$16,228 earned, 1014 copies sold: Lessons learned from a year as a self-published author

A little more than a year ago, every dollar I earned meant minutes worked for someone else. I was trading my time for income, and the only way to make more was to take on consulting projects.

But that all changed one day when I stumbled on a post by Jarrod Drysdale, a graphic designer whose self-published ebook made $30,000 in two months.

Was his success a fluke? Or might I be able to do something similar?

Then I started hearing more success stories: First it was Nathan Barry, who earned $12,000 with his launch of The App Design Handbook, then proceeded to crush that figure with successful launch after successful launch.

And there was Pat Flynn, who made hundreds of thousands of dollars helping people study for the LEED architectural exam.

These guys weren't well known — they were desk jockeys like me, two freelance graphic designers and an unemployed architect.

Their only assets were a set of professional skills and a willingness to teach others.

I realized that, as a software developer, I also had a coveted skill set. Maybe I could follow in their footsteps and enjoy the same success.

I didn't have an audience, other than a few hundred Twitter followers and a handful of daily visitors to a few ill-maintained blogs.

But I'd glimpsed what was possible, and one evening, I started writing an ebook about my favorite coding tool, Sublime Text.

I'm glad I did. Since I pushed the Publish button last fall, my ebook, Sublime Productivity, has brought in more than $16,000 in royalties and earned me an audience that I can continue to serve with more products.

And in the process, I've learned some valuable lessons that will allow me to replicate this success in the future.

In this post, I'd like to share some of the specifics of my success, as well as a few of the lessons I've learned in the hope that I'll inspire you to take the next step on that ebook or screencast you're considering.

By the numbers

When I was starting out, the numbers shared by Jarrod, Nathan and Pat helped motivate me, so in the spirit of paying it forward, let's take a look at my sales and the growth of my audience.

Earnings

Here's how my month-to-month earnings have stacked up:

monthly-sales-breakdown

My launch last September wasn't a Nathan Barry-sized home run. I didn't know what I was doing, and I didn't put in nearly as much work as he does. I was also launching a beta version of my book rather than a finished product.

Still, I was pleased with the results. I've written previously about my launch, but to summarize, I launched with a list of only 157 potential buyers and supplemented this megre reach by recruiting the help of others with larger audiences like Peter Cooper. I also offered a limited-time discount as an incentive to buy.

During launch week, I netted 136 sales and $2,000 in income.

I was excited but also afraid: Was that it? I'd heard that ebooks tend to make most of their earnings during the launch. Would this book be a good source of extra income for me, or had it run its course?

The next several months proved that I could generate steady income with the book if I put in consistent effort to promote it. When the launch-week excitement faded, sales tapered off, then held steady around 5 to 7 per week for several months.

But in early June 2013, they suddenly fell off a cliff. I didn't sell any copies for 5 days. Then I sold a few copies, and had another dry spell of 3 days, and another of four days.

I was panicking: What happened? What did I break?

I'm still not sure what caused those lulls. A little online research revealed that June is often a bad month for online sales, as summer is starting in the U.S. and many people take vacations.

But things looked grim at the time. When the Sublime Text 3 public beta came out on June 28, I jumped on the opportunity and immediately put the book on sale for a week. To my surprise, the spike in sales nearly matched my launch numbers, and June ended up being a great month.

Several smaller contests and giveaways helped generate above-average sales in September and October and had the added benefit of growing my mailing list in preparation for a big Cyber Monday sale.

A little over a year after I first published my book, my 2013 Cyber Monday sale surpassed my most optimistic estimates. All told, it generated $2,025 in income from 167 sales, breaking in three days the sales record I set during my launch week.

Audience

These sales numbers didn't just happen naturally — they're the direct result of growth in my audience.

When I started writing my ebook, I had no audience to speak of. My only asset was a few hundred hits a week on a blog post I'd written about Sublime Text. Over the next several months, I focused on extending my reach in three main channels.

Web traffic

Shortly before my launch, I set up a Sublime-focused blog and started posting tips and how-to articles.

sublimetexttips-analytics

I've also posted some Sublime-related articles on a personal blog, which now generates more traffic than the Sublime tips blog:

aspirecode-analytics

These are pretty anemic numbers, really. After an initial burst of posts, I haven't invested as much time in these sites as I could have, and the results are plain.

Still, I get a steady stream of subscribers to my mailing list who mention these sites, and I know I'd see a nice uptick in sales if I devoted more time to blogging on them.

Social media

Let's get this straight up front: Twitter is horrible for selling things. And yet I've invested a lot of time in Twitter and have seen a solid return on my time. (More on this shortly.)

