Launching a book is a lot like launching a company. Especially today, when a book functions both as a book, and as a calling card for other ventures like speaking, investing, or basically anything.
The problem with that is most authors write books because they like writing books, not because they want to do the work of launching a company. And most of the time, they don’t have a marketing bone in their body.
But there may be good news, because as we’ve seen, the way companies are launched is drastically changing, too. Growth hacking—that is, iterative, scalable, lean techniques for self-sustaining marketing—has completely disrupted the tech startup world. Young geeks—also without a marketing bone in their body—have been responsible for the stunning growth of brands like Facebook, StumbleUpon, DropBox, AirBnB, Spotify, and countless others.
So the question is: Can you growth hack a book?
In late 2012, I found myself forced to answer this exact question.
I was lucky enough to be working with best-selling author Tim Ferriss, and he was suddenly deprived of many of the most effective channels of book marketing. We (along with his publisher, Amazon) were caught by surprise when nearly every retail outlet, from Barnes & Noble to your corner bookstore, suddenly refused to carry his third book, The 4-Hour Chef—or any other book published by Amazon. We were faced with what should have been an impossible task: promoting a book when all of the traditional avenues were closed. (Oh, and we had less than 60 days to do it all.)
I’d read about growth hacking. I’d written about it—for Fast Company, in fact. From my reading and interviews, I had seen that it could be powerful. But I’d never actually done it. Now, in a matter of weeks, I had to help turn a book into a company . . . and we needed hundreds of thousands of "customers" for it to qualify as a "best seller."
Growth hackers, deprived of traditional marketing resources, must be creative. As bootstrappers, they must be analytical and track everyone (there is no room for waste or guesses). So as scary as this proposition was, there was good news. Growth hacking is a process. Unlike the old book marketing model: Get reviewed in the New York Times Book Review, pay for shelf space at the front of a bookstore, and hope for success (that may never come).
Out of options, we put our fate in the hands of a new marketing approach and ended up creating one of the first post-retail best sellers. It tooks us to some rather unexpected places—into the arms of Bittorrent instead of Barnes & Noble—but the results were stunning.
Debuting on every best-seller list from the New York Times to USA Today, The 4-Hour Chef grabbed the No.1 spot on the Wall Street Journal list. Even without a presence in retail outlets, the book sold more than 60,000 physical copies in its first week.
Here’s how the growth-hacking process lead to that success.
Step 1: Product Market Fit
Instead of making a big, general book that appealed to no one, Tim took product market fit to the next level—designing each chapter to stand alone on its own merits and made specifically for a defined community and group of readers. Even within the chapters, he wanted bite-size pieces of content that would immediately provide value to the reader—if you picked up the book and opened it to a random page, he wanted you to be able to get something out of it.
Even Ferriss's editing was data driven. Though the final book was roughly 600 pages long, the early drafts were much closer to 800. Those cuts weren’t made by gut instinct, but methodically. Tim used tools like SurveyMonkey and Wufoo to ask friends and colleagues about the sections they responded to most. We tested the back cover and subtitle repeatedly. Before a section was cut or added, multiple trusted readers of the manuscript had to agree.
The result was a book deliberately crafted for its prospective readers, one that we knew would spread and generate reactions because this had been built into the writing itself. The product and the market were in sync—the book achieved Product Market Fit.
Step 2: Growth and Attention
Growth has to come from somewhere. Every engine must be kick-started. But from where? That’s the question.
Instead of pushing for TV and radio coverage, we decided to focus on bloggers—because blogs are trackable and work fast. Knowing the type of reach we needed, we set a limit: the blogs had to have more than 100,000 unique visitors a month. With tools like Compete, Quantcast, and Alexa, it was easy to research potential sites we wanted to appear on, cross-check their traffic, and then reach out. And as I’ve learned, when your product is actually relevant and designed for a specific audience (and doesn't suck), bloggers love to write about you.
