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Writing fiction as a non-fiction writer can be a steep learning curve. Tim Grahl and I discuss this today as well as tips for launching your book.
In the introduction, I mention BookFunnel's new giveaway feature, the Arthur C Clarke award opening up to indie authors. Plus, the launch of my new course, How to Write a Novel: From first draft to finished manuscript.
The corporate sponsorship for this show pays for hosting and transcription. This podcast episode is sponsored by 99 Designs, where you can get all kinds of designs for your author business including book covers, merchandising, branding and business cards, illustrations and artwork and much more. You can get a Powerpack upgrade which gives your project more chance of getting noticed by going to: 99Designs.com/joanna
Tim Grahl is the author of Your First 1000 Copies: A Step by Step Guide to marketing your book as well as the Book Launch Blueprint, and the founder of Out:think, a firm that helps authors make money with online marketing tools. He's also co-host of The Story Grid podcast with Shawn Coyne.
You can listen above or on iTunes or Stitcher or watch the video here, read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and full transcript below.
- The differences in Tim's life since he was last on the show.
- The origins of The Story Grid podcast that Tim co-hosts with Shawn Coyne.
- What Tim has found to be most challenging about writing fiction as a beginner.
- Short feedback loops for writers and getting advice from professionals rather than amateurs.
- How new authors can ‘scale' the marketing strategies of big name authors.
- Permission marketing and how that applies to authors.
- On the new role of podcasting and Facebook in marketing books.
- Following up on his viral blog post, Tim's current thoughts on the USA Today and NY Times book lists.
- On whether Tim's marketing work for other authors focuses on short-term goals or career longevity.
You can find Tim at www.TimGrahl.com and on twitter @timgrahl. Click here to get the Book Launch Blueprint for free.
Transcript of Interview with Tim Grahl
Joanna: Hi everyone. I'm Joanna Penn from thecreativepenn.com. And today, I'm back with Tim Grahl. Hi, Tim.
Joanna: Great to have you back on the show. Just a little introduction:
Tim is the author of “Your First 1000 Copies: The Step-by-Step Guide to Marketing Your Book” and the founder of Out:Think, a firm that helps authors with online marketing tools. He's also, more recently, the co-host of the Story Grid Podcast, with Shawn Coyne, which I know many of you listen to.
So this is quite exciting, Tim. You were last on the show April 2015, and you were most definitely a nonfiction author with kind of designs on fiction.
What has changed in the last just over a year? What is the update in your writing world?
Tim: Over the summer, last summer, a year ago, I was talking to a friend of mine. I wrapped up some projects and I was like, “Hey, what am I gonna work on next?” And I had all these kind of ideas and he's like, “Haven't you always wanted to write fiction?”
I've won NaNoWriMo a couple of times and ran some other stuff. I'm like, “Yeah.” He's like, “Why don't you do that? Like go after that.” There was this long pause and I just said, “Because I don't know I can be successful at that.” And he's like, “Well, that seems like a pretty shitty reason not to do something.”
My way of learning to do something is to go out and find really smart people that already know how to do it and then get them to teach me. I had, a couple of years before, a year before or something, had a bit of connection to Shawn, like we had traded a couple of emails about something but I didn't know him very well.
So I just sent him an email. I was like, “Hey, can I have 30 minutes of your time? I got some questions about fiction.” He's like, “Sure.” So, and I'm really respectful of people's time. I had my questions written out. I was just gonna blow through them and then let him off the phone.
I asked my first question. He never answered it. And we spent 45 minutes just talking about theory of fiction and beginning hook, middle build, ending payoff, and all this stuff. He's like throwing all these stuff at me, and I'm like, “I don't know.” Because I have read “Story Grid,” I've read his book, which I have right here.
Joanna: Me too.
Tim: Yeah, yeah. I'm like, I've read it and that's what prompted me to call him. And so at the end, I just started asking, because, you know, I do online marketing. So I'm like well, he just spent 45 minutes helping me, and then he's building the Story Grid platform. So let me offer, “What are you working with?”
So we start talking and he's like, “Well, you know, I'm writing for the blog. But It's really hard to write all these content and I want to create more content for it. But I don't know what I'm going to do.” I was like, “Well, what if we just did this thing where we get on Skype and I just ask you all my like idiot newbie questions and you just answer 'em and we're recorded?” And I'm like, “I'll do everything. I'll do the editing, I'll take care of the website, like I'll do everything. Literally, it's a week of your time.” And he's like, “Okay, let's do it.”
