The #1 question I’m receiving these days is “When does your book come out?”
So I’ve decided to give you all an update on how it’s going and what I’ve learned so far.
Incredibly, it’s already been over two years since I started working on it.
In early spring 2019, I contacted a freelance editor (who previously edited the defining productivity book of our times, Getting Things Done) to see if she was interested in working with me. I wanted to work with someone who had been through this rodeo before, and could advise me on more than grammar and spelling.
I ended up hiring her, and we worked together on the proposal for about a year. During that time I also signed with a literary agent who represents several well-known authors, including James Clear of Atomic Habits.
Together the three of us crafted a proposal and submitted it to all the major U.S. publishers in early 2020. To my delight, the proposal went to auction with multiple bidders, ultimately selling for multiple six figures, an unusual outcome for a first-time author.
I barely had a following at the time, and I think the success of the sale was largely due to the energy and momentum gathering behind the idea of a “second brain.” During the week of the auction, just before bids closed, Notion announced it was raising capital at a jaw-dropping $2 billion valuation. The first knowledge management app to become a unicorn. Later that year, Roam Research turned heads with a raise at a $200 million valuation.
The category of “knowledge management” software is coming of age right as my book attempts to take it mainstream. For my book to fulfill its potential, it has to capture that energy, focus and simplify it for a broader audience, and provide an onramp for ordinary people to create a second brain for themselves.
There’s a balance between writing for “nerds” versus “normies” that I’m still trying to wrap my head around.
Like venture capitalists investing in startups, publishers need mainstream hits, since nearly all their revenue comes from a tiny percentage of breakout mega bestsellers. On most of the rest of the books they publish, they never even make back the advance.
This means that published books must appeal to a large, mainstream audience.
But on the other hand, we live in an age of subcultures and niches. You can’t market a book to everyone – you have to target a very specific niche where your message can initially reach critical mass.
From this niche will come the raving fans, evangelists, and word-of-mouth testimonials needed to power sales of the book in the wider market. If you’re lucky.
So publishing a successful non-fiction book is a delicate balancing act. You need to find an idea that is just catching fire and transforming from a ripple into a tidal wave. Timing is everything. Catch it too early, and there’s not enough momentum. Catch it too late, and the wave has already moved on.
Until now, the practice of Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) has been the domain of nerds – tech workers, software engineers, infovores, and others who feel compelled to consume and make sense of large volumes of information and spend a lot of time online.
My job is to find the language, the metaphors, the examples, and the advice that will make this topic palatable and attractive to people who don’t obsess about it day and night. It needs to join the other “personal” practices – personal finance, personal fitness, personal computers, and personal productivity – that have managed to fit seamlessly into people’s lives.
Luckily, I think we hit the timing just right. Building a Second Brain is benefitting from multiple trends coming together at the same time:
- The creator economy and content creation in general (every creator needs a content pipeline)
- The popularization of “tools for thought” software (notes apps are the OG tools for thought)
- The online education revolution (the more classes people take, the more notes they take)
- COVID and work-from-home (knowledge work is becoming more self-managed, requiring people to choose their own toolset)
- The continuing onslaught of information overload (which demands systems to manage effectively)
- The long-term trend of people becoming freelancers and independent contractors (requiring them to manage and monetize their own knowledge)
Besides these, there are the even longer term, deeper trends of software eating every industry, the global economy becoming ever more competitive, and the Internet becoming the central driving economic and cultural force in the world.
Anyway, the external environment looks ripe for this kind of book to hit store shelves. As always, the internal environment is another matter…
My final manuscript is due in 2.5 months, and I’m finished with about 2/3 of it, including the central chapters explaining my CODE methodology. Once the current cohort of my course winds down in a couple weeks, I’ll be free to focus completely on getting this behemoth over the finish line.
There’s still a long way to go. Amazingly, after I turn my manuscript in, there is still another year before the book goes on sale, sometime in spring 2022. This makes the timing problem even more challenging. Not only do you have to catch an emerging movement at just the right time, you have to do it 2-3 years out. This is all the more difficult in tech-centric topics that change on a scale of months, not years.
