Disrupting How Bestsellers Are Made: Apply Startup-style Growth Hacking To Publishing

Once you break out of the shackles of antiquated notions of what is or isn't marketing, the whole field becomes cheaper, easier, and much more, scalable. The game changes forever.

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In my experience, marketing is best when it proves the product it is supporting. The marketing campaign for The Blair Witch Project or Catfish for example, were deliberately opaque—setting off a fierce debate about whether the movies were real or fake. That’s the point, after all, of the films themselves.

It’s something I’ve always tried to do with the books and projects I have marketed. With Tim Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Chef, we had to be innovative and try to learn new methods because that’s what the book was about. I’ve had two opportunities to do this with my own work. For instance, I knew that Trust Me I’m Lying’s launch should be controversial and manipulative and I think I succeeded with that. But with Growth Hacker Marketing, I was especially challenged—you can’t write a book about growth hacking and then not apply it to the product itself.

Owing to the positive response to my breakdown of the campaign for The Obstacle Is The Way I thought I would once again take you behind the scenes of the launch of Growth Hacker Marketing and what I learned.

Well, actually, not just what I learned. As part of the campaign, I put up a posting offering to hand over most of the budget to an aspiring growth hacker so that we could learn together. So this post is not just my experience, or my company Brass Check, but also those of William Wickey, the wonderful—and now eminently qualified—growth expert who helped me with much of what I did on this launch.

Let me take you all the through from inception to both launches of a book that has now sold tens of thousands of copies, been translated into 8 languages, generated well into six figures of revenue, allowed me to speak (paid) in London, Helsinki, Dublin, Vienna, New York and other places, opened up multiple investing opportunities and generally been fun and exciting.

So let’s get into it:

-This book didn’t start as a book. It started as a minimum viable product—a short-1,000 word article for FastCompany.com, in fact. The response to that article led to interest from Penguin/Portfolio but instead of following the traditional publishing playbook (it takes about 14 months to produce a physical book) we started by publishing a digital single right away.

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-I know this probably seems basic, but traditional publishing is a business that regularly gives six-figure, even seven-figure advances based simply on book proposals, even though most books never earn back that money.

-We agreed it would be 10,000 words—about as long as a New Yorker article. I would consider this my next iteration of the MVP. It was bigger, based on feedback but still a risk.

-Originally I struggled with the style and positioning. I read the other books and articles on the topic and found them to be very tactical—very current. I didn’t think that was a recipe for long-term success.

-There are a lot more people in marketing and PR than in growth hacking—so in terms of a potential audience, I wanted to bring growth hacking to them, rather than compete in the then small pool of tech folks.

-The title is that embodied. It’s Growth Hacker Marketing. I got both SEO/brand terms in the title. Then the subtitle: A Primer on the Future of PR, Marketing and Advertising has the other big two. Wins all around. A lot of authors don’t think of that–title as SEO marketing. But if you can get it, go for it.

-I also thought it was important that the book tell a story rather than just be a list of strategies or tactics (another thing I felt the other books did wrong). That’s why I decided to open the book with a story from my life. (This story also lent itself well to the talks I do about the book). I think this also helped with foreign translations in countries where the familiarity with growth hacking was less prevalent.

-In other words, sometimes mastering the basics and thinking outside your peer group sets you up for longer-term success.

-Why do you think I went out and interviewed some of the best and most influential growth hackers for the book? Of course, I wanted to include their thoughts in the book. It also fit with the story concept–that I was going out to study growth hacking for my own personal understanding. But I contacted them directly so they would feel a part of the process, so we could develop a relationship. People like Andrew Chen, Aaron Ginn, Noah Kagan and Sean Ellis have all supported the book in a big way. (Thanks guys–I really appreciate it)

-One of the best early growth hacks we did was the price of the ebook. My first book sold for $26.95 hardcover and $12.99 as an eBook. I dont think that did a first-time author like myself any favors in the acquiring customers department. So the digital single for the first round was $2.99. That meant basically anyone could afford to give it a read. By making the cost really low and then over delivering on content we set this book up to succeed. Even now with the new expanded version, the price is just $9.03.

-I think content marketing is one of the best strategies for marketing books—period. For GHM, I’ve written popular articles on MarketWatch, Fast Company, Thought Catalog, The Huffington Post, Shopify, Hacker News, SlideShare.com, reddit, Medium, and a few others. This article itself is content marketing. I’m giving away some lessons and thoughts in the hope that you’ll check out the book as a result.

