3 Lessons I Learned From Publishing a Book [And How They Can Help You]

It’s officially been one year since I published my book, Just Keep Buying: Proven Ways to Save Money and Build your Wealth. The experience has been both rewarding and eye-opening and today, I am proud to say that the book has sold over 70,000 copies worldwide (across all formats) and has been translated into 13 languages (many of which have yet to be released).

As I reflect on everything that has happened over the past year, I can’t help but think about the lessons I’ve learned throughout the book writing process. Publishing a book is no easy task, and I’d like to share some valuable insights from my journey with you today. Although you may never write a book, the lessons I’ve highlighted below are applicable across a wide range of disciplines.

In particular, I will discuss the power of small steps, the importance of marketing, and why success never feels like success. Let’s begin.

The Power of Small Steps (How to Write a Book)

If someone asked me for advice on how to write a book, I would first tell them to start a blog. Why? Because consistently blogging about a particular topic is the easiest way to generate and test material for a future non-fiction book.

This approach, which I call “The Power of Small Steps”, emphasizes starting with smaller projects where you can test your ideas, gather feedback, and create a proof of concept before taking on something bigger. Whether you’re an aspiring creator, an entrepreneur, or just someone looking to embark on a new challenge, using this approach can pave your way for long-term success. In the following sections, we’ll explore how this can be achieved.

Start with smaller projects

Imagine you had to write a non-fiction book from scratch. Given that the average non-fiction book is around 60,000 words, you can understand why some authors have described the book writing process as “daunting.” However, it wasn’t for me.

And it’s not because I’m a genius writer, but because I had 4 years of content (over 200,000 words) to draw from when I started writing my book in early 2021. Of course, Just Keep Buying was a lot more than word-for-word copies of my blog posts, but 60% of the material was related to things I had published on before. All I had to do was create an overarching structure, make my old material more engaging, and add some new material and the book basically wrote itself.

I didn’t plan to write the book this way (I told you I wasn’t a genius), but having so many blog posts to source from made it that much easier when I did.

Before you jump headfirst into your next major undertaking, consider exploring your ideas through smaller projects. If you want to start a business, that could mean conducting market research or building a prototype. If you want to write a book, that could mean starting with a blog or publishing your short stories online.

Whatever you want to do, taking these low-risk bets will allow you to gain valuable experience, refine your skills, and better understand the needs of your audience before committing to something bigger.

Gather feedback

The other reason why “The Power of Small Steps” is so powerful is because you can gather feedback while you build something. In fact, most of the material in Just Keep Buying had already been tested with my blog audience before it was anywhere near a printing press.

For example, I knew exactly which posts were most popular with my readers because I had data on pageviews (from Google Analytics) and engagement metrics from social media. I assumed that if a topic resonated with my current blog audience, then it would also resonate with my future book audience.

Of course, gathering feedback is easier said than done. There are lots of ideas I’ve had over the years that I thought would be hits, but turned out to be duds (and vice versa). This doesn’t mean that your audience is always right, but if you find yourself constantly disagreeing with them, then you might want to re-consider your approach.

I recommend taking constructive criticism in stride and figuring out what people like most about your work. This can help you better understand what resonates with your audience and what needs improvement. You can then use this feedback to iterate on your ideas, making them stronger and more polished, before diving into a larger, more complex endeavor.

Lastly, by starting small and gathering feedback first, you can identify potential roadblocks and challenges before investing significant time and resources into a larger project. This will increase your chance of success when you do finally attempt to bring your dreams to life.

Now that we have discussed my biggest lesson on how to write a book, let’s look at the most important thing I learned about how to sell a book.

Just Keep Selling (How to Sell a Book)

Shortly before Just Keep Buying was published, someone told me the following:

If you write a bad book, all the marketing in the world won’t help.

If you write a good book, you won’t need to worry about marketing at all.

After spending the last year marketing my book, I can say that I only partially agree. Yes, you can have one of the biggest followings on the internet and your book isn’t guaranteed to sell. However, even if you write the next Atomic Habits, that doesn’t mean your book is going to sell like Atomic Habits (the bestselling nonfiction book on Amazon last year)…unless you have great marketing.

