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How I Raised $10,905 in 21 Days to Self-Publish My First Amazon Bestseller (and did everything else wrong)

NOTE: the original version of this post was published in the fall of 2014. As we approach the five year anniversary of Content Warfare, I’ve added insights looking back at the experience. Most notably all the mistakes I made.

I never wanted to be a writer.

It wasn’t till my early 20’s that my desire to become a writer manifested in any real capacity. When, in 2004, I wrote a series of articles under the title, “Life on the Redline,” for a political website, TheHill.com, about life in Washington, DC as a non-politico.

I’m thankful you can no longer find those articles on the Internet.

My observational writing career ended abruptly when I left DC in 2005, and it wouldn’t be until 2009 when I began writing articles to promote my work as an insurance agent that I’d put fingers to keyboard once again.

However, from that moment, continued through today, (and most likely even more so moving into the future), I’ve fully embraced my passion for writing.

All this exposition is to tell you, in 2013, when I began work on Content Warfare, my naive and ignorant definition of “Writer” was a published book.

This was the motivation that drove me to publish Content Warfare.

I wanted to be a published author. I wanted a book and focusing on the goal of having a book instead of honing the process it took to be a successful writer created the challenges and pitfalls the rest of this article examines.

As James Clear explains in his book, Atomic Habits:

Winners and losers have the same goals. It is only when you implement a system of continuous small improvements that a different outcome is achieved.

QUICK NOTE: The book itself, (the content, the narrative), came out pretty damn good and I love it. It’s everything else I wish I could do-over.

The Content Warfare Story

On June 8th, 2014 I launched the pre-order campaign for my first book, Content Warfare, on the Publishizer crowdfunding platform.

My goal for the pre-order campaign was to raise $10,000 to pay for the expenses of producing the most professional self-published hardcover book possible.

This meant hiring a professional copy and story editor, internal text formatting and cover design.

Twenty-one days later, my book project hit its goal, breaking the previous five-figure funding record on Publishizer by two days.

It was epic and a super meta example of audience activation, one of the concepts taught within Content Warfare.


Why would I spend the time, effort and money to self-publish a professional-quality hardcover book?

Creators have a responsibility to the audience they serve.

For over two years I’d been interviewing the Internet’s most prolific content creators on the Content Warfare Podcast, extracting their secrets to winning the battle for attention online.

My audience deserved more than a thrown together eBook.

They deserved something tangible, something they can hold in their hands. A tool they could be proud to refer back to over and over while building out their content strategy.

Creators have a responsibility to be authentic, transparent and honest in their work, to constantly push ourselves and consider the value of each new creation.

The minute we lose our sense of responsibility, we lose our audience.

Producing a hardcover version of Content Warfare was my way of saying, “Thank you.”


When I first decided to use a crowdfunding platform to self-publish Content Warfare, the idea was met with a bit of pushback and criticism.

“Isn’t crowdfunding just a money grab?”

“If your idea is so great, why not just pay the upfront costs yourself?”

“If your book is worth publishing, why not use a traditional publisher?”

The Self-Publishing Myth

I’m going to address the self-publishing criticism first.

The idea that somehow a self-published book is intrinsically a lesser quality product, is naive at best, overtly pretentious at worst.

The work of authors like James Altucher and Kamal Ravikant have completely destroyed this notion.

Self-published books as good as the author(s) (and the team of professionals supporting that author) which write them.

No different than traditionally published books.

It’s time to move on.

The Crowdfunding Myth

Definition: Crowdfunding is the collection of finance from backers — the “crowd” — to fund an initiative.

It’s really that simple. It’s not a money grab. It’s not a cop-out.

Crowdfunding is an incredibly difficult and time-consuming process by which projects are validated and audiences are activated.

This is what Natalie Sisson did when she crowdfunded her first book and it became an Amazon #1 bestseller.

Crowdfunding Content Warfare would mean two things:

  1. The idea had legs.
  2. There was an audience for the book willing to spend money.

This is why we crowdfund a project, not just to raise money (though money is important) but to validate the idea and activate the audience who potentially resonates with the idea.

