There are no shortcuts. Do the work. Do Your Best. Repeat.
Aspart of my series on the “5 Things You Need To Know To Write A Bestselling Book” I had the pleasure of interviewing Laura A. Morton.
Laura has written over 50 books and a staggering 20 New York Times bestsellers, with a wide range of celebrities, including, Susan Lucci, Jennifer Hudson, Al Roker, Deborah Roberts, Justin Beiber, Joan Lunden, Marilu Henner, Melissa Etheridge, Delta Burke, Katherine Schwarzenegger, Kim Zimmer, Denise Rich, Kathy Ireland, Sandra Lee, Danica Patrick, Bruce Hulse (famous male supermodel,) Ed and Lois Smart — the parents of Elizabeth Smart, Criss Angel, and the Jonas Brothers — just to name a few. Laura Morton has also been engaged to write several high profile business books with numerous leaders in their industries.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?
After many years working in television and film production, I realized I had a knack to telling other people’s stories. I’d been doing it in other media and thought making the leap wouldn’t be that difficult. I’d worked on countless scripts, so why not books?
I wrote my first book with Joan Lunden in 1994. I first met Joan when I produced her exercise video, Workout America. Shortly after we wrapped production, she and I had dinner together. We got to talking about her life and what was next. At the time, Joan had just gone through a high profile divorce. She had also lost a significant amount of weight. At the time she was 40, single, a mom of three young girls and on her own. I thought she represented a pretty large demographic. To me, her workout video only told half the story. During that dinner I casually suggested, “You ought to write a book. Share your journey with women. Tell them how you lost the weight. In fact, give them your inspiration and recipes.” Our concept became an inspirational cookbook. Of course, we thought it was a great idea. We genuinely thought women would want to hear what she had to say. When we pitched the idea to her agent, he laughed. He hated it. He said, “Joan doesn’t cook.” Ok. That might be true. But as the host of GMA, she also had 20 million viewers a week — who saw her in the kitchen, every morning with people like Wolfgang Puck and the legendary Julia Child. Even if she couldn’t cook, they sure thought she could. So I took it upon myself to prove to her agent that he was wrong.
I cold called publishers, asked if I could come in and meet and then pitched them our idea.
I sold that book — at least the first time. To be totally fair — once Joan’s agent heard we had multiple offers on the table, he suddenly realized it wasn’t a totally insane idea. He hopped on the train, her attorney introduced us to a wonderful literary agent who helped shepherd the deal home. I had never sold let alone written a book before, but I knew it was a good idea and eventually, so did they. That book hit the bestseller list where it stayed for several weeks.
What was (so far) the most exhilarating or fulfilling experience you’ve had as an author?
While I have loved working with all of my clients, working with John Maxwell on his legacy book, Intentional Living was one of the most fulfilling experiences as an author because it changed how I thought and thereby lived. John had used the same author for more than 20 years on his 70 plus books he’d written. Their relationship was amazing and I didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes. Initially, I wasn’t asked to help write Intentional Living. John asked me to consult with him on content. However, we connected in a way that he trusted me to help him get more focused and intentional with his writing and messaging for the book. I helped John bring more of a personal connection to the page through his storytelling. Having access to someone like John Maxwell was extraordinary. Writing his book taught me to become more intentional in my everyday living and about the work I do. From that book on, I have made a commitment to only working on projects that check 3 boxes for me. And all 3 have to be checked for me to say yes. First, do I connect with the person who wants to write their book? 2. Do I connect with the material on a meaningful level? And third, does the content add value into the world? I believe most people wake up with good intentions but have a hard time following through. Writing Intentional Livingtaught me to cross the bridge of good intentions to living intentionally.
What was the craziest, weirdest, wildest experience you’ve had as a bestselling author?
When I wrote You Can Run But You Can’t Hide with Duane “Dog the Bounty Hunter” Chapman, no one could have guessed how well received that book would become by his very loyal fan base. To everyone’s surprise, we made our debut at #1 on The NY Times and stayed on the list for several weeks. Every book signing was flooded with anywhere from 2000–4000 people. The crowds were so large, bookstores couldn’t handle the traffic and certainly didn’t have enough books in stock. With every appearance Dog made, more people showed up. People planned their vacations around his signings. I’d never seen anything quite like it. The Chapman’s were very popular at the time with the top rated show on A&E. They didn’t want to disappoint fans when there weren’t enough books on hand so we started selling other merchandise at tables in the mall, the parking lot, wherever we could set up. I was selling t-shirts to fans who had no idea I was the co-author of the book. It gave me a birds eye view of the fan experience, something I will never forget.