So that's what started it. I wanted to learn how to write fiction, and I didn't want to do it by writing 2 million shitty words first. I've been working with him, I think we just put up like episode 44, something like that. So it's approaching a year that we've been doing this together. And it's been amazing and awful and embarrassing. And like I've literally…because I record here, that there's been times where he's been talking and I'm like back with like this.
Joanna: With head in hands for the audio feed.
Tim: Our agreement was it would be 100% open. And so around the 10th or 12th episode, I actually sent him an email. I sent it to him a couple days before, we get on to record, and before we hit record, he's like, “Okay, well, how do you want to do this?”
And I'm like, “Well, let's pretend that you're my editor and I've hired you as my developmental editor, and you just give me feedback. And you just get on the phone.” He's like, “Are you sure?” And I was like, “Yeah, just hit me with it. It's just for an hour.” He's like, “Well, this was wrong. And here's why.” And just ripped it to shreds. And I'm like, “All right.”
Joanna: But I think that's been the good thing about the show. Sometimes I have been listening to it and gone, “Oh no, that was such a basic question.” But the thing is you've had beginner's mind and so you've asked the questions that people further down the line would forget to ask.
And also Shawn forgets what he knows because he knows so much. When he says something, like you know middle builds and like everyone knows what that is, and then you go, “Well what's that?”
Tim: Yeah, yeah.
Joanna: That beginner's mind is great.
Tim: Well, it's been interesting on his part because I've stumped him because I've asked such basic questions that he hasn't answered in probably 20 years because he's working with professional writers.
I asked him this question, he's like, “Well, I haven't had to explain this in a while.” You know, and so it's been really good. And I do feel like it's been really helpful for the people listening. It just keeps building in listenership so I'm taking that as a good sign. And yeah, so that's what I've been doing.
I'm trying to actually get back and answer the question you asked. It's been this long process of submitting scenes, having him kind of rip it apart, and then diving into other things. And then I actually wrote an entire draft and the feedback was basically, “Yeah, this doesn't work.”
Joanna: Yeah, I listened to that episode. It was painful for you, mate.
Tim: Yeah, yeah. But the thing is that most writers write that and they shop it around to agents and the agents kind of give them this vague like, “No, I don't want to represent this.” And so they're left with this manuscript that is broken, but they don't know why.
It's nice because Shawn breaks it down into why. It's funny because he kept trying to like soften it. And I'm like, “I'm gonna have to throw this whole thing out, aren't I?” And he's like, “Yeah.”
Joanna: I think it's been great. But what's interesting, so you're a successful guy. You've written nonfiction. You've helped a lot of people launch their books. Your definition of success is at a high level I guess.
How much harder is writing fiction than you expected? What has surprised you about becoming a beginner?
Tim: Man, that's a great question. The most surprising thing I found is how quickly it becomes complex. He'll explain something to me and I'll genuinely feel like I got it. And then I go to do it and I lose it so fast.
It feels like he pours a bunch of sand in my hands. And I'm like, “I got this.” And I go walk with it and it just falls right out of my hand. I have to go back and talk to him about it again. The constant paradox of simple and complex that goes into fiction writing.
Writing nonfiction is hard but in a different way. It's mostly just building an argument in a correct way. I'm struggling with my next nonfiction book right now too.
Shawn will contradict himself, so one week he'll say to do it one way, and then next week he'll say do it another way. But then they're both right which is super frustrating for somebody like me that just tell me what to do. So that's been really hard.
But the beginner mindset, I feel like I try to keep with everything, because if I ever feel like I've figured it out, it's the moment everything is over, no matter what you're doing. I try to bring to everything that I do this beginner mindset of I'm here to learn.
Even in my business that I've been successful in, when I want to reach the next level of success and I don't know how to get there, I do the exact same thing. I go find somebody that's already done it. And I bug the crap out of them until they tell me what to do. And so that part has been really good and I kind of expected.
I keep thinking like, “I didn't think it'd take this long.” I thought like, it's been 10 months, why am I not good at this yet? You know. If we actually knew how hard these things were gonna be, I think we would give up. So we kind of have to bring in this naivety of like, “Oh I got this,” you know.
Joanna: Yeah. I know how to write dialogue.
Tim: We record them and then post them, so I kind of forget which one's out into the world. But in the last episode, he said, I have it here, because I don't want ever forget it. The quote is, he said about my latest scene, “I found it unique and compelling,” which is awesome, right? And then he said, “Unlike any of his previous scenes we've worked through.” And I'm like, he's literally read like a hundred of my scenes. And I'm like, “Okay.”
