10 Lessons From Publishing the #1 Bestselling Short Story on Amazon

A masterpiece is a difficult thing to create. We all have at least one—usually more than one—masterpiece in us, waiting to be created, waiting patiently to show its beautiful mane to the world around us. I’m 31 and I’ve created two masterpieces in my life.

It took me 30 years to get around to the first—my bestselling short story collection, Falling While Sitting Down—which I published last year and which debuted at #1 on Amazon’s Bestselling Short Stories list.

I’d like to share the lessons I learned along the way, lessons that helped me prepare for my new masterpiece Days After the Crash, lessons that will prepare you for your new masterpiece.

Lesson 1: Value Transference

I’m best know for my work at The Minimalists, where my best friend, Ryan, and I write essays about living a meaningful life with less stuff. Ryan and I created that site 18 months ago to share our journeys with the world, and we were fortunate enough to establish an audience of more than 100,000 monthly readers within a year.

I enjoy writing for that audience. I enjoy all types of writing—I even teach an online writing class—but my deepest passion is writing literary fiction, something that not many blog readers dedicate their time towards. I’ve dabbled in nonfiction for less than two years, but I’ve written fiction for nearly a decade.

I learned, however, that I could transfer my skills (viz. writing) and contribute to other people in a meaningful way. And in turn those people would be willing to support what I was passionate about. Said another way, if you add value to other people’s lives, they will support you and what you’re passionate about.

You already possess a skill set—you’re already good at something—how can you use that skill and add value to other people?

Lesson 2: Bypass the Gatekeepers

Throughout my 20’s, I received rejection letter after rejection letter, one by one, from agents and publishers. Eventually, I realized I had two options: fold-up shop and call it a day or do something on my own. I chose the latter, started a website, and built an audience by adding value to people’s lives (notice a recurring theme?).

I realized that I could do it myself, without interference from the old guard, and have more control of my destiny in the process. For the first time in history, we don’t need the old guard. We live in an era where the indians can circumvent the chiefs, taking their masterpieces straight to the tribe. Hell, one day I might publish those letters as a stand-alone book; I could call it Dear Author: Rejection Letters to a Bestselling Writer.

Lesson 3: Passion Can Be Painful

Passion is an absolute requirement for creating your masterpiece. I can’t think of anyone who has created a masterpiece out of something he wasn’t totally passionate about. Passion, however, seems to be a misnomer for many people.

Just because you’re passionate about something doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy every aspect of it.

In fact, I’ve found the opposite to to be true. While writing my first masterpiece, Falling While Sitting Down, it was a miserable experience 80% of the time. Seriously, much of the time I wanted to put my head through a wall. But the other 20% was magical and exciting and made all the suffering and drudgery well worth it.

The key is pushing through the tedium of the 80%, so you can find the beauty beneath the banality; it’s there, plentiful in that remaining 20%. You have to tolerate the pain, if you want to pursue your dream.

Lesson 4: It Ain’t the Money

If money would have been my primary goal—as it was throughout most of my self-indulgent 20’s—then I wouldn’t have focused on creating what I was passionate about. Rather, I would have stayed in the corporate world, making every effort to “maximize profit.” But then again, if I would have been focused on money, I wouldn’t have written the best thing I’d ever written, followed by … the best thing I’ve ever written.

I didn’t worry about the money; money is not why I do what I do. That said, I’m not allergic to money either. I just know that if I add value to other people’s lives, the money will be a bi-product of my efforts.

Lesson 5: It Takes Time

It took me a year of writing every single day to create my first masterpiece; it took the same amount of time for the second. When I didn’t have time, I’d make the time: I’d wake a 3:30 a.m. I’d find 30 minutes before I left for work. I’d work through my lunch break. I’d find an hour after work. I’d cut the superfluous nonsense out of my life.

I wanted it bad enough, so I found the time.

None of us were born equal. We come from different backgrounds, different cultures, different socioeconomic situations. Suffice it to say, we were not all born on a level playing field. Time is the one exception. The only thing we all have in common is time. We all have the same 24 hours in a day. You can find the time if you want it bad enough.

Lesson 6: Size Doesn’t Matter

It’s the motion of the ocean, right ladies? My first masterpiece was relatively short (Falling While Sitting Down is 30,000 words, which in traditional print is roughly 100 pages), and my second masterpiece is even shorter (Days After the Crash is 9,000 words, less than 40 pages).

While the content must—ahem—add value, the size doesn’t matter as much as you think. Rather, it’s more important that you create something meaningful.

Brevity is the soul of wit. Or perhaps, more accurately, brevity is wit. Thus, I decided to create something larger and then whittle it down to its essence, resulting in a masterpiece in which every line is carefully considered (and filled with tweetable moments).

