How to Sell a Million Copies of Your Non-Fiction Book
Over the last 10 years, I’ve worked with or advised 100+ non-fiction authors on their book marketing. Several of these authors ended up selling a million copies (examples include: Tim Ferriss, Ramit Sethi, Tucker Max).
I have learned a lot from collaborating with these successful authors, and I want to share those lessons with you. In this post, you’ll get a roadmap for achieving the dream of nearly all aspiring authors:
“How do I sell a million copies of my book?”
From left to right: (1) Me and Tim Ferriss when The 4-Hour Body hit #1 NYTimes. (2) Me and Ramit Sethi, NYT bestselling author of I Will Teach You To Be Rich, (3) Tucker Max and me hanging out on his movie tour.
Whenever an emerging author used to ask me this, my response was always the same:
“You’ll need to buy 995,000 copies of your book.”
But after witnessing my friend James Clear sell 10 million copies of his book in just a few years…
And outsell EVERY. SINGLE. BOOK. ON. AMAZON… I’m no longer so cynical.
James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, schooling me and others.
But James wasn’t the only one. I saw several others — like my friend Ryan Holiday, and popular blogger Mark Manson, and David Goggins — sell millions of copies of their books.
And then, Gary Vaynerchuk — the first author I ever consulted with, back in 2009 — sold a million copies in 24 hours…. WTF!
Now, I believe there is a science to selling a million copies.
So, in this article, 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 need to give you a quick warning…
I believe “to sell a million copies” is usually the wrong goal, especially for self-published authors.
Consider the following…
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 even lower than that.
As you’ll see in this article, there are a lot of factors that come into play here — many of which are out of your control. You can stack the deck in your favor, but a ton of things need to go exactly right to achieve this goal.
Selling a million copies is possible, but there are a few major footnotes to bear in mind. For instance:
- Selling a million copies won’t happen quickly (usually). 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. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*** by Mark Manson, Can’t Hurt Me by David Goggins), but 99.9% of authors should release the expectation that they’ll sell a ton in any given year.
- Your publisher and the press will not move 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. “Getting on Joe Rogan” is not a strategy. Oh, and your publisher? They’re not in the marketing business — they’re in the distribution game. They don’t sell your book, they just move copies around.
- An amazing book launch doesn’t equal future success. I helped with one of the biggest book launches of all-time. But Tim is a brilliant, world-class marketer. I’ve seen many big book launches fall flat. Even if you hit high on the New York Times or Amazon bestseller list (which many authors pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to game their way onto those lists), it does NOT mean sales will snowball and your book will go on to sell 900,000 more copies.
So, why do authors feel the need to sell a million copies?
Because… it’s a really big number?
Look, the truth is this: selling 10,000 copies is a truly impressive feat for any author. Try selling 10,000 units of any $10 product and you’ll understand why it’s an accomplishment. So, don’t label your efforts as a failure if you never hit some arbitrarily massive number.
If you are a traditionally published author… It DOES make sense that you would care about sales, because your publisher only makes money when you sell a lot of copies. And if you happened to get a big advance from your publisher, you will need to sell a TON of copies to get them that money back, and to start earning royalties.
If you are a self-published author… You do NOT have this problem. You can make money from your book in all kinds of ways that 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. It’s arguably the WORST path for you.
Now that my disclaimer is over, let’s get to the good stuff…
9 Tests That Reveal Your Book’s Potential To Sell A Million Copies
Here are my criteria for a book to have a great chance of 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: Is Your Book Insanely Valuable?
- Is the goal of your book to create 10X more value for your readers than it produces for you?
- Is your intention to create real value for a real person, rather than trying to influence the masses?
- Is your book’s message timeless and universal?
- Is your book’s message and story so clear that a 10-year-old would understand?
- Does your book give the reader a clear roadmap to their desired end state?
Test #2: Will People Talk About Your Book?
- Is your title attention-grabbing, easy to remember, and fun to say out loud?
- Does your message contain an amazing story or unconventional message that readers are so fascinated by that they talk about it with friends?
- Will your reader elevate their status every time they talk about your book?
- 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?
- Will conversations about your book get frequently triggered or cued up, so that it’s constantly on your readers’ minds?
- Will your book title evoke such a strong emotional response that even non-readers will talk about it?
- Do non-readers get into passionate discussions about your book topic?
