Marketing is harder than writing

Soon, my latest book on Composer will be available for free. I thought I'd write an article to explain the reasoning behind this move.

Why is it free?

Originally, I had planned for my latest book to be a premium one, with a low cost due to its size. Post-release it was clear that I had completely underestimated the market. I'm always hearing from people who use Composer, but don't truly understand it, or where it fits into their workflow. They simply operate on snippets provided from their framework, or indeed, Google. It seems that I was wrong. Within the first two days of the book being available (the first day always has the most sales) Composer had sold ten copies.

It's clear that I should have done my research on this one. Perhaps I should treat my books a little more like the products that I work on.

While I do enjoy writing and do enjoy helping others to learn new skills, I'm forced to treat my writing like a business. I work a full-time job and am writing my books in any free time that I get. I'm not a rich guy; I'm still saving up for my first mortgage. Instead of using that time for rest, video games or spending time with the family, you'll find me writing. To make that justifiable to the people around me, I need to turn a profit.

Here's the truth about how profit works at Leanpub.

First, you need to price your book. You must take into consideration that a 20% sales tax will be applied on top and that Leanpub will take 10% of royalties. Now tax.. well that's never going to change, and Leanpub's royalties are more generous than most.

Let's say that we price the book at $20. It will be $24 on the site. When the book goes live, and a purchase is made, we first need to subtract Leanpub's cut. So the user pays $24, the taxman gets $4; Leanpub gets $2, and you get $18.

Only, when you're me, you don't get $18. This is because I live in the UK. First, you need to convert the currency, which doesn't always work in your favor. Let's convert into my native currency, Great British Pounds.

$18.00 = £12.45

Unfortunately, the deductions don't stop there. If you work full time (like I do), then you'll need to declare this extra income to the taxman. I do self-assessment tax, which is inclusive of my general income. Now I'm hardly Jay-Z, but I am an experienced developer, so I make a comfortable salary.

This means that I have no tax-relief on the amount from the books, and have to pay tax at a rate of 40%. That's almost half of the profit. Suddenly, the profit from each sale becomes £7.47.

Now let's apply the same process to Composer, which was priced at $14, and after all deductions, this comes in at £5.59.

Overall sales over the first couple of days would amount to £55.98, which is about as much as a PS4 game in the UK.

Now I'm more than grateful to my readers who have purchased a copy, and trust me when I say that your support is deeply appreciated, but as a business that doesn't make sense.

I could likely make more than £50 from an hour of consulting. Instead, I spent countless hours writing, reviewing, formating and preparing to release Composer.

If I were to leave Composer with its ten sales, then the work wouldn't be over. I'd have to support that title regarding fixes and future chapters over countless months.

By making Composer free (and refunding the existing sales) I'm able to provide the Composer title "as is" and focus on more important things.

I'd much rather turn zero profit, and have people actually read what I've written.

This is why Composer is now free. If you'd like a copy, you'll find it here.

How does this effect other books?

Code Smart has a higher premium and has sold more copies than Composer. It has sold nowhere-near the amount of copies that Code Happy and Code Bright sold, but they were during what I considered "prime time" for learning Laravel. This was to be expected.

In terms of time spent, and profit made vs. potential for contracting/freelancing/consulting, then Code Smart is still not a wise business move. It demands more time than any other title, and I won't be done adding chapters anytime soon.

Code Smart is the exception to my "treat it like it's business" rule. The readers are the same who helped me get started with my writing career. I feel connected to them, and want to help them learn more. I'll continue releasing content for Code Smart until I feel that it's done, even if the profits wane.

Why aren't you rich?

Oh man, I wish! I'd have my own red panda if that were true. I never really intended for my "writing" to become "a thing." It was just a gamble. So I suppose the question to ask is, why aren't my books selling very well?

I'd chalk that up to a few things. I think it's mostly about marketing. I have zero clue how to market. The only persons within "my business" so to speak, are myself and the translators. I do all the covers, prepping, reviewing, etc, etc. I do the marketing. I do it badly.

