An Interview with Self-Publishing Expert Gary Scott
Gary Scott is a millionaire many times over. He and his wife Merri built their self-publishing industry from nothing, and now sell reports and newsletters to a clientele that spans 82 countries. Currently, he and Merri live on a farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains and spend their winters in the beautiful mountains of Ecuador.
Gary graciously agreed to spend share with you how he got his start, how he built his multimillion-dollar business, and the best ways for you to follow in his footsteps.
CI: Let’s start with the basics … how did you come to be in the self-publishing business?
Gary Scott: Actually, I came into it as a salesman. When I was 21 years old, I was an insurance salesman for Prudential, and one guy I tried to sell life insurance to in Portland, Oregon (where I lived) must have liked my presentation, because he talked me into taking a job selling mutual funds in Hong Kong, It was a brand-new experience for me. I’d never even been on an airplane, much less out of the United States. In fact, I’d never been out of Portland.
So I went to Hong Kong and started selling mutual funds. I’d always hated selling individually, person-to-person. But when I went to Hong Kong, the culture was different and you couldn’t reach people by making telephone calls. Writing letters to them was the only way to do it. So, initially, I started writing to make contacts to get people to learn about and buy mutual funds.
From there, our business evolved into writing an investment newsletter – which, in a way, was copywriting because it was aimed at (eventually) getting people to buy mutual funds. So we were copywriters writing a newsletter to accomplish a specific end. Since that time, our business has been kind of confusing. I’m always asking myself, “What am I? Am I a writer? Am I a copywriter? Am I an economist? Or am I a publisher?” The reality is that I’m all four blended together.
CI: You’ve been involved in many different product creations. Would you describe a couple of your favorites?
Gary Scott: We’ve published and done the copywriting to market probably 50 or 60 reports on different kinds of international investments, and we publish and do all the copywriting for a number of newsletters. My “World Reports” newsletter has been the main one. It’s been going now for almost 30 years. We had another one called “Fund Help International,” and we currently have one called the “Multi-Currency Educational Service.” Plus, we have one called “Ecuador Living,” which is all about Ecuador. (We live there in the winter.)
If I had to pick one favorite product of mine, it was a report based on a book written in the early 90s by a fellow named Harry Figgie: “The Upcoming Bankruptcy of 1995.” It was a very scary book talking about how the American economy was going to become bankrupt, and there was going to be a huge depression, worse even than the depression of the 1930s. When I read it, I was emotionally impacted by it. It was on The New York Times best-seller list, so I knew that many, many other people were emotionally impacted by it as well.
After reading it, I realized that because I had been investing internationally for 20 years or more, I knew the answers to the problems Figgie raised. I knew that people could invest outside the United States and how they could do it. So, I wrote an eight-page marketing letter and created a report called “International Investing Made Easy.” It was specifically designed to reach the market of people who had read Harry Figgie’s book and were afraid to invest in U.S. markets because of it.
This is where publishing and copywriting go together so well. When a person’s a good copywriter and they see a need in the marketplace for information, they can not only write the copy, they can literally create the product. In this particular instance, I saw a specific need – and before I even created the product, I sat down and I wrote the copy. And then, from the copy, I created the product.
We made millions and millions of dollars from that particular report. It was 144 pages, and we sold it for $149. It was highly, highly profitable.
When you have this close coordination between what the marketing story says and what the product actually is, you get a powerful combination. We’ve built a whole business around just that one instance of copy creating the product and then building a clientele.
CI: What, exactly, do you mean by the term “marketing story?”
Gary Scott: The main competition we have as copywriters or as publishers today is for the attention of the individual. We are in bigger competition for that than we are for money. Many readers in many markets have more money to spend than they have time to read marketing copy – but people love stories.
A copywriter needs to have the ability to grab – and keep – the reader’s attention. That’s the hard part. Everyone’s used to headlines, but once you get somebody into your copy, you have to keep moving them along. And that’s where a story is really powerful, because stories bring problems to life in an easy-to-understand and interesting way.
