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Examining Failure: Why my new book bombed

3267164904_5840eafb3d_bDoing everything better includes failing better. Failing better means a couple of things:

  • Accepting failure with poise
  • Avoiding similar failures in the future by examining why the endeavor failed
  • Understanding that failing doesn’t mean I’m a hunk of crap who can’t do anything right1

For that reason, I thought it might be worth taking a few minutes to explore why my new book completely tanked.2

Why the book failed

Near as I can tell, the primary reasons The Art and Science of Vaping rolled clumsily off of the carrier and into the briny deep are…

  1. I had—and still have—zero credibility among the target audience. Not because I don’t know what I’m talking about when it comes to the subject matter, but rather because I haven’t spent any time running in the same circles as they do. As far as the vaping community is concerned, I’m just another nameless bloke who made a thing.
  2. I did very little to market or promote the product before launching it.
  3. I had no clue how many of the folks who read my stuff would be interested in a book about vaping (I should have asked).

None of these factors guarantee a given product will fail, but they certainly increase the odds that it will (sometimes by a whole lot).

Building credibility would have taken a long, long time. I’ve developed a very modest following online, but breaking into a new market from scratch is difficult unless you have massive reach. Even then, I’d guess it would not be easy. This problem is made doubly difficult by the fact that my first foray into the online vaping world involved asking folks for money.

Marketing the product before launch would have given me a good indication that, among those folks who read my stuff, there probably wouldn’t be much interest in the product. This lack of interest likely would have been more evident if I’d surveyed my readers and customers beforehand.

Bottom line: very few people who know me are interested in the topic and those who are interested in the topic don’t know me. In essence, I walked into a huge car show and tried to sell everybody organic laundry detergent made specifically for a certain type of area rug that most people don’t own.

A Positive Spin

In the interest of not sounding like a complete Eeyore over here, there are a few things about this whole process that I appreciate.3

First, it feels really good to have written and shipped a second book.

Second, the book is good. There, I said it. I’m proud of what I made.

Finally, the book is out there and isn’t going anywhere. Worst case, it makes zero dollars for the rest of its life. I suspect it’ll sell at least a little bit every month, which will help a little bit. And who knows: maybe it’ll gain some traction down the road.

Lessons learned

This launch did a ton to inform my thinking on future products. In fact, I’m still planning on launching new things in the coming year that don’t directly involve the kind of thing I’ve written about in the past. Now I know that part of planning such products is to figure out if anybody is going to buy them before I make them. It sounds so simple, really.

“If you build it, they will come” is a nice idea, but boy howdy I’ve learned my lesson.

Next steps

Having realized the extent to which this product failed, I’m left with essentially two options:

  1. Try to market the living pudding out of the book and hope the right people see it and that folks start buying it (or talking about it, at least).
  2. Leave it be and move on to the next thing.

I’m going with option 2. An effective marketing effort would require time and cash I’m unwilling to devote to it, at this point. Working to turn this thing around would be misspent time that’s better used doing other things.

Would love to hear what you guys think about this. Comment below, if you like.

(Photo by Jeramey Jannene)


  1. This might just be me betraying a huge insecurity of mine, but I’m going to go ahead and assume that conflating failure with personal indictment isn’t a problem unique to me. ↩
  2. As I type this, the book has sold about 40 copies in just under two weeks. Almost half of those sales took place on launch day. ↩
  3. This is Eeyore.
    Eeyore

    Image from Wikipedia. ↩

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Click Here to Leave a Comment Below 38 comments
Steve Sande

Brett, don’t feel bad. After the success that Erica Sadun and I had with “Talking to Siri” and “Pitch Perfect”, I thought it would be a slam-dunk to sell a lot of copies of anything. E and I both wrote books for the first-gen Kindle Fire, mine being about all the different ways one could set up email accounts on the device. Hers did OK (can’t remember the topic) but wasn’t spectacularly successful, mine totally bombed. I think the big issue was having a book out for a new device that didn’t have much of a following at that point, followed by too focused a topic. No amount of marketing would have helped IMHO.

