How a self-published book broke ‘all the rules’ and became a bestseller

A book changed Cohn Glay’s life last summer.

A TikTok ad drew him to “The Shadow Work Journal,” a slim workbook that guides readers to explore the hidden parts of their subconscious — their shadow selves, in the book’s vernacular. He ordered a copy, and was soon back on TikTok, enthusiastically recommending it to his followers.

“If you’re on a spiritual journey, you should definitely get one of these,” he says Videourged viewers to purchase the book in the TikTok store.

The video went viral, eventually receiving more than 58 million views. Glay, 43, who lives in Baltimore, began holding online classes to guide people through the magazine. Over the next few months, people who watched his videos bought more than 40,000 copies of the book on TikTok, and Glay earned more than $150,000 in commissions. By December, he had quit his job as a Home Depot sales representative and now runs his own business, “Happy Healin,” which offers spiritual advice and coaching to clients via Zoom sessions.

Glay is part of the army of TikTok influencers who helped turn “The Shadow Work Journal” into a mega bestseller. He’s so closely associated with the book that people often assume he wrote it. “It’s become a daily thing to tell people that I’m not the author,” he said.

The actual creator of “The Shadow Work Journal” is Kaela Shaheen, a 25-year-old writer from Texas with a background in marketing, who self-published the book in 2021, and has since been crowned “The Self-Help Queen of TikTok,

After the magazine took off on TikTok, Shaheen sold more than a million copies. Most of those — about 700,000 copies — were sold through the TikTok Shop, and relentlessly marketed by passionate influencers like Glay, who earns a 15 percent commission on every sale from Shaheen’s company, Zenfulnote.

Shaheen’s unusual path to bestseller shows how TikTok has transformed the marketing and sale of books. In the past few years, publishers have moved quickly to leverage the platform’s power as viral videos and influencer reviews have boosted sales of blockbuster authors like Colleen Hoover, Emily Henry, and Sarah J. Maas.

But Shaheen is perhaps the first self-published nonfiction author to have achieved massive success on the platform, a feat she has achieved by fully harnessing its potential not just for marketing, but also for direct sales.

Their astonishing trajectory has left many authors and publishers wondering whether that formula can be replicated, and how publishers can thrive in the new online retail ecosystem — a fast-moving, algorithm-driven marketplace that threatens to cut them off entirely.

“To think that she sold a million copies in the United States alone without a publisher, without any international expansion, without any physical support, it breaks all the rules of a bestseller,” said Albert Lee, a literary agent at United Talent Agency who represents Shaheen.

Others wonder just how big Shaheen’s self-help empire could grow. Earlier this year, Shaheen signed a five-book deal with Simon & Schuster after months of coaxing by major publishing houses.

Simon & Schuster won her over with an unusual arrangement: a seven-figure advance, plus 50-50 profit sharing. Publishers typically give writers an advance and then a 15 percent share of royalties if they earn back the advance. The deal included a new, expanded edition of “The Shadow Work Journal,” released in late April with a first printing of 100,000 copies, as well as two new books by Shaheen.

“We really wanted to show Keila that we have a long-term vision,” said Michelle Herrera Mulligan, vice president and associate publisher of Primero Sueño Press/Atria, the Simon & Schuster imprint that signed Shaheen. “There’s still a huge untapped readership for this book.”

In person, Shaheen comes across as soft-spoken and reserved, not a hyper-driven entrepreneur or charismatic wellness guru.

During an interview at a restaurant in midtown Manhattan in late April, Shaheen seemed a little stunned by the flood of attention and money she was receiving for her book. The next day, she appeared on “Good Morning America” ​​to promote the new edition of “The Shadow Work Journal,” then had meetings at the offices of her publisher and literary agent.

Shaheen, who has previously suffered from acute social anxiety, said she was surprised at how calm she felt.

“I’m a very introverted person, so this is a testament to how much I’ve evolved,” she said.

Shaheen first came up with the idea of ​​shadow work in 2021, when she was feeling anxious and depressed due to the pandemic. After earning a degree in business and psychology from Texas A&M in 2020, she found work in online retail and marketing — including working as a creative strategist for TikTok. After emerging from the isolation of COVID, Shaheen found herself feeling isolated and found working in a corporate environment overwhelming.

