Home
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?  

 

 
Rank Up Rank Down Votes:  +39
  • Print
  • Share

Comments

Sort By:
Jan 15, 2014
I have to agree with delius1967. Your prior work has labeled you as "that Dilbert guy." Maybe the Richard Bachman approach would have been better, though without some sort of name recognition, why would I read a book from an unknown author? Not sure anyone has ever compared you to Jenny McCarthy, but I have to think her prior work is much more popular than her books because, well, you aren't really expecting her "talent" to show in her written word. So how can the Dilbert guy offer me anything but a sarcastic view of success? Oh, and I haven't bought the book yet because you didn't put my quote on your cover. (But I'm over that.) And your previous post - that sounded a lot like a timeshare.
 
 
Jan 15, 2014
It's not selling well because the title is simultaneously clearly preposterous, too long, and not catchy. Somebody should have warned you.
 
 
Jan 15, 2014
Scott, good job on the book. I found it very eye-opening. However, I was extremely skeptical because of something you wrote back when I was 8: Dilbert Daily Strip: 1995-05-13 . I am only lately starting to believe what rich people say, and even then only very occasionally.

In this case, unlike dr_ric I am still motivated to get out there and try new things and read new things, and even spend time and money to succeed any way I can. But perhaps that is rare these days?
 
 
Jan 15, 2014
I think dr_ric touches on an important possibility. Your audience of Dilbert fans may be aging out of the demographic that buys self-help books.
 
 
Jan 15, 2014
I'm so tired of this blog being a !$%*!$% promo ground for your book. It would be nice if you got back to writing interesting/compelling things rather than your bloody self promotion. You yourself have said you have enough money. Get on with it.
 
 
Jan 15, 2014
My take is threefold.

First let me say that I am a fan of your comics, a fan of your blog, and a fan of your public speaking (I saw your keynote at the San Diego Embedded Systems Conference almost a decade ago and loved it).

Furthermore, I have bought your books in the past, enjoyed them, and believe that I will enjoy the books of yours that I read in the future.

With that being said, here are the reasons that I (and I believe many other people) are unlikely to read your book.

1) Time
I'm a successful professional with a family, and I just bought a new house. The $20 price is a drop in the bucket to me. The multiple hours required to read the book are the major cost to me. I'm not spending several hours in a vacuum reading your book, I'm giving up something else that I care about for the time that I need to read it. That's a much higher threshold to meet. I am sure that if I read your book I will enjoy it, but I am not sure that I will enjoy it more than I will enjoy the other things I will do with my precious free time. (And I recognize the irony that I'm taking 10 minutes of my precious free time to answer this blog post)
2) Inertia
In chemistry--as in life--to initate any reaction, you must overcome an activation energy barrier. I don't think that the preceived benefit/enjoyment of reading your book (especially in the context of time costs mentioned above) is enough for someone to navigate their browser over to Amazon, type a few keys and click a few buttons to have it magically appear on their doorstep two days later. (sad, I know). More than that, with most people, there is an emotional committment you have to make to embark on a long project (and its sad but true that in this day and age reading a book counts as a long committment) which adds to the energy barrier.
2a) Standalone
Adding to your activation energy problem is that your book is a standalone entity. If you're three books in to Game of Thrones, there's a lot of momentum from previous books and draw from future books to keep you going.)
3) Success dependence
Finally, though this book can help an individual in their life, it will almost certainly require changes in their attitudes and behavors, which people are notoriously resistant to.

Interestingly (and this may have been the point of your posting), answering your questions has definitely raised my chance of buying your book from about 10% to about 20%.
 
 
Jan 15, 2014
You're assuming everyone wants to succeed, and believes they can. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Learned_helplessness
 
 
+16 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 15, 2014
I'll add #10: The market is saturated with self-help books.

Here's an analogy. I'm 38, and about 15 years ago I decided to educate myself on personal finance. I read about half a dozen such books, including Ric Edelman, Suze Orman, Benjamin Graham, Wealthy Barber, Richest MAn in Babylon, Random Walk, Peter Lynch.

Okay, I got the ideas, with different perspectives. Now I see Rich Dad, Millionaire next door, etc. Am I going to go buy them? No, because I"m saturated.

There are lots of self-help books. If I used your genie advice (success with only a 2-3 hour investment), I'd end up doing nothing but reading self-help books, because every author could make the same claim you're making.
 