Lesson 7: Creating a Final Product

Once my masterpiece was complete, I needed assistance from others to get it out to the world, most of which assistance I was able to crowd source for little or no cost. People are willing to help when you (everyone together now) add value to their lives.

Hence, I found proofreaders who were willing to find typos. I discovered an editor who was willing to work inexpensively. I asked a friend who was into photography to take cover photos. I asked another friend to help design the cover. I found someone to inexpensively format the book for Kindle, Nook, iBooks, and print.

All the while, I learned along the way: I learned that I could create a print book for free through Create Space and sell it. I learned, as I’ll reveal below, that Amazon was the best sales channel for me. And I learned that I actually could make money from my masterpiece.

Lesson 8: Don’t Ignore the Stats, But Don’t Let Them Run the Show

In the corporate world, I used to live and die by the stats. I managed several large groups of people in several different locations, and I was forced to make the vast majority of my decisions based solely on the numbers. I’d posit to you, however, that releasing your masterpiece to the world is far less about stats, and much more about how it makes you feel. That said, I’m going to share a few things I learned from the numbers when I first published Falling While Sitting Down.

Learning from the Statistics

  • First Week: I decided to sell the book for $0.99 for the first week, from which I saw over 2,000 sales, most of which were from my existing audience and nearly all of which were on Amazon (with a few Nook and PDF copies sprinkled in the mix). I then raised the price to $4.99, selling 1,200 copies over the next three weeks.
  • Reviews: I learned that people loved the book because they left glowing reviews, which—guess what—those reviews had a huge impact on future sales. I know that very few people are compelled to leave reviews, so I went to my readers and asked them to leave reviews (most via social media). Not in a pushy way; I simply asked them to leave a review if they had a moment. I let them know it would help me reach more people.
  • Platforms: I decided to hold off on the print version of Falling While Sitting Down and focus on the digital side of things (N.B. I’m including print in the initial launch of Days After the Crash). I made the book available on Kindle, Nook, iBooks, Smashwords, and PDF (E-Junkie). I was surprised when Amazon captured 93% of all sales in the first month (just shy of 3,000 total copies). Thus, I decided to do some more testing with Amazon.
  • Amazon KDP Select: As a test, I removed Falling While Sitting Down from every seller except Amazon. When I did this, I placed the following clarification on the sales page of my website: Don’t own a Kindle? No problem! Kindle books can be read using the Free Kindle Reader App for your Web Browser, iPhone, iPad, BlackBerry, or Android.  Selling exclusively through Amazon allowed me to enroll in their KDP select program, which allows authors to lend their books and make a dollar or two for every copy lent, and, more important, it allowed me to give away my book for free for up to five days, opening up an entire new audience. So, I made the book free for five days and nearly 21,000 people downloaded it, most of whom had never heard of me or my writing before. And many of those people bought my other books, too. Ultimately, Amazon provided me a large new audience that, when combined with my existing readers, were willing to support my work—because they found value in it.

Lesson 9: Breathe and Then Do It Again

Pause and bask in the glory of your masterpiece. Go ahead: take it all in. Enjoy the moment. You deserve it. Now get started on your next masterpiece. This lifetime contains as many masterpieces as you allow. Lather, rinse, repeat.

This time, I’m giving away the Kindle version of my new masterpiece, Days After the Crash, free for two days, as well as offering a print version through Amazon for $7.99.

Lesson 10: Keep Adding Value

As I continue to repeat Lesson 9, I’ll continue to learn. To share my learnings, I recently teamed up with three self-publishing experts—Colin Wright, Thom Chambers, Ryan Nicodemus—to form Asymmetrical, a publishing company and community that embraces new technologies, methods, and ideas to help writers and other creative types reach an audience.

If you’re interested in publishing your ideas to the world, I’d like to invite you to come check out the Asymmetrical Community at your leisure.

It’s an online home—one that can be a periodic port in the storm, or your full time crash pad—and it’s already full of people looking to up their publishing game, learn from each other, and share what they already know. I have personally made socializing there a big part of my days, so if you want to chat, that’s the digital coffeehouse I’ll be working from. I’ll save you a seat.

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  • http://www.frequentflosser.com Will


    Thanks for sharing your inspirational story and congrats on your accomplishments.

    Adding value to others’ lives IS the key to success and to life, IMHO.


  • http://jaredakers.com jared akers

    Your hard work and story is inspiring, thanks for sharing.

    Awesome post and very timely as I just released my first self-published (non-fiction) book this week. I elected to not opt-in to the KDP Select initially but may try that at some further point. I initially launched to my email list providing a coupon code to save on the eBook bundle (.PDF, .mobi, .epub) via ejunkie. That’s worked pretty good although my list isn’t that big yet so.

