Banner photo: Gary Sizer on the summit of Katahdin - the finish point of the 2000 mile Appalachian Trail thru-hike. 9 Oct 2014
Aged 44 Gary Sizer (married, no kids) quit his corporate job, spent six months thru-hiking the 2000 miles of the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, had his before-and-after photos go viral on Reddit, quit his corporate job a second time, wrote a book about the hike, gave speeches about it, wrote another book about hiking, and now lives off his book sales. How did he do it?
Gary dug into the details for me - the planning and saving, the blog and the Kickstarter, the promotion strategies, the Reddit effect, the writing of the books, the time he almost went bankrupt, the publishing and marketing of the books. Skill, planning, hard work and good luck - Gary has it all.
There was so much good stuff from Gary that couldn’t fit into this profile. Look out for a detailed dive into his Kickstarter / writing / publishing / marketing process later this year.
The interview answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
After leaving the Marines you did a lot of travelling. How did you get started in blogging?
My background is in computer engineering and I was one of those people who had a website in the 1990s with the 'Under Construction' sign and the spinning GIFs and all that. I've got friends and family all over and what I used to do was print out the traditional Christmas newsletter. I wanted a more efficient version of that so I made my own website.
At the time Gary started the Appalachian Trail thru-hike his blog readership was a few hundred - friends, family and few fans who had stumbled across his website.
You already had the plan to hike the Appalachian Trail and a write a book a number of years before you did it, right?
Those two ideas have always been hand-in-hand. Probably because I spent so much time writing trip reports for weekend things and I figured, "If I'm going to do something that takes six months, the trip report is going to be several hundred pages. It looks like I'm writing a book."
Storytelling has always been a part of who I am. Instead of my mom telling us stories at bedtime, she would have us tell her stories.
Long before you did this trip you were telling stories in written and spoken form?
I spent several years as a consultant for a software company. My dad was a teacher and my first attempt at college was to get a teaching certificate. I've always been comfortable in front of groups.
You were planning the Appalachian Trail for several years beforehand?
It was a dream for many years. I finally put a deadline on it and turned it into a plan. I originally planned to hike in 2015 so I started saving up around 2012/2013. I opened up a special bank account just for my AT hike.
How much money did you need to save to do this?
That number for me is higher than most because I still had a mortgage to pay and bills at home so I did all of that money in addition to my trail expenses. But for just the hike, I was trying to save up somewhere around $6000 to $7000.
I assume your wife was in on the plan? (Gary and Katie don’t have children.)
Yes and I told everybody I knew. They probably got sick of hearing about it. Every time the opportunity would come up, "Someday, I'm going to hike the AT." Okay, sure. "No, really."
In fact you did the hike a year early, impulsively quitting your job and leaving three weeks later. What happened?
It was a perfect storm of conditions in 2014. My savings was a little bit ahead of schedule and things were happening at work that made it obvious that I wasn't going to be around for a while. It was a long term plan that got turned into a short term rash decision.
I called my boss and told them that I was quitting my job and then I called my wife. She told me that I should have done those two things in exactly the opposite order. It wasn't literally an 'in the moment' decision. When I finally did make that call, Katie wasn't too surprised.
In those three weeks Gary put together a Kickstarter to cover the costs of producing the book when he returned. (Link here - he raised US$3,071 on a US$2,500 target, from 57 backers.)
The Kickstarter certainly helped with the startup costs for the [book] but it also gave me that extra layer of accountability. Now, I've got a couple of hundred people who are watching me and invested in some way.
Did you put the Kickstarter money aside for book costs or did you use it then and replace it afterwards?
I put it aside. My wife is a bookkeeper. She's helped me establish a lot of really good habits and compartmentalization of funds is definitely one of them. [The project is] fun but it's also a business so we had to run it like one.
Even then, you were thinking of it as potentially being a business or were you just thinking of the book?
Both. I wanted to do this full time. I always envisioned this as being my first book, not just I'm going to write 'a book.'
