Eight years after it was first published, Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art has sold significantly more copies this year than any year following its initial release.
In an industry where writers expect to lose money on their non-fiction books, and further expect their titles to languish, unsold and ignored after the initial publishing push, this books recent surge in sales and popularity represents an incredible success story – one accomplished without a traditional marketing push, or a plug by Oprah (though it darn well deserves it, if you happen to be reading, Ms. Winfrey), or even a re-release from the publisher.
How did Steve do it?
A few reasons come to mind, some more salient than others:
- The book has proved itself a modern classic for its intended audience of writers and regularly makes appearances in Top 10 lists of books for writers. There’s nothing like solid content and great user experience to drive customer evangelization.
- Steve has actively welcomed and encouraged a new audience for his book, one that eventually saw that the book was only superficially about writing or fine art, and was, at heart, a textbook for anyone looking to do valuable, creative, and remarkable work. Don’t underestimate this, not many authors would have bothered to notice the interest of an unanticipated audience, let alone actively welcomed and courted it.
- Steve has given away lots of new content written in the same spirit as the book. He has embraced the counterintuitive notion that giving away content expands your base of fans willing to pay for content.
- Steve has actively engaged with his fans and that increased engagement has resulted in increased sales. This goes beyond just opening his blog to comments and responding to them. In fact, Steve has actively given interviews, appeared in guest posts, been available on Twitter, and generously corresponded with even the lowliest of bloggers.
OK, so the list hardly surprises, right? It basically reads like an online marketer’s checklist of “What’s Working Now.” Who hasn’t been told to “be authentic,” or to “do great work,” or especially to engage in the “gift economy,” after all?
So rather than detailing the oft discussed items within the list, let’s look at the hidden forces and motivations behind the successful implementation of those items.
The Emotional Dynamic Underneath “Authenticity”
The most striking thing about Steve’s success is also the most striking thing about his writing and his “style” in general: his profound ability to relate insight into the human condition in a way that’s practical for those of us slogging through our own work-a-day worlds. If you’re interested in a “from the foxhole” perspective, shared from a generous intent to pass on what actually works down in the mud and the blood and the sweat and the tears, you won’t do better than Steve’s stuff.
But a recommendation to copy this particular virtue of Steve’s sounds suspiciously like yet another exhortation to “be authentic” dressed up in fancier language.
So how do you bridge the gap? How do you imbue your own online marketing efforts with some of the same magic that took a nearly 10-year-old non-fiction book on the psychology of writing and turned it into everyone’s favorite handbook for doing work that matters?
Territory vs. Hierarchy
As it turns out, Steve provides the answer both in his book and in his inaugural Writing Wednesday’s post. Here’s a quote from that post, talking about what separates successful pros at blogging from the also-rans:
“There are many excellent and extremely professional bloggers and their stuff is a pleasure to read. They are making contributions. They’re part of the solution. But I also see no few writers of blogs who are stuck in their own egos. You can tell it from the first sentence, even the first phrase. It’s in their tone of voice. The text reeks of jealousy, pettiness, competitiveness and bile. It’s like the tone academics take when they’re sticking knives in each other’s backs. It has nothing to do with solutions and everything to do with fear, ego and narcissism. They are writing as amateurs. Their aim, though they will deny it even after being waterboarded 283 times, is to advance (or simply preserve) their own egos. I know, because I’ve been in that place. When the happy breakthrough comes for those writers, their work will rise an entire level overnight, then keep rising for levels and levels beyond that.”
With this quote in mind, look at the list again. Now ask yourself how easy any of those things would be if your primary motivation was to climb to a higher place in the pecking order? How easy? How about next to impossible.
Acting out of ego engages a hierarchical mindset, and no one can look to maintain or improve their place in the hierarchy while giving away their best stuff to their audience and fans. You can’t be enamored of your position within the group while fearlessly inviting outsiders to join in. Neither can you comfortably venture outside your group, away from where you hold status, expertise, power, etc. Nor can you reject the urge to second-guess your audience if everything you write, say, and do is aimed at impressing or manipulating them.
