How a First-Time Author Got a 7-Figure Book Deal 114 Comments
[This is a companion post to "How to (Really) Make $1,000,000 Selling E-Books – Real-World Case Studies"]
This guest post by John Romaniello will explain exactly how a first-time author can get a 7-figure book advance, as he did. He’ll also explain how he got Arnold Schwarzenegger to write the foreword to his book (!!!), which you can read here.
This post demonstrates how to sell yourself effectively and–more importantly–how to be yourself effectively. I’ve added my own recommendations in brackets after “TIM”. In a few instances, I’ve also corroborated specifics (e.g. dollar amounts mid-negotiation) from sources other than John, as he rightly didn’t want to earn bad blood.
Before we get started, a few statistics:
- Less than 6% of all reported deals get an advance of more than $100k (as of 2011, and it’s gone down since)
- On average, fewer than 100 Hardcover Nonfiction Bestsellers in any year sell more than 100,000 copies, and usually only one or two top 1 million sold.
In 2009, John “Roman” Romaniello might have been another casualty of these sobering stats. He launched his blog in 2009 with 0 readers. Roman had effectively no Internet presence. By 2011, he was ranked as one of the top 100 most influential people in health & fitness, sharing space with Jillian Michaels and Dr. Oz. He used that platform to help him build a company that has grossed as much as $240,000+ per month, with a six-figure net. We’ll cover a lot of how he did all this and more.
But here’s the punchline: Roman’s first book deal for Man 2.0: Engineering the Alpha (with a co-author, much more on this later) fetched more than $1,000,000 in advance.
This is practically unheard of, unless you’re a president. So, how did he do it? This post explores the answers and tactics…
There’s a scene in the Adam Sandler film Happy Gilmore that could help you discover—as I did—“the secret” to landing a 7-figure book deal.
At the final hole of the final tournament in the movie—the one that the titular character has to win to save his grandmother’s house—Happy needs to sink his final putt to beat his nemesis, Shooter McGavin, by a single stroke and win the day. (Trust me, this is going somewhere.)
Suddenly, a large camera tower (previously damaged by one of Shooter’s henchmen) falls onto the green, blocking Happy’s shot. The rule is play it as it lays, meaning Happy needs to putt (uh oh). He’s advised to putt around the tower, sinking his ball in two strokes and bringing about a tie. This would extend the tournament into sudden death. Gilmore, briefly considers the idea and then decides, “Nah, I’ll just beat him now.”
Without completely spoiling the beauty of the putt, Happy makes the shot and wins the tournament. Before I share what this has to do with landing a major publishing deal, I want to touch on another story that’s equally important.
We’ve all heard about how The 4-Hour Workweek was turned down by 26 out of 27 publishers. It went on to be a runaway success, hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list, and launched Tim’s brand.
Tim went on to have two more bestsellers using the same formula from his first go-round. And I knew that if we did things the right way, we could come close to replicating it.
Which leads us back to Happy Gilmore. My publishing philosophy was direct: I’d rather just win now.
First, I partnered with a co-author. There are many good reasons for this, which I’ll explain later, but here’s the short version: I specifically sought out Adam Bornstein.
Roughly 4 years ago, Adam Bornstein was an editor at Men’s Health making $30,000 a year. He positioned himself as the editor’s editor, and was poached by LIVESTRONG.com. They moved him from Pennsylvania to Santa Monica, and increased his salary by a factor of five. He built his network there, and increased LS.com’s traffic by nearly 300% in 18 months. During a 12-month period, he also tripled the open rate of newsletters (from 10% to 30%) and increased click-through rate (CTR) to 60%. This is impressive for a list of any size, but practically unheard of for a list of nearly 2 million people. Adam now commands 5-figures a day as a business consultant for web traffic, conversions, and monetization of content.
Clearly, he was the perfect partner for a plethora of reasons.
Adam had previously written several books, all of them published by his former employer, Men’s Health‘s parent company Rodale, for advances of around $20,000-$40,000. Those advances are nothing to sneeze at, and are absolutely in line with the advances typically offered by big publishing companies. This time around, we modeled Tim’s success (skipping the getting turned down 26 times part), added our own flair, and came out swinging.
The first publisher we met with offered us a $400,000 “preempt” (preemptive offer). This is an “exploding offer” that you have a short time to consider and that usually prevents you from meeting with other publishers. We considered it but decided to turn it down. (We’ll cover the “why” of both events later on in this post.)
