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
I read the book, and agree with the assessment in general -- though not for me in particular, because I'm successful enough (and old enough) to have discovered a lot of the same ideas independently. (Actually, I think you could boil the whole thing down into a very simple idea: the capacity for honest self-criticism -- that is, the ability AND the willingness to identify AND to fix flaws in yourself -- is the key to success. All of the advice in the book concerning diet etc. is simply your implementation of that. But it would have been a much shorter book without it.)

As for why it isn't selling better, I think you are overlooking one of your own past experiences, namely, when you tried to open your second restaurant. From the account in the book, you tried to go upscale a bit, and failed -- not because the implementation was bad, but because people weren't expecting it. The book sales could be tepid simply because when people here "Scott Adams" they think "humorous comic books", and thus simply have a blind spot to anything else you might do.

Orson Scott Card wrote a book called "Saints". It is a dramatized version of the birth of the Mormon Church, told from the point of view of one particular person. One thing it is NOT, however, is science fiction. But where was it shelved in the bookstore? In the Science Fiction section, because Card is identified as a science fiction writer.

This happens to virtually every writer; probably the only way to get around it is to be so prodigious that it becomes impossible (also known as "the Asimov Gambit"). Maybe you just need to write a whole series of self-help books instead of just one. And using a pseudonym probably wouldn't hurt.
Jan 15, 2014
I bought and read the book and enjoyed it, and it was useful to me. I gave it to my 17 year-old son to read and hope some of it resonates with him.

I think opportunity cost is one reason more people aren't buying it -- I have spent $20 in my lifetime and gotten more for it than i got from your book. With no disrespect intended I suspect i could have spent the $20 to more benefit than i did although i don't regret it. There are simply a lot of choices out there.

I can't definitively explain the high reviews vs. sales discrepancy. Most likely the people that buy your book and love it buy it and love it because they love Scott Adams. People who don't fall into that category probably don't even know it's there. You have to find a way to effectively market it to the general self-help community, which i assume you are not currently tapped into. Your fame should help get you there more easily than someone unknown, but it may still be difficult. If you're successful in getting people who do not care who Scott Adams is to read it, their reviews should be telling. If you can't ultimately generate the critical mass of exposure that pushes you into that group, that would be telling as well.

Personally, the most impactful book i've read was Stephen Covey's "Seven Habits." Others may not care for it, but it definitely changed the course of my life, as i suspect it did for others. Still there's no evidence it came close to changing the world. I think a lot about that, and many have tried to elevate human nature, but looking at our written history, we are about the same now as we ever were. Technology can build upon the last accomplishment and make steady upward progress. Human nature, it appears to me, cannot.
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 15, 2014
I have a theory about the human function of ignoring good advice. Take any kid for example. The work ethic, planning, appreciation of life (and naps) that parents are always trying to convince kids to adopt; don't seem to sink in as fast as one would assume they could.

My assumption is that a species that evolves too quickly is just as vulnerable to extinction as one that doesn't evolve quickly enough. Humans are good at plodding along over the millennium and not being too disruptive.

I suggest you take the long look at your influence in human development and have your future robot self collect the praise and recognition in about 500 years.
Jan 15, 2014
Hi Scott - I'm going to comment even though you don't think I read it (although I really did). 8-}
First - You need to be careful that you don't get into a "bubble". Some celebrities (and yes, you're one now), get surrounded by people who are always positive about them and it messes with their thinking. I know that the 5-star reviews aren't from a personal entourage, but they are (guessing) from the Dilbert-friendly sub-universe who may not represent, proportionally, a big percentage of the population. People who know you and "get" you (and read your other stuff) will buy the book. People who don't consider themselves Dilberati (i wanted to put an example here, but any example would be stereotyping) won't buy the book because my guess is that if you asked people to look at it and ask what association they make in their mind, it's probably "A Dilbert/Scott Adams thing", rather than "A success/self-help book".