I actually wrote a novel – “The 65th Octave” – because I wanted to sharpen my skills at telling stories. The key to every story, every movie, just about every song you ever hear is a sympathetic character striving for a worthwhile goal. If you have a sympathetic character striving for a worthwhile goal, people identify with that character. And if you have a story about such a character in your marketing copy, some element within the buyer – that element being a need they have – will identify with this sympathetic character trying to strive for this worthwhile goal, and so they’ll keep reading. And because they’re sympathetic to the character, they’ll be more open to the action the copy asks them to take.
The story is very, very important. The busier people get, the more important the story becomes. You would think it would become less important – that we need to take more shortcuts, that we need to write shorter copy, that we need to be brief – but that’s not true. The good storyteller will capture the audience and keep the audience. The longer you keep the reader reading, the more likely they are to take the action you want them to take.
CI: Tell us more about how a copywriter can come up with ideas to create products.
Gary Scott: Usually, the products that work best stem from our own needs. When I read Harry Figgie’s book about impending economic disaster, I felt very fearful. That feeling is what led me to the copy for “International Investing Made Easy.”
Examine your own feelings as you walk through life. You may be in an airport, for example, standing in a long line, completely fed up with airlines, completely fed up with the airport, completely fed up with the security and all the things we have to go through to get on an airplane today. When you feel that anger, that frustration, from that could stem a product. You could say, “I’m fed up. There must be hundreds of thousands of other people who are fed up, too. Maybe I could create a product that could help people ease that frustration.”
That product might be a complete guide on how to get along with airport security … or seven valuable lessons on how to get on an airplane more easily … or how to make air travel pleasant again. There’s a multitude of different products that might stem out of your frustration, but it begins with the feeling. I think in terms of fear and panic or greed in the marketing of financial products. But whatever the feeling is – whether it’s anger, love, hate, greed, or fear – examine your own desires, and that will show where the need is.
That’s why I always start by writing the copy first when I’m creating a new product. I write the copy and then the copy leads me. It forces me to create the product that delivers the solution to the problem I created in the copy.
CI: What traits do you think a copywriter needs to succeed in self-publishing?
Gary Scott: The two most important traits are empathy and a keen sense of observation.
You need to capture a sense of the national psyche. To see what’s going on in people’s minds, I read the best-sellers listed in USA Today and The New York Times. That helps me become aware of what people are thinking. Most books on the best-seller list get there because of word-of-mouth. One reader enjoys it and tells his or her friends to read it.
So I’m always asking myself why people are reading these books and referring them to other people. I also pay attention to what I read in the newspaper and what I observe in day-to-day life. That’s one reason I like to travel so much. You start to see differences, contrasts, trends, or distortions in different places that can help magnify and make it easier to see how people are reacting to change in the world as it unfolds.
CI: How does copywriting for an information product differ from writing for other products?
Gary Scott: If you are writing for an information product, you generally have something that solves a here-and-now, very specific problem. For example: “How to Avoid Airport Security Lines.” That is a very specific problem, and you have a very specific solution. So your copy has to point out what the problem is and explain how this information product provides a current, useful service. It has to try to explain what the benefits of that service are – what the reader will gain from that information in terms that are as concrete and emotional as possible.
If you’re writing for periodical like a magazine or a newsletter that is going to be delivered on a regular and systematic basis, you need to broaden the problem. In other words, the problem changes from “How to Avoid Airport Security Lines” to problems with travel in general.
So while your copy for the report would focus on an immediate, specific problem that the report will solve (“The only 15 airports in the world with security you can trust – and why you need this information right now!”), your copy for the periodical would go for a larger, longer-term perspective (“The problem with travel in today’s world is that we not only have to face bigger and bigger crowds, larger airplanes, and more crowded airports, but there’s the risk of terrorism, as well.”). Your copy for the periodical might briefly mention the 15 safest airports, but only as one of many things the reader will learn in upcoming issues.
With the copy for the report, you’re selling a one-time thing. For the periodical, you want to prepare the reader for the long haul.
CI: What do you love most about writing?
