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I self-published a learn-to-code book and made nearly $5k in pre-orders (hellowebapp.com)
288 points by limedaring on July 7, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 105 comments

Congrats on your book! As a cofounder of Leanpub, I'm really happy that you enjoyed using our platform :) And yes, you can sell your Leanpub books wherever you want -- at Leanpub, authors own their work.

Thanks for the suggestion regarding pre-orders. At some point we'll probably add this. It would have to coincide with our also adding store credit, so that we can give refunds to purchases that are older than 45 days in store credit, etc. (Right now we have a 100% "happiness guarantee" where readers can get a refund with 2 clicks, but this only works for 60 days, so we set our refund policy to be 45 days.)

Off-topic comment on Leanpub -- Judging from the "best sellers" list, you handle a lot of software-related titles. Yet the categories pulldown in the bookstore has only two obvious software-related topics: the rather specific "Agile", and the rather broad "Software". I wonder whether you might not help browsers discover books of interest, by providing more categories and sub-categories (e.g., distinguish programming from data science, and under programming have separate sub-topics like Javascript, Python, and web).

That's a very good point. Adding to backlog :)

It is nice to see people from the tools we use daily watch Hacker News and actually listen to what we talk about. Thank you and I will be using you guys for my first book on Functional Programming soon!

Great! Brian Marick's book on Functional Programming (https://leanpub.com/fp-oo) has done really well; looking forward to seeing more of them!

I second this. Also you seem to have more erotic/unusual titles...

I think that's because vanity publishing is typically very popular amongst programming and "romance" authors.

We like to think of what we're doing as Lean Publishing (self-published in-progress ebooks), not vanity publishing. We only earn money if the author does, unlike most of the scum that prey on authors who wish to self-publish and spend thousands of dollars to get a box of books that sit in their basement.

The Leanpub workflow is totally free to use, and we're making it better all the time.

Now, frankly, I'm a programming book author myself (I've written 3 programming books) and we have tons of programming books on Leanpub -- but I really wish we had a lot more romance and other "genre" books than we currently do. I even went to Brisbane to speak at GenreCon Australia (http://www.genrecon.com.au/) in 2013 to try to jump-start this, but frankly our usability wasn't there yet. We'll get there.

I've been using Leanpub to write my first ebook doing the "1000 words a day" thing for 2 weeks now. I thought I would see if I've learned enough from running Candy Japan to do a book on subscription boxes.

It's been a really pleasant experience so far, although my chosen topic feels a bit broad, as it encompasses everything from running a website to marketing, shipping, packaging, curation, customer service etc. and it feels difficult to really get too deep into any subject. And the reality is that running such a box by yourself is exactly about being a generalist in all of this stuff.

At this point I have about 60 pages written and am now commissioning a book cover on 99designs: https://en.99designs.jp/book-cover-design/contests/create-e-...

I'm plotting a way to A/B test these covers. Maybe do an ad campaign with 1/6 of traffic getting each cover and see how many email signups each one gets. My leanpub page is looking rather bare now without one: https://leanpub.com/subscription-box

Candy Japan looks very cool.

I went to Leanpub because you commented here and also because OP's book was there. I was interested in seeing what else was out there about Django, but when I searched, only one result came up... and I know there's at least one other one: OP's book.

Any plan for improving the search engine?

Huh, looks like my fault. I was avoiding mentioning Python/Django in favor of emphasizing "web app development" so it didn't look too technical, but I think I went a bit far and forgot to mention them altogether. Whoops. Adding now.

Oops! I hope that fixes the situation, then. I thought it was much more likely that the site had a finicky search engine than there really being only one book related to Django.

Amazon actually doesn't list me for "Django tutorial" even though both keywords are mentioned on my page. It's been driving me nuts!

It looks like Leanpub isn't doing it either -- I guess they're both prioritizing title keywords.

Maybe a subtitle would help? "Hello Web App: Making Your Own Django App" or something.

Yeah... but with non-programmer-y people, "Django App" is worse than "Web App." I'll have to see how things go and change it if it's worth it!

Just want to say that I have two books on Leanpub totalling about 12.000 readers and am extremelly happy with the platform! Big thank you to the Leapub team, you folks rock!

Also working on a LeanPub book that doubles as framework documentation for our company until complete. Love it so much! Thank you!!!

Yay! Leanpub is my top recommendation for anyone self publishing a book, the platform is really great. Hope it gets even bigger!

It seems very geared towards non-fiction. Is there an equivalent for fiction writers or would you recommend going with them for fiction as well? The platform looks excellent but I'm not sure if it's the right fit. I love that they recommend exploring other options (excellent company philosophy)

Fantasy has one entry, scifi has no entries and fiction has a total of three entries.