And Atomic Habits had great marketing. James Clear, the book’s author, promoted his book in two big ways. First, he utilized his massive email list, which had more than 400,000 subscribers at the time, to get the word out to his fans. And, second, he made guest appearances on over 70 podcasts (half of which were released in the same week that Atomic Habits was published) to spread his message to a wider audience. Though Atomic Habits is a fantastic book, the marketing is what took it to the stratosphere.

Ultimately, marketing is an amplifier of the quality of your work. Therefore, if you write a great book, you have even more incentive to market it than someone who didn’t. With that being said, here are the things I found helpful when marketing my work:

  • Get influential people on board: In the weeks before my book was published, I sent signed copies with a personalized note to over 100 people in the financial space. Many of these individuals were people I had connected with on Twitter and wanted to personally thank for their support. Others were people who’s work I admired and wanted to be a guest on their podcast. I didn’t expect anything from any of them, but the response I got back was overwhelmingly positive.
  • Spread your message on big networks: As a result of sending signed copies to so many people in my community, I was invited on over 60 podcasts (with some radio and television shows) to discuss my book. Many of these appearances corresponded with boosts in sales in the later weeks (when the shows were released). While only the largest podcasts/shows moved the needle in terms of sales, going on smaller shows can get you more speaking practice and can be lots of fun. Also, smaller podcasts can lead to bigger opportunities in unforeseen ways, so don’t underestimate their reach.
  • Don’t stop promoting: Though my book was published back in April 2022, I am still regularly retweeting fan comments, discussing it on social media, and mentioning it on this blog. While some might say that I am “shilling” my book, I disagree. Shilling is when you are selling a harmful (or useless) product just so that you can make money. But if what you are selling can truly help people, then you have every right to promote it. In fact, in my case I have a moral imperative to promote my work. With all the money people lost listening to TikTok influencers and celebrities promoting crypto last year, Just Keep Buying could have prevented such a fate. If you believe in what you do, don’t stop promoting it.
  • It doesn’t hurt to ask: As much as I hate asking people for favors, the worst thing that can happen is that they don’t respond or they say, “No.” Thankfully, I’ve found that most people are more than willing to help you succeed. And for those that don’t respond in the way you like, just remember that there are more opportunities out there. Stay positive and keep going.

To illustrate how marketing translates into actual sales, let’s take a brief tour of Amazon’s ranking system. If you look at the “Product Details” on the Amazon page for a particular book (paperback or hardcover), you can see that book’s sales rank relative to every other book on Amazon. For example, here are the product details for Just Keep Buying about a week ago:

Product details for Just Keep Buying as of April 3, 2023.As you can see, it was ranked #8,436 among all books on Amazon. And every 4-6 hours this ranking will change. But we don’t necessarily care about the rank, what we care about is actual sales.

Thankfully, TCK Publishing has an online calculator which approximates the number of sales on Amazon in a 24 hour period for a given rank. Using their calculator, I created the following table demonstrating the relationship between rank and sales:

Amazon Book Rank Daily Sales
113 600
220 400
350 300
650 200
1,700 100
2,500 75
4,200 50
5,600 40
8,000 30
10,000 25
13,000 20
18,000 15
30,000 10

If you were to plot this data, you would see that daily sales drop exponentially as rank decreases:

Chart of Amazon book rank vs daily hardcover/paperback sales.

This illustrates the power law that exists in the publishing world (i.e. a small number of books do a majority of the sales).

Based on the estimates above, one week ago Just Keep Buying was selling roughly 30 paperbacks per day on Amazon (U.S. only). Since its release, its highest rank has been 112 (on the day of the release) and its lowest rank has been 32,000 (in mid February 2023). 

You can see my rank data over time from the Amazon author portal:

Chart showing the Amazon rank data of Just Keep Buying from early April 2022 to early April 2023.

One thing to notice is that there is a sort of decay function with regards to sales, where the rank is slowly dropping over time as the book loses its novelty. However, there have also been intermittent spikes in sales due to various media mentions.

Below I’ve displayed the same plot as above, but with some annotations for the cause of some of these sales spikes:

Chart showing the Amazon rank data of Just Keep Buying from early April 2022 to early April 2023.

