What do you say about about a man who has sold hundreds of thousands of copies of books with no writing (or pictures) in them, millions of units of gag gifts and been covered in essentially every media outlet in the world? I suppose you would call him a marketing god. Which is fitting because for another stunt he successfully changed his name by deed to “God” and was dropped by his bank, HSBC, because they refused to acknowledge the change.
This marketing god is Shed Simove, the creative mind behind books like What Every Man Thinks About Apart From Sex (which is deliberately full of blank pages) and Fifty Shades of Gray (which has 50 different gray pages) as well as controversial gimmicks like a “Control-A-Woman” remote control, the Gaydar and the ‘Rampant Rabbi’ sex toys.
After last month’s interview with Brent Underwood, who found his blank book and bestseller stunt banned by Amazon, Shed connected with me on Twitter. I immediately asked if he’d like to be interviewed here so we could understand his unique ability to not only generate loads of media attention but convert that attention into sales for his unusual and hilarious products.
You have the world record for most blank pages published in a book. Is that a record you set out to break? Tell us how that stunt happened?
Ha ha! No, I most certainly didn’t expect, or even plan, to land a Guinness World Record with my blank book, ‘What Every Many Thinks About Apart From Sex’. It was just another totally unexpected twist during an astonishing adventure that started with me deciding to publish it in the first place. To date, the book has taken me around the world, bagged me a Literary Agent, made me good money, and taught me important lessons about marketing, which I now impart in the motivational speeches I give to blue chip companies around the globe. It’s been a thrilling ride, and one that still seems to be continuing…
When I first published my blank book, it took me just over a week to get it produced and listed on Amazon. I then needed to tell the world about my groundbreaking tome, but I only had a small budget, just enough to hire a PR company for half a day. The amazing Team at the London PR Agency landed me some great coverage in a British national newspaper, albeit one of the more tabloid ones. This article then got spotted by a TV Producer who featured the book on the morning show she was producing. Interestingly, those two bits of media coverage didn’t affect the sales of the book online, but when the newspaper article turned into an online article, all hell broke loose and sales rocketed. The online article allowed bloggers and journalists to do three vital things: cut and paste the original article so they could easily update it in their own voice, copy some simple images that I’d shot on my phone—and find a very basic video I’d shot for the book too. This gave journalists what I call the ‘Holy Trinity Of Online Marketing’; story, images and video. The book went globally viral. I started to receive emails from journalists across the world, many of which would begin with, ‘Dear Professor Simove’, because that’s the title I gave myself on the book, even though I’m not really a Professor.
About a month into this madness, after I’d sold thousands of books, it reached number 44 on the Amazon chart and even overtook some famous titles in sales. I then received an email that I thought was a joke at first. The main body of the message said, ‘We’re a publisher from Spain and we want to translate your book and pay you a royalty…’. Translate? I couldn’t believe this was happening it, but I checked out the footer on the email and it confirmed the message was from a reputable Spanish publisher. So, I signed a deal for the Spanish version of the blank book, ‘¿En qué piensan los hombres más allá del sexo?’, that included me being flown over to Madrid to launch it at their annual Book Fair. The book became an instant hit in Spain too. Soon after, more deals for ‘translations’ flooded in from Croatia, China, Japan, Holland and even Mongolia. It was amazingly thrilling.
Then, after all that happened, I received a call from the Guinness World Records office. I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d win a world record during my lifetime. I’m not able to juggle with loads of balls or sit in baked beans for more than ten minutes, but the folks from Guinness World Records informed me that because of how well ‘What Every Many Thinks About Apart From Sex’ had done, I was going to be awarded a Guinness World Record and featured in their famous book. They sent me a certificate of my world record and I framed it, which now proudly resides in my vanity cupboard. My Parents are understandably very proud.
And how many copies has it sold now?
