The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly of Launching a Best-selling Book

Recently, I shared with you the lessons I learned from launching my first best-selling book, The Art of Work. Now, I want to tell you how I did it. (If you don’t want to read all 3500 words of this post, just skip to the summary.)

Photo Credit: KJGarbutt via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: KJGarbutt via Compfight cc

A quick word of warning: Every book, and every launch, is different. In this post, I did my best to pull the principles out of the details, but don’t try to do exactly what I did — it won’t work.

Instead, learn from my mistakes and do something better. Book publishing is an ever-changing industry, so what worked yesterday won’t necessarily work tomorrow.

Now without further ado, here’s how my team and I launched a best-selling book. My book launch co-conspirator, Tom Morkes, helped me compile this post so he deserves the credit for tracking and organizing all this information.

The plan

The first thing you want to do is create a strategy. Before you bring your book to market, you need clarity on a few key elements that will play a significant role in your launch:

1. Goal: What do I want to accomplish?

For The Art of Work, I wanted to sell 10,000 trade paperbacks before launch (these are called preorders). The stretch goal was to hit a best sellers list. And though I would have liked to set a less concrete goal like “change people’s lives,” there would have been no way to measure that.

Why did I choose the number 10,000? Two reasons:

  1. With the size of my audience, 10,000 people seemed doable (though challenging).
  2. 10,000 people is a lot of people. It’s enough, in my opinion, to make some waves in the world (which was my bigger why behind what I was doing — I wanted to change the way people think about their vocations).

When setting goals, you want to make them precise, measurable, and time sensitive.

2. Timeline: How much time do I have?

In December, I met with my publisher, Thomas Nelson, and decided on a strategy we believed would get us to 10,000 pre-orders by the end of March.

To develop a proper book marketing timeline, you need to:

  1. Back plan from the launch date.
  2. Set measurable objectives along the way. In this case, we identified how many total pre-orders per week we would need on average, when we would launch the book site, and when we would start emailing my list to initiate the campaign.
  3. Fill in the timeline with key marketing and promotional objectives (e.g. send an email to my list, guest post on blog X on topic Y, reach out to influencer Z, etc.).

The timeline is a living document that will change and evolve as you move through the launch sequence and something that ought to be influenced by your entire team — or at least key people in charge of the marketing. Here’s a snapshot of what ours looked like:

execution timeline

3. Resources: What will it take to accomplish this?

Resources include whatever assets or means you can put behind your book launch. These should include:

  • Your blog
  • Your email list
  • Your social media channels
  • Your personal network (which can leverage into an active team)

This is just a snapshot of the resources that will directly influence the success or failure of your book launch. But the point is to use whatever you have and not wish for something unrealistic.

I would have loved to have been on Oprah or Good Morning America, but that wasn’t likely. So I used what I had: my blog, my email list, and my connections. You need to do the same: use whatever resources are available to you.

Building the team

After you create your plan, you’re going to want to compile your team, which will come from your list of friends, even family, and anyone who follows your work. Sometimes, these people will come out of the woodwork and surprise you.

For The Art of Work, Daniel Decker led the launch team via a private Facebook Group. We invited people via Twitter and Facebook to apply through an online form and accepted the first 250 applications.

The private group gave me the ability to interact directly with the people who would be the front line in our marketing and promotional activities — from writing reviews, to spreading the word.

If you’re going to do this, I recommend having someone (even a volunteer) help you manage the group. Because you will get busy and overwhelmed, and you don’t want to neglect these people. Daniel was a pro at this.

Launch Team

The beauty of a launch team is you don’t have to be pushy or promotional — these are people who want to help. Your job is to give them simple, actionable steps to do that.

Here are some ways to leverage a launch team:

  1. Ask them to leave a review on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Goodreads when the book launches (assuming you’ve given them free access to the book early — which you should).
  2. Encourage each member to write a review on their own blog. In exchange, highlight these people on your blog when the book launches! See below for how we did that.
  3. Coordinate a campaign (a great way to get a lot of eyeballs on your book during launch day as long as the campaign succeeds — so make sure you set a low enough goal that you can achieve it).
  4. Share important blog posts, guest posts, or listing site mentions and ask members to support by checking it out and sharing if it resonates. I told our team that I’d retweet as many of them as possible when they talked about the book.

There are dozens of other effective ways to turn a launch team into a remarkable marketing effort. Just make sure to make it valuable for your team.

