John J: The vast majority of revenue in the creative industries, from publishing to music to Hollywood, comes from content that’s over a year old. That’s right. We all get excited about the launch, about the new glitzy thing. But the fact is, most businesses rely on that thing that sells over and over and over again, year, after year, after year. after year. In this episode I visit with Ryan Holiday, he is the author of “Perennial Seller: The Art of Making and Marketing Work That Lasts.” He’s also a brilliant guy. Check it out.
Hello and welcome to another episode of the Duct Tape Marketing podcast. This is John Jantsch and my guest today is Ryan Holiday. He is the author of a new book we’re gonna talk about today called “Perennial Seller: The Art of Making and Marketing Work That Lasts.” Ryan is also involved, what’s this, like sixth or seventh book I think, and a lot of other marketing areas. So, we’re just gonna go all over the place. So, welcome Ryan.
Ryan H: Thank you for having me.
John J: So, which is it? Sixth book?
Ryan H: This is six.
John J: Yeah. So you’ve certainly touched in some marketing areas. You took on the world on online PR. You have probably established yourself as one of most current experts in the world of stoicism. Is that the best way to say that?
Ryan H: I guess so.
John J: And then obviously you’re back with another marketing book. So, how do you keep it all straight?
Ryan H: I don’t think they’re separate in the sense that one requires one mind and the other requires some totally different mind. I think … What I’m trying to do with book is explain what you and I both know about the publishing industry, which is most books are published and they don’t last. Same is true with most blogs, most podcasts, most movies, most television shows. They come out, they do a big blitz of marketing, and then they don’t go anywhere. I’m actually more interested … obviously you’re using the phrase “Duct Tape Marketing” in one sense, but I’m more interested in the business that’s duct-taped together but it keeps going and going-
John J: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Ryan H: … than the one that looked pretty and fancy, and had its celebrity endorsements and a big advertising campaign but ultimately didn’t resonate with people and didn’t stand the test of time. I’m fascinated by the things that endure and particularly as an author I’m interested only in writing books that have a chance to last.
John J: So, let’s start with … You kinda defined what it wasn’t, so let’s have sort of a succinct, what is a perennial seller?
Ryan H: Perennial seller, each industry has its own sort of metrics. In publishing, for example, a book is considered back list after one year. In the music industry, an album is considered a catalog album after 18 months. Movies tend to really be judged on their opening weekend. So a movie that performs at the theater for five weekends in a row is more perennial that obviously one that didn’t perform at all. So, it’s somewhat of a vague term. But basically it’s defining things that sell for longer than the standard shelf life of products in that space, anything that year in and year out becomes kind of a dependable resource that’s always finding new customers, new clients, new fans, new audience. That’s what I’m obsessed with, that’s what I try to make around work. And I think it also the most under-explored part of the creative industries.
John J: And what’s interesting when I read this book, because you talk about the creative industries and I’ll touch on this in a minute, but I think it applies to a lot of things, a lot of businesses, noncreative businesses.
Ryan H: Sure.
John J: I think what you talk about in this book really touches on that, because really there’s kind of two big elements. There’s the creating something with a perennial mindset. But then there’s also the launching of it, the marketing of it, that does make it that. Would you agree that there are some books out there that just they didn’t have the right approach in marketing them, so they didn’t turn into a perennial seller, but it wasn’t really a reflection on the quality of the content.
Ryan H: Oh, absolutely! I would say that there are probably more undiscovered brilliant works of art than there are discovered brilliant works of art. So I would say the shelves groan under the weight of geniuses or genius masterworks that we don’t know about because the author or the screenwriter, or the musician, or the producer believed in that old myth that “If you build it they will come.” I would say there’s probably and to a more dangerous, self-destructive myth out there. A lot of creative people really identify with that label, “I’m the creator. I’m the creative person.” And then they think the marketer is this other person that they hand it off to. I say that ideally that should be two minds in the same body. Because, think about it, if you’re not willing to hustle and promote and market your own work, what does that say about the quality of that work or your belief in it?
John J: Yeah. So what about the pressure that some creators, you probably feel it a little bit, probably less than some, to produce the next thing. Does that sometimes weigh on producing something that shouldn’t be produced?