 
Jan 15, 2014
I think your book title might be the major problem. It starts out How To FAIL. People skimming titles will stop there. They already know how to fail, and if they don't they probably don't want to learn. Also, the title sets up the expectation that the book will be humorous rather than informative. Surface appearance is everything to most people. If we don't like the package, we don't buy the product.
 
 
Jan 15, 2014
1. Your book is extraordinarily useful. I am harassing my 14 year old daughter and husband to read it on a daily basis. Once they are through with it (they haven't started or else they'd be finished quickly too...), I'll be bugging my 10 year old son to finish it at well. I anticipate cool family discussions. I remind myself over and over each day that I'm working towards systems, not goals. HUGELY helpful for me.

2. As far as the "why" - hmmmm... I doubt there's one reason. Cynicism explains some, lack of interest in self improvement explains some, and I'm sure many of the other reasons offered are just as legitimate.

But...if you would allow me a brief moment of Pollyanna-perspective may I point out that I believe it IS making a big difference. It might not be obvious right away but every step towards a more positive world is a big difference (even if it seems small at first). Maybe I have this perspective as a mom b/c sometimes I worry that I'm not doing enough to change the world - and I need to remind myself that doing my part to raise two intelligent, compassionate, and self-aware human beings will help the world. (They take their positive attitudes into the world, etc...) You've planted a seed. I'm sharing it with the people in my life and - perhaps even more importantly - some of the things you shared in the book are starting to influence my decisions and daily life. That's bound to spread out - we just might not see the effects instantaneously.
 
 
Jan 15, 2014
I'd say 2 and 3 are the most likely culprits for why people aren't buying your book. The market for self-improvement books, while broad, is only a small part of the public at large. Sometimes these books do hit best-seller lists. A few years ago The Secret was all the rage, mostly due to an aggressive and successful marketing campaign. No-one talks about 'The Secret' anymore, even though it was supposed to change the world.

For motivational books that do sell well, the author usually has to set himself up as either an expert authority or a spiritual guru. It isn't generally considered wise to take life advice from entertainers.

But I also think that there is a certain distain for success. This is not a new thing, and I would posit that Scott has likely revised his own memories of a time when he shared the collective resentment of successful people. In fact, I wonder if it is still there, since channeling that resentment is part of what makes Dilbert funny in the first place.
 
 
Jan 15, 2014
I mentioned Hopkins earlier because I'm re-reading the book now (I'm also re-reading yours but it's been a few years since I'd read that book). I just read something in it that could be the true key to your book's relative lack of success; you write too much about the engineering of the book itself. Hopkins mentions that sales appeals must come from the heart - at least, it needs to appear that way. You're trying to sell your readers on a course of certain actions (the use of systems and maximizing energy) but the "appeals are created, studied, artificial."

I would bet that there's a non-zero chance that your blog readership has an average IQ significantly above average. And I would imagine that they appreciate seeing behind the curtains. However, you want mass appeal. Dilbert has that because nearly everyone hates work and sees management as glorified idiots. And we love Wally because he successfully hacks the system. as far as the book itself, most self-help books include plans of actions or some sort of exercises. People value convenience (people pay more for a 16oz Coke than a 2-liter, as one example). In other words, you're both too obvious and too subtle. You spell out explicitly the wrong things, as well as being not obvious enough (for most people) about other things.

I'm rambling (and writing this on my Android phone makes it a little harder to edit) but I hope some of it makes some of your questions clearer.
 
 
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 15, 2014
I think 4 and 5 are the biggest factors.

I'd also add one to the list: some people are just inherently suspicious and cynical, and they'd rather run around in circles, flailing and failing in their own way, than accept help from anyone else.

I know that such people exist because I was married to one ...
[cue Clouseau accent] ... not anymore!
 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 15, 2014
I think 7 & 9 - people assume its a humorous autobiography with some lessons for life chucked in, a bit like your other books. And the people who buy your other books for the cartoons are put off because it looks a bit too serious.


On a semi-related, random, over-sharing on the internet way, I think I can associate with being anti-success. I got your book for Christmas, and unlike anything else of yours, have yet to pick it up. I don't know why. I genuinely think I might have reached the "it's easier to be a failure and stop trying" stage. I am now 10 years out of college/university and a few years into my second career, having failed in choosing my first one. Although things could be worse, I sadly joined a failing team (as recognised by our own HR department). I am too old to be geographically mobile, and think starting over for a 3rd time in my 30's would be a disaster anyway (starting over in a new career, or moving away to stay in the same industry have been the other escape routes my now ex-colleagues have used).

