How to Become a Bestseller with Money, Luck, or Work (Mostly Work)

Today’s guest post is by Cyndy Etler (@cdetler), a teen life coach and author of We Can’t Be Friends and The Dead InsideShe’s written a range of popular posts for this site, including this great exercise on writing memoir.

“If you build it, they will come” is the biggest crock of sh*t ever foisted. The second biggest is my own mental script: “If I write it, The New York Times bestseller list will come.”

*EHNT* Wrong answer.

How do I know? Because if that mess was true, my first title, Dead Inside, would have been topping that list. Seriously. It ticks all the boxes:

  • It’s a near statistical impossibility for a self-published book to get picked up by a New York publisher. Dead Inside was originally self-pubbed. It’s now with a New York publisher.
  • An unknown writer snagging a blurb from a famous author is a utopian dream. Mega-bestseller Ellen Hopkins blurbed my book when it was a Word document.
  • Kirkus Reviews, the grand dame of book review bodies, is notoriously crabby. Kirkus gave Dead Inside a killer review.
  • It was singled out for recognition by the big, taste-making library publications: Junior Library Guild, School Library Journal and Children’s Book Council, among others.
  • Big media has been all up in its grill. The cover reveal was on Bustle. It was covered in VICE. I appeared on CBS’s The Doctors.

But more vital than all of this is what readers are saying: “I’m calling in sick because I can’t put your book down.” Or “I started reading it on my phone. Now it’s four hours later, I haven’t moved, and my hand is a claw from holding my phone up.”

And still, with all that, The Times hasn’t come calling. Why not? Because I didn’t know then what I’m telling you now. Because instead, I bought that old rag about “If you build it.” It took a long time, and a lot of research, for the truth to finally hit me: “They” don’t just “come.” It doesn’t work like that.

How it does work, I’ve learned, is with work, luck, or money. Let’s break that down in reverse, starting with money.

How to Become a Bestseller with Money

If you’ve got beaucoup bucks for a publicist, there’s a chance of getting your traditionally published book on the list … but it will costs you tens of thousands of dollars and you’ll get a zero-percent promise of success.

How to Become a Bestseller with Luck

Now, luck don’t cost a dime, but a million factors have to line up like German factory widgets for luck to land you on the list:

  • That idea you germinated four years ago, then wrote about for two years, then queried for another year, then edited for a final year, has to be the hot topic on the date your book launches.
  • The biggest news headlines have to dovetail—*click!*—with your topic or your platform.
  • You have to be the first on the scene with that haystack needle book topic.
  • Your book has to be your publisher’s top priority, the one they’re focused on marketing.
  • There can’t be any natural disasters or political brouhahas or Kardashian births to sweep your story into irrelevance.
  • If all of these stars align plus you’re an eloquent speaker, look good on camera, and have the flexibility to drop everything and dash to hither, tither or yon, tip your hat to Lady Luck. You win.

I’m not the only one smoking these fantasies. I get emails from writers on the daily: “I’m working on this book. It’s gonna be a Times bestseller. I know it.” I have to stuff a sock in my mouth, because I’m not here to kill anyone’s baby. But I am maybe here to drop some knowledge, so you don’t waste time fantasizing, like I did, and instead, you get to work.

How to Become a Bestseller with Work

Ah, I’m so glad you’re still here. You with the headlamp on, gearing up to truck into the salt mines? You’ll be the one who gets somewhere in the publishing game. If you need a snack, grab it now before we start the long slog.

You’re not here for regurgitation, so I’ll spare you the grit-level specifics on how to market and publicize your writing. There’s an avalanche of that info online; you’ve slogged through it for years already, no doubt. What I am here for is to coach you up on the mindset you want, and the interpersonal strategies you need, to make your book go nuclear. This is the stuff I learned the hard way (okay, the embarrassing way) in my own publishing trajectory.

Expect the grind to be 100% you.

