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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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40 thoughts on “Publishing 2.0: Tim Ferriss on Using a Viral Idea to Create a Best-seller”

  • Eric Hamm says:

    Wonderful interview guys! I’ve read the book (bought it when it came out) and have listened to some of Tim’s speaking events and always enjoy his boldness and clarity of thought.

    I certainly agree with his point that a “lukewarm reception from all. “Oh, that’s nice. I think it’s pretty good.” is a death sentence.”

    This certainly can be said for blogging as well. When everyone agrees with what you say and give the same kind of “great post”, you know you didn’t really hit a cord with anyone.

    Thanks again for sharing your time, Tim, and thanks for the great questions, Leo. Eric.

  • Excellent interview. Leo, thanks for sharing this and Tim, thanks for doing the interview.

    I agree that the title is one of the most powerful things that helped create the books growth. I love the idea of how Tim tested it on Google Adwords.

    The book is excellent, and is a wonderful example of good writing combined with good marketing.

    Thanks again.

  • Jessica says:

    Fantastic. I love just about anything Tim Ferriss does at the moment. I’m thinking about reading 4HWW again to refresh myself. Can’t wait for his new book to come out. I’m sure it will be a different experience for Tim this time as far as promotion and marketing because he now has a rather large following and a lot more credibility. There must be an immense amount of pressure on his shoulders. Thanks for the interview Leo.

  • Leo,

    I’ve just discovered your blog and look forward to reading it.

    Enjoyed your interview with Tim. You don’t specifically mention the topic of 4HWW. But I’m convinced that had something to do with how well it’s done. The book is about twin hot topics: not enough time… and outsourcing. Both touch a lot of nerves, for a lot of people. So it was easy for bloggers and other reviewers to react passionately to the book.

    Plus Tim is a really nice guy… :)

  • Tim: You shouldn’t stop at a book. You could run loads of seminars. You can sell a book for $30 maybe but those same people who read and loved your book will pay $3,000 at a seminar. Get 1,000 people at a 3 days seminar and that is $3,000,000 for 3 days work (minus expenses of course)…

  • Mary says:

    To Tim, thank you for writing that book. My copy is dog-eared and highlighted, but I am making progress toward my goals faster than ever before. The big one being time freedom. Also, your clear how-to information took a lot of the fear of the unknown out of it for me.

    Leo, thanks for the interview. I follow this blog and Tim’s. You both are such an inspiration.

  • Doc Kane says:

    Hi Leo,

    Some good tidbits in here from Tim, thanks for digging. I’ve been wanting to ask Tim as of late what sort of ideas he has for dealing with tasks related to two lines of business at once. I’m continually playing with breaking the week into parts where I’m focusing on one idea, and then latter half of the week with the other, or doing so in day parts instead of by the week.

    I haven’t found a particularly great way to chunk this sort of thing out, so I’m curious if there is any research or experience that could be shared regarding this particular issue.

    Tim, if you’re reading this do you have any suggestions. . .if not, Leo, or anyone else with successes in this area would be great!

    Also, does anyone know if there is a light laptop that comes WITHOUT wireless, or an internet setup at all? I’m looking for something that would allow me to write/type without the distraction of jumping online for “a minute”. All I can find are those glorified typewriters with the 1×10 LCD screen. Ugh. I’m dying to find a solution for this as well.

    Thanks again, Leo and Tim.

    Cheers,
    Doc

  • Great interview Leo. Some interesting insights in to the book world and it certainly is fascinating to see how powerful the internet and blogosphere is for viral marketing.

    I know that Steve Pavlina recently launched a new book and offered it free to bloggers so long as they published an open and honest review on their blog. A win:win situation which seems to have worked well.

    Leo, I assume you have some similar plans in place for your upcoming book launch? Good luck!

  • Clifford says:

    This was great! I think what Tim didn’t mention was how much his blog contributes to his book. When he picked the brains of those top bloggers, it was probably to learn how to create a great site with great content.

    Most people buy the book then read the blog. I was the opposite. After reading his blog, I thought to myself “Here’s a guy who has something worthy to say.” And even after the astounding success of his book, he still produces great content on his site.

    Clever fellow that one is.

  • I am more inclined to write fiction. However, I feel that all of this advice can be applied to fiction writing as well. And to blogs; probably writing your typical blog post does not deserve the expense of an ad-words campaing to test several ideas, but maybe for some. And in any case we should remember to resist the temptation to write the first title that comes out of our mind.

    However, interpreting Tim’s words, you could also remember not to judge a book by its title.

    To be honest Tim, if you are reading this, your title almost made me not to buy your book. (Yet another too optimistic American, I thought) It was only several reccomendations that did the trick.

  • Anyone going to get some books on PR after reading it as a tip provided in this article? :)

  • Hey Leo & Tim,

    Great insights. Love the quote “Don’t half-ass the book and expect good marketing to sell copies.” Couldn’t agree more. Marketing and relationships can serve as catalysts, but nobody’s going to get behind something they either don’t believe in or don’t want to associate themselves with. Personal favors and money only go so far.