One day, when she was searching for therapeutic journaling prompts online, she came across references to Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s idea of ​​the shadow self, which posits that parts of our subconscious can harbor hidden fears and desires. She learned about a practice called shadow work, a somewhat liminal field that draws on Jung’s ideas to guide people to interrogate their shadow self, with the goal of acknowledging the parts of themselves that make them feel guilty, ashamed, or afraid.

Shaheen began posting videos on Instagram and TikTok about the shadow work exercises she was trying, and began receiving messages from viewers asking for a printed guide. So in the fall of 2021, she self-published the journal, and began selling copies for $19.99.

The first edition — which didn’t even have Shaheen’s name on the cover — was a slim paperback that guided readers through shadow work with interactive exercises, including Mad Libs-style fill-in-the-blanks (“As a child, I was told not to ___, this made me very ___”), inner child affirmations (“I am protected”) and journaling prompts (“What is your greatest fear in life?”).

Sales were slow at first. Then, in late 2022, TikTok expanded into online retail. The platform began selling products directly through the app and created an affiliate program that allowed influencers to post videos about products in the store and earn commissions. When Shaheen began selling journals through TikTok, requests began pouring in from influencers who wanted free copies in exchange for video promotion.

TikTok was soon flooded with emotional videos from users filling out the journal’s pages; some said the journal cheaper than therapy,

The magazine also raised some skepticism. Some on social media described the shadow work as anti-Christian and even Satanic. Others said it didn’t live up to the hype, or complained that their feeds seemed to be flooded with ads for the magazine.

Still others questioned Shaheen’s credentials as a mental health guide. Shaheen — who is described in her author bio as “a certified sound healer and behavioral therapy practitioner” — has completed an online training course in cognitive-behavioral therapy, but she is not a licensed therapist.

Some experts in Jungian psychology worry that “The Shadow Work Journal” oversimplifies Jung’s ideas.

“My concern about this is that the shadow is really complex,” said Connie Zweig, a retired psychotherapist who has published several books on shadow work. “Searching in the dark without guidance, without expertise, can be risky.”

Shaheen said she always wrote this journal to provide an introduction to shadow work, not as a comprehensive guide.

“This journal serves as a bridge,” she said. “I wouldn’t say it’s designed to replace therapy.”

By September, the book reached No. 1 on Amazon. In October, Shaheen met two agents from United Talent Agency, Rebecca Greidinger and Albert Lee. They told her the agency could help her gain an international readership and get her book into physical stores.

Lee said Shaheen signed with them about a week before the Frankfurt Book Fair, the biggest fair for international rights in publishing, and that the agency then sold translation rights to “The Shadow Work Journal” in 27 countries.

Shaheen was still reluctant to hand over the U.S. rights to “The Shadow Work Journal.” She was already a bestseller, and “the initial offers were not attractive,” she said. Her agents agreed that a normal publishing deal might not benefit her.

“Keila is at the forefront of opening up this entirely new market and ecosystem,” Lee said. “It became very clear that in traditional publishing, all of us were far behind Keila’s work.”

Shaheen was impressed by Primero Sueño’s profit-sharing proposal, which included plans to publish and market Spanish-language editions. Shaheen, whose father is from Puerto Rico and whose mother is from Brazil, saw the potential to expand her reach among Spanish speakers.

It’s still unclear whether “The Shadow Work Journal” will be popular among a wider demographic, or whether its popularity is due to a viral trend that has died down. According to Circana Bookscan, about 18,000 copies of the new edition have been sold so far – that’s a decent number, but hardly a hit.

“The Shadow Work Journal” is just the beginning, said Primero Sueño publisher Herrera Mulligan: “We really want her to become the new empress of self-help.”

Primero Sueno is now aiming to saturate the self-help market with Shaheen’s books, and has set an aggressive publishing schedule, releasing two more self-published books from Shaheen this year – one in July, the other in October. These books, along with her poetry collection, are very popular on TikTok and have collectively sold nearly 100,000 copies on the platform.

She is also working on two new books: one about the origins and applications of shadow work and another titled “The Light Work Journal,” which inspires readers to reflect on and enhance their own strengths.

And Shaheen, no longer held back by social anxiety, seems ready to step into the spotlight. Unlike the first edition of “The Shadow Work Journal,” the new version features her name in bold letters — beneath a banner that reads “Over 1 million copies sold.”



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