Hidden from view for the vast majority of public is a little page that explains the complicated methodology behind the famous New York Times Bestseller list. And buried mid-way through that explanation is an unusual phrase. It says, with matter-of-factness, “among the categories not actively tracked at this time” by the editors at the Times are so-called “perennial sellers.”
To people not in the industry, this is a strange phrase. Perennial sellers? Like books about flowers? What does that mean?
In fact, it’s an industry term for perhaps the most important type of book in publishing, one that some estimate is responsible for the vast majority of the revenue for the $70 billion dollar book industry: the titles published long ago that keep selling without fanfare and without attention. That’s what a perennial seller is: a product that keeps reaching new customers week in and week out, year in and year out.
Nor is publishing the only industry that has this trend or this concept. In 2015, “catalog albums”—albums 18 months or older—outsold all new releases. In Hollywood, it’s the “library” that funds the massive budgets of the blockbusters that come out each year (and keep the companies in business when the majority of these movies inevitably lose money).
Perennial sellers are books like What To Expect When You’re Expecting, Good to Great, The Great Gatsby, movies like “The Shawshank Redemption” or “A Christmas Story,” or songs like “Happy Birthday” or “Candle In The Wind.” It’s products like Red Wing’s 1907 Work Boot (which confusingly only dates back to the 1950s) or restaurants like The Original Pantry, which has been open every single day since 1924.
If you think I am overstating the economic impact of perennial sellers in these billion dollar industries, a few examples are illustrative: The later Harper Lee’s will contained a clause which stated that her estate would no longer consent to mass market paperback editions of To Kill A Mockingbird. This edition was so profitable and such a reliable sales engine for Hachette that sent executives panicking about how they might replace it. Or look at this list of the bestselling rock albums of 2015. Notice something? Of the 20 albums, a full 10 of them are more than a year old—in fact, the average age of the album on the list is 10 years (and the oldest is 40). Or take the estate of Michael Jackson, which was valuable less because of his music but because of the music of other artists. His empire of copyrights and music libraries, which he bought up over the course of his career, generates hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue to this day. Most famously, he bought the rights to the Beatles catalog—partly because he believed it was worth more than the Beatles did (a decision they came to regret).
Jay Z once rapped, “Own your masters, slaves!” Why? Because that’s where the money is in the music business. As I tell authors and creatives, forget creating a bestseller. Create a perennial seller. Because perennial sellers are the revenue engines of the creative industry. They are like gold or land—they go up year after year—they pay like annuities.
But the paradox of this economic fact is that almost no one in the music, movie or publishing industry focuses on this. As Seth Godin once observed, “Book publishers make more than 90% of their profit from books they published more than six months ago. And yet they put 2% of their effort into promoting and selling those books. Editors, agents, salespeople all focus on what’s new, instead of what works.”
They seem to think that perennial sellers are created by accident. Or that because they are dependable, they’re boring. So agents and execs chase the next big hit, the next big star and try to get lucky. They chase a dragon, an addiction that, in the end, bankrupts most of them.
As mind-bendingly stupid as this is, it’s also good news.
Because it means that if you ignore that noise and create something that lasts, you can write your own ticket. It also means there are all sorts of lessons to be learned from the classics that the so-called experts have deliberately declined to learn.
With my own books, I try to follow Jeff Bezos’s advice: Focus on the things that don’t change. As the founder of Amazon, he knows a thing or two about what customers really want. It’s not what’s new. It’s what works. What’s best. What fills their needs. What’s cheap and accessible. And this was true 100 years ago and it will be true in a 100 years.
The fact that my clients have sold north of 10 million books isn’t what I’m proud of. It’s that they continue to sell hundreds of thousands of copies each year. That several of the books I’ve written have debuted on bestseller lists is great—I love having a framed copy of the Wall Street Journal on the wall in my office. That they aren’t on the list this week or that week? I don’t care. What really matters to me is that the books have continued to sell. (My book The Obstacle is the Way will sell more copies in 2017 than it did in 2016, and sold more in 2016 than it did in 2015 and 2014). That’s what being perennial is about.
This wasn’t easy to do, but I have done it. Not once, but several times now. And so have thousands of other creators, building their careers around timeless principles and avoiding the toxic advice and fads of their industries.
In the next couple weeks and months you’re going to see me writing and talking about this concept a lot so I wanted to take a minute first to define my terms. I also wanted to explain why it matters, even if you’re not an author or a musician or a movie producer.
No one sits down to make something hoping it will disappear. No, the whole point is to stand the test of time. And that’s true whether you’re building a small side hustle or opening a coffee shop or putting on a play. The reason you get up each morning and throw yourself into it—in a way that you would never throw yourself into a memo at the office or another conference call—is because you believe in what you’re doing and you know that there is something special about it.