So, generalising this to a useful point...maybe this is paradoxically a bad time for a self-help book. Maybe after 5 years of recession and stagnation too many people have given up on big dreams, and settled for getting by. Maybe it's a bit too painful to think about "winning big", because the last few years have been about trying to lose small.
 
 
+10 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 15, 2014
Of the reasons you list above, #s 3, 2, and 9 seem most likely and in that order.

I read the book, more than once to make sure I wasn't missing anything and to avoid the "I'll just skim over that part" approach for amusing anecdotes or other things that at first blush seem irrelevant. I can state unequivocally that your book is not useful to a large percentage of the general population because the world needs ditch diggers too. If you don't understand that, or why your book will only "raise the water level" for a small group for a short amount of time compared to society as a whole, then you need to take a step back and look at the larger picture. Society, any society, needs people at all levels to be healthy. And in the end, it's all a zero sum game. My bigger piece of the pie comes from others not getting as much. In the world of small business this can be fatal to the business on the losing end who didn't step up and start using the best practices you espouse in your book.

Also, I think you aren't targeting your market clearly and cleanly, and that may be because of bad advise you got from someone else in the publishing arena. You tried to appeal to too broad of an audience, but used your one true core competency, humor, starting on the front cover. Orange color, cartoon-y type font, and nothing serious sounding in the verbiage. That probably turns off a lot of people. "Business is funny," when spoken in a straight monotone voice, describes how some people view your brand. They don't get your humor, so they don't think you have anything useful to add to other conversations. Using a pen name might have solved that problem up front and let the book be judged on its own merits; or using a ghost writer with an introduction by you to draw in the set of people who will buy anything you produce or have a hand in. Dale Carnegie wrote the most successful self-help book of all time, "How to Win Friends and Influence People" with over 15,000,000 copies sold. The early success was from his name on the cover. The later success was from the content.

And your book has surely been pirated by now. A brief search on Yahoo.com confirms this; the text is available without purchase out there. That's cutting into your sales, and rather significantly I suspect. But that's true of all publishing these days. You should probably have lawyers looking into that for you.

One last thing: I never saw anything promoting your book outside of what I see here. I didn't go looking for it either, and neither will most other people. Especially if they don't know it exists in the first place. I guess I just don't go where you went to promote it. How many others are in that same situation? I'm guessing a lot. Publishing any book in almost any field generally assures you that you are entering a crowded marketplace. Your marketplace, intended or not, is the "self help" book genre. So either re-market it in another edition with more focus on a different marketplace, or push your own boundaries for where you think people who need to read your book actually frequent.

For many this will be "tl;dr" but that's their problem.
 
 
Jan 15, 2014
I thought Lotteries proved the Loser Choice theory.

Every week (or more frequently) people willing give away $10 or $20 or more, in exchange for a infinitely small chance at winning a prize which might not actually improve their life.

People prefer the Loser choice.

Give someone the choice between:
1. Spend $20 on a lottery ticket where you have a 1 in a 5 million chance of winning $1 million.
or
2. Spend $20 on a lottery ticket with a 1 in 100 chance of winning $100.
or
3. Spend $20 on something which has a 73% chance of improving your life (but requires some effort, not just reading the book, but doing something afterwards).

See how many people pick #1.

Scott, if you're confused as to why your self-help book isn't selling as well as other self-help book s even though you have better reviews, consider that your reviewers are probably more highly-motivated or better-organized than others. So when they read your self-help book, they may pick up on something which they will actually use to improve their life.

In contrast, the mouth-breathing, pointy-haired reviewers of other self-help books help increase the sales of the other books mostly by accidentally purchasing multiple copies through Amazon.
 
 
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 15, 2014
I have this book in my library queue (there are roughly zero books I would buy new without reading them first - Amazon and the library have made paying full purchase price for a book totally obsolete unless you're a newness junkie). I'm interested in reading it mostly because I enjoy Scott's writing here on the blog, and not as a self-help book. Here are reasons why:

-while some self-help books are really focused and helpful (for instance, books helping abused people recover), 'how to be more successful' books hardly ever are. Mostly, people already know the things they 'should' do to be more successful, and don't do them, so adding yet another book to a collection of books you've bought to try to be better is just a guilt trip.
-Scott mentioned that people who've read the book think, 'every 25 year old should read this.' The world is full of smart books that would help twenty-somethings if they just read them and took them seriously, but twenty-somethings who are still in the 'lost' phase aren't looking for ways to gain wisdom yet.

