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Step-by-step guide to selling your first ebook

One way to diversify your income as a blogger is to sell digital products such as ebooks, workbooks or guides. If you already have a sizable audience, launching a new ebook can generate a whole lot of income. But even if you’re starting out and sales are small and slow, showing that you have written a useful resource is a fantastic way to showcase your knowledge and expertise. It gives you credibility and authority.

You will also learn a whole lot while writing: you’ll refine your ideas on the topic, do valuable research, learn some new skills and develop impressive discipline in the process.

Last year, I co-wrote my first ebook with Dianna Huff, 101 Ways to Market Your Website. In this post, I’ll share step-by-step how we went from an idea to a launched product. For each step, I’ll cover the exact tools we used and the process we followed.

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Developing an idea

We started the guide by first identifying its purpose, who it was aimed at and our goals for it. This is a step not to be rushed over.

We wanted to help people who want to succeed at marketing their businesses and were willing to put in the time and effort to see results. We weren’t aiming to make huge profits, but to provide sound, solid information in an overwhelming sea of resources.

As we wrote it, we kept talking about what we liked and didn’t like about information products. What we didn’t like: hype, get rich quick schemes, gurus, silver bullets, and secrets. What we did like: Friendly people, thoughtful information, strategies that may take some time and effort but definitely produce results.

We talked a lot using Skype, Slack and Basecamp. Skype was great to brainstorm ideas early on in the process, Basecamp was useful to organize thoughts together in an archive which can be referred back to (good for planning, for example) and Slack was perfect for chatting over little ideas, sharing links, or checking in with each other: “how’s it going?”

Setting a deadline

We created a deadline for writing the first draft, so the project didn’t feel open-ended, and checked in with each other regularly to spur each other on to write more. Having a deadline and accountability is incredibly important. If you’re writing alone, get someone else to follow up on your progress.

We used Basecamp milestones for our big deadlines, and also used Google Calendar to schedule blocks of time to write. Inevitably deadlines got shifted back as we were heads-down working on client work, but it was still helpful to have deadlines to work towards. Scheduling in specific time was key to getting it done, rather than only doing it when we had “spare” time.

Working on our next digital product (Dianna’s guide Cash Flow for Freelancers is now in pre-release) has been more streamlined as a result of the things we learnt first time around.

Writing

Once we had a clear idea of who the guide was for and why we were doing it, we put together a draft outline. This can be as simple as a bulleted list with several levels.

For example, we grouped the tips into broad skill level sections and topics:

  • Part 1: Tips for Beginners
    • Add your website URL to everything
      • Email signature
      • All business correspondence
  • Part 2: Intermediate Strategies
  • Part 3: Advanced Strategies
  • Part 4: Miscellaneous Tips

This outline changed and was refined regularly: we moved things into different sections, changed the name of topics, added and removed bullet points. We came up with new ideas and adjusted things accordingly.

The guide was worked on collaboratively in a shared Google Doc. We both wrote sections of the guide, researched information, added images and left comments on each other’s work as we went. While Google Docs does not have all of the fancy features that Microsoft Word does, it had all we needed. Most importantly, there was no more waiting for each other to email revisions backwards and forwards or losing changes when Word crashed!

When the first draft was complete, we left it for a week or two. There is nothing like fresh eyes on your writing to spot a whole lot of things which still need work! We edited the book heavily, switching around the ordering, looked for better examples and refined our words so that everything was as concise, accurate and clear as possible. We critiqued the work carefully: asking questions such as “why?” or “so what?” and “are we sure?”.

Once that was done, we left it another week or two again. I believe that time is an important part in the writing process. You’ll give yourself space to think of ideas, or ways to improve things as you go about doing other things. After a break of a few weeks, we each printed off a copy of the guide and spent an evening reading through it carefully, jotting down notes in the margins. Changing the format from screen to paper was another way of seeing the work through fresh eyes.

We also had Stephen do an edit of the book in Google Docs. We’d deliberately not included him in the process at all prior to this point. Having an outsider who had the technical and content knowledge as well as meticulous editing skills was invaluable. I’d highly recommend always having someone else edit your book when you think it’s done. You’ll be a little disheartened at first that the book comes back with so many comments and corrections all over it and wonder how on earth you didn’t spot them earlier, or feel a little defensive of some of the queries since you felt like the book was practically done. It’s all worth it and part of the process.

