5 Q&A's on Writing and Selling My First Book

From April to July 2020 I made >$45k writing and selling the Coding Career Handbook and the related Community and Creator packages to over 1k individual developers, teams, and bootcamps.

Before you get too excited, know that it was over 600 hours of work, and probably took me 2-3 years of relationship building, career experience, and blogging before that to build up to this. I was exhausted afterward. I will NOT be able to repeat this strategy or topic again for a while, this was at best a once-every-couple-years effort.

Today I got some questions from Jess Eddy, who is planning to write her first book (also a career advice book, but different industry).

I’m answering in public!

1. Did you test the contents of your book while writing it?

Yes! It served two purposes - marketing the book as well as getting feedback from readers.

My first attempt at this went EXTRAORDINARILY well. I wrote and published How To Market Yourself 3 days after deciding to write the book. This was explicitly marked as a chapter in the book.

I knew it would be a popular topic, but there was some risk in that, if the chapter turned out bad, I would lose credibility (if I can’t market a blogpost, can’t market a book, how can I teach others to market themselves?). I took the risk.

Fortunately, it did not fail. It is probably my 3rd or 4th most popular piece of writing ever. It also immediately got me booked on 3 different podcasts (like this and this and this). So publishing the chapter helped market the book and helped me produce even more free collateral for the site! Wonderful stuff.

I also livestreamed 5 hours of this writing process. After launch, I took down the livestream and made the video part of my “Creators package” (which helps teach others to “get paid to learn in public”, aka create their first products). Might as well reuse valuable work, eh?

In case you think I know what I’m doing, my second and third attempts did not fare as well.

The second attempt was my Intro to Tech Strategy chapter - first released as a screenshot, and then as a blogpost. I think the topic choice was a mismatch between how important I know it is to developers, but how much developers are inherently interested in it. Fortunately, I believed in this topic strongly enough to not care that it didn’t do well. I also got some valuable feedback in a couple of interactions.

The third attempt did not do much better. I knew “Junior Developer vs Senior Developer” was a hot topic. I wrote up a whole chapter, but only published some core quotes. I chose a different format here - tweet thread from book account, not main account. It has a smaller following of course. I’m not sure how I could have done this better.

I also livestreamed writing my chapter on Why You Should Write. Very meta, but it didn’t really do well.

at this point i just abandoned public testing and just went heads down writing until the book was done, then when i was 99% done I started sending out to early reviewers for both testimonials and feedback on things that could be problematic (HUGELY important for a soft skills book like this one with a massive attack surface I can be criticized on)

Throughout the writing process I kept tweeting behind the scenes from both my personal account and my book account. I also presold the book, so I was able to send periodic updates to presale buyers, which serves as a form of marketing.

2. What publishing methods have been most fruitful for you (Kindle, Gumroad, etc.)?

There are two questions here. Publishing format and publishing platform.

I think the format you pick will depend on the kind of experience you aim to deliver. If you have a graphics/design heavy book, for example, then go PDF-only. If you have a text-heavy book like mine, then be aware that the market is exactly split a third each between EPUB, MOBI and PDF, and your publishing tool will ideally want to support all of them (this is annoyingly hard to achieve AND have other requirements met like having autogenerated Table of Contents - which the professional writing app Ulysses has had “on the roadmap” for 7 straight years). I used Michael Hartl’s Softcover which does the job, but requires you to learn some LaTeX to typeset to acceptable quality. (more on typesetting in a future post, lmk what qtns you have here)

Choice of Platform is a smaller field of choices.

  • Kindle Direct Publishing takes a HUGE cut. They take 30% if you charge under $9.99, and 70% if you want a higher priced book. You also of course don’t have the option to sell packages.
  • Gumroad is well known in this space, mainly bc of the founder’s marketign ability. They charge 3.5% + 30c with a $100/yr Creator account. They have a trusted brand and can take PayPal, which is good in some circles. They also serve as a “Merchant of Record” which helps US/Canada residents not worry about state/VAT tax nonsense. Their landing page is spartan and serviceable, but buggy (not terminal). And their couponing/affiliate system is easy to use. Analytics are good. Their “marketplace” can bring enough sales to cover the cost of a Creator account.
  • Podia is the other big player here. Where Gumroad focuses on ebooks, Podia is more generalist on ebooks + video courses + webinars + email marketing. They don’t charge transaction fees, but cost $390-790/yr depending on plan. I’ve made back the $790 on affiliates alone. Do the math as to how much you expect to sell vs the feature set. Their landing page is better designed but still kinda ugly. Analytics nonexistent. And their external embed widget is buggy. However, their support for memberships/video/webinars/email made me switch from Gumroad to them. They also offer live chat with your customers, which people ACTUALLY use, surprisingly.
  • both founders of Gumroad and Podia are cocky and annoying and sometimes problematic. idk if that matters to you. it’s pissed me off sometimes.
  • Quite honestly, you can’t go wrong picking either Gumroad or Podia. both aren’t perfect but they do similar jobs in slightly different ways. If you end up using Podia you can toss me a few coins using my podia referral https://www.podia.com/?via=shawn-wang at no cost to you.
  • Paddle is another big player but mostly seems to be used by Europeans. They can sell ebooks but also do packaged software (e.g. little utilities)
  • Other smaller players are out there, like Sellfy, Happeno, Payhip and the newly launched Converkit Commerce. No exp with them.