    It goes back to Seth, take a serious chunk of the time, energy and money you’d have spent marketing and turn it loose on creating the most remarkable book you can write. Beyond the ease it’ll add to your marketing efforts, it’ll also make you feel that much better, prouder, more excited about what you’ve created and the potential impact you’ll have.

  • Frugal Dad says:

    Awesome interview, Leo! I enjoyed Tim’s book and have been a fan of his blog for some time now. Looking forward to his next big project!

    As for the title, I resisted reading 4-Hour Workweek for some time because I assumed it was another unrealistic approach to reducing time spent in the office–sort of a pie-in-the-sky, sell off all your material possessions and live on nothing kind of book. I did finally read it, and I’m so glad I did. I often reference the book and apply things from it to both my own blogging experiences, and my FT job (which I’m trying to scale back from now by taking Tim’s proven approach).

  • Liora Hess says:

    Awesome interview! So much great stuff here. Love all the specifics. Thank you!

  • Leo & Tim,

    Thanks for the interview. I especially like the book recommendations, they sound good and I’m eager to check them out.

    The idea of using an Ad Words campaign to split test titles and subtitles is fascinating.

    -Phil

  • Wow! I was toying with the idea of writing a book based on my current career and based on my blog. Wow! Glad I had the chance to check this out. Thanks, Leo!

  • Leo,

    That is a rare opportunity you had there to interview Tim Ferriss.

    Like it or not, Tim Ferriss’ book became a huge international phenomenon and I doubt many business people have not read it or heard about it.

    He did create a lot of discomfort and a number of people didn’t agree with everything he said, but overall, he brought to light and important lesson for entrepreuneurs and it that learning how to manage your life and career is important. Basically, working 20 hours per day might get you money, but it won’t get you a life and learning how to deleguate in order to get a life is so incredibly crucial.

    Miss Gisele B.

  • What a fantastic interview! Congratulations to both Leo and Tim.
    It’s rare to find a blog article that I want to read more than once – and then sit down and think about carefully. This is one of them.

    There are so many important ideas in Tim’s responses. One of the things that occurred to me was that my concept of how to write a book is maybe outdated. I mean the kind of process that starts with a topic, an elaboration of ideas, structuring the topic in chapters and sections, and then adding a title. Tim obviously went about this process in a totally different way.

    BTW, I was fascinated by the idea of testing a title with Adwords. Maybe there is someone amongst our readers who would like to write a guest post for us at WTD about this? If so, contact me here:
    writetodone[at]gmail[dot]com

  • Excellent interview, Leo.

    I’m a huge fan of Ferriss’ ideas and methods. Now, I simply have to start implementing them.

    Good information here. Thanks for this interview.

  • Fantastic article and I have already ordered one of the recommended books from Amazon.
    Now I just need to follow up and make “The Accidental Organiser” a viral marketing success.

  • Argentina, Brazil and Japan? That’s where I have to go to write a good book that people will care about? Now you tell me?

    Marion TD Lewis

  • Hi Marion!
    Yes, I was wondering about that as well. I’m in Argentina at the moment, staying in the heart of Buenos Aires. There’s no way I could write a book here! The city is so loud and busy I can’t hear myself think.

    Personally, I’m more creative in a quieter environment. However, I like the idea of going away for short busts of total immersion.

    Can someone offer me a shack in the mountains with WiFi access, please? :-)

  • DanGTD says:

    Fantastic.
    That idea with title testing using Adwords is genius.
    Probably most authors wouldn’t think about it, since paying money to get a title it’s not a logical thing to do.

  • Tim is such a fascinating guy, yet nothing he says is revolutionary. If we all took a little more time to create real relationships, test theories instead of relying on guessing games and creating a better product through editing and editing some more, we will have more success stories like Tim’s. Thanks Leo for hooking this up!

  • Tim and Leo,
    I think Tim’s tested everything in the book – right from the title to the contents and packed it really neat. With so much valuable content in a single, simple package I guess the book is bound to be useful and noticed by many.
    Thanks dudes.

  • web says:

    Great insider tips for how Tim’s book became a #1 bestseller as well as the writing process. Cherish the journey.

  • Hi Leo,
    Thanks for this interview. I am halfway through Tim Ferriss’ book. I love his concept of low information diet and checking email once a week and all that. I also believe that outsourcing could help in many ways especially now that we’re all interconnected via email. However, I have a point to make. Tim is American. His currency is American dollars. Perhaps that is why it is easy to live on very little (as he mentioned, you don’t need to wait for retirement before you can enjoy your life) if one uses American dollars in South America. Because American dollar is a strong currency. I live in Asia, in Malaysia in fact. If I were to live a lifestyle that he proposes, I would probably think of going to Vietnam or somewhere where my currency (Malaysian Ringgit) would be worth more so I can live like a queen! I cannot do that in Europe or America. So context is important, no? Not everyone is an American. Not everyone earns US Dollars. Having said that, it is easy to love his concept. It gives us a reason to live right here, right now instead of waiting 30 years before we can do the stuff we like.

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