How to Become a Best-Selling Author with Dr. Ian K. Smith

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Table of Contents

Setting the Right Goals for Your Book

Most serious authors look at the New York Times’ Bestseller List: it’s the holy grail in our business. You want to make that list. And once you do, it becomes a dangerously addictive habit. Is your work unworthy if you don’t make the list? Absolutely not. Can you succeed without the list? Absolutely. Yet every author and publisher wants to bask in the iconic aura of the New York Times.  They use an algorithm to generate their list. They don’t just use the raw number of books sold in a given week.


Sometimes it’s the rate of book sales; sometimes it’s where the books sell that counts. None of us outsiders know how the algorithm actually works. It’s a black box. The New York Times doesn’t want anyone to know their magic sauce, because people could manipulate it. As long as there’s been a bestseller list, authors and publishers have tried to cheat their way on to it. Now there are even third-party companies that will try to crack the algorithm for their clients. That’s too much. You don’t need to sacrifice your craft just to appear on a mysterious list.


Instead, identify your goals and clarify the intentions of your work. Some simply want to have a book on the shelf. Others want to build and influence audiences. Others write for money or awards. As a young or new author, you can decide your path. You will evolve in unexpected directions, but first you need a vision for what your work will accomplish. Then you can plan your next moves: marketing, networking, and sharing your work with the world. People used to think, “If I write the greatest book with a beautiful cover and place it in a bookstore, it’s going to sell.” Writing the book is really half the battle—the other half is getting people to buy it.


Publishing is an overcrowded marketplace—now more than ever. When I started, the internet wasn’t as important for marketing and selling books. People were visiting bookstores to find their next read—not scrolling Twitter or Instagram.


Now, most books are bought online: digital books comprise at least 30% of the market. As a result, the dynamics of publishing have changed. People need to adapt. I tell new authors, “Set yourself a long-term goal, but then also set and focus on smaller goals which add up to the long-term goal.”


Building an Audience

I began like most authors. I was a nobody. I didn’t have any fans. The best way to become a bestselling author is to build your base authentically, which is now much easier to achieve. When I started, eighteen books and many years ago, we didn’t have instantaneous access to people. Things didn’t go viral. If you didn’t get on the Today show, Good Morning America, or a big radio show, no one would hear about you. You’d have to take an ad out in newspapers. People couldn’t afford that.


Now, it’s much easier to get noticed. People can build a solid audience. I encourage all new authors, even if you’re not into social media, to develop a following. You need to create content that people can engage with. That way, when you start publishing, you have a built-in audience. Then you try to grow that audience organically.


However, the most important thing is not necessarily how many followers you have: it’s how engaged and dedicated they are. You could have hundreds of thousands of followers. But they might just want to see what you’re wearing at night, or what you ate for breakfast. When you ask for their support, they disappear. They’re just window-shopping. They don’t want to go into the store.


I create engagement with my audience, so people want to come in, sit down, and exchange ideas. I’ve done it by listening and interacting with people. You can’t be an isolated, distant Hollywood superstar. You have to be someone who’s answering DMs on Instagram or on Facebook. It’s tiring. But when you respond to people—even if you can’t respond right away—they’re happy that you interact with them. And they’ll be more inclined to read and share your book.


So, I’ve spent much of my time answering DMs from people I don’t know, answering their questions or engaging them in conversation. When you recognize and acknowledge others, they become your fans. They’re excited when you have something new coming out. They listen to you. They look for you. Compare that to someone who tweets a picture of themselves in a $10,000 tuxedo at the Met Gala. People see that and say, “I wonder what he’s wearing or who he’s with.” By contrast, building a meaningful audience requires authentic engagement with people. Rather than cultivate an unapproachable aloofness, bestselling authors interact regularly with their audiences—not only through books but also through direct messages: “Hey, listen, you have a problem, you have an issue, you have a question, or you have a funny moment? Let’s talk about it.”


I always test new ideas with my audience. A long time ago, when Facebook was the thing, I had a lot of Facebook followers. I would draft an idea for a plan, and then I’d say to my followers, “Hey, who wants to do this for four weeks? Who wants two weeks?”


Now I test principles on Instagram through interactive challenges that provoke feedback from my audience. I’m very much into feedback. I’ll say to them, “Do me a favor: ask questions. Tell me how it went. How did week one go, week two? What didn’t you like? What has improved?”


You can’t sit in the ivory tower and decide what people need and want. You have to engage with them to understand their goals and desires. Many people are trying to lose weight; they’re trying to understand intermittent fasting. You’ve got to be in tune with them, so you can give them what they’re looking for. You have to give it to them in a way that’s useful, effective, and safe.


