How this Ex-Googler Got a Book Deal Writing About Meetings

04/18/2017 11:55 am ET
The Cooper Review

In the summer of 2014, Sarah Cooper wrote a post on Medium entitled, “10 Tricks to Appear Smart During Meetings.”

While readers (like myself) took notes and started using Venn diagrams in the following months, Cooper developed this concept further. She set up a website, continued publishing regularly, and left her product manager job at Google. Nine months after quitting, she signed a three-book deal.

That’s remarkable progress for nine months. But this “overnight” success took a lot of work behind the scenes.

During her years working at Google, Cooper did standup comedy and started a parody dating advice website, entitled, “Oolalove.” She was winding down that project, and experimenting with new ideas. As she was cleaning out her storage, she came across an old notebook from her days working at Yahoo!. She had written a simple sentence, “How to look smart in meetings.”

“I had been just open to pretty much whatever, and this one stuck out because it always made me laugh,” she said. “Since I’d been starting to do more blogging and realizing I could create an audience, I was able to see it. I could see how I could make it into something that I could put on the Internet, I could have people read it. It was just really — to use the cliché, it was low-hanging fruit for me to be able to finish it, especially since I was in a ton of meetings at the time anyway.”

There are dozens of ways to grow your audience online. Cooper said of her method, “I don’t know if this is true for other people, but for me it’s always been about the content. Growing my audience has always been directly related to content that I’ve created that’s doing well.

“I’ve experimented with promoting it in different ways, or writing to journalists and asking them to cover things, and doing stuff like that, but I get comparatively very little results from that versus just creating something that people really like and people are sharing. It’s driving traffic to my site which is driving sign-ups, which is driving Likes, and follows, and all that stuff.

“When I created ‘10 Tricks to Appear Smart During Meetings,’ and I turned it into an illustrated post, I think I probably gained 3,000 newsletter subscribers in one month just because of that one post. And then the same thing happened with ‘9 Non-Threatening Leadership Strategies for Women,’ that took off and I gained thousands of followers again just from that. So, really, for me it’s just been about content. Almost everything else I’ve tried just hasn’t really done as much to grow my audience as that.”

Making this type of content that spreads, and acquires readers, isn’t just a matter of sheer luck. Virality is not an accident. Before Cooper publishes any work, she shares her ideas with a small group of friends and family. “I look for a few different kinds of feedback. Sometimes I’m just like, ‘Oh, I have this idea, what do you think?’ or, ‘I have this idea, let me know if you have any other ideas,’ or something like that. And I’m looking for if people think it’s funny at all, even if they don’t have anything to contribute, I still want to know if the idea is a funny idea. Some people just like the post or laugh at it or they’ll contribute ideas.

“It’s turned out to be a pretty good gauge of how well something will do, cause sometimes I’ll put something out there and people don’t really like it on my private page, but I’ll go ahead with it anyway just because I like it. But even in those situations, the response I get in the private group is pretty indicative of the response I’m going to get publicly.

“So if it’s something that a lot of people are coming up with ideas, and there are a lot of people liking it, and a lot of people wanting to talk back and forth about it, then it will probably do well with the rest of my audience. Whereas if it’s something that people are just like, ‘Eh,’ or don’t respond at all, it’s just a pretty good indication.”

This group also short-circuits the resistance, or fear, of publishing in the first place. “I think the biggest thing for me with the group is just getting over the hump of sharing anything at all,” said Cooper. “Oftentimes when you’ve been working on something for a while, just that first share, that first time you let someone else read it is really hard. But it’s an absolutely necessary part of it, to let other people see. I think it’s just been really awesome, because it’s gotten me over that fear of letting other people see my work.

“As soon as I get over that, then I start really looking at what I’m doing from the perspective of an audience. Even without anybody’s feedback, I can see where it can be better or where things might not be clear. It’s interesting that just the act of sharing makes you look at something differently. The fact that I have a place to share, that’s not public, is very helpful.”

Once you’ve put together a system, and method, for making content that resonates with readers and spreads, you’ll start gaining a bit of momentum and readers. From there, that’s when you find an agent. Cooper’s husband connected her with a friend who worked at Audible, who recommended she reach out to four agents who might be interested.

“I had no idea that there’d be a contact at Audible that would be able to put me in touch with literary agents. Since that happened, I’ve had a few authors or aspiring authors ask for me to put them in touch with my agent. I’m not really sure what other companies — I honestly didn’t even realize Audible might be one — but there’s so many people talking about writing books, or trying to write a book, or have just written a book. That’s another great way to go, if you’re not really sure, is to ask somebody who’s done or it who’s in the process of doing it. Their agent might not be a great fit for you, but that agent knows many, many, agents.”

“I definitely think it’s a better way to go than just cold emailing people,” said. “I never thought of going down a list of 100 agents, and it’s really overwhelming. I’m not sure how much it would’ve yielded.”

Once Cooper connected with one of the agents, who responded enthusiastically, she was off to the races. “What I sent the agent — which was basically a mini-proposal — which included the idea and also who my audience was, and who my platform was, and all that stuff… Asking someone to look over that and asking if there’s someone they could forward it to, I think that seems perfectly fine.”

Once again, it helped that Cooper came prepared. She had already created so much work that spread, and validated the idea, that publishers were enthusiastic. “What helped sell it a lot was the views and shares of the article that the book was based on. Being able to say, on my site, on Medium, on the Huffington Post, all those views added up to 5,000,000. Of course publishers light up. ‘Oh my goodness, we could sell so many books, there are 5,000,000 people that were interested in looking at this.’

“For my site, I have my view counts on each of my posts, and I took that off very briefly and my agent was like, ‘No, you need to put that back because that’s one of the things publishers look at — how many people are looking at this thing?’ So, keeping all of that really, really, visible helps attract publishers if writing a book is something you want to do. All of those metrics put together, the views, the shares, how many people are following you, how many people are on your mailing list, how many Facebook fans you have, all of that went into the proposal. There was an entire section on, ‘What is my platform? How many people have I reached? How many people can I reach?’ It’s really just everything altogether.”

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