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The 'Adventure' In Self-Publishing an IT Book 156

Posted by Soulskill
from the it's-dangerous-to-go-alone-take-this dept.
An anonymous reader writes "Author Keir Thomas has blogged about his experiences self-publishing a computing book. Quoting: 'I knew that publicizing the book would be difficult so I hit upon an idea: Why not give away the eBook (PDF) version? I could use Amazon S3 for hosting the file, so it would cost me just a few dollars per month. Sure enough, giving the eBook away generated a lot of publicity. ... Since going on sale at the start of 2009, the book has made me $9,000. ... I’ve had worse salaries in my life, and I’m very grateful, but I know total royalties would probably have been higher had I gone through the traditional route of working with a mainstream publisher. I estimate I have to give away 446 copies of the eBook for every sale of the print edition.'"
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The 'Adventure' In Self-Publishing an IT Book

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  • Yep (Score:1, Insightful)

    by viablos (2018696)
    Many times you see pro-piracy guys on slashdot suggesting, or might I say demanding publishers to use alternative ways to get money. Or just do it for the fun. Well, here again we see that those guys cannot see things clearly from both sides. They just want free stuff.
    • by shaitand (626655)

      I'm not following? This is an author posting a success story. His assertion about possibly making more through traditional publishers isn't really accurate. Feel free to ask an IT author going that route. First time authors generally get far less from a book.

      Not only has he made more money but from the quote below we've determined that about 450 times as many people are able to enjoy the content. Sounds like a win for everyone.

      "I have to give away 446 copies of the eBook for every sale of the print edition"

      • by Evets (629327) *

        I think the assumption is that he'd have more sales if it was sold by a publisher. Sure, he would have. But he shopped the idea and it was rejected. Even if his sales quadrupled, it probably wouldn't have been a book that traditional publishers would have been looking to publish.

        Selling 1800+ copies of a book no publisher would touch is an achievement, and not an easy one to reproduce.

        If you can come up with a really good idea 4 times a year and follow through to completion within a reasonable deadline y

    • by _Sprocket_ (42527)

      Many times you see pro-piracy guys on slashdot suggesting, or might I say demanding publishers to use alternative ways to get money. Or just do it for the fun. Well, here again we see that those guys cannot see things clearly from both sides. They just want free stuff.

      How many times do you see the anti-piracy guys on slashdot suggesting, or might I say demanding that every free copy of something is a guaranteed lost sale? Or just producing a product is guaranteed financial success? Well, here again we see that those guys cannot see things clearly from both sides. They just expect money.

      See? I can do that too.

    • by mcgrew (92797) *

      Of course everybody wants free stuff. That's why giving stuff away works. Cory Doctorow gives all his books away for free in dozens of formats at craphound.com, and he credits his status as a New York Times best seller to this.

      One publisher last year wanted to know how much he was losing to sales in piracy, so he commissioned a study to look at sales figures. Pirated books take a few weeks to be scanned and hit the net, and the publisher was astounded to learn that rather than a dropoff in sales wjhen the b

    • Well, here again we see that those guys cannot see things clearly from both sides. They just want free stuff.

      Suppose the pro-piracy guys are wrong, and cannot see things clearly from both sides. It does not follow that they just want free stuff.

      Not every case of someone being wrong is because of an ulterior motive.

      I don't even concede that much, by the way. I demand that publishers use alternative ways to get money simply because piracy is not going away, and the cost of fighting piracy is too high for society in general. DRM is a burden on everyone. But I also don't think giving it away is the only other option h

  • That wasn't smart. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by lwsimon (724555) <lyndsy@lyndsysimon.com> on Friday March 18, 2011 @04:09PM (#35535434) Homepage Journal

    The guy missed out - he could have made a fortune by charging a couple of bucks for it.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by LordStormes (1749242)
      Agreed - Should have given the first 3 chapters free as an Ebook, then charged $5 for the full Ebook or $X for the print version.
    • The guy missed out - he could have made a fortune by charging a couple of bucks for it.

      Even .99 cents would have been more profitable.

      • by nametaken (610866) on Friday March 18, 2011 @04:27PM (#35535690)

        He does this for at least two of his other books. He sells .99 kindle ebook versions. I just bought one of them.

      • by pixelpusher220 (529617) on Friday March 18, 2011 @04:32PM (#35535754)
        I believe the mentality goes like this:

        "I'm not sure I'd really want a $0.99 'tech' book. However, something free is worth at least looking at - hey this is pretty good I'll tell my tech friends." And some of them buy it.

