Mike Stickler, Publisher, Leadership Books

Michael Stickler is a best-selling author and internationally sought-after speaker.  Michael Stickler’s first book went from being “unsellable” (according to his publisher) to selling more than 300,000 copies using a new publishing methodology that Stickler himself helped create. Now, he shares this innovative business model with other authors through his company, Leadership Books, a specialty publisher and online book retailer that addresses the specific needs of nonfiction authors in the worlds of business, finance, and faith. In a conversation with Higher Education Digest, Mike Stickler talks about the print media industry, the publishing market, his writing career, and many more. 

What is the status of the book publishing market with the surge of digital media? Is print dying and what is your take on it?

The truth is, –print is not dying. It’s holding steady and is in growth. It’s a misconception that print media is on the way out and electronic media is taking over. In fact, electronics, especially eBooks, have plateaued, according to various reports, to somewhere around 15% to 17% of the total book market. And it’s just stalled or plateaued there electronically. What is growing is audiobooks. They’re growing quite rapidly and because of that we need to pay a lot more attention to it.

But at this point, people still have chosen print. In other words, consumers want a paper book; a physical book they can hold, read, and digest. There’s a tangible connection there that they much prefer. And, in my opinion, the market is showing that over and over again. So overall, while the current status of the book world remains strong, nevertheless, there always remains some threats ahead that we will need to focus on.

How can book publishers stay competitive in this market? And what are your secrets to success?

One of the secrets to being a successful book publisher is to recognize the many changes the industry has gone through over the last 20 years. Some attribute the changes to the rise of ebooks, but it’s not that. What’s really changed is the consumer has decided to buy books online. And that’s what’s really driving the market away. Bookstores are closing and have been closing for several years now, for at least ten years. And COVID killed off a whole bunch more independent one.

As we all know, Barnes and Noble goes in and out of bankruptcy as their overall retail sales are low, but book sales remain high. So why is that? Well, it’s because people have decided they are going to buy books online through online retailers, like Amazon. There’s no argument for that. And they buy books based on recommendations from friends and family and colleagues who say, ‘man, this was a really good book! You should read it!’ That’s how books are selling, to break it down in the most basic way. 

Now, with marketing you can support and encourage the customer’s decision-making process by hitting target markets, which is something we really weren’t able to do until about five years ago, that is, –to really target and dig deep into a particular market to sell a book. But the overall secret to success in this business is to first recognize where and how people are buying books and then to market the books you’re selling. Those are the first keys to succeeding.

What innovative publishing and marketing methodologies have you created at leadership books? Are they helping the budding authors? 

At Leadership Books publishers, we mostly publish nonfiction books and books that are generally in the areas of business, finance, thought leadership, and faith leadership. Most all those style books are typically driven by authors who have a larger business model. Maybe they’re a consultant or a speaker. Maybe they have a mastermind course or large consultancy business. So, they’re using their books to build up their other businesses and grow their brand name to impact their larger business model. 

In fact, what we’ve done here is create a retargeting methodology of marketing to the book buyers. And, as far as I know, we’re the only publisher that is doing it like this. Which means, once somebody buys a book, we’re able to capture all the purchasing data from that book buyer and then retarget them with soft marketing invitations about additional offers, connecting the buyer/reader to the author’s other businesses, i.e., consulting business, speaking engagements, teaching classes, –whatever that looks like, and then we actually arrange a meeting between that offer and a prospective client.

And the result is clear. It’s really helped drive growth to our author’s greater business model. And I think that’s probably the most unique thing that we do here at Leadership Books.

Your book went from being “unscalable” according to the publisher, to selling more than 300,000 copies. Tell us more about that incident. How did you make it?

It’s really just basic marketing. And I did it all online. And again, because of the methodology, the way we do things, it was an easy approach. 

Let me explain. In this case, what we did is this. We found influencers of that market, or people who influenced the people who are the actual book buyers. And we gave them all a free book. 