Did you pick the Appalachian Trail because you thought it was a good adventure to launch this ‘business’ or did you want to do the Appalachian Trail and then you thought this stuff could be done off the back of it?
Definitely the latter. The AT was the first long distance trail that I'd ever heard of. My family, grandparents and generations back come from North Carolina. We're hill people.
The Kickstarter was still running as you left for the trail. Was it your wife who finished it up?
No, I did most of that from the trail. This is where promotion and audience building comes into play. A dollar from 1000 people each, that would be great. I don't need a thousand dollars from one person. I did everything I possibly could to get many eyeballs.
Obviously, I made Facebook posts and tweets. There’s a podcast network Frogpants Network that I've been following for years. They've got somewhere upwards of 50,000 regular listeners and sell advertising for $15 for a 30-second spot in between segments. I thought, "I'll buy 10 of those," so over the span of about three weeks, they read my thing on "The Morning Stream".
Lucky for me, the project itself is inherently interesting. If you're not a hiker and you're listening to your favourite show and you hear that, "One of my fellow audience members is... What? He’s walking six months and climbing... What? I'm going to go check this out.” That's where a significant portion of my supporters came from.
Then this is one of those pure luck things. One of the fans of the podcast is next-door-neighbour to a guy who has his own outdoors and camping podcast - Happy Camper Radio. Throughout the hike, I continued to call in regularly to that show with, "Here's Green Giant with an update from the Appalachian Trail," so I was getting 15 minutes of fame once a week for free.
You are blogging updates from the trail. The blog is called WheresTheNextShelter.com, which is also the title of the book. You had the title worked out beforehand?
I did. That all came together in the three weeks between quitting my job and heading to Springer Mountain. I had a brainstorming session, I came up with a bunch of names, I crossed everything off the list and that's what stuck.
Presumably that was also a domain name that was available in terms of deciding what would stick?
Yep. Lucky me. There's so much luck involved in this.
There's a lot that was going on that you chose not to include in the book, including this pre-trip preparation and how much you were communicating with people off the trail.
I wanted it to be a personal story. I didn't want to write a guide book or a diary or a report. My goal was to have something that would be readable as if you were reading a novel. I think too much logistics and planning and funding concerns and things like that kind of takes away from the story element of the experience.
Do you think that audiences reading wanted an isolated one-man-in-nature story and would have been put off if they realised you were also actively thinking about marketing it to your social media audience and about selling a book of the experience?
Yes, for sure. That side of it is really kind of its own story - maybe it’s the flip side to the coin or it's behind the curtain. I don't know. That's the DVD extras.
You're hiking the trail, you're reporting on your blog and the podcasts. Did your following grow in the six months you were on the AT?
To be honest, not much. I peaked when I got my Kickstarter funded and then the audience plateaued. [Sharing updates] became so physically and emotionally demanding. It takes everything that you've got just to hike. I didn't have the energy to find more readers.
Plus, I was somehow unaware that there were multiple Appalachian Trail related Facebook groups. I had a very little interest in exploring my other social media options while I was out there. I did all of that after the hike.
Gary had been an active Reddit user for years before the hike, browsing subreddits like “AskReddit and the pics and all the generic funny stuff”. On his first night home after completing the trail, he posted a set of four before-and-after photos to the subreddit r/pics. And that’s when his planning collided with viral luck.
It was literally the exact day that I came home. I remember sitting in my living room, going through my pictures and thinking, "I going to put these two side by side. I’ll throw this up on Reddit and just see what happens.” I did it on a lark. I went and brushed my teeth or whatever, came back to ten questions. By the time I answered those ten, there were a hundred lined up and it just grew and grew. Next thing I knew it was three o'clock in the morning and I had 10,000 messages to answer.
So you hit the Reddit spike. How do you take advantage of that?
Every chance I got, I would work in the website address or would say "By the way, I'm also writing a book.” That is a tricky one to squeeze in because if you just come right out and say it, then "You're a shill. You're just here to sell something to us." Downvotes. (Note: Downvotes mean an answer gets less visibility on the site.)