My next books will all be Star Wars porn fanfic, which will have a huge market…

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Pete

Brett, bought your Evernote e-book because I bought Evernote and needed both guidance and different ways of using it. Unfortunately, I don’t smoke or vape (although I did learn a lot from your occasional tweets and replies regarding vaping). Sounds like there’s more of a need for your expertise regarding Evernote than there is towards vaping. I do enjoy your writing – concise, informative, friendly – maybe you should try children’s literature (grin).

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GregColker

Like Pete, I know you for Evernote Essentials, and though I’ve moved on and mostly use text files and PDFs now, your book was very helpful for getting me to think about digital orginazation in general. (Book idea?) Anyway, I’m also not interested in vaping at all, which is obviously not a surprise to you at this point. I am, however, very impressed with your openness and honesty about this sales failure. (Obviously the rest of it isn’t a failure, you successfully researched, planned, wrote, edited, and built the book.) It seems that for the near future many more people will have read about the failure of the book sales than the book itself, and you knew that before you wrote and published this too; you’ve got guts. Good for you, sir.

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Chris Gottlieb

Hi Brett,

Kudos for being so open about it – I hope the process of writing the post enabled you to break through the inevitable down.

I agree with your decision not to push on, but wanted to make a slightly different point. You have identified that your current audience has little overlap with the vaping community, and that this limited sales. You also have to be careful of “brand contagion”, where respectable family types who need help with Evernote might be less willing to purchase your work on that because they associate you with a pastime they do not necessarily understand.

I would take a slightly different approach – take your name off the vaping book. For negligible future sales it is not worth the brand damage to your Evernote work. You can then reposition the book under a pseudonym, or alternatively approach one of the larger vaping community sites and sell it to them – either outright or licensed, let them put their brand on it and take care of the credibility and marketing for you.

It is confronting to give up the public credit for something you have built independently, but potentially the best bet.

Happy to chat by email if it is helpful
Chris

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    SamitShah

    I second Chris’s suggestion. I was thinking the same approach given the points you made about not having credibility. I haven’t read the book yet but maybe see if you can market it in another incarnation that is more friendly than niche-book reading audiences. Maybe a feature in a magazine or other media?

    Sam

    Reply
      JanetMcBride

      I have to third this suggestion. Before purchasing your EN book, I saw the vaping book in the right margin, and almost reconsidered purchasing the EN book. I purchased because it was so highly recommended by Michael Hyatt. So, as a brand new EN user, the vaping book took away from your credibility as an authority on EN.

      It may be narrow minded, but it’s 2 cents from someone who is pretty mainstream. 🙂 I’ve loved your EN book both for the information and for your voice in it. And, I respect you so much for writing about lessons learned from your “failure!”

      Reply
Roberto

hi Brett,

Sorry to hear about your book, and congratulations for being able to learn fast! 🙂

One idea I’d like to suggest if you don’t mind… have you thought about translating Evernote Essentials to other languages?

I’m a native Spanish speaker, and I use Evernote on a daily basis. I’d love to contribute to such a project!

Just my 5 cents.
Best regards,

Roberto

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VickiVan Blaricum

Hi Brett,

In my opinion, you have a very rare talent for understanding and explaining to the ordinary person how to apply and use technology in their everyday lives— and making it all highly entertaining and enjoyable to read. Most technical writers never make that leap from simply describing features to actually demonstrating how those features can be applied to real-life situations.

For example, without Evernote Essentials, my copy of Evernote would have gone mostly unused. Evernote Essentials helped me understand how to use Evernote, and more importantly, how I could apply it to a whole lot of practical things. I’ve used it to organize my recipe collection, plan and document trips, manage my mother’s medical records, plan and document projects, the list goes on and on. I would feel lost without it!

I would love to have Brett Kelly books that explain how to get the most out of various software packages and devices (such as my iPhone). I know I’ve barely scratched the surface of what my phone can do for me. It probably cannot make cumin waffles but I’m sure it can do a lot more than I realize.

