There’s something book publishers don’t tell you when you sign their offer on the dotted line: almost all the responsibility for promoting your book will fall on your shoulders. 

A lot of authors complain about this fact as if it represents publishers shirking their duty or being lazy. I see it quite differently: authors are responsible for selling their books because they are by far the best positioned to do so

No one else has the direct relationship with potential readers, an abundance of behind-the-scenes and “making of” material, the voice and point of view that the book embodies, and of course, the motivation to give it everything they got.

Expecting any publisher to simply forget these facts and valiantly sell your book on your behalf is a denial of reality. No one is going to put in a fraction of the time, effort, and care into promoting your book as you.

Keeping that in mind, our promotion strategy for Building a Second Brain rested on six pillars, each one representing a powerful leverage point in its trajectory:

  1. The proposal
  2. The brand identity design and media kit
  3. The pre-order campaign
  4. The email list
  5. The YouTube channel
  6. Sharing regular updates on my journey

Pillar #1: The Proposal

Launching a book into mainstream awareness is like starting a business from scratch. 

You will eventually need to recruit an entire ecosystem of people, companies, communities, funding sources, distribution channels, wholesale and retail outlets, online platforms, promotional partners, and digital and physical supply chains, and then coordinate them all to gracefully deliver an impactful message on a global scale.

Sounds easy right?

Most of the advice out there says to make your proposal as good as it can be, but I don’t think most aspiring authors put nearly enough emphasis on it. Your proposal is everything – a step-by-step business plan that lays out everything you will make happen over a period of years. 

It’s impossible to invest too much time and attention on the proposal, not only because it determines whether your book gets sold in the first place, and for how much, but because the decisions you make there will bias every subsequent decision made by everyone connected to the book.

This is why it took me 9 months to finish my proposal (which you can read in its 61-page entirety). It was some of the best time I spent. I hired a highly experienced developmental editor Janet Goldstein to help me with it, and it was a major project within itself. (If you’re looking for an expert opinion on your book idea, I suggest booking one of her Laser Intensives).

Many authors don’t work with a developmental editor, but I think that’s a big mistake. No agent or friend can give you anywhere close to the level of attention and experience you’ll receive from someone who has worked on multiple successful book proposals in the past. I went on to hire the same editor to work with me on the manuscript itself, which gave me a long-term thought partner who provided continuity through this long process.

In the proposal we tried to make as many important decisions as possible, including:

  • The main problems we were proposing to solve
  • The main historical analogy we would use to frame our solution
  • The dysfunctional approach we would compare our solution with most directly
  • Which tangible benefits of building a Second Brain to highlight
  • How to tell my origin story and why it led me to want to write this book
  • Which main audiences we thought would be interested in the book
  • Which competing and complementary titles to use as models
  • A selection of marketing and promotion opportunities we envisioned
  • The topics of each chapter

For me, the most important outcome from this entire proposal-writing process was the decision to pivot the BASB message to a much more mainstream, “beginner” audience. 

It was necessary and important to appeal to hardcore PKM nerds in the early days, as they were at the forefront of this emerging field and had the motivation to wade through the messy details. But now that the core ideas and method had been established, I didn’t want to remain limited to that niche. I didn’t want to write a book preaching to the same choir: I wanted this idea to spread to wider circles of people who hadn’t previously even heard of the concept of a second brain, and if it wasn’t for this book, might never be exposed to it.

In retrospect, this seems like the obviously right decision, but it wasn’t an easy one. I had to endure a lot of dissatisfaction and outright criticism from the audience I had built up to that point. Many people felt like I’d “dumbed down” the ideas and diluted their power. Some even felt like I’d abandoned or betrayed them. 

What kept me going was the thought of the many new kinds of people we’d be able to reach with a broader, more accessible voice, including:

  • The Creator Economy and content creators in general
  • Freelancers and entrepreneurs of all kinds
  • Gig workers who need a way to take information from one job to another
  • Millennials, who are quickly rising into positions of leadership across the economy
  • Remote workers needing better self-management skills (which exploded in numbers during the pandemic)
  • Notion users (Notion raised major funding the same week as my proposal was sold, with a featured article in the New York Times, which I believe positively impacted our prospects)
  • Fans of organizing and decluttering (such as Marie Kondo)
  • People who like to take online courses and need a way to take notes on them
  • People with ADHD and other neurodivergent conditions, looking for a way to alleviate their symptoms

The early decision to “go mainstream” gave me the clarity and courage to break away from the insider language of the “PKM clique” that predominates online, and to instead seek language that anyone – older and younger generations, people in non-digital professions, people without formal education, people living in other countries, and the non-tech savvy – could not only understand but put to use in their own lives.

The proposal was extremely well-received, attracting four imprints from three publishers in a two-round auction that ended with a multi-six-figure deal. Once we had that in hand, it was off to the races.

