an interview I just finished with Timothy Ferriss where we take a more in-depth look at how he accomplished this amazing feat that has changed the face of publishing. No longer does publishing a best-seller require a top name, crazy advertising budgets, or big-media exposure (at least, not at first). Now you can take your book viral.

Leo Babauta: The 4-Hour Workweekreally took off, even before it was sold, in part because of its fabulous title and theme — it really connected with people, excited them, made them want to read more. Tell us about how you hit upon the idea of the book, how you crafted the title to the exciting few words it ended up becoming. Did you think about having a title/theme that made people instantly curious?

Timothy Ferriss:  If bloggers should spend 70% of their time on the post headline, writers should spend — not 70% of their writing time, of course — but at least a few weeks on the title and title testing, if needed.  I’m amazed by how amazing writers will regularly settle for the most mediocre of titles.  I set up Google Adwords campaigns to test the “headlines” (titles) and “ad text” (subtitles) that worked best in combination, using keywords related to content (world travel, retirement, etc.) as the fixed variables.  The 4-Hour Workweek also bothered some people and was ridiculed by others, which I took as a positive indicator.  It’s not accidental that Jay Leno parodied the book on-air — the title lends itself to it, and that was by design.  You can’t have strong positive responses without strong negative responses, and beware — above all — the lukewarm reception from all.  “Oh, that’s nice. I think it’s pretty good.” is a death sentence.

Leo: The idea and the book really took off in the blogging world. Tell us how you started the viral idea of your book out in the blogosphere — how you contacted bloggers and got them to do posts and interviews with you so that it could take off from there.

Tim:  I met bloggers at tech conferences by 1) asking panel moderators and event organizers who they’d recommend I meet (after a brief description of my background and projects), and 2) buying small groups of bloggers beer and then asking them questions about blogs.  I never hard-pitched the book.  I’d be interested in their work, which I was, and someone would eventually ask “so, what do you do? What are you working on?”  The book came up naturally and — if you pick a few pages that actually would be of interest to them vs. asking them to read a 300-page book — I had offers to check the book out.  I made it clear that I didn’t expect them to write about it, but I did go above and beyond to find a few pages I felt each blogger could use immediately.  It all came down to non-confrontational approaches and offering highly targeted content, even if it wasn’t in the book at all.  Become a trusted source first, then worry about your book.  I suggest people check out my post on tracking my case study in hitting the NY Times.

Leo: Once the idea started spreading in the blogging world, how did you get it to translate to Amazon.com and real-world bookstore sales?

Tim: Amazon is a no-brainer, as most people will link there to identify you.  The real-world offline bookstores is trickier.  Even if Scoble sells 3x as many books as The Today Show, the mainstream media will still get the chain buyers to pre-purchase more books.  What does this mean?  They put it on an endcap or front table and — lo and behold — you sell a ton of books.  It’s from the placement and not the mainstream media (with a few exceptions), but this is a process you need to understand.  Read Author 101 Bestselling Book Publicity: The Insider’s Guide to Promoting Your Book–and Yourselfby Rick Frishman.

Leo: What are your top tips for authors who want to create a book that just takes off virally — what do they need to do in terms of title/theme creation, content writing, and promotion?

Tim: Read a book on PR first and understand the questions you need to answer with media and anyone really: Why now? Why you?  Focus on making yourself a credible expert vs. pushing a book.  It doesn’t matter how good your book is if the messenger isn’t trusted.  Don’t half-ass the book and expect good marketing to sell copies.  Marketing can get you an initial wave of customers, but you need a good product to go viral (i.e. word-of-mouth).  I like to thin slice and write short chapters vs. a few longer chapters, and I think identifying new phenomena or trends and offering labels offers a lot of mileage.  Ultimately, write a damn good book and put in the effort required.  You cannot use PR to make up for shortcomings in a book.  Read On Writing Wellby Zinsser.

Leo: How did you firewall your time from your regular business duties so that you could write the book? How much time did you devote to writing?

Tim: I recognized that this was a process I wanted to experience, as well as a demon I wanted to conquer.  I’ve always had a fear of large-scale writing and expected it to be difficult.  This means that I fully expected to sacrifice other income and even some relationships in the name of writing a BOOK.  Not a blog post or article masquerading a book, but a real book that would stand the test of time.  I have no desire to write a book a year to keep the hamster wheel of royalties running.  I’d rather take the Good to GreatJim Collins approach and try and write a killer book every 3-5 years that can — hopefully — become a classic.

I left the US and did most of my writing in Argentina, Brazil, and Japan.  It doesn’t need to be that remote, but I suggest removing yourself from your current environs and schedule as much as possible.  I needed that separation for clarify of purpose and thought.

I spent 9-12 months full-time on this book and don’t regret a minute of it.  My next book will take even longer.  I strongly discourage people from 1) writing with royalty income as the main objective, and 2) taking writing a book lightly.  Once a book goes out, it’s your legacy and you can’t take it back.  Put in the time, take it seriously, and expect it to be f*cking hard.  It is hard, but it’s worth it if you treat it with the right kind of respect.  For those dark valleys of self-doubt that come up (and trust me — they will), I strongly suggest keeping Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Lifeby Anne Lamott at your deskside.  Grab it, go out to a park, and take the day off.  Drink some wine with a few friends, take a deep breath, and get a good night’s sleep. Then get back to writing.  It’s one hell of a ride.

Leo: Thank you, Tim, for sharing this amazing information with us! I think my fellow writers will be just as fascinated with this as I am — you’ve been very generous.

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