Have you ever thought about writing a memoir? What if you could leverage your experiences to sell books on Amazon and earn a passive income?
Ben Guest is the author of Beating Vegas, which reached a top 3 best-selling position in Amazon’s basketball category. Here we discussed how he’s going to do it all over again with Zen and the Art of Coaching Basketball.
After nearly 25 interviews, I’ve finally found someone who’s just as addicted to coffee as I am.
Ben drinks about three cups per day. Before noon. Unlike me, he likes some cream in it. A lot of cream. His go-to coffee is a 50/50 split between Four Sigmatic mushroom coffee and milk. With just a pinch of cinnamon on top.
Anyway, back to Ben’s books. His writing story started recently. Ben’s teaching experience and will to travel had taken him to a Namibian university. Unfortunately, the working conditions didn’t allow him to stay safe during these barren COVID-19 days and he decided to quit the job with a pocketful of unforgettable experiences. This would form the basis for his second book: Zen and the Art of Coaching Basketball, Memoir of A Namibian Odyssey.
Flashback to early 2021: Ben was in a precarious situation after quitting his job. He had to find a way to make money—fast. So in February, he started looking into a little-known theory that predicts basketball player performances. Surprisingly, this theory was more accurate than more broadly used metrics, and Ben decided to use it to predict scores.
So how did that go?
The name of his first book “Beating Vegas” might give something away. You can discover the full story inside the book, but let me tell you this: He quickly turned the idea into a paid newsletter, and he had two partners by May.
“There’s this cool thing about writing: It starts with a thought in thought in your head, then translates to words on screen or paper, which turn into money in your pocket.”
How to write a memoir
Before you even think about writing a memoir, you need to live stories worth writing about. That’s exactly what Ben did in Namibia. His coaching experience there was so unique and unbelievable that it’s blockbuster material.
But the thing is, you don’t realise you’re experiencing something worthy to write about until it’s over.
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”Steve Jobs
So how do you make sure you have material to write about if you don’t know you’ll end up writing about your experiences someday?
Keep a journal. Or like Ben, write a newsletter to keep friends and family up to date. For Ben, these emails were vital. He could reference them for exact information about conversations, dates and even the weather.
But what if you can’t remember?
If you can’t remember exactly, you can always add a disclaimer. Or use the almighty Internet.
Ben loves to set the scene in his stories. For this new book he’s working on, he used www.weather.com to check the exact weather in Chicago somewhere back in the 90s. Is that specific enough for you?
In, out, in, out, shake it all about.
The key to art is as much about what you leave out as about what you put in. It’s a hard balance to add just enough detail to be specific but not as much that you’ll bore the reader.
There are two ways to get to this golden ratio of detail. You can write a lot and edit it out. Or, like Ben, you can write a barebones first draft and listen to beta-readers and editors to learn which parts need more detail.
Hiring an editor, according to Ben, is like receiving a personalised masterclass on writing. Someone with years of experience gives you invaluable feedback. First, Ben received written feedback, then he read it and finally, they talked it over on the phone.
And it’s not even that expensive. Ben paid about $1,000 for a professional editor and another $500 for a copy edit. The only other cost he had was $150 for the cover design of his first book. But he did the second one himself on Canva.
Ben Guest’s writing advice
As I’ve mentioned repeatedly in my newsletter as well, Ben emphasises that writing advice is personal. What works for me doesn’t always for you and the other way around. You need to try different things. And often, different projects require different tactics.
Having said this, here’s some of Ben’s best writing advice:
- Show don’t tell.
- Work hard on your outline before you start.
- Work hard on your editing when you’re finished.
- Writers are usually supportive. Don’t be afraid to connect and share ideas.
“If you spend enough time on pre-writing and post-writing, it’s hard to have a bad piece of writing.”
No matter how good you plan the outline, sometimes you need to start writing to get the right angle. Michaeleen felt she needed to write herself into a chapter to find the proper perspective, and Ben’s favourite piece of advice from his editor Glenn Stout goes: “The story will tell you how it wants to be told.”
Optimising Kindle sales
The sales process in the Amazon book store works in three stages, according to Ben.
Seeing your thumbnail is often the first encounter readers have with your book. So you want to do two things. First, you need to make sure Amazon recommends your book. More about this later.
Secondly, your cover needs to be eye-catching, engaging and professional. Of course, the thumbnail needs to be easy to read or people won’t click through. (More about this in the episode with Jon)
After readers click your thumbnail, they land on your book’s sales page. The first thing you need there is a bunch of high-authority blurbs. Readers are always interested in learning what other people in your area of expertise have to say about your book.
Finally, readers will often download a free sample before they make a final buying decision. It’s your job to make the book look professional. So Ben advises hiring a professional editor who’ll clean out all grammar and spelling mistakes.
Now, how do you get recommended?
By picking the correct categories.
There are hundreds of categories. The key is to go as niche as possible. Ben’s second book, for example, is mainly about basketball coaching but it also slots in the travel category. More specifically, it’s a book about “Travel » Africa » Namibia”.
Imagine how much easier it is to become a bestselling author in the Namibia category than in the whole travel category.
But the beautiful thing is that your book will be listed in all the parent categories as well.
So on one side, it will be listed in more categories and on the other side, it’ll be much easier to get that orange “Amazon Bestseller” banner.
To increase your chances of getting the banner, Ben recommends offering discounts so more people buy in the first week.
April Dunford gave us the opposite advice. She didn’t do any discounts in the entire first year, her reasoning being that your true fans don’t need any financial motivation to buy your book.
Ben, however, believes his first buyers are his evangelists. And if they are his most faithful fans, why not reward them with a lower price.
Ben Guest’s recommended reading
Ben has a newsletter and podcast in which he shares stories, ideas and advice about writing and publishing. Episode 44 with Rémy Ngamije is particularly interesting as the Rwandan author shares his experience of publishing short stories, finding an agent and getting a publishing deal for his first novel.