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 26, 2014
With your experience and exposure to the public and fans, you've probably noticed distinct reactions to your specific level of success. Genuine happiness for you, a grudging respect, a sullen or outright resentment, etc. All reactions that stem from an individual's ego and contentment of self-image.

I think the general public approaches any kind of self-help publication with a subconscious inclination to dismiss any item or product that might suggest that they are not already successful or happy with their current condition. Just an emotional self-defense mechanism that does not necessarily take into account the source or author of said product.

With the successful 'self-help' products, I think the largest contributing factors are the niche it caters to and emotional suggestion. A feel-good approach, or religious approach, or something that promises easy and quick return, etc. Also the product's lack of emphasis on a buyer's non-success in any one area, only a suggestion that their process will help streamline their existing process (this has nothing to do with the actual contents of the product). I think this appeals to a buyer's self-esteem and allows the thought of 'I'm doing well now, maybe this will make me a little better in this area'. This is the equivalent of a trojan horse product that is still self-help, just packaged to appeal (arguably manipulate) to a buyer's high sense of self.

Any self-help product implies an assumed superiority over the potential buyer, and I think for the most part, the general public does not like to think or feel inferior to anybody in any area if they can avoid it.
Jan 25, 2014
One possibility is that no one ever buys a 5-star book. Check it out, you'll see I'm right. Sales of 5-star books on Amazon are significantly lower than controversial books where some people hate it. For your next book, put stuff in that people hate and react to, and see if your sales are higher.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 22, 2014
So why didn't I go and buy your book. As one of your many fans you might think I'd be even more inclined to do so or to have bought it for someone else.
1. For someone else: Buying a book on how to be successful for someone else is problematic. It would have to be for a special friend who would not see it as an insult and actually read it.
2. For Me: My personal questions about success is that I'm not sure what it looks like for me. I have been asking myself the question "What else do I want to do (keeping in mind its the journey not the destination that is important)..." for a long time now and I don't have a good answer. I'm relatively Happy and don't see what I could reasonably do differently to be happier. Basically I don't think the question I need answered is addressed by your book. (Based on what you have said about it).
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 20, 2014
As a European, I have always been amazed at the polarized society that is so common in the US. you are a winner or a loser, successful or a failure.

Everybody wants to be successful, but not everybody want the kind of success that seems common in the US. It is typically associated with hard work and many sacrifices, and to always be strong and visible.

Not everybody wants that. Having traveled to many countries, including some very poor ones, my conclusion is that the vast majority of people just want to be happy, and typically this involves living in health, spending time with family and living in at least acceptable wealth, preferably doing something they like, but if not, whatever.

In many ways, today's culture would call such people "average", "underperforming", "not getting everything out of life", but I disagree. People want to be happy, that is the success they desire. For some it may mean excelling at work, but for many it does not.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 20, 2014

First off apologies for rehashing the argument made previously, I freely admit I didn't read many of the past comments. I scanned a few pages and didn't spot the point I intended to make so barrelled on. Not an excuse, but there are a lot of somewhat weighty comments going on this topic.

In re-reading my comment I see it could come across as a bit 'snarky' but that wasn't my intention, I am genuinely curious as to why this book has been marketed as it has been given Scott's stated opinion of its worth. Please just assume that anything that reads as sarcastic or negative is just down to my lack of writing skill and lack of editing time :)

On your 3 points:
1) Psychology of paying for it. Can't comment, don't have any relevant expertise in the field.
2) Pissing off people who already bought it. This is only relevant since it has been for sale, I'm curious why it wasn't originally a free ebook. That being said book prices often fluctuate wildly, including sometimes being given away free when they where originally sold. I understand a physical book naturally comes with a price tag.
3) Get it from a library. Getting it from a library presupposes that it is available in a library accessible to potential readers. This doesn't address the point that Scott believes this book could do massive good if only lots of people would read it. Making it available for free is likely to be more productive means of achieving this than just expecting people to get it from a library.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 20, 2014

For those of us who read your blog the book "fits", it has credibility. In isolation, on the bookshelves, it doesn't look "serious", I think it gets dismissed as a cartoonist giving spoof advice.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 20, 2014

For those of us who read your blog the book "fits", it has credibility. In isolation, on the bookshelves, it doesn't look "serious", I think it gets dismissed as a cartoonist giving spoof advice.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 20, 2014

For those of us who read your blog the book "fits", it has credibility. In isolation, on the bookshelves, it doesn't look "serious", I think it gets dismissed as a cartoonist giving spoof advice.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 19, 2014
I agree with a few others who said the cover was off-putting, even for a Dilbert fan. I'm not sure what to suggest otherwise, but the colour and artwork were surprisingly unattractive. I suspect that people unfamiliar with Dilbert would take an instant dislike to the book based solely on the cover.
Jan 17, 2014
I think it has little to do with the content and a lot to do with the title, cover and marketing of the book.

The Chicken Soup for the Soul series became a blockbuster largely due to the title. The content was similar to stories from Reader's Digest.
Jan 17, 2014
Ironically, the answer is in your book - "luck".

