4 unexpected ways to make your book a perennial bestseller

The 4 best takeaways and a book review of Perennial Seller: The Art of Making and Marketing Work That Lasts by Ryan Holiday–plus a free downloadable PDF art print to inspire you to become a perennial seller!

“That book has taken on a life of its own.”

I blinked at this—what did that mean? It was 2009, and I was working at a Big 5 publisher in New York.  I had asked one of the senior editors about a backlist book that was still selling and selling, even after 10 years.

The book was a perennial seller for the publishing house. It had built momentous word-of-mouth and now needed almost no help from the author or publisher to keep it selling steadily.  You can recognize these books because they wave you down with numbers: “2 million copies sold,” “now published in 15 countries!”

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What I wanted to know was exactly how that book had become a perennial bestseller. Was it the author’s platform? Was it the idea? Had they marketed the heck out of it?

But all the editor could tell me was that the book had taken on a life of its own: sales had built and built and all that momentum had snowballed into something that was unstoppable. It was nothing they had done–it was almost a force of nature.

I huffed back to my tiny cubicle, outraged like only the clueless can be.

Are you laughing at me yet? I am.

I remember that moment so well because I could not comprehend how an entire industry didn’t have a clear-cut system for creating bestsellers. Weren’t there thousands of data points (books) available every year, and millions more in the publisher’s records? There had to be some conclusions that could be extrapolated from all that experience? Right?

Yes. There are. But the problem was that I was too dense to understand it yet–I didn’t get that book publishing is an art, and that readers are not always predictable.

So when another agent at Stonesong handed me Perennial Seller by Ryan Holiday a few weeks ago, I was immediately excited. I now know enough to understand there’s no silver bullet, but I also know there is a lot authors can do to stack the cards in their favor. And a self-education in publishing through books like this is the best way to start.

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Perennial Seller is about the art of making and marketing of work that lasts, and it looks at books, music, movies, video games, and more to distill what makes something stick and what sends it to the remainder bin of history. If you don’t know Ryan Holiday, he’s the author of 6 books and a partner at the creative agency Brass Check, which works with authors such as John Grisham, Tim Ferriss, Tony Robbins, and others.

I devoured this book: underlined it, scribbled in it, opened Evernote a thousand times to take notes, and soaked up all the new things I learned and all the things I knew that needed reinforcing. There’s so much in Perennial Seller for writers, bloggers, and creatives to learn about how to create a lifelong bestseller, and I’m officially adding it to my must-read books for writers and bloggers list.

After almost painstaking paring down, I finally distilled the 4 best takeaways from Perennial Seller. These ideas will show you how to get off the hamster wheel of trends; they teach you to take the long-view of your own career; and they explain how, exactly, people create books that take on a life of their own, as perennial sellers do.

These 4 takeaways are the ones that will change the way you approach your writing right away, and I hope they help you stop aiming for one-hit wonder and start aiming for perennial seller.

To get a complete understanding of how to create a perennial seller, you can buy Perennial Seller: The Art of Making and Marketing Work That Lasts by Ryan Holiday here!

(By the way, if you do decide you want the book, would you consider buying it through the link above? It supports the many hours of work Jarrett and I put into the site and helps us keep the site free.)

The 4 best takeaways from Perennial Seller by Ryan Holiday

1. Word of mouth is the most important form of marketing.

This. To me, this is the #1 most important takeaway from Perennial Seller by Ryan Holiday, and it’s also the most difficult to understand and engineer.

When that editor told me that backlist bestseller had taken on a life of its own, what she meant was that the fans were now selling the book, with no effort needed from the author or publisher. The author had since moved on to write new books; the publisher was focused on marketing its frontlist books; but a perennial seller moves, as Seth Godin puts it, laterally, from fan-to-fan, almost like a contagious virus.

How do you reverse-engineer that kind of word-of-mouth? The kind needed to become a perennial seller?

You have to make something so good that people have to tell their friends about it.

Sounds easy, right? (Hahaha.)

But that’s the only way. We’ve all been on the receiving end of a friend who pushes a book on us and can’t shut-up about it because it touched them so deeply.

As Ryan Holiday puts it in Perennial Seller:

“Our goal here is to make something that people rave about, that becomes part of their lives. The buried insights found in those other great works were not put there on the first pass. Work is unlikely to be layered if its written in a single stream of consciousness. No. Deep, complex work is built through a relentless, repetitive process of revisitation.”

Essentially, revise your book, refine your positioning, test it with target readers (not your friends), then do it all again. Holiday quotes an agent who once told him: “Spend three times longer revising your manuscript than you think you need.” You can now make that two agents telling you that.

