Episode 333: A Play-by-Play Breakdown of How James Altucher Launches a BookOct 21, 2020
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There's no one like James Altucher. Now I get that there's no one like any of us but there's REALLY no one like James Altucher. The hedge fund manager, podcaster and author of over 20 books has one of the most unique writing voices around—a major reason why his book, Choose Yourself, sold 40,000 copies in its first week of release.
But there are a number of other reasons he sold so many copies and I break those reasons down in this episode. I get into how he hones his writer's voice, controls his destiny, gathers opinions, comes up with unique propositions and then gets media attention for them, spends what he can afford to and—most importantly—never stops writing.
You may not be someone The New York Times writes about when you decide to embrace minimalism but that doesn't mean you can't learn from what he does and apply all the same concepts and techniques to your own book release. In fact, in this episode, I break down exactly how.
[BTW, FOR A FEW WEEKS AFTER WE MET, I WAS ONE OF ALTUCHER'S FAVES AND I EVEN HAVE THE SCREEN GRAB BELOW TO PROVE IT. AND YES, MY SCREEN SAVER WAS A LITTLE INTENSE BACK THEN.]
And, as promised, here are the links I mentioned:
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Hi there. Welcome to Launch Pad, a podcast hosted by me, Anna David. This is where I talk to the world's most successful authors and entrepreneurs about how they launch their books and what a book can do for your career. Now, this is one of my favorite new things. These play-by-play breakdowns, because it gives me an opportunity to study the best and break down in my opinion. So using my experience to break down my interpretation of what these incredibly successful people have done from, and for their books and how you can do the same. So before I forget, this is episode 333, and it’s on James Altucher.
And I have actually had the pleasure of meeting him twice. So I can tell you that he's a pretty fun guy to sit down with as well. If you are not familiar with who he is, he's a hedge fund manager, very prolific author, very prolific podcaster, and has founded, or co-founded over 20 companies and he's written over 20 books. And so he has so many things that he is very hard to categorize. I also remember him telling me, when we met in New York about how he had this job doing shows for HBO hosting shows in the middle of the night, involved, him being up and outside in the middle of the night in New York City. But he, he got new life as a blogger because he started writing these incredibly honest, incredibly bizarre, unique posts, and he started to develop this following and he started to sort of put out these ideas that people began to quote and follow.
He has this idea, this idea, this concept that you have to constantly be thinking of new ideas. And you know, he's just kind of gotten opinion on everything. You know, I remember reading that he said, you shouldn’t eat after a certain hour in the day; he wasn't calling it intermittent fasting. He was just saying like, what I really like about him is that in many ways he doesn't try to defend his position on something. He just says, this is what I think, and this is what I do, and it is true. And so, as he became known as this blogger he, you know, he did some very interesting things that he's written about and talked about. Like he during the crash in 2008, 2009, he went and stood there at Wall Street and handed out chocolate bars just to get people to smile.
And what he talks about is that his most popular post of all time is the most, the thing that brings more people to his website than any other is when they Google “I want to die” or “I want to kill myself” because he has written about that. And he's just incredibly honest. And like I said, he says things that other people don't. So, like I said, he's written 20 books and a number of these were traditionally published. So like me, he started off in traditional publishing got very disillusioned and now publishes his books himself, but among his books, there's something called My Daddy Owns all of Outer Space. There's Super Cash, The New Hedge Fund Capitalism. It sort of runs the gamut: 40 Alternatives to College. One of his controversial opinions is that college is a waste of time and money and nobody should go, Oh, he has a book called the 7 Habits of Highly Effective Mediocre People.
And the book that we're going to talk about today is his book, Choose Yourself: Be Happy, Make Millions, Live the Dream. And it came out in 2013 and he published it himself. And I have learned so much from studying what he did with that book. And he's been very, he's very generously shared with the world how he did it.
By 2016, it had sold over 500,000 copies, hit the Wall Street Journal bestseller list, was number one on Amazon for all nonfiction books for a few days, and obviously hit number one in its different categories. Now, the very interesting thing, and this is going to be the first, well, no, here. I want to talk about the first tip that I have determined from studying what he does.