3. How did you figure out pricing and did it change over the course of time?

I honestly wasn’t very scientific about pricing.

I started out wanting to presell, so I picked a $19 price point on the day of the presale and said it was 50% off, making my “actual” price $39. This was back when I intended to make it a 2 week writing effort.

As I wrote and wrote and my scope grew, I decided I wanted to write a bigger book. So as 2 weeks became 2 months I kept selling it at $19, but I knew I’d be asking more at the end.

In the leadup to launch I kind of reverse engineered everything from $39. I knew I wanted the launch price of the book to be $39. Assuming a launch discount of $20, that means full price of the book is $59. from there, I then priced the Community package at $99 (just under buying another book, with the promise that you get more out of it if you join the community. Along with an audiobook version, which people are used to paying extra for and did take a ton of extra work) and the Creators package at $249 (with extra workshops and the livestream). I set these with a quick call for advice from Joel Hooks of Egghead.

The 20% launch sale lasted through all of July. Now the sale has expired, people are still buying $200-300 of book daily. I don’t know how much more I would get if I had priced the book at a more normal $39 instead of $59. But I’m happy making $6-9k a month while this lasts.

If the goal was to maximize revenue, I might do more pricing experiments. But instead, I wanted to write an aspirational book and I stand by the value of the book. A higher list price also leaves me room to do sales in future.

Neither Podia or Gumroad have capability to adjust prices for purchasing power, so I don’t explicitly offer it, but I have reserved some coupons for countries with obviously lower income.

4. How do you market your book?

heheh. See #1.

I haven’t done much marketing post-launch. The occasional tweet, that’s about it. I’ve offered an affiliate program to friends so that has helped some but I think mostly it’s word of mouth from here on out.

I’m thinking of trying out Acadium. I don’t really know. seems like a lot of work, and I have a day job. Ideally I’d like to pair up with a marketing partner and split things 50-50.

5. Is there anything else you think is worth sharing?

Advice from Robert Kiyosaki: “They’re called best SELLING authors, not best WRITING authors.” You may feel like writing is the most important thing you can do as an author, but it’s probably equal parts selling as it is writing. I’m still learning this. a HUGE part of it is the landing page for the book pretty much sets the expectation for the user driving their purchase decision. Have a look at Rob Hope’s teardown of mine and Mahmoud Abdelwahab’s refactor of my shitty initial page. Landing page is really that impt. Check Rob Hope’s epic thread of advice and use my link if you want his book. If you are great at designing your own, you can even do $40k presale like Emma.

If you have no audience and no authority you can bootstrap it by interviewing a bunch of folks like Philip Kiely did. I don’t know how the commercial terms for these things work and suspect it worked for him bc he is a college kid. But doing interviews are an easy content+marketing package.

Don’t forget to make a team licence. I’ve made about 2k like this.

Don’t worry about DRM/piracy.

For specific launch sequences and to study comparable launches, please check out my launch cheatsheet. Contributions VERY welcome, including of your own reflections.

It doesn’t end with the launch, and it doesn’t end with the book either.

You can keep putting out new versions, continue to add value to the higher tiers. And when you launch your NEXT thing, be it a course or book, you can bundle this book together with it to add extra value. When you launch you will feel like this is the most precious thing in the world, because you worked so hard on it, but with the passing of time it’ll be emotionally easier to give the book away for other gains.

If you have a plan to “win” whether or not the book sells well, whether it becomes:

  • part of your overall personal brand (“hey, she wrote the book on X, she must know what she’s talking about even if I havent read the book”),
  • or your future course offerings (“i’ll even throw in a free copy of X valued at $99!”)

Then you cannot fail.

Good luck and enjoy the ride!

Tagged in: #reflections

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