Success then isn’t something you’re after for a month or two. You want to be evergreen. To sell for decades. To be classic. To make the backlist. To be a perennial seller.
Because that’s where the impact is, in reaching people, and lasting.
On June 6th 1944, Dwight D. Eisenhower pulled off the most stunning and impressive invasion in military history. A total of 156,000 Allied troops invaded the beaches of Normandy and by June 11 more than 326,000 troops had crossed with over 100,000 tons of military equipment. One of those men was my grandfather.
Eisenhower’s critics often harped that he was more of an organizer than a leader. But it was in the days after D-Day that Eisenhower illustrated one of the most profound and clear moments of leadership — an example that entrepreneurs can follow.
After their hard-won initial successes, the Allied troops became bogged down in the hedgerows of France. These obstacles — half earth, half hedge, sometimes 15 feet tall — plus the reality of coordinating that many men and so much material created a temporary stall, allowing the Germans to wage a series of counteroffensives — a final blitzkrieg of some 200,000 men.
The German blitzkrieg was one of the most intimidating and shocking developments in modern warfare. At the beginning of World War II, columns of Panzer tanks rushed into Poland, the Netherlands, Belgium and France with devastating results and little opposition. In most cases, the commanders confronted by the Germans simply surrendered rather than face what felt to them like an invincible, indefatigable monster bearing down.
The blitzkrieg strategy was designed to exploit the flinch. The Allied forces would collapse at the sight of what appeared to be overwhelming force. Its success depended completely on such a response. The military strategy worked because the set-upon troops saw the offensive force as an enormous obstacle.
That was reaction of the Allied forces to the blitzkrieg for most of the war. They could see only its power and their vulnerability. How could they stop it? And when that final blitzkrieg came, would it throw them back to the very beaches they had just purchased at such high cost?
Eisenhower answered that question unequivocally. Striding into a hastily assembled conference room at the Malta headquarters, the American general made an announcement: He would have no more of this quivering timidity. “The present situation is to be regarded as opportunity for us and not disaster,” he said. “There will be only cheerful faces at this conference table.”
Eisenhower was able to see a tactical solution that had been there the entire time: The Nazi strategy carried its own destruction.
Finally, the Allies were able see the opportunity inside the obstacle rather than simply an obstacle threatening them. As long as the Allies could bend and not break, more than 50,00 Germans could be sent rushing headfirst into a net — or a “meat grinder,” as General George Patton eloquently put it.
The Battle of the Bulge and the previous Battle of the Falaise Pocket — which the Allies initially feared were major reversals and the end of their momentum — set the stage for stunning triumphs. By allowing a forward wedge of the German army to pass through and then attacking from the sides, the Allies encircled the enemy completely from the rear. The invincible, penetrating thrust of the German Panzers became not just impotent but suicidal — a textbook example of why flanks should never be left exposed.
Eisenhower’s important decision is a moment I think of often. My grandfather, who landed at Normandy two days after D-Day, experienced these initial setbacks only to later fight at Battle of the Bulge, which resulted in his being awarded the French Croix de Guerre. Eisenhower’s decision reminds me of the role that perceptions play in the success or failures of those in opposition.
It’s one thing to not be overwhelmed by obstacles — to not become discouraged or upset. Few people can do this. But only after controlling one’s emotions, seeing objectively and standing steadily does the next step becomes possible: a mental flip, to look not at the obstacle but at the opportunity within.
As Laura Ingalls Wilder put it, “There is good in everything, if only we look for it.”
Yet many people close their eyes to the gift. Imagine being in Eisenhower’s shoes, with an army racing closer and only impending defeat seemingly in view. How much longer would the war continue? How many more lives would be lost?
Or imagine being Thomas Edison when his entire research and production facility became consumed in a terrible fire? Instead of feeling heartbroken, Edison calmly but quickly proceeded to the fire. “Go get your mother and all her friends,” he told his son. “They’ll never see a fire like this again.”
Let these stories put in perspective the next computer glitch, employee error, rude phone call or missed workplace target.
The hard thing about hard things is that people often make them worse by seeing the disaster and not the opportunity presented. The danger lies in assuming that things need to be a certain way. Businesspeople assume that they’re at a disadvantage or that it would be a waste of time to pursue an alternate course. In reality it’s all fair game and every situation is an opportunity to act.
Blessings and burdens are not mutually exclusive. It’s a lot more complicated.
Try to remember, in moments like these, that a second act comes along with these unfortunate situations.
