15 min read

How to Sell a Million Copies of Your Non-Fiction Book

Less than 0.003% of books published will ever sell a million copies. This article will show you exactly what it takes to be in that 0.003%.
How to Sell a Million Copies of Your Non-Fiction Book

I have a confession: I'm a book marketing nerd.

Over the last two decades, I've studied and deconstructed dozens of bestselling books to see what makes them go "viral" – i.e. sell a million copies.

Here's what I learned: Selling a million copies is not luck. It's a science.

BIG f*ing disclaimer - I am NOT saying any author can sell a million copies if they follow the formula in this post. I'm saying that mega-successful authors intentionally maximize their probabilities for commercial success by adhering to these principles. Remember: Very few authors can achieve this, there are no guarantees, and most nonfiction books sell less than 1,000 copies total.

I learned this after advising more than 100+ non-fiction authors on their book launches and marketing strategies.

Below is a list of some of the authors I've either (A) personally worked with, (B) offered paid consultations to, or (C) talked in-depth with about the promotion of their books and brands.

  • Tim Ferriss – The 4-Hour Body *
  • Ramit Sethi – I Will Teach You to Be Rich *
  • David Goggins – Never Finished **
  • Tucker Max – I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell *
  • James Clear – Atomic Habits **
  • Eric Ries – Lean Startup *
  • Charles Duhigg – The Power of Habit **
  • Gary Vaynerchuk – Crush It!
  • Ben Casnocha – The Startup of You
  • Ryan Holiday – Trust Me, I'm Lying
  • Michael Ovitz – Who Is Michael Ovitz?
  • Soleil Moon Frye – Happy Chaos
  • Chad Mureta – App Empire
  • Michael Ellsberg – The Education of Millionaires
  • Scott Young – Ultralearning
  • Noah Kagan – Million Dollar Weekend
  • Ali Abdaal – Feel Good Productivity
  • Evan Loomis & Evan Baehr – Get Backed

(* indicates 1M+ copies sold, ** indicates 10M+ copies sold)

I attribute 100% of their success to these authors. My involvement in their work ranged from as little as I gave them a couple tips during a lunch meeting, all the way up to I was in the f*ing trenches with them, from start to finish!

One thing that's inarguable is what I gained from them: I learned a TON of insights while observing the successes of my clients and author friends.

In this article, I am going to share those lessons with you. I’ve deconstructed all of these mega-bestselling authors’ formulas for success, and put them into a framework that can help YOU increase the likelihood of your book selling 1,000,000+ copies.

Now, before we proceed, I want to answer an important question...

Do You Have To Hit The New York Times Bestseller List to Sell a Million Copies?

I'll never forget the launch of The 4-Hour Body.

After weeks of manic marketing, we'd arrived at the moment where we'd discover whether the book hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list.

Suddenly, there it was.

Accurate representation of how my bloodshot eyes read the good news.
Me, Tim Ferriss, Chris Ashenden (founder of Athletic Greens), and Steve Hanselman

From that launch, the book hit:

  • #1 New York Times bestseller list (Self-Help category)
  • #1 Barnes & Noble overall
  • #1 Amazon OVERALL
  • 63,000 copies sold over two weeks

Years after the launch, The 4-Hour Body sold its 1,000,000th copy.

So, here's the question:

Would the book have sold a million copies if it had not hit the New York Times bestseller list?

My opinion: The NYT bestseller list was NOT essential to sell a million copies.

Was the launch essential? Absolutely!

Did the bestseller lists give the book visibility? Definitely (albeit for a brief period).

Were the bestseller lists a REQUIREMENT to sell a million copies?? In other words, were they causal to the book's long-term success?

Nope. Tim might argue with me, and the man is a genius so he might be right. After all, the launch creates the spark that ignites the wildfire.

Still, I firmly believe that in order to sell a million copies of your book, you do NOT need to hit the NYT bestseller list. Or any bestseller list.

Ask any celebrity author who's hit a bestseller list, then dropped off, only to sell a few hundred (or a few dozen) copies per year moving forward.

So what do you need to sell a million copies?

A book that markets and sells itself, in perpetuity.

That’s what the rest of this article is going to cover, so read on.

"How do I sell a million copies of my book?"

- Every Author Ever

Proceed With Caution

"To sell a million copies" sounds like a nice goal, doesn't it?

But you have to face the facts. It's a delusional goal for 99.99% of authors.

Here's why: Of the 500,000+ books that are published each year, less than 20 books sell a million copies (and that includes fiction novels!)

Upon hearing that, you might think your odds are 1 in 25,000…

But your odds are significantly lower than that.