Ryan H: Oh, that’s a good question. Yeah. I do think we can mistake quantity for quality certainly. And we can rush out something before it’s ready. I’d say like, and you’ve probably experienced this with your publishers as well, sometimes the author has to be a big enough jerk to say, “No. We’re gonna stop and we’re gonna sit here and we’re gonna take as much time as it requires to get it right.” Other times the author has to be the person who’s rushing forward and being the energy. So I do feel like every time I make something I want to get it out into the world as soon as possible and I often have to stop and remind myself, is this as good as it can be? Am I talking enough time to get it right? If this thing is gonna hopefully sell for 5 years or 10 years of 100 years, what’s one more week to stop and think about the cover? Or what’s one more week to really get the copy right? Or what’s another 5000 dollars to spend on advertising, or marketing, or testing?
So, I think you have to stop in that sense. And then also you have to make sure that you’re not falling into the creator’s trap of just getting so off into the weeds and obsessing about every small detail that you never end up shipping.
John J: Do you find that you ever, formula might not be the right word, but do you find, in hindsight now, in trying to write a perennial seller, that you write to a certain approach or process as opposed to maybe what really kind of drives you and kind of the fire in your belly. I don’t know if I asked that right. Do you see what I’m getting at?
Ryan H: Yeah. It’s like, are you chasing what’s in your heart or are you chasing what you think is gonna sell better.
John J: Right, right.
Ryan H: Yeah. There’s certainly that temptation. I mean, look, Hollywood is in that trap. It’s why they make franchise movie after franchise movie, and they don’t take risks. And that can be a problem I think. I’m a big believer in the concepts in blue ocean strategy, you know, the idea of going where there’s no competition. So I’m always a little bit afraid each time I put something out and that, in a weird paradoxical way, that fear is reassuring because it means I’m doing something new. So, even with “Perennial Seller” my last three books have been about philosophy and history and they’ve sold really, really well. So, obviously, a more expected move would be to continue that series, and this is a bit of a detour. But I really couldn’t get these themes out of my head, I really believed in it.
On release day, which was a couple of weeks ago, I sat there and I’m chewing my fingernails. Did I make the right call? Is this going to be an embarrassment? Is this gonna turn out wrong? So, I think chasing that fear a little bit is important.
John J: So how do you keep up with, so the idea behind the “Perennial Seller” is that maybe there’s not a whole lot of stuff in it that in five years from now we’re not even gonna be talking about. For example, could you write a “Perennial Seller” about social media?
Ryan H: Well, when I wrote “Growth After Marketing” that was very much a trend of the moment, the idea of the Silicon Valley growth hacker. But as I was writing it I was trying to, Jeff Bezos has this idea of focusing on the parts of a business that don’t change. And so, people, what I decided to end up focus on, and this was a very conscious choice before I wrote a word, was everyone was talking about the specific hacks. Hey, here’s what so and so’s doing on Facebook, or here’s what so and so has managed to do on Reddit or with this ad platform, or this service. And I realized that no only would that date the book, but it would be very intimidating to your average reader who’s being introduced to the concept for the first time. So I ended up focusing on the mindset of growth hacker rather than the specific tactics or tools.
And I would say that book, I think this fall will be it’s fifth year anniversary, maybe four, I don’t remember exactly, but that book has lasted two or three years longer than it might otherwise have lasted had I gone the other direction. And I’m not saying it’s gonna be discovered in an archeological dig in 10 centuries from now, and I would be very honest with myself about what that book is and what it was trying to do. But I do think it’s certainly lasted longer than other books published at the same time about more or less the same topic.
John J: So, would you call “Ego Is The Enemy” a perennial seller?
Ryan H: It’s only been out, it came out in July of 2016. So, it’s only been out for a little over a year now. But it sells over 1000 copies a week. It’s getting published in new languages. I’m not necessarily doing much in the way of marketing and yet I get emails every day from people saying that they just heard about it. So, it has the trending signs of being perennial, but it’s too early to tell. The book that came before it, “The Obstacle Is The Way,” came out in 2014 and actually sells better weekly that Ego, so I would say it’s on the cusp of being defined as one of those books.
John J: So, is your thought on the process of creating a perennial seller … did you go into those books with that process in mind, or is the process now sort of because you’ve done those books?
Ryan H: It’s a little bit of both. I learn on every project that I do. Even when I work with other authors, I feel like I’m always learning. But the decision to say, base a book on a two thousand year old effective form of philosophy is, I think, a far safer and more perennial bet that, say, basing it on some new psychology study that came out of Harvard. Right? I think a lot of people when they’re writing their books, they’re not writing their books or making a movie … Steven Pressfield famously bases a lot of his books on really ancient stories or ancient story arks, knowing that, hey, this is a proven formula or this is a proven recipe. An interesting theory I heard the other day was that the FX series, “Sons of Anarchy” is actually just a remake of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” with motorcycles.