We want to improve our support for fiction a lot in the months ahead. We're mostly computer programming books right now because Leanpub used to be so hard to use you needed to be a programmer to figure it out :) Most programmers already know Markdown, whereas the idea that you should write in something other than Word is something that we need to explain to people, and that opportunity only comes with traction.

To support fiction properly, we need to add support for paying for instalments, so that you can buy a chapter at a time, etc. Serial fiction used to be a big deal in the 1860s, and it should be a bigger deal now because of the internet.

Also, we're working on a new version of our in-browser editor which will be more friendly for people who don't like writing in Markdown -- which probably includes many fiction authors...

What's wrong with Amazon?

Congrats on writing a book and launching it!

That said, for me, this is just one more data point that you don't write a book to make money off of book sales. You do it to establish yourself as an authority and earn from that new position.

I've always found that some of my best learning... is teaching someone else.

Its amazing how far back into basics I have to go when I start talking to other people about programming. Some of the most fun I've had was helping my brother through his "Intro to C" class. God I hate pointers...

A few chapters in the book I knew nothing about before writing them (Heroku, pieces of others) and the review process also pointed out a few places where my knowledge was actually wrong. As a whole, it's been a huge learning process, and that's pretty much been the best part.

So how did you get to the point of writing a book on topics you didn't know about? I always thought the process was more like "well, I know this shit backwards in my sleep, I should write a book!"

It was more like having 50% of the book already known, and knowing that the book wouldn't be great without another 50% on top of it.

How did you find a subject that you felt you knew 50% about? :-) Given how much I've learned from other people, and the web, I have difficulty feeling like an _authority_ on any technical subject.

I think beginner books are easier to get to that 50%. The subject I'm teaching really isn't that hard, it just needs to be explained differently.

So, that said - maybe it's not feeling like an authority, but more feeling like you have an alternate/interesting/different take on a subject.

Thanks for the congrats!

Yeah I agree that other perks can outweigh the money; see also the comment below about marketing being one of the hardest parts about writing a book. Getting more known now will help future books I write (Nathan Barry is a good example).

I am reaping some rewards of having expenses covered to do workshops abroad. It's not a source of income, but it does make travel a lot more affordable which is great.

Ultimately, I hope that there will be some long-term passive income from the book (and possibly other books). We'll see. :)

Not only that. Sometimes you just want to help.

There are times when you start learning something only to realise while there is a definite market for the approach taken by the tutorial site, you expectations were a bit different. There might be topics which the instructor thinks everyone programmer should know. And for a non-programmer it takes hours just to figure out what was the instructor talking about.

Happy to answer any questions about the process of writing a book! It's been a surprisingly fun side-project that brings in some money too.

Firstly congrats - as a recent HN submissions showed, half the battle is simply finishing the damn thing.

A couple of questions, if you don't mind.

How did you support yourself while writing the book? And if you were working another job, how did you find time?

Did you try any other marketing like giving away the first chapter or blogging/newsletters?

I've been toying with the idea of writing a book on programming AVR microcontrollers for a while, since most of the information online is horrifically fragmented. I'm tempted to go down the website route and then publish it separately as a cohesive ebook, but it looks like leanpub may be a good option if you can publish individual chapters as you write them.

> How did you support yourself while writing the book? And if you were working another job, how did you find time?

I am lucky that I have no rent, so the income from WeddingLovely (when I was paying myself $20k/yr) as well as income from the Kickstarter (I raised $13k) helped a ton. As for time, that's one of the main reasons why it took me a year — I couldn't work on it full time.

> Did you try any other marketing like giving away the first chapter or blogging/newsletters?

I give away a sample to every subscriber to the email list, which includes the first four chapters, I believe. There has been mentions on podcasts and some newsletters, but nothing has matched the results from Product Hunt/Reddit yet. Still working on it.

How many hours did you spend on the book to get to this point?

Urg, that might be impossible to estimate. Hundreds on the various tasks (writing, editing, designing, researching, etc.)

Could you... round to the nearest hundred?

What toelva said! I definitely added a week or so of work by doing all the design myself. Writing... if I focused, I could write another book in two weeks of full-time work (maybe less) but the issue is getting distracted, or taking the time to research, etc. Since the work was spread out over a year with a lot of my time focused on my startup or personal stuff, it's really hard to estimate, apologies.

Of course, I can't answer for limedaring but I write software ebooks too. For each ebook, it's between 200 and 300 hours for writing, editing, designing, researching, etc

Thanks for the writeup! I have a book coming out shortly as well.