(It's just that "luck" is working against you this time.)
Jan 17, 2014
I am a stranger. And since you already have enough millions for yourself, I will gladly accept your generous offer. You know... in the name of science.

1) I read your book. It was useful to me. I would rate it highly if I did that sort of thing.

2) There are thousands of other books for the same price that *might* be useful. I have to be selective. This was the first book I've purchased in a decade. Most books in this genre are written by people I've never heard of. I don't want those. I was interested in what *you* had to say. But not everyone has heard of you.

Jan 17, 2014
I vote for #2. We've all received lots of good advice, said, "Yeah, I should do that," and then done the opposite. And we haven't figured out how to manage the trade-off between, "feels good right now," and, "definitely, probably, might fell good later if everything works out."

Of course this predicts bad sales for all self-improvement books. I can't imagine why someone else's would sell better than yours. I think there's a chance your systems approach solves the trade-off. At least I'm trying it. And I did buy another copy for a 25 year old I know.
Jan 17, 2014

[If you want your book to be "civilization changing" shouldn't you be giving it away?]

Is it too much to ask folks to read prior comments before they post? I know its a lot to go through but other folks already posted this one and I posted a response.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 17, 2014
If you want your book to be "civilization changing" shouldn't you be giving it away? You've got "enough money anyway" and what could possibly be a better charitable cause than increasing the "success level" of everyone on the planet by 5%?
Jan 17, 2014
Don't take the book's failure too hard. You are learning something and will win big.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 17, 2014
I think its because success can be overwhelmingly scary.

If success turns your world upside down and the grounds shift beneath your feet as a result, your entire identity that you've invested in might need to be reviewed. Some people find it scary to have to do that. Some don't know their identity to begin with and don't like coming to that realization. In other words, status quo is preferred.
If you imagine your books title as saying "This book will bring you success and uproot your current life", it might become more apparent how that might be scary.
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 16, 2014
Here is my absolutely non-expert opinion on why not more people are buying the book:

It focuses on making money. Being successfull is the same as making a lot of money according to you. At least that is what people think. The bag of money on the cover adds to this idea.

A lot of people think that having a good life is a mix of job, families, friends, hobbys, travelling etc, the job is only a part of it.

But don't worry. If the book is as good as you think, sales will increase overtime due to mouth-to-mouth-advertisement. If it has real QUALITY, then that will never be ignored.

[The content doesn't focus on making money. It's about getting whatever is important to you. But you make a good point about the cover art and the bag of money. Sometimes the economist in me forgets how many people don't realize they need money to survive. -- Scott]
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 16, 2014
There's a simple logical hole in the argument, which is that you're neglecting the opportunity cost of not trying something else that might also help me if I try your book instead.

If you put the odds of helping at 20%, but I, without your insider knowledge of the book, don't know if the odds are 0% or 100%, then I may default to the 100% chance of even small upside (i.e., spend the $ on beer).

Jan 16, 2014
Boy, Scott, I don't know what to tell you. I have been knocking myself out trying to get an agent for my novel, without success. I only wish I was where you are. So how the heck can I give you any advice? You're a successful writer. I'm not.

But, I can give you some ideas from the trenches, since I have read your book.

First off, the cover is not conducive to the image you're trying to convey. You're writing a book on how to be successful, and you show a man about get stepped on by a giant foot. That does not match the message you're trying to convey. I recall when I first saw the cover - the first thing I thought was, it was sophomoric and unattractive. I know the old saying that you can't tell a book by its cover, but you can at least get an impression from it. Yours was not good.

The book itself didn't really click with me. I should read it again, because maybe I missed something the first time. But here's the impression:

You say systems trump goals. But in fact your largest success, if I recall this correctly, was to be a cartoonist - a goal you set as a child.

From there, you made a whole lot of money in cartoon-related areas, which allowed you to waste a whole bunch of money on expensively losing propositions that taught you some things, but cost you a lot for the education.

So here's sort of a summary: First, set a goal. Make a whole lot of money. Then lose a lot of it doing things that are highly speculative but teach you stuff you may need in the future. Then call this random bouncing around to a lot of different, speculative and expensive things "a system," and write a book about it. Oh, and by the way, don't try to use willpower or discipline - just keep a bunch of quinoa nearby.

I'm not saying there isn't some great stuff in the book - there is. I think the "don't fear failure" is the best advice therein. But as I commented when you first started to discuss the book here, it seems like a bunch of loosely-connected items in no apparent order, with no connectivity between them other than the common theme.

So I guess what I'm trying to say is that the book really is about how you became a success, and it's in parallel to the old saw about the colonial cookbook recipe for bear stew: "First, shoot a bear." It seems to be a book about what to do once you've become rich and famous to try to become more so, and how to learn from failure along the way. The tough part is to first shoot the bear.

You asked about people starting to disrespect success, but I see you have another post about that, so I'll answer it there.

Overall, I don't think you should look at this as a failure. You're too in love with your product. It's selling well, maybe just not as well as you would like. I think you've done a great job, and a lot of people will benefit. I think you could have done it differently and had more success with it, starting with the cover, but again, I'm not the poster boy for publishing success.

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