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.

 

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