In this episode of the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast, I interview AJ Harper. AJ is an editor and publishing strategist who helps authors write foundational books that enable them to build readership, grow their brand and make a significant impact on the world. As ghostwriter and as developmental editor, she has worked with newbies to New York Times bestselling authors with millions of books sold. AJ is writing partner to business author, Mike Michalowicz. Together they’ve written nine books, including Profit First, The Pumpkin Plan, Fix This Next, and their latest, Get Different. She has her own book now called — Write a Must-Read: Craft a Book That Changes Lives—Including Your Own.
How do you write a book that readers rave about? The answer to that question follows a simple, yet powerful philosophy: Reader First. When you learn how to put your reader first at every stage of book development, writing, and editing, you can create the connection and trust required to transform their lives. In this episode, AJ Harper shares her proven methods and frameworks she has used for nearly two decades to write and edit perennial bestsellers. It’s not the easy way or the fast way; it’s the effective way. The payoff for doing this important work: a must-read book, and a massive readership who serve as ambassadors for your message and your brand.
Questions I ask AJ Harper:
- [2:04] Why is the idea that a book is like a business card and everyone needs one a silly concept?
- [3:58] Is there a system to writing a good book?
- [6:32] Can you unpack the concept of transformational reader sequence from your book?
- [7:44] How do you get someone to trust you in the book that you’re writing?
- [11:01] What role do credentials play when you don’t really have them?
- [13:00] What makes a book transformational?
- [14:00] How do you apply the idea of “Shitty first drafts”?
- [16:35] Are you a fan of self-publishing or traditional publishing?
- [18:11] What’s the route in self-publishing?
- [19:33] The editing process for connection is probably the hardest part — how do you do that as an editor?
- [21:23] I find that I don’t have the crispest grammar as an editor may want, so where’s the fine line with that kind of stuff while trying to remain authentic?
- [23:18] Could you share with people how they can work with you and the course that you mentioned?
More About AJ Harper:
- Her book — Write a Must-Read: Craft a Book That Changes Lives—Including Your Own
- Top 3 Book Workshop
- Her self-directed course: Test Drive Your Content — Use code DUCTTAPE to get 50% off your course
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John Jantsch (00:00): This episode of the duct tape marketing podcast is brought to you by the MarTech podcast, hosted by Ben Shapiro and brought to you by the HubSpot podcast network with episodes you can listen to in under 30 minutes, the MarTech podcast shares stories from world class marketers who use technology to generate growth and achieve business and career success all on your lunch break. And if you dig around, you might just find a show by yours. Truly. Ben’s a great host. Actually, I would tell you, check out a recent show on blending humans, AI and automation. Download the MarTech podcast wherever you get your podcast.
John Jantsch (00:51): Hello, welcome to another episode of the duct tape marketing podcast. This is John Jantsch. My guest today is a J Harper. She’s an editor and publishing strategist who helps authors write foundational books that enable them to build readership, grow their brand and make a significant impact on the world. As a ghost writer in a developmental that’s easier said than read editor. She has worked with newbies to New York times bestselling authors with millions of books sold. AJ is a writing partner to my good friend business author. Mike MCOW ITZ together. They’ve written nine books, including many that we’ve talked about on this show. Profit first pumpkin plan, fix this next and the latest get different. She’s got her own book now called write a must read craft a book that changes lives including your own. So AJ, welcome to the show.
AJ Harper (01:42): Thank you so much for having me.
John Jantsch (01:45): So you must be a bit of a Saint to spend that much time with Mike MCZ
AJ Harper (01:51): He is like a brother to me, maybe the brother who plays pranks on you a little bit,
John Jantsch (01:56): But yeah. Yeah. One of these days off air, I’ll tell you the prank he played on me. It’s not quite ready for prime time on the show. One of the things that when we get into talking about books, you know, it seems like the last decade or so the common wisdom is every business person needs a book. It’s like an expanded business card. And I was so happy to hear you debunk that. I’d let you kind of riff on why that idea is kind of silly.
AJ Harper (02:20): Well, I mean, number one, what do we do with business cards? We toss them out. I mean, I think there’s a, the rare person who saves them, collates them response to them in the system. Right. But even our best intentions, you know, at events we lose them. We forget them. I think that the danger in saying better business card is that it immediately lowers the standards yeah. For the book. And then it’s just from there, it’s just a long stream of cutting corners that only ends in disappointment. And I define disappointment as no one’s reading it. No, one’s talking about it. Very few people are buying it.