Pillar #2: The Brand Identity Design and Media Kit

I decided early on to create a full-fledged visual brand identity for my book. I already had a BASB ecosystem with multiple products and services and knew that in the future we’d likely have multiple books, other titles like journals or workbooks, physical products, and eventually, even other media like films, TV shows, board games, and apparel.

To make sure all of these elements fit together as a cohesive brand, I hired an experienced designer to deeply research our content and audience and develop a comprehensive BASB brand identity made up of:

  • Core brand attributes
  • A beautiful logo that works across platforms and different media types
  • Usage guidelines for ourselves and external parties
  • An official typeface and typography samples
  • Color palette and how colors should be used
  • Accessibility improvements
  • An entire graphic language we call “circuits”
  • Photography examples and guidelines
  • A creative gallery envisioning what future touchpoints could look like

Those brand guidelines became part of a broader BASB media kit, which was unbelievably helpful to share with anyone who wanted to talk about or promote the book, providing everything they might possibly need with just a link. The media kit additionally includes:

  • Important links
  • Key messages
  • High-quality book photos
  • Press kit materials
  • My bio and headshots
  • Downloadable brand assets
  • Logos in various shapes, colors, and sizes
  • Fair use guide encouraging people to share the BASB message within certain limits
  • Contact info in case they needed something else

Pillar #3: The Pre-Order Campaign

I didn’t have a large audience back in 2019 when I wrote the proposal – only 6,000 email subscribers and 10,000 Twitter followers. I knew the pre-order campaign was going to be our single best chance of breaking through the media noise, and I needed to do everything possible to create a groundswell of support on release day.

Our publisher set a very early date for opening pre-orders so we had as much time as possible to collect them: November 16, 2021. There would be 210 days, or 7 months, of pre-orders before the official release date on June 14, 2022. I set a goal of reaching 10,000 pre-orders in that time (based on reports from other authors of reaching bestseller lists with similar numbers), which would require about 1,400 pre-orders per month, 357 per week, or 50 per day.

We ended up with 12,875 pre-orders, exceeding my goal and putting the book on the Wall Street Journal bestseller list the week of its release. Comparing that number to the size of my email list by the time the book was released, it was about 20% the size of our subscriber base. Using this as a rule of thumb, if you want to reach 10,000 pre-orders, you should have at least 50,000 email subscribers to give yourself a fair shot.

We thought of the absolute best bonuses we could offer, in five tiers from 5 to 500 books. They drove 1,870 of those pre-orders or about 15% of them. Here’s the distribution of how many people ordered at each tier:

Graph of BASB pre-order tiers

My advice: it’s worth offering special bonuses for pre-orders since every pre-order is so valuable. All the pre-orders are combined with the first week of sales to determine whether the book qualifies for bestseller status. Which means you essentially get to “save up” many months’ worth of sales, all of which are counted in a single week, instead of having them come in in a trickle.

A 15% increase (of nearly 2,000 books) is a significant uplift. But I would recommend offering only digital bonuses since fulfillment (especially internationally) is such a nightmare. And it’s probably a better idea to only offer 2-3 tiers such as 2, 3, and 10 books to keep the tracking simple. If someone wants to order in larger quantities than that you can always create a special bonus for them suited to their specific needs.

Besides the bonuses, we promoted the book incessantly through every one of our channels for the full 7 months pre-orders were available. We included a header image promoting the book in every week’s email newsletter. I wrote dozens of blog posts on various aspects of the methodology and updates on key milestones. My team posted quotes and other key ideas across our social media channels. I asked every author and creator I knew to promote it to their followers. I even went on a two-week trip to London and New York to film a series of YouTube collabs, which were released in the months following the book launch.

In other words, I left no stone unturned and didn’t hesitate to make an ask of any person I met, any group I spoke to, or any organization I had contact with. It truly took a vast interconnected network of people stepping up to take decisive action to launch this book to the top of the bestseller rankings.

Pillar #4: The Email List

Our email list has always been the single, central fulcrum of the entire business. From the earliest days, I never wanted to be held hostage to any platform or channel. I took the risk of self-employment to be able to have more freedom: why would I entrust my relationship with my customers to some company somewhere?

As a result, all roads in our entire online ecosystem always lead back to the email list. Every blog post has a subscription form. Every social media profile links back to a signup page. Everyone who buys anything from us gets their email address added to the list. I see my job largely as finding dozens of ways to get people to subscribe to the email list, and then maintaining that relationship by sending out our weekly newsletter packed with valuable, free content.

I had moved from Mailchimp to ConvertKit in August 2019, partly to start preparing for the influx of subscribers I knew the book would bring. It took a few months to figure out all the details of signup forms, landing pages, automations, broadcasts and sequences, templates and integrations, including taking Brennan Dunn’s excellent course Mastering ConvertKit. But we were ready for the tidal wave, which you can see in the graph below. The vertical line is the release date of the book, where you can clearly see an inflection point in our subscriber growth rate.

ConvertKit subscriber growth curve

The main reason the email list is so important, besides the independence and autonomy it provides from the whims of any platform, is that it gives us many chances to build a relationship and make a sale to any given person. You might be able to reach someone one time on Twitter, Facebook, or some other platform, but what are the chances they will be ready and willing and able at that exact moment to buy a book?