Sports psychologists recently did a study of elite athletes caught up with adversity or serious injury. Initially, each reported having a sense of isolation, emotional disruption and doubts about their athletic ability. Yet afterward, they reported having a desire to help others, added perspective and a realization of their strengths. The fear and doubt encountered during the injury turned into their realization of greater abilities.
It’s a beautiful idea. Psychologists call it adversarial and post-traumatic growth. “That which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” is not a cliché but fact.
The struggle against an obstacle inevitably propels the fighter to a new level of functioning. The extent of the struggle determines the extent of the growth. The obstacle is an advantage, not adversity.
So this is what can be learned from Eisenhower about any situation bearing down right now. Be the one to stride into the conference room and make it clear: This will be an opportunity and not disaster. Be the first cheerful face at the conference table.
If there is one thing the great men of history have in common it’s this: books. They read, a lot. Theodore Roosevelt carried a dozen books with him on his perilous exploration of the River of Doubt (including the Stoics). Lincoln read everything he could get his hands on (often recording passages he liked on spare boards because he didn’t have paper). Napoleon had a library of some 3,500 books with him at St. Helena, and before that had a traveling library he took on campaigns. The writer Ambrose Bierce, the Civil War veteran and an underrated contemporary of Mark Twain once remarked, “I owe more to my father’s books than to any other educational and directive influence.”
The point is: Successful people read. A lot. And what about us young, wildly ambitious people who want to follow in their footsteps? We have that hunger, that drive, and desire. The question is: What should we read? What will help us on the path laid out for us — and all that it entails?
Now a lot of the right recommendations are domain specific. If you want to be a writer, there are certain books you should read. If you want to be an economist, well, there are genres you need to deep dive into. If you want to be a soldier, there are others too. Still, there are many books that every person who aspires to leadership, mastery, influence, power, and success should read.
These are the books that prepare you for the top, and also warn against its dangers. Some are historical. Some are fiction. Some are epics and classics. These are the books that everyone must have in his library. Good luck and good reading.
The Power Brokerby Robert A. Caro. It took me 15 days to read all 1,165 pages of this monstrosity that chronicles the rise of Robert Moses. I was 20 years old. It was one of the most magnificent books I’ve ever read. Moses built just about every other major modern construction project in New York City. The public couldn’t stop him, the mayor couldn’t stop him, the governor couldn’t stop him, and only once could the President of the United States stop him. But ultimately, you know where the cliché must take us. Robert Moses was an asshole. He may have had more brain, more drive, more strategy than other men, but he did not have more compassion. And ultimately power turned him into something monstrous.
Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller Sr.by Ron Chernow. I found Rockefeller to be strangely stoic, incredibly resilient, and, despite his reputation as a robber baron, humble and compassionate. Most people get worse as they get successful, many more get worse as they age. In fact, Rockefeller began tithing his money with his first job and gave more of it away as he became successful. He grew more open-minded the older he became, more generous, more pious, more dedicated to making a difference. And what made Rockefeller stand apart as a young man was his ability to remain cool-headed in adversity and grounded in success, always on an even keel, never letting excessive passion and emotion hold sway over him.
The Kid Stays in the Picture: A Notorious Lifeby Robert Evans. If you’re specifically looking to make your way in showbiz, this is the book you have to read. It’s the rags-to-riches, rise and fall and rise of Robert Evans, one of the most notorious figures in Hollywood. From pants salesman to running Paramount Pictures (and producing The Godfather), his story is the one that everyone who heads to L.A. hopes to have. It was one of the first books I read when I started working in the business. I think it shows you how far hustle and hype and heat contribute to success. And how they can also lead to your downfall and exile.
Empire State of Mind: How Jay-Z Went from Street Corner to Corner Officeby Zack O’Malley Greenburg. This is a biography that also functions as a business book. It shows how as a young man in Brooklyn, Jay applied hustling techniques to the music business and eventually built his empire. A true hustler, he never did only one thing — from music to fashion to sports, Jay dominated each field, always operating on the same principles. As he puts it, “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man!” And related to that, I also recommend The 50th Law, which tells the stories of many such individuals and will stick with you just as long.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haleyby Malcolm X. I forget who said it but I heard someone say that Catcher in the Rye was to young white boys what TheAutobiography of Malcolm X was to young black boys. Personally, I prefer that latter over the former. I would much rather read about and emulate a man who is born into adversity and pain, struggles with criminality, does prison time, teaches himself to read through the dictionary, finds religion, and then becomes an activist for Civil Rights before being gunned down by his former supporters when he tempers the hate and anger that had long defined parts of his message. Booker T. Washington’s memoirUp from Slavery and Frederick Douglass’s epic narrative are both incredibly moving and inspiring as well.
