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Monday, July 13, 2015

On The Economics of Ebook Publishing

Authoring SurviveJS - Webpack and React has taught me quite a few things. Being a first time author it mistakes have been inevitable. But in some ways I've gotten really lucky. For instance I've gained awesome contacts and received numerous external contributions that have helped to boost the quality of the book. On the flip side as the content is freely available it has been hard to capture value and actually make this financially viable for me. I go into more detail at a little post I wrote under title SurviveJS - The Story So Far. See also Balancing between open and closed publishing.

Publishing is Changing

The world is changing in sense that it's very easy to publish something now. You can even skip traditional publishers altogether. Publishers such as Leanpub provide a hefty royalty. For instance Leanpub takes 10% + $0.50 per transaction leaving the rest to you. With a big traditional publisher you may expect a 15% royalty. If you do the math you can see you would have to sell a lot of book using the traditional way to reach the same income.

The downside of doing it all by yourself is that you'll have to take are of marketing, sales and editing. Leanpub just takes care of the annoying VAT bit. Especially given due to the EU VAT changes made at the beginning of this year things just became more complicated if you want to sell yourself. In effect you'll have to figure out where the book was bought and apply VAT based on that. It's better to let someone else to handle the bureaucracy at least when you are a small player.

It is important to note that Leanpub allows you to publish through other channels. You could sell the book through Amazon or iBooks for instance. Leanpub should probably be thought as an experimentation platform. It will allow you to publish a work in progress book, gauge the interest and develop your book based on the feedback. There have been cases where a traditional publisher has picked up the finished book as it has been shown that there's significant demand for it. It is an excellent value proposition for them after all. Just pour money.

Closed vs. Open Content

One of the biggest questions when it comes to publishing is how to deal with the content and pricing. You could go the traditional way, keep it all closed and put it behind a paywall. This model has been proven to work. You will have to be strong at marketing and get the right message at the right people but it is doable.

Another way, which I chose for my book, is to keep the content freely available. I did this through GitHub. The surprising benefit of this has been the influx of external contributions. You can definitely receive errata in a closed model as well but it feels like an open model is more conducive to collaboration. At times I have felt more like a shepherd rather than a author but I suppose that's a good thing.

As the content is freely available it has enabled more people to get exposed to it. It is always heartwarming to see a positive mentions about the book. Unfortunately this hasn't translated into sales but at least I know I have made a difference for some.

To encourage people actually to buy the book I decided to play on laziness. The digital version available through Leanpub has a minimal price set. I am not giving it out for free. You can definitely compile a digital version of your own but it's always a hassle. I'm afraid having this little hurdle in place isn't quite enough, though. The sales have been mediocre at best and if things continue this way, it's simply not financially feasible to keep it up.

Setting the price of the Leanpub version to zero might not make much of a difference. Perhaps more people would get it through Leanpub then but I'm not seeing the point at the moment. I feel the minimum price of $15 feels fair for a solid book.

As a Finn I cannot ask for donations directly due to legislation so there has to be some intermediate in between. Leanpub allows me to avoid breaking the law.


Given the content is free to begin with the big question is why would you pay for something that's free? There are reasons why Kickstarter, Patreon and such work. Going the inverse way doesn't feel like a feasible approach at least based on the current experience.

This is something I have to find a good answer for. I could start developing commercial content on top of free one for instance or go completely closed. If you have any insight on the topic, I'm all ears. There are likely models that can work but now it's looking a little grim.