-My reddit AMA which I did on r/startups, despite being a year old still drives traffic, questions and sales. Find a niche that you can do one in. They work!

-I designed this book to be viral. (Again, creating a positive disparity between price expectation and the product you deliver is important.) When I was writing I tried to keep my sentences short and make my revelations big and exciting. I wanted people to leave with important and actionable sound bites. This is doubly true for the revised and expanded version. One look at the Amazon page tells me we were successful. Hundreds and hundreds of Kindle and Goodreads readers have bookmarked, tweeted, and shared passages they liked. That’s not an accident.

-We also made a 15-second trailer for the book with Simplifilm. Why 15 seconds? It would also work as ad pre roll if we felt like it. Also doing text only and no voiceover, the trailer was cheaper, faster and more interesting. It’s done approximately 7,000 views on YouTube and many more on the Amazon page itself.

-Authors need to build permission assets. I added one page to the back of the ebook that offered about $60 in additional bonuses to the reader—all they had to do was email growthhackermarketing@gmail.com. About 10% of everyone who read the book asked for the bonuses. In addition to my reading list email —built to 30,000 people over 6 years—this was a great asset in my launch. I worked hard to convert those people into paying customers; I would have been an idiot if I let them walk out the door without at least trying to get their contact info.

-If you’re not sure where to start up building an email list, I would suggest Noah Kagan’s Email1k course. Tim Grahl also has some excellent resources.

-Starting with an ebook afforded me a luxury most authors never get. I got to incorporate real reader feedback into the project. Launching with a short digital version first meant I could optimize and improve based on the responses from those original readers. The book for sale now is not only 30 percent longer, but it’s packed with new examples, better writing, and fewer (ideally, no) errors.

-Also one thing I definitely fixed? The audiobook. For the first edition, I wasn’t able to do the reading. The person who did, did ok–but they made some embarrassing mistakes. Second time around, I made sure to record it myself at a studio in Hollywood. Audiobooks are a very underexploited niche and in my experience, fans appreciate it when authors take the time do the reading themselves.

-One concern I raised with my publisher with the new edition was: What about all the people who bought the first version and made it a hit? We were going to punish them by offering 50% new material at twice the price? That did not sound like a good way to drive word of mouth (retention and optimization are crucial and pissing off your fans is the antithesis of that)

-My editor came back with a great idea: Let’s do a limited giveaway of the new edition to every person who can prove they bought the ebook. I one upped it—I’ll sign the copies too. I ultimately signed about 1,000 with coordination with a publicist at Penguin, Stefanie Rosenblum, who directed the efforts.

-I know giving away your product seems counterproductive. But I deeply believe in what Shawn Coyne calls the 10,000 copy rule. Coyne believes a book publisher’s job is to get 10,000 people to sincerely give the book a try. Exposing 10,000 people who care about the arena of a given book gives it a chance that enough of them will actually read it and then recommend it to someone else. Word of mouth will keep the book alive from one year to the next. That’s what successful book marketing kickstarts.

-Satisfying my fans AND getting more copies out into the world? Double victory. Approximately 500 fans signed up for this. That’s 500 happy customers spreading word of mouth about this book. (One person on Twitter said “Thanks!” but they would buy the new version for themselves anyway. I like that too.)

Then my publisher shocked me again. On a call to discuss the marketing rollout of the new edition, Will Weisser the marketing director and associate publisher at Portfolio threw out an idea: Instead of spending the budget on something traditional, what if we used it as a prize for whoever had the best growth hacking idea?

-From that suggestion, came this post which 127 people applied for. What I was looking for was an enterprising young marketer who wanted to learn how book launches and growth work. I wanted someone who was open to learn and could follow instruction. (Almost every entry failed the latter part of this test. If you’re wondering why your good idea didn’t get an email back from me–I bet it didn’t follow the specific instructions I have in the job posting. This is something people miss when they try to find mentors).

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-Funny thing, an ancillary benefit of doing this out-of-the-box contest was a bunch of social media attention from influencers as well as a great thread on GrowthHackers.com about the contest.

So, here’s what we did and how we did it.


From the 100 plus applicants, I chose William Wickey to design and execute the launch of Growth Hacker Marketing. William specializes in content marketing, crisis communications, and lean marketing. He is a co-founder of BombSomm.com. If you want to work with William, you can find him @wwickey or Clarity.fm.

Why did I choose William? Believe it or not, it wasn’t his idea.