What are your plans for keeping up book revenue moving forward?

It's been dropping pretty steadily so I'm leaning towards releasing an intermediate book with more web app exercises. Makes a great upsell, I can bundle it with the beginner book, I can do another kickstarter (maybe). So expanding the empire and trying to get more reach.

How many years of Django experience you had, before started writing this book? Does this book come with any example apps? Is that code available on Github?

Thanks for the sharing the numbers :)

About five years, but I consider myself a beginner-intermediate still. I think that helped with writing the book because I'm still very aware of how non-programmers think and how to explain things in a non-programmer-y way.

The book comes with a template app — I call it a "collection of things", which should work with a lot of different unique ideas, like building a directory of django programmers, a store, etc.

And yes, the code is available on Github: http://github.com/hellowebapp

Like Pinterest app? Cool!

Where can I buy this book in India?

You can buy from http://gumroad.com/limedaring though if you buy the paperback book, ~$14 US is added for international shipping.

What was the most difficult step in the self-publishing process?

Editing was hard, I didn't pay for a professional editor and I still wonder if the book could have been better had I paid for a professional to go through it. I did recruit an army of testers and volunteer readers though, which helped.

Fulfillment slowed me down a lot, especially since I released a paperback book rather than keeping it all digital (I really wanted to have something physical to take to events, plus designing an actual book is really fun.) I almost went with a local printer, as I wanted to support a local business... but their cost per book was ~$10, and going with a China-based printer (PrintNinja.com) dropped the book cost to $3.60 — I pretty much had no choice since I wanted to sell on Amazon (anything over $5 would kill my profit.) But being that it was printed in China, it added two months between submitting the print order to getting the books in hand, and I had a lot of people waiting for their books for about a year since the Kickstarter. It was really stressful, but at least now I know and can plan for this delay in the future.

Oh, and a shout-out to marketing, which this blog post obviously is. Of course I wish I could release the book and get revenue without effort, but that won't happen. Self-promotion is really hard, and I'm learning how to market my products better but it's really not that much fun and very stressful. Necessary though.

How did you design the book? Did you use Adobe InDesign or something else? Whatever you did use, what was your reason, and was it difficult to learn?

I have a graphic design degree and room editorial design at university, so I definitely had a leg up there. I indeed used indesign, a lot of stuff I remembered but I also touched up on it by taking some skillahare classes on laying out books.

Indesign is very powerful, and ergo a little intimidating. For a newbie though, it shouldn't take that long to get a handle on it (by doing some tutorials and whatnot) but harder would be learning about typography and getting an inmate feel for good editorial design. Not something that can be taught in a day, unfortunately. Still, I recommend skillshare, they have a lot of great design tutorials.

Do you have an opinion on LaTeX? I'd be interested to hear about it from someone used to publishing technical work in indesign.

I have heard one datapoint from another author that publishing in LaTeX has been nothing but pain (I think in mostly in regards to creating the eBooks). That said, the formatting in InDesign was kind of a pain on its own (it kept adding "typographers" curly apostrophes which would break the code), but I'd probably still choose that over LaTeX.

Just saw the typo, sorry! I meant, "I have a graphic design degree and took editorial design..."

Besides HN, what promotion did you do?

I detail that in the linked post - the biggest was product hunt, and reddit was huge too.

I'll bite. What motivated you to do this? What was the process like? Have you considered making instructional video for Udemy or other MOOCs as another resource?

I taught myself how to code about 5 years ago and while I eventually figured it out (and launched weddinglovely.com), I was really annoyed at the process and how every tutorial seemed like it assumed I came from a comp. sci. background. I decided I wanted to write a learn-to-code book aimed at people who have previous experience with front-end development and how websites work, but no programming experience.

The process was long... took me about a year. It could have been much shorter if some personal and startup events didn't interfere with the process, especially since it's such a small book (~140 pages). Another book that size would probably take me about three months. I ended up doing all of the design myself as well, which slowed me down, but it was enjoyable as I was able to use some of my design background and editorial design knowledge – a nice break from writing and programming.

I have thought about making instructional videos, since the ones that I sell in the "complete" package have been doing well. The biggest issue is time, since I'm still running my startup solo. Second biggest is potential revenue, since my salary for WeddingLovely is currently at $0 (long story) so I'm supporting myself completely on what Hello Web App is bringing in.

Thanks for the fun questions!

Nice to hear yet another non-CS degree holder taking the dive (CS degree holder here). I think keeping tech books like that short is key to success. We don't have the time or attention span to pour through 300-500 page books on tech stuff. I think 140 is in the sweet spot for sure. Keep it up and get on with the videos - I hear there's money in them there hills.

