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I'm going to let you inside my head more than usual today. I apologize in advance.

Many of you surmised that my prior post about the genie was really a cleverly disguised analogy to my new book, and that once I trapped you into saying you would take the genie's deal, the follow-up would be me saying, "Therefore buy my book!"

But that wasn't my scheme. There's a longer play.

I was trying to isolate (unscientifically) for how many people among us would turn down a deal that is unambiguously good. The real world is never unambiguously good, so it wouldn't make sense to generalize the genie analogy to the book.

I have been seeing a pattern in the past several years that makes me wonder if a sizeable portion of the public has become anti-success. The media has pitted the general public against the one-percenters for several years, so that might be a factor. And the bottom-feeders on the Internet (Gawker, Jezebel, etc.) have business models that involve taking celebrity quotes out of context to demonize them. So it would be no surprise if the public disliked successful people more than ever.

But I have also lately observed people who seem to reject their own best paths to success in favor of paths that are clearly bad. Let's call those choices "loser choices" because any rational and objective observer would see it that way. I wondered if I was seeing an emerging pattern or an illusion.

This line of thinking started because I was seeing the 5-star reviews pour in for my book, How to Fail at Almost Everything. It's getting the best reviews of anything I've written. And the feedback I'm getting by email is just as good. Yet the sales rank is relatively low compared to books in the genre that have worse reviews. So what's the explanation for the exceptional reviews and relatively low sales rank?

It could be any of these explanations.
  1. People aren't especially interested in pursuing "big" success.
  2. People don't believe books can improve the odds of success.
  3. People don't believe that I could write a useful book in this area.
  4. People think success requires more work than they choose to take on.
  5. People believe books can help success, but other uses of time are more effective for pursuing success than reading a book.
  6. People don't know the book exists.
  7. Something about the marketing/positioning of the book isn't working.
  8. People don't like me personally.
  9. People assume the book is more humor than helpful.
Feel free to add to the list.

My attempt in the prior post to isolate for a "loser preference" was interesting but ambiguous. I'll stick with my belief that if you offered a group of strangers a million dollars each with no strings attached, 10% would turn it down for reasons that would seem ridiculous to the other 90%. But I don't think the loser preference is enough to account for the high reviews and relatively low sales rank of my book.

Normally I would just shrug and move to the next project with a better-luck-next-time attitude. But this one is different. And here's where I'm going to let you inside my head more than normal. That's always dangerous.

As I've said in a few media interviews lately, I already have all the money I need personally for the rest of my life. Every dollar I make from now on will be spent by others. But success of the sort I have enjoyed brings with it an unexpected obligation. By virtue of my job, I have an oversized impact on what ideas the public is exposed to. And that means I have an unusually large ability to create positive change in the world. How do I ignore that and go fishing? It would feel immoral.

Now here comes the part I shouldn't say: There is a non-zero chance that my book, How to Fail, could be one of the most useful books ever written.

That claim sounds absurd and arrogant to anyone who hasn't read the book. If you have read it, you probably had the same reaction as the 5-star reviews. And by that I mean you said to yourself some version of "Every 25-year old should read this."

The value of any book would be some function of how useful the topic is and how many people read it. How to Fail addresses what might be the most useful topic of all time: personal success. If the book works as the 5-star reviews believe it does, and it has the potential to make anyone who reads it more likely to succeed, the ripple effect of that improvement could be civilization-altering. Putting that in simpler terms, what if everyone in the world were 5% more effective in pursuing success? Wouldn't that be an enormously positive development?

Realistically, I can't rule out the possibility that I wrote a book that readers believe is helpful but isn't. Such books clearly exist. But that feels unlikely to me, given the nature of the reviews and the type of content in the book. The folks who have read it understand what I mean.

There's no easy and objective way of knowing if the book is as useful as readers seem to think. So let's artificially say the odds of it being useful to a reader are only 20%. And the expense for buying that 20% chance is less than $20 and a few hours of time. Who turns down that deal?

