It has now been 10 months since my first published book Building a Second Brain was released in June 2022. And over 4 years since I kicked off the project in January 2019.

The book has been an astounding success by any measure. Here are some of the milestones I’m most proud of:

  • Wall Street Journal bestseller, Amazon Editor’s Choice selection, Financial Times book of the month, and Fast Company top summer pick
  • #165 ranking across all Amazon books
  • Featured in Forbes, Entrepreneur, Billboard, goop, USA Today, Big Think, Next Big Idea Club, GQ, Psychology Today, TIME, Bookriot, Business Insider, Yahoo!, CNBC, KTLA morning news, KATU-TV Portland
  • Top-viewed Google Talk
  • Goodreads Choice Award and Audie Award nominee
  • Foreign publishing deals in 20+ countries and languages
  • Over 100,000 copies sold in the first 9 months

Only 0.4% of the 42,000 books published every year in the U.S. sell 100,000 copies. That amounts to only a couple hundred books each year, most of which are fiction or perennial classics that have been around for a long time. This means that there are precious few spots available each year for a new nonfiction book to break through, and I’m incredibly grateful and proud that we’ve done it.

In this series, I’ll do a deep-dive on everything I’ve learned about how to make a big idea and a book successful, including my most surprising lessons and mistakes. It will be a retrospective on all the ideas and plans I originally shared in my Ultimate Guide to Traditional Book Publishing, including my most important takeaways for anyone taking on a creative endeavor of this magnitude.

Part 1: Was traditional publishing worth it?

One of the most common questions I’ve been asked since I first announced my book deal in April 2020 was whether I thought working with a traditional “Big 5” publisher was worth it. 

After considering the 4 main pathways to publishing, I decided to go this route because the main thing I was seeking was the enhanced credibility and mainstream exposure that a published book can uniquely provide.

Four years later after deciding to go that route, I want to start by revisiting my hypothesis that doing so would give me 6 major benefits:

  • Credibility and authority that comes with a big name publisher
  • Access to expertise on what sells and what readers look for
  • Access to the networks of editors, agents, and publishers
  • Speaking opportunities at major organizations
  • Unique and interesting experiences that wouldn’t otherwise be possible
  • Bestseller list appearances and other awards and recognition

Let’s take a look at how each of those have played out.

Credibility and authority that comes with a big name publisher

I’ve been invited to speak at major events like the World Domination Summit, received exposure to incredible audiences via Google Talks, and addressed the World Bank mostly, I believe, because of the credibility and authority that comes with a publisher’s imprint. If anything, I underestimated how powerful it has been, and it’s only just beginning.

Access to expertise on what sells and what readers look for

By working with a publisher, I had the opportunity to work closely with three experienced publishing veterans: my editor Janet Goldstein, agent Lisa DiMona, and publisher Stephanie Hitchcock. Together, they dramatically reshaped the most fundamental framing and presentation of the Second Brain concept in a way I never could have done on my own. Again, I underestimated the impact this would have on the ultimate form of the book.

Access to the networks of editors, agents, and publishers

This is probably the benefit I’ve seen the least of. I’ve been booked on a few media outlets that I probably wouldn’t have had access to, such as TV morning news programs, but other than that, most of the people I’ve met have been through my own network. Although having the imprimatur of the publisher behind me definitely helps even with my own personal outreach.

Speaking opportunities at major organizations

My speaking career has seen a significant, though not major, boost. Before the book came out I had done numerous free talks, and perhaps one or two paid ones. Since it was released, I’ve booked three paid speaking gigs, though none of them at the full rate I want to charge. As I gain more experience and a track record, I’ll be raising my rates to reflect that.

Unique and interesting experiences that wouldn’t otherwise be possible

I’ve been able to meet some of my personal heroes like Chris Guillebeau, Daniel Pink, and Ramit Sethi. I’ve been invited to fascinating events like a Netflix show launch party and seen my book appear in bookstores from Bali to Dubai to the southern tip of New Zealand. I’ve even had distant relatives send me photos of themselves posing next to it all over the world. All these things are so much fun!

Bestseller list appearances and other awards and recognition

My book has received a very gratifying amount of recognition, including being nominated for the  Goodreads Choice Award and Audie audiobook award, and being named a Financial Times book of the year and Fast Company top summer pick. This is valuable mostly because of the doors it opens to decision-makers and leaders.

Here’s a few pictures from some of my favorite moments this past year:

What Hasn’t Happened: Business Growth

The main outcome that hasn’t happened much at all, though it does not appear in the list above, is business growth. I think I just assumed that selling tens of thousands of copies would somehow automatically lead to growth in the sales of our courses, but if anything, sales have declined.

It’s hard to untangle that deceleration from the broader slowdown in online education post-COVID, but I’d say that there’s some anecdotal evidence that the book has cannibalized sales of our course. I’ve received many comments that the book was so good, people didn’t feel the need for further training!

In retrospect, this cannibalization makes sense: I distilled every single one of the best ideas from our course and put it into the book, holding nothing back. All the aura and mystique that you previously had to join the course to get access to is now available for the price of a fast-food meal.

To adapt to this, we’ve been hard at work changing the program we offer to build on and extend the contents of the book, instead of merely repeating it. I continue to believe that the Second Brain universe is infinitely subtle and interesting, with plentiful opportunities to go deeper.

To summarize, I absolutely believe going with a traditional publisher was worth it, and the benefits I’m receiving are just getting started. There is simply no more effective way to launch a big new idea onto the world stage than using the global publishing industry as a platform. 

In part 2, I’ll share a deep dive into the project management behind the book and how I used my own Second Brain to write it.