How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months by John Locke | A Your Shelf Life Review

27 Oct


This is a really great book. If you’re an author or aspiring author who wants to sell a bunch of books, you should buy it and put what it says into practice. It’s like having a strategic marketing coach who cares about you tucked away in your Kindle.  You can buy it here.

That’s the business portion of this review. Having that out of the way, let’s hang out and get acquainted.

I bought this book approximately thirty seconds after the nice people at the Amazon Digital Platform sent me a press release saying that John Locke had passed the one million downloads mark, the eighth person in history to do so and the only self published author.

I had never heard of John Locke.

I’ve read the book four times now and can say that this is one of the most exciting books I’ve read in a long time, both for what it contains explicitly and for what isn’t talked about. The book is a how-to focused on John’s marketing plan and a case study of John Locke, both of which I find fascinating.

I really get off on this sort of thing. Many years ago, I was amazed and terrified to find myself a doctoral student in economics at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. (The GSB or Biz school) It was as scary and difficult as it sounds. A year later, I slunk away, battered.  (I left in good standing, but had discovered that I couldn’t do the math. And I never would be able to do it.)

I went back to my previous occupation, being an economic analyst, thinking of the experience as “the year I almost got an ulcer.”

But the year wouldn’t go away. Out of the blue, I got a call from one of my professors at the GSB. Richard T. Pascale PhD was the best classroom teacher I have experienced. He presented a stunning combination of  intelligence, speaking ability, mastery of his topic (negotiation) and “people skills.” As well a genuine warmth and humanity. Plus he’d written a bunch of bestselling business books, starting with The Art of Japanese Management and ending with Surfing the Edge of Chaos.

Turns out that his class, Negotiation & Intervention, had become  the most popular in the Biz school by a long shot. Richard needed help doing videotaped negotiation exercises where teams of MBA (Master’s of Business Administration) students attempted to outfox each other using the techniques he taught. He also needed help with other exercises like teaching them to active listen, and, of course, grading papers. Richard wanted me to help him.

Really? I couldn’t believe it. But I remembered that while I stank at the mathematics of optimization, I soared in the people-orientated classes, like negotiation.

So I said yes. It turned into a twenty year gig. For a few days each spring quarter, I got to work with a team of other really cool facilitators and whip those MBAs into shape. We videoed and debriefed negotiations and ran listening exercises. And we graded lots of papers.

That job was the most fun of any I’ve had. I also got to work with David Bradford PhD, who taught “touchy-feely”, or Interpersonal Relations as the class was actually named. He was a master.

Statistical studies done by the Biz school indicated that grades in touchy-feely and negotiation, plus a few required courses, were the most powerful predictors of lifetime success. To quote the MBA students, “A C in touchy-feely is a C in Life.”

Sometime in this period, I earned an MA in counseling to complement my MA in economics.

Time passed. Richard went off to Harvard and Oxford. The job went away, but left me with a permanently altered psyche and a love of business case studies.


First off, John attributes his success in selling books to his marketing plan. Hah, thought I.

Did you ever hear the joke about the two farmers standing in front of their neighbor’s giant new barn. One farmer says to the other, “It’s pretty, but I’ve never seen a barn have a calf worth a damn.”

I’ve never seen a marketing plan sell a million books, either.

There had to be more to it, and I was determined to find it.

Did I? Oh, yes.

Some obvious, and not so obvious, factors in John’s success:

“I’ve made two major fortunes in my life, excluding book sales,” John Locke says in his book. He describes a lifetime of business success. Unbelievable success. He’s currently engaged in something like fourteen business ventures, in addition to his writing.

When I read this stuff, my blood became about 90% adrenaline. Of course, John sold all those books! Psychologists say that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Of course. he succeeded. That’s what he does.

Do you know any extremely successful people? You need to hang out around one to see what they’re like.

My dad rose from being a penniless, first-generation immigrant to the owner and CEO of the tenth largest residential construction company in the U.S. at its peak. He built 14,000 homes, 2,500 apartment units, three shopping centers and bunch of churches (those at cost), all before he was killed at age 45. He was also a AAU  champion wrestler, body builder and  health food nut. He supported the Boy Scouts, taught wrestling at a police youth club for kids at risk (which he built), and was the best water-skier I’ve ever seen.