If you have others who are gonna support that grind (if you’re with a traditional publisher) or if you have a budget and you hired  help—fantastic. But set your expectations now, and set them realistic: you’re gonna be the one carrying the boulder, and they’re gonna be the ones carting pebbles.

Here’s the plain truth: they don’t care if your book blows up. Not like you do. Not even a tenth of like you do. So they’ve got no reason to hyper-hustle.

Here’s another plain truth: if you expect them to hyper-hustle, you’ll be a pain. And if you’re a pain, they’ll be less motivated to help you. So here’s your job: work so hard, you don’t have time to be a pain.

Try to meet your own needs, and answer your own questions, before asking the pros for help.

This one’s do or die. There’s a lot that goes into getting a book to blow up. And there’s a lota lot—of writers who are dying to have their books blow up. You know what there’s not a lot of? People with the knowledge and skill to make that dream a reality. The few people who have that skill are constantly being hit up by the trillions who want to crib their expertise.

If you’re lucky, talented or connected enough to be in touch with these experts, don’t waste your time or theirs with insipid questions. First, try Google. Then, spend the time. Do the digging. Read the how-to books. Save your precious few questions for the info you simply can’t find on your own. Or risk banishment.

Be genuinely grateful to everyone who supports your work, and make sure they know it.

You know how you feel when some celebrity likes your response to their social media post? You feel rocket-thrill love and loyalty. You know how you feel when you’ve commented three, four, five times on some celebrity’s social, and they don’t say sh*t? You feel bitter, cranky resentment. How do you want readers, influencers, the folks helping you with marketing and publicity to feel about you? Probably not “bitter, cranky and resentful.” So tweet a thank you. Send a card. Write a review. Stalk their timeline, find out what they love, and send a gift. Humble gratitude is a rare commodity. Be the one who shares it.

Be constantly on the lookout for opportunities.

Can you do a guest post? Can you be an expert speaker on a TV show? Is there an influencer your mission aligns with? Is there an event you can speak at? Reach out and do the pitch. Doesn’t matter if you’re nobody. Doesn’t matter if you’re scared. Doesn’t matter if you get ignored. Think of anybody whose name people know. How do you think that anybody became somebody? By tuning in to opportunities.

Here’s this crazy thing I’ve learned about getting media coverage: the more you pitch, the more likely they’ll say yes.

Something about name recognition, or media-booking types favoring a harasser, or some other mystery of the universe we’ll never understand. But publicity experts say that the name of the game is relentless, relevant, high-quality pitches. Note the emphasis on “relevant” and “high quality.” Remember, we’re in the salt mines here. If you want to be a bestseller, you’ve got to put in the work. Keep your eye on the news, and be ready to pitch when your topic matches the headlines. Do the research on how to craft a pitch, and chisel that thing down to tight, spare, bullet points. If you’re sending out flabby missives, you’re wasting your time.

Accept the opportunities when they start rolling in.

Don’t be too busy. Don’t be too stressed. If you’re not trucking with luck or riches, your way to the top is with a million tiny steps. That small blog with only a hundred readers, the one asking you for a guest post? No, it’s not The Daily Show, but it is a hundred readers. You don’t want those hundred readers to know your name? Yeah, that’s what I thought. Do the guest post, and send the blogger a thank you.

But don’t not have a life.

I’m in love with Los Angeles, but never get to be there. When I was flown to Hollywood to appear on The Doctors, I had a precious half day to just … be in L.A. I wanted to rollerblade on Venice Beach. I wanted to look at art in Los Feliz. I wanted to drink in the fizz and freak of my beloved West Coast city.

So what did I do? I sat in my hotel room and worked on three small blog guest posts. Because I’m relentless. And because “the way to the top is with a million tiny steps.” But damn. Now I’m riddled with regret. Don’t be like me. Work hard, but do life, too.

Get with the 2018 zeitgeist and share other people’s work.

