After two decades in content marketing, Joe Pulizzi self-published his first novel, a mystery thriller called “The Will to Die.”

He said writing it was the hardest thing he had ever done – far harder than writing his five content marketing books, one of which, “Epic Content Marketing,” is commonly used as a college textbook.

“My whole plan was to become a novelist,” he told us.

But just after his book launch in March 2020, the pandemic broke out in the U.S. As everything shut down and the economy was upended, Pulizzi reconsidered his budding career in fiction, seeing a bigger opportunity.

A year later, in April 2021, he founded The Tilt, the now-popular newsletter for content creators. Later he started its associated in-person event, Creator Economy Expo (CEX).

Then, in August 2023, the veteran marketer and recent self-publishing novelist sold both enterprises for a 6-figure sum to the self-publishing platform Lulu.

Building The Tilt to reach content creators

The book launch was the last time Pulizzi saw people outside his immediate family in person for a long time, he said. As the reality of the pandemic settled in, he turned to what he knew best: content and publishing.

“I started to tinker around with what was going on with Web3,” Pulizzi said. “I was talking to a lot of my friends in the creator economy who were struggling with their business models.”

At a time when everyone was suddenly isolated, sharing content online became a refuge — and a way to make money on your own terms. Pulizzi saw the opportunity to create a platform that would help content creators grow their businesses. He says one of the keys to a successful content business is having your own unique “tilt,” or angle, on the content you share — hence the name.

It worked. In just over two years, Pulizzi grew the bootstrapped, twice-weekly newsletter to more than 25,000 subscribers, eventually hiring four contractors to help him with IT, editorial, sponsorships and subscriptions, and operations. (All four contractors remained in their positions post-acquisition.)

But meanwhile, his idea was taking off elsewhere, too. When Pulizzi first started thinking about The Tilt, there were a few creator newsletters; by the time it launched, there were dozens. Now, three years later, there are thousands. “The competitive set just blew up,” Pulizzi said.

Fortunately, though, Pulizzi was building not just a newsletter, but a community.

In May 2022, he held the first conference on the topic, Creator Economy Expo. It was an in-person event that brought The Tilt’s subscribers together for a multi-day experience with speakers, events and networking opportunities. That year, almost 300 people attended — a number that rose to more than 350 when he repeated the event in 2023. That helped the company reach $400,000 in revenue that year.

How Lulu went from sponsor to buyer

When it comes to founding successful content companies — and getting acquired — The Tilt and CEX were not Pulizzi’s first rodeo. In fact, they were his third, after SocialTract and Content Marketing Institute.

The pattern was no accident. “Every business I’ve ever started always starts with the idea, when am I going to sell it?” he said. He shares more about how he thinks about selling from the beginning on his podcast.

So when their sponsor Lulu, a well-known online self-publishing platform, started pouring more and more money into The Tilt and CEX as a sponsor, Pulizzi had an idea.

Lulu was hoping to build more relationships with creators and eventually launch their own event, Pulizzi said. After several conversations about their goals, Pulizzi suggested: “Why don’t you just buy us? You’re already spending all this money with us. You might as well just buy us and you can have the whole thing.”

Given the success of CEX, the business model was essentially ready-made for Lulu. They said yes.

With Pulizzi’s experience and the agility of selling to a smaller, private company, the sale went more quickly than any of his others. Six months later, in August 2023, the deal was done. It included 6 figures of cash up front, plus an earn-out in the form of ongoing performance bonuses.

Next up: Tilt Publishing (and more fiction)

Post-acquisition, Pulizzi plans to stay at The Tilt as a consultant for at least a couple of years — and probably beyond, he said. The next project he’s spearheading is Tilt Publishing, a new imprint made possible by the partnership. It will help content entrepreneurs produce books, ebooks and audiobooks as soon as a month after they finish their manuscripts.

“We help [authors] sell it so they get complete rights to it,” he said, prioritizing a direct-sale business model that cuts out middlemen like Amazon — and the cut they take of the author’s profits.

In addition, he’s still hosting CEX and booking the event’s speakers, as well as doing his own public speaking gigs in the content marketing world and producing his two podcasts.

And he’s getting back to novel writing, starting with the sequel to The Will to Die. He plans to release it, along with a revised fifth-anniversary edition of the original, in 2024.