In 2008, there were stories everywhere on the internet about people who went from blog to book deal. Blogs were what podcasts are today. Everybody and their mother was starting one. They thought they would become famous and get a book deal.
But they didn't see how much work it took. Ramit Sethi says the average person quits within 90 days. Most of the bloggers who started in 2009 are not around anymore. And many people don't make it past the first year. My journey from blog to book deal took 7 years.
Today, the internet media landscape is more crowded than ever. It's easier to start, but harder to stand out. So what does it take to go from blog to book deal in 2019?
You're not going to be a great writer when you start. Nobody falls out of the womb knowing how to walk. You learn to walk by falling, walking, and falling again until you stand.
You become a better writer by writing shitty first sentences, shitty drafts, and revising until you write something worth reading. Every piece of work you publish plants a potential seed.
You never know when or how it will bear fruit. I published the article that led to my book deal 2 years before my editor at Penguin found it. But, the real test isn't just showing up.
- It's how far you're willing to go past where the average person quits.
- It's persisting when every external metric says you should quit.
- It's persisting when you're lingering in obscurity.
These are the moments that test your conviction, desire and commitment. The more you create, the better you'll get at your craft, and the higher your odds of success.
There's a profound power to consistency When you do anything consistently, the process of myelination takes place.
“When we go through some struggle to learn a new instrument, learn a new language, learn a new behavior, we then forge a new neural pathway. The more we work on that new behavior and move through discomfort, the myelination process occurs. Think about an electrical wire that has a coating on it. Myelin takes that new behavior and neural pathway and takes it from dial-up to broadband”- Christine Comaford
I had always been prolific and maintained a regular publishing schedule. But, everything changed in 2013 when I started consistently writing 1,000 words a day. In the following six months, I:
- Self-published 2 books
- Wrote dozens of blog posts
- Became a WSJ Best-selling author
People consume media by habit.
- For a decade, Friends was on at 8pm Thursday evenings. If NBC aired Friends whenever they "felt inspired", they would never build an audience.
- Unless he gets hit by a bus, there's a post on Seth Godin's blog every morning. I'm guessing he might even have a back up plan for this too.
- Except for December, The Unmistakable Creative comes out every Monday and Wednesday. It has for 5 years.
A consistent publishing schedule conditions your audience to expect content from you. Your content goes from being an interruption to becoming a habit.
Sometime in 2012 I had a conversation with Betsy Rappaport about writing a book. She told me I wasn't ready. I wasn't happy to hear that, but she was right. She gave me 2 years to:
- Develop the habits and mindsets required to become an author.
- Grow my audience.
- Find my voice as a writer.
A lot of writers sign contracts for low advances with shitty publishers. They publish before they are ready. And they never write a book again.
The long road to creative success is underrated. But it's how you gain experience for a noteworthy life. It leads to greater levels of insight, self-awareness, wisdom and skill. I know my books are better because it took longer for me to get a book deal.
When it comes to navigating the geography of a creative life, it takes time for the stars to align. Use that time wisely.
4. Focus on the Process Instead of the Outcome
When I stopped trying to get a book deal and focused on the process, my whole career changed.
The process is where you prove you are worthy of a publisher's investment. It's how you develop the chops to spend a year working on one project for hundreds of days in a row. Forget about the book deal, your name on the cover or in shining lights.
What's the process?
Do the work. Sit your ass in a chair. Develop a daily writing habit. Type until you've filled thousands of pages. Learn to spend countless hours in a room by yourself. That's the reality of writing a book.
Commit to mastering your craft. Decide that you're going to do this for the rest of your life. Nothing will do more to speed up your progress than focusing on the process. The process creates momentum and leads to escape velocity.
5. The Dip
At the beginning of 2015 after 5 years of writing, I almost quit. I nearly ran my business into the ground and was in one of the darkest chapters of my life. Most nights I went to sleep hoping I wouldn't wake up the next day. Two months later, an editor at Penguin emailed me about a potential book deal.