In early August 2012, I created a Twitter account to help market the ebook I was writing. Using a combination of automation tools, I grew this account to 520 followers by launch day, and by the following spring, it had more than 6,000 followers:

twitter-followers-spring

In April, Twitter changed its terms of service, banning some of the automation tools I'd been using.

But I continued to grow the account by sending out hand-picked tweets of interest to Sublime fans, and since this spring I've averaged about 100 new followers per week, for a total of 3,400 additional followers:

twitter-followers-current

Mailing list

I didn't start a mailing list until early in 2013, but once I saw how effective email is, I shifted all of my promotional efforts to growing my list.

My subscriber count has grown in fits and starts:

mailchimp-list-growth

The big spikes are from several contests I ran, including a couple of Sublime license giveaways that together generated more than 2,000 subscribers.

Lessons learned

This last year has been a marketing crash course, and while I've had some bumps and bruises, I've also learned some valuable lessons about selling on the Internet.

Here are five of my biggest takeaways.

Price by value, not competition.

Everyone knows that $9.99 is the “best” price for an ebook, so I took some flak early on for setting the minimum price for my book at $19.

It was a hard decision to make, but I firmly believe it was the right one. The book's audience is software developers, a group of professionals who might earn $100, $150 or even $250 an hour. At those rates, minutes saved on routine tasks are money in the bank for my customers.

This has been validated repeatedly by buyers. The software I use to create and sell my book, Leanpub, allows buyers to voluntarily pay more than the cover price if they want to. My sales page specifies a minimum price of $19 but allows buyers to pay more if they choose to, and 38% of buyers pay more than the minimum, accounting for 47% of the book's total revenue. One buyer shocked me by ponying up $50 for the book (thank you)!

Pricing high also gives me room to occasionally offer discounts, always with a short time limit, to help convince fence-sitters to buy.

Email is king.

It's hard to overstate the importance and effectiveness of email as a tool for selling a product.

When I launched my book, all I had was a list of 157 people to email, but of those, more than 20% bought a copy.

And during my recent Cyber Monday sale, I was able to compare Twitter and my mailing list head to head. I sent out different discount codes to my mailing list, which had around 4,800 subscribers, and to my Twitter audience, which numbered around 9,300 at the time.

The result? The mailing list generated 1100% more sales than Twitter. Nearly 10,000 Twitter followers netted only 13 sales.

It's because of my mailing list that I was able to beat my launch week sales figures with my Cyber Monday sale just by sending three emails.

Build a funnel.

If Twitter followers don't convert well into customers, why do I still devote a lot of my marketing time and energy to Twitter?

Twitter has proven to be a good starting place for my marketing funnel. It's a great place to meet and learn about your audience, and to introduce yourself to them. It's a low-cost way for me to get myself out there where other potential customers can encounter me.

And while it's hard to convert Twitter followers to customers, it's pretty easy to convert them to mailing list subscribers.

My main objective with both my Twitter account and my websites is to direct people to my mailing list, where I can stay in touch with them over time and, hopefully, eventually convert them to customers.

Good things happen when you have something for sale.

Over the summer, I got discouraged when my sales flatlined. Nothing I did seemed to move the needle.

But I kept at it, and eventually things started to shift. In the last several months, three opportunities came up seemingly from nowhere that have helped me sell more books. First, TradePub approached me about promoting my book as a giveaway on their site.

Second, Jesse Liberty, a blogger I've followed through my programming career, praised my book on his blog and gave it a nod in his Sublime Text PluralSight course.

And fellow Leanpub author Azat Mardanov asked me if I'd like to bundle my book with his Rapid Prototyping with JS.

When you consistently invest time in promoting a product, you never know when you'll get a break.

Start small.

My biggest mistake with this book was overreaching. I set out to write the definitive book on Sublime Text, but I've since learned what a tall order that actually is. Sublime adds new features with each beta release, and dozens of new plugins come out every week.

By contrast, my time is pretty limited: I have a full time job and a wife and two kids and can only devote a few hours a week to book-related activities.

My plan to address this problem is to do what I should have done at the outset: Breaking the book up into smaller pieces that I can focus on and check off as completed.

Next steps …

My experience selling my book has left me hungry to try again. I'm finishing another Sublime-related book that I'll be shipping in the next month or two, and I plan to start another after that.

Brian Altounian - December 17, 2013

Very insightful article! I love hearing the experiences of self-publishers – they often dispel the myths or preconceptions that certain people have of their success (or failure) in the self-publishing space. It is extremely difficult to get a book published and have meteoric sales yet folks think it’s as easy as posting a blog. Please send me the list of tools you used to help promote your book over the last year. I’m very curious to see what helped you the most.

