Stephen King's 3 Secrets To Selling 350M+ Copies
Source: Charlie Rose Show (1998)
Stephen King has sold 350M+ copies of 50+ books over his 50+ year career.
Put differently, he has…
Written a book a year
For 50+ years
And, each book has sold 7M+ copies on average
Pretty crazy, right?!?!
In today's post, I break down three of his core secrets for great writing:
Follow your effort, not your passion
Create the hook by dissecting your subconscious (for paid subscribers)
Focus on lifestyle over achievement (for paid subscribers)
Secret #1: Follow your effort, not your passion
My assumption is that… if I can spend three hours and work on it a day, and I don't know where that time went, maybe the reader will like it too.
Generally speaking, writers want the largest audience possible (all else being equal).
Therefore, it’s natural to assume that catering to the audience first is key.
But again and again, what I see in my research, is that great writers first write about things that make them come alive. I’ve never heard of a great writer writing about things they don’t enjoy, but that they think an audience will.
Thus writing requires a leap of faith. It requires us to trust that whatever we’re interested in will interest others as well.
There are five reasons why this leap of faith is a smart bet:
What we feel when we write is what readers feel when they read
If we don’t like what we’re writing about, we’ll be less productive and eventually burn out
Life is too short
“What is most personal is most universal.” —Carl R. Rogers (psychologist)
Our interest is based on the wisdom of our cumulative life experiences
How To: The “3 Hours Per Day” Test
In the clip above, King gives us a concrete metric we can use to test our actual level of interest:
If we can work on it for 3 hours a day
If we can lose ourselves in the writing and enter a flow state
In other words, if we’re not passionate enough about something that we are able to consistently give a significant amount of time to it, then we shouldn’t try to do it.
King’s advice mimics the advice of two other greats…
First, self-made billionaire entrepreneur Marc Cuban’s suggests that we follow our effort, not our passion:
I’m passionate about a lot of things, but the things I ended up being really good at were the things I found myself putting effort into.
Said differently, there are a few levels of passion:
Fascinations: Things that capture our attention and get us to click
Curiosities: Things that we explore over days
Passions: Things we explore over months
Callings: Thing we commit to over years and even decades
The more we cultivate our callings, the more fulfilled we are and the better we do.
Second, King’s advice reminds me of the Lindy Effect mental model (via Nassim Taleb), which applies to our passions.
In a nutshell, the Lindy Effect is the theory that you can predict the life expectancy of a technology, product, or idea based on how long it has survived. The longer something has survived in the past, the longer it will survive in the future. This idea was originally coined in 1964 by Albert Goldman, but has been recently popularized by Nassim Taleb.
I’ve personally found that the Lindy Effect also applies to my passions. In other words, I’ve found that the best ways to identify my calling is to look for my oldest passions that have persisted for decades. The logic being that if I’ve been interested in something for 20 years, I’ll probably be interested in it for another 20 years.
Choosing a topic is one of the biggest decisions a thought leader can make.
I made this decision by looking back at my life and noticing what my callings were. As an adult, I’ve had three enduring passions that have lasted 20+ years that I did for years without any external reward:
Learning (following my curiosity, applying the lessons to my life, and deliberately learning faster and better)
Thinking better (smarter, intuitively, less foolishly, etc)
Writing (expressing what I’ve learned so reader’s lives can be improved)
Thus, I released a course on each of these:
The Learning Ritual for learning (2017)
The Mental Model Club for thinking (2018)
Seminal for writing (2019)
This year (2023), I brought all three together with the Thought Leader School. Now, each course is a module in this larger program that helps experts turn into thought leaders.