3 Steps to Run a Successful Crowdfunding Campaign

  1. Build your audience.
  2. Activate your audience.
  3. Empower your audience.

If you Google, “How to run a successful crowdfunding campaign,” you’ll find hundreds of tactics and strategies, all of which fall under one of these three steps.

1) Build the Audience

You must build an audience of true believers, (even a small audience), before you can expect anyone to support your crowdfunding project.

There are many reasons that a crowdfunding campaign can fail, but from my experience, the number one reason is launching your campaign without building an audience.

Here are a few activities to build an audience prior to your crowdfunding campaign launch:

  • Start building a dedicated list (I called this list, “Content Warfare Book Founding Members”). Give these individuals bonuses on top of what everyone else has access to in exchange for their early commitment to your cause.
  • Create a private group dedicated to topics relevant to your project (we did this Content Warfare and now Action is the Answer on Facebook).
  • Drip teaser content (I did this with book quotes on Instagram that I then shared on Facebook and LinkedIn) that will attract people to your campaign.

This process will take time. Months or years, even. During this period to earning trust.

Without trust, you do not have an audience.

2) Activate the Audience

Once you’ve built an audience that trusts you, it’s time to begin.

The success or failure of your crowdfunding campaign will come out of your ability to drive your audience to the campaign, not random people who find your campaign page.

Here are a few activities to activate your audience once your crowdfunding campaign has launched:

  • Send them emails announcing the launch (There is no better way to get a group of people to take a single action in a given period of time than email. Believe that).
  • Send personal one-to-one messages to influencers within your audience. This can be done by email, phone, text or social media. The medium is less important than the personalized nature of the communication.
  • Post announcements of the campaign launch in the private group you’ve created.

Make sure you remind your audience of the special bonuses they receive after contributing to early support.

3) Empower the Audience

Any growth hacker worth their salt will tell you, once your audience has contributed to your campaign, it’s imperative you provide them with ways to share your campaign into their own audience.

This is how your campaign spreads into new communities of people.

Here are a few activities to empower your audience to share your crowdfunding campaign:

  • Use Click to Tweet links on your campaign page to share powerful quotes, ideas, benefits, etc from your project.
  • Create images your audience will want to share in their social stream and/or pin to Pinterest (again quotables, Memes, etc).
  • Create an intro/trailer video on YouTube for your project explaining why people should care and contribute. By using YouTube for this video you give your audience an easy to share format for the content.
  • Create a Slideshare document relevant to your project which contains quotes, “How-to’s” or an excerpt broken out in a visually appealing way.

The specific tactics are less important the intrinsic value of each piece of promotional content.

The Rub

Crowdfunding is a nerve-racking and stressful process, but done right it can jumpstart the success of your project or product.

It was humbling to receive such immense support for Content Warfare. It took me a long time to build the audience that made it’s crowdfunding campaign an epic success.

I am more thankful for them than I’ll ever be able to express.

NOTE: this was the end of the original post.

Everything I Did Wrong Self-Publishing

As fate would have it, the same month as the crowdfunding campaign, I took a new job as the head of marketing at Trusted Choice.

Mistake number one was not negotiating the completion of my book project into that contract. Upon taking the job, it was clearly expressed to me that over-promotion of Content Warfare would not be appreciated.

This made the already challenging process of finishing the book, (writing, editing, marketing, sales, etc), even more daunting.

While I’m willing to chalk my contract negotiations up to naivety (and a good life lesson learned), the following list of mistakes are 100 percent my own fault:

I Lost Focus

The crowdfunding campaign had been such an overwhelming success, there was a sense I’d already won. That all the hard work had been completed and Content Warfare was a guaranteed bestseller.

The day my crowdfunding campaign ended, the rough draft of Content Warfare was approximately 60 percent complete.

My plan was to focus on nothing else over the next month. I’d be done with the rough draft by the end of September, finished editing by mid-November and launch Content Warfare to the public in time for the holiday season.

What I did not account for, was acclimating myself to a new job. Eight to ten hours of work a day became two to three hours each morning.