The gambit (and gamble) paid off. Our proposal — and, I have to imagine, our refusal of the preempt — made quite a splash. Publishers who hadn’t seemed interested the week before suddenly clamored to set up meetings. In the end, the proposal went to auction, and was eventually acquired by HarperOne for a “major deal.” This is part of the secret language that publishing insiders use to communicate the size of a deal to each other without having to specify a dollar amount to outsiders. I’m not big on secret languages, so let’s translate it: we inked a 7-figure, 2-book deal, an impressive feat, especially in the fitness industry where great offers normally net $50,000-$100,000 for their first foray into the world of traditional publishing.
If I may quote Tim, I say none of this to impress you, but rather to impress upon you what is possible.
The goal of this post is to give you a complete insider’s look into exactly how and why my co-author and I were offered a deal valued at roughly 10-20X the average—and how this is a replicable achievement, in nearly any industry. How anyone can become a millionaire author; how, with the right proposal that highlights their skills in the right way, anyone can pull a Happy Gilmore, and just win now.
Below, you’ll find an account of exactly how Adam and I approached both the writing of our proposal and the pitching of it, complete with the detailed examples we presented to our publisher. You’ll learn about the process itself, how to manage expectations and outcomes, and, in short, how you can (potentially) get a 7-figure advance as a first-time author.
Others have done it, we did it, and there are lessons you can borrow. There are techniques you can copy.
The Proposal Process
NO PUBLICATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION
First thing’s first: All book deals—at least the type that don’t revolve around tell-all stories by famous people—depend on the strength of your book proposal.
There are many conflicting opinions on the best way to go about writing a proposal. My suggestion? Don’t start with writing. First, hire a really good agent. Book agents write and sell proposals for a living, and have dozens of proposals crossing their desk every week. They see what works and what doesn’t. The insight of a good agent will be invaluable, and so the obvious recommendation is to join forces with a pro, and write together.
[TIM: Finding a good agent seems mysterious, so I'll suggest one effective method. Look at the "Acknowledgments" of authors you like, then look up those agents' contact information on Publisher's Marketplace, where you can also look at their sales track record.]
Of course, you can operate without an agent, write your proposal, and set up meetings with a publisher on your own. This, to me, seems unwise; agents know how to deal with publishers, and they know how to make deals. I’m only speculating here, but it’s probable that if you don’t have an agent, you’re not going to be taken as seriously—meaning you won’t get nearly as many meetings. A great piece of advice came from Gary Vaynerchuk, which I’ll pass on to you: “partner with a good agency that has had success with multiple books in your niche.” (That advice, by the way, holds true for selecting a publishing house.)
[TIM: I can sell books without an agent, so why do I still have one? I gladly pay 15% to my agent to fight battles after the book is sold (editorial, covers, distribution, etc.), not simply to sell books on the front end. Not everyone agrees with this, such as multiple-time NYT bestselling author Tucker Max, who operates independently. See "How Tucker Max Got Rejected by Publishing and Still Hit #1 New York Times" for more on his approach.]
As to how to find the right agent, it’s like dating: there are a lot of ways to do it. You can either be introduced, or go out of your way to find a date (by which I mean calling the agency to set up an appointment to pitch your idea). And, like relationships of any kind, sometimes they happen serendipitously: for example, I met my agent, the incomparable Scott Hoffman, at Tim’s Opening the Kimono event in 2011. Scott and I got to talking, and topics ranged from fitness to bourbon to life in NYC. He liked my book idea, we got a good vibe from one another, and, strangely, it turns out his agency’s office was three blocks from my apartment. And just like that, we were in business.
[TIM: I was introduced to my agent, Steve Hanselman, by Jack Canfield (co-creator of Chicken Soup for the Soul), who had Steve as an editor.]
When it comes to finding an agent, there’s one piece of advice I feel confident giving you: only sign with someone who believes in your project as much as you do.
UNDERSTANDING THE PROPOSAL
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever been given was from Tim, at his Kimono event in 2011. During his presentation, he stressed thinking of your proposal like a business plan—because, really, that’s what it is. And as a business plan, it will need to have a strong focus on how the business is going to make money.
Think of your prospective publisher like a bank; you’re a small business seeking a loan. In such a situation, you’d be asked about your business and what sets it apart, of course—but I assure you that bank would be far more interested in your projections for making money. The size of the loan—and, indeed, whether you even get—is predicated on the bank’s confidence that they’ll get their money back. If your business fails, that isn’t going to happen.
When a publisher considers the acquisition of a proposal, they need to appraise not only the idea itself, but also the salability of the idea, as well as the business acumen and marketing skill of the author. The long and short of it is that your proposal serves two purposes: to sell the idea, and explain how publishers will recoup their investment. The more time you spend on the latter piece, the easier it will be to do the former.
