February 2020: Second Order Effects

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February saw me release my first book in over a year and a half: The Ultimate Guide to Book Marketing. Not a novel, but weighing in at around 80,000 words, it is one of my longer volumes. If you’re here, you’re probably acquainted with what that is, so no need to rehash its contents (the title is a dead giveaway, anyway). Suffice to say, this guide had been three or so years in the making, and oft-requested. I’m happy to finally have it available.

I expected to sell a few copies based on emails and messages I’d received over the years. That happened (numbers at the end), which I was grateful for.

But the real surprise was the second order effects of launching the book, for which our February strategy update is named.

Second Order Effects

Before I get into what happened because of the book, let’s rewind a bit.

Last March, I opened up my ads course. I hadn’t done anything like that in the past (hell, I hadn’t even put the guide out as a book yet).

The first order effect of releasing a product is the money. That’s what everyone thinks of – and money is well and good, obviously. But it’s often the unseen second order effects that prove to be much, much more significant.

As an example: sell course > someone signs up (first order effect) > buy consulting (second order effect)

This is still fairly straightforward and probably a scenario most of us wouldn’t consider a surprise. Nonetheless, it’s something that’s a direct result of selling the course…but perhaps not something that would immediately come to mind when considering what impact a course could have.

But here’s where things get interesting:

sell course > someone signs up (first order effect) > recommend your site to other people, so your newsletter grows (second order effect)

That’s surprising. Because the course is all about revenue, right? And I thought, when I launched the course last year, that I’d get some people to join, but also some blowback or complaints.

The opposite happened. People were super stoked about it. The course was the best growth move I’d ever made for the guides, the newsletter, everything related to the site. Because, as it turns out, my original assumption was wrong: when you have a product for sale, people like sharing it. Because people like sharing good stuff with others.

This is fairly obvious when I think about my own recommendation tendencies. But emotions have a funny way of clouding your judgement. It’s easy to see seventy-six hypothetical negative scenarios that are completely ridiculous, but not see two or three totally plausible additional effects.

Sharing and consulting weren’t the only benefits.

Here’s what else happened: I learned more in 2019 than I did in the six or seven years prior. This was a direct result of talking to a number of six-figure authors, diving into their business problems, and also teaching. When you have to explain something step-by-step, you quickly discover if what you’re saying is bullshit or not. Teaching others forces you to up your game.

I couldn’t have predicted any of that. But those things proved much, much more important than any of the money I ended up making from the course. Since second order effects seem inherently unpredictable, it’s easy to write them off as luck. But finding serendipitous opportunities isn’t a matter of randomness; it’s about having products out there that can produce these types of second order effects.

And it’s also about experience. Now that I’ve experienced these effects, I can see others. Perhaps not all of them. But I can see a chain of potential effects that go beyond the second, to the third or fourth. This is like a crystal ball into a potential future.

I’ve read a lot of books. Books are great. But the only way to cultivate this is through actually doing it.

The takeaway: this is why you need to ship. I spent years procrastinating on the course and book. I didn’t want to be a “sellout.” Really, I was just scared that no one would buy or they wouldn’t be successful or people would criticize me. But guess what? That’s all part of the game (I’ve released a course that basically no one bought).

This is the price of being in the arena: without risk, there is no reward. But the risks here are very small. And the rewards are out-sized.

Don’t wait. Don’t deliberate.

Publish. Go. And see what happens.

I spent years “perfecting” the Ultimate Guide. And yes, the version that exists now is a huge leap from the previous version due to the experience I gained over 2019. But was it worth forgoing all the benefits that would have come with having the book out years prior? No. The previous versions received rave comments from people who had read it.

Just because the current version is better doesn’t mean the old version sucked. In fact, the current version would likely have been better had I banked two or three years worth of additional experience from all the unexpected stuff that happened from the launch.

And what were the second order effects, you might ask?

Multiple people shared the book, including David Gaughran, who I’ve written a guest post for before. His share alone jumped my subscriber count by over 400 people. Earlier that week, someone else must’ve shared my site, too, because 30 – 40 people joined over a few days. Other individual people shared the book. So basically, in a week, I gained more subscribers than I had in the past year.

All due to actually putting the book out on Amazon.