Originally, William suggested offering free copies of the book to a targeted, but limited, number of marketing and advertising-related courses. The goal was to get influential professors to teach Growth Hacker Marketing in a single lecture course and then draw attention to the book on their respective social channels. The narrative of ‘growth hacking’ evolving from fringe guerrilla tactic to official college curriculum in a few short years would be a story we could pitch to major media outlets.

The idea intrigued me, but upon asking some questions about it, I realized it didn’t have the scale or the trackability I was after. In William’s answers though I saw that he was smart, articulate, flexible, and that his original suggestion was just the tip of the iceberg. So I called him and based on that call, decided to work with him to find a better idea that we could do together.

Originally, I thought maybe we could do a stunt where we paid people to hand out physical books to students leaving marketing classes. This would be funny, but again upon reflection I realized it violated a lot of the main principles in growth hacking–it wasn’t testable, it wasn’t trackable and it wasn’t scalable.

The concept William and I arrived at was to build a powerful pre-launch team of early adopters by offering a free advance copy of Growth Hacker Marketing to college students actively enrolled in Fall 2014 courses covering advertising, PR, new media, entrepreneurship, and computer science.

The campaign would be executed in 5 week-long stages: building and testing the site, organic promotion, targeted free promotion, and paid promotion. Our objective: generate a wave of Amazon reviews, pre-orders and word-of-mouth PR from our pre-launch audience. Our goal: get 500 qualified signups with a potential cap of 1000.

Additionally, this strategy has benefits that resonate beyond the launch. Some professors have chosen to use the book in their course material which facilitates recurring sales by setting a precedent for other professors to add the book to their course reading in subsequent semesters. Most marketing professors are already talking about growth hacking-related concepts and students are interested in learning about it.

Yes, I want the book to be a success, but I also want to help up-and-comers in the industry adopt the proper mindset necessary to succeed. Money can be tight when you’re first getting started, and I am willing to help.

Students are eager to get free stuff but they also want jobs. Everything we’ve been teaching about marketing, about launching a business is flawed. The hope is that when students understand this with the help of Growth Hacker Marketing, they will be positively influenced for the rest of their careers and, in turn, recommend this book to others down the road. We hoped professors would take notice as well – and, that’s just what we found happening.

Timeline & Execution

Stage 1: Assembling the Toolkit

To execute this campaign we intentionally used a combination of free and low-cost tools to build our self-perpetuating marketing machine. Each step of the way, we choose to incorporate lean marketing principles, even if the option was available to spend more money.

To get started, William created a simple, free landing page on a subdomain of GrowthHackerMarketing.net using WordPress’s famous 5-minute installation and a free theme. This landing page contains a short explanation of the promotion, a few visual elements William pieced together in photoshop, a form, and some tools to track our performance. That’s about it.

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To make our offer more attractive, we stressed limited availability, short timeframe, and created an aura of exclusivity by offering the promotion only to a select segment of our audience.

During our initial discussions, a question arose about the most efficient way to add an element of sharability to our landing page. Did we want to incorporate an affiliate program, a tell-a-friend plugin, a MailChimp form, something else?

Remember, we are trying to create a promotion that perpetuates awareness. Creating an offer that is share-worthy is only the first step. Optimizing the user experience to maximize shares is just as important. The recipe for success includes reducing the number of clicks necessary for a user to share the offer, paired with the right incentivization.

When you don’t know the answer, ask someone who does.

Growth hacking isn’t some proprietary technical process shrouded in secrecy. In fact, it has grown and developed in the course of very public conversations. There are no trade secrets to guard. Leveraging community intelligence and making connections is a key component to being a growth hacker.

William went to the message boards.

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We got a great response to our question on GrowthHackers.com and learned a lot.

Eventually, we settled on a combination of Gravity Forms and AddThis to suit our specific needs. Gravity forms is a low cost WordPress plugin that allowed us to easily build a powerful, clean form that accepts file uploads. AddThis is a collection of social share buttons.

It’s worth noting that there is far more useful information in the comments section of this post than we could possibly use in this promotion. I can guarantee you I will be referencing these answers the next time I need to incorporate an affiliate rewards program into a project.

Always keep a recycling bin rather than a trash can.

After proofing the site and testing for bugs, the next step is getting it out there.

Stage 2: Pure Organic

We initially drew attention to the promotion with a single tweet.

Signups took off. About 16% of our total signups came from this one tweet.

On day two, someone posted the promotion in the r/UCR subreddit. They did this because, I imagine, I went to University of California-Riverside, and am a fairly well known drop out.