And so, it’s like, if you’re an executive and you’re betting between this crazy show about this random topic and then you’re going, “Hey, we’re doing one of the most popular storylines in the history of the English language, but it’s gonna be about this motorcycle gang.” One to me is a much safer, and I actually think creatively more interesting bet.
John J: Well, you hear a lot of startups pitching themselves that way. It’s we’re Airbnb for X. Because I-
Ryan H: Totally.
John J: … really think that’s what people are trying to do, is connect to something that’s already proven.
Ryan H: Yeah. And look, from a marketing perspective that’s very dangerous in the sense that you never want to … like when I hear a startup go, “Oh, we’re like Facebook, but we do this one tiny other little thing differently.” That’s not that interesting. If you notice, “Sons of Anarchy” has never said, didn’t say, “We’re a ‘Hamlet’ with motorcycles.” They said, “We’re this crazy story with motorcycles, with amazing acting in it, and it’s beautifully shot and it’s got all this action in it.” They’re selling it on the merits. But, yeah, behind closed doors I think it is very important to have something you’re rooted in or something that you’re aspiring to. I think that’s usually important.
John J: Yeah, ’cause you want to get people’s attention very quickly, or at least get them to understand … based on something they already understand I guess, is probably what’s going on there.
Ryan H: Sure.
John J: So, you have a bit of … I read an interview that you did previously on the book and you kind of had four steps in the process. You do help a lot of other authors both get published and promote their books. So, is there kind of a process for … again, obviously you’re trying to help them create the best possible book that’s gonna sell the most, but is there kind of a step one, step two kind of approach?
Ryan H: Yeah. I break the creative process or the creating of “Perennial Seller,” and again not just books, in any sort of creative field whether you’re opening a coffee shop or you’re writing the great American novel. The first step to me is the creative phase, that’s what you’re bringing into it, that’s what your intentions are, that’s how much work you’re putting in, that’s the topic that you’re picking, all of these things. Then, there’s a process, the benchmark in publishing for me is when you have your first draft of the manuscript, you’re not done by any means, but you’ve created a chunk of what you’re trying to create, and now I want you to start thinking about your audience. I want you to think about how you’re gonna title this thing. I want you to think about, did you actually accomplish what you’d originally set out to accomplish. Right?
Harper Lee famously turns in a draft of “To Kill A Mockingbird,” and her editor says isn’t a fully formed novel. Obviously she thought that’s what she did, but she had to submit herself to external feedback and sort of look objectively at what she’d made. So I think polishing, I call it the sort of polishing and packing and positioning phase of things, is the next step. And then, you’re about halfway through. ‘Cause now you’re looking down the barrel of the launch. And how are you getting out into the world? Who are gonna be the first thousand users or thousand customers? What’s your advertising strategy gonna be? What’s your public relations strategy gonna be? What’s your influencer strategy gonna be? What’s your, you know, how are you getting attention for this? That’s the essential phase. How are you launching this out into the world?
And then I think the final phase, and this is where it wort of bends back towards the first phase, is the development of a platform and a career. You know, oftentimes the best marketing thing you can do for a book, is to write another book because it develops a new audience. I want to make sure that people have acquired an email list or a brand or a platform that they can launch their work from. I want you to make sure that also you’re not quitting on this thing prematurely. To me, the platform is the edifice that’s supporting you being invested in this project over the long term. So, again, it’s one, two, three, four. But really it’s more of a circle than a line and it’s bringing you back towards, “Oh, now I’m starting my next project.” Maybe that’s Apple Launches the iPod and then they’re thinking about the iPhone and the two are feeding into each other.
John J: You know what’s interesting when I listen to you describe that process, I think you could use that process for writing a single blog post. You could use that process for launching a product.
Ryan H: Absolutely. The two questions that I tell writers of articles, ’cause I have a lot of editorial clients, I work with the New York Observer, I’ve worked with Complex Media and Entrepreneur, and a bunch of other places. I always say you have to go into every article that you write and have an answer to these two questions; who am I making this for and how are they gonna find out about it? So, that’s really step one and two, and step three and four. So, yes, I think it works on a very small level. It’s how you would launch a company, but it’s also how you would launch a product inside that company.
