How Tucker Max Got Rejected by Publishing and Still Hit #1 New York Times
I first met Tim when he came to my SXSW presentation (about turning a blog into a book) to pick my brain about what had worked for me. I explained to him everything I did, and he loved the advice so much he bought me a coffee. Thanks, big spender.
[Tim: my very first encounter with Tucker is captured here on film. And, Tucker, you're most welcome.]
We stayed in touch, and Tim called me up the other day and asked me to write a post for his blog that would outline to his readers all the things I explained to him years ago at SXSW. I told Tim that there was no need for a long post; in fact, my success could be explained in a Tweet: “Because Tucker is really fucking awesome.”
Tim politely laughed, took a deep breath, and explained to me–in the least ego-crushing way possible–that that would make a crappy blog post. He asked me to dissect and analyze what I did, and then write about it in a way his readers could utilize for their own writing.
I still think my awesomeness plays the key role in my success, but since my second book (Assholes Finish First) is coming out and I like lots of people to know this fact, I agreed to do this post.
Why I’m Qualified to Write This Post:
Tim told me to start with some background, so readers could understand the basis of my expertise. I told Tim that if they didn’t already know who I was, they were beyond my help. He was silent until I agreed to lay out my qualifications:
-Early 2002: Tried to get my book, I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell, published. Sent the core stories from the book to every publisher, literary agent, magazine and newspaper in the country. At least 500 query letters, maybe closer to 1000. I was rejected by 100% of them. Literally every single one, without exception.
-Late 2002: With no other option, I learned HTML and put my stories up on a website,TuckerMax.com.
-May 2003: The site’s popularity exploded (on the internet), and the publishers came back to me, asking to publish my book.
-January 2006: Book came out, got zero media coverage and zero advertising support, but still hit the NY Times Bestseller List immediately because of the support of the fan base I’d cultivated through my website.
-October 2009: Reached #1 on the list, more than three years after it came out.
-Current day: Been on NY Times Best Seller List every year since it came out, over 180 weeks total, and currently in its 150th consecutive week. Sold over 1.5 million copies (and counting), and translated into 15 languages.
Now you know how fancy and important I am, so on to the marketing secrets:
1. Give your content away for free, and keep it free:
I started doing this in 2002, long before the word “freemium” existed. Granted, I stumbled onto this idea by accident and had no idea what I was doing, but what I learned quickly was that giving content away works really well. It allows you to find an audience at no cost to you, and allows huge numbers of people to test your material out for no cost to them. Everyone wins.
This does NOT mean you should never make money from your content. Of course you should. If you are providing value to people, you should be able to capture some of that value back. But how will anyone know they want to buy your book or magazine or whatever until they have tried it and liked it? Not only that, but giving things away for free doesn’t indelibly stain them with worthlessness forever. Take my midget story for example; it was originally put up for free on my site, and is still there. Then published by Hustler, for which they paid handsomely. Then it was sold as part of a screenplay. And now, it’s part of my new book.
And here’s the thing about free: It’s not a short term strategy. I’ve kept some of my best stuff on my website for free going on 8 years now. That’s the coolest thing about having a bulwark of good free material out there: it passively gives people an easy and permanent way to be introduced to you and your writing. Plainly put, free is the best kind of marketing: constant, cheap, effective, and meaningful to the user.
Here are my four best free stories up on my site, the ones that have led to tens of thousands of people to buy my book [WARNING: My writing is not for everyone. I curse a lot, I am graphic in my thoughts and descriptions, and I drink to excess and just generally write about all the stupid, assholish stuff I do. You have been warned]:
1.The Famous Sushi Pants Story
3. The Midget Story
2. The Hockey Story
4. The Austin Road Trip
[Tim: This list was actually five items long, but I couldn't bring myself to include one of them. If you want the missing link, look for "Hilarity Does Not Ensue" in "The Stories" section on his site. You will lose a piece of your soul if you read it. Then again, if you want to see a post with 2,200+ Facebook likes, march onward.]
2. Make your content easily shareable:
This ties into free, but is not exactly the same thing. If you stand on a street corner handing out free books, that’s great, but even if people love them, it’s highly inefficient to share a hard copy with someone else. The beauty of digital media is that additional copies (after the first) have a zero transaction cost. This means people who like your content can easily share it with lots of other people, promoting your free content for you, especially when you make the sharing process effortless for them.
There’s millions of ways to do this, and the specific ones you want to pick will vary depending on your content. For example, one thing I did was format my stories so that they could easily be printed out and taken somewhere else to read. This worked wonders; apparently a ton of people who worked in offices couldn’t just read my stuff on the screen, but could easily print it out to read later, and hand those print out to their friends. [This is basically what newspapers do, with their “Print” button that takes you to a plain text screen with just the story, formatted to print on 8x11 paper.]
There are so many other ways to make sharing easy; free ebooks, links to social media sites, etc. Shit, you can just look at my site, or even better, copy Tim’s blog, he does everything but click the mouse for you to make it easy for you to share his content. Check out these resources on where you can get started:
* Facebook plugins (e.g. “Like” buttons, Recommendations, “Facepile”) that you can add to your site.