Joanna: I've got one unique scene. Well, that was great.
You can hang a whole book on one unique scene.
Tim: Well, it was the first time. I sent it to him, and he's like, “I read it.” I forgot his exact words, but basically, “I read it. It's good. Keep writing.” And I'm like, “What? I'm allowed to keep going? Like I don't have to stop and redo it all again?” And so that's what I'm in the middle of.
We decided with this next draft, instead of me writing it from start to finish, we're going to take it as sections. I've written the first two scenes and they're approved. And so now, I'm in the middle of writing the next eight scenes, and then we'll go through that.
Joanna: Well, that's interesting. That's actually how James Patterson works with his co-authors.
Tim: Oh really?
Joanna: I'm going to try and do something like that with my editor with my next book. I'll almost give her a story outline to edit before I write the scenes, like how you're doing it. Not to shortcut the process, but to make sure the story is working, and then working it through that way.
Tim: Where you're like, “Here's what's going to happen at the end of the beginning hook. Here's what's going to happen at the end of the middle build, and then here's how the story is going to end.” And those were like the signposts. We figure that part out so we kinda know the story arc.
The first signpost in my story is going to be she finds out her brother is actually alive and that prompts her to go into the new world, in my story. And so now, I've had my first two scenes of the beginning hook. So, you know, 12 to 15 scenes. And I just have to get from there to the brother. She finds out the brother and she goes into the new world. And then, we're gonna stop there, and then rework that until it's ready. And then I get to go the next sign post.
It's been a process, for sure, but I will say, and I can say pretty confidently, that I am significantly better than I was 10 months ago when we started this. And it's because I've been reading a lot about the research.
Dr. Anders Ericsson talks about deliberate practice, and one of the hallmarks of deliberate practice is short feedback loops. And that is what is missing in almost all writers' repertoire is they don't have short feedback loops. They have long feedback loops.
They'll spend 10 months writing a hundred thousand-word manuscript and they don't get any feedback in their writing until it's done, and sometimes not even then. And then again, they get all this kind of vague feedback of like nobody likes this. So they like chop that and they start a new one, and they've gotten no feedback.
Where my feedback loop is like every 1500 words. And until he feels like I'm good enough to write 1500 words on my own, he doesn't let me anymore try to write 6000 or 8000 or 60,000.
Joanna: I see. That might explain why a site like Wattpad is doing so well and help people who are writing on Wattpad. You know Wattpad?
Tim: I've heard of them. Never used it before.
Joanna: I haven't either, and it's a lot more YA-type thing. But people will post a chapter, and then people are rating the chapter and saying stuff about the chapters. And then people are writing the next chapter. And there've been some big book deals out of Wattpad, because you're putting up literally a chapter and then you're getting feedback.
Some of the storytellers there, and I say storytellers because some of them are really rough first draft. That's why I struggle with the site. I've only got full books up there. I haven't written as I go.
But the people who are doing it are getting a short feedback loop. So that makes you better faster I guess.
Tim: I don't want to comment on something I don't understand which would be Wattpad. My worry there would be two things. One is you're getting amateur feedback.
Joanna: Yes, that's true.
Tim: A lot of times, in podcast I relate it to Olympic weightlifting, which are extremely complex movements. And I wouldn't want an amateur Olympic weightlifter critiquing my lifting because they don't know what the hell they're talking about. Like I want somebody that's been doing it a long time. They can look it and be like, “Your feet are doing this wrong. You're doing this before you do this and you gotta switch.” You know that kind of stuff. I would be careful about getting amateur feedback, because everybody thinks they're an expert.
And the other is even if I had access to 10 experts, I would still only want one to give me advice. Because the problem is there are 10 different paths to success. And this is true in fiction for sure because there's no one answer to any problem.
I had one lady emailing me — who's an editor — emailing me her feedback on every episode and I had to kind of block it out. Because it may be great feedback and that would be awesome, except it's different than Shawn's. And all it will do when I'm new at something is confuse me. And so Shawn is an expert and he's going to put me on a path to success. And so I try to listen to one voice.
And that's my rule when I'm learning something new like this is I find an expert. And I find one person, not 3 people or 10 people. Because when you ask 10 people, even again, if they're 10 just brilliant people, they're gonna give you 10 different pieces of advice. And all it will do is put you in lockdown because you won't know what to do. What I found is if you get one expert – even if their advice is only like 70% good – you're still going to move faster by finding one person, taking their advice.