- Will influencers and/or celebrities proudly endorse your book, repeatedly and publicly, because they love it so much?
Test #3: Does Your Book Transform The Reader?
- Does your title clearly state the ultimate transformation your reader desperately wants?
- Are you providing the reader with a fail-proof recipe for a stunning transformation that their friends will talk about and be envious of?
- Are your chapters effective at creating momentum and keeping the reader engaged?
- Will your readers have external proof that their lives have truly changed as a result of your book, and that their problems are gone?
- Will many of your readers describe your book as “life-changing”?
- Does your book enable your readers to become the hero of their lives or careers?
Test #4: Is This The Right Book at The Right Time?
- Does your book offer an unconventional solution to a massive problem that millions of people are secretly frustrated with?
- Is America currently at the peak timing of this problem, with no viable solutions in sight?
- Does your book challenge an assumption that millions of people hold, and are desperately unhappy about?
- Do Americans feel secretly trapped by the status quo that your book challenges, with no other voices speaking up or guiding them out?
- Will your book help a dated concept or obscure industry explode back into the mainstream?
Test #5: Will Your Book Fit In With or Create a Cult Following?
- Does your book contain a unique philosophy that the reader can proudly design their life around, or even tattoo on their body?
- Does your book make people feel like insiders after they’ve read it?
- Does your book pick a fight with a villain, that makes readers feel like it’s “Us versus Them”?
- Will your book be “The Bible” for a tight-knit group of people, who will believe it’s the greatest thing ever written?
- Does your book reveal a truth that millions of people are too afraid to admit?
- Will the majority of experts on your topic feel that your book is speaking directly to them?
- Will some of the experts on your topic stick their noses up at your book, or publicly decry it?
Test #6: Is Buying & Gifting Your Book a No-Brainer?
- Does your book cover stop people in their tracks and cause them to pick it up when they see it on a friend’s bookshelf, or in a store?
- Will people instantly impulse purchase your book, just from the cover alone?
- Could your book be given as a Christmas gift to someone’s entire family?
- Could your book be given as a corporate gift to hundreds of employees in a company?
- Does your book concept resonate deeply and instantly with your target audience, so they decide to buy the book within 30 seconds?
- Does your book stand out as truly unique in its category, or does it get lost in a sea of similar titles?
Test #7: Are You or Your Book Polarizing for The Media?
- 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?
- 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?
- Will any vocal minority groups hate your book enough to write a takedown piece (e.g. feminists, vegans)?
- Will a vocal group actively want to “harrumph” your book and say that it doesn’t work for people like them?
- Could a late night talk-show visually demonstrate or make fun of your book? More importantly, would people want to watch and laugh along?
- Will other authors want to parody or mock your book?
- Will people have an unusually strong reaction to you, the author, and your personal story?
- Will journalists want to write an adoring or scathing profile about you, the author?
Test #8: Will You Successfully Market Your Book?
- Have you planned out your launch at least 12 months in advance?
- Do you have a strong marketing plan in place, and the resources to implement it completely?
- Will your launch create a strong sense of urgency and scarcity to drive sales?
- Will your launch guarantee word-of-mouth recommendations?
- Will your launch incorporate email lists, social media, podcast tours, influencer copies, endorsements, and partnerships?
- Will you market the book directly to specific groups — the ones who are most likely to be cult readers of your book?
- Will your launch result in deeper connections with your readers, and a community of evangelists?
- Will your launch put your book in front of 1,000,000 book buyers, or guarantee 20,000 copies sold during the first two weeks? (Note: For bestseller lists only!)
- Do you have an evergreen system to continually sell your book and prompt reader reviews for the next 10 years (e.g. email automation sequences, SEO-targeted YouTube videos or blog posts)?
Test #9: Will Your Book Get Massive Distribution?
- Are there companies and organizations that will bulk buy thousands of copies for their employees?
- Is there a major platform that will continually promote your book to your target audience?
- Will major retailers want to carry your book and give it prominent placement in their stores?
- Would your book translate into a great movie?
- Could you design a training or certification program for evangelists of your book’s methods?
- Does your book have 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 Coaching with Charlie.
If you’re interested in a 1-on-1 coaching with me, you can apply here:
# 2 – Watch our free book marketing course (co-founder of Scribe).
I produced this course with the creator, Zach Obront, and I can tell you it’s the BEST book marketing resource on the internet.