Imagine self-publishing 500,000,000 books. It happened and I’m going to tell you how.
Everyone says that technology right now gives more opportunity than ever to “choose yourself.” That only now we have the opportunity to escape the cubicle and live a life of freedom.
This is not true. Freedom starts with the choice inside yourself. Not the choices outside.
These 500,000,000 books were mostly sold in the 1920s — 90 years ago.
Opportunity always exists. All it takes is an imagination.
Knowledge is a tiny subset of imagination.
You get enough knowledge to understand the tiny box the world wants to keep you inside of – then imagination is the entire universe outside of that box.
The Little Blue Books started by Emanuel Haldeman-Julius were tiny blue books of classics and original material that were sold for 5 cents each.
There was no gatekeeper. He didn’t try to sell the books through a publisher. He didn’t try to sell books in a bookstore. He went straight to the masses. Here’s how he did it and I think the same thing, more or less, can be done today in any industry.
It takes imagination. It takes becoming an idea machine.
1. MAILING LIST
Emanuel bought a failing newspaper that had a circulation of 175,000.
That means he now had 175,000 names he could market to. How did he buy the newspaper? He borrowed money and put down half then paid for the other half over time.
In other words, Haldeman-Julius used none of his own money and acquired a huge list of potential customers.
The modern day version would be to build an email list. For instance, make a pamphlet, 100 ways to get out of debt. Use Facebook ads to give the pamphlet out for free while you collect email names.
2. GET CUSTOMERS FIRST
He didn’t make a single book. First he wrote to the list and said for five dollars he would send people 50 books at staggering intervals.
About 5,000 people “subscribed” and he had $25,000 to work with before he even printed a single book.
At ten cents a book, people viewed it as a bargain and an easy way for anyone to build their own library and get educated.
So he was solving an urgent problem for many people who wanted access to classics and other books but didn’t have much money.
3. MAKE BOOKS CHEAP
He found books where the copyright expired: books like The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam or books written over 50 years older. He used cheap thin paper. He would shorten books (“I would take out the boring text”) so they would fit into sizes of 32 pages or 64 pages.
He used the printing presses of the newspaper he bought. Ultimately, he was printing so many books that his costs got even cheaper and he brought down the price from 10 cents to 5 cents per book.
Just to put this in contrast: The Great Gatsby was selling for $2.00 at the time.
4. TEACH PEOPLE TO WORK FOR HIM
He taught a mail-order course on “how to write” for $100.
The assignments would be books that would then go into the Little Blue Books series.
Books like “Hypnotism Made Plain” or “What Every Girl Should Know About Marriage” were not only cheap to buy the rights to – people actually PAID him to write them. So the actual production of books became a profit center for him.
5. TEST, TEST, TEST
Haldeman-Julius would stop printing a book if it started selling less than 10,000 books a year. But first he would see if he could rewrite or change the title to make it sell more.
Changing the title proved to be the best way to increase sales. I think people don’t realize how important title is.
When I was first trying to figure out the title of “Choose Yourself” I asked many people to help me. I originally wanted to call it “The Choose Yourself Era” but when I told that to a friend of mine who was an editor at Harpercollins she said, “Era sounds like Error”.
I then sat down with Tucker Max and Ryan Holiday, two super-experts on publishing. Each gave me a bunch of titles to work with.
Ultimately I had no idea. So I made Facebook ads with each title on them. “Choose Yourself”, “Pick Yourself”, “The Choose Yourself Era” and about 10 more.
Within a day or two, the number of click-throughs was statistically significant enough I could see which title was the best.
“Choose Yourself” had over 60% of the clicks despite testing about a dozen titles.
Haldeman-Julius would see which titles were underperforming that he felt should perform better and he would change the title.
For instance: The Tallow Ball by Guy de Maupassant sold 15,000 copies one year. Haldeman-Julius changed the title to “A French Prostitute’s Sacrifice” (which he felt was more accurate to the story anyway) and the next year it sold 54,700 copies.
I wonder how many publishers and writers test their titles. The same book and one title sold THREE TIME as many books as the prior title.
He would also test the content. He would take a book written by a classic author and rip out maybe up to half the book (“the duller portions”) and see if it would sell more. Often it did. He was writing for people on the run.
Another title he changed was a book called The Fleece of Gold which sold 6,000 copies one year. The next year, after the title change, the book sold 50,000 copies. Over eight times as much. The new title: The Quest for the Blonde Mistress.
No author was too fancy for testing. He took Shakespeare’s None for the King (6,000 copies sold one year), changed it to: The Lustful King Enjoys Himself and sold 38,000 copies the next year.
No rules. No fake gods to worship.
6. MAKE A MONOPOLY
Haldeman-Julius saw a big problem. Reading was being limited to the upper classes. They were printed and sold to be read in a home library. Not on a lunch break from the assembly line.
