To anyone wondering if they could do it to, the answer is yes. I can point to a dozen stories of successful ebooks that have made over $10k in 6 months. Not to mention to increase in credibility and readership that the author gains.
Here are my quick tips on writing a technical guide:
1. Find a topic that is in high demand. I chose designing iOS apps, anything related to popular programming languages or new technologies.
2. Talk about the value to the customer (time saved, better understanding, etc) rather than the features of your product (100 pages, PDF, ePub, etc). You need to mention the details of what the purchaser gets, but that isn't what will sell them on your product.
3. Don't just sell an ebook. Ebooks are cheap and simple or at least that is how they appear. Sell the book, but with it package code samples, video tutorials, expert interviews, and anything else that will give the reader a head start. This has the advantage of increasing the value of your product which helps with pricing.
4. Have more than one package. With my book I had three packages, with different amounts of extras in each. The base one included the book and a couple templates, the middle included 5 detailed video tutorials and more templates as, and the largest one had even more templates and code samples. Each package built on itself and the price increased accordingly.
Many people, and especially companies, won't hesitate to buy a more expensive package if it looks like it will save them more time.
5. Price high. My packages are at $39, $79, and $169. Setting those high prices is the best decision I made. The highest priced package has made almost as much money as the previous two combined. Jim does a great job with a price of $42.
I hope that helps anyone considering selling an information product like what many people on HN have done recently.
For reference you can checkout the sales page to see how my packages are organized: http://nathanbarry.com/app-design-handbook/
I have a lot of programming books on my shelf about various topics , but I don't have one called "make a shitton of money with your text editor".
It would feel a bit like those ebooks that promise to make it easy to generate effortless income on the stockmarket or get highly attractive women into bed with you.
I have no doubt that such books sell, but I wouldn't feel confident writing something that might not necessarily do exactly what it said on the tin for everyone reading it.
"Make a shitton of money with your text editor: a genius stockpicker's guide to bedding the women of your dreams."
Advance praise from Armando Montelongo.
The books on your bookshelf are meant to improve your lifestyle - they teach you new skills that you can charge for. Some books, however, do that on a higher, more general level.
Maybe I should raise my rates further...
There is nothing wrong with marketing. Marketing is how honest people get paid for doing honest work. (Both Jim and Nathan are honest. I've exchanged email with them both.)
In that case you'd never write it. The discussion isn't over some magic book of spells here.
It's about an honest product offer that with a modest amount of work the reader will move from point A to point B. Now you as writer could promise to refund the reader's money if it didn't work out, whether because the work was too much or the results didn't materialize.
That way everyone wins.
Luckily for saturnflyer, nathanbarry, bdunn, and me, plus many others, that problem isn't a generalized one. A few folks obviously agree with you, but it doesn't seem to be impacting our sales or our customers' happiness.
That opinion is a minority.
I guess I should have included that you should know something about the topic you choose to write about. Being able to demonstrate some level of expertise is important. But that doesn't mean you should wait until you are speaking at conferences before you start teaching on your blog.
How did you go about marketing it?
1. Start by writing one or two really useful blog posts on the topic. Use a provider like MailChimp (free up to 2,000 subscribers) to embed a signup form at the bottom of the post. Just something simple that mentions the product and tells them to signup to hear more about it.
2. Promote these posts on Twitter, HN, Reddit, mailing lists, etc. If it is valuable content than people will share it. I wrote an article on UX lessons from the new Facebook iOS app (http://nathanbarry.com/ux-lessons-from-facebook-ios/) that was shared over 100 times on Twitter. That article alone got me 300-400 subscribers to my book launch list.
3. Put together a more official landing page for your book. It should have information on the topics the book will cover, link to your blog posts, and have a signup link. Pick a launch date as early as possible.
4. As your email list grows continue to write blog posts to promote it. Occasionally send out useful tips, tutorials, and updates related to your book to the subscriber list. This will keep the book on their minds. The last thing you want is your book to be released and the pre-launch subscribers to have forgotten who you are. But keep the emails useful.
5. A couple weeks before launch get review copies to a 5-10 experts in your industry. If you don't know anyone, start with smaller blogs and work your way up. Give them a free copy and ask for feedback. Often this will turn into book reviews published on their site or testimonials you can use on the sales page.
