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

Written by Joshua Fields Millburn

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

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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