Once those edits were included in the guide, I then migrated the content over to InDesign which is my preferred program for creating documents. If you don’t have or use InDesign, you could use Word, Pages, or stay in Google Docs.

Designing

I set up a template which was 768px wide by 1024px tall with generous margins around the outside of the text (about 80px-150px). The finished book was in PDF format as we chose to self-publish, rather than sell on Amazon for Kindle (Amazon takes 30% or 65% of your sale price).

Spend time working hard on the readability of your ebooks. You’ve poured many hours into writing this thing, make sure other people can read it comfortably. This is often a big let-down with the ebooks and guides I’ve purchased or downloaded for free in the past. There’s a whole lot of details behind the scenes which makes text easy to read and the best resource on this is Practical Typography.

You’ll improve readability immensely by following these six rules:

  1. Use professional fonts. (e.g. Frutiger, Neue Haas Grotesk, Tiempos, Miller, Harriet, FF Tisa, Whitney, Meta Serif.)
  2. Use one font for the body text which is 10-12pt.
  3. Use one font for the headings/chapter titles/call-outs.
  4. Set the line spacing to 120-145% of the point size.
  5. Set the line length to 45-90 characters (including spaces).
  6. Use pure black text on a white background for the majority of the text.

Small details such as where page breaks and diagrams are placed are important for readability as well.

We made sure to include the following at the start:

  • Copyright Information
  • Limits of Liability/Disclaimer of Warranty
  • Contents page

And, at the end:

  • Thank you note, with feedback email address
  • About the authors
  • Share link and tweet button

Cover design

We left the cover design until the very end of the project and worked hard on making sure the inside of the book looked perfect. I used Illustrator to design the cover and made sure it was bold and easy to read the title from a distance as often the cover will be shown at a small size. You might like to use Canva or Photoshop to design it too.

Endorsements

Once the book was all formatted and we were happy with everything, we asked a bunch of colleagues if they were interested in reading a copy and providing an endorsement for our sales page. If they said yes, we sent them the guide and asked for feedback within a week. The timeframe was pretty tight, because if there’s no urgency to read a book, it can easily sit unread well, forever.

We followed up with those that didn’t get back to us, and got a number of wonderful endorsements. In fact, we decided to include one on the cover, editing it at the last minute.

Pricing

Pricing is a tricky one because the price of books have come tumbling down in recent years and yet the work which goes into them is still huge! When you’re on Amazon, everyone is comparing pricing. When you’re selling your own books you can set the price however you like.

Things which influence price include:

  • Genre – non-fiction is easier to charge more
  • Value – if your book helps people save or earn $1000s, then it’s perceived as more valuable and therefore you can charge more
  • Audience – if your book is aimed at high-earners you can charge more
  • Niche – if your book is very specific knowledge or based on in-depth research you can charge more
  • Add-ons – if you also provide worksheets, videos, interviews, case studies or other resources and have different package pricing you can charge more, and give people options

In short, you can’t really compete on price: there are many free ebooks out there. Believe in your work and the value of what you’ve produced and set a price you’re happy with!

Selling

When you’re selling a digital product, you need something to process the payment (e.g. Paypal, Stripe) and deliver it automatically. While Paypal is great for collecting payments, it doesn’t have a built-in way to deliver products.

Some people use WordPress plugins to sell their digital downloads, such as Easy Digital Downloads, WooCommerce or Shopify for bigger stores. However, by using a third party tool to process the payments, you don’t have to worry about security issues, upgrading plugins and dealing with bugs. You get to focus on creating and marketing the products.

We chose Gumroad to sell the guide because there were no set up or ongoing monthly fees, it is very user-friendly, quick to set up and easily integrated with our WordPress websites. Gumroad takes 5% plus 25c processing fee per transaction and deposits the money into your account every two weeks. When you’re starting out selling digital products, you will want to keep costs as low as possible. No sales, no fees.

There are plenty of other options for selling digital products. Check the fine print: there will always be payment processor fees, even if the monthly digital delivery fees are “all-inclusive”. Make sure the tool offers the features you need. We didn’t delve into affiliate programs or discount coupons, but you may need these.