The ultimate success of the book depends a lot on how it does upon launch. That initial burst of sales signals to everyone in the publishing ecosystem – from publishers to wholesalers to distributors to retailers – what kind of momentum the book is likely to have. They’re all looking for the next breakout hit, so every signal you can send that your book might be it increases their willingness to give it more exposure.
The launch in turn depends mostly on pre-orders, all of which are counted as the “first day” of sales.
I’ve heard anecdotally that there is a tipping point around 10k pre-orders, so that is my first goal. Almost unbelievably, that means that if just 1 out of 5 people receiving this email (not counting future growth) pre-orders the book, it will be an instant breakout success even if no one else purchases it. That’s the power of internet-scale distribution!
But I can’t rely on my own network alone. I’ll spend the year between submitting my final manuscript and the release date building a formidable marketing operation. The total book launch team includes:
- The Forte Labs team, who will treat this book as a major marketing campaign for the course that produces most of our revenue
- A new Director of Content who I will hire soon to lead all my content efforts, including the book launch (and will work with a new Director of Memberships to build the community around that content)
- My editor, agent, and publisher, all of whom have extensive experience in the non-fiction world
- A small promotional agency I’m hiring to work with us on building our email list and other platforms over the next year, who’s been behind some of the biggest self-improvement books of recent years
- A designer who will be creating a brand identity for Building a Second Brain that encompasses both the course and the book (and website, logo, colors, fonts, and even physical items like letterhead and t-shirts)
- Various other friends and advisors I’m relying on to help me, who have been through this before
I’m a big advocate of small, lightweight, just-in-time projects most of the time. But once in awhile you find an opportunity that is worth bringing out the big guns for. This is the D-Day of marketing campaigns – except we’re invading the mainstream culture, not Europe.
One thing that’s become very clear is that having an existing, profitable course completely changes the economics of publishing a book. We’ve heard so much about how difficult it is for writers to make a living on their writing alone. There are so many gatekeepers, everything takes so long, and even at the end of a long road, there’s hardly ever any money left over for the author.
But having a course (or another way to monetize attention) opens up many doors:
- You can afford to invest way more time and money into the book promotion
- You don’t have to live on the advance, which means you can invest that as well
- You can concede on revenue terms during negotiations because you don’t need the money as urgently, and gain concessions elsewhere
- You have an upsell ready and waiting for anyone who buys the book, so you can afford the time and effort needed to create all sorts of promotions, freebies, and events
- All of your investments in design, content, staff, infrastructure, and marketing get leveraged across both the book and course (or other product), meaning they’re easier to justify
To give you an idea, the average expected revenue from a subscriber to my email list is $55 from my course alone. And I make only a few bucks per book sold. Which means that 1 free subscriber to my email list generates about 18 times as much revenue as a book buyer.
A lot of authors have started to catch on to the power of having a course or product for sale online. But for most it’s an afterthought. Something they tacked on because it seemed like a “best practice.”
With the rise of cohort-based courses, I think we’re going to see this formula flipped on its head. It will make much more sense to develop and test an idea through multiple cohorts, funding that R&D with paying customers, collecting tons of examples and case studies, and recruiting loyal fans and hires, and then only releasing the book once it’s all been fully vetted and proven.
Paradoxically, launching a cohort-based course is easier in many ways than a self-paced course, despite the fact that you can charge much more. All you need is a Zoom account and webcam to start. People are paying for access to someone that wouldn’t otherwise be available, and for content that is early and hasn’t yet found its way into the mainstream. They are buying impact, not highly polished videos or slides.
I probably shouldn’t be giving advice until after my book is out and actually successful. Maybe I’ll have to eat my words. For now I’m focused on my biggest remaining challenge: to write the absolutely best, most accessible, most impactful, most word-of-mouth worthy book I possibly can.
Wish me luck 😉
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