Behind the "Seens" with A.J. Jacobs - "It's All Relative"

Behind the “Seens” with A.J. Jacobs – “It’s All Relative”

Find out how your cousin (and mine) authentically sells books and connects with the world!

Best-selling author, friend, cousin, human guinea pig and general all around great guy, A. J. Jacobs is out with his newest book It’s All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World’s Family Tree. He was kind enough to chat with me in the midst of his book launch to share his secrets on how he successfully connects with loyal fans. We chatted about religion, politics, sex, family as well as broccoli, bubble gum and black sheep – oh yeah, we talked about social media and book promotion too!

Check out our conversation – you will definitely learn a thing or two!


What’s been a game-changer for you regarding online marketing, or any marketing?

Well, I’ve learned a lot from you and appreciate the tips you share in your newsletter. I do enjoy promoting my books on Facebook and Twitter (and engaging with readers) and I’ve found that it’s best to be really up front.
There are two ways to do this. One is to be blatantly obvious. In fact, I recently shared a post that said “Blatantly self-promotional list of nice things people said about my book.” My audience knows I’m being up front and it seems to work.

Second, even when sharing self-promoting information, I like to make sure there is some added value and/or humor. Recently I spoke at the JCC and I posted “Join us at the JCC even if you’re not a J.”

That isn’t really a joke, but hopefully, it makes someone smile and they find the post at least humorous instead of annoying.

Also, when I promote a podcast, I try to pull out 3 or 4 things to mention. I recently did a Q&A about tobacco enemas and rotting fruit and other important topics – and then the link to the interview. So maybe that is a bit more interesting than “please read my interview”.

Oh my, how will we top that? What I like is that this is such a great extension of your brand and tone. Your writing is also done this way, so it works because you use humor and they know they’ll get a chuckle as they listen in.

Thanks. I hope so. My friend Morgan Spurlock (the documentarian) says to “give them some bubble gum with their broccoli” which sounds a bit odd, but I get the point which is to entertain as well as educate.

That’s why your books are such a hit. There are always some laugh out loud moments. I literally find myself doing a “spit-take” while I’m reading.

You are very nice and one of the best supporters of my writing. Here’s a great strategy for people. Become friends with Nancy Sheed and she will promote your book very successfully.

Aww. Thanks A.J. It’s my pleasure!

Do you have a preferred network or social media platform? Where do you feel like you connect the most, have the most fun or it is easiest for you to go to?

I’m on two platforms, Facebook and Twitter. I have 80,000 followers on Facebook and I think about 25,000 on Twitter. I feel good about that most days, but then I’ll look at a friend who has 4.2 million followers and decide I’m a loser.

It’s all relative, of course (book title!) and you can’t think like that. Comparing yourself to others is such a waste of mental energy. So back to the question; Facebook I like a lot because I am able to do longer posts and hopefully more entertaining posts.

I like posting pictures and the posts that resonate the most are photo-driven.

One of my books is being made into a sitcom (on CBS) and my wife and I took photos of the set and shared them. That was a big hit. People loved it even when I use them to promote the book. I’ve shared photos of me holding the book (this might have been my publisher’s idea) and people really liked it. It is called Facebook for a reason, right? People like faces!

On Twitter, I do more one-liners and try to do 2 non-promotional tweets (observations or jokes) for every promotional tweet.

I do feel guilty every day that I’m not on Instagram, or Snapchat or Facebook Live or whatever. It’s exhausting how much I’m missing.

You are absolved! I say this to people all the time. People who do all the platforms can’t do it well unless they have a support team of people (5 or 6) doing it for them. I know you want to be you. You want the interaction to be from you and with that level of engagement you are so absolved. You do NOT need to be on more channels.

I want to share this about your Facebook posts, the ones that I see that get a lot of engagement, are when your wife Julie posts on your behalf, or shares her take on what’s going on. It’s always funny. You are also wonderful about sharing some self-deprecating photos of yourself and I think we all feel like we get to see the “behind the scenes” (see what I did there?) version of A.J., and we appreciate that.

I do like to post unattractive photos of myself, yes. And they are easy to find. I remember one that got a lot of traction was one of me on a roller coaster with my kids – about to throw up. For the record, I did not get sick, but I did look like I was going to.

