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Ask HN: Making money with ebooks and video courses vs. writing apps?
89 points by facepalm on Oct 25, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 39 comments
I've been browsing Udemy courses yesterday and I was floored to find that some programming courses might have sold in excess of a million dollars (unless Udemy hands out coupons all the time and few people actually pay the full price for a course - I don't know that).

There are also courses like "how to create a bestseller on Kindle".

Now I am thinking of creating my own programming course, but I realize I can not really make such a promise as helping people earn money with programming (except getting a job, but that also seems a but much for a single video course). It would be cool to make a course "learn programming language X and earn 1000$/month in passive income" but it seems a very doubtful proposition to me.

Is it harder to make money with programming than with other content creation (ebooks, video)?

Udemy says the average course earns 7000$ - not a lot, but I think still more than the average income for iOS or Android apps? And it seems to me a course or ebook might be much simpler to create than a good app.

Of course those "make a Kindle bestseller" courses might just be fake "get rich quick" schemes, but I am not so sure. I can imagine having a good title and reasonable subject a book can become a bestseller easily.

I happen to have done both, and am friends with a lot of people who have done both. Birds of a feather and all that.

If you are good at writing / good at teaching, it is much easier to ship a book or course than it is to ship almost any SaaS applications. SaaS apps have a suite of challenges which solving does not make you any MRR, such as maintenance, security, server administration, devops, deployment workflows, customer support (orders of magnitude more time than "Reset my password please" or "Send me another receipt"), etc etc.

Typically, people use a launch-centric approach to promoting books and courses, which results in them getting a spike of sales around the launch window and then fairly little residual value. You can do better than this, but you have to be savvy about it. (Savvy, in this context, basically means "doing email marketing very well in an ongoing fashion.")

I will happily show you actual graphs of sales over time, but the most common patterns among my friends are, for books/courses, a sales spike during the launch window and then it declines to an asymptote close to the Y axis. For SaaS, "the long slow SaaS ramp of death", where MRR grows by some amount every month, and it may well take you years until it is worth your time, depending on your ability to make sales. (The fastest solo-founded SaaS I'm aware of is Baremetrics, and they hit $20k MRR in 6 months. That's meteoric compared to almost every Internet buddy I've ever swapped numbers with -- more typically, you hit $10k in ~18 months of full-time work. I'm aware of at least five people who hit $30k with their first book, which generally requires a fraction of the effort to get out there and a fraction of a fraction of the post-launch time to support.)

As to whether books/etc can be worth it for customers, the short answer is "Yes." There are plenty of get rich schemes on the Internet. You don't have to be one of them. Local examples of savvy value-producing authors include Nathan Barry (design and authorship), Brennan Dunn (business topics for freelancers), Sasha Greif (the Meteor book), and another dozen or so HNers at least.

Your chances of producing something of value go radically up if you do not teach non-technical people how to make a software business (expected success rate of people who buy that book: < 1%, if that) but rather produce something which makes a professional in your field better at one specific additional thing that you know very well. For example, I'm a Ruby on Rails developer and have no decent integration tests. If you write the book on integration testing, there is at least a 50% chance that I will be at least somewhat successful at learning about and successfully executing on integration tests. The price of your book is denominated in minutes of my time -- attention is a scarce resource but money is not, so if you can trade me "I'll save you 12 hours of Googling and reading Free Information On The Internet (TM) and it will cost you $50", that's a great trade for me.

Here's a link to the video/talk that coined the term "the long slow SaaS ramp of death" for those that want to learn more. I highly recommend watching it.


That is still the best presentation ever on the SaaS business.

  > If you write the book on integration testing, there is at least a
  > 50% chance that I will be at least somewhat successful at learning
  > about and successfully executing on integration tests.
At $59, this is a good guide to teaching you integration testing in Ruby. http://davehaeffner.com/selenium-guidebook/ (Disclosure: I started the Selenium project and am friends with the author of the book.)