Personal History by Katharine Graham. If one thing is certain about your path to success, it is that it will be fraught with adversity. Fate will intervene in ways you would never expect. Which is why you absolutely must read Graham’s memoir. After the tragic suicide of her husband, who ran the The Washington Post and which they both owned, Katharine Graham, at age 46 and a mother of three, with no work experience to speak of, found herself overseeing the Post through its most tumultuous and difficult years (think Watergate and the Pentagon papers). Eventually, she became one of the best CEOs of the 20th century, period. She pulled through and endured with a strong sense of purpose, fortitude, and strength that we can all learn from. In similar regard, read Eleanor Roosevelt’s two-volume biography to see how she managed to turn what was at the time a meaningless position in the White House into a powerful platform for change and influence.
How-to & Advice
The 48 Laws of Powerby Robert Greene. It is impossible to describe this book and do it justice. But if you plan on living life on your terms, climbing as high as you’d like to go, and avoid being controlled by others, then you need to read this book. Robert is an amazing researcher and storyteller — he has a profound ability to explain timeless truths through story and example. You can read the classics and not always understand the lessons. But if you read the The48 Laws, I promise you will leave not just with actionable lessons but an indelible sense of what to do in many trying and confusing situations. As a young person, one of the most important laws to master is to “always say less than necessary.” Always ask yourself: “Am I saying this because I want to prove how smart I am or am I saying this because it needs to be said?” Don’t forget The Prince, The Art of War, and all the other required readings in strategy. And of course, it doesn’t matter how good you are at the game of power, without Mastery it’s worthless.
Steal Like An Artistby Austin Kleon. Part of ambition is modeling yourself after those you’d like to be like. Austin’s philosophy of ruthlessly stealing and remixing the greats might sound appalling at first but it is actually the essence of art. You learn by stealing, you become creative by stealing, you push yourself to be better by working with these materials. Austin is a fantastic artist, but most importantly he communicates the essence of writing and creating art better than anyone else I can think of. It is a manifesto for any young, creative person looking to make his mark. Pair up with Show Your Workwhich is also excellent.
Status Anxietyby Alain de Botton. Ah yes, the drive that we all have to be better, bigger, have more, be more. Ambition is a good thing, but it’s also a source of great anxiety and frustration. In this book, philosopher Alain de Botton studies the downsides of the desire to “be somebody” in this world. How do you manage ambition? How do you manage envy? How do you avoid the traps that so many other people fall into? This book is a good introduction into the philosophy and psychology of just that.
What I Learned Losing a Million Dollarsby Jim Paul and Brendan Moynihan.There are lots of books on aspiring to something. Very little are from actual people who aspired, achieved, and lost it. With each and every successful move that he made, Jim Paul, who made it to Governor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, was convinced that he was special, different, and exempt from the rules. Once the markets turned against his trades, he lost it all — his fortune, job, and reputation. That’s what makes this book a critical part in understanding how letting arrogance and pride get to your head is the beginning of your unraveling. Learn from stories like this instead of by your own trial and error. Think about that next time you believe you have it all figured out. (Tim Ferriss recently produced the audiobook version of this, which I recommend.)
Philosophy & Classical Wisdom
Meditationsby Marcus Aurelius. I would call this the greatest book ever written. It is the definitive text on self-discipline, personal ethics, humility, self-actualization, and strength. Bill Clinton reads it every year, and so have countless other leaders, statesmen, and soldiers. It is a book written by one of the most powerful men who ever lived on the lessons that power, responsibility, and philosophy teach us. This book will make you a better person and better able to manage the success you desire.
Cyropaediaby Xenophon (a more accessible translation can be found in Xenophon’s Cyrus The Great: The Arts of Leadership and War). Xenophon, like Plato, was a student of Socrates. For whatever reason, his work is not nearly as famous, even though it is far more applicable. This book is the best biography written of Cyrus the Great, one of history’s greatest leaders and conquerors who is considered the “father of human rights.” There are so many great lessons in here and I wish more people would read it. Machiavelli learned them, as this book inspired The Prince.
Lord Chesterfield’s Letters by Lord Chesterfield. Just like Meditations, which was never intended for publication, this is a private correspondence between Lord Chesterfield and his son Philip. We should probably be happy that this guy was not our father — but we can be glad that his wisdom has been passed down. I have not marked as many pages in a book as I have in this one in quite some time. Of course, the classic in this genre of letters is Letters From A Self Made Merchant To His Son. Dating back to 1890, these are preserved letters from John “Old Gorgon” Graham, a self-made millionaire in Chicago, and his son who is coming of age and entering the family business. His letters are an incisive and edifying tutorial in entrepreneurship, responsibility, and leadership. Rilke’sLetters To A Young Poet is also moving and profound. Addressed to a 19-year-old former student of his who sought Rilke’s critique, these short letters are less concerned with poetry and more about what it means to live a meaningful and fulfilling life as an artist and as a person.