John Jantsch (02:55): Yeah. It’s a really crappy business card. Right. You know, I think, I can’t remember who responded to this. I was asking somebody else who helps people publish books? I said, you know, what’s the number one thing, you know, or number one reason, you know, to write a book and he said, you know, kind of flippantly, but kind of serious, you know, have something to say
AJ Harper (03:16): Yeah. And I, you know, the type of books I help people write are prescriptive nonfiction or personal and professional development. So I would add a piece to that, which is have someone you wanna help.
John Jantsch (03:27): Yeah. Right, right, right. Yeah. Solve, solving a problem.
AJ Harper (03:31): Yeah. And also caring about their reader experience. I think that’s the differentiator. We tend to focus solely on the things we wanna say, and we need to focus on the experience. We wanna give readers.
John Jantsch (03:44): Now I know a lot of people out there think, okay, I just need to sit down, lock my way, self away for, you know, a month or a week or a long weekend or something and just start writing. But you have a very systematic approach to writing a book. And I obviously we can unpack it, but let’s start there. I mean, is there a system
AJ Harper (04:02): There is, and it’s not, you know, it’s a system I developed as a ghost writer out of necessity because I started with no system. So I had to figure it out and piece it together over time. But yeah, the main challenge with sitting down and just writing whatever comes to mind is you’re, you know, you’re gonna end up losing most of that. You don’t have the clarity. Yeah. Anytime that someone came to me with a manuscript to review as an editor, or maybe to revamp as a ghost writer, it was usually because they didn’t have a clear idea of three things, right. Which is exactly who their reader is in terms of hearts and minds and a transformational core message and a promise they could deliver. They couldn’t really articulate it. So you have to get that clarity first, before you start writing.
John Jantsch (04:54): And you know, it’s funny, I’ve been saying this for years and I was gonna, you know, when you talk about the ideal reader and core message and promise to solve a problem, I mean, that’s exactly what we do in marketing.
AJ Harper (05:36): But see, I don’t think it was luck because you just talked about how these are the things that you know, how to do in marketing anyways. So you applied those same principles. Right? So that doesn’t sound like luck to me, it sounds like craft. And I think part of the problem is I know part of the problem is that we identify a reader, but then we don’t think about the reader again. It’s like, okay, that’s step one. And writing a book, here’s my reader. Right. And then past ideation, we’re not really thinking about them anymore. Now we’re just writing the book that solves their problem, which is great. I’m not saying that’s bad. I’m just saying that we need to keep the reader on the page. Yeah. So the reason people are telling you, your books changed my life is because they actually read them and they applied the things you asked them to apply, but you can’t get people to do that. If you don’t write a book that connects with them, respects their experience and delivers on the promise,
John Jantsch (06:31): You, you have something in this book that I really love. And it’s early on in the book that you call the transformation, transformational reader sequence, I think is the full thing. I’m gonna mess that up, but you know what I’m getting at. Yeah. And I think that’s, that’s like the customer journey, you know, it’s that we do in marketing. And I really love seeing that because I think people need to think that through don’t they, so maybe take a minute or two and unpack that idea.
AJ Harper (06:55): Sure. Well, I mean the first part’s easy people buy your book because you have a problem they can solve and they will read your book because they see themselves on the page. They’ll move, you’ll move through the process as they begin to trust you. And eventually you’re getting into where they believe in, you believe in them. And so that’s why they’re actually gonna do the things that you ask them to do. And finally they believe in you and that’s when they tell everybody about it. So it’s, you have to help them, you know? Yes, you have, they have to relate to the problem you’re solving, but they need to see themselves on the first page mm-hmm
John Jantsch (07:44): So to me, I think the hardest part, I think people can write a good book that has a lot of action steps and you know, a lot of really useful things to do. I think the hardest part that you just described there is that trust element that, that actually gets somebody to say, okay, I’m gonna do that. I don’t know if it’ll work or not for me, but I trust you. So I’m gonna try it. Mm-hmm
AJ Harper (08:09): Well, you get the first part right. First, which is helping them feel seen. So no, one’s gonna trust you if they think you don’t get me, you don’t understand me. You don’t know my life. Yeah. And so that’s number one, but then it’s also being transparent, I think is one of the keys I see with my students and my clients. So often they’re afraid to show how they make the sauce. Yeah. And they’re afraid to show when they don’t know something mm-hmm
John Jantsch (09:08): Yeah, no, go ahead. I’m sorry.