Remember, it’s actually much easier to build “so good I have to share it” into your book than it is to try to manufacture it later with marketing hype.

Action steps to write a book worth talking about:

  1. Commit to revising for longer than it took you to write. John McPhee has written dozens of books and does no fewer than 4 complete revisions of each book. I would, too.
  2. Test early and test often. Find readers in your target audience and expose yourself to their feedback. It might hurt, but only others can see our blind spots.

2. It’s not about you.

Have you read the popular Atlantic article by Thomas Ricks on the excruciating behind-the-scenes of writing his book? Jarrett sent it to me a few months ago, and I winced my way through it. Essentially, five-time author Ricks sends his latest manuscript to his editor at Penguin who hates it and says he wrote the entirely wrong book.

Are you wincing yet?

I’ve seen this happen to amazing authors, and it is painful. What happens is that, in their excitement and passion for their book, the author forgets about the reader. They think only about what they find interesting, and they shut the door on the reader, who wants more than anything to be let in. They forget entirely about positioning and framing.

I loved this quote from Perennial Seller about making space for the reader:

“You must create room for the audience to inhabit and relate to the work. You must avoid the trap of making this about you—because, remember, you won’t be the one buying it.”

I know that’s difficult to understand sometimes–shouldn’t we chase our passions and pour our excitement into a manuscript? Yes! But we have to always keep one eye on the audience, always remember that we’re not writing for ourselves alone. As Holiday puts it:

“It’d be easier to just make our work and say: ‘Let it be what it may.’ Yet this leaves too much to chance and too much on table. Our expression, if it is to have impact, must reach other people. As Chuck Klosterman wrote, even the most pretentious and elitist artist would not be satisfied if no one saw what they were making—if he was, ‘he’d sit in a dark room and imagine he wrote it already.’”

Action steps for positioning your book:

  1. Who is your reader, and what do they want? Before you draft your manuscript (or begin revising), write down who, exactly, the book is for, what it will do, how it should make the reader feel, and what other successful books are similar. Perennial Seller has a section of great prompts and questions to help you nail this down.
  2. Get honest feedback. Ask readers in your target audience to offer their honest feedback about whether you’re hitting your mark. Leave yourself enough time to incorporate this feedback before launching.
  3. As Stephen King says, “Kill your darlings.” Be willing to take your entire manuscript apart and put it back together so it accomplishes its goal. Right is better than done in this case.

3. Forget about everyone but your fans.

The secret to becoming a bestselling author? Win over fans.

Simple. Yet difficult.

The reality is, it doesn’t matter if most people haven’t heard of you, as long as some people love you. Which means you need to keep caring for your relationship with your fans. Perennial Seller has plenty of great ideas for building and nurturing a fanbase, but here’s a quick breakdown of the most powerful.

Action steps for building a fanbase for your book:

  1. Build your email list. How do you do this? Write or create things people want; share it with them regularly; stay in touch through email. This is a microcosm of writing a book–instead of sharing one big read every few years, you’re sharing shorter reads every week or so.
  1. Don’t be afraid of free. If you’re starting out, think seriously about giving your book away for free or close to free. Why? Because readers are already risking their time on you, and that is immensely valuable. I don’t say that lightly—my entire career and mission centers around helping artists and writers make a living from their writing. But every successful author I’ve seen invests hundreds of hours, unpaid, in building their relationship with fans. And they have a deep appreciation for the time readers are investing back in them.
  1. Don’t get distracted by shiny marketing. What do I mean by shiny marketing? The stuff that’s easy to wave to friends and family as social proof that your book is successful (Look, I’m in a magazine! Look, keychains with my book title on them! Look, an ad for my book!) but which aren’t translating to sales. Advertising almost never leads to significant sales and publicity doesn’t always, either. Those are also the most expensive forms of marketing, and yet they have the lowest conversion rate. Why do people do them? They’re easier than doing the hard work. As Ryan Holiday puts it:

“Meanwhile, there are [things other than launching an ad campaign] they haven’t done or don’t want to do that would produce results right now. Taking time off work or hiring a babysitter so you can write fifty personally crafted emails—that’s hard and unsexy. Paying for a plane ticket and a hotel so you can talk at a major nonprofit—that’s time and resource intensive. Joining a group or a cause to build relationships you can draw on later—hard, unsexy, and difficult to quantify. Spending serious money to create samples and give them away to targeted audiences? That’s hard and, understandably, feels like the opposite of selling. Working on improving your product until it screams ‘Share me with everyone you know’—that’s less fun than buying a back-page ad that everyone (who still reads newspapers) will see.”

