How I Wrote and Sold My First Ebook (and how you can do it too)

15th Oct 2014

September 19, 2014 is one day of my life that I will never forget. It is the day when I sold the 50th copy of my first ebook.

I didn’t have many resources when I started writing the book. I didn’t have any influential friends, money or experience. All I had was 67 people on my email list. Worst of all, I felt I wasn’t even qualified to write a book.

I now understand that it is possible to make something people want, even if you don’t feel like you are an expert on the subject.

I’m consolidating this valuable learning experience into an article, which I am sharing with you now.

In this article, you’ll find out:

  • How I plucked up the courage to start writing
  • The process I took to validate the book
  • The process I took to write the book
  • The process I took to market the book
  • The process I took to sell the book.

Let’s begin by understanding what the book is all about.

What Is The Book About?

The book is a digital guide for web developers to learn to use a layout tool called “Susy” to create websites easily. It is called “Learning Susy”.

Since it’s a digital guide, the book comes in PDF, ePub and Mobi formats only. There is no physical book.

It was a huge struggle for me to pluck up the courage to begin writing this book because I felt that I wasn’t good enough. I was a finance student before I picked up coding on my own, and it hadn’t even been two years since I first started.

I felt like a total fraud.

I can bet my life that you are struggling with imposter syndrome as well, and that may have scared you away from writing your book.

If you feel the same way, you may find it helpful to know how I managed to gather up my courage.

How I Gathered Enough Courage to Write The Book

It all started because of one thing.

A Blog.

I had been blogging consistently for more than a year before I started to write the book. The articles I wrote in the beginning were so horrible that I dread looking back at them now.

I noticed my writing got better as I continued to churn out more posts, and my confidence increased along with them. After a while, I started to receive thanks for the content that I had written, and that boosted my confidence level even more.

Blogging was a necessary step that I had to go through. I would never have believed that I could write a book if I never blogged, and publishing a book would have been inconceivable.

The best part is this: the idea for the book came from the blog.

How The Idea Came About

I went through 5 months without any success in blogging when I first started. My first break came about when I published a tutorial post about Susy (the older version of the tool, now renamed as Susyone). This post was retweeted by Eric (The creator of the tool).

I had the affirmation that someone else had thought that my article was good enough to be shared. That tweet became the anchor for my confidence.

I started to write more posts about front-end development after that incident. I tried different topics, but nothing seemed to have an impact as strongly as the article on Susyone.

A few months later, a new version of Susy was released. Everything about the tool had changed, and I took the time to understand it and created a second tutorial.

People started to comment on that Susy post, and I helped to answer the questions as much as I could.

Eric tweeted the article again, and linked to it on his website. That was the second affirmation I received.

I continued to write more about Susy and I started harbouring the thought of creating a book about Susy.

That thought lasted for the next 3 months and I did nothing with it.

I was deathly afraid of writing a book. I froze at the possibility of being a fraud and I talked myself out of writing the book unknowingly.

3 months later, after I attended a life coaching program, I decided to make an announcement to my email list that I would be consolidating common questions about Susy in the form of a book. That was the whole story of how the book came about.

When I made this announcement, I had no idea whether it would work. I didn’t want to write a book that nobody would read, and I had to find out whether this topic was something people wanted.

How I Validated My Book Idea

The first step was to verify that people who were already on my email list were at least interested enough about the topic to ask some questions.

My list had 67 people at the time. 3 people replied with questions about Susy, and that was the giant confirmation that I was on to something.

I have learnt through articles and programs that one sure-fire way to find out if an idea is already validated is to check if anyone is selling it already. Since I was going to write a book about Susy, the best place would be to check Amazon for any books on it. I was devastated when I found that no one had written anything on Susy before.

It became more of a challenge to confirm that Susy was indeed worth writing about afterwards. I searched for other tutorials, forums and I even checked the official twitter account to see if anyone was interested.

I found that there were over 400 questions on Stack Overflow, a few written tutorials on Susy and one solid video tutorial. This suggested that people were interested to find out about Susy even though not much had been written about it.

In addition to the questions, I saw that the official Susy twitter account (@SassSusy) had over 2000 followers. It was a strong signal that this would be a worthy topic.