What is the greatest part about being a successful, bestselling author?
I never know how the extraordinary people I work with are going to change my life — but they all do in one way or another. I don’t expect it — and sometimes I don’t see it coming but I am so grateful for the gift of learning from their experiences. Throughout the years I’ve co-authored more than 40 books with a variety of personalities from all walks of life. When I work with someone, I write in first person, which means I’ve been rock stars, politicians, rivaling soap stars, reality stars, child stars, a beloved sitcom star, morning show hosts from competing networks, a hard hitting news journalist, several health advocates, and even a bounty hunter. I have been kidnapped, in prison for manslaughter, have been the top male super model in the world, a female race car driver in the male dominated sport, donned the cover of Sports Illustrated in a swimsuit, been in one of the greatest boy band’s in history, a mega pop star, founded several billion dollar corporations and yes, the MindFreak, who can levitate in front of thousands of people. I have been born again, Jewish, Mormon, Christian, Buddhist, Catholic and Christian; I am straight, gay, bi, curious and so much more. If this unique access doesn’t give me the most exceptional perspective on life, I don’t know what does! I have the rare opportunity to look inside each of these lives because the people I work with allow me unprecedented access to share in their experiences, wisdom and wit — from the inside out. It’s like having a rare backstage pass to see what life is like when your favorite rock star isn’t performing, that hard hitting broadcast journalist is home feeding his kids or changing their diapers and the softer, more reflective side of those hardened titans of business when they’re not negotiating multimillion dollar deals. I am able to reap the benefits of all of their life lessons — good and bad, without actually having to go through them. The best part is I can cherry pick those I wish to take along on my own journey — and I have learned so many, whether it’s “the power of the pause,” “what price peace,” or the “4 addictions” — the addiction to the opinions of others, drama, the past and worry and how to break them.
I also get to ask the hard questions, dig deep and connect the dots that often times the people I work with wouldn’t allow in a traditional interview but welcome in ours. They trust our process and in return, they give me more than they often expect to. This access brings to the surface emotion and content that eventually connects them to their audience in an intimate way so they feel as if they are talking just to them. It’s personal and yet their stories are usually full of universal truths. I am looking for and harvesting their best life stories,the ones that touch your heart and mind — the stories you can’t stop thinking about because it taps something deep inside you and makes a difference in how you feel. Books, especially memoirs have the ability to do that for the reader. Above all, I’ve learned it’s a great privilege to bring that to life on the page so others can share in the experience that I am so blessed to call my life’s work.
What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a bestselling writer?
Discipline is the secret sauce to succeeding in most everything but it won’t land you on the bestseller list. These days, I think it’s a lot harder to hit the bestseller list than it used to be, but it isn’t impossible. Having a large platform is very important to achieve that status. Social media has become the measure of that for most authors and for the most part publishers. No matter who you are, a traditional publisher will look to you to prove to them how you will sell your book. They will do very little, especially for first time, unproven authors. It’s critical to have and really think through your plan. What’s your marketing strategy? What relationships are you willing to leverage to sell your book in bulk? One by one? How can you align yourself with a larger platform if yours isn’t? When I wrote Danica Patrick’s book, Crossing the Line, we were able to retain the right to sell her book at the race tracks, a place most publishers wouldn’t have access too. Danica sold more merchandise at the track than just about any other driver at the time, so it only made sense to have her book on hand. We figured out a way to buy the book at a very reasonable cost from the publisher and sold them, often autographed, for a premium. Her fans were ecstatic to have a signed copy of her book and Danica didn’t have to add a book tour to her already busy travel schedule while racing. It was a win for everyone. I replicated this concept with Dave Liniger, the founder and Chairman of ReMax, realty. When we wrote his book, he had just under 100,000 agents in the company. We figured out how to maximize his exposure by utilizing his agent base and their client base. It was an exponential plan. Every real estate agent had years of clients they could reach out to, whether they sent them a copy of the book or a link to purchase it. It’s that old saying, you tell a friend, who tells two friends, and so on. You have to be willing to think bigger than the bookstore. We live in a digital world with access at our fingertips. With that in mind, how can you reach your largest audience? Who does your book really speak to? And how will you speak to them in such a way that they buy your book from any venue?