Nearly 100,000 and counting. It’s always been a fierce ambition of mine to write a bestseller. Unfortunately, the first (real) books I released took me eight years to write and then didn’t sell in huge numbers at all, despite garnering amazing reviews on Amazon. In the publishing industry, the benchmark for being able to call a book a ‘bestseller’ is ten thousand copies sold. My blank book is a bestseller ten times over—and it’s still selling strongly around the world. I figure that one reason for the book’s popularity across the globe is that the core joke applies to men everywhere—which is rather comi-tragic.
When you saw that Brent Underwood’s book was banned by Amazon, what did you think? Why do you think they allowed yours to stick but not others? (For instance a reporter at the Toronto Star tried to create a similar book but it was also deleted.)
Maybe Jeff Bezos just has really great taste and he loved my offering—ha ha! Even though Brent’s version was incredibly witty and clever, possibly that version came across as ‘unreal’ to Amazon, maybe they thought it was just a stunt using an image, and that their customers couldn’t actually buy it—or perhaps it was simply a tad too close the bone in terms of exposing their ranking system. With my book, when I started selling it through Amazon, I had to specially print the cover with a unique barcode so that the Amazon fulfillment center could process them (this requirement may be different now). I then sent a ton of books to the Amazon fulfillment center and they were logged in the system, getting linked to my Amazon page for the title. Possibly no one at the fulfillment center opened my book to see the blank pages inside or maybe they allowed the book on their platform because it was actually sent in a physical form, and they now had loads of them in their warehouse! After a while, I granted reputable publishers around the world the distribution and publishing rights to ‘What Every Man Thinks About Apart From Sex’, so this may have also legitimized the book in Amazon’s eyes too. After my blank book became a success, quite a few people, including Hugh Hefner, pointed out that the core premise of the joke was not entirely new, and that a blank book called ‘Everything Men Know About Women’ had been on Amazon for many years before I listed mine. Even so, my book was looked on by the media as fresh and newsworthy when I launched it. This neatly shows that sometimes you don’t need to have a new idea to achieve big success, you can sometimes repackage an old idea for a new generation (or market) who maybe didn’t know the old idea existed.
This whole saga also brings up the deep philosophical question: ‘When is a book not a book?’. It’s almost a paradoxical conundrum, but maybe not quite! The UK tax authority deemed my book as a ‘notebook’ and therefore it was liable for VAT (a tax levied on goods), whereas books with writing inside aren’t liable for this tax. So, you could argue that my first blank book is not even a book, but I firmly stand by it being a book, because it’s printed with a crease down the spine (which is called ‘perfect bound’ in the publishing industry) and is the shape and size of a normal paperback. If it quacks like a duck…then…well…
You followed up your blank book with 50 pages in different shades of grey. Can you tell us about that project?
The idea wasn’t directly mine. I’m fortunate to have a wonderful band of online supporters and followers who enjoy tracking my adventures and mischief. And they often encourage me towards further naughtiness. One of these champions, a wonderful woman called Vivien, suggested that I do a version of my original blank book to mark the phenomenal success of the ‘Fifty Shade’s franchise. I thought this was an awesome idea, so I created a book with a slightly different title, called ‘Fifty Shades Of Gray’, containing two hundred colored blank pages that ranged from light grey to dark grey. The blurb on the back cover proclaimed that ‘the content gets darker and darker’ as the book goes on. I received a legal ‘cease and desist’ order from Random House, the publishers of E. L. James’ smash hit. I called up their Head Of Legal and said, ‘Do you realize that you’re also the publishers of my first [real] book, ‘Ideas Man’, and so you’re now taking action against your own author?’. ‘Yes we do…’, she firmly replied, adding that I was guilty of ‘passing off’. I laughed at this notion, explaining that no sane person would misidentify my book for the real Fifty Shades’ book, because the real version has actual words in it—and mine has none! But my sage argument did nothing to placate the situation. I had to pulp over a thousand of my ‘Fifty Shades’ books, which broke my heart. Of course though, with every problem you encounter in life, there’s often an opportunity to be had, so I made sure that I got some awesome media coverage for the whole debacle.
