bestseller


 

Twenty years ago, I had the honor of being involved in a cultural phenomenon called Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. Remember that catchphrase? It came from a mega-best-selling book by relationship counselor John Gray, PhD. My boss, Susan Moldow at HarperCollins Publishers (then Harper and Row), signed up the book and as her assistant, I co-edited the manuscript with her. My contribution included a key question that John expanded upon, and insights into how women and men at the younger end of the baby boom might respond to some of his advice. I went on to co-edit or edit his next two books—What Your Mother Couldn’t Tell You and Your Father Didn’t Know and Mars and Venus in the Bedroom (about physical intimacy in male-female committed romantic relationships). Like John’s first book, they became New York Times bestsellers.

 

I well remember calling John’s agent every Thursday morning when I came into work to let her know his ranking on the USA Today bestseller list, which was new at the time. It was a thrill to see him become famous, to watch his hardcover book sell 9.5 million copies in the U.S. alone and become the bestselling American nonfiction book of the 1990s. I learned so much from John that helped me with my own success—and if you’re an aspiring author, you too can learn from him. Here are eleven lessons I draw from his book’s phenomenal success.

 

1. Indulge your curiosity. John Gray became fascinated by male-female romantic relationships after spending nearly a decade in celibacy as a monk working for the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (the fellow the Beatles took a shine to and about whom John Lennon wrote the song “Sexy Sadie”). Like many great cultural innovators, John Gray was curious—and approached the task of learning how to start and maintain a healthy relationship with a woman by adopting beginner’s mind, as they say in Buddhism. Where can your curiosity take you?

 

 

2. Research your audience as you build your platform. What John Gray learned from formal study and from doing in-person workshops with men and women helped him formulate and refine his ideas. He told me that he’d throw an idea out there in a workshop—like that men are similar to rubber bands, needing to pull away and then snap back to emotional intimacy—and read the audience’s body language. If the men smiled, nodded, and sat forward in their seats while they women’s eyes grew wide, he knew he was on to something universal. And if everyone looked blank and crossed their legs and arms, sitting back in their chairs, he knew he had to refine the idea. This is market research at its very best—you must get your ideas out there and try them out on real people.

 

3. Be true to the needs of your audience. While self-help books typically sell to women, John Gray knew how to make his book appeal to men as well, and knew that if he made it “guy friendly,” women would buy it and leave it on the nightstand or quote from it to their husbands and the guys would pick up on it and recommend it to their male friends. Sometimes when working on his books, I’d make a suggestion to John and he’d say, “But men won’t respond well to that. I have to say it in a way that won’t turn them off OR turn women off.” He insisted that his audience would want key ideas highlighted in boxes—which some readers complained about but the majority loved. He said this element echoed how he would repeat a key idea when speaking—and the audience would want it in the book, too. He’s right; they did.

 

4. Consider self-publishing first. John wrote a book called Men, Women, and Relationships to use with his workshop participants. Its success impressed book publishers who had the opportunity to buy the rights to republish it.

 

5. Come up with an amazing title. Before writing a book proposal to sell to editors via a literary agent, John Gray came up with a fantastic title—the article in USA Today on the twentieth anniversary of Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus dominating their bestseller list explains how. He had the concept right—but his self-published book had what we’d call a “working title.” He needed a memorable hook that grabbed your heart, and in this case, made you laugh in recognition. A play on words is a great way to come up with your amazing title. We’ve all heard “Men are from Mars!” It’s the “Women are from Venus” that makes you want to open up the book!

6.  Persevere at building your platform. John Gray built his platform before he wrote a book proposal and he continued building it while writing the book, while it was in production, and after it was published. He used his own advice about wooing women with roses to help him woo Oprah into putting him on her show—and she did it four times. Every time he went to a city, he went into the bookstores and introduced himself. He was a tireless self-promoter because he had a passion for his message. Platform building can never start too early, and it never ends.

 

7. Have a sense of humor and lighten up. People can get very defensive about having their problems or challenges pointed out, and often have a lot of baggage about gender stereotypes and roles. John Gray has always used humor to open people’s hearts and minds, and much of his humor is self-deprecating. Watching him do a lecture is so entertaining that he actually inspired a real off-Broadway stage show and then went to Broadway to do his own one-man show! His book also inspired the movie, What Planet Are You From? by Gary Shandling. Humor engages people and brings out their own creativity!

 

8. Don’t let others tell you you’re not an expert. Many criticized John Gray for not having a PhD from a credentialed university with brick-and-mortar presence (this was in the days before online learning). They dismissed the work he’d done trying out his ideas on real people and honing them, and couldn’t stand the fact that someone outside of mainstream academic circles had achieved success. John Gray was always completely open about his education and his training—he wouldn’t let anyone shame him into silence. Don’t let anyone shame you—trust your inner sense of knowing about how much research you need to do, and of what type, before writing a book of value for a wider audience.