A good rule of thumb is that at least 50% of your proposal should focus on the business stuff (including marketing plan, previous successes, proof of concept, and details of your platform), and the rest should be devoted to the idea itself.
[TIM: It's not a bad idea to learn how successful start-ups pitch venture capitalists ("VCs"). They are even more comparable to publishers than banks. See examples here and here. Also see Author 101: Bestselling Book Proposals. Roman's agent Scott also added a few thoughts to proper positioning. Note the language; you have to learn to "talk the talk" (use familiar frameworks/terms) to sell effectively:
"People buy nonfiction books for four main reasons: 1) To solve a problem they know they have; 2) To take advantage of an opportunity they believe exists; 3) To learn more about a subject they're fascinated by; or 4) To live vicariously through the lives of other people. Man 2.0: Engineering the Alpha fits all four of these categories. That's one of the things publishers found most attractive about it. Movie producers are constantly looking for a "four quadrant" film--one that appeals to men and women, and people over and under 25."]
SETTING YOURSELF APART
As we get into the nitty-gritty of actually writing your proposal, the first thing I’d like to stress is the importance of separating yourself from everyone else. In any niche, most people at the top are offering similar services and similar results, even if the methodology differs. What customers or readers react to and how they decide what to invest in is not based on the 99% of what we have in common, but the 1% that makes us different.
To use myself as an example, people follow me because I’m Alpha–unapologetically me, unafraid to offend people or be polarizing. I’m not shy about talking about sex or dropping F-bombs, or waxing poetic about Dungeons & Dragons and comic books. Those things aren’t necessarily unique to me, but taken all together they do make me a rarity in the fitness space; muscle-bound über-nerds are not common, and in an industry where everyone can seem vanilla, it stands out.
Here’s how this is relevant to you: you need to realize that publishers are customers, and they react to they same triggers as everyone else. Like any customer, they make a purchase because of the promise of immediate benefit or the threat of missing out.
And remember that, in a very real way, publishers aren’t buying just the idea. They’re buying your “platform” (blog readers, Twitter followers, Facebook fans, etc.). Remember this term and use it.
A great example of this is Tucker Max: he had a very large and very responsive audience, and so his first book, I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, was acquired in a noteworthy deal: despite the fact that much of the content in the book was available for free on his website, Citadel Press chose not only to publish the book, but also give him a modest advance. These decisions were based on Tucker’s assumed ability to move units. It turned out to be a good move for the publisher, as the book eventually hit #1 on the New York Times best-seller list.
The lesson: the importance of your platform cannot be overstated, for both the sale of the proposal and sales of the book itself. Highlight it repeatedly in your draft.
[TIM: But what if you don't have a platform?! You can build a world-class platform quickly if you mimic people who've done it already. Here's how to create a global phenomenon for less than $10,000, step by step.]
On Credibility and the Metrics of Awesomeness
When it comes to standing out from the crowd, establishing your credibility early on is important; now that you got the publishers attention by being different, you need to drive home the fact that you’re better. There are 4 primary ways to prove credibility:
Credibility Method #1: Established influencer
Our proposal highlighted these things dramatically, focusing mostly on the below. Don’t be intimidated. I’ll explain how I achieved the most important bullets in this post:
- I’ve been published in both fitness and tech magazines (crossing industries), including Men’s Health, Men’s Fitness, Fast Company, T-Nation, SHAPE, Oxygen, yadda yadda yadda.
- I’m a blogger on a few high traffic sites (most notably LIVESTRONG and HuffPo),
- I’ve trained professional athletes and a few celebrities,
- I’ve had several successful information products (more on this below),
- I’ve been featured on TV a few times,
- I serve on the advisory board of more than a dozen fitness and tech companies,
- I’m the lead fitness advisor for Arnold Schwarzenegger. How this happened is explained below.
As an added feather in the cap, it didn’t hurt that I was featured in both The 4-Hour Chef (Vermonster section), and the teaser app for the book (iOS, Android/Kindle Fire) that was released during the holidays.
Credibility Method #2: Media Reach
We also focused on the fact that between my co-author and myself, we’d have a dual platform. Adam served as the fitness editor of Men’s Health, and then the Editorial Director of LIVESTRONG.com. His network is more extensive than my own, and includes editors from every magazine in our niche, as well as actors and professional athletes he met working in various publications. We used this to prove how many eyeballs we could reach in print and digital media, which was a very valuable asset. (More on this later)
Credibility Method #3: Third-Party Endorsement
You can also “borrow” someone else’s credibility, with an endorsement of some kind from people better known than you.
