Part I: The Ultimate Book Marketing Formula

Welcome to my five part guide on how to market your self-published fiction books. These six parts form a complete, step-by-step marketing system derived from personal experience and studying successful independent authors. Unlike other guides, books or courses you may have encountered, I promise not to throw a bunch of random, untested tactics (or folksy feel-good stories) at you, since I’m sure you have plenty collecting dust already.

We’ll cover everything from performing proper market research to optimizing your books’ covers, keywords and blurbs to producing better quality work, faster. I cannot promise overnight success – in fact, you should expect this process to take 3 – 5 years – but if you apply the information within, you will almost certainly see results. And, if you prefer, each section can also be read independently, so if you’re having trouble with a specific topic, feel free to skip ahead.

I want to be clear: there are no secrets within these pages. I am not going to teach you twenty-one tricks that make your skull spontaneously combust in stunned awe of my ingenuity. If you frequent writers’ forums, you will have seen much of this information already. Here’s the problem: you’re probably not using any of that information to sell more books. It simply exists as a collection of unorganized facts that, one day, you might apply.

Information alone is not valuable. In an era of hyper-connectivity, it’s a commodity. Translating information into results, however, remains difficult. If you’re anything like me, information tends to sit in a mental box marked “to be used later.” I eventually wrote this guide as an organizational tool to make all this information usable for me while weeding out the marketing myths that naturally proliferate on the internet.

This guide’s objective, then, is simple: to distill the best marketing information into a step-by-step, actionable framework.

Such a framework is otherwise known as a system. A good system is a standardized blueprint that produces repeatable, consistent results. Instead of remembering what to do – or viewing facts and strategies in disconnected isolation – we can focus on execution.

As surgeon Atul Gawande so eloquently states:

The reason [for medical error]…is not usually laziness or unwillingness. The reason is more often that the necessary knowledge has not been translated into a simple, usable and systematic form.

If systems work for doctors, they will work for you, humble indie author.

Each section of this guide concludes with a set of action exercises & summary. If you skip the exercises, you will get no results. But these exercises are just a stepping stone. After you deeply understand the concepts, you can – and should – build your own framework upon them. I don’t expect everything to resonate with you. In the immortal words of Bruce Lee: Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless and add what is specifically your own.

In Part 1, I’ll explain:

  • Crucial mindset principles
  • Two key business metrics
  • Three critical marketing formulas
  • The art of execution

Here we go.

A Note

It would be impossible to cite all the sources of the information within, for I fear every other sentence would have an attribution. Suffice to say, I’m much less the creator of this guide than a curator. My aim is not to assume credit, but to systematically assemble the best advice on marketing independent books within one comprehensive resource. So to the generous authors and entrepreneurs who recognize their influence: thank you.

Why Should I Listen to You?

This is a valid question, since so-called “authorities” frequently publish gag-inducing clickbait like “how I made $3,245 in six days via Kindle.”

This marketing guide is not that type of frivolous, non-actionable content. While free, it aims to be higher quality than every paid course on the market. This is a bold claim, but if you follow the steps, I believe you’ll find it to be true. Thus, I offer three reasons to consider listening to me:

  1. I’ve experienced every problem you’ve encountered.
    1. My first novel sold 14 copies in its first year (at $0.99).
    2. It had zero reviews for that time.
    3. I’ve had books hammered by bad reviews, killing them right out of the gate.
    4. I’ve had series lose thousands of dollars.
    5. I’ve burned thousands of dollars on useless promos.
    6. I’ve launched a book and had it sell less than 100 copies, despite my best marketing efforts.
    7. I had 4 newsletter subscribers at the end of 2015 (three years into my indie career).
  2. These problems have forced me to reflect deeply on what works – and what does not. Instantly successful authors nail the fundamentals naturally or through good fortune. This limits their ability to assist others, as they haven’t experienced many of the common obstacles. E.g. if your sink has always worked, you won’t understand how to fix it. I’ve experienced a shit load of (metaphorical) flooding sinks.
  3. I’ve tested almost everything in this guide. This isn’t theory, or a summary of six books on indie publishing I read this weekend; these are hard-earned facts, backed by actual data from 4+ years of experience, 45+ titles, and 6 different author names in a variety of genres.

But, really, none of that matters. The best reason to listen is simple: I use this system myself.

If my advice doesn’t resonate with you, that’s okay. I’m just one guy, and I’ve promised you no grand secrets. It’s inevitable that I’m mistaken about certain things. Such is the curse of being human.

What is invalid – if you’re starting out, in particular – is ignoring everyone. Collectively, the indie author community is one of the most open and generous you’ll find. Ignoring their 10+ years of hard-won wisdom in the name of “forging your own path” is sheer idiocy. If you insist on learning everything in this business through trial and error, you will never make it. There are lightning bolt exceptions, of course, that everyone singles out. But reinventing the wheel every time you need to travel is not a good life strategy.

The trickiest thing about indie publishing – much like poker, or stock trading – is that optimal processes don’t always yield positive results. There is high variance in the outcomes. You can get a great cover, write a great book, pen a killer blurb and have the whole thing flop – multiple times in a row. This leads people to declare conventional wisdom “nonsense” and the publishing business all “luck,” after which they traipse off to follow their own ill-fated marketing “strategy.” In actuality, what they needed to do was play enough “hands” (e.g. release enough books, keep marketing) to smooth out the variance.

No author has enough time, money or, quite frankly, mental fortitude to survive an endless stream of unforced errors.

Follow a good, proven strategy. Then persist long enough to see it through.

On Tactics

Tactics are temporary; strategy is timeless.

Strategy steers the ship. It’s the engine that keeps you afloat, tells you what to do. Tactics are important, sure; keeping apprised of what’s new/what’s working for other authors currently can, and will, greatly help your success.

But a business is not built on tactics – some cool trick to get low bids on Facebook, or a few special keywords to use for your book.  This is great for clickbait, as the fundamentals are decidedly less sexy. And yes, in the short term, these things might help. But in the long term, tactics are either stamped out by the platforms or become swarmed by competitors. Ultimately, a tactic that once gave you an edge becomes either obsolete or a commodity. They can be wildly profitable in the interim, but they have a shelf life.

An example of a tactic: back in early ~2012, you could set your book to free on Amazon KDP and give away thousands of copies almost automatically. Since the free and paid charts were mixed (and a free download was counted as equivalent to a sale in their algorithm), this meant you got massive visibility – your free book would be hanging out at #12 in the entire Kindle Store. And, when it reverted to paid after its free run was over, you would make thousands of dollars from said visibility.

Many indies made 5-figures this way. A handful launched their careers, because they built actual fanbases using this source of traffic. Most, however, failed to recognize their good fortune – or thought the gold rush would never stop. Very few authors channeled this sales windfall into building their mailing lists (or another platform) where they could directly connect with their fans – and had on-demand access to them. As such, their good fortune was temporary, and their books plummeted into obscurity once Amazon separated the free and paid charts (and made a free download grant a mere 1/10 of the visibility boost of a paid sale).