Like at a rate of 20:1, other people’s to your own. Not because this is how you notch up on the scale, but because we need to all be kind. To balance out the crap vibes. So the world doesn’t end in nuclear war. And also, because nothing makes people unfollow faster than a string of “Buy my book!” posts. And also, because people like people who make them feel good, and people feel good when you show their work some love. Maybe they’ll show you love back, maybe they won’t. But trust me one more time: you don’t want to be the author who nobody feels good about.

Expect one out of every hundred marketing and publicity efforts to net results.

Seriously. Expect that, so you keep on going when the going is slow. Expect heartbreak, expect thrill, and maybe don’t expect to hit The New York Times list. Because if you expect the near-impossible, all the wonderful possibles you earn will feel like second-place ribbons.

I’ve hit bestseller status. When each of my books came out, they were Amazon New Release bestsellers; both books sold out and were on back order. I’ve won high-zoot awards. I’ve watched my “as seen on” creds stack up. In other words, this salt-mine stuff? It works. But does it work for the Times list? I dunno yet. Let me keep slogging and find out. I’ll keep you posted.

Posted in Guest Post, Marketing & Promotion.

Cyndy Etler is a teen life coach and the author of young adult memoirs The Dead Inside and We Can’t Be Friends (Sourcebooks Fire). Her books take readers into her sixteen months in Straight Inc., a teen treatment program the ACLU called “a concentration camp for throwaway teens,” and then back to her druggie high school, packed with dangerous jockos and cheerleaders.

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Nancy Nau Sullivan

This is quite awesome. The whining must stop, that nobody knows me, nobody loves me. To know me is to love me! Thanks for a great, fantastically written post, Cyndy. You got it all right.

Cyndy Etler

“The whining must stop”–this is the sum of it, isn’t it. So funny! I wonder if the time for this ethos has arrived? Or are we a tad too early–do they need to sit in the sun a bit longer, toughen up that skin?

“The way to the top is with a million tiny steps.” My heart thanks you. You, my friend are a rock star!

Cyndy Etler

Thank you, Judy! When you pull out just that snippet, it’s comforting to me, too. Puts me in mind of this thing:

Katrina Byrd

Thank you for this post! I flounce my boa at you!

Cyndy Etler

Uh oh, Katrina and that boa! Now I know I have arrived.

Daniela Gitlin

Incredible article. Densely nutritious. And tasty too. ❤️

Cyndy Etler

Daniela, thank you! Clearly, you eat thesauruses (thesauri?) for breakfast, like I do. Mmm-mm.

Rachel Thompson

So many truths in this post, Cyndy. Your books are some of the best written, raw, honest truths I’ve ever read. As you say, that’s just not enough (sadly). There are many poorly written books that become bestsellers but what does that really mean?

You are amazing in so many ways. I love this post and you.

Cyndy Etler

AYYYY! I need a hands-up gif for a reply here, SO bad. Here’s the thing: in the process of doing the damn thing, I’ve come to some hard realizations about how the game works. Psyched to say I’ve iced the black eyes down, changed the satin shorts, and am running up those state house steps with gloves in the air. It CAN be done the right way, with quality and honor. It can and it will. Watch me work.

Patricia V. Davis

What a fun, truth-bearing, uplifting post. Thank you to Cyndy and Jane!

Cyndy Etler

Love this! I thought I was being maybe a Debbie Downgrade. But if Patricia says it’s an uplift, I’m not gonna argue!

Maria Parenti-Baldey

This is so cluelessly true…
“Like at a rate of 20:1, other people’s to your own. Not because this is how you notch up on the scale, but because we need to all be kind. To balance out the crap vibes.” …particularly the last sentence. Thank you. Cheers M

Cyndy Etler

Every time I learn there are more out there who believe in generous kindness, the safer and happier I feel. Thank you for the endorphin rush, Maria.

Book writing inc.

Thanks for writing such an awesome blog post.

Cyndy Etler

Thanks for writing such an awesome blog comment!

