How to Write a Book Everyone Recommends with Rob Fitzpatrick

Apr 06, 2022

This may be the most useful podcast I've ever released. That's because it's with a guy who's an expert on something EVERY author wants: getting people to recommend your book.

His name is Rob Fitzpatrick and he's a former programmer who dropped out of grad school to go to YCombinator with his first startup.

It's that background—along with his nearly decade and a half of experience as an entrepreneur—that helps make sense of the fact that he's the guy who's seemingly cracked the code on how to write a book that everyone will recommend.

He breaks down his process in his latest book, Write Useful Books, and we also get into our decidedly unique story of how we met (in short, he quoted my interview with Chris Voss in Write Useful Books and I didn't see that he credited me and I fired off an email and anyway, listen to the episode and you'll hear what happened next).

But that's far less interesting than the methods he describes in this conversation—including how to find beta readers, what to ask them and how to use them to craft a book that's DEEP (Desirable, Effective, Engaging and Polished).

How sure is he that his process works? Well, the results speak for themselves. His monthly earnings from his three books are roughly $25k a month, with 1000 copies a week being sold, and, in his words, "growing pretty steadily."

I am not being hyperbolic when I say I think this is the most useful interview yet. (Even more than the Chris Voss one Rob quoted!) If I were you, I would literally study the transcript below. (That's what I'm doing.)


USEFUL LINKS:

Rob's site

The Write Useful Books site

The HelpThisBook site



TRANSCRIPT:

Anna David:

Rob. Thank you so much for being here.

Rob Fitzpatrick:

Oh, it's my absolute pleasure. Thank you so much. I've been looking forward to chatting. I've been a fan of your podcast for a while ever since you did the Chris Voss interview, which was amazing.

Anna David:

Okay. So let's talk about this. This is the best story for how I found this podcast guest. So Rob has written an incredible book, arguably the best book I've read about writing books and I've written a book. And it's called Write Useful Books:  A Modern Approach to Designing and Refining Recommendable Nonfiction. So this book came to my attention because of my mentor, Joe Polish. And do you know who Joe is by the way, Rob?

Rob Fitzpatrick:

After you made the connection. I dug into him as well. Yeah. And he's putting a ton of value out into the world also.

Anna David:

Yeah. So Joe texted me, I've written a couple books with Joe and he has a book that is going to be coming out from Hay House, and he texted me and he goes, oh my God. I found the book. And I wanna rewrite my book. And like, he took it really far and said, you have to go buy this right now. He started, and this is just very, Joe. Started telling everybody about it, sent it to Hay House editor. So he's going all crazy.

Rob Fitzpatrick:

It's almost like the recommendation loop is a thing. Right? You like to find these problems. You find these moments and you build the whole book around, you know, it's like that moment, like, that's the starting point of every book. It's like, when does someone recommend this? You know, and I'm so happy to hear that it worked out that way for you.

Anna David:

I mean, and so this is Rob's entire concept. So we have it in action. It's super meta. So Joe says this to me. I ordered the book. I'm a big fan of shorter books right now. So I find it really approachable. I also recommend five books a month on a TV show. And so I physically do not have the time to read anyway, I'm talking too much, but this is such a good story. And I wrote about it in my newsletter, if you don't subscribe. Got it. And so I'm reading this book, I'm in the bath and I'm reading and it says, you know, as Chris Voss said on this podcast interview, I'm like, this sounds really familiar. I've read a lot that Chris has said. And then I go, this sounds very familiar. And I had to go to my transcript to confirm that this was from my interview with Chris and I'm a hot head and I move too fast. And so I immediately made his contact information very accessible. So I have his contact information. I shoot off an email. And it wasn't nasty.

Rob Fitzpatrick:

No, no, no.

Anna David:

It was subtly nasty. Somebody who reports to support other writers, why would you not credit me? And then I called Joe and I'm like, you're not gonna believe this, this book you've been recommending. And he goes, oh my God, I didn't see that. What page is it on? I looked to the bottom of the page and there, I saw a footnote that says, this is from Anna David's brilliant interview with Chris Voss. So I panicked. To my chagrin, I sent another email and then I spent two days going, oh my God, I'm not gonna hear from this guy, I feel so bad. And then you wrote me this very kind email. So thank you so much for saying thank you for being here.

Rob Fitzpatrick:

So I feel like email is just like, I feel like half the time I'm using email, I'm like walking through some sort of, you know, mind field of potential mistakes or actual mistakes that I'm making. I don't know, whatever. And then there's all this pressure to be efficient with the email. Right. And it's like, you want to get it done so you can get back to your writing or get back to your business. But then it's like, I don't know, whatever I get it, I've done way sillier things. But then also when I saw your first message, I was worried because when I do references, I like to leave them in the main body text, but my editor really likes to move them down to footnotes. And when things are going back and forth between writer and editor, it's like, that's a very easy, like copy paste thing for it to just disappear. And so at first I was like, oh man, did I like clip out the credits somewhere in there, but you know, whatever. Anyway, here we are. So what is on your mind? Let's talk about books.

