THE BLOG

How Does a Bestseller Happen? A Case Study in Hitting #1 on The New York Times

05/25/2011 12:10 pm ET

Little over a week ago, the impossible happened and a lifelong dream came true: The 4-Hour Workweek hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list!

More unbelievable, this week 4HWW is simultaneously #1 on the New York Times and #1 on the Wall Street Journal business bestseller lists.

How is this possible? How could a book from a first-time author -- with no offline advertising or PR -- hit both of these lists and stick for three months and counting?

The book was turned down by 13 of 14 editors, and the president of one large book wholesaler even sent me PDFs on historical stats to "reset my expectations" -- it could never be a bestseller. The odds seem impossible: there are more than 200,000 books published each year in the U.S., and less than five percent ever sell more than 5,000 copies. On a given bestseller list, more than five spots could be occupied by unbeatable bestsellers like Good to Great or The Tipping Point, which have been on the lists for years.

On a related note, how could a blog that didn't exist six months ago now be #2,541 on Technorati?

Is it all luck? Not all. Luck and timing play a (sometimes big) part, but it seems to me that one can still analyze the game and tilt the odds in their favor. I don't claim to have all of the answers -- I still know very little about publishing -- but I've done enough micro-testing in the last year to fill a lifetime.

The conclusion, in retrospect, is simple... It all came down to learning how to spread a "meme," an idea virus that captures imaginations and takes on a life of its own.

First, let's looks at how the bestseller status unfolded. Here are the stats and timing for all of the bestseller lists the 4HWW has hit since release date on April 24, 2007. Skip below the numbers to the how-to bits, if you like:

Barnes & Noble
Hardcover Non-fiction
List date #

July 26, 2007 10
Aug. 2, 2007 7

BookSense
Hardcover Non-fiction
List date #

July 5, 2007 43
July 12, 2007 34
July 19, 2007 45
July 26, 2007 39
Aug. 2, 2007 24

NCIBA
Hardcover Non-fiction
List date #

July 14, 2007 13
Aug. 4, 2007 12

New York Times
Hardcover Advice
List date #

May 13, 2007 15
May 20, 2007 8
May 27, 2007 10
June 3, 2007 12
June 10, 2007 10
June 17, 2007 4
June 24, 2007 6
July 1, 2007 9
July 8, 2007 5
July 15, 2007 5
July 22, 2007 5
July 29, 2007 7
Aug. 5, 2007 5
Aug. 12, 2007 5

New York Times

Hardcover Business
List date #

July 2007 2
August 2007 1

Publishers Weekly
Hardcover Non-fiction
List date #

June 11, 2007 15
July 9, 2007 14
July 16, 2007 13
Aug. 6, 2007 12

San Francisco Chronicle
Hardcover Non-fiction
List date #

July 15, 2007 6

USA Today

General & List date #
May 10, 2007 126
May 17, 2007 134
May 24, 2007 136
May 31, 2007 115
June 7, 2007 102
June 14, 2007 123
June 21, 2007 144
June 28, 2007 134
July 5, 2007 100
July 12, 2007 114
July 19, 2007 99
July 26, 2007 96
Aug. 2, 2007 63

Wall Street Journal

Business
List date #

May 4, 2007 9
May 11, 2007 3
May 18, 2007 7
May 25, 2007 12
June 1, 2007 7
June 8, 2007 1
June 15, 2007 3
June 22, 2007 5
June 29, 2007 3
July 6, 2007 1
July 13, 2007 1
July 20, 2007 3
July 27, 2007 4
Aug. 3, 2007 1

Wall Street Journal
Hardcover Non-fiction
List date #

June 8, 2007 9
June 29, 2007 14
July 6, 2007 9
July 13, 2007 11
July 20, 2007 14
July 27, 2007 7
Aug. 3, 2007 8


Those of you who have read me for a while know that I'm fanatical about analytics and imitating good models (in the business sense, not the Naomi Campbell sense).

Before I began writing 4HWW (I sold it before I wrote it, which I explain here), I cold-contacted and interviewed close to a dozen best-writing authors about their writing processes, followed by close to a dozen best-selling authors about their marketing and PR campaigns.

I asked several questions of the latter group, but one of the assumption-busting homeruns was:

"What were the 1-3 biggest wastes of time and money?"