So maybe, if you wanted to hit the widest audience, you should have published under a pseudonym, so that it was the topic, and not the author, that was the biggest thing about it. (I know, you wanted to use the notoriety of the author to sell the book, and that made a lot of sense, but maybe in hindsight it's working the other way...).


and I -did- read it, d-mn it 8-}
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 15, 2014
Although I sampled the book for free by checking it out of the library, I was impressed enough that I bought a Kindle copy. And outlined it. And sent the outlines to friends, who were also impressed. A couple of them bought it.

Answering your questions:

1. You are not wrong, it's useful.
2. People are lazy. They also are quick to dismiss something which requires work, like reading. If it's not a video, many people can't even bother.

(Please don't make a video---please, please, please!)

I continue to refer to my outline...
+10 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 15, 2014
I also suspect there's something psychologically negative about the title. The word "fail" makes me reluctant to give it as a gift to some of the people I would most like to read it.

[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]
Jan 15, 2014
One reason is because many people (irrationally?, snobbishly?, pretentiously?) dismiss any and all books they regard as "self help."

While I don't regard this as a "self help" book, whether I do is beside the point. I know people who would, and based on comments they've made in the past about other books on decision making I've suggested, I predict they would regard all such books as merely placebos for weak thinkers.

At least one person who comes to mind actually recommended Malcolm Gladwell's book, Blink, to me. So at least for her, re-framing the as pop infotainment (instead of as something useful) might actually get her to read it.

[I've read a lot of self-help books. I thought almost all of them helped me, if only in seeing the world in a more accurate and complete way. But I don't doubt your observation that people don't trust the genre. -- Scott]
Jan 15, 2014
If you truly do not need and will not spend any more money, and you truly believe that this book should be required reading, then at least provide it for free in all e-reader formats.

[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]
+13 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 15, 2014
My reasons for not being interested:

1. I've read self-help success books and don't think you're going to teach me anything new.
2. Even if you do have more to teach me than I've learned elsewhere, I'm quite content with my present level of success.
3. This no longer applies to me, but when I first saw your book's title, I didn't even think it WAS a success book. I assumed that it was a humorous auto-biography about your struggles and triumphs. I'm a fan of yours, but not such a huge fan that I wanted to read your memoirs.

[Those are helpful comments. Thank you. Just FYI, this isn't one of the single-point books like Gladwell writes. So the odds of you not learning anything new are approaching zero. -- Scott]
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 15, 2014
I long ago lost track of how many 'self improvement' books I've read. A !$%*!$%*!$ And I think your latest IS probably the best of the lot. And I've given copies to a few twenty-somethings I know. So put me int he positive review camp.

As for any negative response... I fear that is a Scott Adams thing.

I share excerpts/links to lots of your posts on Google (about 900 people have me in a circle). While I seldom see comments agreeing with what you've written (and why I loved it), I can ALWAYS count on several negative reactions. And thy come instantly so the commenter has pissed on your idea before bothering to read your post. They're reacting to you, not your ideas. But I have no idea why this might be.

[When you take sides (conservative or liberal for example), half of the world hates you but the remaining half loves you and is enough to make you a bestseller. When you attempt to be rational, 95% of readers find a reason to hate you because you don't match their own ridiculous worldviews. That's why rational people don't win elections, give or take a Bloomberg. -- Scott]
+5 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 15, 2014
2, 6, and 9 in that order.
2: How many hundreds of "success" books are there? Is this one really going to change me?
6: I'm not sure how many people know about it.
9: Dilbert creator = more humor than serious advice.

I just finally ordered the book, so my interpretation is not based on experiencing it. But then again, that's the case for all of the non-buying losers.
Jan 15, 2014
I'm betting that, since you have a large following online, many of your fans are not paying for your book, but are reading it just the same. I guess the argument in their favour is as follows: what if I have a genie that won't charge me $20 but will still give me the same chance of improving my life. I'm going to consider going with that guy, regardless of the fact that it may not be the moral route. Your book is not selling as well as it might because your fans are a rational audience.
Jan 15, 2014
You didn't specify which genre you are getting outsold in. If you are referring to your rank within self-help, then the reasons you mention regarding people not wanting to help themselves are not relevant.

If you are asking why you are not at the top of self-help, here are my thoughts on potential reasons. They would also likely impact your overall rank as well.