Every answer that I gave was a story. It wasn't so much of advertising. It was me being on stage.
You've promised them a book, the photos got picked up by various clickbait media. Did anything else come out of it?
Honestly, not much else. It attracted some attention to the website and I saw the number of subscribers go up and then of course, my Facebook and Twitter @garysizser followings went up significantly. So all I have to do is just continue to be interesting for however long it takes for a book to come out.
You’ve just finished the big thing where you had changing daily updates. How do you stay interesting when you're just living a normal life, post-project?
You don't want to use your social media platform to constantly promote your work. Just be real - my stupid puns, my vacation pictures. For some reason, people like that and they stuck around, at least long enough for the book to come out.
You made an attempt to go back to a salaried job and it didn't work so well.
One of the things that no one ever tells you about a long distance hike is what the experience of coming back to the real world is like. When it's over, it's over instantly. At a flip of a switch, you're back in the land of rectangles and deadlines and it's very emotionally difficult. There’s a very real thing called post-trail depression. I actually spent some time talking to a therapist.
How long did you last in the job before you gave it up for good?
Five months. I was distracted, not motivated. I needed the money but I couldn't bring myself to care about it, if that makes sense. I needed to leave. It was not a decision I took lightly.
Presumably, you were already trying to write the first book while this is going on.
That too. I'm trying to complete this passion project while I'm spending ten hours a day in a conference room watching people yell about ones and zeroes.
Once you leave your job, you are literally writing your book in the woods?
I had an old second generation iPad and a $10 Bluetooth keyboard from Staples. I would take my mobile office out there and just find a waterfall or a stream or someplace to sit and make a fire. It didn't matter if it was raining or snowing or whatever. I would go write for a couple of days or until the batteries run out.
That's a pretty purist approach to writing your adventure book!
I think it really helped. It gave an immediacy to my writing.
So you did the writing but outsourced the editing, and the cover and illustrations.
That's what the Kickstarter was for. When I began taking the writing part seriously, I researched the business side as thoroughly as I did the camping and hiking part. I realised that if you try to design your own book cover, that's like showing up at a job interview and giving yourself a haircut. None of this would be possible if I were just a solo act.
You did end up nearly going bankrupt. What happened?
Not having a job will do that to you. My wife is incredibly supportive, she carried as much weight of financial responsibility as she could, while I slowly drained my bank accounts so that I could go out into the woods and work on my stories. It brought me really, really close to zero on everything by the time the book was released.
From the launch of the book Where's The Next Shelter?, it started selling well enough to help you stay afloat?
I was really surprised by how well-received it was. Honestly, I was expecting my mom and some of my friends to buy copies and for it to fizzle. Word of mouth was great and it just kept going. I think the thing that really turned it around though was the speaking engagements and all the festivals that I went to.
How did you go about trying to market and sell this book?
I went back to the same podcast that I used to advertise the Kickstarter and said, "The thing that you believed in and trusted all these months ago is finally here. Let's see what you helped create." That's about the time when I started looking into buying ads on Facebook or Instagram.
A friend, Zach Davis, runs a website called TheTrek.co (formerly Appalachian Trials). He hiked the AT a couple of years ahead of me. He's content farming from hikers, giving them a platform to blog on. I bought advertisements on his website, which gets a lot of traffic. Happy Camper Radio helped out again. Plus word of mouth, and then real world stuff: public appearances, driving to bookstores, giving talks at schools, libraries, churches, REI, anywhere that would take me.
Eventually, I started meeting people who knew people and now I've got four public engagements this month and I only had to reach out to schedule one of them. It's been two years and it's starting to work.
I love getting in front of an audience and not just entertaining but actually having something useful. I don't want to be a motivational speaker in the traditional sense but I guess that kind of comes along with the territory now.
For your talks, you identified places - like REI stores - reached out to them and offered to do a free talk for them?