Anna David:

Yeah. So I got so much, you know, and I've written eight books and I published dozens more and there are things in this book that had not occurred to me or I had never implemented. So I wanna talk, well, how would you talk about what is in this book?

Rob Fitzpatrick:

The biggest thing is to, so this is not about all books. I think one of the confusing things about the book in the publishing market is that there's a lot of products that all look like books, but there's actually multiple product categories there. And they play by very different rules for, for marketing, for pricing, for positioning. And I don't know the stats, but it's something like 90% fiction, 10% nonfiction. And then even within fiction, a lot of that is stuff like biography or historical or like narrative nonfiction. And so I'm just making up a number here, but say like more than 90% is like fiction or narrative nonfiction. And so of course, the advice that we hear when people talk about books and writing, it's gonna be about that big majority. And for a lot of books, stuff, like I call them problem solvers or useful books, but the idea is people pick them up, not because they want a fun story or to be entertained, they pick them up because they're like, man, I'm trying to hire people to work in my cafe. And I keep having to fire them because like something's going wrong, or they're saying like, hey, I want to switch from my job to freelancing, but I don't know how to do that safely.

These can be prescriptive nonfiction, like the how-tos and the skill building, but it can go broader. Like people pick up a philosophy book because they're stressed out. Like they're like, “Oh, I'm stressed. I can't deal with work right now.” So they pick up something about stoicism or whatever. So that's like a moment in their life where they have a problem and they're looking for a solution and the solution happens to be book shaped, but they could go to other places as well. They could go to a friend, a psychiatrist, they could, you know, watch a movie. They could go buy some tech product or app or whatever. Anyway, those books behave completely differently from what I call pleasure givers, which is like narrative nonfiction and fiction. And I think you build these like problem solvers much more like you would build a traditional tech product, like technology product or a service business where you go, you don't start from the artist mindset. You start from, well, first there's the belief that you have something to say, of course you're like, I think I have something to say that's valuable to the world. They're valuable to some slice of people.

But after that, it's like you don't go into the tank and write beautiful words for six months. What you do is you go try to find one of those people and try to help them, try to see if the knowledge that's in your head can actually deliver the results you're talking about. Like the example I love to use is chess books. Because like you can really quantify this. In theory, every time I read a book about chess, I should see if the book were, I should see my rating go up, but it never does. So that's clearly, somehow like I know the author is much better at chess than me. I know I'm spending the time and studying seriously, but somehow their knowledge isn't getting from their head to the book, to my head, I'm not able to do it. And people don't recommend this type of book, unless it actually works for them. Like when it has to let you see something differently, do something differently, feel something differently. And it's like ideally quickly. Cause like when you got the recommendation from Joe, he's like, oh wow, I'm gonna do something different with my book. It's like, that's the moment where the value clicks. And so then you can reverse engineer that if you're familiar with website funnels, you're basically like, okay, landing page, sign up flow, payment page.

Like at each of those, you're gonna lose a percentage of your readers. I think the same is true for every page in your book or every chapter in your book. So when you're doing your beta reading, you're not trying to say, “Please get to the end and give me feedback.” You're trying to say “Here it is, I don't care. I'm just gonna watch you.” And then you're like, “Wow, everyone's giving up in chapter three. What's going on around there?” And then you can sort of debug it because you need people to get far enough through the book to receive the value and you need that value to be able to apply to their life. And then their life needs to have a place where they care enough about the issue, right? So this is all the same like customer research stuff that you do for any other technology product or business. It's just that people don't do it for books. Not because they don't know how, but because they're thinking of it as a novel, which isn't true for most of these business books or, or skill building books or personal branding books or anything like this. Sorry, that was like an hour long answer to a very simple question.

Anna David:

The only problem is I had about 65 thoughts and I will forget 64 of them. First of all, I never knew that statistic about 10% being nonfiction. It's interesting because in my first book I made a novel and I always felt like it would've been more successful as nonfiction, and in a way it's like the riches are in the niches idea. It probably would have been. Who knows?

Rob Fitzpatrick:

And it's also possible that I'm completely flubbing that stat. And also I found that book industry stats are so hard to pin down also because you get like one set of compelling looking stats and it's like only America only traditionally published. Then you get another one and it's like global, but only this segment it's like it's actually pretty, I don't know. I guess that's why we need people like you to keep us on the straight and narrow

Anna David:

And people like you who are doing quantifiable research because you know, coming from traditional publishing, they don't tell you anything. And even book scans, which is too expensive for most people to, you know, have an account for, isn't reliable. It's all chaos, which is why this is so important. So, so, but I think we can definitely agree that there's more fiction than nonfiction. And there's more advice about writing fiction than nonfiction.