FWIW, I agree. Testing and test automation (and Selenium, specifically) are not sexy topics, but it's a lucrative niche to be an expert in.

> do not teach non-technical people how to make a software business (expected success rate of people who buy that book: < 1%, if that) [but for example] write the book on Ruby on Rails developer integration testing, there is at least a 50% chance that I will be at least somewhat successful

You need to have certain ratios to give that advice.

For each Ruby on Rails developer who wants to learn about integration testing there are probably 10,000 non-technical people wanting to break into the software business where there think that they can becomes software millionaires working part-time in their basement. So, bigger audience for the latter book.

On the other hand, for each book about Ruby on Rails integration testing, there are probably hundreds of books that teach non-technical people how to make a software business. So, more competition for the latter book.

I don't know the ratios involved. Unless you have actual statistical information, I think we're both just speculating about which might be the better strategy.

I'd much prefer to write a good technical book rather than delude non-technical people into thinking they can become software millionaires. But looking at the cold hard rate-of-return, I don't know which makes more money.

They're both probably profitable, but which would you rather be associated with?

What Patrick said comes at just the right time for me as it's becoming more obvious that I like teaching and explaining things. I even have a potential subject in mind, however the market is one that's likely difficult to sell into since the end users (readers) are not the likely purchasers.

Thanks for the mention :) Speaking of sales graphs, here's a pretty detailed case study for our book's sales made by the Gumroad folks: http://blog.gumroad.com/post/97148570338/discover-meteor-cas...

I'm a Udemy instructor and now create video content full-time (baserails.com). I remember doing the same math (e.g. 10k students x $200 each = $2M!...and in only 6 months!). I was floored that these instructors were making so much money. In hindsight, I realize that I made 3 key mistakes in my assumptions:

1. Even if it's a paid course, that doesn't mean that all students paid money. Udemy instructors have the ability to give out free coupons to help in marketing their courses. Since it's in Udemy's best interest to boost their displayed course enrollment numbers, signing up a free account and 'purchasing' a course for free is really easy. I wouldn't be surprised if some instructors use a script to automate this process and enroll thousands of fake students.

2. Even if people do pay, almost no one pays full price (and the price you see may not have been the price at launch). Udemy gives frequent and deep discounts ("50% off all courses for Udemy's 4th birthday!", "70% off because summer's out and the school year ended!", "90% off select courses just because it's October!"). Many Udemy users are 'course collectors' - they'll purchase a bunch of courses at once when it's on discount, in case they may want to learn those skills in the future.

3. Udemy gets a bigger cut than you think. While instructors keep 100% of revenue from customers they bring to Udemy, the majority of your students will be Udemy users you don't know. For these purchases, instructors receive 25% or 50% of the purchase price (depending on whether Udemy did any marketing), with an additional discount if the course was purchased on a mobile device.

Don't build a course to 'get rich quick' - do it only if you actually like teaching.

Thank you for the insight - I actually suspected there is a lot of couponing and so on going on. I guess like in the iOS or Android app store (or presumably all markets) people try to game it. I would probably do the same and try to sign up free subscribers until I have 1K or so to make my course look good.

But don't worry, I am genuinely interested in creating such a course, and I don't want to rip people off. I plan to have fun while making it, so there is not much too lose.

Actually I had decided recently to try to write ebooks as a means of learning stuff myself (in that case it was AngularJS). I think of it as an additional motivation and I think it could work for me, if not for everybody. Making a video would probably be supplementary to that.

That's great - definitely do it for the learning/experience and let the money be a side benefit. If you have any other questions or need more tactical advice on getting started, I'd be happy to share here or via email alex@baserails.com. Good luck!

Buy this book. Read it. Implement it.


Doing those three things have directly led to me earning approximately $40,000 from book sales in the last 16 months from my book Mastering Modern Payments[1], and I'm not even Nathan's best case[2].

