Mark Manson is the bestselling author of Models: Attract Women Through Honesty, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, Everything is F*cked: A Book About Hope, and co-author of the Will Smith memoir, Will. He has sold tens of millions of books in over 60 languages and has over 500,000 email subscribers.
In this interview, Mark shares his journey from his first blog in 2007 to becoming one of the most popular non-fiction artists of all time.
He also offers advice for aspiring writers and creators today. The social media landscape is very different now than when he started. Mark Manson explains what’s necessary to succeed today.
There is a lot of conflicting information about Mark Manson’s early years of blogging so I asked for a timeline of his different websites and an estimate of the traffic he was getting.
The important fact here is that he was getting tens of thousands of unique daily visitors to his websites long before the break-out success of “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck” article. There is no overnight success story here. Mark Manson’s massive success was a decade in the making.
2007 to 2010: Personal blog that later evolved into a pickup/dating advice blog as it grew. He wrote on Blogspot under the pseudonym “Entropy.”
2010 to 2011: Practical Pickup – his brief pickup artist/dating advice online business.
2011 to 2013: Postmasculine – a general men’s self-help/lifestyle site.
2013 to present: MarkManson.net – his current website.
2015 January: “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck” article is published.
2016 September: “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck” book is published.
Audience Size (estimated unique visitors per day):
2014: 10k to 50k
It then ran at around ~50k/day or 1.5M/mo for 3-4 years. Beginning in 2018 or so, that began to taper off and slowly declined to what it is today, which is about 20-25k/day or 600k-700k/mo
How has the overall attention economy changed in the past 10 years from when you first started?
The same way you can’t really give investment advice without considering the overall macroeconomic environment (high inflation, oil prices, fed funds rate, etc.), you can’t really give writing or online content advice without considering the macro environment of the attention economy — i.e., what are Facebook/Google/Amazon/Apple doing, what are the algorithms optimizing for, where is the culture’s attention at the moment, where do young/old/educated/uneducated people spend their time?
I blew up and developed a huge audience in 2012-14 because of a confluence of a number of factors that I had no control over. First, Facebook decided that it wanted to compete with traditional media and become everyone’s primary hub for finding written content. Traditional media was slow to recognize this, so early on, it was mostly independent bloggers like me and grassroots news sites like Buzzfeed and Upworthy who took advantage and got a ton of traffic to our content relatively “easily.” I say “easily” because by today’s standard, understanding how to go viral is relatively widespread. Back then, very few people thought of it. So I think I also benefited a lot from being one of the first bloggers to recognize what caused virality and leaning hard into it.
Today is a different story. Facebook is garbage for getting your written work out there. They don’t want anybody to leave their platform and nobody but cranky old people spend time on it. So what worked for me in 2012 is probably terrible advice today. Ten years ago, I barely even had an email list. I had maybe one opt-in on my site and rarely sent out emails to subscribers. Today, if I was starting, I’d probably just skip the site and go straight to an email newsletter. Email is way more dominant today than it was ten years ago.
Second, millennials were young, hungry and online all the time. Again, traditional media wasn’t really catering to them. Self-help companies were still running massive, expensive seminars in Palm Springs, so they weren’t marketing or advertising to them. By understanding my market and the overall trends and forces of that market, I saw a huge opportunity to be the “self-help guru for millennials” when I switched my site in 2013. That was a key insight that took about six years of writing to get to, by the way.
Third, audio was still relatively underdeveloped and video was a joke. For a brief moment in history, blogs were king. If you could write well, there weren’t other mediums that people could be distracted by. These days, people can read your article… or they can get on Youtube, TikTok, Twitch, listen to a podcast, get on Netflix, etc., etc. Today it’s much less about having an excellent article in one place and more about having lots of excellent content in many, many places.
So, yes, write well. Understand your audience. But more than that, understand the attention economy, what is hot and what is not. Where are people looking? Where are there opportunities? Where is everything saturated? I was very fortunate in that I came up in this brief 10-year window where you could pretty much write whatever you wanted on your own website and, if it was great, be found by tons of people. That was not true before and I don’t think that’s really true now either. You have to be very strategic in understanding your audience, your market, and the platforms.
How many copies of the Models book did you sell in the first year? What are the total sales now?
Models was a slow burn. When it first came out, it didn’t do very well. It sold a few hundred copies and then kind of stagnated. I actually revised and updated it 2-3 times in the first year. But the main issue was that its message was simply contrarian and unpopular in the market I was in at the time. At the time, I was a large voice in the “pick up artist” market, and I wrote a book essentially telling men that they should be honest to women, take their emotions seriously, and stop judging their self-worth based on sex. As you can imagine, it was widely ridiculed when it came out. Fortunately, within a couple years, that market matured/changed its views on a lot of things and Models eventually became the bestselling men’s dating advice book on Amazon. Today, it’s probably sold 300k-400k copies.