Which writer or leader has had the biggest impact on you as a writer?
I am inspired by great storytellers in all genres. I like the way Brene Brown writes, David Bach, Marianne Williamson, David Ritz and others who share their brilliance.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming a bestselling author? How did you overcome it?
At any given moment, most of us have had some big goal we’d like to shoot for that likely requires some amount of risk. Publishing is no exception. It’s a ruthless rollercoaster world of constant risk, reward and lots of rejection. For every book proposal my agent sends out, I receive a lot more no’s than I do yes’s. To this day, he still reminds me that it only takes one yes to make a deal. And these days, it’s even harder than ever. Over the years, I’ve come to understand all of those rejection letters aren’t personal. They aren’t about me or even about my work. They’re about someone else’s fear. Understand that most of the time, rejection is about someone else’s fear.
Everyone lives in a fearful world… a worrisome world of what if….especially in publishing.
What if I buy this book for my publishing house and it tanks?
If I do, I might not get my bonus.
Or worse, I could lose my job.
So even if that editor loved the work, they won’t take a risk to acquire it because they’re afraid of the scenarios they’ve created — most of which likely don’t even exist…these make believe stories they tell themselves — over and over.
I used to personalize it. Rationalize it. Come up with all sorts of reasons or ways I could have done better but the reality is, it wasn’t about me. Rejection has to be turned into a challenge instead of a defeat. Learn from it — and I don’t mean learn how to be better next time. Because chances are, unless you completely choked or really wrote something that wasn’t very good, the rejection wasn’t your fault. The match simply wasn’t meant to be.
It’s really that simple.
Don’t dwell on it, don’t regret it.
Just move on.
Eventually another door will open, and it will be the door you were meant to walk through all along.
What challenge or failure did you learn the most from in your writing career?
Ok, so I will confess to you that I am the kind of person who has never liked being told what I can and cannot do. It’s not that I don’t like or appreciate rules and structure, I simply have no tolerance for the limitations that other people’s expectations place on me in the process. I am sure I was told no for my own safety when I was a child, yet as an adult I don’t hear the word “no” very often — even when people say it. To me, it simply means, “try harder.” There’s something about overcoming other people’s idea of what can and cannot work over my own. In fact, I love proving other people wrong. You see, if you believe in yourself, anything is possible — even the perceived impossible. There’s no place in my life for the word, “can’t” because it accomplishes nothing. Rejection has to be turned into a challenge instead of a defeat — or what I call turning obstacles into opportunities. Throughout my career, I’ve had a couple of manuscripts rejected, and both times, it really hurt. As a creative person, I took it personally that someone else didn’t like my work. What I came to realize is it’s not always about the writing. It may be that the market won’t embrace the story like the publisher expected. In one case, I wrote a book with a very famous actress and the editor didn’t care for her on the page. She was enamored with the image of the character she played on television, which was nothing like the woman off screen. It was tough to convince her that the woman I worked with was not always funny. In fact, she was a little dark and sad. She wanted a manuscript from the character she played on TV and I delivered the story of the person who plays that role. The other time I had issues with a manuscript, it really wasn’t about the writing at all. I was having a pagination glitch with my software and couldn’t get the 400 plus pages to number in the correct order. The publisher, a notorious bully who no longer works in the industry actually threw the manuscript at me. Over a pagination issue. I will never forget watching those 400 loose pages slowly drift to the floor of her office. A week later I received a handwritten note from her congratulating me on an excellent manuscript. I keep that letter in my desk drawer. Not because of the kind words. But to remind me that people react to things that have nothing to do with who we are. To this day, that book is and remains my bestselling book of all time. 22 years later, I still receive royalty checks from it. We learn so much more from our failures in life than we do our victories. So instead of beating ourselves up, we need to embrace the lessons we get from them, use them as teachable moments and keep moving forward.