* Twitter widgets, including the “Tweet” button.
* Embeddable “share this” button that allows easy sharing across multiple channels (email, Facebook, Twitter, etc.)
* Delicious bookmarking badges.
3. Promote your content in places that make sense, but DO NOT spam:
I remember at the SXSW panel that Tim came and saw, when I talked about how early on I submitted my website to places like CollegeHumor and Fark and other “link dump” sites, people actually hissed at me. They tried to shame me for promoting my writing to places that ASK PEOPLE TO SUBMIT LINKS!
There is this notion that some people have that artists must toil in obscurity and never search for an audience, but wait to be discovered. Fuck that. A creator’s job is not just to make something useful; it’s also to get it to people who can use it. And if you are a writer, you’d better understand that you’re competing for attention with so much other media, you can’t afford to just sit on your ass and pray. Actively put your material in front of as many people as you can who you think will like it.
But that’s the key phrase so many people miss when making their promotional efforts, “who will like it.” I didn’t promote my writing to fundamentalist Christian sites or Mommy blogs, because it doesn’t make sense. Spam is just promoting something to someone who has no interest in it. But people love finding new things that interest them, so go out and find audiences who might like your stuff and the places where they congregate. Then interact with them not as a huckster, but in a way that potentially benefits you both: You find the audience, they find new entertainment (or information, or whatever value your writing provides).
The top 5 sites that worked for me when promoting my website (this was 2002-2004, remember):
2. Fark.com [Tim: this was true for me as well]
4. Stileproject.com (NOT suitable for work)
4. Build relationships with people who can help you, and vice versa:
This is something I’ve never been big on. Mainly because my style of writing doesn’t lend itself to this strategy, and, of course, I hate most people. But it is a strategy that can work for a lot of people, and Tim did this amazingly well prior to the release of his book.
Basically what he did was go to every conference and meet-up he could in the year or so before his book came out, made it a point to meet and befriend everyone who had an online audience that he thought might like his book–diverse groups, ranging from people like Robert Scoble to me–gave them all copies of his book, established relationships with them, and learned everything he could from them. Then when his book came out, he had all their knowledge at his disposal, and had hundreds of very influential friends who were willing to talk about it to their specific audiences, both because they thought their audience would like it, and because they liked Tim as a person.
I know a lot of you people are thinking about how you can do this online, like through email or something. That misses the point. The brilliance of Tim’s strategy was that he met these people FACE-TO-FACE and created real human bonds with them. It was something no one was doing at the time, and he did it very well.
[Tim: How did I go from Tucker's "Who the fuck are you?" to drinking with him an hour later and having lunch with him the following day? Out of 40 people lined up, why did I make the cut? Simple: I made an educated guess and used language to reflect it. Here's how it happened: I noticed Tucker had a big neck when he walked up to the panel seats. I therefore guessed he either 1) had trained in jiu-jitsu or wrestling, or 2) was a former football player who at least watched UFC. In response to "Who the fuck are you?" I answered "My name is Tim Ferriss. I'm writing my first book for Random House and used to compete as a fighter." That was the lure. Tucker responded: "What, MMA?" Bingo. "I competed mostly in wrestling and kickboxing, but I train at AKA in San Jose with Dave Camarillo. Swick, John Fitch, and a bunch of the UFC pros train there." A few minutes later, Tucker grabbed me to go drinking. Once again, it pays to know your audience, and being different is often more effective than being better.]
5. Engage your fans, but only in the ways that are authentic and provide value:
It’s quite the vogue for self-proclaimed social media experts to breathlessly inform companies they HAVE to blog and be on Facebook and be on Twitter and manage communities and all that.
Bullshit. When people ask me what social media tools they should use to promote their writing, I ask them a question in return, “Which ones do you like using? Which ones do other people like reading?” Then they look at me as if they never even considered that angle. That’s the thing that’s cool about the internet: You get to define how you interact with people, and you can pick and choose the tools and mediums that work best for you. Instead of using everything just because, you’re better off picking only the things you like, will engage in a meaningful way, and use to provide value to your readers. Ignore the rest.
I use my personal website, TuckerMax.com, I use Facebook (personal profile and fan page), and Twitter. That’s pretty much it. No LinkedIn, no YouTube, none of the myriad other ways to engage people online.
But here’s the thing: I enjoy using those sites.
I am on them a lot, and I manage them in such a way as to bring value to the people who follow me on them. Go look at my Twitter feed–there is nothing on there about what I had for breakfast or what my favorite color is. Pretty much every tweet is either informative or funny–i.e., they are entertaining, which is the added value my fans expect. Same with Facebook; it’s information about things my fans care about, or me bantering with people (and yes, that’s actually me writing everything on there, my assistant doesn’t do it. You can’t outsource funny).
6. Find the fulcrum of attention for your specific content:
When I decided to pursue writing as a career, it never occurred to me that people would find my subject matter to be controversial or incendiary. I thought they’d find it funny and entertaining, maybe a bit outlandish, but that’s it; after all, this was the same stuff all my friends were doing; I was just the dude who wrote it down.