Yes. It really all starts with me putting my feet on the ground and knocking on doors, figuratively. "Can I come talk about my experience/teach a class? And can I please sell books at the end?"
What percentage said yes to that pitch?
Like 80%. I was really surprised. Again, luck comes into play. I think if I had just written a book about camping in general, responses would have been lukewarm but you throw in a 2000-mile hike and life-changing experience, they're like, "Oh, well. Yeah, we want that."
How do you go about creating these talks?
It's just like workshopping stand up set. I started with what I thought my material was going to be. I saw what got reactions. By this point, I've got my 15-minute version, my half hour version, my one-hour version, my two-hour version and I have modules that I can drop in or take out, depending on do you want to be entertained or educated.
Yeah. Again, I was really surprised. The eBook and paperback go hand in hand. You can release those book at the same time because it's all written word. The audiobook didn't come out until almost six months later because I had to actually go into the studio and record the whole thing.
This is another one of those things where luck comes into play. Skip from Happy Camper Radio said, "Well, why don't you come down and use our booth for the audiobook.” We sat in there for a week while I just read my book into a microphone, and I did all of my own editing too.
I would say that in terms of revenue, the audio version is probably equal to print and ebook combined times 1.5.
That's amazing. Any idea why?
I really think it's an emerging market. If you just look at the stats on audiobooks in general, there's been a huge surge over the last few years. You can consume literature while commuting. People listen to podcasts more.
What resources turned out to be particularly useful in producing and selling the book?
Again, Reddit to the rescue. It seems like there is a subreddit devoted to any topic you can think of.
How soon did you start working on the second book, Home Is Forward?
I took a lot of time off in between for personal reasons. My wife and I moved into a new house. And she had some hip surgery, I was a home nurse for a few months. She's fine now, by the way. Then once things stabilized, I started working on this second one.
Once again you did a Kickstarter for the costs. Did you make any changes based on what you’d learned? (Link here - he raised US$2,150 on a US$2,000 target, from 43 backers.)
Not too many. Probably the biggest change was that I had the ability to say, "We've already succeeded once so you're going to be taking less of a chance by supporting this project."
You did an AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Reddit to promote the second book once it was released. Why didn’t you do one for the first book?
I didn't want to seem like I was just overtly trying to sell something because at that point, I actually was overtly trying to sell something. I felt like a shill. I thought “Let’s see what I can do with traditional means.”
How did the AMA for the second book go?
The AMA kind of took on a life of its own. You can't really direct Reddit. Reddit does what Reddit wants, and people wanted to know more about my Appalachian Trail hike than they did about this second book. The AMA turned into, "Where's the Next Shelter? Part 2"
The Reddit AMA produced a huge spike in your blog visits and sales numbers.
I made Where's the Next Shelter? free on the same weekend that I released Home Is Forward. I was getting a couple of hundred free downloads each day. Then once I got onto that AMA, that thing hit the front page. I went from 120 free downloads to over 9000 the next day.
The big sales spike takes place one day after the big freebie spike. Books are free on August the 6th, then on August 7th, I had the highest sales day of the year. It's people who came into the AMA and then clicked on my link to the book and didn't care that it was no longer free.
Is there an ongoing effect after the big spike of interest?
There's definitely some lift that followed. Where's the Next Shelter? has been doing better consistently than it has over the last six months. I’m probably doing about 50% more sales of that book that I had in the months leading up to the AMA. I don't know how long that's going to last.
The thing about Reddit is it's very fickle and you can sell to Redditors but as soon as they figure out that's what you're doing, they'll turn on you. It's a really fine line to walk. On an AMA, you'll get this one question almost every time, "Would you rather fight a horse-sized duck or a duck-sized horse?" You're going to get questions like that in addition to the stuff that you really want to talk about. But Reddit loves it when you lean into that ridiculousness and just embrace the silly. They'll turn on you very quickly unless they figure out that you're one of them too, if that makes any sense.