This means two things for our purposes:

  1. This guide will not delve into temporary tactics. Otherwise it will be out of date in weeks or months. 95% of the information will remain relevant in 2030, since it’s based upon principles that are well over a century old. I chased tactics for the first two or three years of my career; inevitably, they either dried up before I could actually implement them (e.g. I sat on pages of notes for months) or they quickly waned in effectiveness when I did hop on the bandwagon.
  2. The end goal of your marketing efforts is to find fans. Yes, sales, page reads, downloads and so forth are all wonderful. Tactics that provide a temporary sales bump or visibility boost but don’t build your fanbase are ultimately worthless.  If you’ve found a tactical gold mine (say, a certain kind of Pinterest ad is making you a crazy amount of money), you must translate this temporary boost into fans ASAP by getting them to sign up for your email list (or engage on your platform of choice). Otherwise, once the gold rush is over, you’re left with no real business.

Tactics are useful, and have their place in marketing. But focusing on them at expense of the big picture is a fool’s errand.

This Guide’s Core Principles

All systems are built upon principles. My marketing philosophy is no different. These are not beliefs, nor things I necessarily wish to be true; these are principles that, from experience, data and research, I’ve found are likely to be true.

  1. Think critically of all advice (or, The Emperor Has No Clothes). Most advice is BS – even successful people often have a poor grasp on why they succeeded, or elements such as variance, timing and luck.
  2. Life is dictated by evolution: Success in indie publishing – and, presumably, life at large – is not about being the strongest, fittest, smartest or quickest. Success results from being the best adapted to the current environment. You must be willing to try new, uncomfortable things. You can adapt, or you can die.
  3. Compound interest rules the world: Compound interest applies to everything from money to newsletter subscribers to skill acquisition. Get 1% better per week; 1% per week compounded over 5 years is a 13x increase. Initial progress is modest – until you hit critical mass, which people mistakenly call “overnight success.”
  4. The 80/20 Rule: 80% of your results come from just 20% of your actions. The #s vary (e.g. 1% of your actions can produce 99% of the results). The key takeaway: a select few actions have a disproportionate impact on your results. You cannot do everything, nor should you even try; most tasks are worthless. Small, marginally effective tactics are, in fact, liabilities, as they thieve time from high impact, ultra-valuable tasks.
  5. No amount of tweaking and marketing can revive a book or series that fails to satisfy reader expectations. If you’ve tried a lot of things and your book still sinks like a stone, congratulations: you’ve written an unsellable book. No worries. I’ve written 15+ of them.
  6. Implement one thing at a time. Mailing lists. Genre research. Covers. Categories. Trying to master everything at once is a recipe for information overload. It’s probably gonna take 3 – 5 years to become a successful author – you can’t learn or do everything today. Think big, but act small: identify your main problem, break it into manageable chunks and then attack it step-by-step, making sure you execute as well as your current skills allow.

General Business Principles

Before we launch into the book-specific marketing stuff, we need to discuss a few basic business concepts. A lot of success – in this game, and in life – comes down to just not shooting yourself in the foot. When you strip away all the platitudes and buzzwords, running a successful business comes down to two core things:

  1. Strategy: e.g. your system/plan (what you’re gonna do). How many books you’ll release in a year, which genre, when they will be released, what kind of advertising you’ll do, how much you’ll spend, and so forth.
  2. Execution of that strategy. Actually doing it (well). Most people blame “productivity,” for their execution problems, but showing up is only step 1. Step 2 is executing competently. This is difficult. Further, a poor, unrealistic strategy inevitably results in poor execution. Great execution flows from great strategy.

These are simple principles that hide deceptive layers of complexity.

Always design your marketing strategy in accordance with your goals, available resources (money, existing skills, people who can help you etc.) and execution capabilities.

This is why dogma is stupid. Even if there was a theoretically most efficient strategy to achieving authorly success, it wouldn’t necessarily be your most efficient path. Understand the principles, however, and you can adjust the strategy – and advice – to your personal situation.

And that’s when you start making real progress.

The Two Key Metrics

There are thousands of metrics and numbers you can track. Many are deceiving – including common measures of success like sales, newsletter subscribers, review numbers, Amazon ranking or social media followers. These – and other numbers – certainly have their uses. But there are two key metrics for accurately assessing the health of your indie business:

1. Cash flow. This is the lifeblood of every business. When cash flow is negative, your business is on life support. The most basic way to calculate this:

Incoming revenue – monthly burn – one-off mandatory payments = monthly cash flow

Examples of what each of these components entails:

  • Incoming revenue: royalties from various retailers, paychecks from day job, freelancing payments
  • Monthly burn: recurring charges like health insurance, web hosting, email, cell phone, car payments, credit cards, mortgage/rent
  • One-off mandatory payments: upcoming doctor’s visit or a car inspection

People recommend not mixing business/personal accounts (and you shouldn’t if you have a corporation), but this generally doesn’t happen in the real world. Most people don’t start out with any sort of official business documentation. Your Amazon royalties tend to go into your personal bank account, and you pay designers/formatters from this same account. And, at the outset, you’re probably gonna fund your indie business with your checks from your main job or savings.

As such, unless you maintain a strict separation of business/personal finances, your cash flow calculations should include revenue from your day job, personal payments like rent and so forth.

This is not a number calculated for tax or “official” purposes; it is a snapshot of how much money is flowing into your coffers versus how much is flowing out. When your free cash flow is negative or minimal (e.g. like $20), this constricts your growth rate (e.g. your ability to book promos, upgrade covers and so forth). Negative cash flow is a code red signal that your business is on life-support. You must fix this cash leak, or die.

Business owners will often try to patch over poor or negative cash flow with credit cards. This is a fool’s errand. If you take nothing else away from this guide, heed this: never charge anything to your cards that you cannot pay off that month.

The best way to address immediate cash flow problems is by decreasing your monthly burn (e.g. chopping cable, cancelling a service). Carefully analyze your expenses, but don’t kneecap your growth by cutting business-critical services. Recurring subscriptions look cheap on a monthly basis, but are often expensive when calculated annually. Long-term, of course, you want to increase your revenues. But your revenue growth is largely fueled by how much cash you can reinvest into your business – so focus on keeping expenditures down, and avoid tying up your cash in mediocre opportunities.

Cash flow should be calculated on a monthly basis, and done in advance. Since Amazon doesn’t pay you for 60 days, you know what your royalty deposit will be 2 months from now. This means that, after factoring in scheduling times, you often won’t see your cash (e.g. for a promo) for 120+ days. Bear this in mind when selecting uses for your money – an opportunity that makes you $15 but ties up $700 in capital for months isn’t worth it. You also know the bulk of your expenses. Plan accordingly.

2. Net income. This is just [total revenue – total expenses]. Only include numbers from your publishing business (e.g. do not include personal expenses like rent/car payments etc. unless they are also business expenses), as the taxman will want this figure, too. But net income is vital for personal use, as it gives you an instant snapshot of whether your business is generating or sucking up money. When net income is negative, you often have a problem, unless you’ve been spending a lot of money to grow (e.g. getting subscribers).

Net income should be calculated on a yearly basis. It can also be calculated quarterly. Monthly doesn’t tend to be useful, as expenditures and revenues don’t line up perfectly (e.g. you might spend $5,000 on a cover/promo/editing for a book that doesn’t launch for two months).