Well, that’s not the way it played out. I have become an extremely polarizing, controversial figure in media. But instead of running from this, or trying to redirect it, I decided to embrace it. There are even times I played it up to some extent. Why would I do this? Why would I court negative attention in a way that most people try so hard to avoid?
Because it made sense with who I was as a person and a writer, and quite frankly, this was the pretty much the only avenue through which I was going to get mainstream attention, so I took it. Without that negative attention, there would be zero attention, and in a digital media world, attention is the main scarcity you are fighting for.
Now, I would NOT recommend my specific path for most people, simply because it doesn’t make sense for them. If you’re writing about knitting, courting negative attention is a ridiculous strategy. But what might make sense for knitting would be a strategy to write about or engage the topic in a new or novel way, something that the knitting world has never seen (I have no clue what that would be).
The general lesson is that you need to find the fulcrum of attention for your specific writing, and then use it to leverage yourself attention that you can turn into new readers. If you’re unsure how to do this, ask yourself, “What is interesting or engaging about my writing to other people? What about my writing are people responding to? How can I use that to get more attention?”
7. Permission marketing:
This is a phrase invented by Seth Godin (the god of 21st century marketing, I recommend you read his books and blog), but what it basically means is that you don’t carpet-bomb everyone with your ads; you actually ask your fans for permission to tell them about the things you are doing. The most obvious permission marketing tool is an email list, and I use one. I think I have about 100,000 subscribers to mine, and it works great, because I only send out something like two emails a year, and they are always highly relevant. I use my Facebook fan pages in the same way; people “like” them in order to get info about me and things I am doing, and I only post when it’s highly relevant. This is a pretty simple but powerful concept, and you can read more about it from Seth here.
And here are five of my favorite posts about either permission marketing, or similar tactics being discussed here:
Secrets of the Biggest Selling Launch Ever
1,000 True Fans [Tim: If you only read one article on marketing in your life, this is my pick.]
A User’s Guide to 21st Century Economics
So What’s All This New Marketing Stuff, Anyway?
Earning Your Media
8. Word of mouth is key:
Have you begun to see a pattern in the way I marketed my book and writing? If not, I’ll spell it out clearly: WORD OF MOUTH.
Every single piece of advice above is essentially a different way to create and facilitate word of mouth. Why that strategy? Because it’s the one that works best. Have you noticed I haven’t written one word about book reviews or magazine interviews or radio or any of that bullshit? Because for the most part, I’ve found that they don’t really matter. I can tell you from very extensive experience that my book has done so well ONLY because people who read it recommended it to other people, and they went out and bought it. Word of mouth. Nothing else.
But here’s the thing: Lasting, real word of mouth can only come from one source: Creating value.
And thus leads us to the reversal…
9. Everything you just read about effective marketing doesn’t matter…unless you have content that people like.
Everything I wrote is true, and will work, and is relatively easy to do. But Tim has written about it before, Seth Godin has written about it, Jeff Jarvis has, Gary Vaynerchuk has, etc. It’s well known, at least to people who care about this stuff. But smart marketing only explains about 10% of my success. The most important point, the thing that trumps all the rest, is this:
CREATE AMAZING AND COMPELLING CONTENT THAT PEOPLE LOVE AND VALUE. Everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, flows from that central principle.
That’s the thing; there is no secret to being a successful writer. We all know what it takes: You have to write something lots of other people want to read. Sounds obvious, right? Well, it is obvious, but it’s also difficult to do. And there definitely isn’t a shortcut. It is HARD to create compelling content. It takes work, passion, creativity, and determination.
Take someone like Maddox, whose book The Alphabet of Manliness spent four months on the best seller list. He maybe does two things I talk about above–he gives his content away and uses an email list. His best marketing is just writing another post. Or Paul Graham. He doesn’t even have an RSS feed in his blog, but people created one to get his essays, because they are that good.
People like to focus on all this other stuff for a simple reason: it’s easy to do. And probably because they assume that their writing is already great, but that no one is reading it because of some secret that they don’t know yet.
If you’ve done most everything above and still no one is reading your stuff, you need to go back and look at it. Ask yourself an honest question: Is your writing providing value to other people? If yes, you’ll find success in using the marketing tips I gave you. If no, you won’t. Plain and simple.
What I’m Doing To Promote My Second Book
I know I’m going to sound glib, but it’s truth: I’m not really doing much of anything to promote my second book. No big press push, no huge book reviews, no major TV appearances, no magazine cover profiles, none of that crap.
What I am doing is everything I discussed above. My site is still up, still with all the free stories that have always been there and I still use my Twitter, my Facebook fan pages, and my email list to promote to my fans. I will be doing a 33-city book tour, but again, that’s only being promoted through my permission assets. I am doing a little bit of local press for some of the book tour stops, but only because my publisher insisted on it; no “major” media stuff really at all.
Why not? I don’t need it. That’s a game you have to play only if you haven’t already created a loyal fan base by doing all the things I talk about above that that create value for your fans.