 

9. Expand your brand. A book shouldn’t pigeonhole you. John’s second book, What Your Mother Couldn’t Tell You and Your Father Didn’t Know, expanded on the first by going deeper into how men and women are different and how knowing about and respecting those differences will help your relationships. His third book, Mars and Venus in the Bedroom, was about the physical intimacy piece. Later, he expanded to talking about male/female romantic, monogamous, long-term relationships in other ways—and his new book will be about the role of ADHD in these relationships. Your brand can and should expand over time.

 

10. Put yourself into your book. If you take your ego and personality out of your book and platform, you take the heart and soul out of it. John always talks openly about his return to sexuality after having been a monk, his relationship experiences, and his vulnerabilities. That’s what gives his work heart and soul. Do you have the courage to put YOU into your book?

 

11. Turn your weaknesses into strengths. A celibate monk is the last person to know about how to woo and retain a girlfriend—but John Gray made his situation into a strength by using it as a foundation for learning. Can you imagine how a woman responds to, “I have to tell you, I’ve been a celibate monk for years and I’m hoping you can teach me something about women?”! People who have dyslexia and trouble reading often are told they can’t write, but John Gray didn’t let dyslexia stop him from his goal of writing a book. His ADHD may have made focusing difficult as he was growing up and as an adult, but it also gave him the drive and focus to use his passion to create a cultural phenomenon. And it makes him a dynamic, high energy presenter! What weaknesses of yours are actually hidden strengths that can help you in your goal to write a book?

 

Congratulations to John Gray on the twentieth anniversary of his USA Today and New York Times #1 bestseller, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus! 

 

 

My dear friend and long-time colleague, Stephanie Gunning, had a great idea the other day: The two of us should do an online radio show in which we could share our insights about the book industry, writing books, marketing them, and building platforms. Stephanie and I always have lively conversations and I always come away from them with fresh insights. The two of us have known each other since the early 90s when we were both in-house acquisitions editors at HarperCollins Publishers, back in the days before email and laptops. And now we’ve got so many ways to reach out and help authors learn from our insights I can hardly keep track of them all!

The half-hour show will be broadcast every Thursday morning from 11:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Eastern Time and you can listen online at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/letstalkaboutbooks  This morning’s show went great considering an unexpected technical glitch and me being a newbie to broadcasting online (I did a lot of radio in my Cinematherapy publicity days, though, so that helped). This week’s newsy topic was the closing of Borders’ bookstores and the future of brick-and-mortar stores (Is there one? Stephanie and I think so!). We also talked about garnering endorsements for your book at the early stages–even before it’s written, and before you have an agent! Next week, we’ll be talking about the eReader Revolution and will be interviewing Allison Maslan, a life, career, and business coach who will talk about her bestselling book Blast Off! (Learn more about Allison HERE).

Feel free to call in with questions and give us feedback on our Facebook page for the show: Let’s Talk About Books. You can also follow the show on Twitter: We’re “4BookWriters” and the hashtag is #BookBiz

Developmental Editor and Ghostwriter Stephanie Gunning joins Nancy Peske for Let's Talk About Books, a new weekly radio show on BlogTalkRadio.com every Thursday

As part of my research for a book proposal I’m working on, I’ve been looking at a bestselling self-help book that was recently featured on Oprah’s show. I see from the acknowledgements that I know the acquiring editor well; she is a talented structural and line editor and has a good eye for commercial material, strong hooks, and great platforms. The book has hit the bestseller lists and has a high number of stars (average ratings from reviewers) on Amazon.com/ Yet the number of one- and two-star reviews is very high as well—and to me, the book is unreadable and a waste of $15 in paperback, much less $25 in hardcover. I can’t even recommend it as a $10 eBook. So what are the lessons here?

