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How I get untangled from the selfishness of my own ambition

Spoiler alert: the opening pages of the new book

How I get untangled from the selfishness of my own ambition

There’s an insidious question that gets asked just about *now* when you’re launching a new book. It’s a question that tangles me up in the hot mess of my own ambition, a question that makes me simultaneously greedy and embarrassed.

It comes from my publisher, my friends, my team, my family, and most often my own brain. Sometimes it’s asked directly, and sometimes it’s in the subtext.

“How many books do you think you’ll sell?”


Honestly, I have no idea.

And on my good days, I’m delighted I have no idea … and for two reasons.

The first and least important reason is that it’s impossible to know.

It turns out that even the experts are just taking wild guesses. I heard a show recently that actually dug into the results of the 45,000 “front list” books sold in a year – ”front list” meaning a book less than a year old sold by a traditional publisher.

The fact that only 0.4% sell more than 100,000 copies didn’t surprise me (but it did make me ever more grateful for the success of The Coaching Habit).

Nor really did the fact that 86% sell less than 5k copies … in other words, they don’t break even.

What made me raise my eyebrows is that 15% sell less than 12 copies.

Just to be blunt here: that means one in seven books – books that a publishing company has bought, books that some poor person has done the hard yards of writing, books that have been designed and printed and put out to the world–sell less than a dozen copies.


But that’s not the important thing

That first reason allows me to shrug off the question: it’s silly, no-one knows.

The second reason is the one that matters, because it reminds me that it’s not the helpful question to be asking.

The real question is: What’s the difference I hope the book will make?

It’s a shift from a personal ambition to a purpose–driven outcome, from short-term to the bigger game. It’s a mission for the book that goes well beyond “is it on a bestseller list?”

10 million working relationships

In How to Begin, I say a Worthy Goal has the three elements of Thrilling, Important, and Daunting. When I set my ambition to improve 10 million working relationships, I suddenly lit up all three of those lights.

Thrilling? Yes indeed. I’d be honored to have that as a legacy of a life well lived.

Important? Absolutely, we need to remember our humanity and our ability to work well together as much as we ever have.

Daunting? Indeed. And this is going to take more than just a book launch to achieve.

And you?

This article is only nominally about my new book. The real message is about knowing the “why of the work.”

It’s How to Work with (Almost) Anyone for me.

It’s something else for you.

Can you make the connection to a Worthy Goal for you?

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Michael Bungay Stanier

Michael Bungay Stanier

I'm the author of five books that have collectively sold more than a million copies. I'm the founder of Box of Crayons, a learning and development company that helps organizations move from advice-driven to curiosity-led. I'm the host of the *2 Pages with MBS* podcast.