Our proposal had quotes from a few big name people in the industry; the most notable of these was Arnold Schwarzenegger—and when you’ve got the Terminator on your side, it grabs publishers’ attention. In that specific case, it lent a lot more weight to our implication (not promise) that we could get Arnold to write the foreword to the book—and, thankfully, we delivered, as the Gov was happy to write a few pages for us.
For those interested, here’s how my association with Arnold came to be: about two years ago, I got this email from a young guy named Daniel (hit Cmd and “+” to enlarge):
After a few email exchanges over the course of a week, I decided, in a moment of idle curiosity, to Google him.
The first result that came back was his Twitter account; the second was the Wikipedia page for the term “Body Man.” I learned two things reading that page: the first was that a body man is a politician’s closest personal assistant, who travels with said politician and generally provides whatever is necessary. The second was that my pen pal with all the great questions was listed under “notable body men” –as one of the special assistants to Arnold Schwarzenegger.
[TIM: The "body man" connection is powerful. Here's how a few 20-somethings networked with Obama's body man to play basketball with the President.]
Daniel was going to receive priority email response going forward. I didn’t think anything was going to come of our interaction, but as a meathead, it was just cool to be talking with someone who had such intimate access to the Oak. After a month or so of communication, he signed up for my coaching program (essentially, online personal training delivered by email). Daniel became a client—and a great one, at that—and we began to build a friendship.
During our time working together, he’d be traveling with Arnold, and they’d be in the gym together; occasionally, Arnold would jump in and do his workouts with him. One of the most surreal moments of my life was when I got an email from Daniel after a chest workout saying that “the Boss” was curious about why I’d selected a squeeze press instead of a traditional DB fly, and asking how to explain the workout to him. In essence, I was being asked to justify and explain the design of a chest workout to the man with arguably the greatest chest development in the history of chests. No pressure.
Anyway, the upshot is that Daniel came to rely on me as the primary source of fitness information, as well as someone who had a good read on the pulse of the industry. When Arnie finished his final term as governor, he decided he wanted to get back into the fitness game, and re-launch his website with some high quality fitness content—but of course, he wasn’t going to be writing all of it himself. Given my relationship with Daniel, and his relationship with Arnold (who, I came to learn, liked my fitness content quite a bit), I was the logical choice to start contributing to the site. That evolved into recruiting other experts and writers to the site, and the eventual formation of Arnold’s Fitness Advisory Board. My co-author Adam and I lead the advisory board, and help out with the site quite a bit—which put us in a pretty good position to ask Arnold to write the foreword and feel confident that it would at least be considered.
The lesson I learned here was that the Internet is as small as it is big. You never know who’s listening, and relationships can be built from the simplest communications. Google names.
Credibility Method #4: Strategic Partnership or Platform
You also have the option of creating a partnership, as I did with Adam. Although I’m a fine writer and expert, this was my first book, and that’s bound to give some publishers pause. Who knew if I’d finish the damn thing? In contrast, Adam had written four books previously, and is one of the respected fitness authors in the world. In addition to making the book better than I could have on my own, I knew having a veteran author on board made the publishers feel at ease. If you decide to partner with another writer (as a co-author or even a ghost writer), the obvious choice is to work with someone who will make the project better, and who brings assets to the table that you do not.
[TIM: This is just like finding a co-founder or CEO before seeking VC funding. You'll get better pricing and better terms.]
Keep in mind that publishers are primarily interested in selling books. If publishers see that you have a relationship with magazines and TV shows, they feel more confident in your ability to get press for the book, and make sales. Done correctly, it will lead to them giving you more money.
Substance: Sizzle is Nice, Steak is Better
To this point, I’ve discussed a lot of the general aspects of how to make your proposal stand out—but, of course, marketing is pretty pointless unless you have something to market. Which is to say, you need to actually have a good idea.
[TIM: Put another way, you can use marketing to hit the bestseller lists or Amazon top-100 for one week, but you need a good product (and distribution) to stay there. The word-of-mouth verdict in a digital age comes quickly.]
“Positioning” the idea is hugely important. It helps define the lens through which both prospective publishers and readers view the book. In the literary world, it’s common to take two well-known books or people and have them “meet” to describe your concept. For example, The 4-Hour Chef could be described, conceptually, as The Joy of Cooking meets Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. This works for authors as well as books: “If you crossed Jason Bourne with Julia Child, you’d end up with Tim Ferriss.” That was one of Tim’s cover quotes for 4HC.