I'm an amateur writer. I don't want other amateur writer's feedback. I want a good writer's feedback. I have amateur writers emailing me. I had several people email me and said my first draft was good. I should just go ahead and publish it. And I'm like, “No, it's not. It's not good.” And yes, it's as good as someone that's stuff that's out there. But that's not what I want. Like I want to be good at this.
What I've decided is I would publish something when Shawn said it's good enough to publish something, which is an extremely high standard. But I will not rest until like I can meet that standard. And so that's what would make me nervous about something like that.
Joanna: No, I agree. And I don't use it. I don't use writer's groups either. I agree with paying professionals, working with professionals.
I want to switch gears to the marketing, because of course, you might not be an amazing fiction writer yet, but you are well-known for launching books into the top of the charts. And you're worked with big name office including Hugh Howey, Charles Duhigg with the habit book, Daniel Pink who I think is awesome.
So talking about marketing now, and we'll come back to the fiction writing in a minute.
What do these type of best sellers, best-selling books or the way they launch them have in common that we can emulate as lesser known authors?
Tim: I'll answer your question in just a second. But what I've seen is this stuff scales well. A lot of times Stephen King goes out with a book and it sells a shitload of copies because it's on the front page of Amazon. It's on the corner endcap of every supermarket in America, and out in front of Barnes & Noble.
Well, that doesn't scale. I don't get like 10% of his marketing budget, because I'm 10% of an author. But the stuff that works for most authors does scale. What I focus on is how do I connect an author with their audience in a way that can get their attention and drive action?
My definition of marketing is to create long-lasting connections with people and then be relentlessly helpful. And we can get into that, what that means. And then once you have that connection, you maintain that connection over a long period of time through permission marketing.
I don't know who coined that term. But I learned it from Seth Godin's book “Permission Marketing” and it's basically once you have permission to stay in contact with somebody, you can stay in contact with them long term. And so the best way to do that is an email list. But you can do all kinds of stuff to basically create connections with your audience and then you build that connection over a long period of time.
When we look at how I launched Dan Pink's book to number one in New York Times' list, we spent two and a half years building his platform, building his direct connection to his readers, and then when it came time to launch his book, we gave them an incentive to buy right now, and they bought the book. They bought enough copies to put him in number one of New York Times' list.
People were like, “That's great for Dan Pink. You know, he has this huge email list.” Well, when I came out with my first book, actually, a couple of weeks before I came out with it, I was talking to a buddy. And he's like, “What's the title?” And I said, “Your First 1000 Copies,” and he had this long pause. He's like, “Well, I hope you sell a thousand of them.” And I was like, “Oh my God, I did not even consider that.”
I had a much smaller email list. It was like 1200 at the time. And I came out with the book and I sold a thousand copies in less than two weeks. I didn't sell enough to hit a major best-seller list, but it scales. So even with a small platform, you can still come out and sell a significant amount of copies. And then I went on to sell 10,000 copies in the first year.
What I'm always looking to do is how can an author connect with their audience and create a connection where they can reliably get their attention. And then once they have their attention, drive action. So buy a book.
Joanna: You mentioned the word helpful there, a long lasting connection by being helpful. And I totally agree with that with non-fiction. And that is what I do for nonfiction. It's very easy to be helpful when you're talking about a nonfiction book topic. But helpful that is not usually the word that's associated with fiction connection. It's normally entertainment, in some form.
What's the difference between launching and doing marketing for fiction authors as opposed to nonfiction?
Tim: I actually have a second book that I wrote that's just on Kindle, and it's called the “Book Launch Blueprint.” And at the beginning of that book, I talk about the fact that for you to successfully launch a book, you have to believe in your bones that it's good for people to buy.
What I found is, working with both nonfiction and fiction, is nonfiction can get there easier. Fiction have a really hard time getting to that point. And now, I try to get you to see it from the other perspective.
I read far more fiction than I do nonfiction. And fiction has added more joy and emotion and more good things in my life than nonfiction ever has. And I'm thinking about this too, because I'll launch my fiction book hopefully in the next year is like I really think that somebody should buy my fiction book because it will make their life better.
So am I being helpful by selling fiction? Yes. And if I turn it around and ask the author, “Has fiction touched your life?” And they'll say, “Well, yes.” So I will ask, “Well, what's your favorite book?” And they'll tell me.