You’ve received a lot of press and coverage for your stunts. Not only that, you’ve done it consistently. Most people and authors would complain that getting media attention is difficult or impossible. How do you do it? And does it bother you that your stuntish books seem to outsell your serious titles?
Ha ha! Love those questions. I actually fail a lot. I believe that’s the ‘magic’ to succeeding a lot. I’m creating new ideas all the time and many of them haven’t been noticed or enjoyed on a large scale yet. So, I think that maybe you’re looking at the coverage I garner wearing rose colored spectacles (I actually thought about making ‘Rose Colored Specs’ as a real novelty gift for optimists, once, but found out that this idea was already on the market, so didn’t). I created my blank book out of necessity, in order to reach my goal of releasing a successful bestseller. After failing to land the bestseller status with my real books ‘Ideas Man’ and ‘Success…Or Your Money Back’, I was pondering why my novelty gifts sold so well (1.5 million sold to date around the globe) and yet my books hadn’t. I needed to change my strategy. So, I decided to take what I’d learned from the novelty gift market and apply it to the publishing industry. Once I knew I was going to publish a book with a core joke of it being blank inside, all I had to do then was think of an appropriate title and create an authentic looking cover so that the whole gag would work when a new observer took a look at the pages.
Getting publicity for any new book is super tough. It’s such a crowded market. The fact that my serious titles have been way outsold by my ‘joke’ books both depresses me and amuses me in equal measure. I believe the success of my blank book may have something to do with the fact that people want instant gratification even more these days, and perhaps a quick laugh is exactly the gratification people are seeking in this complex and often challenging world. I do know that one strategy has often worked for me, by making sure I differentiate from what everyone else is doing in the market, this often means I break through the noise.
One of my theories is this idea of trading up the chain—starting with small outlets which then get picked up by bigger and bigger outlets. Can you tell us how you break your stories?
Again, you give me too much credit. You should be answering this question for your readers yourself—you’ve written amazing books on the whole topic of getting publicity, and you were behind the enormous global success of ’Four Hour Work Week’. I don’t believe I’ve cracked a reliable formula for breaking stories yet, or even for creating an idea that will capture people’s imagination (if anyone reading this has found the secret, please get in touch, ha ha!). You’ve studied this area a lot and you’re an expert in it. I marvel at how you’ve blown people’s books huge. A lot of my ideas don’t ‘hit’, but I keep on producing novelties, apps, websites, books, TV shows, comedy tours and motivational speeches, at such a rate, so that some of the mud hits the wall and sticks. Certainly, there are certain steps that anyone can take to maximize the chances that something they’re promoting will be picked up, like working with a PR company who has the ear of journalists or influencers (if you have the budget, that is), creating great material for bloggers to easily use—and also being sure that you put forward a ’story’ when publicizing something (and don’t just describe what your item or product is). But, even when I follow all these strategies, I often don’t get the coverage I want—or believe, I deserve, ha ha!
That said, your sage concept of ‘trading up’ has certainly worked for me in the past. When I wanted to publicize my new range of adult toys, I contacted the largest newspaper in the UK and they turned the story down flat on the spot. So, I called up a much smaller niche publication, ’The Jewish Chronicle’, and told them how one of the toys was made in the shape of a Rabbi, and called the ‘Rampant Rabbi ‘(the name is pun on the most successful British vibrators, the ‘Rampant Rabbit’). They covered the story and when they did, the original paper I contacted then published a huge splash on it. Lessons learned: 1) Sometimes a story is legitimized (or noticed) when it’s published by a well-known publication, even a small one and 2) Sometimes a single journalist on a publication might have a different view of what makes a good story than another member of their team, so it may pay to try again at the same outlet with a different person.
Do you start with the idea and then figure out how to interest the media? Or do you think media first, idea second? Like in the case of the Fifty Shades book—were you trying to newsjack off a popular title or how did that work?
