Here’s how I self-published the book ‘The Teenager’s Book of Life’ that in just seven months became a bestseller

I obviously have not fully accepted that this has happened because as I wrote that title it felt like it was made up. But it isn’t. I self-published ‘The Teenager’s Book of Life’ on February 18th of this year and since then and as of October 18th it has sold 12,500 copies in Ireland and has been read in fifty-three countries around the world! By the end of the year that figure will be closer to 20,000. In this post I am going to tell you where the book came from, the principle I followed during the nine weeks it took to write it, and finally I will attempt to explain why I think the book has experienced such great success to date.

Where did ‘The Teenager’s Book’ of Life come from?

Well how far down the rabbit hole do you want to go? The short answer is that I worked with teenagers and their families for nine years through an organisation I co-founded called the Soar Foundation. This organisation was inspired by the Reach Foundation in Melbourne, Australia and ‘Reach’ was co-founded by an Irish man called Jim Stynes. Reach pioneered a progressive way of developing both young people’s character and potential. I first came across the trailblazing work of Jim Stynes when I watched a documentary about his life called ‘Every Heart Beats True’. Buckle up if you decide to watch the trailer below. If you do, you will see why I sold my car to pay for a ticket from Ireland to Australia in October 2011 to understand what Jim had created and afterwards brought it back to Ireland.

EVERY HEART BEATS TRUE

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mwOV6CJmrlE

Soar – 2011 to 2019

From 2011 when we first made that visit to better understand Reach until May of 2019 we grew Soar. At first that entailed my running all the workshops in schools across Ireland and then training others to do likewise. All the while I was fundraising to pay for the programs and training and building a board of directors and support base. I was very lucky. I got to listen to tens of thousands of teenagers talk in ways that they said they never did anywhere else in their lives. Gradually I began to understand a world I had forgotten; the world of a teenager. It fascinated and excited me. Week after week I went from school to school and community to community listening to, learning from, and falling in love with that period in a human being’s life that is so full of power and possibility… the teenage years.

But over the years I realised I was getting further and further from the part of the organisation that I loved most. I had become a CEO managing a large team and this was taking me further away from running the workshops and engaging with the beating heart of the organisation – the teenagers. And so in May 2019, I decided to step down from the CEO position and do what I had encouraged so many young people to do. I decided to follow my own heart and try to follow a dream of spending my life writing about things that I cared deeply about. I just didn’t know what that was and how it would develop! I just started writing and tried to find my writing voice. I hired a coach who helped me find that voice and gradually I knew something was emerging.  A few months later a friend asked me for a quote for a textbook he was writing for the school curriculum. I rattled my brain for weeks but nothing was coming. And then one evening almost like a neon sign flashing in the darkening summer sky it came to me:

“The most important relationship you will ever have in your life is with yourself. Every other is secondary.”

From the moment that quote came to me and every day through the next nine weeks I would go into a small room in a nondescript industrial estate in the east of Ireland and close my eyes and spend a few minutes breathing. And then I would open them and allow the words to fall out. And fall they did.

 

 

At times I found it hard to keep up. They just came and came. Whenever I got stuck I would look at the one guiding principle I had written on a card and placed in front of me which was ‘be daringly honest and write to please no one’. I would picture teenagers I had met in workshops and write pieces directly to them. I dotted the wall in front of me with photos of myself as a child and teenager and wrote to that younger version of myself. I laughed out loud and sometimes sobbed so hard it left me with a headache. I wrote about all the things I wished I had learned or at least been told about life when I was in school. I focused on themes I had heard thousands of teenagers express inner turmoil or confusion and conflict over. But most of all I just wrote with daring honesty based on my own take on life as a result of my own ups and downs. I wrote with a fire in my belly to offer something that could light the way for a young guy or girl who might be lost or unsure of themselves. I suppose I was writing to my own teenage self, trying to reassure them that in spite of their fear, everything was going to be ok.

Nine weeks from the day I started writing it was done. I had chosen someone called Hazel Breen to collaborate with on the illustrations and design of the book. Because I was self-publishing the book this time out (my first book ‘Screaming at the Sky’ was written with the very talented TJ Flynn and was published by Random House in 2010) Hazel was vital because I knew the book needed to engage the teenage brain and capture their interest. I gave Hazel real creative freedom because I trusted her and her ability to bring my writing to life. It was only when I had finished writing did I realise how much I was going to need her.