See how well that works? Just take two things that most people know about, each of which relates to your idea in someway, and sandwich them together in a way that immediately creates context.
For us, it was “The 4-Hour Body meets The Hero With a Thousand Faces with a dash of Fight Club.” This immediately helps people understand what your idea is, or at least how to frame it, before you even begin.
[TIM: Pro tip: Have your agent check Nielsen BookScan to ensure the titles you use don't suck from a tallied sales perspective. Rest assured that curious editors will do this, so you should do it first.]
A BIG PROBLEM = A GREAT IDEA
Once you have identified the personality of your book, you must identify why the book needs to be written. When you’re writing a book with a service approach (like a fitness book) your best bet for landing a big deal is making sure your content solves a problem with mass appeal. Adam made it clear that one of the greatest lessons he ever learned was from billionaire Mark Cuban. Cuban firmly believed that the reason so many businesses fail is because they never truly address or identify a real, specific problem. And no, saying “people are fat” is not specific enough. Once identified, the goal is to fix that problem in ways that currently don’t exist or suggesting something more efficient or effective.
As an editor, Adam had seen the typical fitness book approach. And as a voracious reader, I knew that most fitness books all read the same and few every stray from the typical information. That is, you might find different workouts or diets, but fitness books are formulaic. And more importantly, they all address symptoms and rarely search for underlying problems. Books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma or Born to Run—both best sellers—didn’t fall prey to the approach of 99 percent of all health and fitness books. They were innovative and sought to understand why problems exist; from that launching point, the authors then attacked the problem at its foundation.
We took the same approach and started with the big picture: What problems plagues men the most? We made lists of issues in an attempt to filter our specific approach. Our list ranged from fat loss and muscle gain (obvious choices), to dwindling sex life, stress, lack of success, unfulfilled potential, and not “feeling like the man.” From there we created charts and tried to determine the various causes of these problems. Obviously, there were many unrelated concepts. But after we mapped out all the issues, there was one common denominator: Hormones.
We started with testosterone, but also looked at others, such as growth hormone, insulin, cortisol, leptin, and ghrelin. Once we began to investigate hormone levels in men, everything became clear and our foundational idea was established.
Men are becoming less manly. That’s not an opinion; it’s a scientific fact. It’s so bad that researchers from Massachusetts found that the average man’s testosterone (not just older men) has dropped 22% in the last 20 years. And ¼ men have below “normal” range testosterone.
MAKE IT PERSONAL
[TIM: I asked Roman to add a bit more personal backstory to this post, as I think it can make or break a book (it's described in his book). As my agent has said, "First, the message, then the movement." Making a book personal is the best way to build a category killer in prescriptive nonfiction...Roman's going from his own problem to the wider societal issue will be the ground on which the book fails or succeeds. If people connect with that message, as they did with 4HWW or Will Bowen's in A Complaint-Free World, it will be a long-running bestseller, and one that might travel around the world too. Now, back to Roman...]
The hormone angle wasn’t just number crunching or market research for me. It was intensely personal.
Here’s an abridged version of the story: I was 25-years old and had spent the majority of my adolescent and young adult life as a very sexual being. Like most young guys, to an extent, I defined myself by my aspects of sexuality—virility, desirability, performance… every part. And then one day, it was gone.
My lack of sex drive infiltrated every area of my life; it affected my assessment of my manhood, which crushed my confidence. Sex drive is strongly tied to all drive. When it drops, so too does your ambition, and your motivation to achieve. I suffered from depression and barely slept. My physique went to hell, and I just couldn’t muster up the energy to fix it. Without exaggeration, ever part of my life was negatively affected: my relationships, my sleep patterns, my body, and even my mind, as productivity and business were all hampered.
In short, I suffered all of symptoms of low testosterone, as well as the consequences of those symptoms. The worst part of it all was that, since I was so young, it never occurred to me to consider testosterone as a cause. That was a problem for the older men, or so I thought. So, I’d become a different person, a lesser man, all seemingly without reason.
Eventually, I spoke to a friend of mine who was a disciple of Charles Poliquin, a Canadian strength coach and hormone expert. Based on my symptoms, my friend suggested I get my testosterone levels checked. They were low–not incredibly low, but right around the level where, according to research, the trouble begins. Despite having tests confirm my suspicions, I couldn’t fix it medically. Because the range of “average” is so vast, I was low enough to be experiencing negative effects, but not low enough to qualify for treatment. I had to take matters into my own hands.