For The Art of Work, this meant giving people the opportunity to interact with me on a personal level. We used this opportunity to answer questions, do live calls, and much more. Keep it fun, light, and engaging and your launch will do wonders for you.

Finding the right channels

How will you reach your target readership and early adopters?

This is the point where most launches fail. Even if you have the best book in the world it won’t matter if you can’t cost effectively reach your target audience.

Many authors make the mistake of depending on bookstores or their publishers to make their sales for them. And sure, these sources might generate some sales, but I promise you this: nobody will care more about your book’s success than you. So the secret weapon to a great book launch is you.

Sales aren’t automatic. It takes finding and connecting with likeminded readers to move the needle. To do this, you need to identify effective marketing channels.

A marketing channel is any medium or platform you can use to promote and sell your book.

Here are the channels we used:

  1. Blogs and podcasts. We reached out to niche blogs and podcasts to see if they wanted to interview me. The power in niche blogs and podcasts isn’t sales numbers, but the trust that gets built when an author and his book seem to be “everywhere.” This ties directly into what’s called the mere-exposure effect: the more we see something, the more we like it. By agreeing to hundreds of interviews, I was able to help The Art of Work reach a large audience of potential readers.
  2. Listing sites. A listing site is a place where likeminded people come and share cool things (usually links to products, images, or ideas). Examples include:,, and, among others. Some of these listing sites can result in tens of thousands of eyeballs on your book if you position it right.
  3. Reddit AMA. AMA’s (ask me anything) are increasingly popular events where interesting people agree to answer questions during a specified time period. The cool part about an AMA is that you can not only engage with the audience you’ve already built, but compelling AMAs drive lots of eyeballs to your event. I did one here and will admit that I probably don’t “get” Reddit. But at least I tried. 😉
  4. Affiliates. For the launch, we leveraged other people’s email lists (who promoted the book in exchange for a commission on any online course people bought). This strategy alone drove over 3000 pre-orders the day before the book’s ship date.
  5. Bulk orders. With The Art of Work, I thought this would be a great gift for churches, schools, and companies to order for their team members. So to incentivize bulk orders, I put together a comprehensive bonus strategy, from one-on-one coaching, to keynote speaking, to in-person consulting. You can check out the list of bonuses here.

And here’s a look at how we tracked them:

Outreach Tracker

These are just some of the channels we leveraged to get the book in front of hundreds of thousands of people in a matter of weeks. The point isn’t the exact methods or channels we used. It’s that we thought hard about how to add value to readers by meeting them where they were.

This is not an easy process, but it’s worth it.

The strategy

One of the first things I decided on was to give his book away for free to anyone who pre-ordered The Art of Work (plus shipping and handling). You might be wondering: How can you possibly making money on a book launch if you’re giving it away free? 

The strategy is simple (though certainly not a sure thing):

Early adopters are the first people who will buy your product or service. These are also the people who will spread the word about a product or service if it delights them. By giving his book away for free, I was able to delight his biggest fans, which compelled them to not only pre-order the book, but to share the great deal with their friends and family.

We encouraged pre-order readers to review and share the book when the book actually launches.

I made sure those who pre-ordered The Art of Work received a free PDF copy of book immediately. This allowed hundreds of people to read the book before it launched so they could have a review or share ready for the launch day.

Anticipation is a subtle art. Effective anticipation whets the appetite; it gives us a glimpse into the world the author has created without spoiling the plot.

The most effective way to generate this type of anticipation for a book launch is through a structured content marketing strategy. This meant creating a content strategy and execution timeline for the blog and podcast as well as for guest blogs and podcasts.

Here’s what we came up with:

7 Weeks to Book Launch

6 Weeks to Book Launch

5 Weeks to Book Launch

4 Weeks to Book Launch

3 Weeks to Book Launch

2 Weeks to Book Launch

1 Week to Book Launch

Launch Week

Why all this matters: urgency and scarcity

Urgency is powerful when done right. Setting a ship date and making a bonus time sensitive is one of the most effective ways to use urgency to encourage book sales. When coupled with scarcity, it can become irresistible.

Why is gold worth anything? If you said because gold is scarce, you’re partly right.

But more importantly, why does gold increase in value when governments print their currency out of existence? Because gold is real and impossible to forge. You can’t make copies of gold. The scarcity is real.

When you launch a book, you want to leverage real scarcity and real urgency the same way. I did this by giving my book away for free for a limited time. The time-sensitive nature of the offer added to the scarcity of the event.