6. On the day of the launch send out an announcement email to your pre-launch signup list. You should also give them a discount or special offer of some kind to reward them for signing up early (and to motivate immediate purchases). I like to have guest posts go live on related sites the same day as the launch. For my book launch on September 4th I had 5 guest posts go live that day.
That's basically all I did. To give you an idea of my influence online (hint: not much) 2 weeks before the launch my blog had 150 RSS subscribers and I had ~700 Twitter followers. Not a lot.
By launch day I had a pre-launch list of 800 subscribers + about 1,000 on my iOS Design Weekly newsletter. I was able to leverage that small subscriber base to $12,000 in sales in the first 24 hours. Even if you do a tenth of that it is still decent money. Plus my blog subscribers have doubled (still not many) and my Twitter followers have gone up to around 1,100.
Seriously, try launching a product. You will learn a ton and you won't regret it.
Edit: that's not to say you won't make mistakes. Here is a post on a few of the mistakes I made during launch: http://nathanbarry.com/product-launch-mistakes/
I think a lot of people severely underestimate their ability to teach others. I didn't think I had any information of value to give to freelancers until I wrote my book and was overloaded with "thank you" emails (and $$$). And I know a lot of other people selling infoproducts (including Jim) that have gone through the same experience.
I'd encourage everyone reading this to think about what you have to offer that someone else might want. Is this something valuable that they'd pay for? Chances are, if this someone can make a better living from your research, they will pay. It's really one of the most rewarding win-win I've experienced.
I already had a leg up because I had most of my product put together. I just needed to figure out how to market it.
And the first thing I learned was that my product was dead, would remain dead, and was a waste of further time and effort. I fundamentally had begun in the wrong place and needed to first find what people wanted.
You need people you can connect with, provide value to, extract value from - and you have to make all that into a reproducible and reasonably predictable process given all of the constraints in play.
If you can do that, you're often well down the path towards a viable business. If not ...
Research has backed this up over & over -- that story about Sony's focus groups about the yellow vs black Discmans is just one example -- not to mention anecdata from, well, everyone.
That's why I teach my students to observe customers and deduce, rather than ask them.
Watching five subjects in a row get to one point and then get confused is important, but they might never mention it if you just ask them directly afterwards.
I've also observed talk between users that started out "oh, I hated it" - then they'll go on to praise the functional aspects - and it turns out they just didn't like the color scheme. Which is equally valid if it generates consistent responses.
It's SO not just $15k.
Think about all that crippling anxiety over building something no one wants. Or the psychological wounds still bleeding raw from a product attempt that failed for whatever reason.
One small step in the bank statement, one giant leap toward 37signals.
My book, however, people want. I looked for what developers need first and then built a product around that, rather than thinking of something that might be nice and try to get people to buy it (like my CMS hosting).
1) You build a mailing list of people who have bought from you in the past. HUGE value here.
2) You get some extra personal brand exposure. Invitations to speak at conferences, podcast interviews, and so on.
3) Passive income is the gift that keeps on giving.
But it certainly increased his percieved value.
There may also be some non-financial benefits of going through the experience as others have commented, plus the sense of accomplishment.
It does, however, come from real-world work. My client projects have been successful from techniques in the book.
I'd need to split hairs to determine what time was spent where and in the end I just needed to write.
It's the same problem with choosing a ebook platform. No tool does you any good until you are actually using it. I'm currently writing in Apple's Pages app because it was the nearest and easiest way to just get started.
The benefit of a product is that it can become many things and the hours put into it can be easily won back with more sales.
I tried kick starter, but they rejected me. Apparently they don't allow any sort of how-to materials. I hadn't realized it was so easy to sell as a per-release. This is actually really encouraging and I think I may borrow your entire layout!
Oh, and that sounds like one heck of a week. Glad to hear your spirits are still high.
edit: Where did you put the link to your mailing list in the "tip of the iceberg" piece you linked to?
There was a signup form there originally, now it's a link to my main page about the book at http://clean-ruby.com
I won't claim that ebooks have made me rich, but they have provided a very nice supplemental income for me.