Your Book Is A Startup: Tim Ferriss, The 4-Hour Chef, And The BitTorrent Publishing Model

If you’re a writer, here’s what you’re up against. No other industry has as many new product introductions as the publishing sector. No. Other. Industry. And your industry is in decline.

Adult nonfiction books peaked in 2007, and have fallen each year since then. Bookstores are selling less books. In fact, average book sales are incredibly small. The typical US nonfiction book sells fewer than 250 copies per year, and under 3,000 copies in its lifetime. Think you’ll see your next book on shelves? Good luck. Because each new book has less than 1% chance of being stocked in an average bookstore.

Now, imagine your book has been boycotted by Barnes & Noble. Now you’re in Tim Ferriss’ shoes.

The author’s latest installment in The 4-Hour series was available on Amazon, but not in stock on major retailer shelves. Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Chef essentially had no physical footprint. How then, did his book go from boycotted to the best-seller lists, winning a Gourmand Cookbook Award along the way?

Simple. He stopped marketing The 4-Hour Chef as a book. Instead, he marketed it as a startup; relying on an iterative release schedule and spreadable, targeted content. Ferriss let usage drive product upsell, and users drive book seeding and distribution. He built in mechanisms for reward and social echo throughout the promotional cycle, mobilizing potential readers to act. Here’s how you hack publishing in sixty days or less.

Publishing in bites, bits, and targeted iterations.

Tim Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Chef was designed to be a reference book; a big, encyclopedic guide to the skill of meta-learning. With a page count of 672, it looks…well, it looks intimidating. For a super-fan, for a self-help academic, for someone with a lot of time. Not for everyone, maybe.

Maybe, not.

In fact, the book was built to be shared. Ferriss designed each chapter and section to be self-contained. There are infographics and recipe cards. The 4-Hour Chef, and titles like it, resemble albums more than they do books. They’re epic thematics broken down into 3-minute tracks.

This book-as-album strategy gives authors like Ferriss a significant advantage. Releasing chapters as singles creates a continuous news cycle during pre-launch promotion. It effectively creates radio play; increasing the chances that you’ll get heard with sample content. At the same time, it provides the flexibility to micro-target: using different chapters to reach and activate different readers. Ferriss used the book’s lessons in restaurant-cool to talk to the fashion kids at Refinery29, adventures in hunting to talk to MeatEater, and performance diet secrets to talk to the UFC crowd. It’s easier to mobilize micro-collectives of readers than it is to move one big mainstream bloc.

Publishing the process amplifies this effect. Everything that didn’t make the cut – in Ferriss’s case, over 255 pages of material – is an asset. By distributing making-of-videos, photos, interviews, rough drafts, and cut sections, authors can build momentum and context for their release. People share the remarkable, arresting, and idiosyncratic. An author’s process is all of these things.

Letting usage drive upsell.

If you want everyone to read your book, let everyone read your book. Placing content within the BitTorrent ecosystem has the effect of sampling, radio play, or TV advertising. It’s just at infinite scale.

To promote The 4-Hour Chef, Ferriss released the first chapter of his book, in addition to 680MB of behind-the-scenes content on BitTorrent. This content was downloaded by over 2 million people, who in turn:

Clicked on to the book’s trailer YouTube: 293,936 people
Clicked on to the author’s website: 327,555 people
Clicked on to the book’s Amazon page: 880,009 people

BitTorrent users accounted for 20% of the book trailer’s total YouTube views. BitTorrent users were also the single largest bloc of visitors to the book’s website (Source: BitTorrent helped the book sell over 250,000 copies, earning it a place on every major bestseller list.

Inviting readers to seed and distribute content.

Within the BitTorrent ecosystem, the people who consume content also distribute content. Your download is simultaneously uploaded, so others can use it. In theory, it sounds complicated. IRL: it’s not. Shut out by Barnes & Noble, Ferriss used super-fans as distribution centers. People who liked the book could open their own storefronts for The 4-Hour Chef via Ferriss committed a $6 donation for each fan book sold, and top sellers were rewarded with prizes and all-expenses-paid travel.

Building relationships with readers, before and beyond the sales transaction.

This notion – the idea of a value exchange between authors and fans beyond the book transaction – is a critical part of 2.0 book promotion. Ferriss rewarded fans early, measurably, and often.

The author ran six promotions over the course of 60 days. Booksellers were offered the opportunity to travel with the author. Winning YouTube remixers were given 60 minute phone calls. Audio-book recommenders were given first reads. Bulk purchasers were given subscriptions to the author’s favorite products, as well as exclusive interview transcripts and notes from The 4-Hour Chef. The rewards were personal. Competitions weren’t about closing sales, but instead about interacting with fans.

For many authors; for many of us – traditional publishing approaches will not work. We might not be able to get into Barnes & Noble. We might not have marketing budgets, or a massive fan base.

We might be able to make it.

We can build books for sharing. We can sample at scale. We can give readers a stake in distribution. We can open up exchange between artist and fan, beyond the sales transaction. And we can do this in a way that drives creative profitability. Ferriss’s experiment with distributed, startup style publishing proves there’s more than one option for authors looking to hack bestseller lists.

Matt Mason
Written by: Matt Mason

Matt Mason currently serves as Chief Content Officer at BitTorrent, Inc. He is also the bestselling author of The Pirate’s Dilemma, the first book in the history of the world to hit the number one spot on Amazon’s economics/free enterprise bestseller list and the rap bestseller list at the same time. He has written and produced TV series, screenplays, comic strips, apps and records, not to mention award-winning, global advertising campaigns. His journalism has appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, The Observer Music Monthly, Dazed & Confused, Adweek, VICE, and other publications in more than 20 countries.