Thus began my research, and my journey down the rabbit hole. I read everything I could find, and came to realize that this wasn’t just an issue facing “older guys”–it was happening to men in their 20’s. The more I researched, the scarier it became–things that reduce testosterone pervade our lives. Plastics. Shampoos. Beer. Things we all use, every day.
Over the course of the next several months, I dove into all the literature I could find and started making a lifestyle overhaul. I doubled my intake of saturated fat. I used high doses of fish oil. I cut carbohydrate intake to virtually 0 for close to two months. I was draconian about the times I went to bed and woke up.
My sex drive returned rather rapidly. In 6 weeks, I felt different. After 12, I got tested again, and my testosterone levels had literally doubled–doubled! I was productive again. I started dating. I reclaimed my physique and liked the way I looked again. I felt alive again.
From my perspective, the book had to be written. As a side-effect, the book would also contain a personal narrative that would make the science easy to digest.
The Business of Business Plans
OUTLINE YOUR PLATFORM (AND YOUR PLAN)
Probably the single most important question a publisher needs to answer about a prospective author is, “can s/he sell books?” Their number one priority is making sales; or, since you’ll be dealing with the acquisitions department, making purchases that will eventually make sales.
At the risk of stating the obvious, famous people make more money than non-famous people. If you’re not quite sold, consider the advances celebrities get for their books; Lena Dunham’s highly publicized advance of $3.5M is nothing compared to the $15M deal Bill Clinton got in 2004. It’s very simple math: Bill Clinton is far more famous than Lena Dunham—or, to use marketing parlance, has an far larger platform—and therefore got far more money.
These things don’t just apply to celebrities, of course; they apply to you. The more “famous” you are, both in general, and specifically in your industry, the more desirable you are to a publisher. Fortunately, in the age of social media, you can be micro-famous and quantify your influence. Whether on Klout or Quantcast, Facebook or Twitter, the numbers are right there in front of you.
[TIM: If you're still relatively unknown, don't despair. Getting national media can be easy -- here's a step-by-step guide with real-world examples from Wired Magazine to Dr. Oz.]
Using our deal as an example, to demonstrate that we had an impressive platform from which we could sell books, Adam and I simply laid out our numbers for them. That looked a little something like this:
- 51,000 newsletter subscribers (now 65,000). Of those subscribers, 18,000+ were customers. Of those customers, 16,000+ were people who had bought products twice or more.
- 9,000+ Facebook fans (now 16,000)
- 5,000+ Twitter followers (now 8,000)
- ~10,000 hits per day to main website (now ~12,000)
For his part, Adam’s effective control of LIVESTRONG certainly helped—he was able to show the success metrics of their newsletters, and guarantee placement in it. (Note: Adam has since stepped down from his position as Editorial Director and now serves as Editor-at-Large.)
- 3,000 newsletter subscribers (now 6,000)
- 5,000 Facebook fans (now 7,500)
- 29,000 Twitter followers (now 35,000)
- Control of the LIVESTRONG.com newsletter list of 1.5M subscribers
- Control of all content on LIVESTRONG.com, getting 40M unique visitors per month
While our social media numbers aren’t staggering, they’re still enough to move the needle.
Our fan bases are very engaged, and tend to take action quickly. More to the point, my newsletter list—the lifeblood of my business—isn’t huge by Internet marketing standards, but generates high-5- to low-six figures per month. In other words, I have three years worth of data quantifying my ability to sell. Given that the products I create are generally priced at $47-$97, it wasn’t overly difficult for prospective publishers to imagine that we could sell a $16 hardcover book to our audiences.
Your platform isn’t quite everything, but it’s extremely important; the more time you spend developing it, the easier it will be to leverage. Publishers look for this, and are willing to invest quite in it.
As to how to build a platform, or increase your existing platform: I’m certainly not the expert, and I’ve learned a lot from watching the bigger guys and asking questions. My main plan of attack has always been, “just say enough random, funny shit on your blog, and people will either love you or hate you for it.” It’s worked out well; as I alluded to earlier, being me is what’s allowed me to build my platform.
Having said that, there are a few tips that I’ve learned. Most of these come from Gary Vaynerchuk, who is full of wisdom that he dispenses between sets of push-ups during our training sessions.
- Makes declarative, absolute statements. These get retweeted more than questions or links or pieces of content. Gary told me, “you can literally take any message from a fortune cookie and people will retweet it; absolute statements make people feel like they’re passing on a strong message.” Seriously. Fortune cookies are better than content? I’ve tested this. It’s frightening how true it is.
