how to write a book that gets consistent sales


This is a story about how one admittedly mediocre self-published book evolved, over time, into three far better, vastly more commercially viable alternatives.

The story begins with a dinner discussion with my publishing friend, Dan Skaggs. We had just entered the 21st century, and I had recently self-published Brain Surgery for Suits, the first of what I hoped would become a long succession of advertising and marketing bestsellers.

I was feeling all puffy and proud, taking too much credit for too little an accomplishment; it was Dan who good-naturedly took me down a notch or three by saying:

“Writing a first book is easy; it’s the second book that’s hard.”

Cut to 2018; I never did find a way to counter Dan’s point, whose words remained remarkably resilient, right, and true…but not for lack of trying. In fact, after I published Brain Surgery, I wrote a second book, on new business, called Perfect Pitch. My agent at the time, Jim Donovan, approached potential buyers with the proposal I had written. He got a positive response from Mary B. Good—yes, this is her real name—who was an acquisition editor at a midsized, Chicago-based publisher named Dearborn.

But Mary was not interested in Perfect Pitch; instead, she was interested in bringing out a new version of Brain Surgery, which is how that book title morphed into The Art of Client Service, the first edition of which was issued in 2003; a second was issued in 2008 by Kaplan, the company that acquired Dearborn.

More recently, I had another book I wanted to promote, called What Clients Want, which would serve as a second-book successor to The Art of Client Service. My new agent, Jeff Herman, approached potential buyers, one of whom was Richard Narramore, an editor at John Wiley & Sons.

Richard was interested, but not in new book I had written and Jeff was trying to sell. Instead, he wanted to bring out a third edition of—you guessed it, The Art of Client Service. So that’s exactly what we did, with Wiley issuing this latest substantially revised version in 2016.

the art of client service how to sell more books

Opportunities to Improve

Each publishing moment—from Brain Surgery to the first, then second, then third editions of The Art of Client Service—was an opportunity to make a better book. I corrected deficiencies, filled unaddressed gaps, wrote tighter, and organized better. As a result, the book I offer today is a vast improvement over the book I offered nearly 20 years ago.

The Art of Client Service will never be a bestseller, but are there reasons why the book endures after all these years, a reliable mid-list member of a publisher’s catalog?

There are, and I will get to them in a moment, but before I do, let me state the one reason that rises above the rest; it’s about the idea for the book you plan to write:

You need to create best what people want most.

In my case, I was writing about how to serve clients well, something no one in the advertising and marketing business had done previously. And I had a simple, easy-to-communicate theory that underpinned everything I wrote—relationships matter—which I used to guide and govern what I would say to my reader.

How to Offer Long-Term Value

My book was the first of its kind for this particular audience, which explains, in part, why it hasn’t been exiled to the remainder bin. But beyond this one core idea, here are a bunch of other reasons why The Art of Client Service continues in print after all these years:

  • It’s more practical than theoretical, focusing on “how to” and “how not to” advice that is widely applicable to its readers.
  • It’s written for ADHD ad people, meaning it pretty much reads in 30-second sound bites. So it’s easily digestible for people perpetually running around with their hair on fire.
  • It tells true stories, stuff that actually happened to me, drawing broader, more widely applicable lessons from narrow, highly specific circumstances.
  • It doesn’t take itself too seriously, reminding readers that a sense of context is something all of us need as we deal with the occasional madness and irrationality of our clients.
  • It is more a book of failure than a book of success, with me as the primary victim.
  • It is tolerably well-written, leavened with some dry wit from cartoons drawn from The New Yorker.
  • It is far from complete or exhaustive. That explains, in part, why I supplement the book with my blog, Adventures in Client Service (, which helps keep the book current.
  • It is useful for the account person working in a big, publicly held, traditional New York City ad agency; for the person working in a small, entrepreneurially focused, digital social or mobile shop in Peoria; and for account people in every circumstance between these extremes.
  • It’s instructive not just to account people, but to anyone who directly or indirectly deals with clients, meaning all functions within an advertising or marketing firm.
  • Clients find it illuminating, not only because the book treats them with respect, but also because it serves as a both a guide and a standard they can use to measure the quality of client service they receive.

The Hard Work of Book Promotion

As hard as it is to write a book—and believe me, it is hard, which explains why so many people say they want to write a book, yet so few actually do—it is an even hard task to promote one.

Unless your name is Michael Lewis or Malcolm Gladwell, be prepared to have your publisher—assuming your agent (yes, you will need an agent) can find you a publisher, no small task—behave more like a printer and distributor than a company devoted to marketing your masterpiece. Marketing is your responsibility, and you have to work at hand-selling your book every day.

For starters, you’ll need an easily updatable website—the one devoted to my book is at–but that’s just the beginning. You’ll need ongoing outreach—arranging for endorsements, conducting workshops, giving presentations, being interviewed, blogging, mailing complementary copies to influencers of all types, tweeting, Facebooking, using LinkedIn and other social media—if you are going to generate and sustain sales.

And yet Dan’s quote lives on, so instead of me being able to say, “I am the author of four books on advertising,” I find myself saying “I am the author of one book on advertising, which has been published four times.”

Dan, I am afraid you are more right than you know.

The point is, it’s a full-time job, this business of writing then promoting your book. But if you have an idea you believe in and feel passionate about—an idea that is “the same but different” from other books on the market—if you have the discipline to identify and attract the interest of an agent who will entice a publisher, and if you have the staying power to see this through to the end, then yes, you just might be the author of a book that not only gets published, but endures, as mine has—not once, but four times.

And who knows? It just might be that bestseller all of us strive for.

If Dan were still with us—he is remembered for his giant and loving heart, his fervor for a good book, and his generosity of spirit toward anyone who came into his orbit—I am sure he would be among the first to celebrate it.