Urgency is the best way to get people to buy now. As an author, your job is to sell books — today, not tomorrow. We included urgency in his book launch by having a cut-off date for the free book giveaway (the book’s ship date).

This encouraged over 14,000 people to pre-order the book before it hit store shelves. But that’s not all.

We also included tiered urgency by having a free copy of the audiobook available for only a short period of time after launch. This incentivized people who hadn’t pre-ordered to buy the book now (or fork up over $30 later on for both the book and audiobook).

Here are some ways you can add scarcity to your book launch:

  • Include a limited edition print run of your book
  • Offer a signed copy to the first 100 purchases or include a special download that’s only available through certain retailers
  • Add a bonus that is only available to X number of buyers or until Y date

Any of these will increase the likelihood someone buys today (not tomorrow).

Maintaining momentum

The worst part about a book launch is when it ends and the energy around the event dies off. In many cases, books fall right off the charts after they hit bestseller. While the energy around a launch must fade (like all product launches), your book does not have to fade from the charts.

Here’s how we’re keeping The Art of Work alive long after launch (and we’ve managed to generate a total of 20,000 sales in the first month).

1. Continued outreach

I’ve already been interviewed on dozens of podcasts, but we have dozens more in the chute. We expect to have interviews going throughout the next several months, which should expose the book to thousands more readers.

And now that the launch has been so successful, we’ve leveraged this into more mainstream media outreach and connections with even bigger blogs and podcasts.

The key to a successful book launch is a full-court press to hit a bestseller list. But the key to a successful book is maintaining the momentum by leveraging early success into even more outreach.

2. Reviews, podcasts, and media hits

One of the best ways to keep word of mouth marketing working in your favor is by encouraging and supporting people to write a review about your book.

Without further ado, here are all the great people, bloggers, and podcasters who have helped to spread the word. For everyone on this list: THANK YOU. We couldn’t have done this without you.

3. Write for the long haul

My friend Tim Grahl once told me one of the secrets to author Dan Pink’s success was once he launches a book, he commits to talking only about that book for the next two years. He’s all in. That resonated with me.

I intend to talk about this book for the next two years. I want to hang my hat on it for the foreseeable future. Having invested years of my life into researching and writing it, why wouldn’t I do this? Why wouldn’t I give the book the time it needs to succeed?

Yes, a writer needs to keep writing (and I’m already working on the next book). But if you’re going to bring a book into the world, commit to it. As for me, I’ll be speaking and writing and talking about this for a while.

Why? Because the message deserves it.

If you’re considering launching a book, ask yourself: What message could be worth committing the next two years of your life? Write that book. Then commit to launching it well, but also seeing it through.

Summary: The results


In a nutshell, here’s what happened:

  • The good: The Art of Work sold over 14,000 pre-orders, hit three best sellers list (USA Today, Publisher’s Weekly, and the Washington Post) and has continued to sell over 20,000 copies. People are loving it, and I’m in a great place for my next book deal. I credit the success to the free book campaign to reward early adopters, the launch team (including the affiliates who promoted the book), and getting influencers onboard early enough for them to promote it. The biggest lesson I learned was to start early.
  • The bad: Surprisingly, the book didn’t hit the NY Times best sellers list for some reason, even though it sold a comparable amount of copies as those books that were on the list (note: sales are not the only factor in hitting this list).
  • The ugly: Because we collected orders through the website and didn’t drive people directly to Amazon, my team and I had to field a lot of customer services requests, which took a ton of time and wasn’t something I anticipated. When one of the book fulfillment companies misplaced some orders and delayed shipment, that turned a messy situation into a temporary disaster. It wasn’t fun, and if I did it all over again, I wouldn’t collect orders through my site. Lesson (painfully) learned.

In short, launching a book is hard, you need a lot of time and ton of people to do it right, but the rewards are worth the effort. Example: I just got a call for a national speaking gig where I’ll be sharing the message of my book in front of thousands of Human Resource professionals.

If you haven’t picked up a copy of my latest book, please do so. You can get it wherever books are sold and submit your receipt at the book site to get hundreds of dollars in digital bonuses for free.

Note: Tom Morkes and I co-wrote this article. Tom is a West Point grad, Iraq War veteran, and even got paid to jump out of helicopters for a while. He is the founder of Insurgent Publishing, a company that launches books to bestseller. Check out his new book launch course: How to Launch Your Book to Bestseller.

Have you ever thought about launching a book? Share in the comments.