This led me to create a "not-to-do" list. Number one was no book touring or bookstore signings whatsoever. Not a one. All of the best-selling authors warned against this author rite of passage. I instead focused on the most efficient word-of-mouth networks in the world at the time-blogs. The path to seeding the ideas of 4HWW was then straight-forward:

* Go where bloggers go
* Be there with a message and a story that will appeal to their interests, not yours
* Build and maintain those relationships through your own blog too

These three observations are from PR pundit Steve Rubel's excellent summary of the 4HWW launch on micro-persuasion, titled "The 4-Hour Workweek - Behind the Meme." Interested to know which events I chose and what the Amazon and Technorati numbers looked like at each step? Check it all out here.

For a good take on my blogging approaches, both as a book author and blog writer, see my multi-part interviews with Darren Rowse over at Problogger.net:
Part 1 - from the day prior to the official publication date (good for seeing how I prepped the market)
Part 2 - from about one weeks ago, after hitting the big lists (good for learning how I've built traffic)

4HWW created enough noise online that it was then picked up by offline media ranging from Wired and Outside magazines to Martha Stewart radio and The Today Show. To create a fast-acting meme, I've come to believe that you need to do a few things well. Here are the highlights, ordered to recreate the familiar acronym PPC with a certain Don King-esque flavor:

1. Phenomenize:

Identify and name a legitimate societal shift or new phenomenon. To best spread a message or product, sell around it by discussing larger issues surrounding its creation: the person (me in this case), the changing social landscape, and emerging trends. No one cares about your new software, but the reasons it needs to exist might make for a great TV segment on 20/20. Naturally, the software would be mentioned. Mission accomplished without the hard sell.

2. Polarize:

Good stories and trend-spotting, told unapologetically, will create both supporters ("That's the solution!") and attackers ("It's a fraud!"). The battle and ongoing debate this generates is the fuel needed for word-of-mouth wildfire. Don't piss people off for the sake of offending, but don't sacrifice the edge of your message to avoid offending. My discussion of personal outsourcing, as one example, gets people hot and bothered. Good. I just want as many people as possible asking the important questions I believe can change the world. Love me or hate me, I just want a strong unadulterated response.

3. Communitize:

Help create base camps for believers. Organic communities grow fastest when natural leaders are identified and encouraged to become leaders. I fostered reader-only communities on the forums of the official book site, but I also encouraged readers (see the bottom of the post here) to create their own tribes on the social networking site Ning. This is how more than 22 demographic tribes (I call them "demotribes") came to be, including "4HWW for Programmers," "4HWW for Families," and "4HWW for Students."

Do you want to create your own bestseller, whether a book or a product? Here are a few closing thoughts:

1. To make a bestseller, there are more customers than just your customers:

Selling to the end-user is just one piece of the puzzle. In my case, I needed to first sell myself to the publisher to get marketing support and national retail distribution. I then learned that a mention from an A-list blogger might sell thrice as much on Amazon as a national TV appearance, but the latter is what drives book chains to purchase more books and give better placement.

2. Distribution can make you a juggernaut... or it can kill the best product:

The more books there are on shelves, the more will be sold. Once you get to the level of The Secret and have 40-100 copies in many stores, managers have almost no choice but to put them in prime real estate like front-of-store, end caps, or front window. If the top chains increase prime placement of 4HWW this month, I can virtually guarantee that sales will at least double in the next 3 months (especially with some of the crazier things I have planned). No exaggeration. For my next book, if I write one, I'll spend much more time strategizing distribution and placement upfront. Could you offer an exclusive to the 800-lb. gorilla distributor in your industry in exchange for favorable payment terms, prime placement nationwide, and in-store merchandising?

3. Marketing can grab customers, but product multiplies them:

Clever marketing and PR stunts can get customers... but only for so long. It's the product that will create long-term word-of-mouth and the groundswell needed for a global phenomenon. Don't save your best for volume two. I asked myself the following while writing the 4HWW: "If I were hit by a bus the day after I turned in the manuscript, would I be happy with this as my legacy?" I held nothing back and spared no details. I'm no Tolstoy, but I did my best. The manuscript was cut from about 420 pages to the 300 in the final product. One editor who turned the book down looked at the planned table of contents and said "You have five books here. Why not split it up?" Because of the bus. Have a focus, but don't save the best for later. There is only one chance to make a publishing first impression. Remember: marketing might be important, but product is ultimately king.

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Last but not least, remember: Just because they say it can't be done doesn't make it so. Just because it's labeled "impossible" doesn't make it even remotely impossible. Do your homework, micro-test like a mother, and trust your conclusions. You could be wrong, and you often will be, but... what if you're right?