Rob Fitzpatrick:

Yeah. That latter bit is a million percent. And it's so aspirational the idea of going away and just being an artist for a year or two, and like coming out with this masterpiece, there's something so compelling about that. And to say like, no, you should go get beta reader feedback while it's still kind of weird. And like even before then you should probably try teaching what you're gonna be writing about to a real live person, you know, and then check in with them a week later and see if they've actually done anything with it. Because another common mistake is books that feel great to read at the moment. You're like, oh, it's so smart. It's so cool. It's so clever. And then you, you check in with your reader two weeks later and you go, hey, you try any of this stuff. They go, I did not. It's like, whoa, okay. I mean, that's clearly my fault as an author because I failed to make the next steps clear or compelling or they go, yeah, I tried it. I kind of got stuck on this. So I gave up and you go, oh yeah, that's my fault as an author. And I see a lot of authors pushing the burden of success onto the readers, where they go, come on, pay more attention, work harder, study harder. It's all in there. And it's like, yeah, you can do that. You're morally justified to do that, but your book's not gonna succeed. Like it's gotta work for the readers.

Anna David:

So interesting. So, here's what I found most interesting. I am somebody who definitely makes a great effort for me and all my authors that I publish to have advanced reader teams, which is very different from a beta reader. An advanced Reader.

Rob Fitzpatrick:

How would you describe the key difference or how do you use them differently?

Anna David:

They're not giving feedback on the context.

Rob Fitzpatrick:

They're just saying yes, no thumbs up thumbs down like gladiatorial arena?

Anna David:

Thumbs up because we are saying, here's the book ahead of time. You are a fan of this author and you will review it. And you know, you don't have to review it positively, but, but like they do. And what that does is, you know, it often makes it number one in multiple categories and all of these things, but, but subscribing to your philosophy, if those beta readers are not reviewing the book, it doesn't matter. I'm putting words in your mouth because the book is so good and so useful that it will attract those from people who do not know the author. Would you say that's true?

Rob Fitzpatrick:

Yeah. So my, my whole view, so I was looking at books, right? And the problem with books as a product category is that they are low cost, you don't have a lot of pricing power. Like if your book is worth $3,000 to someone's life, you don't have to charge $3,000, like right. You have to charge book prices. So it's low cost. It's undifferentiated. There's a ton of supply. There's like a million new titles per year. There's, it's a very difficult industry for a lot of reasons. And you have no customer relationship because Amazon arbitrage is that away from you. And so you're trading either customer relationships or scale. It's like, it's got all these terrible business model dynamics. And so I'm looking at that and I'm like, how do books succeed? And the methods I saw were like somehow creating and riding a PR wave. And I looked at this where you like, you catch the moment. This happened with Sheryl Sandberg with Lean In where she and the business and the book it was like, and she had the skill and the team to sort of like build, build, build, and ride that wave.

And I was like, I'm not gonna do that, I don't think I could. And even if I could, I still would be pretty miserable. And then a second way is the big author platform. The problem for me with the author platform. So author platforms clearly work. You should definitely build an author platform, but for me, the problem is my interest changes. And as soon as I've written a book about a topic, I never want to think about that topic again, because I'm like, I wanted to figure it out now. I figured it out. I'm done with it. And so for me, how do you build an author platform when you keep like my books have been about startups, education, design, and nonfiction. There's like one person out there who likes all three, but it is pretty uncommon. So that made the author platform hard for me. And I don't want a blog just to keep an audience going. I wanna blog about stuff I really am excited about. Then I'm like, okay, how can you do it just with the book? And so I had this theory originally about it as recommendations through teachers, which was kind of like the thesis of The Mom Test.

My book about startups was that it would be given out by startup mentors and startup advisors. And they'd be like, I don't wanna have to explain this to you read this book instead. And it was like one super, super niche problem, basically sales for technical introverts. And it turned out that that recommendation like concept or hypothesis worked, but it worked a lot more broadly. And so it was just going from reader to reader, to reader and it's called The Mom Test and the covers are bright pink, because I didn't think that anyone would ever discover it organically. I thought it would be a hundred percent word of mouth. And so I was like, it doesn't matter what it's called as long as it's kind of like a metaphor I used about moms giving unconditional love and like unconditional support. So the idea is they're very biased in a positive way. So it's like anyway which many customers are also, and your review reader, right? Everyone goes, thumbs up, thumbs up. So it's like, how do you navigate around that unconditional support?

So it turned out to be true and more generalizable. And so then I did that much more intentionally with my second book and then the third book. And yeah, it works, but it's hard, but you see the early signals in like beta reading. So what I look for is during beta reading, I wanna see, I keep iterating. So I usually start at like second or third draft for at least like part of the book. So it's coherent, but not beautiful. And I'm looking for where people give up. I'm looking for where they get confused. We build this software, help this book where they're just confused, boring, slow, useful, whatever. So that gives more of a volume of feedback. And it's a little bit of a big picture. We make it really hard to tell us about typos, because we don't want typos. And at that stage, right, you deal with typos later. And then I wanna see that most people are mostly getting to the end and I really love to see when they email me a week later, I email them, they go, hey, I use this. This is what happened. Like I used this idea, let me do this.