I'm sorry to wander off topic, but your website just automatically redirected me to some squarespace url( https://tracy-osborn-ic34.squarespace.com/config?frameUrl=/n... ). I'm assuming this isn't normal?

I really like how transparent you're being with the sales per platform, that's rather interesting information to be sharing. I've also never heard of gumroad before, so I'm really surprised by how it stacks up against amazon.

Oh squarespace. That's my "actual" url, guess the custom domain stopped working. Looking into it, thanks!

Gumroad is great, except that they don't market your book like Amazon does, so they're kind of apples and oranges. Most people don't do both platforms and it's been an interesting experiment trying both the hands-off let-Amazon-take-care-of-it vs. more money yet I have to do all fulfillment Gumroad side. I'm actually traveling right now and had to hire someone off of craigslist to ship books for me while I'm gone, it's been kind of a PITA.

You can actually add videos to your Kindle book and sell it for a higher price. Note however that the video version is supported only for Fire devices. Checkout - Kindle Textbook Creator - https://www.amazon.com/gp/feature.html?docId=1002998671

Huh, had no idea. Thanks for the tip!

FYI I just chatted with Amazon and unfortunately I can only do one version of a Kindle book, so I'd have to get rid of my natural Kindle book in order to sell an eTextbook version with videos. They said they're looking into allowing creators to sell both though so fingers crossed that happens soon. I would love to be able to sell a version of my video package through Amazon.

Judging by the title, this book seems targeted at beginners. Nonetheless, I decided to buy it since I'm using Django in my current side project.

I have a question (not related to my side project). I maintain a list of my eBook library where I put the following information about the eBooks I have (data for this book in parentheses): Publisher (Leanpub), Title (Hello Web App), Authors (Tracy Osborn), Published (), Purchased (2015-07-08), Last known update (2015-05-08), Catalog Page (http://leanpub.com/hellowebapp), Read duration (). As you can see, I was unable to determine what to put in the Published field. I would like to have information for this on the form Month Year. Could someone -- preferably Tracy or a Leanpub employee -- tell me what to put there?

PS: If you'd like to see my eBook library list, you can find it at http://www.erikano.net/eBooks/purchased.htm. Note that some of the books at the bottom of the list are ones I am not so interested in reading any longer.

So you have books that are - Not started reading, not finished reading, recommended. You are missing the "finished reading, but not recommended", don't you think? Or maybe I am reading things wrong.

I have now made a new label for eBooks I discourage and I also wrote a clarification about neutral books -- those without any legend. Thanks for pointing out this element of confusion.

2015-05-04 would be the published date.

Ok, thanks :) Just to confirm, though, that's May 2015, right? (And not the 5th of April 2015.)

Yes :)

Cool, congrats, and thanks for the writeup! I just bought your book on Amazon though I'm a fellow Leanpub publisher...organizing non-Amazon documents on the Kindle is just a pain. I'm assuming publishing to Amazon was pretty straightforward since Leanpub generates a mobi version? The paperback fees/revenues don't seem too promising...I'm going to take that as another excuse to never publish on paper.

Another datapoint...a few years ago I published a draft manual on how to use regular expressions. I've never finished it, but to date, I've accumulated $1,200 from Leanpub revenues...even though I set the book's price to $0. Once I have more time I'll finish it up...I was pleased to see that Leanpub made the publishing workflow even easier by hooking into Github...I've been trying to set up a system that simultaneously publishes via Leanpub while publishing a free web version using the same files via Jekyll.

tldr: Leanpub is great...I haven't used other self-publishing platforms but I can't imagine how much better something could be than Leanpub for those who like hacking/writing in Markdown and in their own text editors.

Yup - Leanpub made Amazon publishing super simple. I'm not a fan of their PDF designs though so I still needed to do that on my own for the rest of my digital files on Gumroad. :)

'Learn by doing' - did you go to Cal Poly?


Nice! I'm a current student :)

Jeeeeeeez that conversion rate is almost criminal....from someone selling physical products online :-) (732 views / 102 sales) Huge congrats on the launch!

To be fair, that was Product Hunt, where people are primed to buy. My conversion rate is normally ~1-3%, and right now is a fraction of that since most people are visiting for the article only.

Congrats on your marketing on ycombinator? Did it work?

I've sold 1 ebook package and 1 complete package on Gumroad with about 5,000 page views so far. :P But sharing information is fun too, revenue generation isn't the #1 goal.

Very informative post! I just finished creating an online course on Ruby on Rails and I'm thinking of creating an ebook from it.