Selling a million copies over the lifetime of a book is possible, but there are several major footnotes to bear in mind:

  • Selling a million copies (almost) never happens overnight. One of the most successful non-fiction authors, Michael Pollan, sold nearly 2 million copies of the wildly successful Omnivore’s Dilemma… and it took TEN YEARS after its release. There are exceptions to this rule (e.g. Atomic Habits by James Clear, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*** by Mark Manson), but 99.96% of authors can expect their annual sales to be less than 100,000 copies.
  • Your publisher will not help you sell a million copies. Your publisher is not in the marketing business — they’re in the distribution game. They don’t sell your book, they just help you make it great and then move copies around. Big-5 publishers are very good at a few key things, but they won't help you get customers to pull out their credit cards and buy it.
  • Mainstream media will not help you sell a million copies. I know authors who sold fewer than 10 copies during appearances on national TV shows, such as Good Morning America. I have a friend who was on Oprah a few years ago, and she sold less than 1,000 copies of her book. Mainstream press is helpful, but it doesn't always mean more sales.
  • If you are aiming to make millions of dollars with your book,
    "selling copies" is the least efficient path.
    If you are a self-published author, you can make tons of money from your book, in many different ways. All of which have nothing to do with the number of copies sold. So if you think selling millions of copies is your path to riches, think again. There are far better ways to get rich.
  • No guarantees. Your book might create a new category, but there‘s no guarantee that it will stand apart in the genre. Your book might launch at a great time, but there‘s no guarantee that it will resonate. You might get distribution in bookstores, but there’s no guarantee that your book will fly off the shelves. You might have a provocative title and beautiful cover, but there’s no guarantee that thousands of people will want to post about it. There. Are. No. Guarantees.
  • Survivorship bias. This article suffers from it. I've analyzed just a fraction of the survivors, and left out all the books that didn't sell a million copies. I'm sure there are many books who have plenty of the qualities listed below, but – for whatever reason – never took off. You also have your own confirmation bias going on, which I've seen from many authors who message me "I have everything you list in your article!" Maybe, maybe not. Just be mindful of viewing this article as validation that you're going to be a mega-success. Odds are, you won't be.

All that said, I do believe it's 100% worthwhile to optimize your book – and make it as potent as possible – to increase its likelihood of becoming a commercial success. (That's why the first phase of book marketing is actually editing, where you turn it into a book that markets itself.)

That brings us to this next section – the reason you're here – which will show the hidden DNA behind nonfiction books that sell a million copies!

You can get my "Million Copies Editing Scoresheet" for free when you sign up for my newsletter here. Otherwise, just use the tests featured below...

12 Tests To Maximize Your Book’s Potential To Sell A Million Copies

Here are my criteria for a book to have a great chance at selling a million copies.

This is by no means a definitive list — it’s just what a lot of these books have in common.

As an author, you should be able to confidently answer “YES” to more than 50% of these questions.

Test #1: Are You The Embodiment of Your Book?

  1. Are you a fully aligned representation of the message of your book?
  2. Have you transformed your most painful problem into your greatest gift, and put the wisdom of your journey into the book?
  3. Have you firmly established your credibility as the ultimate success story of your book? As the person who's achieved everything you promise the reader?
  4. Have you helped at least three people in real life achieve the transformation your book promises?
  5. Does your book share your personal truth and lessons learned, rather than trying to preach to the masses about how to live their lives?
  6. Is your intention in writing your book to create real value for a real person, rather than trying to impress or manipulate people?
  7. Is the message you share in your book one you'd be willing to die for?

Test #2: Does Your Book Create a Category?

  1. Will your book create a new and different category that it can be the leader of, rather than competing with every other book in an existing category?
  2. Does your book focus on re-framing the reader’s big problem — or even inventing and naming a new problem — instead of talking about you, your solution, or your brand?
  3. Does your reader realize that the way they’ve been thinking about their problem is totally wrong, and that you’re the only one with a real solution?
  4. Do you use unique language to name and differentiate your category?
  5. Are you so in love with your category that you’d proudly share it with friends and family, or does it make you feel nervous or embarrassed?
  6. Have you written your book for the “uber reader” who’ll read it multiple times, recommend it hundreds of times, and become a lifelong fan?
  7. Does your niche audience feel too small? Can you make it even smaller?
  8. Does the reader quickly perceive that your book is totally different from everything else, and struggle to compare it with other books?

Test #3: Is Your Book Insanely Valuable?