Cheers,
Vicki

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Chad

I bought and read it. Thought it was decent. I liked the link to your website in the book. Just keep marketing yourself and doing what you believe in and what you’re passionate about and you’ll find your own success. (Look at Chris Hardwick)

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ChristineCooper

Brett, some observations…

1. You are an impressive and secure young man (I’m 45 years old and can’t believe I just said that to you lol) to be able to share your pain and catharsis and how it helps you on your journey of self-discovery. It seems to have served you well in the past and will likely do so in the future. Keep it up.

2. I came to know you from your EN book and you responded to a couple of my emails about EN (I’m the minion girl).

3. Full disclosure: I’m a physician and have very strong feelings about self-polluting devices. I will say I have had many patients stop smoking and switch to vaping but I am unclear whether this is a good thing or not. It will be many, many years before we know the long-term consequences of vaping and it may not be near as benign as it outwardly seems. Lungs are not designed to work at their peak through chemical pollution (and, yes, I’m fully aware we are exposed to all kinds of chemical pollution in our lifetimes). I am not surprised that your book was poorly received as there are many individuals much more brilliant than you or I working on vaping research and it is simply too, too early for even them to have an opinion or say anything reasonable regarding it. But all failures are a part of our journey and are frequently times of greatest personal growth. You expressed great insight into this in your above comments. You will succeed at many more things in your lifetime. I am sure of it.

4. I am self-absorbed and hopeful you will re-direct your energies into continued EN teaching-wizardry stuff. I hired someone to come into my home and learn EN and dump my whole paper life into ScanSnap (it’s still a work in progress, should be done in a few weeks) and your book was indispensable prior to doing this. I recognize that EN may be passé to you now and you have other passions you want to pursue and EN may no longer hold your attention and fulfill you in many wondrous ways and I will have no choice but to accept if that is the case. BUT I will say that you do have a gift for teaching EN and are insightful about how to guide others through it’s many layers. I am not computer savvy AT ALL and really need my hand held a lot. If you choose to move forward with unrelated EN endeavors I will support you, but please be a dear and share with me some of the people’s websites I should be looking at and asking questions of. I’ve done plenty of Googling and there’s a lot of crap advice out there. I’m not even tech savvy enough sometimes to know what’s even crap! Now I look at your new website and sometimes I feel like your first book gave me the best Christmas present I’ve ever received but then I started to play with it and realized the instruction book was incomplete and you’re not going to give me the rest of the instructions (I’m not sure you realize how MUCH hand-holding I need) and I’m kind of wandering through EN not sure how to maximize it’s abilities. Their website is so full of techie vocabulary I can barely muddle through it to find answers to my questions. Now, I’m not sure why I feel like you are solely responsible for how I learn and use EN in my life. But there it is.

5. Bravo for putting yourself out there and being the person that you are. Move on from the vaping book. It served it’s purpose in your journey. It’s irrelevant if you make or lose money on it. Don’t throw good energy, money, etc after bad. You are very talented and have the skills to make money in many other ways. My two cents worth…

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TerriSchurter

You might consider taking a look at Jeff Walker’s work at jeffwalker.com

He the creator of the Product Launch Formula. I have not used his formula myself, but I heard about it through Michael Hyatt, and I have a great deal of respect for Michael and his opinions. I am a member of his Platform University, which you also might find interesting.

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    brett

    I’m familiar with Jeff Walker’s PLF (I bought and read his book, Launch, which I enjoyed). Maybe I’ll look into the full course soon.

    And Mr. Hyatt is awesome 🙂

    Reply
John

well Edison said “I haven’t failed, I’ve just found 10,000 things that don’t work” and I guess EN essentials has treated you well enough.

Some years ago it took me several years to give up smoking, and it was a struggle. I don’t know if you become immediately addicted to anything similar, but have no wish to set myself up for it.

I’m from the UK so the demographics may vary. Most people don’t smoke any more, but I’d guess rather more importantly those that still do are pretty unlikely to go buy a self-help book. Whereas I imagine people who have put some work into evernote are doing this from a desire to get better organised so a high percentage of the EN community are likely to be up for it.

…and then you need to get yourself noticed in the community.

Actually I’m not sure about the latter, there are a number of communities, I’m involved in – i’m more likely to evaluate you on what you say and if it helps my understanding, than what your previous history and contribution has been.