The idea is everything at the start. Being able to come up with ideas and then action them is a human superpower that separates us from the other animals on the planet, and a gift that I hope will allow humanity to save the earth from us damaging it, cure all ailments and thrive in a civilized way. So, our ideas are extremely valuable, even ones for novelty gifts, and should be treated as such. I’ve disciplined myself to note all mine down on paper or in my phone, no matter how awful, and if a week later, I’m still as excited about a concept as I was when I thought it up, then I start bringing it to life immediately. As long as what I think up entertains me when I muse about creating it, and gets a reaction from some others around me I if choose to tell them about it (you have to be careful about doing so, because other people can take the wind from your sails so easily), and (in the case of my keynote speeches to companies) if sometimes what I create informs or makes people think, then if I’m gripped with making a product, show, app or website, nothing will stop me doing so. Enormous fulfillment can be derived from bringing your ideas to life and I believe we should all do it way more often. Sure, I’d also ideally like very many people to enjoy what I do, but hey, my Mother frequently reminds me that Van Gogh was only proclaimed a genius after he died! I hope I don’t have to wait that long to fully engage with the world, ha ha, but for me right now, I feel fortunate to be living at a time when I can find an expert on the web or a factory in China to help me bring my ideas come to life. That’s exceptionally empowering and exciting.
I don’t think of anything I do as ‘newsjacking’ per se. Rather, I’m parodying cultural themes I observe all round us, mainly to give people a laugh or sometimes to make them think. I changed my name to ‘God’, both to see what would happen and also because the concept of a higher being is so pervasive and influential, both in good and bad ways, all over the world. And when I saw Apple create their smartwatch, I just had to make a joke from it, so I created a ’Not So Smart Watch’ which is a plastic watch with a wipe clean face.
What’s next for you? You’ve got another book out now, right?
Correct. I wonder if people will like it. It’s been days in the making and it’s called ‘How To Cure Insomnia’. Each page displays one small, numbered, cartoon sheep and when the book is flicked, the sheep appears to jump. I’m hoping that this book is the perfect gift for anyone who has trouble sleeping, or just a solid Birthday present or Secret Santa gift that anyone can enjoy. Rather than bagging a Guinness World Record this time, I’m hoping the Queen will recognise my contribution to society and give me a knighthood. Then, I can put ’Sir Shed Simove’ on my next book, and it’ll be real. Boom!
This new book has actually already got me into trouble with Amazon, and it’s only been up a few days. I formulated a plan that all the reviews for the book should appear as if the reviewers writing them had ‘fallen asleep’ mid sentence, so I asked a few friends and relatives to post up five star reviews where their review ends mid sentence or mid word, and then finishes with ‘…zzzzzzzzzzzzzz.’ as if the they nodded off during their post. Amazon have been removing some of these sleepy reviews, so I’m hoping that if anyone who reads this now posts up a quick review on the Amazon page for the book, and makes it end with some z’s, then the deluge of posts will stick. Maybe one night I’ll go to bed and the next morning I’ll wake to a stream of sleepy reviews. Well, I can dream!
As for what’s next for me, I have two apps in development, (one very serious, one definitely not so), a number of novelty gifts soon to launch, including this pen holder, I’m working on my latest selling video platform, Sellervision—plus I’ve just received a Green Card for ‘extraordinary ability’, so I’m now searching for an Entertainment Agent in the States, a Tour Manager for my comedy show, and looking to hear from any US companies who need a keynote motivational speaker on creativity and innovation. I’m also seeking a movie company to resurrect the (as yet unseen) documentary that I created about the importance of young people and teachers, that I filmed nearly two decades ago, during which I went back to school posing as a 16 year old boy when I was in fact 30, and got away with it for nine weeks. All in all, I’ve got some really cracking ideas in the pipeline at the moment, so if you’re a journalist, blogger or supporter and want to find out what these are first, please follow me on all your relevant social networks. Thanks!
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator and two other books. He is an editor-at-large for the New York Observer and his monthly reading recommendations are found here. He currently lives in Austin, Texas.
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