Writing and editing and publishing and promoting a book, even a short one, is a difficult thing. It's one of the hardest things I've ever willingly done. That said, it's been one of the most rewarding projects I've ever undertaken, both financially and for consulting and contracting prospects.

[1]: https://www.masteringmodernpayments.com

[2]: http://nathanbarry.com/authority-case-studies/

Can anyone else vouch for this? I've never heard of the author and $39 is steep pricing for a book.


At the risk of sounding like an acolyte, I've been reading Nathan's stuff for a while and once I decided I had something valuable to teach, I happily shelled out for Authority to get some guidance and focus on how to go about packaging and launching a course book.

I'm mid-way through the writing process and I don't regret the purchase at all.

I snagged Pete's book when it was $29. The recent upgrade and new version pushes are great. The book is essential if you want a good overview of how to get setup with Stripe payments fast, without having to read too far into Stripe's API documentation. He also includes other good ideas to improve the payment portion of your application.

Pete is legit. His book is fantastic and helped me build a subscription service (egghead.io).

I'm a big fan of Nathan's work too.

The audible version is for free if you are willing to trial audible.com membership, right now..

Well, patio11 mentioned him elsewhere in this thread, does that count?

Not unless he's followed through with it too :-)

Why think of it as online course or ebook, rather than online course and ebook?

The way I see things, the value the author provides is in the distillation of information---rather than learn from 20+ random HOWTOs on the web, readers will pay for a single coherent source, that explains and organizes knowledge for them. This "distilled knowledge" can be offered either through a printed book, an ebook, an online course, a screencast, an audiobook, etc. The medium is not the important factor but the quality of the teaching.

I wrote a blog post about my experience in the book business a while back [1]. TL;DR writing books is a LOT of work (1yr/book=writing,editing,selling), but a definitely an area that will grow.

If I can give some advice for how to start your book writing is to tutor someone live before getting down to write. Looking at your students (in a one-on-one or one-on-few context) is by far the fasters way to receive feedback about the quality of an explanation. After giving a few such tutorials, you'll just have to put your in-person-explanations into words.

Good luck!


[1] You can read about my experiences bootstrapping a textbook publishing company here: http://minireference.com/blog/techzing-interview/

> And it seems to me a course or ebook might be much simpler to create than a good app.

Citation needed. I think you are seriously underestimating the difficulty of creating a course or ebook worth paying money for.

I'm sure it is some effort, but so is writing a good app.

And I remember the quote from the "Rich Dad, Poor Dad" author: "I'm a bestselling author, not best writing author".

Anyway, I will try in November.

If it is something like "Introduction to JavaScript" I think it might almost write itself. One could even take the structure from some book that already exists.

Thinking back to some example eBooks that have been popular and have done well are those that are quite niche. Off the top of my head some that I can think of are "Working with Unix Processes" and "Mastering Modern Payments". I don't think writing another intro to Javascript would be a good idea.

I think somebody wrote on HN a while ago that if a book for 50$ solves an urgent problem, it's a nobrainer for a company to buy it. So I can imagine how "Mastering Modern Payments" could have become a hit.

I was surprised that JavaScript courses are not that popular (or so it seems), and the most popular I have seen so far are Python courses (in terms of general programming courses - not sure what the most successful courses are overall). I've seen a Python course with 40K viewers, at 99$ a pop.

Sure, but why would anyone in the world buy your version of "Introduction to Javascript" over the hundreds I'm sure already exist? Or the many freely available tutorials online?

Just do a quick Google search and you can find many anecdotes about how writing a book is not even close to a good way of spending your time if your goal is to make money. And that's for authors with an established reputation in the field.

It's not impossible but it's really really difficult.

Video courses != books. For whatever reason, people seem more willing to pay for video courses and hands-on instruction.

Books are indeed a tough sell, but that's partly because if you publish with a traditional publisher you'll be lucky to get more $10k advance for a developer reference and $20k for a mainstream Windows/OS X book, and even luckier - like lottery-winner lucky - if that advance ever earns out and you see some royalties.