Money Management: The Unheralded Key to Success

One of my favorite quotes is from An Wang: “If you go for a long time without shooting yourself in the foot, other people start calling you a genius.” There’s remarkable truth in that statement – while whizbang tactics and “secrets” sell courses and encourage clicks, much of your success comes down to mastering basic things. Basics that, as adults, we feel are beneath us – such as the importance of patience, dedicated practice and perseverance.

And managing your finances correctly.

Most finance articles center around silly things, like cutting your Netflix subscription. This advice is steeped in a misguided “hustle and grind” work ethic that traces its roots back to Puritanism: there is a simple nobility to the austerity of depriving yourself of Ozark. I thought frivolous personal spending habits were the source of my money management problems – upon a bank account analysis, they weren’t.

Bad business “investments” were the culprit.

You know how every info marketer & service provider tells you that you shouldn’t be afraid to invest in your business and yourself? That it’s the most important thing? Well, most business expenditures aren’t investments. They’re giant wastes of cash. The #1 investment you can make in yourself and your business has nothing to do with money – it has everything to do with practice. Practicing the fundamentals of marketing, writing and self-discipline.

That’s not a monetizable idea, unfortunately, so you’re not going to hear it anywhere else.

Back to money pits: I’d venture to say that more businesses are scuttled by poor money management than any other problem. This is incredibly simple to get right, but most people become impatient, chase growth, fall prey to Sirens’ calls whispering impossible promises in their ears, and, like Icarus, end up drowning in the sea.

Yes, I understand I mixed my myths there. You get the point: people are trying hard to separate you from your cash. Two rules can keep you from the financial abyss.

  1. Never charge anything to your credit card that you cannot pay off that month. Nothing. Not those covers that you know are going to make your books breakout. Not the promo blitz that will push you into the Top 1000. If you cannot pay cash, you cannot afford it. And, since you’re thinking it: You are not going to pay your credit card off before the 0% APR runs out. There is a reason every bank offers that “deal,” and it isn’t their altruism. It is always quicker to wait, save and then pay cash.
  2. Be wary of expensive services/courses. Magic bullets and secrets are tempting. They also don’t exist. There are lots of courses, web hosting options, themes, plugins and services available. Unfortunately for these companies, the internet has rendered most of these commodities. No longer does the classic heuristic “premium price = the best” hold true. You can get great, full-featured services for free, or remarkably low cost. All the information you need is available freely, or for the price of a book.

Four years ago, I would’ve laughed at those two rules and gone whateverThat won’t be my story – I’ll spend big now and be a millionaire in six monthsI’m an entrepreneur, baby. Until I felt that debt noose slip around my neck, I didn’t understand the magnitude of my stupidity. Taking unchecked risks and making unforced errors doesn’t make you bold or aggressive; it makes you a fool. And you know the saying about fools and their money. Remember how important compound interest is? I was compounding in the wrong direction. Hopefully you can internalize this lesson without the unfortunate wisdom born of experience.

I got out. I’m never going back. Money aside, I probably set myself back 2 – 3 years.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that this is the most important section in the entire guide. Most will ignore it, since it’s obvious, unsexy and has nothing to do with Amazon charts or algorithms.

Quant-Based Marketing

In the past, most marketing efforts were based around branding (think Mad Men). You’d put up a billboard, or run a newspaper ad, then kind of hope that people would remember your brand. The cause and effect relationship between your marketing efforts and results were hazy at best. A few pioneers – Claude Hopkins, David Ogilvy – tracked numbers and took a scientific approach during the past century. But it wasn’t really until the late 90s that quant-based marketing really started entering the mainstream.

This sounds like a scary term (another term you might find is scientific marketing), but really it just means your marketing decisions are based on numbers. You track what spend is responsible for what profits. Which ads are responsible for sales and which are not. In short, you track, analyze and adjust based on data. It wasn’t until the late 90s/early 2000s that this data became commonplace thanks to the rise of the internet and PPC platforms. If you’re using Facebook, you can track the impact of a specific ad in real time (kind of – Amazon doesn’t give us a ton of data, so it’s more an estimate).

You need to be tracking your numbers. You need to find what works and cut what doesn’t. If you’re not a numbers person, fear not; this isn’t complex math, but arithmetic – addition and subtraction, mostly. But your marketing results must be tracked: That’s just the way things work in the 21st century.

However, proponents of a quant-based marketing approach often go too far. The numbers are useful, but they rarely tell the whole story. They might even tell you lies. 1000 subscribers can be great, or they can be useless. A $10,000 profit might be disastrous in one instance, while a $10,000 loss might be positive in another. The latter is almost impossible to believe, even if you are data-phobic. But in select circumstances, it can be true – because, remember, we’re building a career. Every decision and piece of data is not an isolated decision, but one in a longer string of choices that make up your overarching strategy. If you go off to write in a hot market for $10,000, this results in a short term gain, but no long-term benefit. Meanwhile, the $10,000 spent learning your genre of choice and building a platform might pay off with $1,000,000 down the line.

Therefore, you must always ask what does this number meanBeing able to draw the proper conclusions from your data is critical. This is known in data analysis as being able to identify the signal from the noise. While many over confident gurus in any number of fields will be happy to sell you their one true way, one of the most frustrating truths of life is this: it’s incredibly difficult to understand why something happens. This is difficult in hard sciences; it took us thousands of years to harness electricity, radio waves and any number of things we take for granted. But when you add in a human element, identifying signal – and truth – becomes infinitely harder. The road to hell is paved with unwavering certainty.

As you accumulate more data, you’ll find that analysis becomes easier and more intuitive. This does not mean your conclusions will always be correct, merely that your probability of being right increases. Think of it like a baseball hitter: a career batting average of .300 is Hall of Fame caliber, despite the hitter failing more than two thirds of the time.

In the realm of marketing, if 20% of your ads, campaigns, books, and so forth are breakout hits, you are doing extraordinarily well. To even get to this level, however, you must be diligent in your analysis. And you must have the resilience to accept that, in this paradigm, 80% of your efforts will be mediocre or even ridiculous failures. Which leads me to reemphasize a key point: keeping numbers forces you to be honest, and it also forces you to manage your “risk.” While big bets get all the movie play and newspaper stories, they usually lead to ruin. No book or campaign should shoulder the burden of “saving” your career or be a piece upon which you “bet it all,” no matter how confident you are in its prospects.

To put plainly: most marketing endeavors are flops. Most books are flops. Accept this, and plan accordingly.

Finally, while numbers are critical, always remember that you are selling books to people. Forgetting this simple fact and focusing only on the data can result in poor decisions. Yes, you are running a business – but that business is funded by readers. There are things that can’t be quantified that have value.

