James Clear Explains How He Sold 15M+ Books
James Clear's first book, Atomic Habits, has now sold 15+ million copies. This makes it one of the bestselling non-fiction books of all time.
James has rarely spoken about his bestseller strategy. But, in this Tim Ferriss Podcast episode, he spills the beans.
The big takeaway is that he follows a very detailed process that I call Idea Connoisseurship…
Idea Connoisseurship Defined
Idea Connoisseurs don’t just consume content in order to apply what they learn. Rather, they also consume to craft. Or, in other words, they aim to understand craftsmanship so they can become better creators…
Using Idea Connoisseurship, rather than just jumping in and writing a book, Clear follows a very deliberate system:
Find the bestselling books of all-time
Uncover patterns of what works and what doesn't
Decide which of those patterns to emulate
Clear is not alone in being an idea connoisseur…
Great Creators All Started As Idea Connoisseurs
Idea Connoisseurship is the one skill that is most used by great creators but is least known among aspiring creators. Below are some of my favorite quotes from creators swearing by its power:
Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.
There aren’t original ideas. There are just people who haven’t read widely.
There is an impression abroad that literary folk are fast readers. Wine tasters are not heavy drinkers. Literary people read slowly because they sample the complex dimensions and flavors of words and phrases. They strive for totality not linearity. They are well aware that the words on the page have to be decanted with the utmost skill. Those who imagine they read only for "content" are illusioned.
When I want to discover something, I begin by reading everything that has been done along that line in the past… I see what has been accomplished at great labor and expense in the past. I gather data of many thousands of experiments as a starting point, and then I make thousands more.
History teaches us that a striking number of top performers appeared naturally drawn to collecting works they admired long before entering and later dominating their field. Andy Warhol collected artwork, David Bowie collected records, Julia Child collected cookbooks. Director Quentin Tarantino spent so much time consuming movies that his local video store hired him as its resident film expert to advise other customers, enabling him to watch even more movies during the day while also getting paid. Before his passing, Ernest Hemingway’s library exceeded nine thousand books and was growing at a clip of nearly two hundred new titles per year, suggesting that Saul Bellow was exactly right when he observed, “A writer is a reader who is moved to emulation.”
—Ron Friedman, author, Decoding Greatness: How the Best in the World Reverse Engineer Success
In his video clip at the top of this post, Clear shares his step-by-step system for Idea Connoisseurship…
7 Steps To Idea Connoisseurship
In each step below, I provide the relevant quote from Clear from the interview…
1. DECIDE WHAT TO MASTER
You should deconstruct the cool things that you see in life, when you come across something that you really like or that you think is cool. So in my case, I was writing a book, so how do I deconstruct bestsellers?
2. SET THE INTENTION TO BE GREAT
When I was writing Atomic Habits, early on I was like, how... I know what I'm trying to achieve. I'm trying to write the most comprehensive and most useful book that's ever been written on habits.
You gotta start there. Otherwise, you're never just gonna stumble into that outcome, so you have to try to intend to create something great.
3. LEARN FROM THE GREATS
The way that I did it was, I said, 'I'm only gonna look at books that have sold a million copies or more. That's what I'm trying to achieve. So lemme just see how many books I can find that have done that.
4. DECIDE WHAT MICRO-SKILL TO ANALYZE
In the podcast, he mentions how he has analyzed…
5. COLLECT LOTS OF EXAMPLES IN A SPREADSHEET
If you find a single example of something, it doesn't really tell you anything.
I put together that spreadsheet. Let's say I got like 150 titles or something, and then I started to look for patterns.
6. LOOK FOR PATTERNS
Clear describes how he determined the length of chapters against the advice of his publisher…
I started to notice other things that novels would do or books that weren't necessarily non-fiction. The chapters are really short. There's kind of this momentum that gets into it, it kind of gets you flipping pages and it's easier to keep churning through the chapters, and I wanted to have that kind of chapter length.
7. CREATE USING THE BEST PATTERN FOR YOU
Later in the interview, Clear talks about how he sets up selection filters in order to decide which title to go with:
It needs to be something that you actually want, it needs to cover the topic of the book, it needs to have this element of contrast. There's a lot of filters for it to pass and that's why coming up with good titles is hard.