Thank you!

-Brian

    josh - December 19, 2013

    Thanks, Brian! I’ll send you the list.

    The nice thing about self publishing is that you don’t need a huge best-seller to make it worth your time. I’m able to keep most of the revenue from my book, so even one sale is a nice chunk of change.

    I’m very glad I went this route instead of trying to sell for less on Amazon, even though I could get more exposure there.

Azat Mardanov - December 17, 2013

Hi Josh,

Nice blog! I’ve seen many familiar names that inspire me (Pat, Nathan). Also, thank you for sharing your numbers. I wanted to do this a long time ago for Rapid Prototyping with JS (http://rpjs.co) and Express.js Guide (http://expressjsguide.com), but since I have multiple channels such as KDP, Gumroad, Lulu, LeanPub, CreateSpace… it requires some time to assemble and present numbers in a consumable format. 😉

    josh - December 18, 2013

    Thanks, Azat. I’d love to see a writeup of your earnings from various channels. I’m pretty happy with Leanpub but would eventually like to sell directly from my site with Gumroad or DPD.

David Hooper - December 17, 2013

Nice work! This is a great example of what you can do with a small list/audience and also with a very specific niche. I’ve worked many authors (and musicians) over the years and most would be thrilled with results like this.

I hope you’ll do future followups!

    josh - December 18, 2013

    Thanks, David!

    Specific is definitely good. It’s hard to market something if you don’t really know who might be interested. I’m actually planning to publish some even more targeted books about using Sublime with specific programming languages–easier to produce AND market. #winning

    I’m sure I’ll be talking more about this book and others. 🙂

Chris Larson - December 17, 2013

Awesome post! So inspirational. Thank you for sharing. I just finished reviewing a book that will be published in January and I am now fired up to author my own.

    josh - December 18, 2013

    Thanks, Chris! Writing a book is a lot of work but well worth it when you self-publish.

Hamza - December 18, 2013

Hey Josh, great post and congratulations on your success – I think you did extremely well for a first time author and marketer.

I’m curious to know how many hours you spent writing and promoting in return for your $16k. Is it giving you what you regard as a passive income or have you simply traded your time for more people’s money?

    josh - December 19, 2013

    Great question. I haven’t tracked my hours on this project, but I have invested a good bit of time in it.

    This isn’t strictly “passive income” in the sense that I could walk away and continue to make money indefinitely. The book would sell on its own for a while–in fact, I did very little work on it in the early part of this year due to other commitments. But it definitely benefits from small but consistent amounts of attention.

    Like anything new, there’s a learning curve to writing and marketing a book, so the hours I’ve invested here will help me write and sell future books much more quickly. I recently completed a 27,000-word first draft of a related book in about five weeks–a feat that seemed impossible a few months ago. And I have an established audience to market it to.

    Most people who’ve really done well generating passive income only achieved success after a period of intense effort, and I’m looking to emulate that model.

Katina Vaselopulos - December 18, 2013

Too long to look at now…can’t wait to do it later!
Sounds great!

All best,

Katina

    Jerry Dugan - July 14, 2014

    Katina! I’m just excited to see a familiar name in the comment thread of this blog. I was just checking out Josh’s blog before I Unfollowed him on Twitter. Now, I need to reconsider. I’m now going to follow this blog AND re-follow him on Twitter. Seeing your name here was what sealed the deal. How have you been?

Colin Calnan - December 21, 2013

Joshua,

I would love that list. Thanks for such a wonderful write up. I’ve been exploring with the idea of putting together some videos and short pubs like the A Book Apart and you’re post has inspired me to do it. So I’m going to get on it over Christmas and give it a try. Who know what will come of it.

    josh - December 23, 2013

    Thanks, Colin! Glad to provide a little inspiration. 🙂

    I sent you a link to my list of tips. Let me know if you have questions as you work on your product!

James Stone - January 6, 2014

Josh, this is a fantastic article and I applaud you on the level of honesty and transparency you demonstrate. It is truly inspiring to see what other self-published authors are doing both outside of and inspired by the likes of Nathan Barry. I am working on my first book through a publisher but I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to work on marketing and building an audience or a platform for yourself and your book. I think the biggest takeaway for me is that you have built up a large niche audience based on your passion that is not only eager to consume your content but also will be interested in future products and books.

I have started much later in my process of marketing and building my audience, but I have found a lot of the same things to be true. I panicked a bit over the holidays but was reassured when my metrics came back to their pre-holiday numbers.