Sometimes I'll adopt a couple readers, like adopt in air quotes where I'll say like, Hey, you seem to really care about this. Like I want to be your free coach and just like to help you really develop this skill. And so then that's like a super reader who I know is willing to invest the time and really try to apply the books I ideas and, and I become their free coach. And often those case studies end up back in the book, like for my workshop book, we took a couple people and got them from like, not being able to charge for workshops, to being able to charge about 2000 pounds, $3,000 a day. And we just trained them up through that and we're like, okay, we've, we've done it with those people. Fine. And then the others were like the gentler beta reader experience. It's like combining all these different types of feedback. And you should know well before publication, if your book is gonna succeed or not. And I actually wrote five other manuscripts that I threw away at various stages through the writing process, because I realized that they were going to fail as products.

Because I wasn't getting the pre-launch signals that I needed from beta readers. And I thought, why launch a book that has no recommendation or why launch a book that people aren't able to apply to their work in their lives? Like that's just a waste of everyone's time. So I just threw those away and on hand that seems like a lot of wasted work. But on the other hand, it's way better to find it out early than in your Amazon reviews. Right?

Anna David:

Well, as somebody who's written many books that have been ignored, I find it sounds very useful. One thing I wanted to do, you said this early on in that answer, why wouldn't you have a title and cover that could also attract people who haven't had it recommended to them? There's no reason not to.

Rob Fitzpatrick:

Yeah. And I've now come around to that way of thinking. And I completely agree with you now. That was just a case of like, I did something weird and random for my first book and like, I kind of got lucky. That book sold a hundred thousand copies now and it's taught at all the major universities, like Harvard, MIT, everywhere. And it's still goofy, but apparently professors like it because it's goofy. Like it takes two hours to read. Students don't mind it, there's nothing academic. It's like silly stories, silly examples, just a little bit tongue in cheek. And they're like, wow, a business book. And, but it also works like you can't be just goofy. Like I've read some books that are just like, the author thinks they're supposed to be a clown and it's like, no, no, no, you're supposed to deliver something useful first. But then, you know, if you can also wrap a little bit of, you know, make it easier, make it more pleasant, less of a bonus. But yeah, so I think writing useful books or the workshop survival guide are much better titles than The Mom Test overall. And also The Mom Test has a really suboptimal cover cause like most people will see your book on Amazon as a little thumbnail, like 200 pixels or something. Yeah. It's not legible what The Mom Test is about or what it is. It honestly has zero organic discovery, but the recommendation loop is strong enough. Whereas with the newer books I try to do both.

Anna David:

You could change the cover.

Rob Fitzpatrick:

Definitely, definitely.

Anna David:

It's working. So, you know, find the next.

Rob Fitzpatrick:

And yeah, it's another case where I, I just like once I finish it, I'm just like, I don't wanna think about that anymore. I will do it. It's been 10 years now. And I'm planning to do like a 10 year updated edition, because a lot has changed in the last 10 years with how these tasks are done. But like the whole reason I got into writing was to pull on threads I was curious about, so at a certain point it's like, yeah, I want it to work. And when the books first come out, it's not like you can do zero marketing. So I call it seed marketing. Because if you haven't planted a seed audience, who's gonna recommend it? And for me with the first book, I drew an arbitrary line in the sand and I said like, I'm gonna try to get it to at least 500 people. I ended up getting it to 800 and then I was like, okay, now the book will either succeed or fail on its own merits with useful books. We've also got software and the authors community and some other stuff on top of it. So we've continued to market that.

And so that we just kept going and that was growing about, I don't know, 12 times faster than The Mom Test did. So I'd expect that it, you know, has a good future. And it's been nine months. Normally books peak within the three months. And that's about like three months is about where you can see if they're gonna become back catalog relevant and evergreen, or if they're gonna fade, because they were only getting sold off the author platform in the PR. So I tend to ignore the analytics for the first three months. And then I'm like, you know, and it's six months. I'm like, okay, it's working in the back catalog. It's working with the recommendation loop and yeah, now it seems like that one is.

Anna David:

Where do you sell besides Amazon?

Rob Fitzpatrick:

We do all the normal, like I don't think we're very optimal on this. We do like Ingram Spark or Draft 2 Digital for the broader kind of non Amazon bookstore distribution. I'm looking seriously into offering stuff through Lulu Press and Shopify. Maybe not exclusively because I get a lot of uplift from the Amazon flywheel. The argument for doing, I mean, I know you know, all this, but like it's like how valuable is the reader's relationship to you? And if you have more of a business on top of the book, then it makes sense to sacrifice Amazon scale, to get, you know, more people's emails because then you can build a relationship and deliver value. We don't have that much. For like my first two books, the book was the business. Now the book is like the third book's like part of a business. So it might make more sense to worry about those things. But that's why we have the community. Like people who read the books, some of them join the community. Some of them use the software. I try not to be too heavy handed with the promotion, but it's like, it's always touchy. And occasionally someone sends me a mean email and goes, oh, it's this whole book's just an ad. And it's like, well, you know, I gotta talk about what I know.