And then we put together a retargeting campaign through email and social media and whatnot that came back and said, –‘did you like the book?’ ‘Would you like to get some more of these books for your organization?’ 

And so, by giving away one book to a target market of consumer influencers, we were able to acquire an entire marketplace by grass roots, first-hand word of mouth.

How? Because the influencers enjoyed the book so much that they turned around and started buying books for their friends, organizations, and co-workers. So, all of a sudden, we had orders coming in for 100-1000 books at a time. And that’s how you sell 300,000 copies of your book. It’s all about working an approach using that methodology. 

When did you first realize that you wanted to be a writer, and how long did it take for you to write your first book?

This is funny, but I didn’t realize I wanted to be a writer until my sixteenth book. I really was very much a reluctant writer. I felt writing was necessary to establish my bonafides. So many people feel it’s your fat business card that you give to people to show that you’re a published author and you have credibility.

I fell into that whole trap. And it wasn’t until my sixteenth book that I changed. Because the first fifteen books didn’t go anywhere. And when I got to the sixteenth, I recognized the need to take it to the next level.

So, I got myself a coach and really poured my life into the next four books. And because I did, those books took off. And that was really the impetus of it. 

I was a reluctant writer. I didn’t like or enjoy it. I even found it cumbersome and difficult to do. But once I got past all that, it went well for me.

What was the most surprising thing you learned in creating your books? 

My writing coach at the time was Art Ritter, who is the COO of Leadership Books now. The most surprising and important thing I learned was from Art when he finally got it into my head that writing a book is a team sport, and not an individual sport. I came to understand that my job was just to be a storyteller, something I was familiar with doing as a public speaker.

Once I got a hold of that and realized that my main role was to be the storyteller, while his role was to help shape the book and the overall manuscript development, things fell into place. I then learned other editors did line-item edits or copywriting edits, still other editors did proof reading or cold reading. Then we had designers, and all these different people were a part of the team. So, all I had to do to be a great writer was do my part and be a great storyteller. 

Once I recognized my role as a storyteller, something I was very comfortable with, I stopped worrying about how the sentence structure was set up. I stopped worrying about whether I use grammar properly. I stopped doing all that, and just focused on the story, and that made all the difference in the world. 

I also worked on increasing the authenticity, passion, pain, and emotions into the stories. Then I worked with the rest of the team to perfect it. And that’s what made the difference between the fifteenth book and the sixteenth, and the remainder of books after that.

From a publisher’s point of view, what are the most critical elements of good writing? What would be your suggestions for authors approaching leadership books? 

Well, most authors approach book writing like I did. In other words, most authors see it as writing something they think people want to hear or know. So, what we mostly get is the six keys to the ten tipping points to whatever that is. What they’re really doing is translating key teaching points, thought leadership points into a book, which makes it a very instructional book.

Quite frankly, it means their book is more textbook than reading book. And the truth is that people remember things much better if their imagination is engaged, if they can place themselves in the incident, if they can resonate or identify with the story or the character in the story or the author of the story. What I mean by resonate, is when the reader thinks to himself, ‘oh, yeah, man, I have been there, I know exactly what he’s talking about.’ That’s what makes a page turner, causing people to continue to read the book to the very end and more importantly, helps them remember the material that you’ve worked so hard to teach them, while enjoying the process itself!

Most of the time, people present a book to me that is sterile and boring. Usually by the time I get to the third chapter, I’m kind of like, ‘yeah, I heard that before.’ And what it typically does is lack storytelling and that all important Arc of change that keeps the reader engaged. So, that’s what we look for. The difference between a good book that will probably be well received, and a great book depends on whether you want to write a great book or not.

How many ideas are just waiting to be written by you in the coming years? Can you tell us a couple of them?

So, my last book was a fiction book called Ghost Patriot. And what I didn’t realize at the time was that writing a fiction book is advanced authorship. In other words, it was much more complicated and difficult to write than I anticipated. And I probably couldn’t have written it five years ago, not at the quality that I wrote this one.