        There was just a guy who lowered his published his fictional eBook from $2.99 to $0.99 and made more money due to higher sales - linky [techdirt.com]. I think the difference is spending a dollar on recreation is fine for people, but if it's for 'work', I'm going to want to spend a decent amount to make sure I'm getting a quality product. The 'free' stuff gets noticed but the 'super cheap' stuff is still viewed as being lower quality.
        • by lwsimon (724555)

          So... your idea is to sell at a loss, and make it up with the increased volume?

          • Um, yes. If a certain percentage of your views result in sales, giving it away in an unlimited and free format can drive sales of your limited physical good.

            The greater the number of views, the more sales. And he didn't have to pay a publisher a cut of his revenue.
            • by lwsimon (724555)

              And yet he provided no basis for his belief that the ebook drove sales of the printed copy. An assertion like that should be backed up with data - money is, after all, Serious Business.

              • He documented what he did in pretty good detail. What sort of 'proof' are you looking for?

                He 'self-published'. What more then putting it on Amazon for free did he do? He described decent traffic to his online version. From which he sold the physical copies. It wasn't available unless people asked for it because he self published. It was publish on demand.
      • by Suki I (1546431)

        The guy missed out - he could have made a fortune by charging a couple of bucks for it.

        Even .99 cents would have been more profitable.

        That depends on if the same amount of people would have bought the eBook for $0.99 vs. free. After that recent $0.99 story went up, I told my friend who I helped with some books and he hosts my only eBook on his account. He reduced the price of almost everything to $0.99 and the only effect (as of yesterday anyway) the only sales increase was the paperbacks in bookstores and none of us think that is related. His free stories are popular and one does okay as a re-edited pay version on Kindle. I don't know

        • by lwsimon (724555)

          Actually, if one person bought the $.99 ebook, he'd be ahead. I didn't see any correlation between book sales and ebook distribution proven in the article.

          • by Suki I (1546431)

            Actually, if one person bought the $.99 ebook, he'd be ahead. I didn't see any correlation between book sales and ebook distribution proven in the article.

            Yes, that is a true point. $0.99 is more than $0 for the eBooks. From the post it sounds like it cost him money to have the eBooks up, so he would be "less behind" if he had made something to offset what he paid out.

          • by shaitand (626655)

            "I didn't see any correlation between book sales and ebook distribution proven in the article."

            Correction, there is a correlation between ebook distribution and $9000 worth of sales. What isn't proven is causation. There is no proof that any form of advertising increases sales.

            A first time author having very high (i.e. $4500 net for two years and counting) sales with no other advertisement is certainly better evidence than you will get from any advertising firm and it is greater success than the average fir

    • This is what I came here to say. even $0.99 would be better than nothing. My bet is most of the 446 people that got it free would have been happy to pay some small sum.
  • I wonder (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Haedrian (1676506) on Friday March 18, 2011 @04:11PM (#35535452)

    I noticed a donate button on that website.

    I wonder how many people just donated, compared to the % of people who bought. I'll be taking a look at this book, it looks interesting and rather useful.

    • by wygit (696674)

      I do that quite a bit... I'm quite happy to kick in for a book I liked, fiction or non-fiction.
      I don't WANT the dead-tree copy, and there are quite a few authors who are doing 'donate' or 'pay what you want' for their work.

      What I won't do is pay a stupid (to me) price for a book I can read on one device, for as long as the publisher deigns to allow me to read it on that one device.

      I won't pay hardback prices for a limited license to read a book.

      • by mcgrew (92797) *

        Doctorow gives his ebooks away for free, and won't accept donations. He'd rather you buy a dead tree copy and donate it to your local library.

        Personally, I like dead tree books. Get off my lawn?

  • Love the "department" - rockin' the old school Zelda ;)
  • Your next book? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Bilbo (7015) on Friday March 18, 2011 @04:17PM (#35535552) Homepage
    Here's another angle that's hard to quantify: What happens if you decide to publish another book? The fact that you've distributed all those free copies along side of the pay-for editions means you've got a *LOT* of people who know your name. This fact alone should give your next book a big head-start if you ever decide to publish again, either through a "vanity press" or through a more conventional channel.
    • by artor3 (1344997)

      The fact that you've distributed all those free copies along side of the pay-for editions means you've got a *LOT* of people who know your name.

      Does it? I've read plenty of free Kindle books and blogs and online news articles over the past few years. I'd be hard pressed to remember the names of any authors except those that I read frequently. If one comes out with another book, odds are I won't even notice. Maybe if I happen to see something on Amazon's storefront saying "from the author of XXX", but even then it's likely to be only a glimmer of recognition. The reason is simple - from a marketing viewpoint, you might think of customers purely

    • by dasunt (249686)

      Baen's has free online reading copies of some of the stuff they publish.