Anna David:

So, how do you find beta readers?

Rob Fitzpatrick:

The earliest readers. So one approach I like to use is I see people stop themselves because they're thinking too high scale too soon. So I normally end up with a few hundred beta readers, but they start one at a time. So what I did for my fourth book, which I'm working on now, was like, oh, I hate this draft. Like, this is not good. I'm not happy with this. I have no idea. I had massive imposter syndrome block because I was trying to like, I'm trying to learn about community and I still haven't figured it out at all, but I was basically like documenting what I was learning as I went. So it was different. Because it wasn't something I knew how to do. It's something I'm currently trying to learn how to do. So I was like I don't wanna send this out. It's like, I'm so uncertain about all this. I was like, but I need the feedback. Otherwise I gotta waste two years, you know, being in mad scientist writer mode. So I said, okay, for the next two weeks, I'm going to invite one person per day manually through email.

That was it. So each day I would wake up and I'd go like, okay, what's one person who I can think of who this is relevant to. And I sent them a personal note and often it was really nice because it was an excuse to catch up with people in my broader network who I hadn't caught up with in a while. It's like, hey, I remember a couple years ago you said something about this. It's like I'm working on this thing, no pressure, but if it's relevant. And out of those first I did that for two weeks. So that was 14. Out of those first 14. I think about four or five people I usually see about a 25% conversion between the people who say they want to and should want to versus the people who actually do because you know, reading a book takes forever.

Anna David:

That's a high conversion rate usually. Right?

Rob Fitzpatrick:

Yeah. And this is when I'm very targeted. This is like 2400% after they've told me they want to. So that was like the first four or five who kind of read through everything. And I think at that point I only had the first 6,000 words down. I got this idea from Marty Kagan. He said that you should take the books that are the most important, most risky, core thesis. Just write that 6,000 words, 10,000 words, start beta reading on that. Start getting expert reviews on that because if the core thesis doesn't hold people's attention and doesn't hold up to their scrutiny, the rest of the book, which is about more standard stuff is, you know, is, you know, start with the risky bit. So I tried that, that was really fun. The responses from that first group made me a little bit more confident that like actually there's something here. So, you know, I rewrote that, it grew to 10,000 words or 12,000 words. And at that point, what I started doing is making little YouTube videos where I would basically, and I only started doing the YouTube stuff recently. I was basically just responding to reader comments.

So whenever a reader asks me a question by email, instead of responding through email, I'd just like to go to Loom or Script or whatever, record a five minute video answer and send it out. So for me it was the same time cost and I ended up with like, you know, it's starting, it's at a couple thousand people now. And that's like an effort I was already gonna be making. So I started basically answering beta reader confusions as videos where I'd be like, Hey, like I was trying to say this and I'd have like the manuscript open with the highlight where they're like confused. And I'd basically just like to talk through and improvise it for a minute or two. Or I might do little stuff on Twitter. It's like, Hey, you know, big, thanks. [inaudible] cause these momentum launches where you use the story of the book's own progress as the story. So you go like, hey, I got my first a hundred comments or a hundred feedback things from these first like five amazing readers. Here are the big things I learned. You can be very self-referential and it's like, for me it helps me think.

And it's also an excuse to put stuff out there. Basically from there it basically snowballed and this current one, I honestly don't even know what I'm gonna do with it because I'm so overwhelmed and there's so much work that needs to be done, but it's also got so much momentum. I've never seen such early recommendation loops as a beta stage draft. Cause I think I probably only invited after that I did a bulk invite to another 20 people who told me they wanted it. But somehow like over a hundred people have now shown up and left comments and I haven't sent it to anyone else. So that's clearly just like a reader sending it to readers, which is very encouraging. But I like it, because I leave it public by default, which is also a weird choice. So it's up there. You can just go grab it. People can send it. I have like, there's no account system, there's no login, there's no protections. And I'm like, hey, help me out with some feedback. But here it is.

Anna David:

I mean, I'm so not precious about it. It's like, if you wanna steal this idea, you're not gonna write it as well as I will.

Rob Fitzpatrick:

And if they do, honestly, I will be happy because then I could just read theirs instead of having to do all the hard work of figuring it out.

Anna David:

Is it Google Doc? Is that what you do it on?