I've touched on it already but really hone your writer's voice. Don’t be afraid to share who you are and to just constantly be as honest as you possibly can. I actually interviewed him for a story I did for Entrepreneur magazine a few years ago. I can put the link to that story in the show notes. And what he said to me when I interviewed him for that, cause it was a story about how entrepreneurs use their books to become more successful, he said, “When I first started blogging, I wanted people to know how hard it is to strive for something to deal with failure, to actually fail, to confess mistakes in a world where everyone pretends to be perfect.” And then he added, “It was this very style of writing that multiplied by a hundred times my number of readers.”
So yeah, I mean, it's a nice sort of antidote to all the people out there that are telling you they've got it all figured out. His sort of platform, if you will, is based on how, how not figured out he has it. And we all relate. So that book I already told you about how well it sold like crazy, it's got almost 2,500 ratings and reviews on Amazon and this is how he did it.
This is tip number two. It's basically spend whatever you can afford to spend. Now, this dude's like loaded, you know, he's done all these things. He's got, he's got a big old budget for this. So it depends on what your budget is. I'm not saying you should do what he did because most of us don't have the sort of budget that he did for this.
But he hired Ryan Holiday, who is the biggest and the best when it comes to marketing a book, he hired this editor who he really admired. And he said that they went through more than 15 different rewrites for the book. He hired the best audio book company. And he, he basically spared no expense. So I think that how that applies to you is…side note, one of my least favorite questions anyone has ever asked me is what's your budget for that? Because I always want to go “Well, what's whatever the cheapest is that I can get it for. “And apparently you're not supposed to do that if you want to be incredibly successful. So don't do that; I've gotten a lot better about it. I used to be sort of allergic to spending more than a hundred dollars at a time, but then I'd go around spending a hundred dollars on 800 things. Nobody has ever accused me of being good with money or any sort of a numbers guru.
I would highly recommend if you want to follow the James Altucher formula, figure out what your budget is and where you want to divide it, he suggested, I agree with him, spend the most of the money on the editing, that is what's going to pay off the most. And you know, he and I have both said, you can design a cover for free on Amazon or on Canva, but you are going to get what you pay for. And so a certain level. So I would say the school of James is spend the money on the editor and next would be the cover and obviously hiring somebody like Ryan Holiday is an indulgence—not an indulgence, but it's for those who can afford to hit it out of the park.
So tip number three that we can glean from James Altucher is control your destiny. After getting sort of frustrated with traditional publishing and deciding that he wanted to control the experience and he talks about it in the same way I do. It was frustrating to have to wait so long, that it was frustrating to not have control over the cover and the title and, and all, and it was frustrating not making any money. So not only did he decide on everything for himself, but he even went out and found a foreign rights agency to sell the foreign rights, which is something that it doesn't occur to a lot of people. Of course, it's not something that gets us rich. My first I've only actually had one book that was translated into other languages, Party Girl was translated into Russian and Italian, go grab it there, any Russian and Italian listeners.
So you don't get rich off of that, but it's pretty awesome. So he writes in a blog post and I will put a link to this in the show notes, he writes about how he got a foreign rights agency and he writes about how much he made from the rights when they sold it to Brazil, he made $2,500; to China, he made $4,300; to Korea, he made $5,000. So that was just another example of taking it into his own hands.
And that's something that I have really learned lately when it comes to bookstores, which is my experience with traditional publishing was that my publisher would say “Yeah, this bookstore doesn't doesn't want your book.” And so I would literally walk into Skylight Books, this bookstore, this very cool bookstore near where I live and actively resent, not just the store, but every single author who had a book in that store, not knowing how it really works.
Now that I'm out of the game and I know people who work in publishing I've discovered that, that the publishers only have a certain number of books that they can pitch to bookstores. And so they're not pitching yours. They are invested in it not being in that store. And I have just discovered quite how easy it is to get books in stores. For Make Your Mess Your Memoir, I reached out to Book Soup. They were happy to sell it. And they even did an online event with me. I reached out to Kitson, which is this kitschy kind of amazing store. And they said, “We'll not only sell your book, but once the pandemic is over, we would love to throw you a party.” And then, publishers always make Barnes and Noble sound like the white whale that none of us will ever get there.