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ElizabethRuegg

Brett, I’m sorry about the new book. I love your Evernote work. I’ve not the slightest interest in vaping, so that book wouldn’t appeal to me, but your writing is wonderful, self-effacing, and funny, and there’s not a doubt in my mind that any new work more toward the mainstream (or at least closer to what your Evernote fans know and love you for) would be very successful.

Chin up and move forward. Live and learn, as they say.

Kindly — Elizabeth

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RichardSnide

Brett – I do love your introspection and analysis. I think there is a fundamental problem that you are missing. We all tend to surround ourselves with people who agree with us and act like us. The reality is that most people see vaping as a silly douche-y activity. The market for people interested in vaping and that want to buy a book about it must be ridiculously small.

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JimDundas

Brett, you nailed it in reason #3 for failing. Everyone should do their research first in order to see how large the need is. Don’t spend more than a few hours working on an idea before you do this initial step. Unless you are inventing something entirely new (iPod), your research will tell you whether your efforts will have a chance.

I have not read your book and do not vape. I do consulting and work with a company that sells these products at the retail level. if there is a need for your book it would probably be at the point of sale. That would be a good place to start your research. And think of a pamphlet rather than a book at this contact level.

If I found a large interest, I would be more inclined to work with a manufacturer or with a large retail chain to sell/give away the pamphlet. Have links to your website in the pamphlet (so you can sell the real book) and have a link on the manufacturer’s/retailer’s websites. This gives you legitimacy on a large scale.

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RobertSteed

Took a look at the book on Amazon.

The page that sells this book also lists 10 other Kindle books about vaping under “Customers Who Viewed This Item Also Viewed”. All 10 books were priced for less, typically less than 1/2. Maybe it’s the price point. Hard to be most expensive product.

Also, the Amazon description should have started with your cred as a “how to” author:

Brett Kelly, best selling author “Evernote Essentials” has helped thousands of everyday people make use of the popular Evernote software. He now brings his talents as a how to author to helping both newcomers and experienced vapers in navigating the complexities of vaping.

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KatybethJensen-Ruscitti

I know nothing about vaping – but when your email hit my in-box I immediately clicked over and bought workflow. I trust your writing, you get back to people, and you sign your e-mail “your pal.” If I’d been interested in the topic I would have bought this book without hesitation.

Keep in touch!

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Bradley inBoulder

A good book starts with a hungry market. A need. What need does your new book fill? I would encourage you to go back an analyze the steps you took and what was happening when you wrote your first book. Having said that I think there’s more opportunity in doing more with your first book. Much more. Always have. I think you’re leaving a lot of money on the table assuming one-size-fits-all. I could think of 20 to 25 different versions of your essentials book that would most likely sell more than the original. Think of Ritz Crackers. For decades it was the same ol cracker. Now look at Ritz’s product line. Same idea but in different forms. If you got serious about serving different peoples needs and different markets your original book could have babies and bring in a few million a year. easy. Another example would be Napoleon Hill. One big hit, but serving many different needs. My best to you.

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Myrna Hanson

I have read all the other comments and just about everything has already been mentioned. I quit smoking cold turkey 29 years ago and it was not easy but my health is still very good. I don’t really believe in using too much help with other devices. You have to be committed in order to succeed. I hope you have more success with your next project.

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Jean MacDonald

You said it: you finished another book. Many people dream of being able to say that. And the fact that you can learn so much from the experience, even if it was not a commercial success, is very impressive.

People (myself included) have strong feelings about smoking and now vaping. I would not hesitate to promote your books normally, but I could not do so with this project. I don’t think people who follow me are interested. And I am working with youth, and would not want to appear to endorse vaping to them. So it’s not just that your fans are not interested in the topic, but they don’t think their followers would be interested either, taking away the amazing word-of-mouth that I think your previous work has enjoyed.

I second the suggestion that you branch out from Evernote to other digital topics. You are a great writer and educator. 🙂

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jonathancrawford

It was great reading an honest self appraisal. It’s valuable stuff.

