How I Failed as a Writer for 5 Years Before Becoming a LinkedIn Top Voice

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Last month, I got the welcome news that I am one of LinkedIn’s Top Voices for 2017. And it was for Finance and Economy, which was especially gratifying as I had been struggling in that writing genre for over 5 years.

Looking back, I would say it was really five years of different types of failure. Of trying tons of things and having none of them work. It wasn’t like I knew what to do and wasn’t succeeding at it. For most of the time, I couldn’t see any path forward.

I did eventually find my way and have been crawling to some degree of success as a writer since. I think there are probably some lessons in my many years as a mostly failed writer.

I got my start by finding an agent, which was sort of helpful back in 2010.

In 2010, I had recently left working for Prince Alwaleed and I knew I wanted to write (and speak). I didn’t really know why. And I didn’t have any real idea how to go about it. But I felt like I wanted to say something. Looking back, I’m not even sure what it was. 

The main approach back then was to find a book agent and then get a book deal. So one Saturday I walked down to a bookstore in Hong Kong and picked out 10-15 books in finance. I went through the introductions and wrote down who the authors had thanked. I noticed that many of my favorite authors had thanked a guy named Herb Schaffner. I also noted he had recently left his publishing position in New York. So I went home and emailed him. We later talked. He eventually became my agent and helped me get a book deal at Pearsons / Financial Times.

Looking back, having an agent and friend in the publishing world was a huge help. While book deals (and traditional publishing) is not a route I would recommend today (more on that in the next point), having an advisor in writing and publishing is great when you’re starting out. And for me, it just got me moving. It got me to take a first step – albeit in the wrong direction.

I did a traditional book deal, which got me nowhere.

I ended up publishing a book with Pearsons in New York. And, like many first-time authors, I left the experience disappointed. I wasn’t bitter (many authors are) as I thought Pearsons treated me quite fairly. But I was disappointed because I thought an editor would make me a better writer. And I thought having a publisher would help me build an audience. Neither happened. At all. Basically, I just got an advance and then was on my own.

So maybe I just had the wrong expectations. But after a lot of work and a published book, I felt like I hadn’t moved forward at all.

Next, I tried writing blogs, submitting guest pieces to publications and doing radio interviews. None of these got me anywhere either.

Over the next couple of years, I published articles in Business Insider, the South China Morning Post, the Harvard Business Review, the National (Abu Dhabi) and lots of other publications. I did lots of guest segments on China Radio International. And I posted lots of articles on my own little webpage (which got no traffic). During this period, I also spoke with lots PR firms and author services firms.

Basically, none of this worked. There is just too much content out there today. Everyone is struggling to get any readership. And many of the main publishing platforms are shrinking – so there is a lot more content and a lot fewer captured audiences.

I eventually walked away from all this. I dropped the entire approach. Instead, I self-published a book with a partner and a team. This led to my first small success as a writer.

Eventually, in a fit of frustration, I jettisoned my entire writing approach. I dumped most all of the advice I was getting from the publishing world. I dumped the idea of being a solo author. I dumped the idea working with publishers and established publications. And I dumped the idea of creating a big 300 page book. It just didn’t seem like any of that worked for anyone (unless you were famous).

Instead, I fell back on something I felt I understood – running management consulting projects. I knew how to put together research teams and do analysis. I knew how to sell the final product (basically a document) to companies. I decided to replicate that process for book writing. My new approach for books became the following:

  1. Build a “content team”. Instead of being a solo author, I built a team to do research and writing, just like I would for a consulting project. And we work fast and produce the main document in weeks. My teams typically include lots of MBA students, editors, and reviewers. And I partnered with Jonathan Woetzel of McKinsey, who is the encyclopedia of China business (it’s spooky how much he knows).
  2. Self-publish short, high-value books. Instead of writing a big weighty tome for $25, we focused on writing a very short, focused book for $5. We tried to make it as valuable as possible in as few pages as possible (just like a consulting document). We ended up packing the expertise of our content team (+30 China thinkers) into a book you could read in an hour. We called it the One Hour China book.
  3. Partner with a “promotion team”. I decided there are only two activities in books now: creating content and promoting content (distribution is just via Amazon). I knew how to build a content team but decided I needed a partner for promotion. It’s just a different skill-set. Eventually, Glenn Leibowitz of McKinsey & Co ended up overseeing the marketing and promotion aspects for the book. Note: Glenn is a LinkedIn Top Voice for Marketing and Social Media for both 2015, 2016, and 2017. If you aren’t following him, stop reading this and follow him here right now. Seriously, he is the guru for all this stuff.

In early 2014, we self-published the One Hour China book and it shot to #1 on Amazon (for China). It stayed in the top 10-15 for over three years. It wasn’t a huge bestseller but it definitely wasn’t another failure. One reviewer aptly called it a “minor publishing sensation”. We followed up a year later with the One Hour China Consumer book.

After 4 years of failing, I had finally found a writing approach that was getting me somewhere. I felt like I was finally starting to move forward.

In 2015, I started writing on LinkedIn and that really got me moving.

The book writing process typically takes a year so it’s a hard way to build an audience. Glenn had been telling me to start writing on LinkedIn and I eventually took his advice. FYI. I’ve found it’s best to just do whatever Glenn says (it saves time). I published my first article on LinkedIn in May 2015. It got like 50 readers.

But I committed to writing one article per week and I kept at it. Like with books, I developed a very specific system. You can see my LinkedIn writing approach here.

After six months of writing on LinkedIn, I finally went from 500 to about 10,000 followers. LinkedIn sent me a nice note about hitting 10,000. It wasn’t a stratospheric success. But like with my short books, I had found a system that actually worked.

My opinion now is that publishing on a social network is just much more powerful than traditional publishing. Having your own email distribution list is still the best, but publishing on a social network is second.

In 2016, I became an early mover for LinkedIn for China content. This made a big difference and I finally broke out (to some degree).

Timing turned out to be a big deal. I was writing about China when not that many people were generating China content in English. And in the last year or two, China business has become a much bigger topic around the world. It now shows up on the front pages of the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times every tday. It even became a topic in the US presidential election for the first time.

So I was writing in the right niche as the topic grew and as LinkedIn expanded operations into Asia and China. I also started publishing in both English and Chinese, which let me speak to both geographies.

My conclusion is that being early in a particular subject or on a particular publishing medium is a very big deal. I already had my system in place and then suddenly the wind was at my back. My followers started growing much faster. My articles started getting a lot more reads and shares (very important). My China books also benefited.

In early 2016, I re-positioned myself between China and international business. That helped a lot.

In early 2016, I re-positioned my writing as “how rising Chinese consumers and digital China are impacting global markets”. This is a big, long-term economic trend.

However, this subject also limited my competition, which was my other goal. Unless a US or Europe-based writer is willing to move to China for 10 years (like I have), it’s pretty hard to write about this topic like I do. And similarly, China-based writers can’t really write about the impact on the West without having lived in the West. So positioning myself between China and international business decreased my competition. My followers went to +100,000. My shares increased.

***

Anyways, my years of writing frustration are thankfully over. The LinkedIn Top Voices list was a nice surprise in that regard. My followers are at +2.2M now. I have had two best-sellers and have two more books under development. And I have finally found two writing systems that do seem to work. So I am sticking with it. My approach now is pretty simple.

  • I publish one article per week, mostly on a social network. I think LinkedIn is far and away the best for business writers. It’s an awesome resource.
  • I publish one book per year, always with a two team approach (content team plus promotion team). I prefer short, low-cost, high-value books.
  • I repeat and repeat and repeat. With a system that finally works, time is now my biggest ally. I am progressing one step at a time – so I just keep walking. And I am a long way from the Hong Kong bookstore now.

Thanks for reading (I really do mean that) and cheers, -j

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I write and speak about the fight for Chinese consumers and digital China.

Photo by jeff

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