What does this have to do with John Locke? I don’t know Mr. Locke, but I expect he’s like my dad. Totally focused, disciplined, and on top of things. Living  his life as though he was skating on a razor’s edge. Able to do not only “the math”, but possessing the people skills to make his business plans a reality. A major multi-tasker, but able to delegate. Possessing intelligence, charm, intuition, physical power, mental and physical stamina, and the ability to inspire and persuade. (Are you blushing, John?)

The super-effective people get the whole package––all the human skills. And they have fun. My dad had more fun than anyone I know. Business was a game to him and his buddies––money wasn’t prized for itself, it was just the way they kept score. I expect John’s like that.

Are these skills transferable? Can they be inherited? They weren’t in my case. I’ve kicked up some dust in my life, but I’ve never built 14,000 houses.

This ultra-successful person syndrome is a problem when ordinary mortals try to implement something like John’s plan.

OTHER ELEMENTS I don’t want to turn this into too much of a John Locke love-fest, but he does a really good job in this book. You can start from word one and go all the way through, finding meaty tid-bits. I’m not going to discuss all of them here, though you may feel like I have by the end of this post. (I have trouble writing less than three hundred pages.)

John shows superb joining skills. What’s that? Imagine you’ve just walked into a room of strangers. You want to become part of the group (or its leader), influence them to do something, and you want them to like you. How do you skillfully do this?

You could sell a million books for starters. If the people are writers, that bit of info would get around pretty fast. Faster than that: The title of the book tells us John’s sales record. Having established that he’s done what we all pray to do, he immediately lets us know that he’s been in the same battle we’re fighting. He starts his book with a section titled REVENGE OF THE NERDS! In it, he compares the popular, pretty people in high school with the rest of us. I was instantly transported back the the golden days of zits and braces. John had hooked me by the end of the first paragraph of his preface, when he says, “the publishing industry, which is like high school on steroids!” Yes! Yes! Yes!

If you’ve been in the publishing industry for more than twenty minutes, you know this. But John said it! The publishing industry would reduce a team of family systems psychotherapists to blithering idiots. It turns writers from competent adults to insecure, competing adolescents in less time than it takes to write an elevator speech.

After naming the problem, John immediately reframes the traditional publishing/self publishing debate into a dispute between puffed up egos and good business people.

“One of us” or OOU. This is one of the keys to his marketing plan and I’ll let you read about it yourself. John calls it Loyalty Transfer. It hinges on what I said above, “entering the room” and making people feel like you’re one of them.  John discusses this thoroughly and he shows it even better.

For instance, when he listed the traditional marketing things that he initially did to make his books successful (at the advice of experts), my heart bled with his. I’d done all the same stuff! All of it! None of it worked.

Know your market segment and give it what it wants. A zillion marketing people have told me this, but when John Locke said it, I heard it. He has a great exercise where he writes a detailed description of his buyer and what he/she wants in a page or so.

Oh, maybe I should do that, thought I. Who buys my books? How do I find them? Entice them? I’m working on it.

A deep market segment vs. a wide one. John’s aiming at a tight, like-minded group of buyers who love his work. He doesn’t want to create homogenized characters that everyone and their ex-wife will love. He wants to and does write idiosyncratic work that the average person might hate. And he encourages us to do the same!

I love that! I do that. My first novel is about the most bad-ass executive you’ll ever meet and a great Native American shaman. That’s not a mainstream plot.

That’s what the indie publishing movement is about. Creating the unusual. Writing stuff you won’t find on drug-store shelves.

Effective Use of Twitter  John used Twitter to fuel his sales drive. He explains how to use Twitter in the book. Isn’t that nice? I had no clue what to do with my little band of outlaws––my followers. To implement his marketing plan, John posted emotionally affecting blog articles not specifically aimed at selling his books, then used Twitter to spread the word. (My husband thought the blog articles were emotionally manipulative. I disagreed.)

