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3 Things I Learned Moving from Content Marketer to Thriller Novel…

I started working in the content marketing industry 20 years ago.

Everything I did from the start until 2018 revolved around teaching businesses about content marketing and how they could use it effectively.

But, in 2018, I quit everything.

Not only that, I took a year-long sabbatical, which included a full 30 days of no electronics.

It was during that year I decided to follow a new passion: writing.

I mean, I’ve always been a writer in some capacity. I have five published business books to prove it.

I’m talking about writing fiction. Specifically, a thriller novel.

I can honestly say it was one of the most difficult transitions of my life.

Business writing, for me, always came naturally.

Writing fiction? I was all thumbs.

But I pushed through … and actually ended up learning quite a few things during my transition from content marketer to novelist.

Here are three.

1. Writers write

I started the writing process for my thriller novel, The Will to Die, in January of 2018.

It wasn’t much of a start. Call it writer’s block or a sheer lack of ideas, but I couldn’t find any rhythm.

I talked to a number of my writer friends who told me to create an outline of the story first, then tackle one chapter at a time.

That made it worse.

Nine months passed and I had nothing substantial to show for it.

Then I listened to a James Altucher podcast episode. One of the guests was talking about writing tips. He said (I’m paraphrasing):

“Writers write. If you want to be a writer, you need to get up in the morning and start writing … about anything. Do this every day. Then you’ll find your rhythm.”

I followed the advice. The first day I wrote 500 horrible words. The next day was the same. The third day was a bit better.

After about a week, I found my groove. Things just started to flow. Every weekday, I wrote at least 500 words. Some days, 500 words turned into 3,500.

Three months later, on January 21, 2019, I finished the draft manuscript for the book.

My success in writing was comparable to my success in running. After not running regularly for 20 years, I set a goal to run more in 2006.

The first time out, I couldn’t even make it a half-mile. The next day, I ran a little further. The third day, I ran a mile. Today, I can run 10 miles without breaking a sweat.

Set a goal. Do it every day. Find your rhythm.

Writers write.

2. Everyone publishes books the exact same way

There are basically two ways to publish a novel.

You can go the traditional route. First, find an agent (good luck getting anyone to pay attention to you if you don’t have a reputation).

If you land an agent, the agent will pitch the book.

Then, if you’re lucky enough to get a book deal, you go through an excruciatingly long process toward publishing … most likely print and ebook versions simultaneously. Best case scenario, the process takes 12 to 18 months.

Or, you can self-publish, as most novelists do. In this case, everything (and I mean EVERYTHING) revolves around Amazon.

Most writers use Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) to produce their ebooks, and Amazon will give you higher commissions (70% versus 30%) if you only sell via Amazon.

It’s possible that a writer may produce a print or audio version, but just about everything is built for Kindle.

That’s it. Just two ways to publish a novel.

Even if you want to launch your book in audio on Audible, Amazon won’t let you do it. In order to create an Audible version, you must have, at minimum, an ebook page first.

I simply couldn’t believe this active discrimination against audio, or anything different for that matter.

Coming from content marketing, brands are always looking at different ways to publish to find traction. Obviously, that concept never made it to the book industry.

All this led me to believe that there is a huge opportunity for a different approach in book publishing.

If you look at content marketing best practices, the marketers who develop real audiences and platforms focus on launching one type of content and one channel.

Copyblogger did that with text and a blog. Entrepreneur on Fire (EOF) did that with audio and a podcast. PewDiePie did that with video and YouTube.

Would this work in the book publishing industry? It could, depending on the overall goal.

Most novelists want to make money right away and charge for their books. With that same old self-publishing model, most novelists never sell a thousand copies.

My goal was to build an audience so that there would be a second book. Being patient is a competitive advantage. So is giving away content for free.

I decided to launch my novel in audio format, leveraging only podcast players, mostly Apple Podcasts, and do so absolutely free.

So far, the early results are extremely positive, with tens of thousands of downloads of the chapters and we’ve barely even started.

I’m also seeing my enewsletter subscription rate increase dramatically. The jury’s still out, but things are looking up.

3. You learn how to market (again)

My wife and I started with what became Content Marketing Institute in 2007.

After some very challenging times, we built a loyal audience by 2011, acquiring over 100,000 opt-in subscribers.

Once you build an audience like that, much of what you do goes on autopilot.

You create consistent content that is valuable to your audience, and things just keep going up. Today, CMI has more than 200,000 subscribers.

With the novel, I had to start over … and learn how to build an audience all over again.

The initial draft of the novel took (after the writer’s block) about four months.

But marketing the novel?

I needed to start six months prior to book release, and here are the most important points.

Create an amazing enewsletter and platform

If I wanted to build a long-term audience where I had some control over the database (that means not on social media platforms), I needed a simply great email offer.

So first, I needed to recreate my website to focus on driving enewsletter subscribers. Then, I needed to develop and distribute a regular newsletter (in my case, it’s The Random Newsletter).

And of course, I’d need an incentive to signup, so I created a few free downloadable pieces of content as well.

After starting at zero, I’m currently at a couple thousand subscribers and growing fast. It reminds me exactly of the process I started CMI with in 2007.

Reactivate social media audiences

Even though I had fairly large social media audiences, they all followed me for marketing, not for novels set in a funeral home.

In addition, I didn’t do anything substantial on social media in 2018, so even though I had 150,000 followers on Twitter and 250,000 on LinkedIn, getting any kind of traction again was going to take work.

I opted for regular, daily short-form videos, distributed on both Twitter and LinkedIn.

It worked.

(Note: I tried the same on my Facebook business page but the results were terrible.)

I generally asked a question and added some value in the video. The sweet spot seems to be between 30 and 40 seconds of video length. As of now, I can’t find any “time of day sent” factors.

Another important find was the use of hashtags, especially on LinkedIn. Before doing this, I never knew hashtags were really a thing on LinkedIn (as opposed to Twitter).

If done right, you can be trending for a particular post and gain traffic from outside your follower base.

Treat every piece of content like a product launch

This is a key tenet to content marketing, so I was glad to leverage it for my novel.

Three months from book release, I put together an entire pre-marketing release plan, just like I would any other piece of content.

  • Early review list: I asked my current community if anyone wanted to review the book early. Those 80+ people were critical in getting the book off to a great start.
  • Influencer list and dates: Curated a list of more than 100 influencers and included dates of when I reached out to them and if they could help promote the book or not.
  • Media sources: A list of local and national media that would be interested in the story. For each one, we developed a separate “press release” based on their audience.
  • Interview possibilities: A list of blogs and podcasts that may be interested in interviewing me about the book, or about a particular subject where I could be an expert.
  • Writing opportunities: Blogs and media sites that are looking for guest posts on marketing or writing topics.
  • Paid sponsorships: Yes, we are paying for promotion of the book as well. Specifically, we bought space with four true crime podcasts to promote the book, as well as multiple email promotions to audiobook listeners and thriller readers.
  • Social ads: We are testing social media ads on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.

Essentially, this is the same kind of planning we would do at CMI for launching a new piece of research or a physical event, but I’ve found that most authors rarely pre-market in such detail.

Marketing is the bottom line

Overall, the process solidified a thought I’ve always believed, and is true today more than ever before:

A content creator needs to spend as much time — if not drastically more time, energy, and money — on marketing the content than on the content itself.


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