I always said if I didn't quit my job for the AT, I would have been fired for spending too much time on Reddit. Either way, that thing was going to get me.
Looking at the Kickstarter and the sales figures, the second book is not as good as seller as the first one. Did you expect that?
I did. The second one is more or less general travel/memoir. There's something about the Appalachian Trail that sells itself. There are people who will walk up to my table at an AT festival and say, "Is your book about the Appalachian Trail? I'll take it." No other questions asked.
What does that mean for the future? You’ve written the AT book, you've written your history up until the AT book, what is book three?
Book three is currently in the works and it's about that post-trail depression thing. I can't find any resources on this subject and I think I'm going to try to fill that void. I want to put together something that's a combination of my own personal experiences, interviews with fellow hikers, interview with some mental health professionals. A more serious work, not really a storytelling thing.
Coming back to your talks, are you managing to get paid for any of these speeches yet?
Not as often as I would like. I have a few - libraries will pay a small stipend. I'm on the regular call back list to teach classes for REI, on “Nuts and Bolts of Hiking the AT". The opportunities are there but until I get my first TED Talk or something, this is not my primary means of supporting myself.
Is this because they don't pay for their speakers at all or, to be blunt they don't pay you. They only pay famous speakers.
I think you just nailed it. That's because they haven't heard of me, yet.
And when you do get paid, are we talking like tens or hundreds or thousands of dollars?
We're still in the hundreds. What I'd like to do is actually go back to the marketing world and get back in front of some of the CEOs and VPs and tell them about risk taking and creative solutions to audience building, how I found inspiration and peace in the wilderness and why storytelling matters in the business world.
You still need to actively work to spread the word, reach more people, let more people know you and your books exist. Is that right?
Yes. The hiking community, at least the Appalachian Trail portion of it, has found me. I was filtering my water at a stream and someone said, "Are you Gary Sizer?" Because he had seen those pictures on the internet and had read my book.
I don't have an audience problem as far as the AT is concerned but I specifically write so that non-hikers will enjoy the story. I don't use alienating jargon. It's the story first. The technical stuff is all background.
What I'm looking to branch out to is the people who would ordinarily waiting for David Sedaris' next book to come out. I need something that's 2000 to 5000 words short stories or essays that are funny and poignant. That's me. They just don't know it yet.
How are you actively working on growing your audience and spreading the word about you in the books?
That's where I'm stuck. That's where I am going to need some assistance. I'll probably going to need to get an agent. I worked with a local marketing firm last year and we did a press release for the audiobook and sent it out to a lot of non-hiking outlets and New Yorker magazine, basically a mainstream reading audience. I didn't really get the response I was looking for so I'm still trying. That's the thing I'm struggling with right now. How to get out from under the AT umbrella?
In a Reddit post you said you were making enough money to match a Walmart greeter salary. Is that about accurate?
Well, now I've been promoted to senior Walmart greeter. I got that dollar an hour raise. Realistically, I'm not making anywhere near the money that I was before but I'm making enough. The tradeoff being that I'm happier than I've ever been. I'm being paid in smiles.
Would this work if your wife wasn't bringing in a steady salary as well?
It would work differently. If I were a single man right out of college and cooking up noodles on a hot plate, this would be the perfect job for me.
But you wouldn't be nearly as good at it because you wouldn't have the marketing background yet and you wouldn't have the storytelling background and all of the writing experience.
That's true. There's no way I could do this without Katie and not just because she's the smart one and has the steady job and a salary. Her emotional support is just as valuable, if not more.
You've got some more books lined up. Any more adventures or you think you've probably done with that?
Definitely not done with adventures. As far as long trails go, the Continental Divide is definitely on my list. Not just for me, my wife wants to come this time.
- The books: Where's The Next Shelter? and Home Is Forward
- The blog: WheresTheNextShelter.com
- Social media: Facebook and Twitter @garysizser
There was so much good stuff from Gary that couldn’t fit into this profile. Look out for a detailed dive into his Kickstarter / writing / publishing / marketing process later this year.