  1. Does your book diagnose an intensely painful problem for the reader?
  2. Do you make the reader acutely aware of the high costs associated with not solving this problem (personal, financial, strategic costs)?
  3. Do you frame the problem in a way that the reader sees it in a radically new light, with a positive window for change?
  4. Does your book provide the reader with an actionable roadmap to their desired end state?
  5. Does your book create 10X more value for the reader than it costs them? And does it create 10X more value for them than it will for you?
  6. Does your book answer all the questions in order that your reader will have?
  7. Is your book insanely valuable in every single chapter, from start to finish?
  8. Does your book have a big payoff, which you sign-post along the way to indicate their progress toward it?
  9. Is your number one priority to add to humanity's body of knowledge, rather than becoming famous and making money?

Test #4: Does Your Book Transform The Reader?

  1. Does your title clearly state the ultimate transformation your reader desperately wants, or the insight they desperately need?
  2. Are you providing the reader with a fail-proof recipe of actionable steps that lead to a stunning transformation their friends will be envious of?
  3. Does your first chapter hook the reader by evoking shock and fear (the situation they least want) or intense desire (the situation they most want)?
  4. Do you deeply understand the reader's big specific problem, and solve it more completely with every single chapter?
  5. Do you share your own personal experiences to help the reader?
  6. Do you ask the reader questions to make your content personal and engaging?
  7. Are your chapters effective at creating momentum and keeping the reader engaged, signposting their progress and rewarding them throughout?
  8. Does your book include actionable items like worksheets, action plans, and apps that accelerate the reader's transformation?
  9. Does your book enable your readers to become the hero of their lives or careers?
  10. Will your readers have external proof that their lives have truly changed as a result of your book, and that their original problem has been solved?

Test #5: Is Your Book Accessible to The Masses?

  1. Is your book exceptionally well-written, with deep honesty and/or relatable humor throughout?
  2. Is your book's language so simple and free of jargon that a 10-year old could comfortably read it?
  3. Do you appeal to the most ancient part of the brain, by using visuals, showing clear beginnings and endings, and speaking of threats?
  4. Do you appeal to the rational mind, by backing up your claims with tangible proof, data, or scientific evidence?
  5. Do you use great storytelling to educate, entertain, and influence your reader? To transform regular information into lively and resonant content?
  6. Did you use beta readers to improve the book, address criticisms, and eliminate all the boring and confusing parts? (See my guide here.)
  7. Are you offering every possible media type of your book (physical, digital, audiobook, video)?
  8. Are you giving away the best content from your book for free on the internet?
  9. Are you using social media, podcasts, and video to distribute bite-sized portions of your book's message?

Test #6: Will People Talk About Your Book?

  1. Is your book worth talking about and sharing, just from the title alone?
  2. Is your title attention-grabbing, easy to remember, and fun to say out loud?
  3. Does your title make your book stand out from all the others books in its genre?
  4. Does your book consistently evoke strong emotions and feelings in the reader, so that they care enough to share it?
  5. Will conversations about your book get frequently triggered or cued up by every day occurrences, so it’s constantly on the tips of your readers' tongues?
  6. Are your readers so enthusiastic about your book's message (or stories) that they talk about it with almost everyone?
  7. Will your reader elevate their status and feel confident every time they talk about or recommend your book?
  8. Will readers brag about reading your book on social media, because sharing a picture of the cover (or the ideas in the book) make them look awesome?
  9. Will influencers and/or celebrities proudly endorse your book, repeatedly and publicly, because they love it so much?

Test #7: Is Your Book Timely and Timeless?

  1. Does your book offer an unconventional solution to a massive problem that millions of people are secretly frustrated with?
  2. Is America currently at the peak timing of this problem, with no viable solutions in sight?
  3. Does your book challenge an assumption that millions of people hold, and are desperately unhappy about?
  4. Do Americans feel secretly trapped by the status quo that your book challenges, with no other voices speaking up or guiding them out?
  5. Does your book tap into a cultural zeitgeist, speaking a deep truth that millions of souls have been silently screaming?
  6. Will your book help a dated concept or obscure industry explode back into the mainstream?
  7. Will your book remain relevant and useful for a minimum of ten years?
  8. Is your book’s message timeless and universal?

Test #8: Will Your Book Become Part of the Reader's Identity?

  1. Does your book contain a unique philosophy that the reader can proudly design their life around, or even tattoo on their body?
  2. Is your book written in a unique, distinguishable voice (yours!)?
  3. Does your book offer unique language / phrases that readers will actually use?
  4. Does your book make people feel like insiders after they’ve read it?
  5. Does your book pick a fight with a villain, that makes readers feel like it’s “Us versus Them”?
  6. Will your book be “The Bible” for a tight-knit group of people, who will believe it’s the greatest thing ever written?
  7. Does your book reveal a truth that millions of people are too afraid to admit?
  8. Will the majority of experts on your topic feel that your book is speaking directly to them?
  9. Will some of the experts on your topic stick their noses up at your book, or publicly decry it?
  10. Does your book pull the reader into a community of other readers, eagerly engaging with each other and the material?