      Here's their view [baen.com] of the Baen's Free Library. I quote:

      Jim Baen and I set up the Free Library about a year and half ago. Leaving aside the various political and philosophical issues, which I've addressed elsewhere, the premise behind the Library had a practical component as well. In brief, that in relative terms an author will gain, not lose, by having titles in the Library. What I mean by "relative" is simply this: overall, an aut

    • Literature, even non-fiction, is highly subjective in nature. Whereas one person may like a bit of sarcastic wit, another might find it boring.

      Given this, establishing a brand is highly important. Giving out copies of a book just establishes your brand... the next book will leverage on the brand, while you still may get royalties for the first book.

      The basic method, as with any entrepreneurial endeavor, is to invest lots of time into building the company/brand, release something, then keep doing it over a

  • I'm a bit puzzled - in TFA he says that publishers weren't interested:
    "Nobody was interested. The profit margin is too low on cheap books, they said."
    He then concludes:
    "I’ve had worse salaries in my life, and I’m very grateful, but I know total royalties would probably have been higher had I gone through the traditional route of working with a mainstream publisher."
    The publishers weren't interested, so it seems that he'd have saved the 3 months and not written the book. Once you start thinking t

    • If it took him 3 months to write, you have to weigh that against the time to write a longer book. 9 months? 12 months?

      I don't know what book royalties work out to be, but if it's 1/4 the time to write for 1/2 or 1/3 the paycheck, it's not bad ... he just needs to find another cheap book to write to fill the rest of the time.

  • Something I'd like to see more of are those stiff plastic cards that provide a quick reference for something. You see those for "Algebra I" in most bookstores. Ones for programming languages and programs would be useful.

    Writing one of those cards is a useful exercise for designers. If you can't cram the essential instructions onto one card, the interface probably needs a redesign or something needs to be automated.

  • by jfengel (409917) on Friday March 18, 2011 @04:50PM (#35535968) Homepage Journal

    I published a computing book through a conventional publisher (Addison Wesley), and the amounts of money we made were roughly comparable. It's considerably sub minimum wage, given the years I put into writing it (including months full-time, away from a paying job writing software at a wage substantially higher than minimum.)

    Which was, in fact, the point. It wasn't going to make me rich; it was going to make me famous. (You've heard of me and my book Programming for the Java Virtual Machine, right? Right?) I wanted to write a book, so I did. The publisher put it in a lot of bookstores and even translated it into Korean. (I've always wanted to lay my hands on a copy of the Korean translation.) It helped that this was a major Java publisher; my book is shelved next to big-name authors, some of whom were involved in reviewing it. That's a kind of expertise I couldn't have purchased.

    At the time, it wasn't really practical to self-publish on the web; the print-on-demand services didn't exist and a real printing run had a high overhead. There's literally something buried in my contract about buying the printing plates once it went out of print, but it's still in print, and they send me a small but welcome check twice year.

    My book had a limited target market, and even if I kept 100% of the gross it would still have been less money than I would have made at the job. But it's proving useful as an introduction: I'm now working on a different book in a completely unrelated field and can tell potential interview subjects that I wrote a book when I cold-call them.

    They do care: if they're going to take the time to talk with me, they want to know that the book is likely to be published. They'd be even happier if I had a contract, but it's getting me into doors I need so that I can write the submission. Some of them might have turned me down if I told them I was going to self-publish.

    That may change. The fame-producing aspects of a major publisher are less and less relevant. The money won't get any better, and may get worse, but if you're in it for the money you really should go back to writing code anyway.

    • You've heard of me and my book Programming for the Java Virtual Machine, right?

      I have now, and it's actually something I would buy - but do you have an eBook version? I see that it is on O'Reilly Safari BOL, which is good, but how about a PDF or ePub?

      On a side note, it's kinda sad that googling for the title of the book gives a bunch of "download free PDF!" links and such on the very first results page.

    • What all this is really saying is that our systems aren't working. If it's any good at all, less than $10K for a book is horrible. I think everyone agrees valuable works are, or ought to be, worth more than that. But you can't get more, whether you self publish and ask for donations, experiment with print on demand, or try to interest a traditional publisher. The fact that authors do them for the reputation and similar not so tangible benefits is telling. Also telling is that hundreds of thousands of p

  • This idea is great for something like a childrens book. Nobody wants to read to their kids from a laptop or e-book reader. You kill the experience and look like a douche. So you release the book as an E-book so the parent can read the story before buying a nicely bound book you can read with your child.

    On the other hand, IT books are probably the WORST to do this with. Your target crowd knows better than most how to pirate your book and are perfectly happy referring to the PDF, which is searchable, over a dead-tree which you have to put sticky notes in to have any sort of indexing past the TOC.
    • by pnutjam (523990)
      Did you just say I look like a douche?