My traditionally published books were all sold there when they first came out in the first month. And then when those books were sold, they never appeared in those bookstores again. And my publisher Harper Collins had paid for that placement in that. So I just randomly was in Barnes and Noble recently, God, I feel like I've told you guys this story already. And I apologize. It's like early senility. If I have an awesome, I was just there. And I started chatting with a guy who worked in the bookstore and I mentioned honestly, in a totally not even trying to be manipulative way that I was an author. And he said, “Wow, do we sell your books?” And I said, “Oh no, no, no, you stop selling them years ago.” And he said, “Well, why don't I order them?” And it was literally that easy.
What's ironic perhaps is he went in, I gave him my name and he went into the database and he said he said, which of your books do you want me to order? And I said, well, Party Girl. And he looked. And he said, “I can't order that” because the way the publisher had set it up, the bookstores couldn't return the copies if they didn't sell. And that is really what bookstores want to know is that they can return the copies if they don't sell. If you publish it yourself, you can set it up so that the copies can be returned if they don't sell. So he said, “Well, what's your second choice?” I said, "Oh, my new book Make Your Mess Your Memoir." And he said, “Great, I'm going to order it. And here's what I think you should do. I think you should come in once the books are here, sign them, post them on social media. And people will come in and order them. And we'll just keep ordering your book.”
Bookstores want to order books that people want. So that was so illuminating that it is that easy. And I say this because James Altucher, I was reading and he wrote something about how he was trying to get his book in more stores. And it is, as it turns out much easier than any of us may have realized. Certainly, I didn't. So that was tip number three, it was control your destiny.
Let us talk about tip number four. And that is using group think in a way that is really productive. Now, what I mean by that is a lot of people will, when they have a title that they're thinking about or a cover that they're thinking about, they will go and they will post on Facebook or on Instagram or on LinkedIn.
And they will say, Which of these do you guys like? And they think that they are going to get an accurate response. By the way, I've completely done this myself. It's very tempting because it's very easy, frankly; the problem with it is that all studies say that people don't buy what they think they're going to buy. And the other problem of course, with posting it somewhere is that everybody's influenced. So they're influenced by the way you phrase the posting, they're influenced by what other people like. I mean, if they come there and they go, “Oh, I really like that second one, but everybody liked the first one. I must be wrong.” So it is actually the worst way to try to get feedback on what is better. And, you know, cause if you, if you go around asking people what is better, everybody's got an opinion and their opinions, frankly, don't matter.
It's what do the masses want? So what James Altucher did and Tim Ferriss did this too. And I believe I talked to you, I talked about this in the Tim Ferriss episode. So if you haven't heard that go back and make sure you listen to that. But he ran Facebook ads and he ran it with 10 titles that he thought would be good. And he sat back and watched what happened. And there were thousands of clickthroughs. And the one that he thought was the best one, which was The Choose Yourself Era came in third, Pick Yourself was in second and Choose Yourself was the first by far. And that is of course the title he ended up going with. He did the same thing with the subtitle and the final version of the cover. And you know, the proof is in how successful the book is.
So I think that that is an amazing tip, which is thinking that just going around and asking people which is better is going to get you the response that you want. I frankly think you're better off not asking anyone anything. If you want to invest in Facebook ads—both the time and the money and you know what it'll take to make those effective and you've got the time do it.
Okay. Tip number five: come up with unique propositions. That's part number one, but part number two is that you then have the ability to get media for, and he did two really great ones, which is he made an offer. He said that people could buy this book with Bitcoin. Did he do that to get rich from Bitcoin?
No, he did it cause no one had done it. And it was bizarre. And he, as I mentioned, was working with Ryan Holiday who had the ability to go get media to write about that. He also put at the beginning of his book, basically: if you read this book and you don't like it, I will give you your money back. Now I'm going to guess that very few, if any, people took him up on that, but again, it was bizarre and they got media attention for it.