AJ Harper (09:10): Tip. I would give about building trust is, you know, do need social proof mm-hmm
John Jantsch (09:32): So obviously this comes off more so in, in Mike’s audio books probably than on the written page, but he has a level of sort of self deprecating humor that I think is his one of his tools for building trust. Isn’t it?
AJ Harper (09:45): Yeah. That’s all intentional by the
John Jantsch (09:47): Way. Yeah. No, absolutely. I mean, it’s partly who he is too, but, but obviously he’s taken advantage of it.
AJ Harper (09:52): None of nothing about him is disingenuine and he’s no, absolutely 100% who he is on the page off the page. But it is the reason that we do share stories where he shows, where he screwed up, where he was a goofball where he wasn’t sure of himself is that it endears him to his audience and then they feel okay he’s it’s not just, he sees me, but he’s all, I’m one. He’s one of us.
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John Jantsch (11:01): So let’s talk a little bit about credentials. You know, a lot of things, you know, you hear people talk about, you know, I, I feel like I’m a, you know, a fake, I don’t, you know, I’ve got this idea. I’ve helped a couple people, but like, can I really write a book about it? I mean, what obviously great credentials can aid, you know, somebody’s wanting to pick up the book, support the book, but what role does credentials play when you don’t really have them?
AJ Harper (11:26): That is a great question. And I think it depends on your topic and your genre. If you are trying to write a book, that’s gonna appeal to, if you’re say writing for C-suite or you’re writing an academic you book, you have to have credentials. Yeah. And you may need a co-writer in that case, you could get somebody who has the credentials, but if you’re not, then you know, it’s as simple as number one, make sure your content works. So, you know, it’s not enough to say everybody has a story and everybody can write a book. Right, right, right. No, you need to make yes. And let’s actually see if this content lands and works for people other than you. And I think there’s simple ways to do test drives little boot camps, workshops speaking. Yeah. All sorts of things to see, I think this works, but can other people do it? And then the second piece would be just like I said earlier, being transparent and honest. So I’m not 15 steps ahead of you. I’m two steps. Yeah. But this is the view I can show you from here. And then you’re being honest. Yeah. And they know that they can take that with a grain of salt.
John Jantsch (12:33): Yeah. And that idea of doing things ahead of the writing. I think a lot of people, mistake I see people make is they write the book and then they come to me and say, how can I market this? And I’m like, well, you should have been doing that two years ago. And that idea of building community, doing workshops, doing free clinics, whatever it is, mm-hmm
AJ Harper (13:03): Well, really, it’s just as simple as delivering on the promise. That’s your chief goal as an author. So decide first you have to decide can, what is the promise that will speak to my reader? Yeah. That they want, then can I deliver on it within the pages of the book? Not someday. So this is where a lot of authors make a mistake. Well, eventually you might get this thing
John Jantsch (14:03): So there’s a book that I suspect you have read. That is one of my favorite books. And I, you pulled a little ti tidbit out of it when you were talking about rough drafts and that’s Anne Lamont’s bird by bird.
AJ Harper (14:13): Yeah. Classic
John Jantsch (14:16): I actually saw her about 10 years ago and like was a, you know, a reading and signing for one of her books. And I had a first edition of bird by birds and she signed it for me. So
AJ Harper (14:25): Nice.
John Jantsch (14:26):
AJ Harper (14:34): So that’s interesting. I do talk about in my book. So she gifted us with the shitty first draft, which frees us from thinking it has to be perfect. But what I’ve discovered in all my years of teaching authors is that actually they don’t really believe it like sounds good and it makes them excited and they try, but in the back of their mind, they think one of two things, they either think I’m gonna be the exception to the rule and my draft is gonna be less shitty.