I remember when I was a kid and I was too young to be reading it, but I read “Jurassic Park”. I was having nightmares of dinosaurs eating me. And all this stuff, I had loved it so much and I wouldn't tell my parents I was having nightmares, because I didn't want them to let me buy “Sphere,” you know.
I have that memory of that book that I'd loved so much. And I have a more emotional connection to that book than any nonfiction book I've ever read. So If I can create that for somebody else, how is that not making this world a better place? How is that not helping the person on the other end?
Once I believe in my bones that everybody should buy a copy of my book, and it's a good thing, I'm halfway there. Now, it's just figuring out the best way to do that.
For fiction authors, I do believe it's being relentlessly helpful, but it's doing it in a more subtle way than, “Buy my book and you'll lose 20 pounds.” It's in a way of like, “I know that I can add to your life by sharing with you stories, by sharing with you things that I've learned as I've written in my books, by sharing other books that I love, by adding entertainment to your life.”
I don't hang out on the couch and watch documentaries, maybe some people do. I watch shows that are entertaining because that's what I want to do with my time.
I just did a little talk at the World Domination Summit last week, in one of the breakout things. And we talked about this, because I've had this conversation with fiction writers. What could you do to attract fiction readers?
I had this idea of review other books in your genre and use that to connect with the authors and get them to share your blog post. Because if somebody comes to you and says, “Hey, I wrote a thousand-word blog post about how awesome your book is,” I think you'd put that on Twitter, you'd put that on Facebook, and you have good feelings about that person. So when they come to you later, there's already a connection, right?
I was talking to another author the other day that's starting a podcast because he found this seventy-year-old physics professor who is a complete fantasy science fiction nerd. And what he loves doing is figuring out what science would say about what's happening in the book.
If there's this sword that can cut through metal, he's like, “What would that sword have to be made of?” So what they're doing is they're taking popular fantasy science fiction books and they're breaking down the science behind it. I'm like, “Dude, every science fiction fantasy reader would want to listen to that podcast.” That's adding something to people's lives. That's being relentlessly helpful. And it's building up a connection with his audience that's going to buy his book when it comes up.
How many people that listen to Story Grid podcast are gonna buy my book when it comes out? I mean, come on.
Joanna: From personal experience, it'll be about 5%.
Tim: I've seen this with working with Hugh Howey is when we send out an email to his list, and I mean we haven't worked together in a little while. But I know when we send out an email to his list announcing a new book, a ton of people bought his book. Yes, it's a small percentage, but the bigger your email list gets, the more people are gonna buy from you.
And again, it's a lot of times, it's that first push. I've seen if I can get a couple thousand books out into the world, that gives me leverage to start building up on that platform as well. So my 1200 people that I launch my first book to allowed me to build that over a long period of time.
Joanna: Now and when I said 5%, I meant 5% of your nonfiction audience will come over to your fiction audience, which is why with email lists, we build a set of separate list for our fiction list than we do for our nonfiction.
You mentioned podcasting there, which that sounded great, and you mentioned writing a blog post. We're in a very busy online environment.
Do you think that podcasting has replaced blogging or has Facebook replaced email marketing? Are we looking at a shift in what content marketing is these days?
Tim: I look at each of these things as just tools in the toolbox. My wife had me build this big table for our new house about six months ago. And when I'm building that table, I don't give a shit what tool I'm using. Like I figure out what I need to build, and then I go in my toolbox and I pull out the right tool for the job. I am not, and mostly it would be ludicrous to think I'm so emotionally attached to my hammer that I'm going to use it even when I need a screwdriver, right? That's crazy.
And yet, we get so emotionally attached to whatever content marketing tools out there that we just try to cram it into whatever we want to do. Instead of stepping back and saying, “What is it good for? What is it bad for? I'm going to use it for the things it's good for. And not use it for the things that it's bad for.”
Here's what's Facebook is really bad at. Permission Marketing. If you build a Facebook page and say you get 10,000 people to be a fan of that page or to like that page, roughly 15% of them even have your update show up in their newsfeed.
Facebook actively culls out of your feed things they think you're not going to be interested in or things by brands and all these kind of stuff. So it's horrible because you can't reliably get people's attention and drive action. It doesn't do that. So let's not use it for permission.
What is it good for? It's really great for groups. It's really great to connect with people one on one. Like people that won't return my emails, if I reach out to them on Facebook, a lot of times, they'll reply to me. And so it is good for that so let's use it for that.
I come back to the same thing with blogging. 10 years ago, when I was first getting into online marketing and blogging was first hitting the scene, like to build a blog audience, all you had to do was have a blog. There were so few blogs out there, that since you're putting out content on a regular basis, people found you and they subscribe.