Finding an Idea for Your Book

I get some of my best ideas from conversations on Instagram and Facebook. I write non-fiction, mostly about diet and wellness. I write fiction too. I spend hours every day thinking about ideas for books. It’s not always conscious, but I’m always thinking, “That would be great for a book. That guy is a great character.” I might take a picture of someone walking down the street because I want to describe them as a character in a book. Someone who’s struggling with luggage at the airport might catch my attention for a book idea about exercise or choosing the right foods.


I am a sponge when it comes to information. I read everything I can get my hands on. I listen to people. I talk to everyone—from the security guard to the CEO—and I have meaningful conversations with all of them. You can learn a lot from real, authentic conversations. For example, when I was in New York recently, my driver asked me about handwashing for the coronavirus. That was the starting point for a profound conversation. I asked him as many questions as he asked me. I’m a very curious person. I will ask one thousand questions. People ask me, “Why do you ask so many questions?” Because I’m interested in people and their ideas.


This has become a maxim for me: put yourself in the shoes of the other person sitting across from you. If you were in their situation, what would you want? I met this lady the other day and hearing her story, I thought, “Jeez. She needs some help.” She couldn’t understand why I was helping her. I said, “I’m helping you for some selfish reasons, because I wish someone had helped my mother when she was in a similarly tough circumstance. I’m not going to let that happen to someone else. This is not just you receiving help; I’m receiving too.”


You’re not always able to solve people’s problems, but your book can teach people to fish for themselves. Sometimes people just need someone to talk to honestly.


I have so many ideas. I wish I could clone myself, because I want to do all of them. But I simply don’t have the bandwidth. I write all my own material, because I love the process of writing. I like to know, “How does this actually work?” I’ve been like that since I was a kid. I may not do anything with the information, but I just like to know things. For example, when the stock market is plunging and they suspend trading, who does that? Where do they do it? How do they do it?”


I love to have that information. Often times, that information will find its way into one of my books, consciously or subconsciously. You should consume as much information as possible, so that you have an armory of knowledge when you sit down to write.


Working with Publishers

Building a community of engaged followers could help you sign a book deal by persuading publishers that there is an appetite for your book. Today, publishers seek authors with built-in audiences. It doesn’t have to be 800,000 people on Instagram—though that would help. Publishers want to know that a potential author has already connected with people, because they believe—often rightfully—that if the author already has a nucleus of support, then it’s their job as the publisher to grow it.


Publishers have unique ways to facilitate growth. It’s too expensive and risky to build an author’s following from scratch. Publishers prefer to have someone walk in and say, “I have 2,000 people following me on Instagram and 10,000 people on Facebook. This is what I’ve done with them, and this is the kind of response I get.” That’s important stuff now.


The publisher wants to sell books. They know that the bigger your audience, the more likely they are to sell books. Your success is the publisher’s success. You win together. One metric of success is a dedicated following that buys all of your books and stays engaged in between publications.
Publishers may purchase advertisements to support your book. If they’ve paid you an advance, they want to recoup it. That dictates the energy they put into growing your brand. The more a publisher has invested up front, the more they are willing to spend on marketing.


In the old days, you could buy a New York Times ad and be done. But those ads are expensive. Only authors who made a lot of money actually bought the New York Times ad: only they could make that money back in sales. Now, there’s social media marketing targeted to specific audiences. Publishers have many more venues for advertisements than before—and many of those venues are relatively inexpensive. So they can afford to buy ads in support of authors who might not warrant a New York Times ad.


Publishers will do an online advertising campaign; they’ll do targeted marketing in relevant newsletters with hundreds of thousands of subscribers. New authors should have meaningful conversations before they even get involved with the publisher about what the publisher’s strategies have been, or could be for them, as far as building a readership.


Promoting Your Book

New authors often think that once they’ve published their book, people are just going to buy it; their work is done. That’s among the biggest mistakes you can make. Your work is actually just beginning. Writing should be fun and shouldn’t feel like work. Once the book is out, then you really have to start working: you have to figure out how to promote it, how to sell it, how to get people to pay attention to it, how to get audiences with certain influencers, or how to get on TV.


The truth is, I was lucky. I’m an aberration. Most authors will not appear on the Today show or Good Morning America or CNN. I started off as a journalist, so I was already a TV personality when I published my first book. I had been a correspondent for NBC News for many years. In fairness, it’s not that I’m so great. It’s not like my publicist randomly sent a copy of my book to Good Morning America, and they said, “Wow, we want to have this guy on our show.” I’d been on TV for many years. My friends were the hosts and anchors of a lot of these shows, and so, I have an inside connection. Not everyone has that.