Progress in a writer's life isn't linear. It's filled with peaks and valleys, detours and dead ends. It's inevitable that you will reach what Seth Godin calls "The Dip".
Getting past the dip is the difference between people who quit, and people who manage to make a living as an artist.
6. Fantasy vs Reality
A few months ago, I met an aspiring writer at a party. She spent 5 years working on a manuscript in a vacuum. Despite having a Stanford MBA, she didn't understand that publishing is a business.
To her credit, she's not alone. People who don't know anything about the publishing industry think they'll be "discovered". But unless you give someone a way to discover you, that's never going to happen.
By the time my editor at Penguin "discovered" me, I'd written thousands of blog posts. I wrote the article that led to my book deal 2 years before she found it.
Just because their product is creative, publishers aren't immune to the rules of capitalism. Like every other business, their success depends on their ability to sell their products.
7. How do You Find a Literary Agent?
By the time you're ready for a literary agent, you won't have any trouble finding one. When Penguin expressed interest in my book, Ryan Holiday introduced me to Lisa Dimona.
I'd seen her name in many books over the years. She was also Seth Godin's agent for over 20 years. So I signed with her and never looked back.
You can send query letters, but there are two things that increase the likelihood that an agent will talk to you:
- A publisher who has expressed interest: If a publisher wants to buy your book, an agent will definitely talk to you. Selling your book to a publisher is how they make their money.
- A personal referral: I've referred people to my agent. But it's something I only do if I think a person's platform is solid enough for a publisher to take them seriously. The only exception I've ever made was for Reema Zaman due to her talent.
Some people wonder if you need an agent. Yes, you absolutely do. They have relationships with publishers and will get you a better deal than you could get on your own.
A typical book contract is 30 pages of legal jargon that even the most skilled writer can barely understand. I sent my first contract to my cousin who is an attorney and he couldn't make sense of it. He said, "This is why you have a literary agent."
8. What's in a book contract?
The first thing writers think about is how much you'll get paid. One big misconception is you'll be flush with cash because you got a six-figure book deal. The payouts work as follows:
- Upon signing your contract
- Upon delivery of your manuscript
- On publication day
- When the paperback is released or 1 year after publication day
Say you sign a $100,000 contract in January. You submit a manuscript in July. Your book comes out in January. This is how your payout would work:
- $25,000 on signing (January)
- $25,000 when you submit your manuscript (July)
- $25,000 on publication date (January)
- $25,000 (Next January)
You also have to take into account your literary agent's commission which is typically 15%. Unless you're an FBI hostage negotiator, it's worth every penny.
Publishers do this to protect their downside. It's annoying for an author, but smart business on their part. Knowing you're not going to get paid until you finish your book keeps you motivated.
A typical word count in a publishing contract is 50,000 words. There's a big difference between writing a book and publishing a blog post.
You have to write about one subject for 150 pages. The words have a coherent arc and narrative. Your structure has to make sense to a reader.
When I was writing Unmistakable: Why Only is Better Than Best, the most frequent comment my writing coach made was, "How does this relate to being unmistakable?" I hated the word unmistakable by the time I finished writing that book.
A good editor isn't going to hold you to the number in your contract for the sake of hitting your word count. The word count serves as a ballpark.
While deadlines aren't set in stone, it's best not to miss them.
Writing a book requires self-discipline. Your editor gives you a deadline and you're on your own for the next 6 months. Your editor is usually working on 20 different books at the same time. So she doesn't usually have the bandwidth to check in on you.
I was fortunate to have an amazing writing coach. Ryan Holiday hires an outside editor to work on all his books. It's something every author should do. It's worth giving up a portion of your advance to write a much better book.
You not only get another set of eyes on your work, but you're more likely to hit your deadlines.