John Jantsch (15:02): Yeah,
AJ Harper (15:02): Yeah. Yeah. So they’re frustrated with themselves and they get locked in that battle or they think surely she doesn’t mean this shitty
John Jantsch (15:14):
AJ Harper (15:14): And so, and then they get locked in that battle. And so the problem is they don’t really know the definition. Yeah. It’s almost like they can believe they can’t believe it could be as bad as their draft is and you’re a writer. So, you know? Yes. It can
John Jantsch (15:34): Yeah. I mean, I came to this probably, but you know, I write now almost like journaling. I don’t edit at all. I mean, I used to like write a sentence and go, oh, I could say this better, you know? And then you got nowhere. Right? And so now I try to see how fast almost I can write, you know, a thousand words or whatever. Then I generally put it away. And then I come back to it the next day. And it’s either really good or it’s really bad.
AJ Harper (15:56): See, you have the benefit of having written many books. And I think that part of the challenge, if you’re a new author, is that you think that the people who are successful or at least have written a lot of books, know something you don’t know or are more talented, all it really is that you’re more comfortable with the creative process. Yeah. So, you know, I’m gonna work this out in editing cuz that’s where a good idea becomes a great book editing. So, you know, and you know that it’s gonna work out eventually and you don’t know how many drafts it will be, but a new person isn’t familiar with the process. And so not only does it seem daunting, but they just don’t know what to expect.
John Jantsch (16:36): Yeah. Let me, I wanna come back to editing, but I wanna segue through self-publishing versus traditional publishing. Okay. Because that’s where I think editing really has to be discussed based on the path you go there, are you a fan of one or the other, do you think it depends.
AJ Harper (16:49): I think that the mistake we make is that we try to decide which one is better without considering our own priorities and where we are. Right. I think an author needs to decide, okay, what are my goals? What are my resources? And what is my timeline? Yeah. And then a fourth consideration would be how much control do I wanna have?
John Jantsch (17:07): Yeah. Yeah. And including after the fact.
AJ Harper (17:10): Yes, exactly.
John Jantsch (17:18): Yeah. So all of my books have been traditionally published. That just was the route that I ended up going. So my role was I’d write the book, turn into manuscript. The editor who had generally acquired the book would say, this chapter needs to go over here or this big chunk doesn’t make any sense and send it back to me. Then I would rewrite that, you know, that part of it. And then maybe there would be one more round of that, but then it would go to somebody who’s just looking for crap laying here that shouldn’t be
AJ Harper (18:14): Well, this is the challenge. So many years ago, when self-publishing became more accessible and affordable, everybody was excited and you can get more out there. There are no gatekeepers. Yay. But the problem is you can’t abandon all those traditional publishing quality standards that or quality controls that you’re talking about. Yeah. The developmental or substantive editor. That’s what you’re talking about. That first person is the person who helps you make sure the book works. And if you skip that person, then the book suffers for it. But the problem is a lot of people just don’t know, they have no idea that is an editor they need. And I don’t think that the self-publishing industry is very forthright about the fact that they need it. Yeah. Yeah. I don’t blame them. It’s the most expensive kind of editing to pay for and it takes so longest. So if you’re focused on speed and, and low cost, you’re not gonna say, Hey, you need this editor. Yeah. But you do need that editor and you can get it your own if you’re self publishing. Yeah. There are many people who do that freelance. Yep. So it’s, if there’s no reason why you can’t get that person to come in and help you.
John Jantsch (19:19): So one of the things you talk about in the editing process is editing for connection. And I think that is probably the hardest, because that requires a level of understanding what I do, what I’m trying to get across, who I’m getting it across to. How do you do that as an editor who you’re a ghostwriter? I mean, a lot of what you’re doing is extracting somebody’s mind and then putting it on the page. I mean, to me that seems like a daunting process of understanding somebody’s, you know, voice understanding somebody’s, you know, mind and then, you know, editing for that, you know, that final reader having said all that now I’m gonna really confuse you. Maybe that’s actually better done by somebody else.
AJ Harper (20:06): Maybe it’s better. What, well, I
John Jantsch (20:07): Didn’t hear the last part. Well, I guess what I was saying is, you know, my biases that we, you know, that part only I can do, right. Because I know who I’m, you know, and yet I think that’s a, an absolutely essential part. And I’m wondering if maybe that distance that an editor or a ghostwriter might have, would actually be beneficial.