The Internet Marketing Formula

Effective internet marketing involves just three steps, adapted from Perry Marshall’s excellent 80/20 Sales & Marketing:

  1. Traffic: you direct potential readers to your book page via paid ads, your mailing list, social media, Amazon’s algorithms and so forth. Also known as “generating visibility” or “doing promotion.” Covered in Part 2.
  2. Conversion: you convince readers to buy your book via a stellar blurb and cover, competitive price, professional first few pages and so forth. Later, you convert them into fans by pointing them to the next book in the series or offering them something of value to sign-up for the mailing list. Covered in Part 3 (covers/blurbs) and Part 4 (email lists).
  3. Assessing ROI (return on investment): did you make money? If you sold 1,000 books @ $3.99, but it cost you $10,000 in production and ad costs, your business isn’t long for this world. You might have gained 3,000 email subscribers, but if only 2 of them buy, you have a problem. Assess what methods aren’t working, which series/books aren’t resonating with readers and then return to Step #1 (traffic) to tighten things up on the next go round. ROI doesn’t get its own chapter, because it can be boiled down to the following rule: double down on what makes you money and immediately stop or fix what doesn’t.

That’s it: you need to get readers to your book’s page, and then you need to convince them to buy it; and you need to do these two things inexpensively enough to generate a profit so you can repeat the cycle.

Simple. Not easy.

The Ultimate Book Marketing Formula

The trifecta of indie author success can be distilled into three components: genre craft + marketing + consistent production. Your job as an indie author really comes down to honing these three areas through repeated practice. When one of these three elements is substantially lacking, your job becomes difficult to the point of de facto impossibility.

But this concept, while useful, isn’t an actionable strategy. How does one quantify “marketing” or “consistent production”? What should you focus on within these areas to improve your skills?

Enter the Ultimate Book Marketing Formula, which I’ve seen work for authors in every genre. It’s the most consistent damn thing I’ve found in a business filled with more twists and turns than the actual books.

Ready? Here it is:

Genre research + 3 targeted traffic sources + great covers/blurbs + newsletter + consistent new series novel releases of 60,000+ words/150+ pages (4+ per year) = full-time author

Or, put another way:

  1. Research: Understand the tropes and audience expectations of your sub-genre. Can your target market support your financial goals? What are your audience’s expectations? Proper research helps you craft a book that your target audience needs to read.
  2. Traffic: Find three effective, targeted traffic sources that suit your marketing strengths and budget.
  3. Covers/Blurbs: Get eye-catching, professional covers and write compelling blurbs that clearly convey the genre.
  4. Newsletter: Build your mailing list.
  5. Consistent new releases: Once you nail the first four steps, your most effective marketing tactic becomes a new release. However, if you suck at the first four things, publishing more books will only lead to more expenses.
    1. Writing full-length novels (60,000+ words) in a series makes marketing far easier/more lucrative. Even if you hate series, you must write them.
    2. Series allow you to spend more on marketing, because a sale of Book 1 will result in follow-up sales of Books 2, 3 and so forth (known as “sell-through”). A series otherwise is known as a “funnel” in internet marketing. Book 1 or a box set of Books 1, 2 & 3 starts your series funnel. Like its namesake, readers get sifted out as the funnel gets longer – only 50% might go on to read Book 2. But 90% (e.g. 45% of the original readers) go on to read Book 3. These numbers tend to stabilize after Book 3 (e.g. most people who read that far will continue the series), which means that, all else being equal, a longer book funnel generates more money than a shorter one for the same advertising spend/effort.
    3. Your existing fans are far more inclined to buy Book 2/3/4 etc. in a series they love than to purchase a new standalone/start a new series – even if they adore your other work.
    4. Consistent releases smooth out your earnings, making your cash flow more stable.

These five parameters were not devised because of preexisting biases against literary fiction, short stories/novellas, standalone novels, taking years in between releases or anything else (for further insight, check out the Author Earnings Report RWA 2016 Presentation). This formula is simply designed to give you the best odds of succeeding in a competitive business.

There are ten thousand more things you can do. But if you execute these five components at an 85 – 90%+ level, you’ll make it. How can that be, you say? Don’t you have to create epic landing pages, split-test everything, release six books a week, type six million words a minute and write massively to trend to succeed?

Indie publishing becomes an unmanageable albatross when you try to get everything right. This formula forces you to focus only on keystone tasks: the core 20% that matters. You need to nail these elements.

Play with the variables in accordance to your personal strengths and weaknesses; some people are productivity monsters, writing 12+ books a year. They constantly tap into the massive boost Amazon grants new releases (covered in Part II), instead of doing stuff like Facebook Ads. Other authors only release a couple times a year, but build a huge mailing list that reliably launches them into the Top 100.

I cannot emphasize this enough: leverage your signature strengths. Make sure your weaknesses aren’t sabotaging you. This will maximize the impact of your strengths. I am not trying to cast you in my mold; that would be silly, as we have different life experiences, skills, talents, and approaches. The key is to understand the variables that move the needle – the signal in the endless stream of noise that we discussed earlier – and then understand how sliding those levers works. Yes, I truly believe that the formula, as written, will result in at least part-time money of $1,000+ a month if followed diligently over 5 years. Naturally, there are no guarantees, least of all in a business as volatile as this one. But I also know there are few authors willing to execute the formula exactly as written. Nor should they, because it is precisely your signature strengths which provide you with a competitive advantage over others in a crowded marketplace.

Finally, a commitment to continuous improvement (kaizen) will propel you forward as other authors stagnate.

The rest of this guide covers each element in depth, so you’ll understand exactly how to execute them properly.

I’m Going to Ignore Marketing and Just Write Good Books

The formula doesn’t ignore the importance of writing good books. It’s vital – just not in the way most authors think. Unfortunately, “write good books” is a uselessly vague piece of advice, often proffered with a not-so-subtle undertone: if you’re not selling, your books are crap. This might be the case, but marketing shortcomings are equally common. We’ve all encountered fantastic TV shows, movies and books that died due to lack of marketing exposure.

Thus, writing good books is not a reader acquisition strategy. No one can tell if your book is good from the cover or blurb (and no, most readers don’t read samples). They assume your words will be entertaining when your presentation hits the correct notes. It is not until they are deep within the book some hours later, however, that the final verdict is known. Thus, writing good books – particularly strong, satisfying endings – is a reader retention strategy. Ultimately, all business is built on repeat business (for us, readers who become fans).

Without penning compelling books that your target audience NEEDS to read, you will never have a career. But publishing a good book will do nothing by itself, either (with rare exceptions that I can assure you are not you), until you make it visible to the world.

Mindset: Resilience and Perseverance

This sounds like it has little to do with marketing, but mindset is the keystone that holds this entire operation together. Thus, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention it, at least in passing.

And to do so, we’ll travel briefly into another realm of art, as well as other areas, to bring back key lessons for our publishing careers.

I like stand-up comedy, not only because it’s funny (surprise), but because it’s an art form that demands tremendous grit in the face of overwhelming embarrassment. The HBO show Crashing is an interesting look into what it takes to come up in this industry. In one of the after the episode segments, the protagonist and creator, Pete Holmes, explains that most comedians are going to be horrible for five to ten years.

That’s five to ten years of almost zero pay, respect, and near consistent bombing. Bill Burr, on one of his podcasts, likened it to sports, where “every night is a fucking away game, and it’s a rivalry game, and they fucking hate you.” And the only way through that? Not read some book, find some secret, meet the right person.

Keep bombing and trying new things.