The other thing that has worked well for me is posting a short post that has nothing to do with my books. Posts that are somewhat political or outright political have worked.

I did a post about a year and a half ago that I think qualified as “viral”. It got about 20,000 shares. It was a post about an Ann Coulter comment during the Republican debates last year. I’ll keep it clean, but she said something like “How many f*****g Jews do they think are in the United States? She felt they were trying to pander to the Israel lobby.

Well, I figured this was a question that should be answered. So I did a post about how many f*****g Jews are there? I did the math about how often Jews have intercourse, how many were having intercourse while she was speaking and the post took off. That helped me get a ton of new followers on Facebook.

I’ll also add that political posts have been the reason that I’ve lost followers too, and I’m okay with that. I don’t need everyone to follow and it’s a decision that was right for me.

I never used to do political humor, but in the age of Trump, I decided that I can’t keep quiet anymore, and if I lose followers, then so be it.

I recall us discussing this back in May. I wondered if they were just showing up more, or if you were writing more of these types of posts. When I asked, you said yes, it’s become more frequent and more common. I found it interesting to hear your results.

It goes back to your authenticity. You are the nicest guy, and we all want everyone to love us. This also goes back to knowing your audience. You understand that not everyone is your perfect reader, and it’s okay because the others that stick around and follow you really do love what you write, and post and share.

Right! My friend Tim Ferris says there are over 300 million people in the United States alone, and if 90% of them don’t like you, but 10% do, that’s 30 million people. That’s an insane amount of people, so hopefully, my percentage is a little higher than 10% (of people who know me), but you definitely don’t need to appeal to everyone.

It’s impossible to do.

What is different now that you’ve been doing this? What’s moving the needle that is different?

Well, one thing that I’m going to try for the first time is something that many of my author friends have done. I’m sending out a free .pdf of part of my book to my email list so that people can get a a free sample of the content.

My book is about family and ancestry and genealogy, and I have a 20-page appendix at the end. It’s a beginners/dummies guide to genealogy.

I’m going to send that out and I hope that will attract people. There’s another interesting thing happening with this book as well. The marketing department from Simon and Schuster is trying something which is new for us both.

There are several DNA companies who expressed an interest to be involved. So we are partnering with one of them and in the book, you’ll get a discount code for 40% off of their DNA testing.

The book is about $26, so you’re actually going to make money by buying this book.

That’s a great promotion!

I ask authors what they are doing to promote their book, or how they plan to get people to the site and engage with them. Often, the response I get is “well, nothing really.”

It’s a big missed opportunity. I’m glad you are embracing the marketing and promotion part of being an author.

I do enjoy the marketing part much more than I used to. I look at it as a creative endeavor instead of a chore. You’re creative, and lots of marketing people I know are, too.

When I was promoting the book I wrote about the Bible, I tried to visualize how to market that. It’s the Bible. There’s so much to talk about that it was hard to know where to start.

So, I split it up into tiny slivers. I remember I wrote a piece about sex advice from the bible for Glamour magazine. I also did a piece about music in the Bible for Spin magazine.

This is a great PR strategy. Did you use excerpts from the book or were these articles that you wrote?

They were original posts. I did a lot of writing, which is extra work and not always my favorite thing, but they worked. The ideal thing would be an excerpt or a review or feature which is a more direct way to say “buy this book.”

But this works too, and the more tangential connections you can make, the better it is overall for the success of the book.

Well, I can tell you that Google loves that. This has become a key factor in SEO (search engine optimization). It’s a good thing for you, for search and your website, even if you can’t draw a line from an article to book sales.

Okay, it’s time to share: What is your secret sauce to connecting with people or to getting people connected? I don’t want to give away the book, but you did try to organize the world’s largest family reunion. That’s pretty interesting.

Well, I’ll share what I know. This book was interesting because it is really a book about social networks and connectivity, and how we are all related. So I joined this family tree on some of the websites like and it was like LinkedIn on steroids.

If I wanted to find a producer on GMA, I’d figure out how they are related to me. Like we figured out that you are my 8th cousin 3 times removed. Then I’d email the producer and I’d be upfront and say “Hey, we’re related. Believe it or not, we are cousins” and I’d explain how I found that and then ask if they’d like to do a favor for a “family member.”

