Thanks to My OCD, I Wrote a Self-Published Best-Seller

by Max Altschuler
April 12, 2017
Photo by Andrew_Writer and used here with Creative Commons license.

The following opinion piece is a guest post and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of this publication.

Whenever I leave a room, I flicker the lights on and off twice. If any object isn’t exactly where it belongs — a dish, the remote, the clock by my bed — then I need to fix it before I can move on to the next thing, let alone leave the house.

Good writers write what they know. But many don’t keep that knowledge organized. I do, because I don’t have a choice.

I know I have some level of OCD. But at this point, I’m not looking to treat it. That’s because I’ve learned to harness it professionally. Without it, I wouldn’t have written a book during a week-long vacation. I self-published it upon return, made six figure profits within months, and turned down an offer from a major traditional publisher — until eventually selling them the reprint rights.

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While most people don’t share my obsessions and compulsions, anyone can learn from the steps I took to write and publish in little time.

Organize what you know

Good writers write what they know. But many don’t keep that knowledge organized. I do, because I don’t have a choice.

My career focuses on sales and technology. As I learn things, I store them in compartments in my brain, filing them into specific folders where they belong.

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Most people won’t do this mentally, but anyone can do it literally. Within your area of expertise, keep your knowledge organized somewhere, such as document folders in the cloud. As these build up, you’ll have the raw materials for a book. (This applies primarily to non-fiction, but can also help fiction writers store information necessary for the details they’re writing about — historical epics, industries, etc.)

Make distractions impossible

A lot of people who want to write books get too busy with other tasks. I gave myself no choice.

My writing process began on a flight from Sydney to Singapore. I was sitting in a bulkhead coach seat, and had no wi-fi.

I hate flying. But when I work, I get into a mental zone in which the task before me has to get done. So I forget I’m on a plane.

I spent all eight hours of that flight writing the outline. Each folder became a chapter. Within the notes for each chapter, I put bullet points and ideas. By the time we landed, I had a 15-page outline.

Seek solitude (ideally in a far-away time zone)

I had found an island near Bali, Gili Trawangan, with a cheap resort to stay at. My goal wasn’t just to be alone, it was to be in a far away time zone.

I’m the founder and CEO of a company in San Francisco. Given the time difference, when I woke up each morning at the resort I had a full inbox. I’d spend a maximum of two hours banging out responses. By the time I finished, everyone in the United States was asleep. There was no back-and-forth, no immediate follow-up. I had the rest of the day to write.

Organize what your interviewees know

But the book wasn’t entirely a brain dump from me. I also wanted to quote experts. Often, people gather quotes from interview subjects through free-flowing conversations. But I had specific topics for them to weigh in on, and knew this wasn’t the most efficient method.

So I created a Google Form with five questions. I emailed it to them, asking them to fill it out within a pretty tight time frame. They wanted to be quoted in the book, and they obliged (or indulged) me.

Google Forms automatically pulls together multiple respondents’ answers to questions into a single document. So now, I had quotes to use in all the right places. On day five, I reached the end of my book, having written more than 21,000 words. On day six, I went back through and added another 6,000 words.

I had planned on doing it as an e-book, released one chapter at a time. But when I saw how much material I had, I knew it was enough to sell in print.

Know, and be established in, your market

Specialized how-to business books of about 30,000 words can do quite well. This is particularly true when you sell a book about selling — to people who sell. I knew this about my market.

Just as importantly, I had established myself as a known quantity within my niche: where sales and technology meet. Through my work at Sales Hacker and the big conferences I was running, I had built up the right connections who would help spread the word. And I had a substantial e-mail list that would make initial marketing a breeze.

In my professional community, Amazon is generally the first place people turn to for books. So I hired an editor to format it and made it available on Amazon, as e-book and print-on-demand.

Soon after, I received an offer from a traditional publisher. But I saw no reason to give another company the vast majority of the money. Later, after months of steady sales, I had moved on to other projects. I agreed to sell the reprint rights to Wiley. They worked with me to expand the book a bit (it’s now at 35,000 words), and made it available in brick-and-mortar stores as well.

To this day, I get messages from people who see it all over the world, from the Hong Kong airport to the flagship Barnes & Noble in Manhattan.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that OCD comes in many forms, and many people suffer from it far worse. And it does take a toll on my personal life. But at this time, I’m focused mostly on work, and have found that I can make my mind work for me.

Max Altschuler is the founder and CEO of Sales Hacker, the leading community for the next generation of sales professionals.  He’s the author of Hacking Sales: The Playbook for Building a High Velocity Sales Machine.

Tagged: max altschuler ocd sales self-publishing wiley

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