I don’t think the novel form is quite as brutal, but the comments and lack of sales can be crushing for any writer, no matter how experienced. This is a difficult business; there is high competition, low barriers to entry, and lots of people who dream of being a writer. This is not where I implore you to work hard, want it more, love it more, hone your craft until your fingers are too stiff to tap the keys.

Most of that stuff is a bunch of empty platitudes.

Instead, I want to tell you this: there will be days where you want to quit. Need to quit, so that your soul stops taking a beating. Hate this so much that you want to scream and curse the gods of fortune for not making your debut novel a bestseller. Sounds familiar, yes? If it doesn’t, I would suspect you’re a liar. Because the failures, little and large, eat away at you. They sap your confidence, whisper things about how you should do something else into your ear.

And if you let these voices rule the asylum, you’re screwed. Because your output will drop, your work will suffer, and you will give up. Life and publishing are both fraught with uncertainty. Seeking guarantees is a fool’s errand. If writing books truly matters to you, here’s what I would suggest to persevere. Because make no mistake: those who are successful are those who keep going when the others have all stopped.

There is no secret other than that.

One, occasionally you need to unplug. After a particularly disappointing release or ill-fated marketing campaign, or just plain burnout, sometimes the best thing you can do is stop working. I know, this flies in the face of everything our #hustle culture holds dear. And it seems to fly in the face of being resilient: isn’t that all about powering through rock faces with white-knuckle stoicism, feelings be damned?

No. What a break allows you to do is reflect. Often, your mind needs to disengage from a problem completely so that your subconscious can go to work. You might have been neglecting important areas like your health or sleep in your quest for success. Or you might be pounding your head against the wrong rock face, when there is a tunnel blasted into the side of the mountain two meters to the right. Taking a step back removes the blinders and allows you to see a situation with fresh, rested eyes.

Unplugging can be as simple as taking a break to do something “unproductive” in the middle of the day (watching an episode of TV), or it could be an extended period of weeks or months. It all depends on what the situation demands.

Two, focus on volume. Quality, success, new ideas – anything you want, really, comes from output. Ed Sheeran talks about playing over a thousand shows before he made it; Passenger sings about how he’s written 600 songs, but only a dozen get sung. There are myriad other examples throughout the artistic ecosystem, but the correlation is clear: massive practice leads to improved skill, and more work leads to more opportunity to catch someone’s eye. As writers, and artists, however, we often want to be like J.D. Salinger or Harper Lee, creating a single masterwork that will live for eons. This comes from the misguided notion that the market will recognize genius if we merely write the correct book. While you will receive little argument from me that both The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird are classics of American literature, replicating such success is not an actual strategy (nor is being the next E.L. James, if mainstream success is what you desire).

There is far too much randomness and variance for genius to simply be rewarded on its own. It is impossible to prove, of course, but there are hundreds of classics lying dormant and unread, simply because of pure chance. This is far easier to see in music, where you can consume the product in four minutes instead of four hours: If one has Spotify or a similar streaming service, it is not unusual to hear a half dozen songs that are brilliant, but have relatively little airplay.

This is an alarming prospect to any artist, of course, and is often scoffed at. I think people want to believe that hard work, talent and quality alone are rewarded. Alas, the equation does not work that way. There is a solution, however, which I highlighted earlier with my card playing analogy: in a game of poker or blackjack, if one has an edge, they will win – but only over time. That is, they must play enough hands. Doing so demands that they persevere through the downswings without going on tilt (making foolish bets) or quitting the tables in a fit of rage. In case the metaphor isn’t clear, if you are a good writer, then you have an edge in the publishing game. However, if you only play one hand – release one book, execute one marketing campaign – then you are at the whims of essentially randomness. Even the best poker pro couldn’t guarantee a win if he were only allowed to play one hand.

As such, I’ve taken a concept from the stock trading world and adapted it for use in the publishing realm. It is called a stop loss. As the name suggests, when you enter a stop loss order, you are instructing your broker to sell your stock position when it dips below a certain price (say, $50). This limits your risk. Most people set this number at the point where they can no longer bear to stay in a stock any longer – i.e. where the loss would become too emotionally painful to bear. On the surface, this seems like a wise idea, but in practice, this is foolish, for your emotions have no actual correlation with whether the stock is still a good buy.

Instead, a wise trader sets their stop loss at a level which disproves their original hypothesis. In the case of a stock, the hypothesis is generally this is a good company, worth X amount more than what the market thinks. In publishing, this hypothesis is generally, I am a good writer who writes and markets well enough to compete in an ultra-competitive publishing landscape.

The stop-loss provides a very clear answer to “should I keep going,” (and, also “do I still have a realistic shot at making it?”) which can otherwise be a circular time waster. It also prevents you from continuing on past the point where additional efforts would likely be a lost cause. Sometimes we just don’t have what it takes to succeed in a certain area. There is no shame in that, but there is also little point in forcing yourself to continue if your skills and temperament aren’t a good fit for publishing

For me, I set my stop loss at 30 books: if I wrote 30 novels and wasn’t successful, then that was a pretty clear indicator that I wasn’t good enough (and was unlikely to ever become good enough). There are no certainties, but writing an addition 10 novels beyond that point would probably not provide any data that the first 30 did not. This is not a new concept, although I’ve borrowed a new name for it: artists have famously committed until a certain age (say, until age 40, or for 5 years). I believe production is more valuable than years, as it is easy to fritter away time without producing anything or getting better. Regardless, the key aspects are a commitment and a clear end.

Far too many authors have one foot out the door: maybe I’ll keep going, maybe I won’t. While this is good for flexibility, it is lethal to your career prospects. There are far too many committed artists working far too hard at their craft for a dilettante to have much chance of success. To be clear, I am not speaking of someone who writes part-time or on their lunch break, or otherwise has full-time occupation. Many authors have been born of such circumstances. Instead, I talk of the tendency to “play” novelist, where one treats their career as they would a hobby, but expects better rewards – and is disappointed when the outcome is less than spectacular. Again, there is nothing wrong with writing for fun. In fact, many people would probably be happier if they did that, rather than expected any sort of monetary return.

Where the issues arise is when one is wishy-washy and inconsistent, without committing to one path. The stop loss cures this ailment, as it demands a certain number of books before one can exit the door. If you are not willing to commit to any number of future books, that is a clear indicator that, at this point in your life, you do not want to become an author. That, too, is equally excellent, for you can write as a hobby and perhaps pursue other business ventures that are more suited to your tastes.

The clear end is critical in that it gives you a “light at the end of the tunnel.” When you release a number of commercial and/or critically unsuccessful works, it can be a chore to continue. Inevitable doubts settle in. If you do not have an “out,” it can seem like you are strapped in a strange sort of hell, where you are forever destined to never make it. The stop loss, however, gives you the relief of knowing that, should your emotional anguish continue, it will only be temporary – and not a lifetime sentence. This spares precious cognitive resources and allows you to refocus on making your next book better, by fixing whatever doomed the last release to obscurity.

You can set your stop loss according to your own life calculus; I am young, so writing 30 novels carries less risk in terms of my career than it would for someone older. But whenever I’ve wanted to quit, I always think did you get to 30? And the question is no.