1. Branding - you are known as a cartoonist. You can't change that, and it is not a bad thing overall. But, in a world of incomplete information, some people are going to interpret that as a signal that the book may be unserious and/or you may not be "qualified" to give them advice.

2. Branding - How to Fail at Almost Everything.... We live in a shortcut-seeking society. The title of the book may suggest to some people that they are going to have to fail a bunch before succeeding. Put the book next to one with a title like "Succeed Now" and you are going be at a disadvantage.

3. Branding - .... Kind of the Story of My Life. From the perspective of ranking within a self-help category, this is probably the most harmful branding issue. People seeking self-help are focused on...THEMSELVES. Unless they are already fans of you personally (as opposed to just being Dilbert fans), they are likely have reactions such as "I don't care about his life story", "His life story is not likely to apply to my situation" and/or "I'm feeling like a loser right now, and I am not in the mood to hear this guy brag about his success". I am not saying these are informed reactions. But, they are likely reactions.

4. Diminishing Power of Reviews. You might think that the positive reviews should be enough to overcome the three Branding issues above, but people are learning to distrust reviews on sites like Amazon, which can be gamed by people with agendas. Additionally, self-help is different than picking the best laser printer, i.e. what works for you might not work for me, so why should I put a lot of stock in your review.

5. Amazon Specific - They have you ranked in Books > Humor & Entertainment > Humor > Self-Help & Psychology. To the extent people are searching by category, self-help seekers are unlikely to start at the broad category of "Humor"
Jan 15, 2014
Marketing might be part of it. If I didn't follow your blog I wouldn't know the book exists. The amount of advertising that permeates my life is kept to a minimum. I don't generally watch TV or listen to the radio, any shows I watch are downloaded commercial free. Ad-blockers minimize what I see while browsing the internet. Best chance for me to see it would be if it came up as a recommendation on Amazon, and since I don't generally purchase books of this sort, it would have no reason to recommend it.

That's the next part - I don't generally read these sorts of books. My experience with the self-help sort of genre is that they are overly generalized or impractical. Also, I don't tend to change. The best advice in the world is no good to me if I don't put forth the effort to execute it. And since we're all moist robots with no free will...

Cost - $20 isn't much, certainly, but your book is competing with any number of other basic needs or desires. People who possibly "need" your book would by definition be less successful than yourself, and have to more carefully budget and weigh their choices when spending their money.

Finally, if you so generously want to contribute to improving society from your position of financial independence - why not release it as a free ebook or some such?

[The answer to your last question is in the book itself. People would value the book at zero if it were priced that way. The science on that is pretty clear. That was one of the failures I learned from. -- Scott]
Jan 15, 2014
People can get this book from the local library for free instead of buying it. (I'm guilty of this. Sorry.)

[That's true of all books so it's not relevant to why one is ranked higher than another on Amazon.com. -- Scott]
+7 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 15, 2014
I have read it, and I agree with your (probably arrogant) assessment. I actually tried (unsuccessfully) to get my wife to read it. My theory is that most people think they're awesome and any suggestions on how they might personally improve are seen as criticisms. Nobody likes to feel criticized so it's probably not a book that's easy to recommend.

Basically the only people who will benefit are the types of people who are always looking for an edge anyway.

[That's true for the higher ranked competing books as well. -- Scott]

Jan 15, 2014
[I'm going to let you inside my head more than usual today....]

OK, Scott, now Ill return the favor: you remember a couple posts back when I was quizzing you on the effectiveness of your non-Dilbert success? You may have thought I was trying to take you down a peg, and I admit there was something of that in my questions. But my main motivation was to try and guage the effectiveness of your advice by trying to guage your success in areas outside of cartooning. Between having your advice appearing in the Wall Street Journal and the way you sometimes talk about investments one would think you were an investment/entrepreneurial success. Based on where we left off with that I think maybe we can add one of your own saying to the list of why your book might not be doing so well: Dont take advice from cartoonists.

[There's no "advice" in the book, by the way. But there is plenty of science with sources. -- Scott]
Jan 15, 2014
take my vote on option No 5.
Jan 15, 2014
I haven't read it because I'm one of the people who "don't believe books can improve the odds of success."
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