Over the next couple days, the offer showed up in other subreddits such as r/marketing, r/learnprogramming, r/GrowthHacking/, and r/startups/. Because this offer is genuinely interesting and beneficial to these specific reddit communities, the posts were quickly upvoted to the top of each subreddit.

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By the end of the promotion, over half the referral traffic came from Reddit. That’s great–and something I’ll keep in mind for future launches.

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Stage 3:  Targeted Free Promotion

Outward facing marketing and PR efforts need to be targeted at a small group of highly interested, loyal, and fanatical users.

Remember, we’re trying to hit a few hundred or a thousand key people – not millions. Not a blowout grand opening, but a strategic opening or a stunt that catches the attention of our core audience.

To get started, I knocked out the low hanging fruit: mentioning the promotion on my blog, including the offer in my reading list newsletter, and emailing professors who I have come into contact with over the years to pass the offer along to their students.

Thinking back to his original idea, William saw that we could still reach a relatively large pool of students by reaching out to a small, specific group of professors. Why not reach out to those following me on Twitter? William William used Moz’s free tool FollowerWonk to download a spreadsheet of @RyanHoliday’s twitter followers’ public info. He then did a search in excel for any user that had “professor,” “lecturer,” or “teacher” in the bio field.

We’ve now narrowed a list of over 30,000 down to 30. We know each of these professors has at least heard of Ryan Holiday and has the ear of potentially hundreds of students right in our target audience. We tweeted directly to a few of these professors (individually crafted messages to each) and got a great response.

Some professors passed the offer along to their students through their school listserv. Others followed up via email and requested physical copies for their whole class. Some Universities like The New School in New York are now teaching Growth Hacker Marketing in more than one class.

Stage 4: Targeted (and paid) Promotion

In the week leading up to the official release of the book we were pleased with the number of signups and pre-orders.

It’s not a 1 to 1 comparison, but we wanted to investigate how our organic posts performed in comparison to a minimal amount of paid social promotion.

On Reddit we advertised to college-specific subreddits.

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On Facebook, we promoted to 3 different audiences: friends of fans of the Growth Hacker Marketing Facebook page, fans of the top 10 college marketing programs in the country according to US News, and current college students who have indicated they are interested in marketing, advertising, and public relations.

Each of these groups should be potentially receptive to our offer. Friends of Fans of Growth Hacker Marketing are only one degree away from the book. They likely know someone who has read it and potentially share the same interests. Top marketing programs are already discussing growth hacking related concepts. The objectivity of the US News university are debatable, but nonetheless, fans of these programs are likely to be interested in new advancements in the marketing. And finally, we can directly target people who view  marketing, public relations, advertising, and computer science-related content.

Facebook’s Ad Manager makes it easy to target based on demographics and interest. The only way to know for sure which one of these audience will respond best to our offer is to test them out. For our promotion, targeting fans of the top marketing programs gave us a lower Cost Per Engagement.

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Our cost-per-clicks on these paid promotions were reasonable when it comes to online media buying, but as anticipated, our organic efforts to put this promotion in front of the people who genuinely benefit were far, far more effective.

Retention & Optimization

Whatever your current state is, it could be better. Always be tweaking.

We don’t have all the answers going in. Our job is not to find a silver bullet but rather continually massage and improve our offering based on feedback from the customer, including their use patterns. (Actions usually speak louder than words).

We used Optimizely to test multiple variations of our landing page: two headline variations, one version with additional testimonials about the ebook, and one version with significantly reduced body copy.

The version with significantly reduced body copy performed best with a 16% signup rate. The other variations only converted 8%-12% of visitors. This is not the type of insight that would be readily obvious without testing.

Midway through the promotion, we also observed that our AddThis social bar was not getting much action. In response to this data, William adjusted the form to redirect the user to a preloaded tweet about the book after clicking ‘Submit’ instead of just a thank you message. This resulted in several hundred tweets and retweets.

Tweet: I just got the expanded paperback of ‘Growth Hacker Marketing’ by @RyanHoliday @PenguinUSA http://goo.gl/o5QiDt (Students get it FREE!)
Stage 5: Following Up

Sometimes it take a few reminders to get the user to leave a review, share on social media, tell a friend, etc. This is called “drip marketing.”

We have no intention of sending out hundreds of free books and never hearing from these people again.

We have an email scheduled to go out a week after the books ship reminding everyone who got a copy to leave a review on Amazon. We will also include a brief survey to learn more about our audience and how we can fine tune the product the next time around. With the book in-hand, the reader is more eager to comply. After all, they just got a book for free. A month or so later, we will send a similar, final email.