Mark Danenhauer

Thanks for the nice post. My overall take away from your post is the we need to be relentless and keep working even when we expect that most of our promotion efforts will result in nothing. I struggle with the relentless part and find myself feeling let down sometimes. It helps to read your words here as they will inspire me to keep working.

Cyndy Etler

Hey Mark–Your comment makes me realize I forgot an important tidbit I learned from a marketing dude who said, “NOTICE when you get signs of validation. Every time a reader sends you an email, every time someone tweets at you, every time, even, an editor sends a rejection email. Notice every little thing that implies that you’re moving the needle forward. Because that’s how the needle moves: in tiny increments.” I hope I’m doing it justice. Long short, I’ve learned to be THRILLED by every little positive thing related to my work, because every little positive thing is proof that… Read more »


Yes, mam! We are running a marathon, not a sprint. 🙂

Cyndy Etler

That’s it. And to finish that marathon, we’ve gotta train, train, train, year round. Good thing we love to sweat!

Bonnie Lacy

This too! Notice and cherish each time someone validates what we do. Great post! Saving it. Emailed to ME! Shared. Blessed.

May I share to my small (but growing!) email list?

Cyndy Etler

I would be honored if you shared it, Bonnie! Please do.
And about that “small” email list–listen. You work with it, be proud of it, cover it in rhinestones and take it on a stroll. Ain’t no shame in the process of building.

Carol Angel

Who says the world of book publishing is soulless? Your words show a concern for others that is so inspiring. I am a newbie, about to give birth to a novel that’s been gestating for ages, and I know its publication (self) doesn’t mean the hard work is done. I will keep your post, ponder it in my heart, and act upon it. Thank you so much!

Cyndy Etler

So of course it’s the ANGEL whose comment puts tears in my eyes…thanks for seeing the real me.

Bryan Fagan

We’ve chosen a tough field but when you think about it, life is tough. It’s full of ups and downs. High hopes and lost hopes. You’ve got to want it.

Writing a book is hard. Selling it is hard and doing it again is……harder.

A person has to enter this world with the realization that it is going to be an uphill climb. If they welcome the challenge chances are high something good will happen. From my experience, the ones who can shake off the negatives are the ones who succeed.

Excellent article. Thank you!!!

Cyndy Etler

“If you welcome the challenges, chances are high something good will happen” – y’all, is that too long to get it tattooed on my inner eyelids?

Rhoda Baxter

Great article Cyndy and so very true. Thanks for taking the time to write it! Relentless… I shall keep on chipping away at it. Relentlessly.

Cyndy Etler

Girl, YES! Go get it!


Thank you, Cyndy. Perhaps the NY Times list is a 99% bought and paid for kinda deal. Like you said, it takes tens of thousands of dollars to gain any traction. I paid $5000 to a publicist and basically threw my money down the drain. I gained a few radio shows, wrote a half dozen guest articles thanks to her, but I really have no career advancement from it to date. The other issue I’ve discovered is unless you keep the momentum going (cash, too), all your hard work dries up pretty quickly. After working 24/7 for years, my ethos… Read more »

Cyndy Etler

Ohhhhh. Wowwww. Painful opening, uplifting ending. It’s often the hardest life events that teach us how to have peace, I think….thanks so much for sharing.


Well said!

Cyndy Etler

Thank you, Sharon!

Fran Baker

Excellent advice – especially about sharing other people’s work. Now guess what I’m going to do? I’m going to share this post!

Cyndy Etler

Heyyyyy! Fran for the win!

Scotty Roberts

Damned skippy.

Cyndy Etler

Damn, Scotty.

Deanna Cabinian

Great post, Cyndy! Thanks for sharing your experience. I especially like your comment about celebrating the positives. That’s so true and important to maintaining forward momentum/sticking with all the small steps!