Why did you switch to MarkManson.net?
As Postmasculine grew in popularity, a lot of women began to discover the site and become fans. At a certain point, it seemed dumb to limit my brand to be directed towards men when 90+% of what I wrote about applied to women as well. On top of that, rebranding to my own name would allow me to write about basically anything without it seeming weird or out of place.
My first two viral articles were about travel and politics (“A Dust Over India” and “10 Things Americans Don’t Understand About America,” written in 2011 and 2012, respectively). They were one-off articles that had nothing to do with what my website was actually about. So I got millions of visitors and then basically no one stayed or signed up to my email list. I quickly learned the importance of brand — people need to understand who you are and what you stand for immediately, so they can know if they want to spend more time with you. Also, things like web design, UI/UX, typography, etc. A million hits mean nothing if your site barely loads and they can’t find where your article starts.
What were the key principles to your growth?
It’s hard to isolate them because so many of them happened concurrently. But there are a few principles that have served me well over the years.
- The first is that I started with an extremely small niche and then gradually pivoted to larger and larger markets. If I had started out as a general self-help blogger, chances are I would have had trouble getting an audience. But instead, I started with dating advice for men around Boston. Then I pivoted into a general men’s dating advice. Then I pivoted into general men’s life advice. Then I pivoted into general life advice.
- Understanding which platforms and mediums had the highest leverage at each point. I built most of my initial audience through virality on Facebook. At any given point, there are higher and lower leverage platforms for writing (or any content, in general) and it’s important to always have a general sense of where those are. (See original point about macro environment.)
- The returns on content are non-linear. Making an article 10% better doesn’t deliver 10% better results, it delivers 100% better results. Therefore, back in an era where the conventional wisdom was to post every day/week, I backed off and really focused on nailing a homerun article every 2-3 weeks that would go viral. As a result, I had a handful of hit articles that have probably been as valuable as the rest of my archive combined. One is obviously the Subtle Art article. Another is an article called “7 Strange Questions to Find Your Life Purpose.” Aside from going mega-viral when it came out and catching the attention of Liz Gilbert, Tim Ferriss and a few others, Google has treated it very well over the years for some reason. It’s been my highest SEO traffic magnet for many years now. The article “Fuck Yes or No” went viral in 2013 and for many years was actually posted on thousands of people’s dating profiles on sites like OKCupid. Content definitely follows the 80/20 Rule, if not more like 90/10.
How much of your growth do you attribute to deliberate strategy versus just trying lots of things?
Each is worthless without the other. Strategy is worth nothing without trying tons of things. Trying tons of things is a waste of time/energy if you don’t do it strategically.
How much of an impact did Facebook and Twitter have on your growth?
Facebook was massive for me. It’s basically what put me on the map. Twitter has had little effect on my business. These days, that would probably be reversed if I was starting out. Facebook is basically dead and kills the organic reach of any link off platform, whereas Twitter offers a lot of writers to show off their content through tweet threads.
What impact did that ‘Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck’ article have?
It was definitely my most viral article ever. I think it got shared over a million times. But it was also at the tail end of a long string of viral articles from 2013-2015. In that two-year period, I had had 7-8 articles that brought in millions of people each. But beginning in 2015-16, Facebook started choking off their algorithm, pushing people to pay for reach. Around the same time, traditional media started to figure out social media marketing and how to go viral on platforms, so my competitive advantage had mostly disappeared.
For a new writer starting today, what advice would you give to build an audience and make a living?
Unfortunately, today, to build an audience, you have to play with the platforms ON the platforms, which constrains you. It also means that depending on what genre/niche you’re in, you’re going to need to pick a platform that makes the most sense and obsess over it. So if you’re in politics or finance, that probably means just getting amazingly good on Twitter, build the audience there, then get them to move to a newsletter or website of yours. If it’s business, then probably LinkedIn. If it’s self-help or poetry or something, then maybe Instagram. Also, because of these constraints, I think writers should seriously consider concurrently building an audience in audio/video as well. I hate to say it, but the largest growth opportunities these days are in audio and video. I wish it weren’t so.
So you find your spot, your audience, your message, and then just obsess at becoming really, really excellent at it. I don’t just mean “good” or “better than most” but fucking excellent.
This will all take years to do. As such, this career path’s curve is very non-linear. Year one is rough. Year two isn’t much better. Year three isn’t much better than year two. Then at some point, you hit upon gold and things blow up exponentially. Suddenly, year five is better than years one through four combined. It’s very much a gradually, gradually, then all at once type career path. But, then again, a lot of that depends on niche, audience, brand, etc. I can’t stress this enough but independent writers need to focus on way more than just writing well. Learn copywriting, basic marketing and advertising. Study branding and design. It matters. People aren’t just reading your words, they’re having an experience, and you have to cater to every aspect of that experience.
Find Mark Manson at MarkManson.net.