9. What do Publishers Look for?
Publishers don't create an audience for your work. They come to you because you already have one. They want to know there's proven demand for your work. Before editors can make an offer, they have to establish a case for why you will be successful. The size of your platform determines the size of your advance.
- Social Media: I have a friend who is an amazing writer with a wildly popular blog. All of her blog posts get 100's of social shares. But at the time of her book launch, she only had an email list of 2,000 people. Despite her popularity, her book didn't sell very well.
- Email: Even in 2019, email is still the #1 driver of book sales. James Clear has an actively engaged email list of more than 500,000 people. He sold 6,000 copies of his book with the first email he sent to this list. The book became a NY Times Best-Seller.
Having a platform allows you to make little bets to accomplish big goals. You're able to test ideas for resonance. Many of my blog posts have formed the basis of ideas that ended up in my books.
A Unique Point of View
It's tempting to follow the leader of the pack. But mimicry usually leads to obscurity.
- None of the lifestyle design bloggers became Tim Ferriss.
- None of the passive income bloggers became Pat Flynn.
- None of the authors who put "fuck" in their book title sold as many books as Mark Manson.
- None of the travel hackers and non-conformists became Chris Guillbeau.
Standing out in a sea of noise is essential to the survival of any brand business or creator. If you're trying to become the next anybody, you've already lost.
If you want to have a unique point of view, start by becoming the one and only you. The best things I did for my writing career was to stop reading popular blogs and start reading great books. Books enabled me to connect the dots in a way that I never could before. If you want to create great art, consume it.
A Book Proposal
There are three questions you have to answer in a book proposal:
- Why you?
- Why this idea?
- Why now?
You can see a more detailed version of what goes in to a book proposal here. A book proposal is basically a business plan for your book. Your editor uses your proposal to make her case for why the book will be successful. According to one article, editors have to fill out a detailed spreadsheet to make their case.
Advice from Editors and Authors
I emailed an editor at Penguin to ask what she looks for in aspiring authors:
I look for obsession with a problem or question that leads an author to consider it over time and through different lenses. Buster Benson and Julie Zhuo, two of my authors, I first encountered through their blogs, spent years writing about cognitive biases and management, respectively. They both had a knack for asking big questions through recounting seemingly mundane events, showing that they had enough emotional distance from the events to re-engage with them without feeling sorry for themselves or getting otherwise sidetracked. Which, counterintuitively, helped them both develop identifiable, lovable voices.
I also contacted Ryan Holiday. He's had a prolific writing career and has written 6 books in 6 years.
A Marathon, Not a Sprint
The journey from blog to book deal is a marathon, not a sprint.
The other night I was talking to my niece who is considering a music career. She's a freshman in high school showing early signs of talent as a pianist. But she was concerned about her career prospects. She mentioned other talented artists struggling to be discovered. The advice I gave her is the same advice I would give aspiring authors:
Practice. Commit to becoming world-class at your craft. Your effort is what you control. It's your competitive edge. Don't worry about meaningless metrics. Building an audience of your work is a byproduct of becoming so good they can't ignore you. Don't waste an ounce of your energy on things you can't control.
Worst case scenario, you'll be an amazing pianist. Those skills will transfer to every area of your life. Best-case scenario, you'll be the Indian Lady Gaga.
Going from blog to book deal in 2019 takes many of the same things it's always taken. The only difference is that doing them is no longer on option. It's a necessity.
The Work Begins When You Get a Book Deal
For aspiring authors, getting a book deal with a publisher is a dream come true. But there's no such thing as an "I've made it" moment. Now you have to write a book. Everything you've done up until now is preparation.
The biggest mistake you could make is to stop doing the things that got you there in the first place. I still write 1,000 words a day and self-publish books.
People sometimes ask what I'm going to do on publication day. The answer is always the same. I'm going to wake up and write 1,000 words. Unless sex or surfing are options, it's what I'll do every day for the rest of my life. The work doesn't end when you get from blog to book deal. That's when it begins.
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