Cyndy Etler

SO necessary. I’m finding the wins come in streaks…and so do the…the loses? The losses? The nos. The fails. When the latter streak hits, it can be hard to remember that it’s a cycle. So when it’s yesses, we have to hold onto them tight!

[…] Cyndy Etler has the key to how to become a bestseller. […]

Caroline Elena Zani

Great advice. Thank-you!

Cyndy Etler

Thanks so much, Caroline!

Eva Natiello

Love this, Cyndy! I agree with every word. That’s how I got my self-pubbed book on the NYT bestseller list—relentless work ethic, figure-it-outitude, enjoy little victories, make mistakes & move forward. When I was feeling low, I’d use my “I’ll Show Them!” strategy (the “them” being anyone who thought the book would never make it) and it’s very motivating. Yes, hyper-hustle must be a religion—but the work is rewarding and fun and a thrill when you witness things happening as a result. Thanks for this empowering post!

Cyndy Etler

OKAY, soulmate! You got it on lock. I didn’t even think self-pubbed books COULD get on the NYT list. You’re like, rewriting the rules of what’s possible!


I loved the spirit of this post! Humor, straight-on truth and love. Plus, I learned a lot. Now I’m going to buy my copy of The Dead Inside because after reading your writing there’s no doubt in my mind that I won’t be able to put it down.

Cyndy Etler

Anne for the win! Would love to hear what you think, four hours after you start reading it, when you turn the last page….

Christine Cowley

I rarely share blog posts on FB because I respect my “friends” enough to feed them only the very best. So this, yes, HAD to be shared. So delicious. All the right ingredients and seasonings. My favourite mouthful: “Like at a rate of 20:1, other people’s to your own. Not because this is how you notch up on the scale, but because we need to all be kind.” Yeeess! We need to get our heads of our navels, or novels (or a@@es) and support each other. Thanks so much for this awesome pep talk.

Tinthia Clemant

You failed to mention the Kirkus is a paid review company. Not many indie authors, myself included, can shell out $425 for a review.

Jane Friedman

Hi Tinthia: I’ll jump in here since I know the industry and can clarify that Kirkus is not primarily a paid review company (or: that is not the work that most booksellers/librarians know it for and pay attention to). Kirkus does offer a paid review service, separate from its core, non-paid reviews, which can confuse matters. I discuss paid reviews here:

Norm Olson

Wow, as a newly published author I thought, hey I’m on my way. I can see now that I’m on the first step of a very tall ladder. With a second book now finished I am in a dilemma. What to do? Your comments are most appreciated.

Cyndy Etler

You ARE on your way, Norm! It’s just, like you said, the ladder is taller than you originally thought. It’s like, a Jack and the Beanstalk thing, where the top 2/3 is hidden by clouds! But the fact you’ve got a book out, and another getting ready to launch, puts you way further along than many, many others. I say, sit and happy-stew on THAT fact for a while, and use that thrill to push you higher.

Mj Gibson

It is a million steps, no doubt. Just verifying that fact helped my focus tremendously.

Cyndy Etler

Ya know, MJ? I have to keep reminding myself the same, exact, thing. Sigh.


Books based on someone’s 16 months in a teen treatment program have a leg up already. Few people have experienced that, then had the wherewithal to write about it. But let’s get realistic. Those of us who write fiction with themes less stark will have a much harder time getting attention. Most of the sales of my book, “Oldies but Goodies,” have been to strangers. Thank goodness for them and various promotional tools. My biggest disappointment is that few “friends” or acquaintances have bothered to buy a copy, despite the fact that it’s light, humorous fiction and has received good… Read more »

Mike McArdle

Cyndy, You got this. Your boulder will move as you keep doing the work, learning, listening and thinking for yourself. Now that you see how the business world “really” works and you’ve pushed the boulder another foot, you’re on your way. You are talented, gifted and a total badass! You got this! Never give up, never surrender! Listen to your gut! Your work is powerful and encouraging! Thank you for sharing yourself with us all.