Thanks

Jon

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JohnAtl

I think you’re being a bit hasty in closing the coffin on your book. You don’t have a tie-in to Evernote or another company, so naturally it will take a while for word to spread. As someone who doesn’t vape, I wouldn’t think it would be something one would need a book to do, but again, not my area of expertise.

Assuming your target audience is vaping tobacco, the reason for slow sales may be the very small intersection of these two demographics:
http://oralcancerfoundation.org/tobacco/demographics.php
and
http://oedb.org/ilibrarian/12-stats-on-the-state-of-bookstores-in-america-today/

And if you need some encouragement:
http://zenpencils.com/comic/theodore-roosevelt-the-man-in-the-arena/

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Jeffrey Stormer

What most of the others said!
Your expertise w/ EN needs to be shouted from the rooftops. Only Michael Hyatt’s revised post(s) about tagging have helped/are helping me progress in EN “more”–but that is *only* because of the superlative foundation laid by your book. Hyatt’s tagging ideas would have been completely useless had I not worked your material first.
Having been a technical writer, translating geek into American, I can tell you what a gift it is to make such a diverse subject so accessible.
Like several other commenters, I also believe you have yet to plumb the depths of what you can find in terms of material/profitability in the EN topic arena.
It would honestly be hard for me to be more clueless about “vaping.” Had to look it up online.
I won’t repeat any of the marketing comments, although I agree with quite a few. *Had* to include my endorsement of your EN expertise though!

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    Jeffrey Stormer

    Forgot:
    Was it Henry Ford or Thomas Edison who allegedly said: “There is no such thing as failure, only feedback.”

    Reply
Anne

As a retired physician, I agree 100% with Christine about the issues involved in vaping. It made me hesitate and rethink before going on with your Evernote book. It was suggested you get your name off of it and sell it to one of the vaping companies… less of a loss.

And, as do others, I congratulate your integrity and open vulnerability about this ‘failure’… it’s not how often you fall but how high you bounce back (Zig Zigler)…..

Looking forward to more of your digital adventures and guidance with other new tools as they come down the pike. Also suggest you check out Danny Inny’s new paradigm … and Steve Dotto’s stuff. You could find some good directions there, perhaps? Good luck 🙂

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ElisaPeterson

When I clicked over to your vaping project I was happy to hear about something new (particularly as I was dealing with my neighbours’ second-hand smoke at that moment and wondered how I could introduce them to something less harmful to us all – still haven’t figured that out), but mostly I thought “ewwww.” Probably seems unfair, but I thought a bit less of you after realising you spend a lot of time with something sticking out of your mouth. Your reflections on the failure of your book, above, restore that for me, actually, so I’m not thinking “ewwww” anymore, but I strongly agree with others that you white label this book you’ve written (take your name off of it, remove it from your website) and stick with walking us through tech topics in a not-dumbed-down-but-friendly-and-helpful way. Smoking in any form is, at least from my perspective, brand-damaging, and I don’t wish that on anyone, least of all the person who helped me get so much out of Evernote, a tool I rely on daily.

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Bakari Chavanu

Hey Bret, this is only my second time visiting your site, but your blog post resonates with me. I’m about to publish my first book in the iTunes book store. It’s produced in the iBooks format, so the iTunes store is the only place I can sell it.

My book has a very niche audience, and I’m afraid I’ll be lucky to sell a few hundred copies by the end of the year. I set up a book landing page using Booklaunch.io, and have been mostly tweeting about it. I’ve gotten a few dozen sign ups on Booklaunch, and hopefully a few targeted blog sites will also feature the book when it’s released, which should give me some traffic.

You’re absolutely correct that in order to sell a niche book, you need to connect to the community. But I’m wondering, now that you have the book, can’t you use it to become a part of the community? Are there forums, Twitter lists, and Facebook groups that you might get involved with?

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shawn

My philosophy is that you are a sum of your past experiences. Good, bad, ugly they are all what molds you into who you are. Very good to see you are looking at this as a learning. Keep writing about what you enjoy, do it for yourself. If it is good work it’ll catch on. Take Vivian Maier as an example.
Keep up the good work.