After my first reading of the book, I recalled John as saying something like, “I posted this blog article and then Twittered it. It went viral. The next day I was famous.”

All my alarms went off. Right, John. I could really see that happening. I get a few retweets once in a while, but “It went viral,” just like that. Hah.

Except that isn’t what he said, which is why reading things again is a good idea.

People skills. What John said about how he used Twitter to fuel his campaign illustrates how to REALLY use Twitter. It illustrates every personal skill that the Biz school tries to pound into its students. Believe me, the entire staff teaching touchy feely would CHEER reading what John says about how he wrote his blogs and used Twitter.

He didn’t just write a blog article and toss it to the wolves of cyberspace. He carefully cultivated, one at a time, people who would be interested in him and his work. And then he organized and ranked his followers and formed networks of on-line friends that would benefit him and others. I’ll let you read what he did. Know that you’re reading about brilliant interpersonal interaction.

Look at how he handles people. He answers every email. He commits a huge amount of time to his buyers and shows a genuine interest in them. Read the book. And read the sample blog articles he’s included in it. This is touchy feely at it’s finest.

Do you know why major graduate schools of business created the field of organizational behavior (how people operate in organizations) and courses like Interpersonal Relations (touchy feely)? Some of the really smart faculty realized that businesses don’t fail because people don’t know enough Linear Programming. They fail because people don’t know how to get along, express feelings, deal with personality conflicts, or negotiate their way through the simplest human problems.

People skills are the key to business success.

[So is bean-counting. Forgot to mention this on the first go-round when I wrote this post. John Locke knew exactly how much each of the selling techniques that he tried when he started out impacted his sales. He kept meticulous accounting records and could measure the effect of anything he tried on sales. I’m certain he still has such effective bean counting.

Businesses don’t succeed just because those who run them can work with people. A panoply of skills is required. My boss, Richard Pascale, was involved in the development of something called 7-S Analysis a few years back. The 7-S framework was first mentioned in 1978 in the book Richard co-authored with Anthony Athos, The Art of Japanese Management. McKinsey & Co, one of the nation’s top management research and consulting operations, later adopted the 7-S framework as one of its basic analytic tools.

You can follow the links above if you want to know more about this powerful technique.

What does it boil down to? EVERY aspect of a business has to function effectively if an enterprise is to remain viable in the market. It’s not touchy-feely vs. the bean counters. It’s business Structure, Strategy, Systems, Skill, Staff, and Style, all held together by the overarching Shared Values. Just like a super achieving person has all the human skills and abilities, so does the super viable enterprise. Think Apple.

John Lock illustrates this as he discusses his remarkable sale of books.]

Writing skills. Also look at the care with which John’s blog articles are crafted. Delightfully subtle selling. Those messages obviously took time to put together.

This is why some people succeed and others don’t. Howie shows you every step of the way.

While John Locke didn’t start selling large numbers of books until he implemented his marketing plan, I bet that he was working on his Twitter network long before the launch.

(There’s one catch in using these techniques: You have to be absolutely sincere in what you write and in your interactions with your market/on-line friends. People can smell a rat. They’ll ditch any rodents.)

When I said that I didn’t believe John’s marketing plan was what sold the books way up above, I meant it. He sold the books, using his plan.

As I approached the end of Howie the first time, I’d gotten the stuff above, but didn’t feel it was sufficient  to have a million people hit that buy button on Amazon.

When I got to the end of the book, to the LOYALTY & THE OOUs and THANK YOU! chapters, I had a true spiritual experience. I was reading John’s words, but felt like he, in some insubstantial form, was hovering between my Kindle and my chest. It was as though a  golden light floated there.

I kid you not.

I was in Santa Fe NM, the woo-woo capital of the universe, at the time. That might have had something to do with it. Maybe all my years of meditation and spiritual practice gave me a kick. I didn’t have that experience on subsequent readings, but once was enough.

I could feel John’s energy, his voice, his soul, if you will, vibrating out of the pages. “That’s what sold all those books,” I said, triumphant.”The essential John Locke.”

