Publishers Weekly, December 13 issue.
More books are being published than ever before. Publishers, authors, and booksellers are
struggling to find ways to attract customers and differentiate their offerings. And yet, one
author has sold more than 50 million books with no media coverage and virtually no mainstream distribution. This might be the most extraordinary story in publishing today.
Australian-born Matthew Kelly has a once-in-a-generation-mind and message that allows him to effortlessly speak to Fortune 500 leaders at breakfast, grade school and high school students in the afternoon, massive public audiences in the evening - and people of all ages are devouring his books. This is why the forty-eight year old routinely outsells the biggest names in publishing: Stephen King, John Grisham, James Patterson, Joel Osteen, Tony Robbins, Simon Sinek and Brené Brown…
In 2018, The Biggest Lie in the History of Christianity sold 2,679,010 copies between its
August 15th release and Christmas. In 2017, Perfectly Yourself sold 1,291,155 copies. In 2016,
Resisting Happiness sold 2,113,205 copies in the four months leading up to Christmas. And in 2015, Rediscover Jesus sold 3,159,573 copies in its first five months. Consider it from another angle. In 2015, Taylor Swift’s blockbuster new album 1989 sold 1,993,000 copies and Ed Sheeran’s new album X sold 1,162,000 copies. But visit your local bookstore and you won’t find any of these titles on the shelves.
But coming back to books. Two books rounded out 2018 with the highest-selling number
of copies sold - Michelle Obama’s, Becoming (3.4 million copies), and Matthew Kelly’s The
Biggest Lie in the History of Christianity (2.7 million copies). The later did it without a single
media interview and without charting on a single bestseller list.
Over the past five years, someone in the United States has purchased a Matthew Kelly book every eight seconds, but mention his name and an astounding number of people will ask, “Matthew who?”
So, who is Matthew Kelly and how does he do it?
The year was 1993. This is before email and before the Internet, so if you wanted to share a
message you had to go on the road, and so he did. For fifteen years, between 1993 and 2008, Kelly spent an average of 250 nights on the road each year.
It all started on October 8, 1993. That evening he spoke to a small group of people in Sydney, Australia. A business student at the time, Kelly had no idea that his life was about to change forever. That speaking appearance led to four more the following month, and sixteen the month after that.
Since then, he has given more than 5,000 keynote presentations and seminars in more than fifty countries to a collective audience of more than five million people. His largest audience: 50,000 people at the Rose Bowl Stadium. His smallest audience: Sixteen third-graders at a school in Arlington, Virginia, where he read his children’s book Why am I Here? and answered the student’s questions, before presenting that evening to a group of more than one-hundred CEOs.
Earlier in his career he published titles with Harper Collins, Simon and Schuster, Random
House, Hyperion, and Penguin. But nobody would touch his spiritual writings, so he started
his own publishing company to release those titles. And then seven years ago, he managed to buy back the rights to almost his entire backlist and relaunch his own publishing company (Blue Sparrow). His publishing company also publishes more than fifty other authors under its Wellspring imprint.
“Selling books in a bookstore – bricks and mortar or virtual - is the most competitive place in the world to sell a book,” Kelly notes. It is for this reason that for 25 years he has largely ignored bookstore sales and focused on alternative channels for his books. Not “non-traditional” as the industry knows them, but alternative. What is that? “It’s not only where you sell the book, but when and why and how.” Sounds a bit mysterious and Kelly is comfortable with it staying that way.
Kelly’s early publishing education and success as an author was driven by “back of the room” sales. This experience made him keenly aware that trying to sell books in an environment with 100,000 competing titles (a.k.a. – a bookstore) is insanely difficult compared to one where there is no competition at all. Other speakers have done this successfully, but Kelly has translated it into the internet-age on an industrial scale.
His bestselling business titles are The Dream Manager and The Culture Solution. His bestselling personal development titles are Life is Messy, The Rhythm of Life and The Seven Levels of Intimacy. And his bestselling spiritual title, Rediscover Catholicism. “And doesn’t it need to be rediscovered!” Kelly quips.
But seriously, could there be a more challenging market than to sell a Catholic book at this time in history? Still, this title is the biggest selling Catholic book ever in the United States with more than seven million copies sold domestically. Catholic or not, it is impossible not to wonder, how many books in any category by any author sell seven million copies?
I know what you’re thinking, “How can these sales be verified?” One conversation with Dan Genovese, the president of Lake Book Manufacturing in Chicago and exclusive printer of all Kelly’s books and it becomes very clear that the Matthew Kelly phenomenon is very real.
Beyond the numbers is the real secret to his success: the message. The-best-version-of-yourself. He coined it at the beginning of his career. He trade-marked the phrase a few years later. And this phrase is what Kelly says allows him to speak to any audience, of any age, in any culture, secular or spiritual, about any topic.
“It just resonates with people,” he explains, “It inspires them and allows them to envision their next step. It fills people with passion and purpose. It focuses people in a way that is simple, practical, and achievable. Nobody needs me to tell them what they need to do to become a-better-version-of-themselves today. They know. They just need to be reminded of the amazing possibilities that exist for them when they choose that best-version-of-themselves.”
Twenty-five years later, the phrase - his phrase - is everywhere. Football coaches and baseball players use it in interviews. Business leaders and politicians use it. Reese Witherspoon on Oprah. Coach Mike Bayer on Dr. Phil. Rachel Hollis in her YouTube videos. American Crime Story. Captain Marvel the movie. Suits the TV show. Steph Curry in his Infiniti commercial. Olympic athletes. Chinese technology giant APUS. Fearless Motivation wrote a song about it. TIME magazine. Quora. A dozen TED talks. Inc Magazine. The Chopra Center. And 782,000,000 search results on Google.
The message resonates. It awakens something in people. In an age where so many people want to impose ideas on people, Kelly has returned to the original meaning of education “to draw out.” He insists, “The idea, the dream of becoming all we are capable of being is already inside people. All I am trying to do is point it out, draw it out, encourage them to make it a priority, inspire them to pay attention to their best and highest self.”
Who is Matthew Kelly? A thought-leader. A consummate entrepreneur. A publishing
phenomenon. An extraordinary communicator. A charismatic leader. Consultant to some of the biggest companies in the world. A disrupter. A genius. An innovator. Three-time cancer survivor. Father of five. Surprisingly introverted. A near scratch golfer. Oh, and one more thing, he writes books too.
Herein lies the problem, and the reason I suspect the mainstream have failed to grasp him. He defies categorization. He doesn’t fit neatly into any of the categories in a bookstore - or anywhere else for that matter. He is a category unto himself.
But ask him what he does, and he will tell you in a very casual and understated way, “I just
encourage people and organizations to become the-best-version-of-themselves.”
When I asked him if he would you ever consider publishing with one of the big houses again, he thought for a moment, then responded, “Yes, but it would have to be the right project, with an editor I really trust and respect, and a great team.” Maybe it is time to place his next book right at the center of mainstream publishing. Perhaps that is the key to selling his next 50 million books.