Now, when I start a blog, I'm competing with major news organizations and people that have had blogs for 10 years. So we just need to look for what they're good for and what they're not.
For instance, I blog sporadically, once every couple of weeks. I don't think anybody is going to come to my blog on a regular basis and say, “Does he come out with a new article today?” But it's a really great place to put content that can be found for search engine optimization and it can be shared.
What I do is I put a blog post up and then I go to my email list, which is great in getting people's attention, and I email them and say, “Hey, go check out this blog post over here.” I'm using email for what it's good for, getting people's attention, driving action. And I'm sending them to a great place to store content, which is my blog post that they can then share on social media which brings people to my blog post which gets them to subscribe to my email list.
Each of these tools have strengths and weaknesses. Email is awesome because it shows up in a place where people are already living. Most people check 99% of their email that comes in. It's a great place to grab their attention.
But it's not a great place to store long form content because it gets dropped into their inbox and they never see it again and they can't share it with their friends. They can't even send a link to a friend if they want to. So it's good for getting people's attention and driving action, bad for being shareable and storing long content.
But blogs are great for being shareable and storing long content, but they're bad at getting people's attention and driving action, right?
So we're going to look at what is it good for and what is it bad for. And use it only when it increases its strengths. Again, it's just like I'm not gonna use a hammer to try to get a screw into a board. I might get it started, but I'm mostly just gonna be frustrated.
A lot of times, people will do something like Facebook and they're like, “Oh, it doesn't work for me.” Or they'll start a blog and like the only thing they're doing is putting up new content every week, but they're not building an email list, they're not sending it out, and then they'll be like, “Well, blogging doesn't work.” And I'm like, “That would be like saying hammers don't work.” You know, it's like, well, they do work if you use them for what they're good for. They're really bad at other things but really good at some things.
That's what I try to look at is I'm pretty agnostic when it comes to tools. And right now, the best thing for permission is still email. It trumps Twitter, it trumps Facebook, it trumps any other way to get people's attention and drive action.
If something comes along and starts outperforming email, I can get rid of email. I don't care about email. I'm not buying stock in email. What I'm doing is constantly testing new things, figuring out what it's good at, what it's not, use it for what it's good for and don't use it for what it's not good for.
Joanna: Great answer. I really like that. And I think people's personality has a lot to do with what tools they'd like to use as well. But anyway, I don't want to go off on a tangent.
You mentioned that you occasionally write these blog posts, and when you do, they tend to be quite make a blog post about really interesting subject. You wrote this one about the truth behind the New York Times and the USA Today list, which went viral and you ended up on TV, and I certainly shared it, a whole lot of people shared it.
Now amusingly, for the timing, yesterday, I hit the USA Today list. Thank you. With my own box set, so it was a box set of reduced price and made it number 121 in the USA Today list. Now you wrote on, this post, you basically said, “What is the truth behind the list? Are they all just a game? Is it all just pointless?”
What are your current thoughts on these lists?
Tim: I want to be careful here because I don't think that they're pointless. In fact, I make a strong argument that being on a bestseller list is attached to money. And in these times, somethings attached to money, it's not pointless. So the other this is I'm trying to figure out how to go into this conversation.
Here's the thing that makes me actually the most angry. And I forgot which author. Oh, man, I forgot her name. She sold enough copies to hit the New York Times list. She hit USA Today, and they edited her off the New York Times list. And she wrote this long post about it.
And here's what bothers me is that when you were 15 years old or 12 years old, or in my case, 34 years old, and decide you want to write fiction, it is set up for you to believe that a goal is to hit the New York Times Best Seller List. And that is a something, it's like walking on the moon, right? It's something that you dream about. And it's kind of setup of, like, if you work hard enough, put the time in, and become a writer that is popular enough that people buy a ton of copies of your book, you will one day be a New York Times best seller. The unfortunate truth is is that's complete bullshit.
The truth is that the New York Times Best Seller List is more of an editorial list. It is not a best seller list. A best seller list, okay, let's define words here. Best seller means it was the best selling. Okay, that's what I take it to mean. Like that's, I think, what most people take it to mean is like a best seller list are the books that sold the best. However, the New York Times is the books that sold the best that they also think are good enough to be on their list.
Joanna: Good enough in an industry way.