Right now, I rely on the fact that I have a fairly large Twitter following. Just over 10k or so people, who are primarily developers. It's my biggest reach. If you try to promote anywhere else, especially in public forums, then you tend to get attacked for self-promotion. So I don't do that.

Most of my followers are Laravel developers, so it stands to reason that they will be more likely to buy a Laravel book than any other topic. The problem is that I don't want to be writing about Laravel forever. This is the third time I've written a Laravel book, and while I still think the framework is great, and I'm happy to be providing knowledge to my readers, the writing just isn't exciting any more. I'd prefer some new challenges, and to approach some different topics.

So to turn this into a profitable business, I'd have a few options I suppose. Feel free to hit me up if you have other ideas!

  1. Use a bunch of marketing services, and hope that the profit outweighs their fees. This would be difficult because I don't know where to start looking.
  2. Hire a marketing guy, turning the venture into a small business. No guarantee that this will work either, and certainly a bunch more paperwork involved.
  3. Kickstarter (I don't have the funds to bootstrap effectively) a new publishing company. Write some awesome books that everyone can understand. Get more authors, turn profit, tour the world, buy a Red Panda.
  4. Give up and just write for fun, but less frequently.
  5. Write for a publisher, lose all creative control, have dull books, and be a sad, sad emo.

Well, the third one is an exciting option, and holy-moly would I love to give it a go. I think it's a bit of a pipe dream, though. There's no way I could compete with Manning or O'Reily, and it's clear that I don't know the first thing about running a business.

Right now I'm learning towards four. Which is fairly saddening, but is the only way I'm going to keep any standard of living. Probably do some contracting on the side, and maybe re-approach writing once I've made my mortgage deposit.

What's next?

Great question! I had grand plans to release a broad series of books for beginners, but I worry that I'll spend years of my life doing that, and likely go broke in the process.

Instead, I'll put my work cap on and try to drive my decisions by the numbers. Do a little research to find out what people are interested in, and hopefully, it won't be another Laravel book.

I think I'm going to ditch the other planned titles, and see how you guys feel about another title I have in mind. For a long time now I've wanted to write a patterns book for PHP.

It would be design patterns using examples and language that can be understood by anyone. I find that the other material out there is either written for another language (and not all patterns make sense for PHP) or are way too complicated for those getting started.

They don't need to be. Patterns aren't all that complicated. You're probably using some already without knowing that they have names.

I'd love to throw a bunch of hints and tips in this book on how to make your code more extensible. How to write code and toolage for your fellow developers to work with. This is where I thrive in my day-to-day work. You'll find me writing tools and processes to simplify work for my colleagues. I love it.

I don't really care if it doesn't sell, it's just something that I've wanted to do for a long time. I genuinely believe that it will help people, as long as I can bring it to their attention.

I'm going to continue to work on Code Smart, and to do a little research on the patterns book at the same time. I'm hoping the idea is intriguing, but I need to confirm that before I write another Composer.

Was it worth it?

Oh hell yeah. It may not be the most profitable use of my time, but some money is always useful, and money isn't even the biggest part of it.

Through my writing, I've got to meet and enjoy the company of so many wonderful people. I've taught people skills that have got them better jobs and thus live a better quality of life. I've received feedback from people who don't understand English so well but find my books easy to read. I'm really glad that these people have a way to learn.

I love my readers, and I'm forever grateful that they've been part of my career as an author. To the 10 or so folks that bought Composer, thank you! I hope you find what you were looking for from the book, and that it proves useful to you. Don't worry; I'll find a way to refund your purchase so you'll get the book for free too!

Once I work out what's next, I'll be sure to let you know. If you've got some ideas on how I can market, or where I should take my talents, then please do get in touch. I'd love to hear it.

Until then, enjoy the updates to Code Smart. Enjoy your free copy of Composer, and enjoy learning!