      My kids loved it when I would break out the laptop and read books online there are many children books online, my local library gives me access to tumble books [tumblebooks.com].
  • by cjonslashdot (904508) on Friday March 18, 2011 @05:09PM (#35536218)

    I have also self-published a book: my most recent book, Value-Driven IT (http://ValueDrivenIT.com). Prior to that I had published three books through traditional publishers (Prentice Hall, Addison-Wesley). I will note that the term "self-publish" is a little ambiguous, since anyone who gets an ISBN number and publishes a book with that number is a publisher, by definition.

    I also "gave away" the content, by putting it on a wiki, and also making hard- and soft-cover versions available from Amazon.

    Unlike many who self-publish, I went through all of the steps that I would have had to go through had I published the traditional way. These included extensive review by subject matter experts, extensive editorial feedback and revision, professional layout (including an index, legal permission for graphics used, etc.), forewords by industry luminaries, and pre-publication commentary (known as "advance praise") by industry experts.

    Some of the things I learned from the self-publishing experience are:

    1. Amazon puts one's book near the bottom of the list when you search for it: they put their "partner's" books at the top (the publishers who pay them, it seems). Thus, if one searches for my book on Amazon, by the book's exact title, one finds all kinds of irrelevant things first, and then my book shows up on about page five of the search results - if lucky.
    2. The above is true for many things. The marketing of books and other content are essentially a pay-to-play environment. Getting noticed because something is good is difficult unless someone who is very well known latches onto it and talks about it.
    3. Publishers don't add a-lot of value over self-publishing, unless they think that your book is going to be a hit. (My first book was a big hit.)

    Also, books that are "cross-over" books - i.e., interdisciplinary - are very hard to market, whether one uses an established publisher or self-publishes. This is because people generally read IT books when they want to learn about something that they heard about, and if something doesn't fit into an established niche, then one will not have heard about it. My most recent two books (High-Assurance Design and Value-Driven IT) are both cross-over books and therefore are hard to market.

    There is also a misconception that people who write technical books do it for money, and that their motivation is book sales. My first book was a big hit (sold about 30,000 copies: that is a-lot for a technical book). However, if I calculate the money I made on an hourly basis given the amount of time it took to write the book, I earned at the rate of about $30/hour. Not very good, especially considering that I earn about five times that in the other work that I do. The reasons for writing a book (for me) have always been that (1) a book establishes one as a recognized thought leader in the industry, it (2) helps one to organize one's thoughts about something, and (3) it serves as a "calling card" when one does consulting (which I do). Royalties are not a very good reason for writing a technical book.

    • by mcgrew (92797) *

      Please tell me, how do you get a book published by a name like Addison Wesley? Of course, the one I've written isn't a tech book, but its contents have been well received by slashdotters, who nag me to publish.

      • The answer is kind of simple: you have to convince them that the sales will be large.

        Of course, this is not necessarily easy.

        One mistake lots of people make is that they put a-lot of effort into creating a book proposal or other collateral. That is not necessary, and I think it is actually counter-productive: it makes it look like you are trying to convince them.

        For my first book (the one that sold really well), my "proposal" was a one-line email to a senior acquisition editor at Prentice Hall. She replied

        • by mcgrew (92797) *

          Thanks for the info. It isn't a tech book, it's a collection "The Paxil Diaries"; folks have been nagging me to publish them for years. I think you've convinced me to self-publish.

  • I have downloaded a lot of pdf and other files, only to delete them after 5 minutes because it was not what I was looking for or I did not like the style. Think of a download like someone picking up a book in a book store and looking through it. Sometimes it results in a sale, but usually not (at least in my case). One thing missing from comments is how good is the book that the author gave away for free. Can someone who has read it comment on this ? Just because a book has been written does not mean it
  • My company, a large IT_Company has their own publisher for employees to author books. However, this process would well over a year and would require me to submit my draft in msword, instead of Framemaker which is what I was writing it in. The publisher would then convert it from word into framemaker for use with their templates... I dealt with 4 different editors and decided to go the self-publishing route.

    I used lulu.com, a 'on-demand' printing/publishing company. They charge a bit for each physical copy

  • Perhaps a more lucrative way to sell more copies of the printed version would be to make freely available a limited version as an eBook, one that has the table of contents and enough useful chapters to be interesting and to motivate readers to want more after they find the first material useful. It's like what used to be a social norm: a girl who gives it all up right away doesn't always generate the motivation for a guy to marry her, so while some back-seat grappling was okay, some withholding was in order
  • I like that the PDF is laid out in such a way that it's still readable in full page view on my phone - that right there makes it much more likely that I'll use and refer to it.

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