Another challenge I’ve faced over the years is when there just wasn’t enough money to split between the author and myself. The agent didn’t get the kind of advance he/she expected and therefore, there was no room for a top tier writer. In the end, the publisher always gets what they pay for and I’ve been called on many occasions to fix other people’s work, something I don’t like to do. One other piece of advice is not to expect too much from your agent. It doesn’t really matter if you are with a big agency or a boutique. While I have a great relationship with my agent, I still go out to find my own work. I don’t rely on my agent as my sole source of income. If you plan to write full time as your career, you have to be fiercely dedicated to the process and willing to ride out the long lapses in pay when dealing with a publisher, as your payments will be staggered and triggered based on delivery of certain items.
What are the 5 things a writer needs to know if he/she wants to become a bestselling author?
1. Publishing is a ruthless world of constant rejection. Don’t take it personally and don’t let it hold you back from achieving your goals and reaching your dream. No=Try harder.
2. Remember FEAR is an acronym for False Evidence Appearing Real. The two most common fears people have are the fear rejection and the fear of feeling inadequate, a disastrous combination for a writer. Aside from the fear of falling and loud noises….Every fear you have — you’ve learned….which means you can overcome it. Today’s world is complex and so are our fears. Don’t manifest something that doesn’t exist our of fear.
3. Nothing worthwhile comes easy-perseverance, persistence and creativity require time and patience.
4. Think bigger than the bookstore.
5. There are no shortcuts. Do the work. Do Your Best. Repeat.
What are you most excited to work on next? Most excited to read next?
I just finished reading Michelle Obama’s book Becoming and am currently reading Conscious Parenting, by Dr. Shefali Tsabary as research for my new book, Attunement.Both are so beautifully written and connect on a high emotional level. Both books inspire me from a storytelling point of view. They share open, vulnerable and relatable stories that captivate and inform without judging or preaching. This is a gift from the writer for the reader.
Anything else you’d like to add?
A lot of people believe making the bestseller list is a magic bullet for their career. For some, this might be true, but to stay relevant and meaningful as an author, I believe you have to keep on developing useable and relatable content. We are meant to tell great stories therefore, the well has to be deep and plentiful to keep providing your messaging to an audience. And, there are many bestseller lists to consider. Some, like Amazon in a specific category might come much faster and easier than others such as the Wall St. Journal, Publishers Weekly or USA TODAY. You can achieve #1 bestseller on Amazon in a category, such as law or self help for an hour, a day or longer. Does this make you a bestselling author? Sure it does. You have to start somewhere.
It’s also a common belief that there is a formula that can somehow be calculated to land on the bestseller list, especially The New York Times. I strongly caution anyone who thinks they can buy their way on to the list to think twice before spending the money on such a campaign. Sure, there have been times in the past where lots of books landed there by these types of strategies, some have gone completely under the radar while others were totally called out. Now more than ever, The New York Times, (especially) and others have become very savvy to these tactics, making it very hard to meet the criteria they now have in place through any other method than a truly organic campaign. There are a few people out there who make their living selling bestseller campaigns, touting their unparalleled track record of placing 80 plus bestsellers, often for hundreds of thousands of dollars or more, making it nearly impossible for the average first time author to even consider such a proposition. But even if you did have the money, these companies and individuals simply cannot deliver on the promise anymore. They could in the past, and have. Many times. Publishers put so much pressure on the author to deliver sales, it’s no wonder the campaigns exist, and yet, it makes the playing field totally uneven for those who can’t or won’t participate. That’s not to say you can’t supplement your campaign. You can and should. However, keep in mind, it’s expensive and without a well thought out plan, strategy and significant platform, it will likely fail. I always tell my clients to think about their marketing with the same depth they think about the content for their book. They are parallel in purpose.
Also, there are many ways to get published today. You don’t have to take the traditional path to see your book in print. There’s no stigma to being self published today like there used to be. I find there are a variety of options available including print on demand, co-publishing and other hybrid models. Often the financial structure is better for the author in these types of deals than in traditional. If being in control of your content, the look of your book, the quality of the paper used, the design and other elements are really important to you, look into alternatives to traditional publishing. It’s a great way to launch, especially if you believe in your work more than a publisher does.
Thank you so much for these great insights!