How Does A Bestseller Happen? A Case Study In Reaching #1 On The New York Times

This post, from Tim Ferriss, originally appeared on his blog on 8/6/07.

Last Friday, the impossible happened and a lifelong dream came true: The 4-Hour Workweekhit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list! Thank you all for your incredible encouragement and support. More unbelievable, this week 4HWW is simultaneously #1 on the NY Times and #1 on the Wall Street Journal business bestseller lists.

How is this possible? How could a book from a first-time author — with no offline advertising or PR — hit both of these lists and stick for three months and counting?

The book was turned down by 13 of 14 editors, and the president of one large book wholesaler even sent me PDFs on historical stats to “reset my expectations”–it could never be a bestseller. The odds seem impossible: there are more than 200,000 books published each year in the US, and less than 5% ever sell more than 5,000 copies. On a given bestseller list, more than 5 spots could be occupied by unbeatable bestsellers like Good to Great or The Tipping Point, which have been on the lists for years.

On a related note, how could a blog that didn’t exist six months ago now be #2,835 on Technorati with 874 incoming links and an Alexa ranking of 9,615?

Is it all luck? I don’t think so. Luck and timing play a (sometimes big) part, but it seems to me that one can still analyze the game and tilt the odds in their favor. I don’t claim to have all of the answers–I still know very little about publishing–but I’ve done enough micro-testing in the last year to fill a lifetime.

The conclusion, in retrospect, is simple… It all came down to learning how to spread a “ meme“, an idea virus that captures imaginations and takes on a life of its own.

First, let’s looks at how the bestseller status unfolded. Here are the stats and timing for all of the bestseller lists the 4HWW has hit since release date on April 24, 2007. [Publetariat Editor’s Note: the stats are lengthy, and can be viewed on Tim Ferriss’ blog via the ‘read the rest’ link below]

Those of you who have been here for a while know that I’m fanatical about analytics and imitating good models (in the business sense, not the Naomi Campbell sense).

Before I began writing 4HWW (I sold it before I wrote it, which I explain here), I cold-contacted and interviewed close to a dozen best-writing authors about their writing processes, followed by close to a dozen best-selling authors about their marketing and PR campaigns.

I asked several questions of the latter group, but one of the assumption-busting homeruns was:

“What were the 1-3 biggest wastes of time and money?”

This led me to create a “not-to-do” list. Number one was no book touring or bookstore signings whatsoever. Not a one. All of the best-selling authors warned against this author rite of passage. I instead focused on the most efficient word-of-mouth networks in the world at the time–blogs. The path to seeding the ideas of 4HWW was then straight-forward:

* Go where bloggers go
* Be there with a message and a story that will appeal to their interests, not yours
* Build and maintain those relationships through your own blog too

These three observations are from PR pundit Steve Rubel’s excellent summary of the 4HWW launch on Micro-Persuasion, titled “The 4-Hour Workweek – Behind the Meme.” Interested to know which events I chose and what the Amazon and Technorati numbers looked like at each step? Check it all out here.

For a good take on my blogging approaches, both as a book author and blog writer, see my multi-part interviews with Darren Rowse over at Problogger.net:
Part 1 – from the day prior to the official publication date (good for seeing how I prepped the market)
Part 2 – from about one weeks ago, after hitting the big lists (good for learning how I’ve built traffic)

4HWW created enough noise online that it was then picked up by offline media ranging from Wired and Outside magazines to Martha Stewart radio and The Today Show. To create a fast-acting meme, I’ve come to believe that you need to do a few things well. Here are the highlights, ordered to recreate the familiar acronym  PPC with a certain Don King-esque flavor:

Read the rest of the post on Tim Ferriss’ blog.

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