Rob Fitzpatrick:

I use Google Doc for workshops of survival guides and then now we have a thing called helpthisbook.com that we kind of built and it's basically it's like Google Doc with less features or fewer features. But the biggest change is that it doesn't give people an open comment field. It gives them these four reactions like confusing, slow, love, this useful. And we found, it gives about 10 times as much feedback. We did some quantitative tests where you get about like 10 times more overall comments, because they're not required to figure out what to say, and even more importantly, you get way more big picture, negative comments. Like the confusing and the slow are super difficult to get off a Google Doc because if people have to type that into a blank text field, they feel like they're being mean. And they don't like to do that. And by giving them a button and what I like to do is go into my own manuscripts and add a couple negative comments toward the beginning. It's like, eh, I don't get what you're talking about here. You're a crazy person. And then people are like, oh, we're supposed to say that. And you know, it's like a lot of it is like priming, and making people feel comfortable.

Anna David:

So question. Okay. So then do those people eventually tend to review the book? Probably.

Rob Fitzpatrick:

I don't know what the conversion percentage is, but I will say that all of my early reviews for WUB came from beta readers and what I did also with WUB. So I was writing useful books. The one you read there's like a spectrum because you wanna start your marketing before launch ideally. Right? Cause you wanna launch with those early 20, 40 reviews, the editorial reviews, etcetera. So I was doing, I'd done presales before, but I wanted to do a, like a pure early access. And at a certain point I started with free beta reading because it's like, hey, I don't know if this book works yet. And I also dunno if I'm gonna finish it. And I really value the ability to quit. I once pre-sold a book too early, before I'd figured out the hard parts and I ended up canceling it, which was very stressful for me. Cause I couldn't figure out how to make the book work well enough.

And then it's like a bunch of apologetic emails and refunds and all that. And so this time I feel now it's like, I don't want to start charging money until the finish line's in sight. Could be six months away, but the risky stuff's done and then I switched from free beta reading to $24 flat, early access, which included the reader's community access to the ongoing beta draft and the finished book when it was ready. So that was like a one time price. And we still got about a hundred of those early supporters in the authors community. And then as we switched onto the like pre-order launch stage we broke apart the book and the community and the community became a 20 dollar a month, 30 dollar a month thing, you know, just for that, because we're like, hey, we got a hundred great nonfiction authors here. Like we think this is a good little group now. And so now that's.

Anna David:

I'm sorry. I'm gonna I'm I have to interrupt you because I don't think you take breaths. Useful things. Sorry, just to clarify, they're paying to be your beta readers essentially?

Rob Fitzpatrick:

Yeah. So WUB got about, I wanna say $10,000 ahead of time from these like the early community memberships and they were also the most enthusiastic beta readers and some of them were reading multiple versions. Some of them didn't, some of them read one, but that's where all my reviews came from. And then it was really useful for me also because they were what I did in my early community onboarding. And this was just like me being apologetic. Cause I didn't know how to build a community yet. So the first thing I had them do is like, whenever they join I'm like, Hey, just like here's Calendly setting up a one-on-one call with me. And so then people were paying and subscribing, and then basically booking a reader learning call with me and we just talked about their book. Hey, what are you stuck on? What are you thinking about? What worries you? What scares you? And that was while the beta reading was still happening. The final stages, which allowed me to catch a bunch of these extra hidden objections and work them into the book. Not everything of course, like some people still don't like it or feel like I miss stuff, but that all helped. And then we've kept that community running. So that's now also a few thousand a month, you know, a little part of our business is this like the readers community.

Anna David:

And so they're readers. They are not writers themselves or some.

Rob Fitzpatrick:

Sorry. Well my readers are authors, but it's like it's basically people who are trying to follow the right useful books, like an iterative, data driven approach to nonfiction.

Anna David:

Does your software that you guys have on your website does that help set that up? And how much does that cost?

Rob Fitzpatrick:

So that right now, we will separate them eventually. But right now it's just one subscription. So you get the authors community and the software and some people join for one and they don't care about the other and they just use one piece. But it is like 20 or 30 bucks and you get both. And yeah, it's all off usefulbooks.com if anyone's curious.

Anna David:

So could somebody, the idea is that it's a monthly subscription that you hold onto for your multiple books. Like you don't do it just for one book?

Rob Fitzpatrick:

Well, that was what I was originally thinking. And because I kind of expected a lot of people to want help from the community when they're figuring out things like the table of contents, the promise, the recommendation loop, all this kinda like early stage planning. And then as they transition into beta reading, there's another point where they want to, it's like a weird new experience. How do I do this safely and properly? And then there's some tactical marketing stuff that comes at the end. So there's like these three little spikes and toward the beginning, there's also building the writing habit because not everyone has it. So we do some stuff like it's easier to make the time to focus and to not be interrupted if there's other people on a zoom call with you.

Anna David:

But I have a question. So wait, so they are each other's beta readers as well?

Rob Fitzpatrick:

Not always. We don't promise that because.

Anna David:

They may not be interested.