I'm trying to isolate which factor is most important in keeping folks from buying what might be one of the most useful books in the history of civilization. If I figure out where the obstacle is, I'll lean on it a bit and see what happens.

I am well aware that many of you will read this post as nothing but arrogance and delusion. I totally get that. And keep in mind that I have no objective way to know your impression is wrong. Crazy people don't always know they are crazy. That's precisely my dilemma here: My opinion of the value of the book sounds crazy even to me.

But I've decided to open myself up for the inevitable barrage of insults that this post invites in the hope that one of you will say something revelatory on one of these two questions

1. If you read the book, am I wrong that it is useful?

2. What do you think is the biggest factor keeping OTHER people from reading it?  

 

 
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Jan 15, 2014
1. If you read the book, am I wrong that it is useful?

I haven't read the book yet. But I fully expect it to be a useful read.

2. What do you think is the biggest factor keeping OTHER people from reading it?

Having not read the book, I can perhaps answer this question better than those who have. The reasons IMO are:

- Noise. There has been an explosion of celebrity books as well as an explosion of "here's how I got rich and successful" books in the last decade. In the former category you'll attract Dilbert fans, but not the general public; in the latter category you'll attract only a few people who want to be rich and successful and who have not yet become jaded by all of the other stupid books out there.

- Apathy. A lot of people are either content with where they are, or are too tired/lazy/arrogant/defeated to want to do anything to change it.

- Prejudice. That other lower-rated books in the genre are selling more is a compelling metric. I'm going with "People assume the book is more humor than helpful" on that one. You would argue differently, I suspect, but to the general public you've made your fortune through humour and cartooning, not business. For personal success the general schmoe seems to gravitate to business successes like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, or Warren Buffet. Maybe your sales would go up dramatically if a major magazine featured you as "One of the Greatest Businessmen of the 21st Century." Or if the aforementioned Gates or Buffet call How To Fail the greatest personal/business success advice he’d ever heard.
 
 
Jan 15, 2014
I see you said people perceive something free as having zero value, which I guess sort of makes sense, but I don't know how you fix it. It seems like another catch-22 in that being free carries a perception barrier, but costing money that may be scarce for something of dubious value (sorry, it will be dubious until they read it no matter what they're told) is a barrier anyway.
 
 
Jan 15, 2014
You know that judging the book buy its cover thing? Maybe you gave it the wrong title. How to fail as the first 3 words has a negative connotation to it. It's not catchy.

Why didn't I read it? Well, from your blog I assumed it was about how systems are better than goals, something I've heard about before. So why spend $20 and waste a few hours when I already know the advantages of systems over goals.

 
 
Jan 15, 2014
I loved your book and bought an extra copy as a gift for my sister. The advice in it seems useful and sensible.

I think the title 'How to Fail' might be putting some people off of buying it. Most self help books have more positive titles. (I own quite a few)

The other think that might be putting people off is that you're not an established name in the self help field. Also, you don't promote your book by using the same techniques as those in the self help field do.
 
 
+9 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 15, 2014
Scott, there is nothing worthy of undo concern going on here.

1. Your book is fine and useful, well done! Keep writing/drawing and have fun.
2. Who cares if any more people read it? It’s done, and was generally well received. Certainly more people will eventually read your various works, but seriously, who cares? Time for the next project.

You have no real obligations to anyone but yourself, family, and your few close friends. That you have positively over-contributed "to the world" already is a terrific under-statement.

Go enjoy a fishing trip, you over-thinking, bubble-living knucklehead.
 
 
Jan 15, 2014
2:
I think there is a catch-22 in large part, in that most people who both understand the book and appreciate it's value don't have a need for it. I am sure that many may well believe the hype, but think "My life is already awesome, but I hope that the people who need the book get it." Whereas the for the people with crappy lives, the book is probably not even on their radar (plus all the other financial and life issues that are more pressing).