In short, the more hierarchical your value system, the more difficult you’ll find “new marketing.”
And yet, we’re practically programmed to think hierarchically in school, at our jobs, and socially. There are the alpha dogs and the under dogs. The queen bees and the wanna-bees. Thinking hierarchically is the default position for most of us, and it’s what our lizard brain/yetzer hara/Resistance steers us towards.
So there’s no jettisoning hierarchical thinking without replacing it with some other mindset; self-identity has to come from somewhere. The other option, as Steven describes it in The War of Art, is to replace hierarchy with territory: claiming a territory of practice/service and drawing your identity through that practice rather than your place in the pecking order. As Steven writes:
“We humans have territories too. Ours are psychological. Stevie Wonder’s territory is the paino. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s is the gym. When Bill Gates pulls into the parking lot at Microsoft, he’s on his territory. When I sit down to write, I’m on mine.
What are the qualities of a territory?
1. A territory provides sustenance. Runners know what a territory is. So do rock climbers and kayakers and yogis. Artists and entrepreneurs know what a territory is. The swimmer who towels off after swimming her laps feels a hell of a lot better than the tired, cranky person who dove into the pool 30 minutes earlier.
2. A territory sustains us without external input. A territory is a closed feedback loop. Our role is to put in effort and love; the territory absorbs this and gives it back to us in the form of wellbeing.
When experts tell us that exercise (or any other effort-requiring activity) banishes depression, this is what they mean.
3. A territory can only be claimed alone. You can team with a partner, you can work out with a friend, but you only need yourself to soak up your territory’s juice.
4. A territory can only be claimed by work. When Arnold Schwarzenegger hits the gym, he’s on his own turf. But what made it his own are the hours and years of sweat he put in to claim it. A territory doesn’t give, it gives back.
5. A territory returns exactly what you put in. Territories are fair. Every erg of energy you put in goes infallibly into your account. A territory never devalues. A territory never crashes. What you deposited, you get back, dollar for dollar”
Beyond that, a territory is where we can go in humility, to serve our higher calling, not as a bid for attention but as a gift to our tribe, specifically, and to the world in general.
As my mentor and partner, Roy Williams says,
“Any goal that begins with the words, ‘My goal is to have…’ is certain to bring unhappiness. Goals that scratch your life-itch are the ones that begin, ‘I will serve people by.…’
…So who are your people and how do you plan to serve them?”
Yet even though it would seem your tribe would come first, and your method of service would come afterwords, in relation to the tribe, this doesn’t often work in a modern and (in an anthropological sense) post-tribal world. You find your territory first, and your tribe will be drawn by what your work has produced.
You identify your territory by knowing what you’d do if you were the last person on earth. What would still be worth doing if there was no one to impress and no way to move up in the pecking order?
And you claim that territory through putting in the work, selflessly, as a professional. When that happens you’re no longer afraid to share your best stuff, because you’re always getting better, always coming up with new stuff. Welcoming new members becomes second nature, as does engaging in open conversation with people regardless of their status in the pecking order.
Territory-based identity, as Steven defines it, makes Web 2.0-style marketing workable. Without it, you’ll be fighting your own instincts and, ultimately, sabotaging your efforts.
And yet, even though following this path makes life easier, Resistance – Resistance in the form of procrastination, rationalization, and ego — gets in the way, making it feel like the harder option. Focusing on claiming your territory through the work helps steel you for those battles against resistance.
Sound like something worth pursuing? Well, realize that this potentially life altering stuff on Territory vs. Hierarchy is compressed into only a few pages of a 165-page book – and the rest of the books is every bit as good, if not better!
Most of the The War of Art is about overcoming resistance, the necessary first step to doing the honest work needed to claim a territory, making it pretty much THE book for creative entrepreneurs who struggle with procrastination.
If that sounds like a must-read book to you, YOU’RE RIGHT! Go buy a copy.
Better yet, buy the new, digital copy for your favorite e-reader for 1/5th the price of the paperback. The sooner you start reading this stuff, the faster you can begin moving past resistance, to claim your territory, and achieve the real work you were meant for.