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In Which I Blather About Self-Publishing

So I tend to keep an eye on interesting things in the Ruby self-published technical book space.

This isn’t exactly recent, but I did want to mention and endorse Avdi Grimm’s Exceptional Ruby. This is exactly the kind of thing that should be happening in the self-publishing space. It’s a brief, thorough exploration of a very specific topic, in this case error and exception handling in Ruby. You may think you understand Ruby’s error mechanisms, but I’m pretty sure that unless you are actually Avdi, you will learn something both about the mechanics or Ruby’s exception handling and how best to robustly integrate error management into your code.

The book is clear and authoritative, not least because Avdi is up front about certain code patterns that he is presenting but has not had wild amounts of experience with. I like when a technical author is comfortable enough to admit less than perfect omnipotence.

Anyway, it’s $15 dollars at both exceptionalruby.com and at Pragmatic – Avdi worked out a deal where Pragmatic is co-distributing the book. Unlike what I did with Rails Test Pescriptions, Exceptional Ruby is just being distributed by Pragmatic – it didn’t go through Prag design or edits, and Avdi also sells it on his own. This strikes me as a very interesting experiment, and I hope it works out for both sides.

Which brings me to the latest from Thoughtbot, namely a new ebook on Backbone.js and Rails.

I need to start with a disclaimer – there’s a sense in which this book partially competes with my Not Completely Announced JavaScript book. Also, I haven’t read what they have yet, although quibbles aside, there’s a good chance that I’ll buy it. Also, I use all kinds of Thoughtbot tools and I have a lot of respect for them as a team.

Okay, we clear?

Thoughtbot is producing a new ebook – apparently as a group, because they aren’t listing specific authors. (As a matter of marketing, and consumer confidence, I really recommend that they list the authors…). They have an extensive outline on the site, although they don’t estimate the final page count. The distribution model is interesting – when you pay, you get access to a github repo containing up to the moment source code that can be converted to a variety of formats. (Though it is unclear if any format other than HTML is supported immediately). The outline appears to be solid, can’t quibble with any of that yet.

Now how much would you pay?

It’s $39. Until August 1, when it goes up to $49.

That is a bold pricing strategy.

Which doesn’t mean it won’t work out fine for Thoughtbot.

To put that $49 in context, that’s more than double most Pragmatic ebooks. It’s almost triple what O’Reilly sells their new jQuery Mobile book for, which would seem to be a reasonable comparison, topic size wise. And, of course, it’s five times what I self-published for a few years ago. More on that in a second.

Offhand, I can think of three reasons why they might try that pricing strategy:

  • Value pricing: if this book saves you an hour of research or coding, then that easily covers the price for most purchasers. Which is true, if not exactly how the market prices technical books. But if you look at it as a fraction of what a typical training course costs, then it makes more sense.

  • Profit pricing: Thoughtbot may have decided they need to price at this level to make the cost in time spent on the book worthwhile to them.

  • Boutique pricing: Thoughtbot may want to place a marker down as experts in this space, but limit their customers to people who are seriously interested in both the subject and the somewhat interactive model they have chosen for creating the book.

All these arguments seem valid, or at least defensible, and I have no idea what Thoughtbot’s strategy actually is. I’m really curious to see what happens, though. I’ll report back after I buy it and they get some time to put content in place.

It seems to me like part of the marketing side self publishing a book is giving potential readers as few reasons as possible to not buy the book. Right now, there are a lot of reasons here – the price, the lack of a sample, the lack of an author or publisher who might have a track record (although obviously Thoughtbot itself has a great reputation, and this will be more meaningful to some people than others). Some of this will correct itself over time – if things are good, they’ll get some word of mouth – testimonials would be a great thing on their website.

Which is a roundabout way to say a couple of things about self-publishing based on my own experience.

First is that it’s wildly clear that I chickened out on the pricing. (Rails Test Prescriptions was $9 when I self published it.) I could make up something about how I was pursuing a mass-marketing strategy and blah, blah, but the simple fact was I was petrified that nobody would see value in it if I went above $9. In retrospect, I probably could have gotten away with a higher price.

The other mistake I made – or what could potentially have been a mistake – was to not set a finite goal. Avdi, I think, has this exactly right. He took a specified chunk, wrote about it, and called it a day. When I first started with RTP, I said a lot of things about how I would keep the book updated. It didn’t occur to me until after I started selling that I was setting myself up for an infinitely long task. Again, though, I was afraid that there would be a lack of perceived value in a book that ended, and obviously one of the potential advantages of an ebook is ease of updating.

One thing the Thoughtbot team has right, though, is an easy way of updating – their book will be a git repo. I hope, though, that they’ll separate in-progress from edited and reviewed by putting them on separate branches. I messed this up a bit by assuming that my distribution channel could handle it and then having to come up with a stopgap fairly quickly.

I will say, though, that publishers and editors are somewhat like the government in that when they do their jobs well, you don’t realize how much value they can add. There’s a process for doing things that the author might not want to be involved in – design, indexing, distribution.

I don’t have a grand conclusion here – I’m very interested to see all kinds of experiments with self-publishing, I don’t think anybody really knows how things will play out.


3 responses to “In Which I Blather About Self-Publishing

  1. Avdi Grimm July 19, 2011 at 12:12 pm

    Thank you for the very kind words! I don’t have a ton to add; in particular, I think you captured my own thought process well. I think self-publishing is a really sensible thing to do right now, especially for niche topics that might not warrant the level of completeness and polish you may expect from a traditional print book. I’m very happy with my decisions, and I’ve already more than broken even (that includes my guesstimated cost of the time that I put into writing the book).

    Thoughtbot’s pricing strategy is not all that unusual. I’ve shopped for a fair number of ebooks over the years, and there are quite a few in the $40-50 range. I think a lot of that comes from the marketing strategy: a lot of e-books are written to go directly into the affiliate marketing industry, where dozens of marketers will create blog posts or mini-sites around other people’s info products and get a 50% cut of the sales. I suspect when a lot of e-book authors see that “50%” number they decide to price it at a point where they’ll still get what they see as “full value” for a sale even after the affiliate cut.

    Pricing at that level also gives you a lot of leeway for sales; Jeremy McAnally’s book about writing e-books (which I recommend) has a standard price of $49 last I checked, but he’s been known to drastically slash that from time to time (it’s $19 at the time of this comment). So the people who absolutely have to have the book *right now* get it at $49, and those who wait get it for substantially less.

    And then you get to say “a $49 value!!!” whenever you offer a sale or give it away as a bonus.

    All that said, I haven’t opted to go that route for Exceptional Ruby, and I don’t have plans to for the next book. Like I said, I’m pretty happy with my choices.

  2. Avdi Grimm July 19, 2011 at 12:17 pm

    P.S. FWIW I did put some research into the pricing for Exceptional Ruby; I asked people like Peter Cooper about it, and polled my mailing lists for what people thought it was worth. This convinced me to raise the price a bit; like you, I had initially undervalued my work.

  3. noelrap July 19, 2011 at 12:56 pm

    I guess I wouldn’t characterize Thoughtbot’s strategy as unusual, just that it’s clearly not priced for maximum sales, and I think that’s interesting given the subject matter and the potential audience.

    I had forgotten about Jeremy’s book, although I think it’s clear that Jeremy is also going after some kind of value or boutique pricing. Jeremy is an interesting case here — he priced the Rails 3 handbook much lower, aiming at a broader audience, which let him use the authority of having sold a lot of self-published books to help sell the book about ebooks.

    But based on Jeremy’s public statements, he sold a lot more self-published books than I did, and I’d guess that you have as well.

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