12 Responses to “Your Book Is A Startup: Tim Ferriss, The 4-Hour Chef, And The BitTorrent Publishing Model”

  1. jonathan miller

    Hi We are the publisher of a number of high end authors – and would be very interested in learning how we can offer book deals through Bit Torrent.

  2. Mariusz

    Great interview, you can see the chemiatry and appreciation between the guys, which give a good energy and drive throughout.

    Please post more interviews loke this !

  3. Pat Larsen

    Great article Matt. Thanks for a look under the hood.
    So cool to watch an old industry be disrupted right in front of your eyes and to get a look under the hood.

  4. Wardrick

    I’ve always been a Ferriss fan. That said, this model is mostly great for people who have already established a following. And it won’t necessarily work in every genre.

    First of all, Ferriss already had a huge following before he tried this little trick. He had two NYT bestselling books, both published through traditional mainstream publishing. And the “Four Hour” brand was already hugely popular. As was Ferriss and his own website.

    So, he was able to build off his already-popular brand. And kudos for that. A first-time unknown writer will likely have far less success.

    Also, Ferriss did it with a diet/cookbook, which is a popular genre that crosses age/gender boundaries in terms of book readers. People who don’t buy books often by cookbooks and diet books.

    But would this same method work for unknown, first-time novelists who have a work of mainstream literary fiction they want to sell? Maybe. Maybe not. The odds, however, are pretty good that they would never get anywhere near the numbers Ferriss has. Because he went in with an established brand.

    Louis CK filmed his own comedy special and sold it for 5 bucks on his website and made a fortune. But he was already famous and hugely popular with a loyal following. An unknown comedian, just as funny, but without the name recognition and following would have nowhere near that kind of success. Success that Louis CK was able to have because he’d already found success through traditional outlets.

    See what I mean?

    It’s likely a guy who writes The Great American Novel, won’t see the numbers Ferriss saw. People GIVE AWAY books on Amazon Kindle, for instance, and never see numbers like this. And that’s a product being given away.

    • Robert Cary

      Wardwick sez..

      “I’ve always been a Ferriss fan. That said, this model is mostly great for people who have already established a following. And it won’t necessarily work in every genre.”

      End Quote…

      I have to agree. He already had a lot of “arrows in his quiver” upon which he could rely on to promote his book. I have written an ebook that has been out for about 7 years now. To think that I could pull down those numbers would be incredible. I mean, I am not greedy, if I sold 250,000 copies I would retire – lol.

      Wondering if this would work for the “super unknowns” such as myself…

      Just sayin…

  5. John La Puma

    Very clear interview and helpful, systematic analysis of a super out-of-the-box thinker about marketing. It’s very useful to use start-up tools. I think of this sort of book as a business card for a brand: in Tim’s case, the business is his expertise and persona. At least, at this stage.

    I’m going to try to integrate some of these distributive strategies into my next book, out in 8 months (and I’ve been fortunate to write 2 NYTimes best-sellers, and I have a lot to learn!). Of course, I’d love to collaborate with bittorrent too.

    As always, success in business seems to depend on relationships: Tim has made his own great relationships, it seems, but most authors do not have the direct or even indirect connections to marketing whizzes, or the budget to hire 30-40 people on several continents to work on their project. So while I think what he did for 4HC is amazing, truly, it’s not truly an author’s model, because it is hard if not impossible for someone with less powerful connections and fewer resources to emulate.

    A useful followup would be: what if your start-up is self-funded, or nearly so, and your advance isn’t 6 figures, or more? Which strategies would you choose, and why?

  6. Jeff Rivera

    There are a number of us novelists that would be interested in using this as a platform to distribute our books, but our question is how do we get the word out on BitTorrent so that people (the community on BitTorrent) download it in the first place? What are your step-by-step tips?

  7. Benny

    Many would view bittorrent and it’s relationship with pirated material a large disadvantage to marketing and selling products. But wow, Tim did it again by turning another major concept and flipping it on it’s head. This man is remarkable.

    I’m halfway done working through 4HWW (I bought a tangible copy) and I can’t wait to pick up 4HC.

    I’m planning to write a book as well, even though I don’t have a large following yet, I’m sure the application of these ideas will help me in the long run.

    Great video and great post.

  8. Richard


    This what you are describing is something that I have been thinking of doing for some time, and I’d like to know more about how to use Bit Torrrent to promote my book/experience.

    PS. If you look at my website don’t be to put down, I am planning to do a better one.



  9. Stellabelle

    I am so utterly impressed by this info that I will be presenting this info graphic during my upcoming
    Presentation at City Camp KC. This model really shows us that we can succeed even when
    A giant like BN rejects us. Wow! I’m working on my first Ebook and memorizing this model.
    Thank you!!!

  10. Carl Plumer

    Matt — This is beyond inspiring. My brain is on fire. Not everyone (no one else, really) can be Tim Ferris and I would never expect that kind of success. That’s once-in-a-lifetime stuff. But the IDEAS presented here are fantastic. I have so much material “left over” after I’ve taken one of my novels from spark to shipping that I think readers and other writers would really enjoy. Thank you so much for this article and giving us a little extra insight into Tim’s world. Cheerss!


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