No one who thinks about the future of publishing can fail to be fascinated by the overnight success of Reasons to Vote for Democrats by Michael J. Knowles. The book is still at number 1 as I write: not just in its category but in the category of all books on Amazon.com. It has been there for several days straight, selling some 60,000 copies and earning its self-published author enough money to buy his first house. It has 1,676 customer reviews and a 4.5 star rating.
This is a book with no big publisher behind it, and no real marketing campaign. It is also a book with no words in it. It is blank.
The book recycles an old joke, as Knowles freely admits. But he has pulled it off with style. Democrat attempts to reverse the tables with their own copycat effort have failed to take off.
You can’t predict what will go viral. But there are lessons here worth noting.
- Do your best work
Knowles did a solid job on this. The cover is properly designed. He got Ben Shapiro, a conservative rock star, to give him a puff quote. And he didn’t just do an ebook, he got it formatted properly for print. He made a little video of him flicking through it to demonstrate its blankness. And he even bothered to subdivide sections within the book and provide some references at the end. When called for interview, Knowles can recite chapter and verse of embarrassing Democrat history to explain why he left each chapter (on values, the economy, etc) blank. If this is an empty book, it is full of attention to detail. As Seth Godin always says, show up and surprise people with great work, even if it doesn’t seem to require it. People can tell the difference.
- Do a job for people
Even better, do a job that justifies them buying multiple copies. Clay Christensen talks about thinking of products in terms of jobs to be done. Most books are rather limited, in that we buy one copy to entertain or inform ourselves. Knowles’s book is instead a novelty item, a practical joke that people can use to poke fun in a lighthearted way at people they are close to but disagree with politically, by gifting them a copy. At first glance, it looks like a pro-Democrat book. Only when you open it to find it blank do you see you have been fooled. As a result, many people bought multiple copies. In a politically divided America, this book does a job that lots of people really needed a way to do in a goodhumoured fashion.
- Leave room for people’s creativity
I’ve written before about the imperative in an age of selfie-nomics to design products that leave room for the consumer to insert their own personality and creativity. The emptiness of the book made reviewing it into a creative challenge that explains why it has such a staggering number of positive reviews. They make great reading. Discussion of the book on Twitter hit a similar height of performative silliness.
- Leverage a network
This book didn’t have a big firm behind it, but it did have a big network courtesy of the Daily Wire, where Knowles works. That meant a lot of prime buyers were presented the book as it launched, and in the context of voices they already respected. The part where it then caught fire through word of mouth was unpredictable, but a good and relevant network and authoritative figures with large followings who are willing to vouch for you are invaluable. But note you don’t have to own that network. You just have to get access to it.
Perhaps the most important lesson is that one young man could pull this off by using simple tools on Amazon that are available free to anyone. He then reached out to a likeminded network, who were willing to do all the hard work of promoting, reviewing and celebrating the book on social media. And that then led to more traditional appearances on TV networks and even more awareness and sales. All conducted in a spirit of good humour and celebration.
The world is open today as never before to anyone with a good idea and the right attitude. It’s a topic I address in my book, which offers some guidance for the new media landscape we are in. My book has words in, but not too many. And it can never have enough witty reviews. People who bought Reasons to Vote Democrats might also like How To Win Like Trump.