Tim: Oh yeah, in a way of like these people that are completely insulated inside their world think are good enough. So self-published books are not usually good enough. Man, when Howey came out with “Dust,” we sold tens of thousands of copies, I mean, made the number one New York Times best-selling book look like it didn't even sell that week. And he only hit number seven. I think it was seven. It was not in the top five.
And Bill O'Reilly had me on his show. I'm not a Bill O'Reilly fan. I don't believe half the stuff he says. But it's true. Because he's a conservative guy and he wrote a conservative book, somehow, even though he hit number one on every other best seller list, he was not in the top five again, or way down the list. And it's like, why? That makes no sense. He was the best-selling title of the week, but yet he didn't hit number one in New York Times list. And they do all kinds of bullshit to kind of edit. They basically create a system where they get to pick what's up there.
The more true lists are the USA Today and Wall Street Journal list which more accurately reflect actual sales.
Joanna: The reason my book was on there was because it's not Amazon only. If it was Amazon, if it was just on one store, people in Select might well be selling far more than me. The fact is you have to sell a certain minimum number on a second store.
Tim: Yeah, like that.
Joanna: There's no way it's the best-selling. It just has to hit this arbitrary number.
Tim: Right. I do not understand how they can justify that a book sold on Amazon is somehow different than a book sold on Barnes & Noble or copies sold at Powell's in Portland. The fact that their weight is different just blows my mind.
What the fuck do you mean that if I'm a fan of somebody and I buy a book at Amazon that my purchase doesn't count as if I had like gone down to my local book store? That makes no sense whatsoever. But yet, that's how they weight them.
Joanna: I think we've gathered that it's game-able and you know, I went through, I guess, a process. And you're a process guy, right? You're a productivity guy. I went through a deliberate process in order to hit that list. And we're not going to go to it now.
But in order, partly for me to prove, because I talk about book marketing. It was to prove to myself and my audience that I could do that as a single name author, not just as part of a multi-author book set. It was a goal. So as a goal, it's still worthwhile.
When you help authors launch and you teach authors how to book launch, is that still what's in your mind? You are still teaching them to try and hit those types of list or are you focusing more on the longer term aspects of building an author's career?
Tim: It depends on what role I'm playing. So just last week, an author hired me to help with their launch and the book comes out March. And they specifically want to hit the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal list.
I am going to bend everything I do to hit those goals, which means I'm going to do things that will ultimately hurt their overall sales but will give them a better chance of hitting those best seller list because that's what I'm being hired to do. So again, I'm agnostic about this stuff. This isn't a moral thing, it's a know what you're getting into thing.
Where for most authors, 99% of authors out there, authors like me, who are not going to hit a major best seller list no matter what they do, I say play the long game. Create a platform that can reliably sell books, because if we try to tear away those kinds of arbitrary goals of hitting the best seller list, and we look at why we're doing this, we're writing, there's easier ways to make money.
There's less excruciating things that we can learn how to do. Go learn computer programming. It's actually easier than writing fiction and will make you a whole lot more money. So we're doing this for bigger reasons, and I think most of us do it because we want to touch people's lives, we want to put our writing out into the world, we have things that we want to say.
I just read George Orwell's “Why I Write,” and he wrote because he was angry. He would find an injustice in the world and he would write a book to fix it. And so that's why we're doing it.
Our real goal should be to connect to as many people as possible and get our writing in their hands. And I steadfastly believe that marketing a book and selling it is 100% moral because if you, at some point, do not make money on this, you're going to stop doing it. You're not going to be able to do it. I think that it is a disservice to an author to give their book away when they should be selling it, to undercut the price of their book, or to not push really hard to sell their book. When I come out with a book, I believe that everybody should buy it.
And so when I teach it, I do teach build a platform and a platform is simply connecting with readers and being able to stay in contact with them long term. And everything you should do is to continue to add to their lives so that they'll be a part of your entire writing career.
I don't want to be a guy that wrote a book once. I want to be a writer. And I plan on doing this for a long time. And I want people that are on my email list now and who are buying my books now to be buying my books in 20 years and 40 years. And so I look at how can I build a platform so I'm connected to a large group of people. And then, once I have that, how do I leverage that to actually launch and sell a lot of books?
Joanna: Fantastic. Because I've looked at what you teach and I think it's awesome. I think it's really useful for people. We're going to do a webinar on book launches which I'm excited about. On Thursday, 15th of September 2016, just in case people are listening later on, and I'll put all the details in the show notes.
What can people expect on that webinar, which will be a free webinar, they're gonna learn some cool stuff?