While it’s nice to get on those big morning shows, you have to be honest with yourself: in most cases, it’s unlikely—not because you’re not good enough, but simply because real estate is so limited. The people who get those slots tend to have an inside connection—or because they’ve written something particularly topical. If you wrote a book about a pandemic, for example, you’re going to be very welcome on talk shows and morning shows right now. If we weren’t facing this crisis, you wouldn’t be. I think you should focus on local media. I started with local media. I would go to smaller towns, and when you go to smaller towns on a book tour, the local paper will cover it. That’s great promotion.


However, publishers aren’t organizing tours anymore because they’re expensive. Until you get big enough, return on investment for tours tends to be small. But then you’re faced with a chicken and egg problem: how can I get big if I can’t get in the media? I encourage people to start at home. Try to get on a local radio, TV, or public access show.


You also need to go to other communities—places where the media is more likely to have you on because they don’t get many people who come to town. Don’t go to New York and say, “I want to be on Good Day New York.” I used to go to Wichita, Kansas. My publisher would ask, “You want to go to Wichita, Kansas? Why?” I said, “Listen, there are people that live in Wichita, and they buy books like everybody else.” They’d like to have someone drop in on them and say, “Hey, let’s talk about some stuff.”


Sometimes, you have to invest. If you’ve got an advance, you should invest some of it to promote yourself. Use that money to hire a publicist. You need a professional to find opportunities for you to broadcast your message and get your book out. They can be expensive, but publicists are not as expensive as they used to be. There are more of them—and there are different ways for them to get the word out.


In the old days, a publicist would try to get you on the Today show or Good Morning America, or CBS This Morning. Now, a publicist is trying to get you on podcasts, to connect you with influencers, to get you on radio shows. There are all kinds of digital platform shows. Publicists are not only less expensive than they used to be—they now also have more places to land you and your work.


In these digital spaces, you can do much of the same work that I used to do in person, in places like Wichita. It’s much easier now to reach people; it’s less expensive to reach people; it’s more instantaneous. This is wonderful for authors: you are no longer competing with 10,000 other authors for a slot on the Today show. Sure, you still want that coveted primetime, but with so many new digital opportunities and communities, you don’t need it. While your immediate audience may not be huge, there’s a multiplier effect. And that digital footprint stays there forever. For example, I did a podcast about eight months ago: to this day, I hear people who have just heard my episode on that podcast.


Further, the digital space allows people to consume books in new ways. They don’t have to read in a library. They can listen to audiobooks while working out or on the move. At night when everyone’s asleep, they can read on their iPad. These digital media help authors who otherwise would not get traditional platforms to create a big buzz about them.


One Percent Better

When I look back over the last 10 or 15 years of my career, I like how I did things. I wasn’t precocious or clairvoyant, but I took a gamble that paid off. When I was getting started, I believed (as I still do) that you have to engage one person at a time to get true believers. When someone believes in you, it creates a ripple effect. That person tells two of their friends, they tell two of their friends, and so on.


It didn’t happen overnight. Daily sales for my new books are often higher than the total sales of my earlier works. You have to believe that you’re going to get there. Even though that mountain looks really steep, I always say to myself, “Well, look at all the people that climbed it. If they could climb it, I can climb it, too.”


That really kept me going—even when things seemed dark and only four people showed up at my book signing. You have to say, “You know what? I’m going to treat those four people like they’re 4,000. I’m going to give them everything they’ve come for.” If you do that, they go tell their family and friends, “You should have seen this guy tonight. He was awesome.” That’s how you do it.


For all the new authors out there: know that I was once where you are. It looks like a long road. You see guys like John Grisham who sell a million copies. Every time you open Instagram, you face someone who seems to be doing much better than you. If you look at the totality of what others have accomplished, that can bear down on you and make you feel smaller. Rather than be crushed by the magnitude of what others have accomplished, you must be inspired by it. As grueling as medical school was, I always reminded myself, “If all those guys in the hospital can do it, so can I.” You take it in small pieces, one percent at a time. It adds up. I say the same to people trying to lose weight: “Listen, you get one pound one week, two the next, you stay even week three, take two the next—and you’ve already lost five pounds.”


No matter what the goal is, nor what obstacles stand in the way, I always encourage myself, my audience, and even my own kids: “If someone else could do it, you can do it.”


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