Finally, an important note: A stop loss only makes sense when you have enough experience to know what a good “disproving” point would be. I didn’t set that when I was just starting out, or even after novel 5; I set it somewhere around novel fifteen, when I was still struggling mightily and contemplating the trajectory of my writing career.

Finally, there is another tool to be used in the pursuit of the volume necessary to succeed: quotas or milestones. These are for marketing, where stop losses don’t make as much sense. Ads are even more finicky than books; identifying a winner (beyond obvious errors and fundamental properties) can be little better than a coin flip. As such, extensive testing is critical, which can only come via creating a lot of ads.

In 80/20 Marketing, it’s suggested that 1 out of 50 PPC (pay-per-click) ads is a big winner. Therefore, my quota for such ads is 50 per month. Similarly, I want to test at least two landing pages for my mailing list and two for my “upsell” page (more on that in part 4, if you’re unfamiliar with the terms) per week.

You might not use PPC, but the idea stands: maybe you want to make three posts to your Facebook page a week, run at least one promotion a month, or participate in two author cross promotions ever month. Without quotas, it’s easy to let marketing slip by the wayside – and, with it, progress. When you have a quota, you can clearly see if A) you’re doing enough marketing and B) these efforts are enough to move the needle. It’s a simple idea, but one that will pay dividends, and free you from the tyranny of banking all your chips on a single marketing horse. When you have fifty ads running per month, it’s much easier to persevere, because failure becomes insignificant and temporary, rather than big and scary.

And, when you take more shots, your successes come much more frequently, too, drowning out the “mistakes” until you barely see them.

A Note on Execution

I’ve heavily debated whether or not to include a chapter on productivity. Ultimately, I decided to narrow the core focus of the guide to marketing. Presumably, many of you already have productivity systems that work for you. It is your job to incorporate your marketing activities into your existing system how you see fit. A word of warning: it will be tempting to put off the information in this guide until “someday.” But the number of books grows each day in the Kindle Store, with competition becoming sharper by the hour.

The longer you wait, the more difficult your task becomes. The time to strike is now. More information is rarely the answer; without implementation, even the best information is useless.

For those who struggle with execution, here’s my simple system:

  1. Eliminate 95% of unnecessary tasks and prioritize those keystone tasks that remain
  2. Energy management: sleep, diet, exercise, work at times of peak focus, and implement periods of rest/recovery.
  3. Start from your overarching goal/destination: what do you really want in life?
  4. Reverse engineer a realistic plan, with slack and contingencies built in for life’s inevitable interruptions.
  5. Work all the way back to small daily wins (habits) that can be realistically performed with consistency, but are still challenging/substantial enough to produce progress.
  6. Keep records of what works and what does not so you can continually improve.

None of this is rocket science. Productivity is not some arcane art. Unfortunately, self-help books have flooded the world with nonsense. Thus, our system will not be based on fluff, but actual science and advice that has stood the test of time for thousands of years.

The closest thing we have to a hack is simply eliminating most of what you “must” do. Our to-do lists are often overrun by things that don’t move our lives or business forward. Simply cutting these frees your schedule and mental space from time vampires that negatively impact your life. This can be tricky at first, since we’re indoctrinated to believe that all tasks are equally important. Start by removing some that appear frivolous, and gauge the impact. If the world doesn’t collapse, then keep striking items from the list.

Next, we want to prioritize those that remain, organizing them based on when they need to get done and their importance. You can do this with a sticky note, calendar, journal, productivity app, or your mechanism of choice – it really doesn’t matter, so long as you have a go-to place where your short-term tasks and medium-term tasks are listed. This simple act of organizing everything in one place can be freeing and relaxing, as what seems like a million things to do is often less than a dozen.

By the way, during this organization exercise, you’ll probably come across some physical objects blocking your desk, half-finished files, random bookmarks and other noise eating up mental space. Now’s your opportunity to toss them. I run a tidy, minimalist ship, but that’s not necessary or recommended. If you work better with a little mess, that’s fine – just clear enough off the top so you can see what’s important.

I often find that a quick analysis of what needs to be done, and discarding junk/non-important to-dos is a great way to help my mind reset. It usually takes less than an hour, and gives you instant results.

That’s the easy part. Now comes the “change your life” aspect of execution. Depending on where you’re at, you might have minimal adjustments or be more of a rough draft. Doesn’t matter; meet yourself where you are and work from there.

Then you need to decide what you want. I can’t decide for you, but many people have bad goals that aren’t actually what they want. Reflect on what you’d like your life to look like, your current skills and resources, and what you’re willing to sacrifice to get there. Make no mistake: you cannot have everything. You might not even be able to accomplish what you want most in the world. Life is not fair, and simply “putting in the work” guarantees you nothing. Whatever you decide to pursue, the journey probably needs to be worthwhile on its own. This can be aided by a purpose, but those don’t exactly fall out of thin air.

If you spend all your time pursuing something you don’t care about, or is worthless to society, that is not productive. Thus, you should take some time to reflect on your goals before plunging ahead. Then, the day-to-day work begins, where you reverse-engineer that big, daunting goal into monthly, weekly, and daily milestones (sub-goals).

Contrary to common advice, the trick to sustained productivity is not to start with big gestures, but to build up over time. Like anything else, productivity is a skill; if you struggle with execution, it is simply because you have not burned the necessary circuits into your brain to change its wiring (known as neuroplasticity). Unfortunately, it is rarely considered as such – usually it is described in moral terms (“laziness”) or something that can be summoned on demand, when needed.

This is not how skills work. One cannot rise to the occasion of playing for the symphony if he has never touched a piano. The results would be predictably terrible. There would be no moral judgements about lacking such a skill, either: no one is considered a bad person for lacking skills on the keys.

Thus, once we view productivity in the same lens, most of the old myths can be quickly dispatched. Self-discipline is not summoned on demand through sheer force of will, nor is it triggered by mysterious forces like passion or motivation. It is simply developed, over time, through consistent practice. The key? Etching new neural pathways into your mind with small daily habits.

Habits are nothing new. Your brain forms them automatically to conserve energy. Since thinking is an energy-intensive activity, the brain creates shortcuts for repetitive actions. However, this is a double-edged sword: your life is the sum of a number of good habits and some not-so-good. If you understand the process of habit formation, you can consciously adjust bad habits, install good ones, and maximize the effect of the beneficial ones that have already formed.

There are a few different types of habits:

  1. Automatic (done without thinking)
  2. Conscious (done with moderate thinking)
  3. F*** it (done after considerable reflection)

These are my names, but they seem apt. Automatic is fairly obvious: you walk the dog at the same time, eat breakfast, and so forth. Conscious involves some deliberation – should I get that donut? – but then we ultimately succumb to our neural wiring. The f*** it, or self-sabotage variety, is the most pernicious, since we’re very aware of the problem, but can’t seem to fix it. That’s where we stare at the screen, know we should write, but instead spend three hours on YouTube.

Habit formation follows a simple three step process.