With an email address, we have the chance to start a conversation. To prove that we are generous and capable and willing to deliver a huge amount of value upfront for a sale down the line. As I’ve shared before, the average expected revenue from a subscriber to our email list is about $50 from our courses and products. That is 16x the approximately $3 I make per book sold. Which means that 1 free subscriber to my email list generates on average 16 times as much revenue as a book buyer! Without the email list, there is no business model in publishing, regardless of how successful the book becomes.

Pillar #5: The YouTube Channel

The fifth pillar wasn’t about the initial buildup and launch of the book – it was about what happens afterward. As important as that first wave of promotion is, it is only the beginning.

Looking farther into the future, I knew that I needed an ongoing engine of promotion to prolong the life of this book long after the early enthusiasm had died down. I asked myself, “How can I continue to capture the attention of an ever-growing number of people for years into the future?”

As I looked at the various possibilities, a clear answer jumped out at me: YouTube. I’d been eyeing the platform for years during its meteoric growth and had published a menagerie of videos on my channel, attracting a respectable 20,000 subscribers. But I had no strategy, no goal, and no clear value proposition or consistent theme for viewers. I also saw in the enrollment data for our online course that a growing number of people were already finding out about us from YouTube, primarily through other people’s channels.

I decided to step back and think carefully about what would be needed for us to make YouTube a central priority. I started by remodeling our garage into a full-fledged recording studio. We had already planned to do that when we moved to Long Beach, CA at the start of the pandemic, but gaining more clarity about how the space would be used gave me the confidence to invest more time, energy, and money.

The total cost of the project was about $80,000, including $40,000 for the basic remodel (tile floors, drywall with a brick facade, built-in custom cabinets covering one entire wall, and beautiful tongue-and-groove white wood ceilings with original beams, etc.), another $20,000 in equipment (lights, cameras, audio interfaces, adjustable height standing desk, teleprompter, special cabling, etc.), and $20,000 for a consultant who helped us design all the shooting angles, optimize the equipment to work together seamlessly and make sure we could shoot top-quality footage. You can see a timelapse of the whole project here

As we built out the studio, it quickly became apparent to me that I wouldn’t be able to manage all the equipment, video shoots, and post-production myself. Around this time we welcomed our son, and the little time I had for side projects dwindled even further. 

I decided to look for someone to lead our YouTube efforts, and after putting out a job description and conducting interviews hired Marc Koenig. He went on to develop our YouTube strategy, including the main topics we’d address and the style and tone of our videos, as well as building a team of three dedicated editors and producers to sustain our pipeline.

The typical YouTuber’s journey is about starting very small, with a smartphone or handheld camera, and then slowly improving their skills and production levels over a period of years, through relentless iteration. I had already walked that path with blogging and Twitter and knew I needed a faster, more direct one this time. With the boom in the online course business during the pandemic, we were lucky to have a surplus of funds to invest. 

I ultimately invested several hundred thousand dollars in YouTube in the first couple of years, and it’s paid off handsomely. We now have a channel with over 175,000 subscribers, which generates four figures per month in ad revenue, regularly books five-figure sponsorships, and contributes about 50% of our course sales totaling seven figures per year. And of course, it is by far our single most powerful channel for spreading the Second Brain message to the world and driving book sales in the 20+ languages it will soon be available in.

In general, I think video is a great way to promote book sales. You might think video-watchers only want to watch more videos, whereas text-readers only want to read more text, but I don’t think that’s the case. Opposite kinds of content can actually complement each other. Video is great for getting a quick introduction to something in a fun, engaging way, whereas text is better once you’ve decided to go down the rabbit hole and you want all the precise details.

Pillar #6: Sharing Regular Updates on My Journey

I benefited so much from in-depth blog posts by authors like Tim Ferriss and wanted to pay forward that gift of knowledge to future writers.

In total, I’ve published many tens of thousands of words about every stage of my book publishing journey, all compiled together in my Ultimate Guide to Traditional Book Publishing. This wasn’t just an act of generosity: the insights I’ve gained into my own thinking and the extent to which all this writing helped me integrate what I was learning would have made it all worth it even if no one had ever read it.

I highly recommend any author share all the behind-the-scenes details that go into the creation of their book. It may seem like a niche subject that few people will be interested in, especially if your audience isn’t inherently interested in writing, but I think you’ll be surprised. Your journey isn’t only about book-writing. It is also about personal growth and what you’re discovering about yourself. It is about the challenges and breakthroughs anyone has as they tackle a big goal. 

People will take away lessons for themselves and their own goals that you would never imagine. And if anyone decides to follow in your footsteps, you’ll be able to support them by simply sharing a link.

Follow us for the latest updates and insights around productivity and Building a Second Brain on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and YouTube. And if you’re ready to start building your Second Brain, get the book and learn the proven method to organize your digital life and unlock your creative potential.