Focused writing became a chore, something I had to find time for, instead of making time to do my best work.

I forgot why I decided to write Content Warfare in the first place (to create a reproducible template of my own content marketing success for others to use in their business).

It became just another thing I needed to get out the door. Which is insane and sad and depressing when you think about it.

I didn’t publish Content Warfare till February 2015.

THE PROBLEM: I missed my release date. Worse, I’m not proud of my performance.

LESSON: Writing a book takes large chunks of Deep Work. Accurately budgeting time and resources to a book project is as important as the writing itself. Never let the priorities of other people come between you and your best work.

I Made Excuses

By the time we had the final version, I was sick of Content Warfare.

I’d been getting up every day at 300am for months, (working 800pm to midnight the night before).

At the same time, I was six months into my new job and Agency Nation, (the digital publication I’d founded for Trusted Choice), was beginning to get traction.

I had no gas left in the tank.

Doing my best work to build and promote Agency Nation all day and then coming and replicating that energy for my book marketing efforts was overwhelming.

I did less than a half dozen podcast interviews, sent a couple of emails to my list, got Content Warfare on one book marketing list and pushed out a few social media posts.

That’s it. Pathetic.

I started convincing myself the book wasn’t that good and that it didn’t deserve a big launch.

Then doubt and self-pity rolled in and the excuses flowed like water:

  • My boss is going to get mad at me.
  • No one cares if I do a big launch.
  • I can’t be a speaker at Trusted Choice so I don’t need a successful book.
  • My co-workers will think I’m not committed to the company.
  • I’ve done enough already.
  • No one is going to read the book anyway.

I felt justified in my excuses.

I let my excuses win.

THE PROBLEM: The book never got a real shot to be successful.

LESSON: Putting great words in a book is only half the battle. To take on a book project you must be prepared for the mental and emotional struggle the process will create.

I Gave Up

All the work, all the struggle, and then I gave up ten feet from the finish line.

It’s crazy where your mind goes when you give up on something important.

Because that is what I did. At the very end, I gave up. I convinced myself there were more important things to do and conceded to the task.

I felt like a failure and hated myself for it, while consciously making decisions to fail.

Content Warfare is one of my greatest professional achievements while at the same time one of my great disappointments.

Not because it wasn’t a New York Times Bestseller, but because I can’t say I did everything I could, to make it everything it could have been.

THE PROBLEM: I never made good on all the promises of the crowdfunding campaign.

LESSON: All we have is our reputation. Never compromise your commitments to others in exchange for personal discomfort.

A Few Other Tactical Improvements

While the core failings of Content Warfare were my own lack of mental and emotional strength, there are a few tactical items I’d do a bit different as well:

  1. More Peer Review — Peer review, early and often can be incredibly useful for both the overall quality of message and narrative as well as building groundswell at launch.
  2. Book Cover — While I love what Content Warfare’s book cover stands for and who designed it, the design itself is inconsistent with what readers expect from a business book. This limits book sales.
  3. Independent Story Editor — Working with an independent copy editor (word structure) and story editor (story structure) provides a deeper inspection of both areas. My editor did both.
  4. Audiobook — Audiobooks are killers, often selling more copies than physical books. I did not do an audiobook.
  5. More Diversity in Case Studies — The case studies inside Content Warfare are primarily from the insurance industry. While the lessons transcend every industry, the lack of diversity is limiting.

The Rub II

I’m incredibly proud of Content Warfare.

Writing the book took a year of my life.

Over the last five years, it’s sold over 2,000 copies. Not bad for a first-time self-published author who admitted did a terrible job promoting the book.

I learned as more about audience building, engagement, and activation, (the real work of marketing) than I could have ever imagined.

I was blown away by people and their support.

But today, looking back four years, the most important lessons were those I learned about myself. I see that time like a movie and I can watch myself self-destruct at the very last moment.

Never again.

In many ways, this is the reason I started working on the ideas of Action is the Answer (now a keynote presentation and Facebook group and hopefully someday, maybe, a book).

Thank you,

Ryan Hanley

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