We’re talking about spirituality now. That is my area of expertise. I can feel you rolling your eyes and thinking, OMG. Now she’s going to talk about religion. Nope. You’re safe with me.

The best demonstration of spirit I have seen occurred in the movie Temple Grandin. The real Temple Grandin is an autistic woman who’s used her disability to improve the lives of  animals. In the movie, Temple is a high school student when she visits the school stables. Her favorite horse lies dead on the barn floor.

Temple looks at the animal and says, “Where did he go?” She’s asking an existential question, and she’s truly perplexed. She says the same thing later at a slaughter house as cattle are transformed into beef. “Where do they go?”

Where did whatever made those animals the living creatures they were go?

That definition of spirit is one I used in my book Stepping Off the Edge. It’s the animating principle, the difference between a living person and a dead one. Spirit is what moves the world, sells millions and millions of books, and does everything else.

Read the last few chapters of Howie and see if you don’t agree with me. John’s spirit sold those books, and it’s behind everything he writes.

To sell books, you need to use all the marketing skills and tools you can, and grow your spirit.  (Gee. You’d almost think I was plugging my book on spiritual practice. Not really. This is a very personal area. Choose spiritual tools and practices that speak to your soul.)


Am I telling you that only extremely skilled and charismatic people like John Locke can successfully crack the publishing market? Am I telling you, as some industry pundits will, that self-published authors will sell less than 100 books on the average and only a tiny fraction will top 10,000?

Absolutely not. The first thing we were taught in the Stanford GSB negotiation course was the charming phrase above. Up your aspirations! The higher your aim your sights, the more likely you will attain your target. If you don’t hit the goal, you’ll get more than you would have with low aspirations. The Biz School has studies that prove that. So, up your aspirations and go forth and sell!

In a recent blog article, John talks about how the traditional publishing experts try to deflate the hopes of independent publishers. I would urge you to take the tools John offers and use them. The first time I read Howie, I thought it should be subtitled Hope. It is hope for independent writers. John gives you the tools. I hope I have highlighted a few points that may make the difference between success and failure.


Absolutely. I’m currently increasing my Twitter presence and writing more books. (I’m @sandyonathan on Twitter, if you want to follow me. And my author page on Facebook is right here.) What John says about having more books ready for buyers in case you hit the jackpot with one is absolutely true. My novel about the shaman and the bad ass exec,  Numenon, was #1 in three categories of mysticism and way up there in the Kindle ratings for almost a year after it came out. People were emailing me (and still do), demanding the sequel. I’ve lost sales and customers because I don’t have it. (I will have it early next year.)

I will have two more books in my Tales from Earth’s End Series in print/eBook form available by Christmas. The first book in the series, The Angel & the Brown-eyed Boy, shows a group of people attempting to escape a nuclear holocaust in a ruined future world. It’s part teen romance and part coming of age story, with overtones of 1984. It’s won two awards in visionary fiction.

The Angel’s first sequel, Lady Grace, brings The Angel‘s characters back together and puts them in another struggle for existence. This time, they’re fighting against the elements and a degenerate society which the nuclear war has spawned. My editor says this is my best book. The second sequel, Sam & Emily, is a love story involving two characters from The Angel. It sizzles.

All three books have a transcendent, looking for a better world, quality. They’re thrillers as well as visionary.


Before signing off, I’d like to challenge you to attain a goal beyond what many contemplate. I’d love to sell a million books, or more. Tens of millions. I’d like to succeed by every measure possible. I’d like  you to do the same.

There’s something I’d like more. I’d like to sign on Facebook and not get triggered by all those people saying, “I just sold my 50,000th book. Finished my world tour. I’m invited to the White House to read. My book  . . .  My book . . .” You know what I’m talking about.

I’d like to be true to my goals and standards and write books that speak to me and to like-minded souls. I’d like to resonate with my people and be so strong in myself that I don’t fret about what other writers do or how they succeed.