If you envisage decent ongoing sales, consider DPD. It is more complex to set up as you need to set up your payment processor (Paypal, Stripe). Fees start from $10 per month, plus your payment processor fees (e.g. 2.9% + 30c per transaction).

Which is the better choice for you? If you are selling one ebook for $19 (such as we are), DPD will result in less fees each month if we were steadily selling a minimum of 29 books a month:

Gumroad fees calculation: 29 x $19 x 0.05 + 29 x $0.25 = $34.80

DPD fees calculation: $10 + 29 x $19 x 0.029 + 29 x $0.30 = $34.68

If each product is being sold for a lot less, you’ll need more sales before DPD is a better option. For example, if your book was $5 you’d need to sell 182 steadily each month.

E-Junkie is another inexpensive option. It’s been around forever, and it shows (even though they recently redesigned their interface). Fees start from $5 per month plus payment processor fees.

Sales Pages

Once the book and its cover image were uploaded to Gumroad, we spent considerable time working on the sales page in Gumroad, and the sales pages on our respective websites. We made sure to include:

  • Why we wrote the guide
  • Who is it for
  • How we can help
  • Overview of the guide’s contents
  • Endorsements sprinkled throughout

We continue to refine these sales pages too and promote the guide from other blog posts where relevant – this post you’re reading is an example of one!

Marketing Plan

For this guide, we decided that we did not want to set everything up for a big launch. You know the type of launch: lots of emails to large newsletters, urgency with limited time offers, content upgrades, affiliate programs, multiple guest blog posts and podcast interviews lined up, press releases, social media campaigns and advertising. Exhausting and overwhelming!

After going through the whole process of writing and thinking that was big, marketing is as big a job if not more so. You can write an incredible ebook but if word doesn’t get out, it can sit undiscovered.

If you have a large platform (readership, mailing list, social media following) and additionally you have published ebooks before, the marketing is still a lot of work but it’s easier to gain momentum.

Here’s the other thing too: a launch is simply that. Once the launch is over, you still need to find new ways to promote your product and new audiences to reach. You’ll need to work hard to network with others who might want to promote your product to their audiences (even if via affiliate programs).

We tried a number of experiments in marketing the guide to test out different ideas. For example, we tried Twitter ads (so easy to set up, and lots of people saying the ROI is wonderful) but did not find them to be worthwhile. It’s hard to know why they did not succeed as there are many factors such as the audience targeted, ad copy and design, whether Twitter is an effective place to sell products, click fraud, whether the sales pages were not converting well enough etc.

One thing we’ve noticed which does work well: people who know us, work with us and trust us like to buy our book. It’s lovely to see familiar names purchase the book – and yes, we do look at each and every purchaser name.

The product page on Gumroad has a 12% conversion rate – i.e. they purchased the book. Currently, Dianna’s second product which is in pre-order has a 10% conversion rate.

Biggest lessons learnt

Ebooks are a huge amount of work, but it is very rewarding to see the process through to completion. Many people start a book, but few finish it!

Aside from time, costs to create an ebook are low.

Selling digital products is technically straightforward thanks to tools like Gumroad.

Sales have been a slow steady trickle, rather than a substantial one. Our lack of ongoing marketing of the book is the reason for sales being slow. Dianna and I are both introverts so promoting our work does not come naturally to us. Recently we realised how little of our own content we tweet.

Seeing sales (and pre-sales) is a huge encouragement that our work is valued by other people even if you’re not in it for the money. We undervalued this aspect of sales when we launched the product and Dianna has been approaching the launch of her second product quite differently as a result. This includes:

  • doing pre-sales while she finishes writing it
  • creating a lead magnet worksheet for people who want a taste of what she is offering for free before committing to purchasing it
  • doing podcast interviews during the pre-sale period
  • Using Ryan Holiday’s principle of “trading up the chain” to contact smaller bloggers first for interviews, which then can be used as the source for bigger bloggers, or be used to introduce yourself to those with larger audiences.

Are you working on an ebook? Do you have any questions about our process or the tools we used?

Let me know, I’d be happy to help answer your questions!

Oh, and one book I totally recommend you read: Authority by Nathan Barry.