It didn’t always work. I’m sure some of them reported me to security but it did work well quite a few times. You have to be really specific when dealing with traditional media. You have to be personal and then make your pitch.

Another secret would be putting myself in my reader’s mind. I try to understand what others want to see and read. I also try to be aware of what is annoying to me and avoid that. I like posts that are humorous and value-added or things you might now know.

Like when you connected President Obama to some the most right-wing people in the Senate? That’s a big secret sauce moment for this book. That worked out pretty well.

So this brings up something that’s interesting. I’m actually a bit torn about celebrity culture. On one hand, I love it, and on the other, I think it’s destroying society.

So if you can incorporate a celebrity angle that will work. You know… emailing and telling people they were related to me is one thing, but if I could show them how they are related to their hero or a personal hero—then they were hooked!

Instead of focusing on your stellar stats, I wanted to see if posts that get shared and re-tweeted (high engagement) are your indications of what’s working versus the number of likes or followers?

Yes! Engagement is the most important.

For a while, I was doing an article for Esquire Magazine and I was crowd-sourcing advice. I don’t know if someone should break up with their girlfriend or marry their co-worker but the crowd might.

I’d ask people to send in questions and post them on Facebook. I’d get hundreds of replies and I’d engage with them and then select the best to be in the magazine article.

I don’t have time to do it now, but I loved the concept. It got people excited because they were mentioned in Esquire magazine. And people have strong opinions about all kinds of things.

Like airplane armrests and what is the proper way to share it or how to handle the issue when you are in the middle seat. People were super passionate, and I loved that.

I love questions on Facebook, but not when people ask without adding content.

Like when you see a post that says are you a beach person or a mountain person? With no explanation or story.

Right. That question is fine, but the person asking should also share a funny or touching story to provide context. That sort of engagement is very genuine.

It''s All RelativeIs there anything you can share with us about stuff that didn’t make the book? What got left on the cutting room floor? Are there family secrets you couldn’t share? (Us content people want to know!)

You are one of my readers, and you help me when I’m writing. I’ll send a few chapters out to some of my readers and ask them to tell me what they found most interesting and what wasn’t interesting.

If several people all say that they didn’t like a chapter, I’ll cut it. Not on the opinion of one person, but if there appears to be a consensus.  It’s a great indicator of what my readers like

This is a great editing tip. Editing by crowdsourcing – asking for and getting feedback from your readers. I’m not sure all editors will agree, but it’s great to hear what works for you.

Now, A.J., what do you do to get away from everyone when you need to? You know post-book tour and those days when you need to disconnect?

Well, my wife Julie started a business, Watson Adventures, with a friend of mine, where they do scavenger hunts in museums and historic neighborhoods. And they are excellent because they really are offline. Not using a phone, just using your brain and looking for clues in paintings and things like that.

She’s converted me. I don’t think I grew up liking this sort of thing but now I really enjoy it.

Well, they are now in most cities so when we travel, we always do the scavenger hunt in that city. We were in San Diego recently, and we did the one there. It’s really fun.

And it’s a great way to check the quality of the experience!

A.J., I love the new book, and I already have a few people who are getting it for Christmas. I’ll include the link below for everyone so they can buy it, too.

Thanks, Nancy. You are a big supporter, as is your sister Holland (who owns a bookstore).  I am going to St. Louis on the tour, and I specifically chose St. Louis because of your sister.

That’s awesome! That’s so nice of you, and she’s really looking forward to it. I’m can’t wait to share this book with lots of people. Thanks, A.J.

You can find A.J. and more about his new book on his website, Facebook, and Twitter.

You can find his book on Amazon, Barnes & Nobleand, of course, any local or independent bookstore you support.

Lastly, here’s my GoodReads review of It’s All Relative:

In yet another brilliant book looking at the state of the world as only he can, A.J. Jacobs manages to bring the world a little closer with his pursuit of creating a single family tree of every human on the planet. His hilarious tales of cousin connections, while planning a record-breaking family reunion literally had me in countless laugh-out-loud moments. All the while, each chapter manages to shed new light on how intermingled family, history, DNA, immigration and civilization have become. It definitely made me want to me to do more digging around my own family tree. There’s something for everyone in this witty, earnest and heartfelt journey.

Buy a copy now!