I’d like to turn my back on the whole competition thing. Measuring my self-worth in terms of what society says I should be. Selling one million books or 14,000 houses or earning a PhD or two. I’d like my soul to be separate from that deadly grind. I’d like to live securely in my own skin and my own being––and soar.

I’d like the bliss of freedom. Does that strike you as something you’d like, too?

Imagine a world of cooperation and appreciation. And kindness. Even love.

That’s what I’m aiming at. I invite you to join me in a truly radical mission.

All the best,

Sandy Nathan, Award-winning Author

Sandy Nathan, Award-winning Author

Sandy Nathan
Winner of seventeen national awards

Sandy’s  books are: (Click link to the left for more information. All links below go to Kindle sale pages.)
The Angel & the Brown-eyed Boy
Numenon: A Tale of Mysticism & Money

Tecolote: The Little Horse That Could

Stepping Off the Edge: Learning & Living Spiritual Practice

Major post-posting news: John Locke has signed a deal with big 6 publisher Simon & Schuster. Does that go against everything he’s said? It’s complicated. Read here.

I am going to discuss John’s concept of market segment as it relates to Jungian type in a later article. The power of knowing one’s market segment can be made more powerful by knowing its psychological underpinnings. I’m also going to write about on-line addiction. Are you being responsible to your fans or feeding an addiction when you’re on Twitter three hours a day?


15 Responses to “How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months by John Locke | A Your Shelf Life Review”

  1. Glenda A Bixler October 28, 2011 at 1:40 pm #

    Excellent article! Thanks for sharing at Reviewers Roundup…and I’ve shared further…

    • admin October 29, 2011 at 9:32 am #

      Thanks, Glenda. I saw your kind words on Reviewers Roundup and appreciate them very much. Facebook folks, if you haven’t found Reviewers Roundup, it’s a great stopping place for authors and writers. A place to refresh your spirits.

  2. Todd Fonseca October 29, 2011 at 5:13 am #

    Great great article Sandy. Very informative.
    One of the ways I’ve recently found to stay on top of social network info (sometimes following facebook and twitter messages is challenging just by the way they are presented in their original applications) is to use an app on my Ipad called Flipboard. It formats facebook, twitter and a number of other online content in categories (health, house design, finance, etc) into newspaper type format to easy browse the different content then one can drill in on anything of interest. It is a very very easy way to browse all lot of content quickly, pull up items of interest and even respond view its interface (that is how I found your post!). Anyway something worth trying.
    Good luck my friend!

    Todd A Fonseca
    Author of the middle grade sci/fi/mystery series The Time Cavern

    • admin October 29, 2011 at 8:34 am #

      Hi, Todd! Great to hear from you. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Does Flipboard work on regular computers or does it have to use an iPad-type device? (I know nothing of most modern inventions like the iPad and don’t have one.) Flipboard sounds really good. I’ve got Tweetdeck, and I think that was at your recommendation. I’m having trouble keeping up with Twitter. That’s because I’ve WRITING so much. Two books coming out simultaneously. Before Christmas, I hope. Exciting, but work. All the best to you, my friend! Sandy Nathan

  3. Anne R. Allen October 29, 2011 at 10:08 am #

    Great piece. I’ve been following John’s rise (and his advice) for some time, but when he came out with the book, professional marketers glommed onto it as gospel. One of my publishers read it and immediately wanted me to change my blog focus and personal brand to be more like Locke’s.

    Wrong. As you say, JL’s system worked because of JL’s energy. Trying to act like him is stupid. We have to use the same basic principles–interacting with as many people as we can–but be ourselves, not imitation JLs.

    And most of all we have to write the best book WE can write, not just put together something based on the market that may sell big for a while but will be impossible to sustain because it doesn’t represent our authentic selves.

    • admin October 29, 2011 at 11:49 am #

      Yes! Yes! Yes! This is exactly how I hoped my readers would respond. Anne says it perfectly. I’ll add a bit more. I would love to sell a million (or more) books. I’d love to make LOTS of money from it. Maybe I will.

      What I value more than snagging those trophies is expressing that core of being that is me. When I’m writing my best stuff, I can feel that core. Anne describes it as, “Our authentic selves.”