It reminds me of this friend of mine who was very, very funny, Jennifer Belle, her first book was called Going Down. And I think for her fourth book, she said, “You know what I'm going to do.” She lives in New York. And she said, “I am going to hire actresses and pay them to read my book on the subway because that's how people know they want to read a book because they see other people reading it on the subway.”
So she did it. She found actresses. She got them to read it on the subway. I don't know if that worked but the New York Times heard about it or maybe she told the New York Times about it and they were at a story about it. So it's coming up with these ideas. But the problem is it's like the whole thing about the tree falling in the woods. If you don't have the ability to get it to media, then your amazing idea isn't going to get coverage. And if you're saying, “Well, that's great for those people. I mean, they hire expensive publicists and know people,” know this: anybody can get media attention. Go back and listen to my episode with Cameron Herold, or even buy his book, Free PR. In the episode we did, he walked me through exactly what you can do to figure out what your angle is and how not just approachable, but reachable journalists are.
The quick overview is all journalists are on Twitter. And so if you can figure out who has written about, you know, let's say you come up with your unique idea for your book and you want media to write about it. So start looking around and see who's written about this or what TV shows have talked about this before. And, you know, journalists have a beat. Maybe their beat is, is just the topic or genre of your book: figure out where they are, tweet at them. There is also a website called hunter.io that has a lot of email addresses. There's also a paid service where you can get people's email addresses. And obviously, there's LinkedIn and there's Facebook and there's Instagram and there are all these places.
So it, it just requires a certain level of proactiveness that frankly, I don't always have, cause I am scared of rejection and, and bugging people. I'm a former journalist. But as Cameron Herold very eloquently explained: if you are doing their work for them, a journalist is going to be grateful to you. You are not bothering them. You are presenting them with a story. And another thing you can do is subscribe to Help A Reporter Out, which is also called HARO. And it is where journalists list, all the stories that they're working on and what they're looking for sources for. And they send three emails a day. And whenever you see a journalist that is working on a story that pertains to potentially what your unique proposition is, then you can reach out to them. And, and I actually do have a course that gets into this a little bit called Media Attention for Writers.
I can put a link to that in the show notes. So that, and then, and then the final tip that we're going to glean from James Altucher is that he keeps writing. And like I said, over 20 books, he doesn't put all his eggs in one book basket. I can't tell you the number of people I speak to who say to me that they've got a book that is going to change the world. It is their story. Everybody's always told them they should write a book. And I can feel the future disappointment when I talk to them because it's just not how it works. Yes. It worked that way for Elizabeth Gilbert kind of; actually it didn't. Eat Pray Love was like her sixth book. It worked that way for the 50 Shades of Gray lady so it can happen.
But it almost never does. So if you want to be a successful writer, you keep writing, you do not assume that one book is going to be quote “it” for you. But the other thing, and this is related to that. What James Altucher does very well is books are just a part of his strategy. And they lead people into his myriad, other things, which includes his podcast. Of course, he has a huge podcast and he's interviewed people like Mark Cuban and Richard Branson and Arianna Huffington and Peter Thiel and a whole bunch of people on that. And he has courses. He actually has a Choose Yourself Guide to Self Publishing, which I can put a link to in the show notes. It's a thousand dollars. I bet you a lot of people buy that. So that is, you know, I, I guarantee you, he has made more money from that course than he did from book sales.
Even though I bet he made a lot from book sales…by the way, that course includes his books, a membership group publishing software, it looks pretty, pretty awesome. Frankly, it's $997. It's not a thousand dollars. And you know, he has eight different newsletters that you can subscribe to. So I don't know if he has cloned himself or if he just has an amazing team or whatever it is, but he is somebody who I have learned so much from studying in terms of his marketing.
And his writing! I should mention he is a hilarious, incredibly intelligent original writer, definitely worth mentioning. And hopefully you guys got something out of this that you can apply to your own books and book releases. That is it. I am Anna David signing off. I will see you next week.