John J: Do you have would-be authors pitching you ideas that you kind of have to say, “Look, go home and come back when you’re serious about this, or that you can build a platform and that’s work.”
Ryan H: Yeah, yeah. I mean, a lot of people, I think it’s very understandable, but the first creative instinct is what this does for you. Right? It’s like I’m really excited about this or this would be really good for my brand, or I could get a lot of clients with this. And I always push back on those reasons because they’re very selfish reasons. And at the end of the day the only reason your product is gonna be a success is because one person is recommending it to another person. And so I’m trying to urge them to root their work in something more meaningful, more value-driven, value-creation driven. And so, yeah, I think that’s a big problem.
And then I think that people often under-estimate just how difficult making anything is. Elon Musk compared starting a company to eating glass. And George Orwell compared writing a book to a bout with a long illnesses. And I think both of those descriptors are pretty good. So, don’t rush into it because if it doesn’t last you’re gonna have to do it again.
John J: So, in addition to selling your own books and helping others sell books, your book list has become somewhat known for selling a lot of books as well. So, you want to talk a little bit about that? Is that sort of a passion project of yours?
Ryan H: Sure. I mean, it started both as a passion project and as something kind of selfish. In 2009 I used to … I started a blog probably in 2006 and I used to just post reading recommendations on there. And I noticed people would occasionally click them and they liked it. And I thought, one day I’m gonna want to produce my own book and I’m gonna need an email list to promote it. But there’s no reason anyone would sign up for an email list from this random guide. And so I started a really small email list where I just recommended books that I liked. I think the first one was 50 people, and now it’s pushing 85,000 people. And I’ve gotten to send six emails to that list for my own books, which is pretty cool. But it became the platform that I was then able to launch my stuff from.
And you know it’s funny, I think there’s a point here about competition. People have heard that story and then gone, “I’m gonna go create my own reading list newsletter.” And to me that’s the wrong lesson. It’s like, I already created that newsletter. I don’t care if you compete with me, but the public only has so much room for so many of those newsletters, you should go find something else that doesn’t exist and make that. That’s where I think you’ll have the biggest success and see the most gains.
John J: James Altucher, who has been on this show, does a great job with that too, but he’s very selective around a couple books each month around a related topic. And so I think it’s kind of a neat way for him to do it. He’ll recommend, you probably are familiar with his newsletter-
Ryan H: Yeah.
John J: … but he’ll recommend three books that all sort of relate to each other. I always enjoy his recommendations as well.
Ryan H: No, I love his, and I’ve talked to him a bunch. He always tells me that I could do better, I would sell more books if I recommended around themes or … I try to pick the books that I liked that month, so it’s not the most … As you said, it’s a passion project. It’s not the most business friendly thing, but it’s not supposed to reach a million people. It’s supposed to reach a smaller group and I think that’s key too, sort of knowing what success looks like to you.
John J: Yeah, and I think that you’ve done it long enough too that people know what they’re getting. I mean, they’ve had experience and they loved what you wrote about or they didn’t, and then they left. So, I think the people that are there probably really are in tune with what you’re writing about I suspect.
So, Ryan, tell people where they can get “Perennial Seller” and anything else you want to share with us about getting in touch with you.
Ryan H: Yeah. The book should be everywhere books are sold. And you can follow me on social media @ryanholiday pretty much everywhere. And my website is ryanholiday.net, and my email’s on there too.
John J: Awesome. Well, Ryan, I appreciate you taking the time and I suspect you will have another, we won’t call it a perennial seller yet, but certainly another best-seller on your hands. And I really love your work.
Ryan H: Well, thank you. And can I think you really fast? It’s amazing to me, you had me on for my very first book and it’s crazy to think now how many years ago that was, and I’m glad we’re both still here.
John J: That is pretty funny. You remember that Google hangout we did?
Ryan H: I do! That was one of the most absurd things that ever happened to me.
John J: It was pretty out there I think. I had fun anyway.
Ryan H: I did too. We might have been the only two.
John J: Yeah, yeah. David, David [Memmer 00:23:55], David Memmer and Scott was on there. He loved it too. There was one person that didn’t have fun. So, at any rate. We’ll put a link or a breadcrumb to it for those of you that are listening in are curious about what in the world we’re talking about.
Ryan H: Awesome. Thank you.
John J: Hey, thanks for listening to this episode of the Duct Tape Marketing podcast. Wonder if you could do me a favor? Could you leave an honest review on iTunes? Your ratings and reviews really help and I promise I read each and every one. Thanks.