The other thing is that by comparison to worse self help books, like most useless things produced in our society they rely on marketing and gimmicks to sell copies, which works on the masses of dumb people. I don't approve of that, and I do approve of having a basis in quality rather than bs marketing, as your book seems to be doing, but unfortunately that is not what sells to the masses, and/or will be quite overshadowed.

I guess you are trying to make money on the book, but if it's as you say, it would work best being freely distributed to the people that need it most.
 
 
Jan 15, 2014
Another thought I just had: Do you have access to your traffic and conversion rates on Amazon? Not sure if it's just your publisher or if you can see that as well because there's a huge difference between "It's not selling" (no information) vs. "Nobody's coming to look at it" or "People read the product description, reviews, and then don't purchase" Also, amazon sales ranking (granted I don't know about books specifically) is highly susceptible to sales spikes, as opposed to consistent, low-level sales. Good Luck!
 
 
Jan 15, 2014
I think the reality is a combination of many of the factors identified, and one I haven't read yet - Scott Adams is not a well known name, and certainly not someone widely identified as a 'success'. Dilbert is well known, but my perception is that only a small fraction of the folks who know Dilbert also know it is written by Scott Adams. The connection, once made, to "success" is still tenuous. Personally, I think the book is great, and I have recommended it to others, but it is a tough sell - the incongruity of a cartoonist writing a useful book is too much for many people. The title and cover art lead to the perception of a quirky book written by someone who is unknown - not a recipe for Oprah's book club or Amazon #1 rankings.
 
 
+6 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 15, 2014
I haven't read the book, but certainly plan to soon.

I think #7 applies the most. It's a marketing issue.

The "kind of the story of my life" part of the title makes it seem like the book is mostly a memoir or autobiography, not a book that could help other people be more successful.

Most probably see it as just the story of how YOU failed a bunch but were still successful, not as a book that could help them personally.
 
 
Jan 15, 2014
@(Scott's response to anichini)

[I should do some A-B testing on that title. But I'd need a neutral website with some traffic to see which one gets the most clicks. I couldn't do it from my own sites. -- Scott]

One of the easiest ways to do A/B testing on titles is to use Google Adwords. You can get a lot of data relatively cheaply and very quickly.
 
 
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 15, 2014
some people read books just for reading pleasure or at least for fun.
i will probably wait until you position this believably good book as a good read instead of self-motivation crap.
let me know when my time comes. thank you :)
 
 
Jan 15, 2014
Wait:
So you are saying you are rich enough that you are not interested in any money and that the book you have written is just to improve the world?
Then why don't you publish it as a free eBook? I don't see anything stopping you from doing that. Except, you will not make any money out of it...
 
 
Jan 15, 2014
[Because free books do really well? Name a few. Or read my book and learn why pricing something free makes people think the value is zero. You have a lot to learn from my book. That's just half of one page of it. -- Scott]

It's not necessarily either/or. You could give away electronic versions here and you could also sell them at places like amazon.

From a scientific perspective, it's easy to find an experimental result that disproves your hypothesis.

Cory Doctorow, a science fiction writer and editor of Boing Boing, is commercially successful yet he also makes available free electronic versions of his books in addition to selling them. At the same time he influences the world in the sort of positive way you say you also feel an obligation to.

http://boingboing.net/about: "Cory is a science fiction author, activist, journalist and blogger, the author of Tor Teens/HarperCollins UK novels like FOR THE WIN and the bestselling LITTLE BROTHER. He was also the former European director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and co-founded the UK Open Rights Group. Cory has written for Wired, The Guardian, Publishers Weekly, Make, Locus and others. "


 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 15, 2014
Looking through the "also bought" list on Amazon, you have to get through several pages of your other books before getting to a few "How to succeed in business" type books.

So my first question is how do sales compare to your past books? Since it looks like you're doing a good job of reaching your fan base, it may be that it's not resonating as a self-help book at all, but is successful relative to your other books.

