Lessons Learned from an eBook Launch

ebook

One month ago on March 20 I released a short eBook entitled “Step by Step UI Design“.

Since then, I’ve sold the eBook over 2000 times and almost reached $10,000 in profits.

A lot of people have asked me for more details about how I wrote, launched, and promoted the book, so here is a post-mortem to see what went right, what went wrong, and what you can learn from my own experience.

Numbers

A big spike for the first two days

First, some hard stats. These are my numbers since the launch one month ago:

  • eBooks sold: 2057 (1023 x Regular Edition, 1034 x Deluxe Edition)
  • Total Revenue: $9908
  • Profit (minus Paypal fees): $8991

80% of this happened in the first two days thanks to the great launch on Hacker News (where it got upvoted over 300 times), which got me a traffic peak of 22,890 visitors in a single day! In fact, here are the same numbers for the first 48 hours only:

  • eBooks sold: 1469 (714 x Regular Edition, 758 x Deluxe Edition)
  • Total Revenue: $6663
  • Profit (minus Paypal fees): $6022

Those numbers are impressive, but they’re meaningless without knowing how much time I spent working on the eBook itself. Here’s the breakdown:

  • Designing the app: 9 hours
  • Writing and formatting the eBook: 11 hours
  • Designing the landing page: 5 hours
  • Coding the landing page: 5 hours
  • Promoting the eBook: 10 hours
  • Total work time: 40 hours

So it took me about 40 hours from start to finish to build the full product. That’s a $224/hour rate, which happens to be much more than what I charge for regular design work. In fact, in only two days I made back the money I would’ve earned from client work!

The Idea

CodeYear, the initial spark for the eBook

Back in the last days of 2011, I was contacted by Zach Sims of Codecademy. He was looking for some design help for a new project, CodeYear.

Forbes recently covered how they launched CodeYear and got 200,000 sign-ups in a couple days, but long before that I had already blogged about how I designed CodeYear.com in only one hour.

This behind-the-scenes look at my design process became hugely popular, getting retweeted more than 950 times, and even being linked by TechCrunch and Fred Wilson!

This convinced me there was a big demand for material covering design in a simple and straightforward way, focusing on basic principles and not Photoshop techniques.

So when my friend Sean Grove from Bushido showed me the chat app he was working on, and asked me to help with the design, I realized his was the ideal situation to document my design process.

So I opened up Photoshop, started working, and simply took screenshots and notes every step of the way in preparation for the next step.

Writing the eBook

I decided to write an eBook because I find them more convenient than screencasts or videos. You can read them in the train or at work, but unlike a blog post or plain text article you almost feel like you bought something tangible, and not just words.

I knew I wanted to keep the eBook short, because I can’t count the times I’ve excitedly bought a 100-page eBook only to put off reading it for so long that I end up forgetting I even have it.

I also wanted to test the water with a small-scale project first: I didn’t want to spend months on a project without even knowing if anybody was interested. So a short eBook fit that bill perfectly.

I first wrote the book’s basic draft in Google Docs, then moved to Pages for the formatting.

Interestingly, the act of writing about the design actually led me to discover some of its flaws, so this step also included a lot of back and forth between Photoshop and Pages

Selling the eBook

I spent so much time researching various digital delivery services to sell the eBook that I ended up writing an article about this topic for Smashing Magazine.

To summarize, I initially used Quixly to sell the eBook, but after encountering a couple bugs and no reply from support, switched to a combo of Pulley and Gumroad (for people who don’t have Paypal).

No matter which solution you use I suggest supplementing it with Gumroad, since there’s no subscription (they only charge a commission) and it’s one of the few such services to accept credit cards directly.

Pricing

I’ve published a detailed account of how I settled on a price for the eBook (and how that price influenced sales) over at the Smart Bear blog, so I suggest you read it if you’re interested on pricing and how our brain processed different price points.

Also check out the counter-point by Jarrod Drysdale and my subsequent challenge to him and Amy Hoy.

The Launch

Presenting the eBook material at Paris Hackers, via @Zaiste

As you can see from my stats, the eBook’s successful launch was the key to its success. While whether this is good or not is debatable, for now let’s focus on what I did to make the launch go well.

First of all I didn’t publish the eBook straight away. I got feedback from smart people like Hiten Shah, Steve Huffman, and David Bizer, and also presented the eBook’s material live at a Paris Hackers meetup.

After presenting, I told people they could get the eBook for free if they signed up to my mailing list, in order to build a small audience to help me kickstart the launch.

I also spent quite some time on the eBook site itself, trying out multiple designs until I found the right style.

When everything was ready, I finally posted the link to Hacker News. I then emailed the 40 people who had signed up to the mailing list with a link to download the eBook for free, asking them to upvote my link on Hacker News if they had enjoyed the book.

The intention here was not to spam Hacker News, so I specifically only asked people who had read and enjoyed the book to upvote the link if they felt it deserved it.

Press

I didn’t get much press coverage, but I didn’t really expect any since an eBook launch is not a big event in itself. Or another explanation would be that I just suck at PR… Still, I’m very grateful to The Industry, SpeckyBoy, and The Rude Baguette for featuring the book!

I contacted a couple other design blogs to organize giveaways, but it turns out big design blogs actually charge you to give your stuff away for free to their readers. More power to them if they can do that, I guess!

Lessons Learned

The big lesson I learned is that there’s a market for short, practical eBooks about user interface design. And unless this was a fluke, I’m pretty good at capturing that market.

I love my “normal” job as a contract UI designer, but if I can make twice as much money writing an eBook, and on top of this create a new permanent stream of passive income, then I’d be a fool not to consider doing it more.

Now some things that could’ve been improved on:

  • I didn’t ask people to subscribe to a mailing list.
    This was partly a deliberate choice, because I personally hate giving out my email. Still, I’ll probably add this next time.
  • I didn’t A/B test anything
    I know I left money off the table because of this, but you got to pick your battles and I simply didn’t have enough time and energy to focus on this on top of everyting else.
  • I relied on a single traffic source
    Even though the eBook was written with the Hacker News audience in mind and did very well there, I wish I could’ve gotten other traffic sources, like TechCrunch or maybe a famous startup blogger. As it is, if for some reason my post hadn’t done well on HN, I’d be about $6k poorer…
  • I initially relied too much on Paypal
    Although I eventually added Gumroad as a payment option, I initially only had Paypal. A lot of people contacted me to tell me they couldn’t use Paypal, so that means even more people didn’t even bother asking and just left.
  • My Unicorn Insult joke bombed
    I thought this could be the start of a great new meme, but it didn’t take… Oh well, better luck next time!

That being said, although I made some mistakes I definitely think this whole thing was a huge success. I never expected to make so much money (almost $10k!) from a single self-published 40-page book.

So if you’re a designer or developer, or possess some other unique skill, I definitely encourage you to come up with your own eBook, screencasts, or tutorials.

It might seem like the web is saturated with them already, but most of the stuff out there is of pretty low quality so there’s always room for well-researched, well-explained material.

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