AJ Harper (20:27): I don’t know. I mean, I only, I co-write with Mike still, but I don’t ghost write anymore. And haven’t for about five, six years at the time, you know, I often had an editor, right. So I’m the ghost. And then there was another editor. So I was been, but I really do believe that it’s the author, whether they’re using a ghost or not, that needs to go in and make sure that it connects to their reader. Yeah. Because they know their reader and the editor doesn’t, and this is something that comes up a lot since we’re talking about Mike in his books where the editor might say, Hey, I, you know, I don’t think you need so many stories or I don’t think you need to repeat this piece of encouragement. And Mike and I will go back and say, well, actually the reader does actually need this here because this is their, what matters to them. And this is what we hear about from readers. Yeah. And they’re, it doesn’t mean you’re always pushing back, but to have knowledge of what matters to your reader helps you in that editing process.
John Jantsch (21:23): Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. I do know when I’ve had things written articles, I’ve written all my own books, but I’ve had a lot of articles written by other people that, that were going to be, you know, ghost written. And quite often the thing I find myself saying, well, I would never say it like that because I feel like my voice, my, who I am, you know, my personality wouldn’t use certain words. Wouldn’t use maybe crisp as crisp of grammar as you know, an editor might, might want, I mean, words defined on that kind of stuff. Cuz there’s some times I’ve said stuff. People are like, well that’s clumsy. I’m like, well, yeah, I’m clumsy.
AJ Harper (21:56): Well then you should write it at clumsy. I mean, you don’t want everything to be completely incorrect in terms of grammar, but it is, you need to be authentic. You need to be yourself on and off the page. And I think you’re right to say, it should sound like me. The thing about ghost writing is it’s actually a really special skill. And just because you say, I don’t need to take credit for that and I will work for hire, doesn’t actually make you a legit ghost is a ghost. Has to be able to assume the personality. Yeah. So, you know, I could write anything and you wouldn’t know if it Mike wrote it or I did. Yeah. Yeah. You would not be able to tell. Yeah. And that was one of my great skills with whomever I’ve written for people that were complete opposite of Mike
John Jantsch (23:00): Yeah. That’s interesting that you mentioned, I didn’t know you had playwright history because I often feel like that idea of creating personas is, is very much what you’re doing. You know, mm-hmm
AJ Harper (23:26): Sure. Yeah. So I do teach a 14 week workshop to 15 students at a time it’s very small, twice a year. It’s called top three book workshop. And it’s basically to write that must read book that becomes a book on someone’s top three list of FAS. And I just walk people through the whole process. It’s very hands on. There’s a lot of editing happening and developmental work and publishing, but mostly it’s about creating a home for an author who actually wants to write something great versus an author who’s trying to can’t find any place to go except to maybe some sort of 90 day program. So yeah. Yeah. And that, that was important to me. So it’s a small group. I do have a standalone course. Self-directed called test drive your content. And today I’m giving you a special code for your listeners, which is duct tape to get 50% off that course. And we did actually happen to talk about test driving. So it actually walks you through what are all your benefits of test driving? Yeah. Including building demand, as you said, but also specifically, how do you do a test drive so that you can really hear if it’s working and you can process the feedback to make changes, but also how can you use that to get anecdotes, endorsements, stories, that sort of thing. So it’s seven videos that walk you through that whole process.
John Jantsch (24:46): And that’s found where,
AJ Harper (24:48): Oh, I’m sorry. That’s [email protected] AJ
John Jantsch (24:51): Harper. Okay. So we’ll have those in the show notes. See, I, I think anybody who develops a product course, whatever they ought to be doing that with people you get so much great insight I’ve over the years done things where I haven’t gotten any feedback and I put it out there and people are like, we didn’t want this. So
AJ Harper (25:14): I think it also, if you aren’t sure if you understand your reader very well. Yeah. It can also help you get to know them better through those interactions. Yeah.
John Jantsch (25:24): AJ, thanks so much for stopping by the duct tape marketing podcast. And hopefully we’ll run into you one of these days out there on the road.
AJ Harper (25:30): Thank you for having me.
John Jantsch (25:32): Hey, and one final thing before you go, you know how I talk about marketing strategy strategy before tactics? Well, sometimes it can be hard to understand where you stand in that what needs to be done with regard to creating a marketing strategy. So we created a free tool for you. It’s called the marketing strategy assessment. You can find it @ marketingassessment.co not .com .co check out our free marketing assessment and learn where you are with your strategy today. That’s just marketingassessment.co I’d love to chat with you about the results that you get.
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