    But having the print version to sell and send to friends and supporters is awesome also. Although it added a lot of over-analyzing pricing structure for all the different formats. I find myself sending free copies to people all the time also as I just want to help people. I admire your commitment to adding value to peoples lives. Make the world a better place and good things will follow. As you said, I’m not allergic to money but don’t need fame or fortune, however, the ability or freedom it would provide to write and help more people would be welcomed.

    Thanks again for sharing this info with us!

  • http://www.fairgroundmedia.com Stephanie, Fairground Media

    Awesome! Just downloaded the book! :)

  • http://becom.in Jarkko Helenius

    I’m actually in the middle of the reading “Falling While Sitting Down” at the moment. Inspiring to read about the story that made it so popular. Then again I am one of those people who was your reader prior to the book as well via the Minimalists.

  • http://www.ivblogger.com Sheyi @ ivblogger.com

    This is an inspiration and it goes to show that you do not eed to write 1 000, 000 words for you to be able to publish your own book. Amazon kdp and prime has made everything so easy that you canpublish without breaking a sweat.

    This is a success story to what I’m going to and i will surely do my best and see my work get good reviews and recommendations.

    Thanks Joshua for posting this.


  • http://www.geemoneytalk.com Ryan Gee

    I love #5 It Takes Time. It is so true (even for myself) to spend more time than I realize doing non value-added activities. And I mean things that do not add value to my overall goal of freedom. I find myself needing to have an “if you are not with us, you are against us” mentality that if you aren’t helping achieve that goal, then what you are doing is taking yourself farther from it. Cutting out tv time, working on a blog post on lunch, listening to podcasts on my way to work, or deciding to work on my blog rather than maintain a personal facebook page are some of the things I do to “make” time. Time is really the only nonrenewable element we have here on earth. Great post, Joshua.

  • http://www.lifeprobabilities.com Ani

    Very useful post! Especially for me and especially now.
    I quit my full time job in order to be able to write my first novel. 15k words are already there and I will definitely use your advice!

  • http://doers.bz Buntu Redempter

    Thank you for sharing, I always wanted to write and it’s good to see inspirations like this.

  • http://www.mobileapptycoon.com Thomas @ Mobile App Tycoon

    Very good tips here! I’m excited that Joshua did so well on the Kindle store! I’m actually having a few nonfiction books written for Kindle which I’m pretty excited about as well! Hopefully they will do well like Joshua’s book ;)


  • http://marriedwithdebt.com John Miro

    I strongly encourage anyone with an interest in writing a publishing to check out Asymmetrical Press’ forums. Definitely was the kick in the pants I needed to get me closer to the end of my first piece of fiction. There aren’t many places online where you can truly interact with industry leaders: this is one.

  • http://theminimalists.com Joshua Fields Millburn


    Thank you for your kind words. I’m glad I could add value in some way.


  • http://www.passiveincometeacher.com Jeff Bullins


    Thanks for writing this post. I wrote a short story that was complete and just had to put it together for publishing. Over and over I kept telling myself to publish it, but didn’t really know what to do with a short story. My computer and phone hard drives, both of which had parts of the story on them, died, causing me to lose some really well written parts of the story. I have been contemplating organizing what I do have saved and re-writing the parts that were lost. This post is the last thing I needed to push me over the edge and get it going. Thanks so much for sharing it.

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  • http://onlinesaleconsultant.blogspot.com/ Mavis Barry

    I had my book on Amazon for 3 months and felt the disappointment of nothing happening then I met Oli Hille! He taught me the techniques that he used to get his books to rise through the ranks and become Amazon best sellers. I did not take much time and jumped on these techniques and within a week did a launch of my book. With Oli’s support my book became a best seller in two categories.

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  • http://www.ranashahbaz.com/high-pr-backlinks Ayaz

    HI, its been worthy reading this article and appreciate your hardwork and I like the point regarding no is one is born on the same level playing field and you got to find out the time and I think that’s what makes you different from an ordinary people to get to the success but it also takes time and for that have to be patience enough. Thanks for sharing great information

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  • http://muwasalat.com Befrien D

    I liked what you wrote. The core purpose the article serves is of motivation. 30 minutes everyday and accumulation of a year can make you where you are. That is more powerful than anything anyone can tell.

    So, ultimately what you are suggesting which I totally agree with is, if you wanna change life, commit yourself for daily schedule for a change– which is desperately desired.

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This is what I've learned, having now self-published three books (selling close to 10,000 copies total)—two using Gumroad and Sellfy (which are independent sales platforms, aka: digital goods e-commerce services, or DGES from here on in), and my latest on Amazon's KDP Select platform.

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