  1. Trigger (also known as the “cue” or “antecedent”)
  2. Behavior
  3. Reward (also known as the “consequence”)

Most people focus on the behavior, and try to stamp it out (known as extinguishing). This is usually ineffective, because these three components are tightly tied together because of Hebb’s Law: neurons that fire together, wire together. Your brain has formed a connection between these three actions; thus, you must address and analyze your habits as a cohesive unit. The reward and trigger are the most important aspects, particularly for conscious behaviors that we can’t kick; it is easier to adjust these than it is to eradicate a behavior outright.

By becoming aware of our triggers and rewards, we can tweak them to form new neural circuitry in the brain.

Triggers and rewards are more important for the following reasons:

  • By becoming aware of triggers, you can consciously stop the habit script from playing out.
  • By becoming aware of rewards, you can consider alternative behaviors that might produce a similar reward.
  • You can use rewards to associate positive feelings with behaviors that are initially unpleasant (e.g. exercise).
  • You can use triggers to automate your behavior without even thinking.

The way this works is simple: we need to tweak the trigger or reward along with our behavior. If we’re trying to get rid of an undesired behavior, it’s easier to reuse the trigger and substitute a new behavior, rather than just trying to stamp it out through sheer willpower. This substitution can be something similar that generates the same reward (e.g. sparkling water instead of soda, if you’re trying to cut sugar and like the “fizziness” and novelty of carbonated beverages) or something new entirely.

For new substitute behaviors, you’ll probably have to implement an extrinsic reward, as the substitute won’t generate the same sort of intrinsic reward.

Two examples are below.

Example 1 (repurposing old trigger):

  • [OLD] morning coffee (trigger) > check email (behavior) > dopamine rush (intrinsic reward)
  • [NEW] morning coffee (trigger) > write for 15m (behavior) > watch a funny video (extrinsic reward)

Example 2 (new, unused trigger):

  • shower (trigger) > work on Facebook ads for 15m (behavior) > morning coffee (extrinsic reward)

You can use an action as either a trigger or reward, depending on the context. Designing habits is really only limited by your own preferences and creativity. However, you probably don’t need to replace or create that many new ones to dramatically adjust the course of your life or career. Less is often more; rather than implementing dozens of habits with minimal impact, focus on ones that affect more than one area. These are known as keystone habits.

There are three important things to note about habit formation: one, you should find triggers that automatically occur each day. You wake up every day, no matter what. This makes your habits easier to execute and more consistent, since you don’t have to remember a prerequisite step. Repetition is the key to making a habit stick, so triggers that happen at least once a day are best; more often is even better. This is why a bad habit like smoking is so easy and quick to ingrain: there might be a dozen triggers (drinking, waking up, sex, walking the dog and so forth) and there’s a strong intrinsic reward (taste/buzz). You can, however, use that same principle of repetition to form beneficial habits more quickly.

Two, make the reward something you like. Rewards come in two flavors: intrinsic (e.g. the dopamine rush) and extrinsic (e.g. the funny video or coffee). We tend to focus only on the intrinsic rewards; however, for things that have not already become habits, usually we need an outside push. For some reason, there’s a lot of hand-wringing, finger-pointing and shame surrounding this, like we should enjoy only enjoy writing for writing’s sake. Sometimes we need a nudge to get rolling; with competence and time often comes a sense of intrinsic reward. And, even if we’re never motivated by intrinsic rewards, we can still form effective habits by continually applying extrinsic rewards.

Three, do not “reward” yourself with something that is actually a punishment. A classic example is going for a workout, only to follow it up with a big salad or a nasty protein shake. This acts as a negative reinforcement, which makes us less likely to repeat the desired behavior in the future.

After we have the basics of habit formation under our belt, we want to chain a few habits together into a daily routine. Here’s an example, linking our two habits above:

  1. Shower (trigger)
  2. Work on Facebook Ads for 15m (behavior)
  3. Morning coffee (reward/trigger)
  4. Write for 15m (behavior)
  5. Watch a funny video (reward)

You can link together as many habits as you want, but the more you introduce, the weaker the overall chain becomes because there are more points of failure. Test out how many habits you can realistically add – and the scale of the behaviors – and adjust your routine accordingly.

Again, the key to skill-building and long-term progress is repetition. Build marketing into your routine, whether that’s a check-in once a week, or a daily occurrence. You might struggle at first.

A few sample habits that will serve you well:

  • Writing 500 – 3,000 words a day, or for 30 minutes – 3 hours.
  • Creating 1 – 5 new ads a day, or marketing for 15 minutes – 2 hours.

Again, more is not better. Remember the 80/20 rule: most things are a waste of time.

For the record, my system looks like this:

Overarching goal: $1 million in revenue a year, working less than 20 hours a week

Why? There’s information to suggest that most workers do little more than 3 hours of work per 8 hour day; world-class artists often practice no more than 5 hours a day; and that, beyond 25 hours, additional work usually results in the production of negative value.

Plan: release one book a month, on the first, and create 50 PPC ads a month. $500/wk in ad spend.

Why? New releases are the best form of marketing in existence, and writing more increases my skill and bolsters my backlist. It’s a rule of thumb that it takes running 50 PPC ads to produce one big winner. I’d like at least one of those a month. Also, doing that number of ads ensures that I’m getting enough practice in to increase my skills. Optimally, I’d like to generate one winner a week, but I don’t have the funds to test 50 ads a week.

This then breaks down into the following schedule:

  • M – F: 20,000 words (4,000 words a day)
  • Mon: launch 10 – 12 new ads, 2 – 3 new landing pages
  • T – F: 1 hr of marketing a day (designing new ads, writing new blurbs, scheduling promo sites/cross promos, getting new covers and so forth)
  • Sun: evaluate ads/landing pages, log numbers, organize best ad materials developed over the previous week for use on Monday

Yes, once you reverse-engineer the goal, you find that something massively ambitious essentially centers around two simple habits:

  1. Write 4,000 words per weekday
  2. 1 hr of marketing per weekday

Once you have these habits/daily tasks, tracking is simple: check them off when you accomplish them. If you’re not nailing them on a consistent basis, they’re too difficult; you need to reduce the difficulty or tweak some of the variables.

Note that I have periods of rest implemented throughout, both in the off day (Saturday), and the 3 – 5 hour daily work day. The goal is to do this for a long time, rather than to burn out. This gives me time to read, think, and strategize, as well as attend to critical energy management concerns: getting enough sleep, eating well, and having time to exercise.

It’s hard to write or market if you’re sick or dead, so these are priorities.

I’m pretty far from the end destination at this point, but each little daily habit brings me closer, even if I can’t see the progress on a day-to-day basis.  And, since I went through the process of reverse-engineering, and testing various other habits/milestones and so forth, I have confidence that my daily actions are leading directly into my goal, in a way that will achieve my desired lifestyle (e.g. working less than 20 hours a week).

By the way, you’ll notice that I don’t have time-bounded deadlines for my end “goal.” In this respect, my “goal” is not a traditional goal at all. This is no mistake; I’m not really a fan of traditional goals. They’re silly; you can’t control the rate of progress, even with something like losing weight or getting in shape, which involves only your body. How, then, could one expect the world to bend toward the timeline of one’s marketing goals?

