What You Can Learn from One Writer’s Unlikely NY Times Bestsellers

Success as a writer often happens much as it does in any other type of business — from recognizing a need in the marketplace and filling it.

I recently met one writer who’s an inspiration in this area. He’s got sold 800,000 copies of his books in print, which all started as a lark after he discovered a writing approach his readers devour.

In 2007, Ian Spector was a high school student playing around on the Internet and hosting websites. Then, when Vin Diesel’s movie The Pacifier came out, he started a site where people could post one-line “fact” jokes about the buff actor on a website.

After that movie faded, he switched the subject to Chuck Norris…and created a monster. Traffic exploded as fans and haters posted scores of replies. And thus began an unexpected writing career.

This month, the fifth in his series of Chuck Norris faux-fact books was issued, Longer and Harder: The Complete Chronicle of the World’s Deadliest, Sexiest, and Beardiest Man (Gotham). (You can see all the installments in the series here, including one that compares and contrasts Norris with Mr. T.)

“It was all a huge accident,” says Spector of his unanticipated literary career. He had intended to go to medical school…but his moonshot success as an author sent him in new directions.

Spector’s literary success is a great example of how to bootstrap your way into a writing gig you’re unqualified for.

At first, he didn’t even write the jokes — they were simply crowdsourced from the ones fans posted in the Chuck Norris Fact Generator on his website, What is Awesome. (Up on the site when I checked: “Chuck Norris once ate a van load of 13th degree black belts and shat out Steven Seagal.”)

For later editions, though, Spector had to buckle down and create some fresh Norris zingers. By then, it was a lot more challenging, too, since a lot of the good, low-hanging fruit of obvious beard/kicking butt/wooing the ladies stuff had already been done.

Among the mock info featured in the new book:

Bigfoot is a piece of Chuck Norris’s beard that gained sentience and escaped.

If you hold Chuck Norris’s cowboy boot to your ear, you can hear the riff from “Rock You Like a Hurricane.”

Chuck Norris is where babies come from.

Getting a book deal: Platform first

Like many authors in the current era, Spector didn’t have to go shopping for a book deal — as his Chuck Norris website grew, publishers came looking for him.

Ian Spector

He built his platform and audience first, and the publishers came knocking.

That’s how getting a book deal increasingly works in the 21st Century, if anyone was still in the dark about that.

Interesting irony: Spector has yet to see an episode of Norris’s oft-rotisseried old TV show, Walker, Texas Ranger. His humor doesn’t spring from rabid fandom or deep knowledge of the actor’s body of work so much as a fascination with Norris’s persona — and other people’s interest in him.

Speaking of which, Norris did sue Spector over the books, in case you’re wondering.

How the law of publicity skyrocketed sales

Turns out Norris isn’t the iconic actor’s real name. Chuck Norris is his brand — and he was concerned his brand was being damaged, or that fans might think he approved of or wrote the books.

The parties settled, and Spector now has to put “The unathorized parody” stickers on the cover of each book.

The lawsuit and its resulting required cover disclosure created a publicity bonanza. If you’re not aware of the law of publicity, it’s that any publicity is good publicity.

The corollary is that controversy creates loads of publicity. Another one is that it’s fairly easy to get publicity when it’s tied to a known-name celebrity.

In other words, this was a “perfect storm of publicity” situation.

Spector was able to ride the exposure generated by the lawsuit to a successful series of Chuck Norris “fact” books.

Who buys them? Spector says he has only a vague idea. They seem in demand as gifts for male college students, is all he can surmise.

What will Spector do next? He has no idea. He’s edited the comedy magazine at Brown University, where he studied cognitive neuroscience and ran a startup program. Since graduating, he’s built and sold one startup company and is working on another. He doesn’t know if he’ll do more writing, or rest on his legacy as the purveyor of hundreds and hundreds of funny “facts” about Chuck Norris.

Whatever happens, Spector’s story reminds me that there is room in the writing world for such a wide and wonderful variety of voices. There’s no telling who will hit it big next.

Maybe you.

Got an unlikely success story to share? Leave it in the comments.

 

  1. Julie says:

    I really appreciate your articles, Carol. You have an instinct for topics and why they work, and you present things well. Giving others space on your blog is great, and brings much to your blog, I have to say, reading YOUR columns is still what I come for. Thanks for all you provide and do!

  2. J. Delancy says:

    Who knew that there would be 800,000 sales for “Chuck Norris” books. I congratulate him on finding and exploiting the market.
    J. Delancy recently posted..10 Things She Wants You To Know

    • Carol Tice says:

      He seemed as shocked as I was when he told me the figure.

      But my theory is there is such a desperate need for things that make us laugh and forget our troubles in the 21st Century. I think the success of LOLCats, which actually has a similar genesis to Ian’s Chuck Norris success, is another great example of that. Silly captioned cat photos — who knew that could build an empire? But laughter…we need it so bad.

  3. Amandah says:

    Interesting. You do have to be mindful of copyrights. Chuck Norris has many fans and can kick some serious butt.

    I’ve been thinking about creating an author website and tying it back to my freelance writing website for more exposure. I have to be careful because like many authors I write in different genres from self-help to screenplays. Hmm…I need to figure out a plan and strategy and implement it. :)
    Amandah recently posted..WordPress Errors That Make You Look Silly

    • Carol Tice says:

      Well, hopefully you won’t sue yourself ;-)

      And yeah — obviously you don’t want Chuck Norris mad at you. He could probably roundhouse kick your blog into a geostationary orbit around the Earth…

  4. I congratulate Ian. Though his success might have seemed accidental, he seems like the kind of person who is NOT accidentally successful. He apparently works hard, he’s prepared for unexpected opportunity, and has placed himself in the middle of opportunity’s path.

    I think that’s the key. He wasn’t at home watching TV or napping when the book deals came. He was working. Even now, with all of the education and experience he’s getting, he’ll be able to take advantage of opportunities that other people will miss because they’re unprepared for them.

    Bobby Unser is known for saying “Success is where preparation and opportunity meet.”
    Sarah L. Webb recently posted..Colorism: Talk About Media Coverage

    • Carol Tice says:

      I agree with you, Sarah — Ian is a student of entrepreneurship, and I think his success is in part due to the fact that he approached it in a businesslike way…and when Chuck Norris facts proved the most popular, he went with it.

  5. Amandah says:

    @Carol… Lol! I needed a good a laugh for this crazy Monday.
    Amandah recently posted..WordPress Errors That Make You Look Silly

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