I'm also looking for authors who would want to publish their programming books or posts on my site [1], where they could include programming challenges and other exercises.

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


This article prompts a thought:

I want to sell a price study we did as a startup (in Germany) to businesses. Study is in PDF and price is around $300. Primary targets would be businesses.

Any suggestions on where to sell?

Probably best if the website offers also invoice payment and knows how to sell to businesses? Some kind of personalization of the PDF (Buyer name etc.) would be nice for 'copy protection'. Not sure about mobile? DIY?

Thanks :-)

Gumroad does PDF personalization. You'd still have to do your own marketing though!

Great article. Congrats on your successful ebook and how you analyse sales through out different channels. I guess your next hacker news article will be like: "I published an article on hacker news of how I get nearly $5k in pre-orderes. And I got another $1k pre-order after the 10k visitors to my site. "

Thanks for your post. I've also written a few code book but only have sold on gumroad. I'm going to try out amazon and leanpub as other sales channels to.

Question... did you have a large email list when you were selling your pre-orders? How did you get the word out? Just product hunt?

Kickstarter helped a ton, promotion of the campaign helped me get to 800 email subscribers by launch day. Not huge, but not tiny either. Reddit (a mentioned in the post) was also almost as big as product hunt.

800 is pretty good to have out of the starting gate. The number one hardest thing I've found in self-publishing is to build a good following or email list. I'm around 500 subscribers at this point. That's after about a year of working to build the list. Kickstarter is a good idea I hadn't really considered. Thanks again. oh and if you want to check out my books, head over to mattlambert.ca

Yeah, Kickstarter is a LOT of work but it's great at both building up an email list as well as getting an "advance" for your work before it's released (of course, only if the KS is successful.)

Congrats on shipping! How did you decide which code/commands to include in the book and which ones to publish online? This works well for ebooks (avoids errata), but is less convenient for readers of the paperback edition.

Do you mean the code that's on Github (like the installation instructions) and not in the paperback? The install stuff is online because I highly suspect it'll need to be updated often, and I didn't want the book to go out of date quickly. Let me know if I misunderstood the question!

Yes, I was referring to the code on GitHub.

I'm assuming/hoping that most paperback readers will still have a computer in front of them when going through the book since it's a tutorial, so hopefully opening up the GitHub code isn't that much of an inconvenience. If they're ideally reading without a computer, then missing that chapter shouldn't be a problem.

I bought your book on Kickstarter! I love it and would recommend anyone starting out.

Awesome! Apologies again for the delay in fulfillment. :)

Congratulations! The inside pages of the book seem to have a custom design, not what leanpub gives you by default. Its great and adds to the appeal of the book. Have you applied that to your leanpub edition as well?

It's offered in the 2nd package on Leanpub for an extra $5. :)

I must be the only one who can't load the web page.

ERR_SSL_VERSION_OR_CIPHER_MISMATCH A secure connection cannot be established because this site uses an unsupported protocol.

Try again now? Looks like Cloudflare was having issues for a bit.

Congrats on the book sales! I did not know about your book beforehand and have been looking for something like this, so I think I will give yours a shot.

Awesome. I also made a forum at discuss.hellowebapp.com for questions if you need any help. :)

Congrats! How do you manage the inventory for hard copies? Like how many copies do you pre-order for printing? (Sorry I have no knowledge in this space)

I ended up ordering 1,000 because I needed to fulfill the Kickstarter orders (~300). I probably have about 400-500 left at this moment from my order in May. 1,000 was a nice round number that also gave me a good bulk discount on PrintNinja.com.

When I'm home, I do all the fulfillment myself, which took a lot of trial and error to find the best packaging solution. Now I use sheet of bubble wrap around each book, then put that in a cardboard mailer and tape it up, then I use a custom script that uses EasyPost to generate labels (I really need to write a post about that script, it's pretty awesome and has made my life so much easier. Before I was using USPS.com and Paypal and both services are terrible.) At the moment though I'm traveling abroad, so I hired someone off of Craigslist to fulfill books, paying $1.50 per book.

No need to apologize! It took me a long time to figure out the above process. Happy to answer more questions.

The cover design is always an interesting part of a book. Did you got through a A/B testing phase before settling on this design?

Congrats on the launch!

LOL I wish. I never feel like I have time to do A/B testing. I just went with my instincts.

Nice book, I will recommend it to my gf that I've been trying to introduce programming for. Your book seems like a good starting point.


The cover looks like it was formatted in CSS. Just kidding, congrats on the book :)

You wouldn't believe how many hours I spent on cover design. >_<

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