Test #9: Is Buying & Gifting Your Book a No-Brainer?

  1. Will people instantly impulse purchase your book, just from the title alone?
  2. Will your book title evoke such a strong FOMO-response that even people who don’t like reading books will want to buy it?
  3. Does your book’s concept resonate so deeply and quickly with your target audience that they decide to buy it within 30 seconds?
  4. Is your book's design so compelling that it stops people in their tracks, causing them to walk across a room just to pick it up?
  5. Does your book stand out as truly unique in its category, or does it get lost in a sea of similar titles?
  6. Could your book be your reader’s go-to gift for friends and colleagues?
  7. Could your book be given as a Christmas gift to the reader’s entire family?
  8. Could your book be given as a corporate gift to hundreds of employees?

Test #10: Are You and Your Book Media-Worthy?

  1. Are there plenty of "news hooks" in your book that make it a timely, interesting, or trending subject for journalists?
  2. Would a New York Times reporter want to write a detailed article about trying the methods in your book? Would it make for a fascinating, infuriating, or hilarious article?
  3. Are you a household name with your readers, or a celebrity that your fans are so obsessed with that they’ll buy anything with your name on it?
  4. Have you undergone media training and prepared talking points? Are you ready for both friendly and hostile interviews?
  5. Will any vocal minority groups hate your book enough to write a takedown piece (e.g. feminists, vegans)?
  6. Could a late night talk-show visually demonstrate or make fun of your book? More importantly, would people want to watch and laugh along?
  7. Will other authors want to parody or mock your book?
  8. Will people have an unusually strong reaction to you, the author, and your personal story?
  9. Will journalists want to write an adoring or scathing profile about you, the author?

Test #11: Will You Successfully Launch Your Book?

  1. Have you planned out your launch at least four months in advance (ideally 12)?
  2. Do you have a strong marketing plan in place, and the resources to implement it completely?
  3. Will your launch create a strong sense of urgency, scarcity, and group-think to drive bulk orders (2+ copies per order)?
  4. Will your launch guarantee word-of-mouth and gifting copies of your book?
  5. Will your launch incorporate email lists, social media, podcast tours, influencer copies, endorsements, and partnerships?
  6. Will you market your book directly to specific groups — the ones who are most likely to be cult readers of your book?
  7. Will your launch create deeper connections with your readers, a community of evangelists, and lifelong fans?
  8. Will your launch create an "echo chamber" where your target audience perceives that you're everywhere, dominating their social media feeds?
  9. Will your launch give 100X more value than what you ask readers to spend?

Test #12: Will Your Book Get Ongoing Massive Distribution?

  1. Is there potential to expand your book into a series or franchise?
  2. Is your book easily updatable for future editions?
  3. Do you have an evergreen ad funnel ("Free plus S&H") that can sell your book continuously?
  4. Do you have a content marketing machine that will continually promote your book for the next decade (e.g. email automation sequences, SEO-targeted YouTube videos, blog posts, viral Tiktoks, etc.)?
  5. Are there companies or organizations that will bulk buy thousands of copies for their employees?
  6. Is there another product you can package your book with, which millions of people desperately want or need to buy?
  7. Is there a major platform that will continually promote your book to your target audience?
  8. Will major retailers want to carry your book and give it prominent placement in their stores?
  9. Would your book translate into a great movie or documentary with wide distribution?
  10. Could your book be used in an academic setting?
  11. Could you design a training or certification program for evangelists of your book’s methods?
  12. Does your book have strong international appeal?

That’s my list.

Again, it’s not comprehensive, and it’s only for NON-fiction books.

Additional Book Marketing Resources

# 1 – Apply for a Book Marketing Session with Charlie.

If you’re interested in a private 1-on-1 coaching session with me, where I'll help you with your book marketing, click the button below:

# 2 – Watch our Free Book Marketing course.

I produced this course with the co-founder of Scribe Media, Zach Obront. I can tell you with full confidence: it’s the BEST book marketing course on the internet.

#3 - Read more of my articles on book marketing.

Check out my guest posts: Book Marketing 101 on Noah Kagan's blog, and 12 Lessons Learned Marketing The 4-Hour Body on Tim Ferriss' blog.

BONUS #1: How David Goggins Sold a Million Copies.

I created this video a few years ago, it's a good one:

BONUS #2: The Second Best Book Launch I've Ever Seen.

Alex Hormozi sold 100,000 books in one day. Mind-blowing. (And the #1 best book launch I've seen: Gary Vee sells 1M copies in one day.)

BONUS #3: My Top Lessons Learned from Bestselling Authors.

BONUS #4: How I Landed My Dream Job with Tim Ferriss.