The branding issues pointed out above (framing as semi-autobiographical, positioning as humor book) probably prevent this from getting into the hands of some folks who might find it interesting for its self-improvement qualities. The title also makes it hard to give as a gift, even if one wanted to - the implication would be that the gift-giver thinks that the recipient has failed at lots of things (or will) and would benefit from learning how to use those failures to their advantage. Everybody does fail, of course, but most people won't give gifts that deliberately remind the recipient of this.
 
 
Jan 15, 2014
[...Every 25-year old should read this....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....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.]

Seems Im the first one to say this so...yes, your impression in this regard is arrogance and delusion. Even if you're right and this book would increase every 25 year olds ability to become successful by some undefined amount...come on, Scott, most important book in history? Even if we restrict ourselves to books that are meant to help people become more successful I cant help thinking there must be other books out there roughly as effective as yours.
 
 
Jan 15, 2014
When it comes to skepticism about success, I always think of those "get rich quick" commercials. "You want girls? You want cars? I got girls. I got cars. Why you no buy my get rich quick book? You stupid!"

I'm not saying that's you, but there's obviously something fishy about a rich man claiming to share in his success, no matter what he says or how rich he is. If everyone had a million dollars, a million wouldn't be worth much.

I've read through several self-help books, seen counselors for whatever issues I'm dealing with, and for the most part it feels like they're taking my money and giving me nothing. Their success comes from giving hope to those less fortunate in return for becoming more successful. I've been better helped by just talking with friends than anyone with a degree.

That being said, I once read a "How to be Successful" book from a professor I had a class with. It wasn't required reading, but he recommended it and also stated that the price of the book was only based on the cost of printing, plus whatever arbitrary profit the retail stores thought they could make. He denied himself all royalties and commissions. He didn't need the money, and he didn't want the skepticism to prevent people from buying his book. It was beautifully well written and life changing. I'd recommend it to anyone.

It's clear that this blog post was meant to stir up further interest in your book. You might have the noble cause of bettering the world, and I like to believe that. But if 30 million copies are sold, and you get a $4 commission on each book (that's low balling it big time) would give you $120 million. You don't need the money, but it'd make anyone feel good to write the next best seller (no matter how successful they've been), and that's another $120 million you can distribute however well you please. There are other benefits. That's why most politicians are already so filthy rich they no longer care about the money. They want to be in control and change the world to what they deem as "good" (how we define "good" rarely matters).

Lets say you submitted the book online, for free, no hassle of going through a company or download manager. Lets say you posted online as a pdf, free for access for everyone to read. You've already done something similar with this blog, and you have quite the following. Only you can tell us the exact number, but you know how many hits your blog gets each day.

I'd be interested in your books "success" if you worked it that way. I would've read it if that was the case. I'm one of those guys with nothing against downloading a copy illegally, and if I find it valuable, buying it for full price. But, Scott, I haven't done that with your book, not because I have so much respect I'd never steal your intellectual property, but because of the extent you push it, and the benefits that come to you from publishing a best seller. I see your rhetoric, and I'm skeptical. Therefore, I haven't felt it worth two to three hours to sit down and read it.

But who knows, I might stumble across it in the bookstore and give it a quick glance over.
 
 
Jan 15, 2014
I can't say for certain that this directly answers your question, but I've read the book (all of your books actually) and here is why I think you're getting so many good reviews:

People already on the path to success are more likely to not like it.

Tell me if you disagree with my logic:
1. Successful people, or those on the path to success, are always interested in ways to better themselves. Therefore many successful people will read the book.
2. You equate your path to success with the "right" path to success, therefore ensuring that successful people who got there by different means will consider the book arrogant.
3. Unsuccessful people will be more likely to like the book since reading it doesn't require any real action, but it creates the feeling of bettering oneself.
4. Successful people are less likely to write online reviews than unsuccessful people - they're too busy being successful (how often do you personally write online reviews?)
5. Most people know at least one person who is successful. If that person didn't like the book their opinion trumps any review, online or otherwise.

Assuming your opinions on success differ from those of your successful readers, are there flaws in my logic I'm not seeing?
 
 
 
Get the new Dilbert app!
Old Dilbert Blog