Rob Fitzpatrick:

Exactly. It definitely does happen. It depends a lot on the topic, but we don't guarantee any sort of, we don't do review swapping or beta reader swaps it, it happens occasionally organically, but it's not really the point, the points like what you would get from an entrepreneurship group where it's like, am I building this product in the right way? And by using the data properly, am I going too slow? Am I focusing on the wrong thing? So it's all these, we actually don't. We don't talk about the writing itself very often, apart from making the time and doing the work. Almost everything is around the product or the business side.

Anna David:

Right. Okay. So I had decided on doing a new book. I try to do, you know, sort of one a year, which is probably too much.

Rob Fitzpatrick:

That's a lot.

Anna David:

It's a lot if you're gonna use yours, I have never been tactical about it. The most tactical I got was with Make Your Mess Your Memoir, which was my book about writing it. But so I had decided this is also very meta. I wanted to make a book of the best podcast interviews because it's just a wealth of information for people.

Rob Fitzpatrick:

Yeah, absolutely.

Anna David:

And so I reached out to, I went through hundreds of interviews and I reached out to about 20 and you know, said, “Can I use this?” And they all said yes. And then I've been playing around with, how am I gonna do this structure? Because a book of interviews is not gonna be interesting. That's not gonna be compelling because it's not gonna be something you can apply. It's like, oh so. So then I'm like, oh, and somebody just told me, I had, I've never read Neil Strauss's book about where he took his podcast interview. I know Tim Ferriss did that. Anyway, and so I said, last week, I said, “I'm gonna start doing the Rob thing.” And I put a thing on LinkedIn, but it was totally perfunctory because I don't really do this yet. So I just basically wanted to see if it would get anything. I was like, I'm doing this book as a podcast. What do y'all think? And I got some responses, but is something like what I'm talking about doing, could you even do this system when the content already exists?

Rob Fitzpatrick:

Yes, definitely. So interviews, I agree, are a tricky format. There's a few that have become like real back catalog classics. There's one in the, or maybe two in the finance industry called Market Wizards, which sold a bajillion copies. And it's kind of, it's the book that everyone gets on their first day on the job. It's like the first day on the job, you gotta read this book. And it's interesting because it's an interview. Right. and that is not a normal type of book you would give out. But it works because in the finance industry, there's so many different worldviews and so many different approaches. You get a situation where there's no canonical correct answer. And so it's really valuable to hear the approach of different people who are equally smart, all wrestling with the same problem in different ways. That's a place where the interview format to me at least feels very natural. Because you want ambiguity, like you want multiple perspectives. It benefits from those different voices.

In others I've read other books where I felt like the interviews were less necessary because I'm like, there is an answer. Like I would prefer that someone just gave me the answer. It's like, it almost felt like the book hadn't been finished. Cause I hadn't been brought from that just depends on the topic. And then some people organize, they split all the interviews apart and they organize them by topic or goal or problem or outcome, other people leave it person by person. I have no idea what's best. I've never done that, but I will say super fun type of book to create, I'm sure. And it gives you an excuse to talk to a load of really smart people and to dive deeper into what they're saying and what they're doing. So in terms of a relationship building door opening, like, you know, something that you can give to clients and businesses. Like I love it for all those purposes. I don't see any big downside there.

Anna David:

Because what you said made me feel good because I think that what's interesting about these interviews is everybody's got a different tactic and a different opinion. I'm sure I have had guests that would say what you're saying does make sense or whatever it is. So possibly when you say that sounds like a really fun book to put together. I do not think so. I think it would be the most fun to put together if it could just be a series of interviews. I think it sounds like a puzzle piece that I would not enjoy. And we have a client who wants to do a book like this as well. So that's why I'm very, I have always wanted to try something myself and make sure it works and then we can move forward.

Rob Fitzpatrick:

I could imagine in some cases this would be very specific to the, what was said in the interviews, but I could imagine adding the tactical layer on top of them where it's like at the end of it, there's like some of them have worksheets or some of them have the next steps or some of them have like the extension into how this works as a business model or as a larger philosophical approach. Like, you know, if you put one layer on top of the interviews maybe that's enough because there's also, there's a funny dynamic in nonfiction books where if the nonfiction book gives tools to consult and teachers essentially they don't recommend it to five people. They recommend it to 5,000 and you're essentially giving them a way to build an edge because they're not coming up with these frameworks. But they're, they're hungry. If you can say here's a new framework or here's a new tool or here's a new, nice clean 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 concept you can use in your sessions.

And then they take, and they see that really aggressively for you. If they can wrap a compelling workshop or a consulting session around it. Yeah. That's something I would think about if I was writing my first book, the business book now, because we got a bit of that uplift organically. Like they teach in lots of places, but it's slower than it should be because each of those teachers is required to figure out their own lesson. And if I could give them a lesson in a box that was just in the book or a couple lessons for different situations, it spreads much, much faster. Because then for them it's like, yeah, I just saved planning three classes and I'm sure you know, how long that stuff takes

Anna David:

And yeah, they're overworked and underpaid. So let's do it for them. How did you get it? Did it truly organically just get into schools? You did nothing to make that happen?