4. Good work compounds itself.

Warren Buffett is famous for saying that the secret to his wealth has been one simple thing: compound interest.

Art and writing works that way, too. Every penny you drop in your career jar—by learning new marketing skills, winning new fans, honing your craft—compounds and begins to snowball into increasing returns. That’s why the final step to take to create a perennial seller is: keep going, keep going, keep going.

Ryan Holiday puts it this way in Perennial Seller:

“No one can guarantee that your project will be a success, but it can be safely said that if you quit on it before your audience does, it’s guaranteed to fail. If you let it rot or ossify, you will shorten its life. If you take your customers for granted, they will eventually find somewhere else to go. Give yourself some time and some runway. You’re going to want it.”

Compounding applies not just to marketing but to your whole body of work. Each time you release a new book, it builds your previous books and creates an additional entry point for new readers.

Holiday cites a study of the compounding phenomenon in art done by economists Alan Sorenson and Ken Hendricks. They wrote:

“Various patterns in the data suggest the source of the spillover is information: a new release causes some uninformed consumers to discover the artist and purchase the artist’s past albums.”

That’s why taking the long view of your career isn’t a luxury—it’s essential. Even as the whole world buffets you around, looking to bend you toward The Hot New Thing, you have to remember that you can’t rush something you want to last forever.

you can't rush something you want to last forever quote printable

Download this free printable art print here!

To help you remember to step off the hamster wheel of chasing trends and to take the long view of your career, you can download this free printable art print from The Library with the quote “You can’t rush something you want to last forever.”

I hope it helps you write that perennially bestselling book that takes on a life of its own!

And to learn more about how to create and launch a perennial seller, check out Ryan Holiday’s book Perennial Seller!

What I’m Reading This Week

Reading by the Numbers: When Big Data Meets Literature (Jennifer Schuessler for The New York Times): This is a fascinatin piece on the role of Big Data in literature. Do you think it should even have a role? Or do you love crunching the numbers behind books?

The Book Crunchers (Jennifer Schuessler for The New York Times): Well, if you like number crunching, here are some completely enthralling charts and graphs from the Stanford Literary Lab to pore over.

What Is an Editor’s Role in a Changing Publishing Industry? (Jane Friedman): “’It’s ironic that publishing, a business whose essence is words, has some of the loosest, most confusing, and most contradictory terminology of any industry I know. … [T]he title of editor misleading. What the word editing connotes to most people—correcting and improving an author’s text—is only part of what book editors do.’”

How I Read 100 Books in 1 Year, and How You Can, Too (Mya Nunnally for BookRiot): Great tips here for making more time to read! And here’s one more tip–my favorite tip–for reminding yourself to get off your phone and computer and pick up a book.

What We’re Eating This Week

I was actually struck by inspiration this week! If you’ve been reading for awhile, you’ve probably noticed that we are not fancy cooks. There are a lot of Italian chopped salads and basic beef tacos around here most weeks. But look! This week I had two semi-good ideas

Sunday: Shrimp sushi lettuce wraps. I don’t know where I got this idea, but they were amazing. All the things you’d find in sushi, but wrapped in butter lettuce and with a wasabi mayo drizzle on top. Mmm.

Monday: I hosted by first Dinner Club (read about how to start a dinner club here!) and made this meatball recipe with Marcella Hazan’s legendary butter tomato sauce. Friends brought pumpkin ravioli in brown butter, garlic bread, madeleines, and wine, and I am still not recovered from that sweet, sweet carb coma.

Tuesday: Sheet pan bratwurst with cauliflower, artichokes, and mushrooms, inspired by a recipe in Smitten Kitchen Every Day. (You do have your copy, right?!)

Wednesday: I was awake in the middle of the night and decided that, instead of boring tacos, I would make us a 7-layer dip with the same ingredients and serve it with butter lettuce cups and chips. These are the world-changing things I think about late at night.

Thursday: We’re going to see Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen speaking at Politics & Prose, so we’ll dig up something old from the freezer and live on the fumes of talking about food instead of making it.

Friday: We’re off to Ann Arbor for a Michigan football game. My feelings about this are in the range of grumpy to middling positive, depending on the hour-by-hour changes in the cold and rainy forecast for Saturday and the hour-by-hour changes in what I’m going to order at Zingermans. Send positive vibes for clear weather and coliseums of sandwiches.


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One thought on “4 unexpected ways to make your book a perennial bestseller

  1. Thanks for this! I found your site via Pinterest, and I’m loving your posts on writing & publishing. Embarking on my first novel this winter, and I’m sure I’ll be back again!

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