The answer, when put so starkly, is obvious: we have little control over the rate of progress, or even the outcome. All that we can control is the process: showing up when we’re supposed to. Too much focus on results and short time frames is a recipe for disaster and quitting. Studies have indicated that practices like crash dieting actually result in weight gain – the exact opposite of the desired result. Sounds a bit like a 30 day writing challenge or a “become a full-time author in six months” ultimatum, no?

This often leads to extremely silly thinking, like what can I do in the next week to massively change things? or how might I generate 2,000 sales in the next ten days? I’m all for asking probing questions, but this type of wishful thinking extends beyond “thinking big” into foolhardiness. Any answers that come are likely to be ill-advised, ranging from unrealistic but harmless (usually the best case scenario) to ineffective time wasters (normal case) to cutting corners (worst case scenario).

String enough time wasters together, and you start wondering where the months and years go. You can either do something right, and have it take five years, or you can do something wrong, and have it never arrive.

The latter, unfortunately, is far more common. And, like keystone habits, this lack of progress has a halo effect of its own.

This one, however, is negative.

The inevitable failure resulting from onerous goals has a bad side effect: learned helplessness. You stop believing in your ability to change, which filters through your entire life and destroys your sense of self-efficacy (e.g. your confidence in your ability to change/learn new skills). Self-efficacy, of course, is critical to achieving difficult things, because it gives you the grit necessary to succeed in a difficult business. If you’re constantly “failing” in catastrophic fashion, these grooves are being wired into your brain, teaching it that change is impossible. Thus, big, unrealistic goals, while sexy and prevalent in our culture, usually destroy any chances of change or success we have.

Instead, we work with small daily wins – habits that start to build up our confidence and sense of self-efficacy. These aren’t sexy, but they are the way forward. A good process will lead to good results over time. Win each day, and you’ll get where you need to go. Don’t, and well – we’ve all experienced that. Consider how you learned how to read: you didn’t start with War and Peace. First, you learned the alphabet, then you sounded out a bunch of words. It took a long time, and substantial practice, but this was necessary to form a solid foundation. We take for granted many skills that are automatic – reading, writing, arithmetic – that demanded years of repetition to develop.

We think of children as impatient, but the irony is that most adults are far more impatient when it comes to progress, despite knowing better. This is probably why the belief that the adult brain was “fixed” and didn’t change was popular up until a few decades ago: we were trying to skip too many learning steps.

Don’t jump from 500 words to 4,000 words a day. Go to 600. If you hate marketing, a surefire way to hate it forever is to force yourself to do it for ten hours a day right off the bat. Start with 15 minutes. Meet yourself at your current level of ability, then implement a daily habit just (+5 – 10%) outside this comfort zone. Test it for a week to see if you nail it. If you can’t nail it during the test week, reduce the difficulty of your habit.

And implement one major habit at a time. Don’t overhaul your diet, start writing every day, join the gym, stop smoking, and pick up three new hobbies. This is tempting, of course, but change is faster alone. If you pick a keystone habit – one that has positive halo effects on other areas of your life – you’ll find that everything else becomes easier. For example, if you’re continually producing words, your marketing load becomes less burdensome, and your books become easier to sell because your skill is improving.

Focusing on a few habits, out of all the things that you can do, is the essence of 80/20. I’ve cut out all the BS that doesn’t help me reach my destination. And, after years of futility, I’ve removed traditional “SMART” goals from my productivity repertoire. They were working against my chances of success, and causing short-sighted decisions.

One of the core problems with any routine is self-evident: doing the same thing over and over gets boring. People actually appreciate a certain degree of randomness or chaos in their life, which is what makes certain activities like sports betting so compelling, despite the odds being against them. I don’t have a massively exciting solution for this, but occasionally I switch the order of my routine, or vary my rewards. This occasional novelty injects new life into a staid routine and keep me from checking out.

And a final thing: self-discipline is hard, even if you slice it into smaller chunks. Expect setbacks, and be kind to yourself in the case of inevitable stumbles. But know that showing up isn’t where the journey ends; once you conquer consistency, your next mountain is quality. Make each minute count. You can 5 – 10x the impact of each habit by executing them with 100% focus. This is known as deliberate practice, where you work without distraction, solely at the task at hand. No interruptions; during that hour of marketing, you’re completely engaged and relentlessly solving problems. Such a session is worth as much as 10 hours of “marketing” interspersed with mindless web surfing and texting.

This intensity is how you can beat everyone working 60 or 80 hours a week by working less. But it takes time to cultivate this level of focus. It’s a hard mindset to adopt, since few people get past stage 1, which is simply showing up. Focus, like self-discipline, is a skill that must be trained over time.

Productivity can quickly become a circular, tail-chasing endeavor, where you’re always looking for the next best thing, or little tweaks to put you over the edge. There are no secrets. Consume a bit of information, then execute it. Reflect on it only as much as you need to understand it; don’t allow it to become obsessive or otherwise deleterious to your true work: which is producing great books and creating effective marketing campaigns.

In the immortal words of the great Charlie Parker: “Master your instrument, master the music, and then forget all that shit and just play.”

What’s Next?

In Part II: The Ultimate Guide to Market Research, we’ll discus why product positioning and market research are the most important components of marketing. That’s right: most of marketing is done before you even write a word.


  • Business comes down to two things: strategy (your system/plan) and execution (actually implementing that system)
  • Two key metrics: cash flow, net income
  • The Success Trifecta: genre craft + consistent production + marketing
  • The Internet Marketing Formula: generate traffic to your Amazon page (via paid ads, mailing list, PPC and so forth), convert potential readers into buyers by having compelling covers/blurbs; later, convert readers into fans by having a compelling mailing list offer, and then evaluate the ROI (return on investment) by doubling down on things that make you money and immediately stopping activities that don’t.
  • The Ultimate Book Marketing Formula: genre research + 3 targeted traffic sources + newsletter + great covers/blurbs + consistent new series novel releases of 60,000+ words (4+/year) = full time author
    • A new release is the ultimate marketing strategy once you have the other four elements working. Until then, publishing a good, new book is not a reader acquisition strategy; it is a reader retention strategy. To acquire readers in the first place, you need to generate traffic + have compelling covers/blurbs.
  • 6 Key principles:
    • Think critically of all advice; most of it is wrong or BS
    • Evolution: try new + different things to adapt and evolve to a changing environment
    • Compound interest: consistent, small improvement (kaizen) is key to success, so be patient and get 1% better every week
    • 80/20: a few actions have much more impact on your results than anything else
    • No marketing can save a book or series that fails to meet reader expectations.
    • Implement one thing at a time. It’s far better to master the elements of the Ultimate Book Marketing Formula over the course of a couple years than be trash at 50 different marketing tactics.
  • Focus on small daily wins (habits) that you can develop into quality skills and big wins over time.

Action Step


  1. Sketch out a rough, 5-minute production schedule/release plan. It doesn’t have to be comprehensive, and it’s not set in stone. Just try to determine what you can realistically publish in the next year based on your available time/money/current habits + discipline (e.g. current marketing/production/craft skills) and your monetary goals. Work backward until you have a 1 – 2 keystone habits you can implement today.