- Use hashtags. Getting new Twitter/Instagram followers is all about getting in front of new people. There are a few ways to do that, but the simplest is hashtagging; anyone who is searching through hashtags is actively looking to follow and interact with new people.
One thing that’s well known about Gary is his belief in being hyper-responsive; that’s his shtick–respond to every email, tweet, etc. This is very helpful, particularly when you first start out, and it’s a strategy that I used with great success. As your success and platform builds, you may find that you’re too busy to do that.
Sci-Fi author Neil Gaiman touched on this in a commencement speech at the University of the Arts in May, 2012. He said, “[…]the biggest problem of success is that the world conspires to stop you doing the thing that you do, because you are successful. There was a day when I looked up and realized that I had become someone who professionally replied to email, and who wrote as a hobby. I started answering fewer emails, and was relieved to find I was writing much more.”
I’ve taken that to heart, and currently, I respond to email as often as I can, but I probably only get to about 10% of what I receive.
“YOUR NETWORK IS YOUR NET WORTH”
This is a quote of Tim’s, once again from his Opening the Kimono event in Napa.
Writing a book proposal is one of the few times when being a name dropper makes you look desirable instead of douchey. Part of you platform is whom you know—and more importantly, who’ll promote you. If you have relationships with other industry leaders, outline them.
Because of our relationships with the editors at various magazines and websites, we were able to guarantee placement in the following places:
- Men’s Health
- Men’s Fitness
- Muscle & Fitness
There are several dozen more outlets that were part of the list showing that we could reach 70 million impressions. And for a publisher, that is value with big dollar signs.
This, of course, begs the question: how does one go about guaranteeing placement in magazines and on sites? How could we make absolutely certain? Simply put, the editors of many of these magazines owed me a few favors—because I saw to it by making their lives easier.
One thing I’ve learned writing for magazines is that editors experience the same stress as any blogger: they need content, they need it now, and it has to be good. They’re always on the lookout for new writers, but the bread-and-butter of any magazine are the established experts. The experienced experts make things easier on both the editors and fact checkers, as they know how to write in the voice of the publication, and generally site sources up front. The problem is experienced and established generally translate to expensive—and too that can strain the budget of a magazine. This is the problem that editors deal with every month; I made it my goal to solve it.
My primary way of doing this was to stop accepting payment for articles.
Starting about 8-9 months out from the publication of the book, I told the editors of most of the major magazines that I wanted to contribute to the magazine as much, but I understood that my involvement could get expensive, given my asking price for an article ($1000-$3000, depending on length). I decided to generate a lot of content gratis. Sometimes, this meant I would contribute a full article for free; I did this with Men’s Fitness. Other times, I’d let editors to email me questions about a prospective article–I’d give full content and then allow them to quote me as an expert, rather than giving me a byline; this was my primary method with Men’s Health. Still others, I’d allow a website to simply re-publish articles from my blog for free; I did this a lot with AskMen.
If you’re looking for a single tip to guarantee placement, the most useful is this: always have people owe you more favors than you owe them. (Hat tip to Tucker Max for that particular phrasing.)
[TIM: On a related note, Roman's now A-list agent Scott also got his start by offering to work for free:
"I go to conferences and see writers obsess about whether their query letters should be in Helvetica or Times New Roman. Do you know how many of my most successful authors of the past four years have found me through a query letter? Zero. If you don't know what to do at any given step of the process, the answer is simple: build more relationships [or do something for free]… I’ve never had a job that existed before I walked into the room– I got started in this business by telling someone established that I would work for free just to be in the room. Once you’re in the room, all things are possible.”]
Of course, we weren’t just focusing on established media outlets. Just as valuable to me personally—especially in a changing book environment—was the affiliate world. We made it very clear from the outset that when a publisher bought us, they were also buying our network, which is vast.
Further, the above strategy for collecting favors applies here, as well; the proposal outlined the top 20 most effective online fitness marketers, the approximate size of their mailing lists/social media presence, and—where applicable—a list of the favors they owed me. In other words, a list of people we could guarantee would promote the book.
Overall, we were able to promise that between our own networks, our affiliates, and our media connections, we would have hundreds of thousand—if not millions—of people guaranteed to see our book upon publication. Eyeballs are everything.
FOCUS ON PREVIOUS SUCCESSES
We came to the table with what we felt was a bulletproof marketing plan; it was a hybrid model that combined a traditional internet marketing launch (affiliate-based, hat tip to Jeff Walker), Tim’s “Land Rush” concept of incentivizing multiple purchases, and the age-old media blitz that publishing companies seem to be so fond of.
