At the beginning of last year, I released my first self-published ebook, The Principles of Object-Oriented Programming in JavaScript. I decided to go this route for a few reasons, not the least of which being I didn’t really know how much time I’ve have to commit to its writing, so I didn’t feel comfortable being held to a deadline. I also wouldn’t want to put any publisher into a position where they’d have to chase me down – their business operates on timelines, and that’s something I couldn’t deliver.

I was also curious about the self-publishing revolution. I’d heard both good and bad results from various people who had tried it. Since I’d been through the traditional publishing process many times, I knew right away what I’d be losing: copy editors, technical editors, graphic designers for diagrams, marketing, and a physical book. I rationalized that readers could substitute for copy editors and technical editors to a certain degree by providing feedback, I could do rudimentary diagrams myself, and I could use Twitter and my blog for marketing. I knew I wouldn’t be able to expect the same number of sales vs. working with a publisher, but I rationalized that I didn’t need to sell as many copies because I could keep a larger percentage of the sale price.

Now it’s been a year later, and I decided to review my experience. The ebook was eventually picked up by No Starch Press to publish a print book called The Principles of Object-Oriented JavaScript. While that wasn’t my end goal, it was a nice surprise.

Choosing Leanpub

From the start, I knew I wanted the ability to make constant changes and fixes as I necessary. One of the things I always hated about print books was feeling helpless about typos or other mistakes. If a reader reports an error, I want it fixed immediately. I knew ebooks would give me the ability to do that, but I wanted to make sure I had a platform that would support this workflow.

Another important consideration for me was the format in which I’d have to write. I really wanted to write in Markdown, as it’s now my default format. I’ve grown to hate slogging through Microsoft Word documents, highlighting text, and changing its style. Markdown allows me to write more freely, without worrying too much about how the text looks.

I also wanted to generate all the popular ebook formats: PDF, ePub, and MOBI. I didn’t want to get caught in complaints of not supporting someone’s device, so the system I used had to automatically create each of these three formats.

Leanpub fit the bill perfectly. I could write in Markdown, make fixes and releases whenever I wanted, and all of the formats are generated automatically. Those alone sold me on Leanpub, but the things that really made me ecstatic were:

  • Variable price ranges let me set the lowest price I’d accept for the ebook as well as the suggested price. So I set the lower price at $14.99 and the suggested price at $19.99. That meant anyone buying the book could decide they didn’t want to pay $19.99 and give themselves a discount. Or they could choose to pay more if they wanted to. I really liked giving readers the power to pay what they felt was fair.
  • Customized landing pages and URLs are automatically created as part of the publishing process. So all I had to do was provide the content and a page was setup, ready to take orders.
  • The fact that Leanpub handles all orders and returns is fantastic. I never wanted to deal with that stuff.
  • The ability to offer coupons for special events came in handy when I was speaking or just wanted to give someone a discount (or the ebook for free).
  • Automatic royalty payment every month, deposited via PayPal. Authors get paid 90% minus 50 cents for each copy sold – you’ll be hard pressed to find a better deal than that.

As with any system, there were some quirks to get used to such as the default encoding and page layout. The images also have to be made obscenely big to support zooming of various formats. Overall, though, I’ve been very happy with the Leanpub experience.

Who paid what

My big experiment with letting people choose what they’d like to pay for the ebook was interesting. To quote my mother, “why would anyone pay more than they had to?” That was a good point. I figured that most buyers would automatically take the discount and pay $14.99 while a few would opt to pay a bit more. I wasn’t going to be offended if people chose the lowest price possible, I just figured that some would choose $19.99 intentionally. The results were pretty interesting. First, some basic stats (these exclude sales from bundles):

  • Total Sales: $14,866
  • Average Price: $16.74
  • Average Price Without Coupons: $17.66
  • Max Price: $78.62

On the whole, both considering an eliminating coupon purchases, the average price paid was at least $1.75 higher than the minimum price. So it appears that people are willing to pay more than the minimum, on average, for the ebook. The maximum price paid was $78.62, which is astounding, but there were other purchases at $30 and $50 as well. In fact, a whole lot of people opted to pay more than $19.99; some by just a few cents, by a few dollars.

Out of 888 purchases, 74 chose to pay more than the asking price while 243 chose to pay the asking price. While the majority did pay the lowest possible price (both including and excluding coupons), there were enough who chose to pay more that it’s hard to overlook. There was even one reader who returned the ebook just so he could buy it for more.

I found this to be an amazing occurrence: people will actually pay more if allowed to do so, and not just some of the time, on an ongoing basis. I like to think that letting people assign their own value to the thing they want to purchase is powerful. Of course, I set a lower limit to ensure I got at least $14.99, but allowing people to otherwise decide what they want to pay resulted in purchases for amounts I could never charge without feeling incredibly guilty.

While the $14,000 in sales is much lower than I have had with any of my other books, the royalties from those sales were pretty much inline with what I end up making in the first year with a new book. So ultimately I sold less copies while making roughly the same amount.

Conclusion

My experience with Leanpub over the past year has been a positive one. I’ve enjoyed using the platform and writing/updating the ebook. The sales were good enough that I’d be comfortable doing another ebook in the future, and my experience with DRM-free ebooks has been positive enough that I’m looking at ways of making future ebooks even more open. It’s so nice to work without external deadlines and just write at a pace I feel comfortable. The fact that this ebook ended up as a print book as well further convinces me that this may be the way to go for anything new that I write.

That’s not so there isn’t value in working with traditional publishers. It was only through my experience with Wiley and O’Reilly that I truly understood what I’d be missing by going this route. I highly encourage all aspiring authors to work with a publisher at least once so that you understand the entire process and just how involved it can be. Going on your own might seem like the fastest way to get your stuff out there, but you want to be sure what you’re putting out is a quality product, and it’s hard to know how to do that without having someone guide you along once or twice first.

Disclaimer: Any viewpoints and opinions expressed in this article are those of Nicholas C. Zakas and do not, in any way, reflect those of my employer, my colleagues, Wrox Publishing, O'Reilly Publishing, or anyone else. I speak only for myself, not for them.

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