My other suggestion would be to go hang out at a Barnes & Noble for an afternoon or two. You can see who is not even picking up the book at all, vs. the people who are picking it up and putting it down (are they reading the back cover? flipping through it first? taking a quick look at the front cover before setting it back down?).

Personally, I found the cover a bit surprising (both the color and the choice of illustration - sorry). It catches the eye, but not in a good way.

(And I did pre-order and love the book, by the way.)
 
 
Jan 15, 2014
Scott - Reference your reply to my first comment: As author J A Konrath wrote - "The more places you're visible, the more likely you are to be discovered. Discovery leads to some sales, sales lead to some reads, reads lead to some fans, fans lead to some super-fans who buy everything." He and several others have done very well by starting with free and 99 cent books to whet an audiences appetite.
 
 
Jan 15, 2014
Scott's writing reminds me of the Aes Sedai in Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series. They "speak no word which is untrue." Yet people never forget that "An Aes Sedai never lies, but the truth she speaks may not be the truth you think you hear."

He never actually says in unambiguous terms that "I, Scott Adams, sincerely believe that the benefits to people from reading this book will outweigh their cost of time and money by a factor of X."

A reader not reading closely would infer that he has actually stated his honest belief about the books benefits. However, all he really does is offer non-zero chances, could bes, what ifs, made up odds, and might bes. I can find no word which is untrue, but the truth he writes is not the one many people will think they read.

His intent is especially questionable in light of his claimed obligation to use his power to create positive change in the world while telling us he has all the money he needs. Why then is he so concerned with the sales of this book?

---

Here are examples of his ability to write true words that likely lead many readers to infer false conclusions about his actual belief in the impact of his own book...

"There is a non-zero chance that my book, How to Fail, could be one of the most useful books ever written." 0.000000000000000000001% is literally a non-zero chance yet no one would bet on it.

"...could be civilization-altering." Or it might not be?

"[W]hat if everyone in the world were 5% more effective in pursuing success?" What if everyone were not?

"So let's artificially say the odds of it being useful to a reader are only 20%." Or we could artificially say the odds of it being useful to a reader are only 0.000000000000000000001%.

It "might be one of the most useful books in the history of civilization." Or it might not.
 
 
Jan 15, 2014
The title is terrible, the branding is bad and so is the design of the hardcover.

A possible better title would be "How I Succeeded In Spite of Myself: A Guide to Success Learned the Hard Way."

Or maybe "How I Went From Country Bumpkin to Famous Cartoonist: A Guide to Becoming A More Successful Person."

I would recommend reading Scientific Advertising by Claude Hopkins. You should have spent almost as much time on the title as the actual content, or a great deal more time than you did.

As far as the cover, the orange and artwork don't shout success guide.
 
 
Jan 15, 2014
First, I believe if your book didn't have cartoon-ish cover it would do better against similar books. I believe this makes it seem more like a humor book.
Second, maybe those reading your book are very similar to yourself already; you're missing the part of the population that are afraid of success in general so they won't seek it out, like myself.
 
 
+23 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 15, 2014
I think you missed the main reason for lower than expected sales. (But I'm not sure because it was all kind of tl;dr. Which is the point I'm about to make.)

There are 1,000 genies making the same offer to me at the same time with about the same degree of credibility. So the real problem you need to solve is to make your genie more attention-getting than the others.
 
 
Jan 15, 2014
#2 for me, without a doubt, plus the likelihood that if I wait a while I can pick it up in Half Price Books or the Goodwill Store at a substantial discount. About the only time I buy books new is when I need them for work. Then tax-deduct them. Yes, I realize what that makes me.

Unfortunately the market for "self help" books has been saturated for years. There are literally thousands out there, all of which have a dust jacket full of rave "5 star" reviews describing how useful they are. You give no evidence for the 73%, 83% (or whatever) likelihood that the contents will improve my life. Your marketing gets lost in the noise.

That said, I admire your success, your insight and your style and will most certainly read it at some point. Just not at full price. Sorry.

What might change my mind? Evidence that the system works for a significant volume of people who are not you.
 
 
 
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