Mike Michalowicz thought he had a great idea – a no-nonsense guide to entrepreneurship he called The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur: The Tell-It-Like-It-Is Guide to Cleaning Up in Business, Even if You Are at the End of Your Roll. But mainstream publishers didn’t bite, so in 2008, he self-published it. “I thought I’d sell a million books, and that means you need to have at least 20,000 in stock,” he recalls. “That was my faux pas. I literally had 20,000 books arrive at the warehouse. When I had zero sales the first day, I was like, ‘I better ship them to my house,’ so my basement was flooded with books. It was the most painful but motivational moment: I’ve got to sell these; I’ve got to move them.”
Today, Michalowicz only has a handful of those 20,000 copies left; in fact, Penguin was so impressed with his sales performance, they picked up the hardcover rights to The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur and published his second book, The Pumpkin Plan: A Simple Strategy to Grow a Remarkable Business in Any Field, last year. So how did he go from a naïve, newbie author to a bona fide publishing success story? Here are some of the lessons Michalowicz shared in a recent interview.
Understand Your Target Audience. When he first started writing, Michalowicz assumed he was writing for entrepreneurs much like himself (or a slightly younger version): male college students or recent graduates. That’s not a bad initial thesis. “When you don’t know who your reader is,” he says, “write down your demographic history, where you were at different stages of your life, what your mindset was. Then find those people. The easiest one to go after is your current demographic and psychographic; just look for people like you, with the same interests. If you can’t find them there, go back in time. I went back to my college days and when I was starting a business, and I called all the entrepreneurship clubs [for speaking engagements].” But your initial hunch about your readership may be slightly off. “The person it may resonate with is usually only five degrees to the left or the right of your demographic. College entrepreneurs – startup entrepreneurs – were my target, but it was resonating with startup women.” Once Michalowicz realized that, he began speaking to women’s groups and sales skyrocketed.
Test and Measure. Once Michalowicz realized his initial hypothesis about his core readership was wrong, he became fascinated by the idea of testing. “I started doing statistical measurement of what appealed” to readers, says Michalowicz. “I used split testing software for my website, $99 bucks a month, and one of the things I tested was, are people more responsive to pictures or words? And no question, it was pictures. When there were more pictures, they stayed longer and dug deeper.” He even tested pictures of himself with and without his wedding ring on his homepage. The verdict? “The number of sign-ups increased by 20% or more when I had the wedding ring on my finger. The wedding ring, for my target audience, is a trust symbol – this guy is a little safer. I never would have known that.” Michalowicz has also tested pricing of the Kindle version of The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur (TPE); the winner is $3.94, at least for now (he’s in the process of periodic retesting).
Understand What Bulk Sales Are Good For. Bulk sales are useful in driving overall volume, but they didn’t play a large role in the initial success of TPE, Michalowicz says – “mostly because I was ignorant of the fact that bulk sales existed.” But it turned out to be a happy accident, because he discovered “bulk sales move books but they don’t build momentum. If you elect to pull money out of your wallet, the likelihood of your reading the book increases exponentially.”
TV Doesn’t Sell Books. “Probably the most disappointing reality for me,” recalls Michalowicz, was expecting that national television exposure would drive book sales and discovering it didn’t – at all. “I got a call from the executive producer and he said, ‘We got the best numbers ever, a million live views!’ I sat back and said, ‘I can’t wait to see the numbers come in from Amazon tomorrow morning. Am I going to sell 1000 books? 500 books?’ I sold five books. Very few TV programs sell books.” Television exposure does have other benefits, however. “What TV does sell is credibility,” he says. “As authors, it’s our responsibility to capture the segments we’re on, put them on our website as marketing material, and when someone is on the verge of buying the book, they’ll see the credibility that comes from us being on the program and it pushes them over the edge to buy.”
Create 40 Raving Fans. So if TV doesn’t generate sales, and bulk sales don’t generate passion, is there anything that can create both? The answer is a devoted grassroots fan base. Internet eminence grise Kevin Kelly popularized the notion of “1000 true fans,” who could theoretically provide a viable stream of support for artists and writers. Michalowicz agrees, but suspects you may be able to jumpstart the process with even fewer passionate adherents. “This is simply my hypothesis,” he says, “but I believe the magic number is 1000 individual sales – that’s when the momentum happens. Of all the books you sell to individuals, you’ll get only about 20% of those people to actually crack the book open and read past the first chapter, so out of 1000, that’s 200 people. And I’d say only 20% complete the book in its entirety, so now it’s only 40 people. But if you sell 1000 books, that means you have the potential for 40 raving fans. That’s pretty scary, but those 40 people can sell 25 books apiece [through word-of-mouth], and that recharges the next 1000 and converts 40 more fans.” The trick, says Michalowicz, is you have to write a book that’s exceptional enough to become one of only a handful that the individual fan recommends, over and over (some of his go-to recommendations are The E-Myth by Michael Gerber and Purple Cow by Seth Godin, which he “tells everyone” to read).
Nurture Your Fan Base. Once you’ve developed this incipient fan community, says Michalowicz, it’s your responsibility to nurture them. With his new book, The Pumpkin Plan, “I leveraged the fact that the publisher can print almost unlimited books on the cheap, and they’re happy to supply books to me and to mail out books. But the goal isn’t to mail them out to the big media houses – that’s what everyone does. I ID’d my most loyal fans, the people who love TPE the most, and gave them [review copies]. They won’t sell 100 or 1000 copies, but they might sell 10 copies [via word-of-mouth]. I sold 2000 copies on the first day because I had a loyal fan base, vs. zero on the first day with my first book.”
Ultimately, says Michalowicz, the recipe for success is to take the attitude that “publishers don’t market you at all, and that’s your job as an author. I said, ‘How can I leverage what I’ve done with TPE and replicate that with the publisher?’” Mainstream publishers still have something uniquely valuable – broad access to retail distribution channels for hardcover books – though even that’s changing fast. Michalowicz, who still controls the e-book rights for TPE, says he’s “stepping into a new frontier of authorship – ‘blend publishing,’ where you do some of your work directly with the publisher, and some self-published.” Now that he’s proven himself in both realms, he’s able to tap the advantages of both.
Have you published a book, either on your own or with a mainstream publisher? What are your strategies for building a “raving” fan base? What tips or experience would you share with others?
This post originally appeared on the Forbes website on June 4, 2013.
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.