Why It’s Worth Your Time To Master Idea Connoisseurship
You may be thinking to yourself, I don’t have the time to laboriously collect and analyze other people’s content. I’d rather just be told the hacks to follow and apply them.
This way of thinking is misguided, and here’s why.
Idea Connoisseurship helps you in many ways that aren’t immediately obvious. It helps you…
Develop your taste. When doing connoisseurship you don’t just analyze what works and what doesn’t. You also notice what you like and don’t like. After noticing your likes and dislikes for hundreds of pieces of content, you get more and more clarity on your unique voice.
Overcome impostor syndrome. Many would-be content creators suffer from impostor syndrome. But, what they’re actually suffering from is a lack of knowledge on what works and what doesn’t. As a result, they don’t whether what they’ve written is good or not. When you’ve studied the market with idea connoisseurship, you have a better understanding on the quality of your own work and how to improve it.
Become a better editor. When you understand patterns better, you can notice more holes in your work and have multiple strategies to fill each hole.
Find an authentic approach that works for you. There isn’t just one path to mastery. By being an idea connoisseur, you notice differences between the greats. You see they have different skill sets. You see their unique styles. This diversity helps you move beyond a one-size-fits-all approaches.
Learn from the very best. Imagine if you could hire the best creators in the world to coach you for free. In many ways, this is what Idea Connoisseurship is. In my experience, the best strategies are often fundamentally different than the good strategies. So learning good strategies may not only be a waste of time, it may set you down the wrong path.
Learn what works in your bones. Ron Friedman, author of Decoding Greatness puts it like this: “Immersing yourself in examples prompts skill building in ways we don’t immediately anticipate. For one thing, it enables us to absorb the conventions of a field without consciously trying. Studies indicate that simply consuming examples with an underlying structure leads you to detect their patterns, even when you’re not consciously trying to learn a thing.”
You can find the episode links and transcripts on Tim’s website.
Become An Idea Connoisseur Wizard With This Tool, Template, And Tutorial (For Paid Subscribers)
I first decided to master thought leadership in 2015.
Over the previous two years, I had seen how investing in quality had taken me from almost zero traction (no matter how much I posted) to tens of thousands of readers for each of my Forbes articles.
So I asked myself a question…
If increasing quality is so effective, why not increase the quality even more?
This led me to the decision to study and master every part of thought leadership.
Over the next 8 years, I spent thousands of hours on idea connoisseurship. More specifically, I…
Broke down thought leadership into dozens of micro-skills
Identified which of these micro-skills was the highest leverage
Analyzed the patterns of greats for that micro-skill
Practiced using those patterns in my own writing
As a result, I saw my reach and impact from each article skyrocket.
Out of all the high-leverage micro-skills I learned, titles was the biggest one where a little bit of expertise made the biggest impact.
I spent 1,000+ hours studying this skill with idea connoisseurship. And, I’ve performed 4,000+ A/B tests to test the patterns and perfect my skills.
But, before I show you exactly how to improve at titles, it’s critical to understand…
Why Titles Are So High Leverage
For most writers, the title is an afterthought.
They spend years developing their expertise. Hours writing the article. And minutes writing the title at the very end.
Unfortunately, the reader's experience is the exact opposite.
The very first thing that a reader sees is the title. And they see it in the context of a social media newsfeed, Google search results, or an email inbox.
Learning from 4,000+ title tests, I know that when people with no experience create titles, they generally have a .5% clickthrough rate. To put this number in context:
Great title creators have a 10% clickthrough rate. That’s 20x the clickthroughs.
With a .5% clickthrough rate, only 1 out of every 200 people who see your article in their newsfeed actually click it. As a result, your title is buried even more in the algorithmic newsfeed.
I know. It’s brutal. You spent years developing your idea and now your article is dead on arrival before people even get to it.
Now that you understand why titles are so important, let’s jump in.
Below are the exact steps you can follow to improve at titles using Idea Connoisseurship. I also include a spreadsheet template and an actual title analysis I did that took me dozens of hours.