That's the high end. The low end is somewhere between zero and not much.

But if you can find an empty-ish niche and self-publish, your chances of a reasonable income are much higher. And if you can support that with live classes, sample code, a forum, and video content, I'd say the chances of making reasonable money are much better than in the crapshoot that is self-funded app development.

Sure, but producing quality video content and code samples in addition to a quality book adds even more time to an already long process. A discussion forum or mailing list implies continuous effort in engaging with your audience. Not quite the passive income the original poster wants.

That's not even taking into account the fact that to produce such content the person has to be a (recognized especially if you don't have the marketing budget of large publishers) expert in a niche area. Such a person can presumably already make decent money as a consultant.

Being a consultant and a content producer is not mutually exclusive of course, but it's not quite the easy income I sense the original poster is looking for.

You hit the nail on the head here. We're not really talking about random people being capable of writing profitable books; we're talking about expert consultants having the ability to productize their consulting into info-products to provide them with recurring revenue.

It's somewhat the same idea as an expert engineer inventing and patenting a machine design, then licensing it: they take a bunch of knowledge they would have sold once, and make it into something they can sell over and over.

> And I remember the quote from the "Rich Dad, Poor Dad" author: "I'm a bestselling author, not best writing author".

"The Rich Dad, Poor Dad" targeted a huge generic market vs nich tech market for "Javascript" (very tough market). Your book will also be competing with Video tutors like:


For only $25/mo, you can have access to all the courses in their library.

If you want do create a course, my suggestion is: Treat it as any other product. Make your market research.

How big is the market for the subject you want to teach about? What is already out there? What will differentiate your course from the other ones already out there, and how are you going to promote it?


Of course - actually there are even Udemy courses on how to create successful Udemy courses :-)

I think I'll try it and there will be things to learn that are useful anyway, like how to make a good video presentation. That can come in handy even if I want to sell an app next.

I won't name names but there's a lot of crap out there that people pay money for.

Udemy discounts like crazy - someone i know was featured in a video course and gave me a free code for it and encouraged me to hand it out freely

they regularly email offering 90% off and other crazy discounts

Very true. I can confirm that Udemy is discounting courses all the time. There are time-limited offers for selected courses (that are regularly priced for 149$ to 499$) for 10$ oder 15$ at least once or twice a month. At least one teacher I know of has left Udemy for that practice, stating she feels kind of robbed because she can't deliver quality for a few bucks, but can't complete against all this bargaining offers effectively as well. Many teachers will offer participants of their other courses steep discounts as well, especially when starting new courses or updating older ones. The numbers of subscribed students seem heavily inflated for many courses by these practices: Just compare the number of (useful) reviews with the number of students subscribed.

I agree - the deep discounts lower average engagement by a lot. From what I've seen, most students who binge-purchase don't actually start learning from the courses they buy.

I have written ebooks and was considering courses, so let me offer an opinion too. I opted to develop YouTube videos to promote my brand MindYourDecisions. The reason is YouTube has many more users and you have a chance to establish your authority and market books. If you get over 10,000 subscribers on YouTube, you can also make paid subscriptions which you can use to sell courses.

Looking at all the 'negative' comments about Udemy's marketing/discounts, I get a feeling there is a maybe small market for a niche Udemy (high cost courses/ no discounts/ gimmicks)

Yup there is, especially for something niche.

One that I can think of is "Selenium 2 WebDriver Basics With Java". The the topic is niche, and the course seems comprehensive. And for the price tag, it somehow never gets to the discount bin(I know this since its been on my wishlist for so long).

If the price is cheap, I would bought this as a casual learner, but if I am really into testing with Selenium, I would not mind at all paying the full price.

With the price, that course garners something like 800+ students. So if you are into supporting your student when they are going through the course, charging high is the way to go IMO.

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