The result was big online media mentions that we scheduled to go live the day of release in a well-timed barrage: Lifehacker, The Art of Manliness, AskMen, Epic Meal Time. These hits drove real sales that we tracked with affiliate links.
Blogs were just one part. We partnered with startups, with apps, with anyone who had an audience.
Of course, a major benefit to promoting this book was that Tim had already built a platform. How much easier would it be for anyone to launch a new product if they spent the time developing and building an audience beforehand? For Tim, blogging weekly for five years meant he had a captive audience to launch to. Before you say that’s unfair, ask yourself whether there is anything stopping you from developing your own?
Step 3: Virality
The virality aspect is the part of the launch that was the most impressive. Forced into a corner, we reached out to BitTorrent, where a friend of mine, Matt Mason, had recently taken a job. The team’s proposal was audacious: to create a bundle of content from the book to be given away to BitTorrent’s 170 million members.
With BitTorrent, we produced a slick 700-megabyte bundle—more than 250 pages of material, interviews, extras, videos, and photos—and it was totally free and could be downloaded by anyone. It was the ultimate "try it before you buy it" marketing mechanism. The sales prompt inside? A link to buy the book for up to 40% off at Amazon.
The results stunned even us:
2 million downloads
1,261,152 page visits
880,009 Amazon impressions
327,555 Tim Ferriss website impressions
293,936 book trailer impressions
A lot of books get good publicity and then slam these leads into the brick wall of a $20 price point. It’s tough for a book to go viral. This collaboration changed that. People could take a chance on the book, and they could send a link to their friends, who could in turn download the bundle for free.
The BitTorrent promo was undoubtedly the most effective part of the launch, and was hugely instrumental in selling thousands of copies of the book. Whether you’re selling books or acquiring users, any source that drives millions of leads to a sales page or website is a huge success
Step 4: Optimization and Retention
Naturally it’s a little bit harder to "optimize" a book. Once it’s written and printed—at least in 2013—you can’t exactly change it. A book is "done" in the way that an app or a website needn’t be. But even so, the optimization and retention approach of growth hacking was influential in this launch.
In most launches I’ve been a part of, the mind-set is simple: Get as much publicity and attention as you can, and afterward hope or assume it was all a success. This is not much different from how books were launched a 100 years ago. Ferriss's data-driven approach, however, meant we actually looked at what worked and what didn’t. We weren’t chasing vanity metrics. If the BitTorrent promotion hadn’t driven sales, I wouldn’t have told you about it.
In fact, based on the success of that collaboration, I worked with BitTorrent again with another client, the musician Alex Day. His results were equally stunning: 2,765,023 downloads, 276,409 page visits, 166,638 iTunes impressions, 52,151 Alex Day Web site impressions, and 5,000 new e-mail sign-ups for Alex’s mailing list.
And we know what worked and what didn’t because we pored over the analytics. We looked at which blog posts worked and which didn’t, which drove traffic and which didn’t, what drove spikes in Amazon rank and which didn’t. This information will be crucial in subsequent launches and, of course, for the innovators who come after me and take this to the next level.
So, can you growth hack a book? I believe so. Sure, some growth hacking purists might say no. But then again, growth hacking has never been so great at following the rules or definitions itself.
It was a question worth pursuing—if only because, in this case, we had no other options. Now, with the results, I believe we have a definitive answer. It is: "Yes." And, it just may be, that the lean, flexible approach is more conducive to success than the old model ever was.
At the very least, this one case study made me think: if something as old-school as publishing can be invigorated by the growth hacker approach, what else can? If you can treat a book like a startup, anything can be.
—Ryan Holiday is a best-selling author and advisor to many brands and writers. His newest book Growth Hacker Marketing: A Primer on the Future of PR, Marketing and Advertising focuses on the untraditional tactics behind a new class of thinkers who disrupted the marketing industry. He gives monthly book recommendations as well.
[Image: Flickr user Georgia Peanut Commission]