[TIM: I've never used affiliate sales to drive a book launch, as I have nothing to up-sell/cross-sell, but the numbers can be truly staggering.]
Our confidence wasn’t due only to our egos, but also to a history of success. Remember, I had never published a traditional book before. But that didn’t mean I didn’t have a proven history of moving products. Although we’d never done a “Land Rush,” Adam was old hat at leveraging traditional media, and I have a lot of experience running affiliate-based launches. Publishers tend to take the perspective that there’s no better way to predict the future than by looking at that past—so we very clearly outlined our previous victories.
I was sure to underscore the fact that my affiliates and I had previously sold nearly 11,000 copies of an eBook priced at $67 (plus several thousand more upsell transactions) in a single week. The per-week sales rate is critical, as that’s how bestseller lists are calculated.
All stories need a climax, and ours was pretty exciting.
After a week straight of pitch meetings—sometimes as many as eight per day—we’d met with several imprints from all of the major publishing houses, as well as a few of the boutique firms. As I mentioned earlier, we turned down a $400,000 preempt, and then started fielding offers in the half-million range. Of course, there was temptation to take one of the early offers.
This is where having an agent comes in. Scott understood how get editors and agents excited, build stories on single sentences, and play houses and imprints against one another. (If you’re a Game of Thrones fan, Scott would be Littlefinger.)
Our proposal went to auction, and towards the final stages, we had to decide between an advance of $750,000 for a single book deal, or a larger advance (in the low 7-figures) for two books. Despite what you might think, it wasn’t a no-brainer; we spent a few hours discussing what we thought about the chances of the first book were for being a big enough success to allow an even larger deal for a second book. This time, we decided not to gamble.
The largest offer came from Harper Collins (HC), but the story didn’t end there. Three separate HC imprints were offering identical deals. What differed was the general perception of each imprint, respectively, and the staff. While all three imprints were appealing in their own way, we eventually settled on HarperOne. This decision mainly had to do with our meeting with HarperOne editor Nancy Hancock; we certainly liked a number of the books she worked on, but ultimately, we just clicked right away, and felt she would be a great boon to the project. We were right.
And so the final lesson is this: writing and selling a book proposal is both science and art. The numbers are important—the metrics, the proof of concept, the wheeling and dealing with various houses are all integral parts of getting the best deal. But when it comes to people you’re going to work with, you need to use your gut as much as your head.
Getting a 7-figure book deal as a first time author is a strange concept.
If you had asked me two years ago if it was possible, I would have said no. Now, things have changed. I’ve seen that there’s a method, and that the method is replicable. The publishing game is complex, but like any game, it’s built on rules; as long as you know what they are and how to work them to your advantage, you have the potential to make a huge splash.
If you want to understand how to get a 7-figure advance in just a few lines, try this: understand how to explain your uniqueness; develop a compelling pitch around a single break-out concept; build and exhibit your massive network and platform; painstakingly detail your previous successes; present all of these things with an Alpha veneer of knowing that your stuff is awesome.
Follow those rules and you will garner an advance far above the norm for your industry—even as a first timer.
Afterword from Tim
I love Roman’s story. For most people in the world, getting an advance of that size changes your life forever. Truly. Financially, you are now free.
But there is no free lunch: it comes with responsibilities.
My most successful book in terms of earnings is still the one with the smallest advance (The 4-Hour Workweek), and that massive over-performance made everything that followed possible. Sure, it had a 3-year head start on my second book, and The 4-Hour Body will eventually pull even or perhaps squeak ahead, but it brings up a few interesting questions.
Although I personally fought for maximum advances on my second and third books, there are authors who never–as a principle–want a maximum advance. What?!? I know this might seem odd, but there are world-class writers and bestselling authors like Neil Strauss (6x New York Times bestselling author of Emergency [see "How to Become Jason Bourne"], The Game, etc.) who actually prefer to take smaller advances.
This ensures that all of their books are financial “winners” for their publishers, even in a worst-case scenario. This ensures future book deals. After all, Neil would reason, if the book succeeds, the advance is irrelevant. If the book doesn’t “earn out” the advance, you might have created a rope for hanging yourself… professionally, that is.
Advances can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, higher advances tend to ensure more publisher support in terms of print runs, marketing, and PR. On the other hand, if you bite off more $$$ than you can chew, it can backfire with a vengeance.
Which would you choose?
Read more about Man 2.0: Engineering the Alpha here.
Read the other approach to 7 figures in “How to (Really) Make $1,000,000 Selling E-Books – Real-World Case Studies.”
Posted on April 15th, 2013