Included with the book itself is an insert that William wrote with a similar call to action. It contains a QR code linking to the review page along with one final stab at virality.

On our form, we asked for twitter handles. By doing a simple mail merge in Microsoft Word, we instantly created a list of unique inserts that each include a different twitter handle and a challenge to reach out with another reader and make a connection.

Here is how it reads:

One last thing I want to leave you with:

Leveraging community intelligence and making connections is a key component to being a growth hacker. Is one of the most important things I have been able to put into practice throughout my career.

[Twitter_Handle] on Twitter also got a free copy of Growth Hacker Marketing. They’re a student like you.

Why don’t you ask them about what they’re working on?

This will get people talking about Growth Hacker Marketing on Twitter again, and hopefully will create few meaningful connections.

Who knows? Maybe the next two people to change the game in Silicon Valley will get their introduction right here.

I also sent a follow up email to all the students who got free copies thanking them for their participation, and linking them to some of my popular articles about dropping out of school and finding mentors.


A dedicated pre-launch audience

845 Verified Signups

16% Conversion Rate on Signups

Approximately 500 Pre-orders for the paperback

Even after giving away all these free copies, pre-orders actually went up!

Our single-page form contained 14 fields, seven of which were required. Having so many fields decreased our conversion rate but gave us a higher percentage of qualified entries. Very little list cleanup was required on the back end. This is be a huge timesaver when dealing with thousands of entries and a welcome trade off when entry quality is far more important than quantity.

Nonetheless, a certain amount of spam and bogus entries are a part of the game. Always check for duplicate mailing and IP address. We requested screenshots of course schedules and sign ups from .edu addresses. Neither of these fields were required, but they did work as a deterrent to scammers.

One thing that is well worth the money is batch authenticating mailing addresses with a service like Smarty Streets. For less than $30, they standardized and validated our address spreadsheet. Even legitimate entries can have deliverability issues. You will have to pay to resend undeliverable books, along with an apology to the people who were expecting them on a certain date. Not only that, but packages can get absolutely beat to hell going through that extra postal sorting. You can might end up having to repackage or replace the merchandise.

Then, hopefully having made it as easy as possible, we handed it off to Stefanie at Portfolio for fulfillment. (I could not have done this without their support). The copies from both sendouts have begun arriving now to wonderful results.

Other Misc. Marketing Endeavors:

-We offered 20 free signed copies of Growth Hacker Marketing to Product Hunt users. This mutually beneficial arrangement offers value to Product Hunt’s users and exposes Growth Hacker Marketing a relevant, but potentially new audience. The Product Hunt giveaway alone brought in over 500 signups (and, an additional 100 people signed up for my reading enewsletter from that landing page.) For the 480 or so people who did not win, we followed up with an email thanking them for their participation containing the first chapter of the book for free.

-I mentioned that the trailer was 15 seconds so it could be run as an ad. We’re currently running it as a pre-roll on on a handful of targeted videos about growth hacking on YouTube.

-Penguin posted a photo on twitter of all the books we gave away and then Nick Bilton of the New York Times favorited it. I thought that was pretty cool

-I made a new Slideshare about growth hacking this book. It’s at nearly 30,000 views now and was featured well on the site’s homepage.

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-On the day of the book’s launch, I posted a photo of my goat playing with a copy of the book on r/goats. It became the #1 photo in the subreddit and did a couple thousand views. It probably sold about 2 copies but the “goat hacking” was so funny I couldn’t help myself.

-Having great expanded my various lists with these promotions, over the next few weeks and months I will work to onboard these new readers with targeted emails based on writing I have done, my other books, and so forth. Permission marketing is the best form there is.

-And because marketing never ends, we’ll continue to refine these tactics until they get better. We’ll come up with new stuff too.


What I wanted to accomplish this launch was prove that there is a different way to do marketing for a book. It doesn’t have to be complicated–it can be common sense (like get the book in people’s hands however possible).

To me, growth hacking is about maximizing ROI – about expanding our energies and efforts where they will be most effective. The old model makes being wrong incredibly expensive. Once you break out of the shackles of antiquated notions of what is or isn’t marketing, the whole field becomes cheaper, easier, and much more, scalable. The game changes forever.

It gets exponentially better.

Thank you for reading.

Ryan Holiday is the author of The Obstacle is the Way, Growth Hacker Marketing and the editor of Betabeat.com. He is a partner at Brass Check, a book and media advisory firm.

Disrupting How Bestsellers Are Made: Apply Startup-style Growth Hacking To Publishing