This shows the power of marketing to boost your sales. Some of this was the result of me reaching out to people and sending them my book, however, a lot of these were unexpected surprises as well.

But no matter how much marketing I (or others) do for my book, I don’t expect these sales to last. Why? Because book sales tend to decay over time, even for New York Times bestsellers.

Research published in EPJ Data Science illustrates this when examining the weekly sales of various NYT nonfiction bestsellers since their publication date:

Chart showing weekly sales over time for New York Times nonfiction bestsellers.

As you can see, while some books are able to break out of this decay pattern and continue to generate high sales years after they are published, most don’t. The typical pattern is lots of sales early on followed by a slow decline.

I have no clue how well Just Keep Buying will sell in the future, but it’s not something I focus on too much anymore. I’m going to keep doing what I do (i.e. periodically mentioning the book) and let the chips fall where they may.

Whether you are selling your book, your product, or your service, marketing is something that should not be overlooked. While the methods mentioned above helped me on my journey, you may find that other things work better for you.

All that matters is that you get the word out there. Because even if you have the best product in the world, if nobody knows about it, it won’t sell. So be diligent in your marketing efforts and don’t be afraid to promote yourself. After all, the charlatans and scammers aren’t taking a day off marketing their products, so why should you?

Now that we’ve discussed the importance of marketing, let’s wrap things up by examining how to reflect on the work you’ve created.

Success Never Feels Like Success (How to Reflect on Your Work)

Shortly before Just Keep Buying was released, I wanted to know how I should judge my book’s success (in terms of sales). So I did some research and discovered that, unfortunately, most books don’t sell all that much. As this article details:

BookScan found that only 6.7 percent of the new titles released by [the top ten publishers in the U.S. trade market] were selling more than 10,000 copies in their first year of sales, only 12.3 percent were selling more than 5,000 copies in their first year, and only 33.9 percent of these titles were selling more than 1,000 copies in their first year.

Based on this, selling over 10,000 copies in a year would be considered a successful book launch for a first time author. On the other hand, I also had 20,000 email subscribers and over 100,000 Twitter followers at the time, so I felt like I should’ve been able to sell a bit more than this.

As a result, I came up with three levels for one-year worldwide sales (across all formats) to judge my book’s success:

  • Failure = 10,000 copies (or less)
  • Expectation = 20,000 to 30,000 copies 
  • Huge success = 50,000 copies (or more)

Considering that I sold 20,000 more copies of Just Keep Buying than what I deemed a “huge success”, you would think that I wake up every day on cloud nine and tap dance my way through life. But, you would be wrong.

It’s not that I am not grateful for everything that has transpired over the last year (I am), it’s just that success never feels like success.

It’s funny because we are very good at imaging how it would feel if we got that promotion, won that award, or hit that goal in the present moment. However, once we actually get what we’ve been chasing, the feeling is quite different. I’ve spoken with other people in my network (many of whom are far more successful than me) and they’ve had similar experiences.

It reminds me of what Donda West once said

A giant looks in the mirror and sees nothing.

It’s not that achieving a big goal doesn’t feel good in the moment (it does), but those achievements probably won’t change your baseline happiness. They won’t change how you feel day-to-day. Yes, I’m slightly happier than I was a year ago (and I was already quite happy), but that has more to do with finding a partner that I can share my life with than the number of books I’ve sold.

Life has a funny way of tricking you into focusing on things that don’t matter as much as we think they do. If I had sold 2x (or half) as many books as I did, I probably wouldn’t feel any differently. I wouldn’t be living somewhere else. I wouldn’t be spending my money in a different way. I’d still be here, doing this.

Nevertheless, I’ve probably looked at my Amazon rank more than 1,000 times in the last year (~3-4 times per day). But I probably would’ve been better off by contacting an old friend or spending more time talking with my family back in California. These are both things I wish I did more of, but sometimes overlook. That reminds me, it’s been about four hours and I wonder how my rank is doing…

In all seriousness, thank you for all the support over the past year to make Just Keep Buying a success. I couldn’t have done it without you all. And, as always, thank you for reading!

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This is post 343. Any code I have related to this post can be found here with the same numbering: https://github.com/nmaggiulli/of-dollars-and-data

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