And yet, I had so much fun writing it, because it forced me to be ultra-creative and think through the characters. Also, the storyline is wide open, along with the dialogue, plot and ending, so, I will probably be writing fiction for a while. While nonfiction is easier to write because you’re just reporting on the things you want to report on, –what somebody did or what you learned or those kinds of things. And so, you have a pretty good point of reference. Fiction writing is creating a whole cloth and still making it so powerfully believable that people think it’s true.

And in so many cases in fiction books, it happened! And that’s the challenge I’ve enjoyed and why I like writing fiction books. Ghost Patriot was intentionally written to be a series, and so I’m starting to work on the next book in the series which I’m calling Patriot Create Insurrection, which will be a kind of ‘follow along.’ 

What I’ve done in each of those books is I’ve taken actual things that have happened in our country and wrote a fictional story about them as if they went a different way, a more tragic way, honestly. And the book tells the story that answers the questions, –how did the country respond? How did the citizenry respond? While making an adventure out of the story events yet using it all to challenge the reader’s world view or political perspective.

I found that to be such great fun, absolutely. So, if you’re politically or religiously conservative or liberal, you’re going to be challenged by this book. If you like adventure, you’re going to love the book. However, if you’re really into romance novels, you’ll probably not like it.

So, that’s what I’m currently writing and what I’m enjoying, and thankfully it’s been really well received. I expect I’ll be writing that series for a while. Okay.

As an entrepreneur, publisher and author, what challenges do you want to bring into people’s lives to help their families and communities?

Well, really, I’ll say as a publisher and an author, what I really want to see is people’s lives actually changed for the better, –by the books that we publish, whether it’s their family, their business, their community, or in their church. I wish for them to find improvement points from the kind of books that we publish, –that they would be able to clearly understand what those improvement points are so they can act upon them, and receive the benefits for their lives, which in turn makes our families, our businesses, our communities, and our entire culture better. That’s what I want, –is to see the kinds of books that we are publishing really making an impact on people’s lives.

There’s nothing better than when you read an endorsement after somebody read the book and said, ‘this book was life changing to me.’ Or ‘As soon as I was done with it, I bought six more copies for my colleagues.’ Or , ‘I sat down to read it, and the next thing I know, it was after midnight when I finished the book, because I couldn’t put it down.’

Or as one person said in one of my endorsements after reading Ghost Patriot, – ‘Riveting.’ So those are the kinds of books I want to publish to make a difference in people’s lives for the better.

And as an entrepreneur, I practice what I preach in leadership and hire the quality of people inside leadership books to draw them out into becoming better people all the way around, not just better at their job, but better human beings. I try to facilitate what they call an ethos, E-T-H-O-S, which is a kind of culture, a living culture inside leadership books so that everybody enjoys what they do, feels responsible for what they do, and feels part of the overall mission.

What projects or goals are you working on or leading currently? 

Although most of the team doesn’t know it yet, in 2023 my wife Faith and I are going to work on supporting literacy programs because we’re concerned about the future of America, North America, because the fact is that statistics are very clear stating adults 29 or younger have never read a book, or very seldom read. And next year they’re going to be 30. The year after that, they’re going to be 31. Pretty soon they’re going to be 50.

And something I’ve thought a lot about is that we have not, as a culture, instilled in our children the love of reading. It probably started with my generation, and we didn’t pass it on. What’s made me think a lot about this is that I have grandchildren now, and my grandchildren love to read.

The reason they love to read is because their parents built a culture of reading. How? My children limit their children’s screen time, including their television, and those other kinds of entertainment, and purposely push a book in front of them and say, ‘read this as much as you want to read.’ You can do that. And it’s created three little grandchildren of mine who are passionate about reading and love to read books.

My oldest grandson has, by far, read more books than most adults today, and he’s only 14 years old. I think that passion for reading books needs to be reinstalled back into our children of this modern generation. Not only literacy in the sense of teaching children to read, although that’s necessary, but developing a passion to love to read is something else altogether. And that’s what Faith and I are going to focus on in our philanthropy going forward. 

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