Gary Scott: Ah. I could go on and on and on about that. I’m kind of a recluse, so I really like the solitude. I get up early in the morning, usually four or five o’clock, and sit and watch the sunrise. I have a cup of coffee, and I write. I’ve got a lot to say, but I don’t particularly like to say it one on one. If you’re talking to someone else, they might interrupt you. But if you’re writing, no one can interrupt you. You get to say exactly what you want to say, and then you get to go back and see if you said it right. You have time to express yourself exactly the way you want to. That’s the first thing.
The second thing I like about writing is that it gives you the ability to communicate with like-minded people. We live in an incredibly marvelous era with the Internet, and our business is now Internet-only. We have clients in 82 countries. We work from a farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and in the winter we live in a remote village deep in the Andes – and yet we can communicate with people all over the world. It makes life more interesting. If I had to communicate only with my neighbors, it might not be as interesting, because we don’t all have similar views and backgrounds and experiences.
The third thing is that old saying: “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Humanity faces some enormous challenges in the years ahead. Through writing, we can help others. I recently spoke at a seminar conducted by a large bank in Denmark. While I was in Copenhagen, one of the seminar delegates – a man I’d never met – came up to me and said, “Gary, I just want to thank you. Ten years ago, you wrote about this bank. I invested a hundred thousand dollars, and it’s worth more than a million dollars now.” Well that made me feel warm and fuzzy all day long, knowing that I’d helped somebody I didn’t know make all this money and enhance his financial security. You really can make a difference in people’s lives.
We’ve been very concerned about the environment for many, many years, and have tried to do things that would help. It’s hard convincing industry that it’s profitable to be environmentally sensitive. A year ago, we convinced a bank in Europe to create a green portfolio that we could write about and track for our readers. Since then, that portfolio is up 155%. Now investors are clamoring to get into environmentally sensitive types of stocks. Being able to make an environmental statement that reaches people globally makes Merri and me feel wonderful. It’s all possible because of writing.
CI: What is the best piece of advice you have for somebody who wants to get into copywriting and product creation?
Gary Scott: Two things. Number one, write – and don’t worry about what you write or how it comes out. Write it as if you were going to say it. There are no rules. There are no regulations. There are no life experiences and no type of education that you have to have to be a writer. The only thing required is desire. If my high school and university English teachers were still alive and found out I make my living writing, they would probably die of a stroke. I certainly had no background other than my desire to communicate with people.
The second thing is to write as much as you can about things that you love. Try to write from the heart. If you write about things that you’re enthused about, it will come out well.
That’s the main theme of our publishing program – to get in touch with yourself, understand your wants, needs, and desires. Then, write about your wants, needs, and desires, but converted into other people’s concerns. Read everything you can about what you want to be involved with. Then start writing. Use what other people are writing as a template to write about what you are interested in and what you love.
Read. Write. Be involved with things that you love.
CI: What is the income potential of copywriting for information products and creating your own products.
Gary Scott: In our worst years, Merri and I have made $300,000 to $400,000. In our best years, we make millions of dollars. We started with nothing. We currently have five houses here in the Blue Ridge Mountains. We own a hotel in Ecuador – a hacienda with 800 acres. We have millions of dollars in the bank. Zero debt. All five of our kids got a great education. No real financial concerns. And that’s all because of writing.
Keep in mind that I’ve never had a large circulation. My biggest reader list at any one time has been about 22,000 in 82 countries … that’s compared with publications that have circulations in the hundreds of thousands. We have a very small, highly, highly defined niche market. Even in that very small market, when you combine the ability to write copy and create your own products, it can be incredibly profitable. When you do that, you get to keep most of the revenue that comes in.
CI: Any parting thoughts?
Gary Scott: I would urge anyone who is thinking about writing to recognize that this is one of the biggest growth industries in the world. We live in an information era, and every day there are vast amounts of new information out there – so much information that it’s hard for people to keep up. The result is an ever-increasing need for writers to take in all that data and refine it into material that’s simple, easy-to-comprehend, interesting, and useful.
The opportunity is phenomenal for anyone who wants to get into copywriting, writing, or publishing. The more information that’s out there, the more opportunity there is for writers.
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