Plutarch’s Lives (I & II)by Plutarch. There are few books more influential and ubiquitous in Western culture than Plutarch’s histories. Aside from being the basis of much of Shakespeare, he was one of Montaigne’s favorite writers. His biographies and sketches of Pericles, Demosthenes, Themistocles, Cicero, Alexander the Great, Caesar, and Fabius are all excellent — and full of powerful anecdotes. These are moral biographies, intended to teach lessons about power, greed, honor, virtue, fate, duty, and all the important things they forget to mention in school.
The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architectsby Giorgio Vasari. Basically a friend and peer of Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Raphael, Titian, and all the other great minds of the Renaissance, Giorgio Vasari sat down in 1550 and wrote biographical sketches of the people he knew or had influenced him. Unless you have a degree in Art History it’s unlikely that anyone pushed this book at you and that’s a shame. These great men were not just artists, they were masters of the political and social worlds they lived in. There are so many great lessons about craft and psychology within this book. The best part? It was written by someone who actually knew what he was talking about, not some art snob or critic; he was an actual artist and architect of equal stature to the people he was documenting.
The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi. Widely held as a classic, this book is much more than a manifesto and manual on swordsmanship and martial arts. It’s about the mindset, the discipline, and the perception necessary to win in life or death situations. As a swordsman, Musashi fought mostly by himself, for himself. His wisdom, therefore, is mostly internal. He tells you how to out-think and out-move your enemies. He tells you how to fend for yourself and live by a code. And isn’t that precisely what so many of us need help with every day?
This Boy’s Lifeby Tobias Wolff and Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Windowby Tetsuko Kuroyanagi. If you wanted to read a book to become a successful, well-adjusted person, you probably could not do worse than Catcher in the Rye. Tobias Wolff’s memoir is a far better choice for the young man struggling with who he is and who he wants to be. I also suggest pairing it with the female counterpart: Totto-Chan. The latter is the memoir and biography of one of the most famous and successful women in Japan (akin to Oprah). It’s an inspiring little story of someone who didn’t fit in, who always saw the world differently (sound familiar?). But instead of making her hard, it made her empathetic and caring and kind — to say nothing of creative and unique. (The former is actually fiction but based on a true story. The latter is a true story but reads essentially like fiction).
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitzby Mordecai Richler. Duddy is the ultimate Jewish hustler, always working, always scheming, always looking for a deal, and looked down upon by everyone for his limitless ambition. Duddy never stops in his pursuit to acquire real estate in order to “be somebody” — never forgetting his grandfather’s maxim that “a man without land is nobody.” Except it doesn’t work out like he planned. From this book, you learn that the hustler — the striver — if he cannot prioritize and if he does not have principles, loses everything in the end.
What Makes Sammy Run by Budd Schulberg. A composite figure based on some of Hollywood’s first moguls, the book chronicles the rise and fall of Sammy Glick, the rags-to-riches boy from New York who makes his way through deception and betrayal. Essentially, Sammy is your Ari Gold without the slightest bit of human decency. He’s running from self-reflection, from meaning. It’s fear knocking on the door that he’s frantically trying to block with accomplishments. Sammy is an accomplished man, but not a great man — that takes ethics, purpose, and principles. All The King’s Menby Robert Penn Warren is another similar story — a sort of fictional version of The Power Broker — that tells of the effect that power and drive can have.
The Disenchantedby Budd Schulberg and The Crack Up& The Great Gatsbyby F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Disenchanted and The Crack Up are both about the fall of F. Scott Fitzgerald, one from the first person perspective and the other from the fictional eyes of a friend watching his hero fall to pieces — just like the story of Gatsby itself. The Crack Up is a collection of essays, many of which are off-topic, but they had to be — a person cannot look so directly and honestly on their own broken soul without turning away at times. Fitzgerald’s Crack Up has always been illustrative to me and it’s something I’ve thought a lot about. I call it the Second Act Fallacy, and you pity and feel for a man with so much talent and wisdom who was helpless to apply it to himself.
Liber medicina animi — a book is the soul’s medicine.
Of course, the books listed here are by no means all you need to be healthy or fulfilled. It’s just the beginning. But they do make a solid start to your library.
Enjoy and be careful out there. It’s a perilous road to the top.