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VictorBocaling

Hi Brett,

Your #3 reason for why the book didn’t do well seems to be the main cause. Research was needed on both the size & needs of the market & your competition (what other books are out there, their topics & the price points).

Your EN fans could have been a good initial source of who is interested in vaping. I noticed a vaping section on your website. This section could have included your ideas or concepts about the book just to test if they are interesting. The section could also be a source of feedback as you do with the EvernoteEssentials section.

As Dennis said, a quick look in Amazon may have given you an idea of what others are publishing, their topics & their prices. The Amazon customer feedbacks could also be another source for ideas.

I really admire the move you made to strike out on your own & follow your passion. You’ve inspired me to take baby steps in that direction & not give a darn that I’m a senior citizen!

I’m sure there’s a ver 2.0 in your vaping book! All the best for future success!

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SuzyOakley

When I read the announcement that you had just written a book about vaping, my heart sank. I echo some of the others who say you have a way with words, and I like your style. But …

I wouldn’t be at all interested in reading a book on smoking, vaping, chewing tobacco or any type of harmful chemical … unless it was a how-to-quit guide.

I love that you rose from the ashes (sorry, that one came out before I could stop it), examined a few things about the book’s so-called failure and decided to look at it has a success rather than a failure. As I wrote recently on my blog, “It’s all in how you CHOOSE to look at it.”

I wish you continued success with the EN teaching – we need you, pal.

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JohnWilcox

Brett the easiest part of authorship is writing the book. Marketing is the hardest. I recently published a book on my career which had to be of great interest to every coal miner in Australia. (I was head policeman for the industry in regard to health and safety). The union gave me a full page plug in their December issue. The perfect Christmas present I thought. Not one reaction. Like you I sold books at the launch but it tailed off almost immediately. My editor always warns me. Why are you writing the book – money, ego, the family, whatever. Who is target market? Whatever it is stick with that theme . Writing for money is almost an impossible task I have come to believe. Be satisfied that you have put something on the record which would otherwise have been lost.

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PatriciaMaslinoff

I agree with those who suggest that your book on vaping could affect your reception among people in other markets who you wish to reach. For me, anything at all related to smoking gives rise to a negative emotional reaction. What comes to mind immediately is breathing difficulties and unpleasant smells. I had to fight my inclination to transfer this negative emotional reaction to your Evernote book. I had to force my rational brain to ignore my emotional brain. I know that I ought to be able to easily divorce the two but I am telling you since you seem to sincerely wish for feedback that it is not easy for me to do that given how unpleasant a smoky environment is for me.

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Margaret EMann

Other comments have already said what I feel, and have probably done it better, but I still want to congratulate you on your honesty and integrity – so great to see.
I fully endorse the comments about your great talents as a writer and educator who can truly communicate the subject matter. As a previous software trainer and mentor for a group of system administrators from various businesses, I’m painfully aware of how difficult it is to deliver good outcomes to a disparate group of people of varying aptitudes and levels of interest – you do that wonderfully well.
Whatever you decide to do next, good luck!

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mark

I agree: take your name off the vape book. I wouldn’t have bought your Ever note work if I had seen that you had written something on vaping.

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HortonMcCormick

Nicotine (and Alcohol) is a highly addictive poison.
Be done with it and don’t support it!
Just read the Allen Carr books and it the addiction will leave you.

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John Smith

I saw you had a new book and was interested in seeing what it was about. Then I saw it was about vaping.

I must say I was immediately put off. I don’t smoke, and I don’t consider vaping to be a “healthier alternative” to vaping. I don’t care about credibility; the subject matter has ABSOLUTELY NO INTEREST to me. From the time I saw the subject until the time I deleted the email was probably about 2 seconds.

I have to ask: How many of your Evernote readers do you think are also “vapers?” Because the only market you’re going to get interest in is those who are both. I have to imagine that’s a pretty small set of folks. And, given my intense disinterest in this subject matter, I have to wonder if I’d be curious on future books. Maybe our desires just don’t align 😉

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The Curiosity Index (20.01.2015) | The Simple Pastor

[…] If you’re an author or an aspiring author, then you should read this by Brett Kelly: Examining Failure: Why my new book bombed […]

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