So he priced them super-low, and made the books a tiny size: 3.5 x 5 inches, so they could fit in the pocket of a factory worker and be read on his lunch break.
Many great modern authors (Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, etc) grew up reading Little Blue Books.
7. FIND ALTERNATIVE METHODS OF DISTRIBUTION
At the time, books were sold in bookstores. Haldeman-Julius changed that – selling books in pharmacies, toy stores, and even making vending machines that sold the Little Blue Books.
The entire idea was to make it as easy as possible for readers to buy.
Everyone is like, “Do you have analytics for your website?” as if it was an Internet invention.
Haldeman-Julius would probably have gone broke without analytics.
He advertised everywhere. He needed names for his list of people he would sell books to.
And for each ad, he’d take notes. He might have a line: “NY Times, $2000 in ads, $4389.72 in sales” and then he’d keep track of which books sold to which people, depending on which ad they came from.
Because he sold so many books (1914 different books by the time the series ended), he also knew what categories people were interested in buying.
So Prostitution in the Modern World (129,000 copies a year) and Did Jesus Ever Live (44,000 copies a year) might sell more than Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, so he would stop selling it.
Note, by contrast, The Great Gatsby sold 21,000 copies it’s first year with mega-advertising behind it. In fact, Fitzgerald never really picked up until after his death in 1940.
9. HIGH BROW TO LOW BROW
Haldeman-Julius’s goal was to get books into the hands of the regular worker. He didn’t care what they read. He sold them what they wanted to read.
People wanted self-help. People wanted racy. But they also wanted to be educated and there was no other way to get educated other than through his books because of the low price.
So Story of Plato’s Philosophy sold 40,000 books a year. Wit and Wisdom of Voltaire sold 16,500 copies a year.
10. HOW TO APPLY TO NOW?
Every day, Haldeman-Julius was exercising his idea machine:
- What books can I sell?
- How can I improve sales of each book? (Changing titles, rewriting content, ripping out “dull” text, etc.)
- What can I test in advertising? (He would try out different words in the same magazines and see which resulted in better sales. Something many marketing agencies today don’t even do.)
- How can I distribute better? (Selling on a mailing list, selling in vending machines, selling in pharmacies, etc.)
- How can I make more money and make more books? (Offering for $100 a “writing course” where the assignments were to make more books.)
- Using analytics to test every aspect of the business long before the word “analytics” even existed.
- Dominating a niche. (Working-class people who had never bought a book before.)
- Selling what they wanted to read and eliminating bad sellers after testing failed.
Every day this requires sitting down with a pad and simply writing down ideas. Like, “Hmmm, I like Voltaire. What are ten books I can write, buy, have written, about Voltaire or written by Voltaire and then what are ten ways I can sell those books?”
Without exercising his idea machine, he never would have bought a failing socialist newspaper and turned it into the biggest publishing company ever.
Ultimately the series sold over 500,000,000 books. I don’t know of any other publisher that can make that claim.
What happened to Emanuel Haldeman-Julius?
He wrote a book criticizing the horror tactics of the FBI and J.Edgar Hoover right after World War II. The FBI investigated him. The IRS then investigated him. He ended up getting a jail sentence.
So he drowned himself in his pool.
Why is this an inspirational story? Haldeman-Julius was an idea machine who solved many hard business problems. That’s the only way to create a successful business life. That’s the way EVERYONE can create a successful life no matter what the circumstances or limitations.
There’s never excuses that overcome ideas. People say execution is everything. It’s just not true. Ideas overwhelm excuses. Execution is just a natural subset of a good idea.
But to live a life of well-being you have to also work every day to solve hard life problems. Life is never without difficulties.
Chaos is part of nature. It’s being able to appreciate how special every event is – good or bad – that builds a life of character, a life of curiosity – a life that teaches through simple actions more than big results.
I’ve had many bad things happen to projects I’m involved in. Even a few weeks ago, a disaster happened to a billion revenues company I advised. I wrote down what I learned from it, I become better for it, I move on.
I can’t always do that. Sometimes it’s difficult. But I try to get better.
500,000,000 books creates many waves. But an ocean has calm, has storms, has waves.
Connect to the ocean by finding the magic in everything. Even if “magic” sounds like a corny word. Ultimately be the ocean and not the wave.
P.S. My new book is finally out! It’s taken me a year to put together all the skills I think are needed to create abundance in this new economy. I hope you write me with feedback and questions.
Here’s what the initial reviews on this book have said:
“James Altucher did it again. I just finished and have to say it was a great read. Great insight into the future of wealth.”
“I couldn’t wait for this book to come out. It was well worth the wait! Jam-packed with good ideas and advice for the budding entrepreneur. A must read!”
I’m really grateful for the response I’ve received so quickly. I feel we are quickly building a strong community of people who are deciding to “choose themselves”.
If you want to get it exclusively in hardcover, plus several other books by me, plus a newsletter which will be the equivalent of two additional chapters every month, claim your copy here.