Thomas Fuchs
Hi, I'm Thomas Fuchs. I'm the author of Zepto.js, of script.aculo.us, and I'm a Ruby on Rails core alumnus. With Amy Hoy I'm building cheerful software, like Freckle Time Tracking and Every Time Zone and write books like Retinafy.me.
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5 rules to sell thousands of copies of your ebook

October 20th, 2012

Wondering what your “hourly rate” is when you go out and write a technical book? Traditionally, publishers will tell you that you do it for “exposure” but we all know that you can die from that. Seriously, even for the publisher it’s a big gamble, and with all the extra costs for printing, marketing, publishing, whole-sale prices, etc. there will be nothing left over for you. And “exposure” will not pay the bills.

There’s a much better approach: self-publishing and learning the basics of marketing to sell your book to the right audience. As an added bonus, you’ll know each and everyone of your readers and can build a strong relationship with them—which is awesome for you as you can fine-tune your book to reader’s needs and for your readers because they feel there’s an actual human being there listening to them.

To achieve this, you have to keep your costs low and your profit margin high. It’s no good to sell many copies with almost no profit, as the market for highly specialized books is limited.

Here’s my 5 rules to go for:

  • (Rule #0: Have great content that is relevant to your target audience. That goes without saying!)
  • Rule #1: No publishers. Publish the book yourself.
  • Rule #2: No 3rd-party sales channels. No Amazon/Kindle, iBookstore, etc.
  • Rule #3: No DRM. DRM has never stopped anyone from pirating stuff.
  • Rule #4: Publish as a PDF. Optionally also as EPUB, depending on topic/audience. No dead-tree version, please.
  • Rule #5: Price high. Price for the value you provide, not for what feels right.

No publishers obviously cuts out the middleman. Of course, you’ll have to learn how to market your book—you can’t just sit there and wait for people to come. You might say, “But Thomas, you have a billion followers on the interwebs, your stuff sells by itself!”—I’m hearing this all the time, but being “internet famous” (in a very small circle) isn’t going to sell your book. I have to work on getting the marketing right just as hard as anyone else does.

For ebooks like this, email lists work well. For people to trust their email address to a stranger (you), you’ll need to give them something useful in return—for example, a coupon code to get the book cheaper, free chapters or weekly tips and tricks. Email marketing done right is a bit of work, but it will pay for itself. And if you don’t market, you won’t sell. Additional things you should do is try to land interviews and guest blog posts on blogs relevant to your topic.

For Retinafy, I’ve built initial interest by giving away a Retinafying flowchart for free (the flowchart was downloaded almost 100,000 times), and I sent out approximately weekly emails to the list of people that signed up to be informed about the book, each with a little tidbit and reason why retinafying is important and necessary, why the book will make it super easy, and a quote from a reader (collect those!).

As for Rule #2—100% of the profits (after payment fees) will go to you. For some topics, 3rd-party sales channels work really well, but most highly specialized technical topics are not among those. (If you sell more than a 100 copies you’re selling more than most other self-publishing authors. But most of those authors fail to market right.)

Once you figure out the price (you need to set the price first, and remember to not base your price on what feels right, see #5), to be profitable and worth your time, you should calculate what you want your minimum hourly rate to be. For example, Retinafy took me about 50 hours of research and writing, and maybe another 30 hours of marketing. As of today, October 20 2012, I’ve sold 1088 copies, for a total sale amount of $22,393. For PayPal, you can assume that you’ll end up paying 5% or so in fees, so the profit so far is about $21,300, give or take a few. This makes my hourly rate when working on the book $266.25, and this is only going to increase with more sales.

Incidentally, looking at the hourly rate tells you how many copies you should target for—if the rate you project is below a certain number, it’s simply not worth writing the book. My lifetime-copies-sold goal of this particular book is 3,000 copies (at the current rate of sales, without additional marketing, I’ll reach this in a year or two, with an additional $50,000 coming in). For comparison, JavaScript Performance Rocks! a book Amy and I wrote in 2008, sold a total of 2686 copies so far, for a total amount of $79,964.96. (This is doesn’t include some site licenses we sold as well).

No DRM (rule #3) is a no-brainer. It makes it harder for you and for your readers, breaks things, is ugly and most importantly never stopped anyone from pirating. Don’t bother.

Now as for rule #4, depending on your audience and book topic, just a PDF is enough. For example, I sell Retinafy.me only as a PDF. Now some people will give you flak about that, but the book has a lot of illustrations, screenshots and tables that can’t be formatted in any sane way (meaning not weeks of work) with EPUB, so I choose to have a PDF only. If it’s not a book about design and UI issues in particular, you’ll probably want to publish as an EPUB. (I’ll try to write about the toolchain I use in an upcoming blogpost.)

And we come to the last, and probably most important rule, price high. Your readers get value out of your book. If someone works for an hourly rate of say $100, reading my Retinafy ebook will save them perhaps a full week of research, trying to read through blog posts, compiling information, running tests, trying things cross-browser, and so on. That’s $4000 spent on a book that costs $29. That’s less than 1% of the money you lose if you’d research it all yourself (and I’m an expert on this topic, so it will probably take you more than a week, and you wouldn’t be sure if you found the right answers). Never forget that your target audience is professionals. They spend money every day on things that are useful and provide value to them. $29 for an ebook that provides thousands of dollars in value to them is a no-brainer. (Heck, I should probably have priced it higher!)

Anyway, this how you can sell a book yourself, provide tremendous value to people—and make a tidy profit.

Oh, and now that you know how much money it will save you, grab a copy of Retinafy your web sites and apps! :)

P.S. Want to discuss? Here’s the hacker news thread.