  1. A book does NOT have to be good or even readable to be highly successful IF it’s from an established author. Platform is king these days. But, the big question is, has this author tarnished her brand by going out in a big way with a book that’s mediocre at best? The bad reviews are mostly focused on how little information is contained in these pages, the book’s repetitiveness, the book’s lack of originality, and the lack of value. There is no way an author with a modest platform could have sold this book to a publisher, in my professional opinion.
  2. Publishers are stuck in the old business model. The book began as a hardcover selling for nearly $25. It is 224 pages and by my count, about 50,000 words. When I began in book publishing in the late 1980s, a standard self-help book was 10,000 words. Now, they usually run 60-80,000 words. Why charge $25 for 50,000 words? The publisher needs to justify a big advance to the name-brand author and money spent on advertising (they advertise only the handful of books they think have a chance at bestsellerdom), paying bookstores to display the book, and paying the publicist. For publishers, an overpriced hardcover is crucial to make the numbers work. Now that eBooks are outselling hardcovers, and eBook prices are being jacked up to make up for the lost revenue, the $25/hardcover-first model is in serious danger. Depending on the timing of the hardcover and the eBook releases, the eBook revolution may have erased this book’s profit margin for the publisher. So while it may be a bestseller, it’s possible it lost money for the publisher. Selling her next book may be VERY difficult for this author regardless of how low an advance she is willing to take.
  3. Grammar, mechanics, and structure matter. Although the book has a standard self-help book structure, the chapters meander and have no headers, just design elements to break up text here and there. On the surface, this disguises the meandering, unstructured text. In reality, the reader notices that we’re flitting from this thought to the next in a disorienting path that circles back in on itself. What’s more, there are several sentence fragments on each page. Knowing that the editor is perfectly well aware that a sentence must contain a subject and verb, and with some verbs, a direct object as well, I have to assume this was a stylistic choice. It was a poor one. The text is disjointed and tiresome to read. You see, discussion of all those commas and semicolons, parallelism in clauses, and careful choices regarding sentence length and placement of subordinate clauses may bore anyone but a Latin or English Grammar major, but when they’re missing, the casual reader recognizes that something is “off.” It takes work to slow down and put the thoughts together in your mind to understand the ideas. When the reader discovers the ideas are overly familiar, she loses interest (many reviewers reported not finishing the book).
  4. Define your audience. The title was designed to play off another bestselling book’s title that appeals to the same demographic—a wise editorial choice. The problem is that the book doesn’t deliver on the title. This frustrated readers. Remember, you have a title AND a subtitle with which to summarize the book. People buy books on titles and short descriptions. If yours is misleading, your readers will be very unhappy and post negative reviews.
  5. Define your audience’s problem. One aspect of defining your audience is clearly defining their problem that your book promises to solve. If they buy your book to solve a different problem, thinking you’ll address it, they’ll be disappointed. Is yours a book of parenting advice for all parents, parents of children with special needs, or both? A book can straddle both audiences, but don’t mislead people by implying that it’s for the wider audience when it’s not. (In fact, I had this problem with another book I bought this week—at some point, I may blog in more detail about this particular problem!)
  6. Know your audience’s sensitivities. Is your audience women from 18 to 80, women who attend Bible classes and go to church every Sunday as well as women who are atheists, women who find Sarah Silverman offensive and women who find her hilarious? If you want to cast that wide a net, you will have to pay close attention to tone and voice. The bestselling book I’m describing in this blog uses the word “God” to describe a New Age/New Thought concept of divinity, ignoring the fact that many women have a very different idea about “God.” It also uses the F word liberally, including in a chapter title. That may fly with a certain generation; to another it is considered offensive and a sign of lazy writing. When I work with clients or cowrite books of my own, I may not agree 100 percent with the final choices the team of authors, editor, agent, and publisher’s sales force representatives makes, but I know how important these decisions are. I have seen books shut out of bookstores due to poor decisions about title, tone, and voice that caused the bookstore buyers to be unclear about the intended audience.
  7. Deliver what you promise your readers. A self-help book is supposed to do more than just define the reader’s problem and give insight into its origin. It must have takeaway: an action plan for solving the problem. This may include exercises, a recipe for activities to be carried out over a specific period of time (such as a 21-day diet plan), tips, resources that will help the reader further tailor the takeaway material to her specific needs, and so on. Reviewers complained that the entire book is summarized in the few pages and that the suggestions for how to solve the problem were stale, the sort of ideas we’ve all heard a million times. Today, authors are competing with free information on the Internet available in seconds to anyone using a search engine. If there’s nothing special or fresh about your information, and your advice can be summed up in a page of bulletpoint tips, you aren’t ready to write a self-help book.

By now, I’m sure you’re thinking, “Yeah, but the author got a big advance, a bestseller, and a place on Oprah’s couch.” Yes….but only because the author had built up credibility with previous books over the years and a solid brand she’d worked hard to build. Will her next book see success? Will it yield a hefty advance? I doubt it. Over the years, I’ve seen many authors destroy their brands by making bad choices in conjunction with their advisors who are too often contemptuous of book buyers. I will never forget the day one of the bigwigs in the editorial department of a publishing house told me, “We don’t have to spend the time and money cutting out those two hundred pages in the middle of the book that weigh it down. People won’t realize it sags in the middle until after they’ve bought it!” She chuckled; I made a mental note that I did NOT belong in a company that held contempt for their customers. To me, the story I’m telling here is a cautionary tale for publishers, editors, and authors. You can only fool people so long before they catch on to the fact that you don’t provide quality products and don’t respect and value them.

If you as an author or aspiring author aren’t comfortable with a suggestion your social media expert makes regarding how to build your brand, if you don’t feel ready to write your book just yet because your platform’s solid but you’re still unsure if your ideas are well-formed enough to work into a book, listen to your instincts. Maybe you need to try out your ideas in workshops and with real-life clients. That’s easier than ever to do thanks to webinar and teleseminar software. Maybe you need to mull over your brand and your hook a little more because something’s not right about it. These investments of time and creative energy will pay off in a book that you can be proud of for years to come, and they give you greater potential for establishing your career and a loyal audience.

Have you ever felt torn between rushing forward with writing a book and slowing down to get it right? What pressures did you feel, and why? Would you have benefitted from spending time with book publishing consultant to talk through your concerns and strategies? Please share your stories with me!

Does your self-help book deliver on its title and promise? Does it solve a problem? Does it offer "takeaway" for readers that they can apply to their own lives?