That’s crazy. Totally unexpected – sales are supposed to get people to unsubscribe, right? And also, the guide had already been free for years on my site. This type of impact would be crazy, right?

Possibly. But there are any number of positive things that you can’t predict that might happen if you just press publish. Worst case scenario? It bombs and you learn. Because “going pro” and asking for cash tells you very quickly what is up to snuff and what is not. That’s 100% true for the fiction stuff as well.

Put it out. You never know what’s going to be the thing to ignite. We tend to focus way too much on the failures. But they aren’t failures, anyway – setbacks not only tell you what not to try again, but they get you to the version of the product or book that does resonate with people.

Without the missteps, there is no serendipity, no opportunities, no second order effects. Because if you’ve never failed or had a flop, you’ve never put anything out.

Shift in Approach

February was the first month in a long time where I didn’t have a daily word count habit to check off. Not that it mattered; I hadn’t written any fiction consistently for well over a year, so keeping that around was just a wishful vestige of a past productivity system. I finally let it go when I realized it was a fool’s errand.

Habits are great. They’re very useful.

Not everything wants to become a habit.

Not everything needs to. Because I am very productive and very consistent – just on my own terms.

I write in bursts. I like finishing things in one shot, or as close to it as possible. Anything I’m working on gets the full brunt of my attention. Obviously, with something like this, I can write the whole thing in a single sitting. With a novel, that’s not possible, but I can condense the time frame. Instead of taking a month or two (via daily habits), writing a novel over a week or ten days works better (sprint). Otherwise I lose the thread of the plot and the flow of the book.

It’s important to match your work system to your actual strengths. That’s not what I’ve done, despite always having written this way. But necessity is the mother of all change (or perhaps it’s invention), and after not putting out anything for a year and a half in the fiction realm, it was time for a reboot. And when I assessed my work approach going back to even when I was in school, one thing was clear.

Hard deadlines and short time frames were key.

The trick, after accepting that I needed to pivot from habits, was devising a way to sprint consistently without burning out.

That’s actually simple when you plan to burst write. The problem is, most people don’t (myself included). They pretend to be habit-driven, ignore the habits, then get stuck with onerous deadlines (often one after another).

When you accept that sprinting is your modus operandi, then your entire approach can change with it. Basically, with ample rest (before and after), it’s entirely possible to write a 50,000 word novel in 7 – 14 days. It’s not even particularly arduous, provided you prepare properly (sleep, mainly) and then disconnect afterward (no writing three novels back-to-back-to-back). My problem has always been in the post-novel rest time: a mad sprint to write the novel, followed up immediately by another project that has its own deadline looming.

Thus, my approach during February was simple: I decided I wasn’t going to write any fiction at all. A seemingly strange choice on the surface, but I’d written a princely ~6,000 words in January, so it wasn’t really a huge downswing. But mentally, it was a major shift that freed a ton of energy. I could direct everything toward my non-fiction side to get a good rhythm.

Just focus on getting the Ultimate Guide done.

Work on the Productivity follow-up.

Get the ducks for my ads course in a row for that launch in March.

Keep sending out weekly newsletters after my daily newsletter blitz in January.

It worked. Simple, but effective. And one final note: I still didn’t get everything on the non-fiction side done. Often, the reason we’re not getting through our to-do list or making progress is simple: we’re chasing too many damn tasks. Even with a focus on non-fiction, I still had a lot of things to take care of. I didn’t get to them all, but I made significantly more headway than if I had been trying to split my attention as before.

The path to greater productivity is generally not through addition, but through subtraction. Focus on a few things and do them well.

An easy enough lesson. But hard to apply consistently.

February KPIs

  • TOTAL WORDS: 0 fiction, but quite a few newsletter and non-fiction book related (not counted)
  • URBAN FANTASY ORGANIC SUBSCRIBERS: 1,783 > 1,817 (+34) (+91 on the year)
  • NON-FICTION ORGANIC SUBSCRIBERS: 1,300 > 1,804 (+504) (+438 on the year)
  • 30 DAY SALES (Feb 10 – Mar 12) of ULTIMATE GUIDE TO BOOK MARKETING: 518 @ $5.99/ea; $2068.48 in revenue ($0 in ad spend)
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