How to Market an eBook Online

Ah, 2014, when things were easy.  I wrote my first eBook, a Java Certification study guide.  I had been studying for the Java 7 certification from Oracle, the owner of Java, in 2013 and I purchased a $9.99 eBook through Amazon.  There weren’t a lot of other options on Amazon, so I decided to put my own study guide together and offer it at the $2.99 price point.  It seemed like a good market opportunity, plus I would push my Java knowledge.  At the very least, it would be a better use of my time than watching TV.

I released the eBook in mid-2014, and I was pleased with the results.  For the first few months it was selling about a copy a day, so after royalties I made around $2.00 per day.  That may not sound like much, but I was pretty proud of it considering it was my first foray into creating my own product.  Furthermore, it was on autopilot, or so I thought.

However, two things conspired against me.  First, I made the mistake of releasing a Java 7 book right around the time Java 8 came out.  That was fixable, but I neglected to keep the book up to date.  Far more importantly, Amazon KDP Select launched.  This is a program that gave Amazon Prime members free access to eBooks enrolled in KDP Select.  Authors felt required to enroll in KDP Select so that Amazon’s algorithms would boost their book.  Good for consumers, bad for producers. Take a look at my Sales Report from the last six years to see the impact of KDP Select.  Shortly after KDP Select was rolled out, my book sales declined but book borrows via KDP Select rose.  Authors get paid per page read from KDP Select borrows, but it runs at something under half a penny per page.

My Kindle Sales

Take a look at my Sales Report from the last six years to see the impact of KDP Select.  Shortly after KDP Select was rolled out, my book sales declined but book borrows via KDP Select rose.  Authors get paid per page read from KDP Select borrows, but it runs at something under half a penny per page. 

Kindles Sales Report
My sales for the first programming eBook I wrote

About 1000 pages were being read each month through KDP Select, yielding about $5.00 in monthly income.

Fast forward to 2020.  I hadn’t released any eBooks since 2014 but finally got the motivation to get serious about more side businesses than just my options trading.  I updated my book for Java 11 and I also released a Docker Certified Associate study guide.  After pouring dozens of hours into these projects, I released them to Amazon KDP with expectations to have results similar to my 2014 book launch.  I was about to be disappointed.

My Java 11 study guide has only sold a copy or two prior to writing this article.  My Docker book is selling only five or so copies per week, and even that was after knocking the price down to $0.99.  What’s different?

It turns out there’s far more competition in the Java space in Amazon.  There’s only a few other Docker study guides on Amazon, so it’s a bit easier to be seen.  However, there’s also a proliferation of sites dedicated to programming literature, such as Packt.  Furthermore, many writers use Medium to build an audience and then promote links to their books on sites other than Amazon.  These Medium articles rank highly in Google, so anyone searching for a study guide will be directed this way. 

This leads me to believe that anyone aspiring to create a side hustle around programming eBooks shouldn’t JUST write an eBook, throw it on Amazon, and hope for the best.

Market using Medium or Blog Posts

Here are a couple of ways to draw potential buyers to your book:

  1.  Write a Medium article that gives users something for free, then include a link at the bottom to your book if they want more.  For example, you could write a Medium article titled “100 Docker Certified Associate Study Questions”.  If you write 100 high quality questions, readers who want more study material will likely take a look at the book.
    1. Pros: It’s relatively fast and free
    1. Cons: You don’t own the platform
  2. Create a blog on the topic, be perceived as an expert, and drive traffic to your book via affiliate links.  This can be as simple as writing 10 detailed posts about the topic and including an affiliate link in each post. 
    1. Pros: Your blog posts are your own business that you completely own and can be monetized in other ways besides the book, such as with other affiliate links
    1. Cons: Startup costs in both time and money
  3. An alternative to a blog is to choose Medium as your platform, build your audience there, and promote your book at the end of any relevant article.
    1. Pros:  There’s a huge built-in audience
    1. Cons: Same as #1.  Furthermore, it can be dangerous to build your business around someone else’s platform.  The platform can take away your business in a day.
  4. Link to your eBook from your LinkedIn profile.
    1. Pros: This takes five minutes.  A significant additional benefit is that potential recruiters will notice the book and you have an instant credibility boost.
    1. Cons: None beyond a little self-consciousness.

If you have both a blog and an eBook, be sure so provide a link to the blog both at the beginning and the end of the eBook so that anyone who finds the eBook via Amazon or Google searches will also find your blog.

We’ve discussed why you shouldn’t JUST write an eBook.  But we haven’t talked about why you SHOULD write an eBook (or a technical blog, for that matter).  Let’s set income potential aside for a moment.  Writing a technical eBook is a great idea because:

  1. It can motivate you to learn a new skill.  I didn’t know Docker when I decided to write my Docker Certified Associate study guide.  However, after researching the topic and doing side projects with it to the point that I had material for 200 study questions, I can now confidently use Docker at work and discuss it with peers.  Furthermore, I feel prepared to sit for the Certification exam.
  2. It can motivate you to dive deeply into an existing skill.  My first job was as a Java developer.  I could write code that got the job done, but that didn’t mean it was good code.  I also lacked confidence in my own abilities.  After studying for the certification exam and then writing an eBook on the topic, I was undoubtedly better at my day job.
  3. It can bring about new recruitment opportunities and gives you interview conversation.  I have talked about my Java book in interviews and with peers.  I also talk about it with students interested in tech careers to show them that there’s lots of entrepreneurial opportunities in tech.

Writing a technical eBook boosts your skill set and possibly your finances and career as well.  It is an emotionally rewarding side hustle as well.  When you see a product you created being purchased, especially in international Amazon markets, it’s an incredible feeling.  How many of your developer peers have created and sold a product in international markets?  How many of your peers spend their free time developing products that improve the technical community?

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