Rob Fitzpatrick:

I had one of the beta readers from, and maybe even stronger than beta readers, let's say early supporters was a professor at ATCL university college, London, and it's like a top five university, really good entrepreneurship program. And they just started using it one day. But what I think made them feel comfortable to do that is that I did my seed marketing through that book through high profile, but small and very niche industry events. So the first one I did was for startup mentors, not startup founders, but the people who mentor our startup founders. And I believe I gave, I was given three minutes, I believe to explain what the book was about. So I went up on stage and I'm like, ah, it's a pink book. Get it. It's there, there's a big pile of them on the pool table. And you know, I gave like one quick lesson. Most of those people didn't read the books, but they started giving them away. Cause I'm like, oh I think this should be good for you. Or I think this because they had one and they're like, I don't need it. And I think the fact that that conference I made no money from that.

They just paid printing costs, but it meant that 500 startup mentors had a copy of this book and it was kind of like that, and that was all in London. And so it was like critical mass suddenly with this, this subgroup within one city. And so the first university that picked it up was also in London. And I would imagine that that's the way it had to be. Because they had to see a few people who were credible. A lot of the risk for universities is essentially a reputational downside. And if you can make that feel a little bit safer and then the other risk is the time and then the money's solvable. Like me, I still have universities, they just email me and I'm like, I'll make you an invoice. And they buy copies. And if they buy more than about 250 copies at a time, I'll put their logo on them, and that's it. And, some of them buy from Amazon, which is crazy to me. I'm like, I'll sell it to you so much cheaper if you just email me, but you know.

Anna David:

You just use a printer?

Rob Fitzpatrick:

No, we're using Ingram Spark for everything, which is great for all of our bulk orders. So we pay the $50 setup fee. And that's why we have the volume requirements on the custom branded cover. Because every time you rebrand it, you just pay the $50 again.

Anna David:

Do you know about Book Pal?

Rob Fitzpatrick:

Book Pal? I don't. No. Is it good?

Anna David:

It's just way less expensive for bulk orders. I can connect with you. So this has been so fantastic. I'm really super excited about my book now. And I'm gonna get at your software and join your group. I think it sounds amazing. And may I include this interview in that book?

Rob Fitzpatrick:

Please, if you think there's anything useful in here, I would be honored.

Anna David:

Yes. I mean you guys heard it here. So if he backs out, I now have many witnesses. So what would you like to leave the listeners with? What's your one bit of advice? You guys just, you should all go get this book. Well, I mean, whatever, if you're a fiction writer, I don't know why you'd listen to this podcast. So I really truly do think you all should go get it. What would you say Rob?

Rob Fitzpatrick:

So the URL is usefulbooks.com and you can find the software, the community and the book, they're all there. But the thing I would say is that, closing advice or whatever, is that books are way too big of a project to go into it cynically. And it's very wasteful to get halfway into a book and then realize you don't care. And that you're either gonna half ask it to the finish line or you're gonna give up. Because like there's value at every stage, right? You want people to want what is promised on the cover? I say DEEP, like desirable, effective, engaging, polished, and you want to get the most in that order. So do people want it? Will they read it far enough to get the value out of it? Does it work for them? That's the effect of engaging and then the polish is the stuff at the end, right? Polished and professional and pretty. And people always skip the most important stuff when they're in a rush, they skip spending the time with the readers and they skip getting the reader feedback because that's the bit that's stretchy. That's like the slinky in the middle. And for some of my books that's been quick because the early versions were like, oh I was pretty close to correct. And others are like, wow, we are so far away from correct. And it takes a bunch of iterations. And when people are in a rush, they just don't wanna spend the time there. So they basically go like well they want it, let's make it polished. And they're missing the effectiveness and engagement that's supposed to be in the middle. It's like the sandwich is an important bit in the sandwich. So, don't go into it cynically.

Anna David:

Doing research is not sexy. It's not.

Rob Fitzpatrick:

Yeah. And it's emotionally hard too. You know, you open up your dashboard and there's like 500 comments telling you how dumb you are. It's like, okay. One of the things I do is, well, one I'm also ADHD. So we have a ton of trouble with motivation unless we're like really motivated. So I'm very choosy about the book topics I choose. It's like, is this something I will be excited to spend the next year or two thinking about? That's my main thinking task. Do I care enough about these readers? Do I enjoy hanging out with them? I'm gonna enjoy having the conversations and learning about their lives and frustrations. And then there's some market viability and stuff that just on top of that. But yeah, I mean, if you're curious about it and if you're going to enjoy serving the readers, then there's really no downside. Right. All the downside comes from going into it cynically.

Anna David:

Love it. I love it. Well Rob, thank you so much. You guys thank you for listening. I will talk to you next week and please just go follow everything Rob does. Bye guys.


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