Hospitalised

The night after I finished writing ‘The Teenager’s Book of Life’ and had sent it to the production team my left lung collapsed spontaneously and I ended up in the emergency room. For the next three months I was in and out of two different hospitals to re-inflate the lung and then have surgery to ensure it did not collapse again. It was pretty serious and very painful. I was worried the book wouldn’t get finished as it still had to be edited, the layout agreed upon and the cover designed. This is where Hazel was like an angel sent into my life. I remember the day she sent me a message to tell me it was all going to be ok, to trust her, she knew what I wanted and would make sure it was in good hands until I got through the surgery. One evening between hospital stays I pumped myself full of morphine and drove to Hazel’s parents’ house. There on the living room floor we laid the entire book out page by page in A4 size. We wanted to see each page as part of the whole. I was shocked to see this thing, this real and tangible form lying with its arms stretched before me. For the first time I could see it was really going to happen. After we had agreed on the final layout we had Thai food with Hazel’s parents. A warm glow of something special being completed filled the house. Most powerfully that evening was seeing a photo of Hazel’s brother on the walls of that lovely family home. He had died five years earlier in his sleep. I got the feeling that night that he was willing Hazel to shine her light further into the world through the book and that strange as it sounds it felt like he was with us in the room helping us to find the right order for each and every page.

I remember leaving afterwards and walking to my car and feeling such peace inside that the book was in good hands with Hazel overseeing the final stages of production while I was going back into hospital a few days later for the final surgery.

The next few weeks in hospital were not easy. Ironically, I had to draw on what I had been writing about for the previous months to get through it. I had to live what was between the covers of ‘The Teenager’s Book of Life’ on a daily basis and in the months afterwards when I was recovering.

 

 

A book is born…

As a self-published book we used a great Irish company called Kazoo to produce the book but I retained all ownership rights. I was fortunate that the publisher of ‘Screaming at the Sky’ (my first book) had remained a friend and was able to guide me as to what functions of a traditional publisher I needed to replicate (publicist, media management etc). But it was still uncharted territory for me and I vividly remember the day a lorry pulled up outside that same industrial estate I had written the book in with 2,000 copies of ‘The Teenager’s Book of Life’. It was surreal to see the book and quite a thrill. Has this all really happened in six months?

 

 

The two pallets of brown boxes in front of me that had to go up the two flights of stairs to my tiny office were proof enough that not only had this happened but now the real challenge began, selling the contents of those two pallets! I am not going to bore you about how we sold them but here is a list of what we did that I feel helped get the word out there:

  1. We developed a press release and sent it to local and national media
  2. We invested in social media advertising on Instagram and Facebook
  3. We tried to add value to people’s lives in every post we shared on social media
  4. We supplied independent bookstores that were passionate about it and just ‘got’ the book from the get go.
  5. We supplied under an exclusive partnership deal a national supermarket chain called Dunnes Stores and then stocked the shelves in each of their outlets. Friends helped stock shelves. My own lovely Mum even stocked some shelves in my hometown, cycling in on her bike every few days to top up the shelves!

But to be honest there has been an element of luck involved in our success to date. Firstly the books that are out there for teenagers are scarce enough in their impact because many of them just don’t connect with teenagers. Maybe that is because they are written in such a way that teenagers feel they are being talked at or they are too difficult for a teenager to emotionally connect with. Whatever the reasons, I think the honesty and perhaps the mix of vulnerability and anger in ‘The Teenager’s Book of Life’ connect in a way with teenagers that is hard to understand unless you have read the book. What I am hearing back again and again is that they feel it is written just for them and it is as if I am writing their thoughts and emotionally they feel something reading the book. I can’t tell you how much this sentiment fills my heart with joy. It is infinitely more important than how many copies of the book sell. My main intention in writing the book is that it makes the teenager who reads it feel like they matter and that being themselves is the most daring and courageous thing they could do. That it reassures them that everything is going to be ok.

“I bought this book for my daughter who is 14 and I have to say it is the best purchase I have made! I suggested to her when we got it that we read a chapter a night together which I was shocked she agreed to!” – Jenny, Parent to a teenager daughter aged 14

The main thing that has surprised me about the reception the book has received is how many parents and even grandparents are reading it and afterwards writing to me. Again and again they say they feel they personally benefited from reading the book. That doesn’t hugely surprise me in itself because the principles in the book are universal but the part that I didn’t envisage is when they report that the book has made them feel much greater understanding for their teenager and that they have used it to connect with their son or daughter. That it has been like a safe ground to have the conversations that are often difficult or uncomfortable to have. To think of ‘The Teenager’s Book of Life’ as a book that connects adults and teenagers in a shared appreciation for the universal human experience is something very unexpected and so special.

So what comes next?

 

Good question. We are a tiny team. My friend Ryan helps out on customer support and manages the myriad of administrative tasks that have arisen. Hazel still assists on our social media strategy to spread the content of the book. Our strategy at the moment is to hold on to the run-away train for dear life and assess things at the end of the year. The fact that the book has been read in 53 countries tells me that its universality can connect to the heart and mind of any teenager, parent or human anywhere in the world. So perhaps 2022 is the year that ‘The Teenager’s Book of Life’ finds its way into every home in the world where there is a teenager. What I do know for sure is that my wish for the book is that it wakes people up and reminds them of who they really are. As long as it continues to do that then it’s all good.

Photo credit: teahub.io

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