For others interested in this topic, some books that I have found really valuable are Authority by Nathan Barry, Unmarketing by Scott Stratten, Get Known Before the Book by Christina Katz, Platform by Michael Hyatt, Get Clients Now by C. J. Hayden, 30 Days to Become a Freelance Developer by Eric Davis and Book Yourself Solid by Michael Port. Authority is probably the most focused and relevant, but his themes are referenced and expanded upon in the other titles. Just read each with a grain of salt and use what applies to you. I found Platform initially annoying and kept telling myself, oh yeah, in a million years when I have all these great things happening. A year later after making a lot of progress I have found it to be much more relevant to what I am doing. I even used his model to build my about page, which has significantly reduced my bounce rates for it which is super important as it is one of my most viewed pages on my site.

Good luck to all of you working on your own information products. Get out there and start building your audience and market it as soon as you can and I look forward to seeing your first release. Remember you can start small and take an agile approach. Track everything and see what works well for you.

Josh Brown - January 10, 2014

Thanks for sharing your numbers with us! I’m hoping to write a book this year and it’s helpful to see how you marketed and sold yours. I’m especially interested in building my mailing list as I’ve found the same – email sells way better than Twitter – but I’d love to know how you’re building your list through Twitter. Can you share how you do that?

    josh - January 11, 2014

    Hey Josh! Maybe I’ll do a longer post on list building via Twitter, but here’s a quick overview. Every week, I pick out 30 or so of the best tweets of interest to Sublime users. I drip these out to my followers during normal business hours, when they’re most likely going to get seen. From this, I usually net 100+ new followers every week. I include a call to action in my Twitter profile, which drives a small but steady stream of traffic to my newsletter signup page.

    Once every couple of weeks, I’ll tweet a plug for my newsletter giveaway and specifically invite my followers to subscribe. Since I’m getting a few hundred new followers a month, this can generate a few dozen signups each time I do it.

    A few times a year, I’ll do a contest to give away a free copy of Sublime Text (which goes for $70) and encourage my followers to sign up for my mailing list to have a chance to win. I announce the giveaway winner on my list. These giveaways work really well for me–last time I did one I got around 1,400 subscribers. I publish a blog post about the contest, but I announce it loudly and often on Twitter. These announcements get retweeted a lot, and I pick up both followers and subscribers.

    I virtually never talk about my book on Twitter, except for an occasional sale announcement or book update. My focus on Twitter is on providing interesting content and then driving traffic to my signup form.

    Hope that helps!

      Josh Brown - January 13, 2014

      That’s really helpful – thanks! I never thought about doing a give away and getting followers/retweets that way, but it makes sense that that would work. And yeah, using the give away as a way to encourage people to sign up seems like it should work pretty well. (And clearly it has worked well for you.)

Marilyn Riley - January 23, 2014

Would you techniques work for someone who is publishing something in women’s literature?

    josh - January 25, 2014

    I don’t have any experience with marketing fiction, but yes, a lot of the same principles can be applied in that arena as well. Many savvy fiction writers these days are using social media and email effectively to build their audiences. For fiction-related marketing ideas, I’d highly recommend and the guys at the Self Publishing Podcast.

Jerry Dugan - July 14, 2014

When you say that next time you’ll “start small”, do you mean that you’ll serialize your next eBook project like Stephen King did with The Green Mile. He sold the book initially in sections as he wrote it, then when it was all complete sold it as a final tome. (I just wanted to use the word “tome”.) Is that what you mean to do as well? Or, did you mean that you’ll write it in sections then combine everything when it’s all completed? Thanks for your time.

    josh - July 14, 2014

    Hey Jerry! Good question. I’m thinking more along the lines of writing smaller, more focused ebooks. As a consumer of non-fiction, I really find that I prefer a tightly written 20,000- to 30,000-word book to longer volumes, unless the extra length is really justified. I’ve paid $97 for short books like this and not felt cheated in the least. I think the traditional publishing industry has set an artificial length of 200 to 300 pages as the minimum for books due to the economics of print, and with digital that’s just not necessary.

Gosia - August 12, 2014

Hi Josh, thanks for the list of tools (got it after signing up for the Sublime Text tips newsletter). I really like your ‘guerrilla’ style of promotion. Great to see it’s worked out well for you. I’ll definitely be coming back for more marketing inspiration!

    josh - August 12, 2014

    Thanks, Gosia! Glad to have you as a reader. 🙂

Spencer Goldade - April 25, 2015

This is more awesome advice, Josh. I’m just finishing up a book on common mistakes in art and design (and how to fix them), which I was contracted to write by InVision. However, we will be sharing ownership of the book and I will be able to give it away for free on my site much like they will be on theirs. This is my first foray into ebooks, but I think I will be writing some more free and for-profit books soon.

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