Tim: I'm going to walk through my framework for how to launch a book. There's three things I'd look at whenever I launch a book. There's three buckets that tend to get a lot of sales. And then I'm going to deep dive into one of those things that any author can do with their audience of any size to actually launch and sell copies of their book. So again, these things scale.
If you only have 300 people you're connected to, you can launch and sell books to those 300 people. And what's great is by the end of your launch, those 300 people will be 400 people or 500 people. What I see, if you do a launch the right way, and I'll talk about this, is that your audience will actually grow as you launch a book. And so that's what I'm going to do.
I'm gonna show the framework because again if you know the strategy, you can plug the right tools in. And so we're going to talk about the overarching strategy, and then we're going to deep dive into one thing, and just step by step, show you how to do it. It'll be a lot of fun. I love teaching this stuff. If you haven't noticed yet, I get a little passionate about it.
Joanna: I really like hearing you talk about it. People can find that at thecreativepenn.com/tim, and that will redirect to the sign ups. That is fantastic. It's been so good to talk to you.
Where can people find your other stuff and your books and everything, and the podcast online?
Tim: The podcast is Story Grid, so you can go to storygrid.com/podcast or just search Story Grid on, I think, we're on pretty much every podcast platform. If you want to find what I do, it's timgrahl.com, or just google anything close to that, you'll find it. If you wanna find, actually, after I was on Bill O'Reilly, if you just googled New York Times Best Seller List, I was like 12th on Google just for that. I was like, yes. But if you just Googled like New York Times Best Seller List Scam or like Tim Grahl, you'll find that article as well.
Joanna: Fantastic. Well, thanks so much for your time, Tim. That was great.
Tim: Yeah, well thanks for having me.
Henry Hyde says
Great interview, and a fascinating method Tim’s developed there – ‘episodic’ writing. He’s also spot on about the different social media working in different ways.
And of course am *very* excited about your new course, Joanna.
Feels like this whole podcast was designed for me! 😀
Joanna Penn says
I’m so thrilled you’re excited about the course – thanks for joining! I hope you find it useful 🙂
Great episode Joanna & Tim! I’ve also been following the StoryGrid podcast since inception (it’s great!), and bought Shawn’s book pre-release on the strength of your previous interview with him, Jo.
I totally agree re purposeful practice; short feedback loops, and trusted/expert feedback and coaching can shortcut the pain of any artistic or performance-based endeavour*. Having Tim share this with us publicly is not only brave, it’s instructional!
* One of my favourite books on this is also Bounce, by Matthew Syed (maybe you mentioned it? Not sure!). It gave me hope that my piano lessons might one day amount to something, because I’d thought I just had no “natural talent” …
I dunno… I kind of found it offensive. He markets his non-fiction to writers that can’t necessarily afford to go intensely back and forth with a well respected editor, and he’s indicated novels aren’t good enough if the novels aren’t what Shawn would call good enough. Yet people make a ton of money selling the “not good enough stuff”, so I guess it doesn’t matter. Still, it felt dismissive of a segment of his non-fiction audience.
Kim Rempel says
“I try to maintain a beginner mindset because the moment I feel like I’ve figured everything out is the moment it’s over.” -Tim Grahl
Brilliant. But oh, what a risky little mindset! It goes against every human inclination to appear together. It goes against much of the marketing advice to “be an authority” online. And ugh, it means admitting we don’t know… well, much of anything at all.
People who do this though – who are vulnerable and honest even about their screw-ups and shortcomings – somehow make it possible to believe in ourselves — they’re accessible. They’re us. If they, regular people, can do it, so can we.
My question is, where’s the line? At what point is one’s vulnerability a liability instead of an asset?
Joanna Penn says
I struggle with this too – when I put out The Successful Author Mindset, I included excerpts from my own journals which were very raw and pretty down, but those were the sections people have emailed me about the most. You have to have your line though – so I tend to share AFTER I have worked out my issues, and then I share lessons learned from a positive place. I also don’t share pics of my family to protect their privacy. You’ve gotta have a line 🙂
Tony James Slater says
Hey, I don’t suppose that webinar you guys did ever made it onto the blog?
I’ve been looking for it, trawling the archives, as I came late to this post and found what Tim had to say really fascinating. Is there a way to access the webinar (from Thursday, 15th September)?
Thank-you! Still loving the blog 😉
Joanna Penn says
It’s still available right now – http://timgrahl.com/penn-replay – but it might disappear any time 🙂
Tony James Slater says
AWESOME! Thanks Joanna 😉