      I’m going to write about John Locke, his how-to book, and Jungian type once I get a few jobs done. Carl Jung was a great Swiss psychologist, a contemporary of Freud. Jung’s typology is a way of looking at how we humans function.

      Based on what I know about the Typology, I would bet that John is a Sensate.(Like Alfred Adler, another giant in the world of psychological theory, and a ton of successful people.) I’m not going to explain what that means now, but here are a couple of my reasons. John Locke states in his book (somewhere) that he writes his books based on the feedback of his fans. He gives them what they want. And he writes solely for the readers’ entertainment. That’s great, except that I couldn’t do it and a lot of writers I know couldn’t either.

      What I write bursts from me. It is me. There’s a message in it, no matter how bloody, brutal, and sensational it may be. I can work with a tough editor, I can make adjustments, but I can’t write to suit my audience. I can’t ghost write, either. My message won’t allow it. (Though I did do a romance between an older woman and a younger man in an upcoming novel. My editor wanted to see that back in the ’90s. She’ll be happy. At last.)

      The Sensate is the only type that I know that can change what he/she writes in the way John describes. There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s darn handy, as Mr. Locke’s success indicates.

      I’ll find out more about this and write about it on this blog. I’m going to be the Depth Psychology Alliance’s author of the month in January. The Alliance includes the theorists interested in Jung’s work and the transpersonal psychologies. I’m sure I’ll have an opportunity to get more insight on the typologies and writing.

      Meanwhile, here’s my article on Jung’s typology and what it means to writers:

      Thanks for posting, Anne!

  4. Vered Ehsani October 29, 2011 at 8:51 pm #

    Beautiful summary and analysis. The main message I get from this is: learn the concepts because they’re insightful, but extract those insights that will work within your own context. Blind copy of someone else’s plan won’t serve you, as it’s designed for another environment which may not be the same as yours.

    • admin October 30, 2011 at 3:18 am #

      Bllind copy will also be perceived as in authentic and turn potential buyers off. Thanks for commenting!

  5. Katie McGuinness October 30, 2011 at 9:16 am #

    I starting to read this piece to learn more about marketing my book. As valuable as those portions of the post were, I benefited most from Sandy’s exhortation to do what pleases you,to not get lost in seeking the approval of others (whether expressed as sales or otherwise.) Those final paragraphs were indeed spiritual and transcendent. I plan on returning to them when I’m feeling especially harried about marketing, reviews and all the other stresses of being an indie author. Thank you, Sandy, for bringing back to my heart.

    • Sandy Nathan October 30, 2011 at 9:21 am #

      You’re welcome, Katie. I wrote this article to talk about John’s book, but also to open the question of what really matters and why we’re writing. I’m on so many on-line forums and get so many emails saying, “Look at me! Buy my book! Me! Me!” I wanted to bring us back to the real reason we’re writing. And to help myself. I struggle with the societal approval issue, among others. Thanks for speaking up, Katie.

  6. Colleen Cross November 7, 2011 at 9:04 am #

    Great article – thank you for writing it!

    • admin November 7, 2011 at 9:44 am #

      Glad you enjoyed it, Colleen. Lots more good stuff coming out on YourShelfLife soon!

  7. David Donaghe November 25, 2011 at 10:00 pm #

    This is a great article. If you’re serious about marketing your books, you need to read John Locke’s How I sold one Million eBooks in 5 months.

    • admin November 26, 2011 at 9:25 am #

      That’s a really good book, backed up by his experience. Thanks for posting, David.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. YOUR SHELF LIFE » How to Market your Self-published Book––Twelve Points that Really Matter (Well, Fifteen Points) - February 22, 2012

    […] Your name. If you’re a top-selling author with a huge following, all you need to do to sell books is put your name on a blank cover. (Some of Cormac McCarty’s covers bear this out.) In the online age, authors who are well-known on the Internet have the same advantage. Up your recognition and fan base, and sell! Repeat customers are the best customers. Check out John Locke’s phenomenal rise. […]