Arvid Kahl on the business, product, and process of nonfiction

The best-selling author of Zero to Sold opens up about ideas, audience, platform, and profits

By Rob Fitzpatrick and featuring Arvid Kahl

Arvid Kahl’s first book, Zero to Sold, launched at #1 in its Amazon categories, delivered $20k worth of royalties in its first six weeks, and has become a beloved guide for aspiring bootstrappers everywhere. He’s currently writing his next book, Audience First.

Arvid brings an entrepreneur’s approach to the world of nonfiction and audience-building.

He also joined our nonfiction authors’ community for a Q&A — see below for a few notes and higlights from that chat.

Extra excerpts from Friday’s Q&A with Arvid


Harpal: Did you do all of your marketing and audience-building via content?

Arvid: With my last business, we did very little content marketing. Mainly, we participated in communities. For example, we were building for teachers, and they would hang out in Facebook groups to ask for help and voice their frustrations. So we hung out there too, and put our link when it was relevant.

I did the a similar thing for my book. I call it “Embedded exploration”: listen, observe, see what problems they have. Then produce content based on that. Don’t just spam your stuff.

Once that was working, I then started a newsletter for the early fans. And I highlighted all the awesome stuff they were doing, for both my customers and my readers.

Rob: Your approach sounds similar to Amy Hoy’s sales safari: just watch them from a distance to understand their problems. You don’t even need talk to them directly, necessarily.

Arvid: Very similar. But sometimes there’s info you can’t get without talking to people.

One of the questions that was really helpful for us was to find the first group of the right people, and then ask them where else they hung out online. Sometimes that would lead us to more niche communities that we never would have heard about on our own.

Rob: You talk about building and writing either a “main dish” (helping with the core part of their life) or a “side dish” (a small but delightful side-benefit). Is your first book Zero to Sold, a main or side?

Arvid: Side dish. It was written for a very specific type of person and to help them in a small-but-important way.

I did that intentionally. It made it easier to find the right audience. “If they don’t like it, it’s not for them.” It’s not for everybody. I’d rather have good coverage in my little niche vs. being a drop in the ocean.

I want to own a niche. I like to have a small audience and to be able to talk to everyone. I don’t want to be a NYT bestseller.

Rob: The way you personally engage with your fans is amazing. You get so much engagement and support from them because you’re so available. Your friendliness and consistency have created this army of evangelists.

Arvid: We did this for our software business also. If a user found a bug, I’d fix it and tell them in the same conversation that I fixed it. They LOVED that. No big business can do that. Then we started talking to them, interviewing them, asking questions, to learn more about who they were and what they needed.

Harpal: You started a podcast where you mostly just read your articles and book excerpts. Was there value in doing that sort of audio narration of your written content?

Arvid: I don’t have a huge podcast but the fans are super loyal. I don’t need that many. 1000 people is a lot, because they really care, and they’ll help you.

And it also helps you write. Learning to write in a way that sounds good when you read it out loud is very helpful. And you can also immediately sell it as a great audiobook in that case.

Rob: In the early stages, the numbers don’t matter. It’s so tempting to get sucked into obsessing over the numbers. It’s a mistake. The breakthrough for my first book was one person, who had been a Beta Reader. He ran a conference and allowed me to give away books to 500 of the perfect people. Do things that don’t scale. I’m crazy about talking to people as individuals for as long as you are able. It gives you so much learning and creates super fans.

Arvid: Be real, not fake. You never know where your super fans will come from. Be kind and interested. You create serendipity.

There’s a big debate on what “audience first” means. For me, “audience” means everyone who might be interested at some point. I believe that audience first means putting them first from the very beginning. That doesn’t mean build an audience then monetize them. It means putting the audience’s needs first. Who do I really want to help, how can I help them, how do I build a following made up of those people. Put them first.

Kate: We have the same issue in PR. People start the wrong way around.

RJ: What’s the most common mistake newbies make?

Arvid: Most authors don’t understand who they write for. If you write for beginners but your language is super abstract, that’s a problem. Listen to people. Talk to people vs. talk at them. Treat your readers as peers who are beside you, not beneath you.

RJ: How did you build your Twitter following, newsletter, and platform?

Arvid: Here’s how I view it:

  1. You obviously need to make useful content. (But if you’re writing a book, you’re already doing that, but maybe not sharing it as early or as often as you might.)
  2. Engagement. Don’t throw stuff into the void. Go to where people are already having the conversation. Audience audition, go to where your audience already hangs out, and then add to the conversation there. Engage on other people’s audience and borrow them.
  3. Empowerment: Retweet and like etc. without asking for anything in return. Builds goodwill. Giving other people the limelight.

This stuff is not zero-sum. So have an abundance mindset. People WANT to reciprocate. They will if you keep giving good material. As you continue, the response only seems to get better and better. Keep going, keep writing, keep sharing.

Rob: Thanks Arvid!

You can find Arvid’s writing about business at The Bootstrapped Founder, his next book at Audience First, and on Twitter at @arvidkahl.

To learn from other wonderful nonfiction authors, consider joining our authors’ community.

More resources & articles