Furthermore, I received an average of 150 daily visitors to my articles on Susy. It was also because of this, that I reasoned most of the people on my email list likely signed up to know more about Susy.

After going through the above steps, I felt quite confident that there was a keen interest in the topic even though no money had exchanged hands.

One more thing. I mentioned I had the thought of writing a Susy book for the last few months. That thought kept coming back to me. It became stronger over time and it got to a point where I knew I had to write this book. I would have written it even if only 3 people in the world read it.

But at this stage, I was quite confident that I could reach more than 3 people because Susy is just so darn good.

Since I was going to write the book regardless, I decided to continue moving forward to find out what information people were looking for.

How I Found Out What To Write About

The target audience was web developers, particularly novices who were interested to learn more about Susy. They could also be individuals who have grown tired of existing frameworks and are looking for an alternate solution.

It was likely that the questions people had regarding Susy could be readily found in 3 places. Susy’s github, Stack Overflow and Susy’s twitter feed.

I started to gather questions from these three locations and the questions formed the foundation for the book. Once I got the questions down, it was time to start work on the book.

Just one more step before that: I needed to make sure that I was using the correct tools before I started to write.

What I Wrote My Book With

I had 3 different considerations while searching for the tool to write my book with.

  1. It has to support Markdown
  2. It has to have good syntax highlighting for code
  3. It needs to be able to generate the book in PDF, ePub and Mobi formats

Markdown allowed me to separate the content from the visual presentation of the book. This allowed me to focus on writing the content and not get distracted by how it should look. I was already familiar with markdown after blogging for so long and it felt unnatural if I were to write in any other format.

The second consideration was that the tool needed to produce good syntax highlighting. The book is full of code and it would be tough for a programmer to read through it without proper highlighting. Thus, this was an important consideration.

Finally, I wanted to distribute in all 3 digital formats so people can read the book on their favourite devices.

As an aside, I also wanted the possibility of creating a web format straight from my markdown files and be able to update the book with a simple git push.

I wasn’t able to find any program that fit the bill at that time even though there are many good writing tools out there. Thinking back, it might have been because I was too picky about the code highlighting part.

Just when I was about to run out of options, I remembered seeing a book that was created with the exact specifications I was looking for.

That book was Discover Meteor by Sacha Greif, and he was kind enough to share it with me.

The proprietary codebase that Sacha created for Discover Meteor is a static website built with Middleman. It produces a HTML version that can be converted into ePub and Mobi formats via Calibre. The generator can also create a PDF version. That was exactly what I wanted.

The code by Sacha was what I used to write the book with eventually.

Although I used Middleman myself, I’d like to highlight some other tools that you may find useful:

These are good tools that at least have the capability to export either to ePub or Mobi formats. Once you have one of these formats, you can create other formats with Calibre.

Note that you can also convert Microsoft Word or Pages files into all 3 formats as well. That may be slightly trickier though.

You might have noticed that you can use any tool you want to. I would recommended you to write with something that you are already comfortable with.

The Writing Process

Deciding to write a book was simple. Writing the book was much harder than I imagined.

If I were to draw an analogy, I would say that writing a book is similar to running a full marathon. You need to go through careful preparation and have the willpower to tough it out.

I managed to complete the book eventually, and I am very thankful for some of the tricks I stole from all the experts that came before me. I may never have completed the book if it weren’t for these tricks:

  1. Outline the content
  2. Write everyday
  3. Get an accountability partner
  4. Get an editor

The first trick is to outline all the content you intend to write. This crucial first step is akin to planning the route for your marathon. After all, how could you run a marathon if you didn’t even know which route to take?

Outlining the content helped to organize my thoughts into a coherent structure. Once I know what route I had to take in this marathon, I wasted less time trying to find out which corner to turn, or what to write.

The second helpful trick is to write everyday.

It is not possible to finish a marathon in a single sprint. You’ll have to keep running consistently over a period of time to finish one.

Just like a marathon, it is not possible to finish a book in a single sitting. You have to keep writing.

The truth is, it takes much longer to complete a book than a marathon and we are also exposed to more distractions like Facebook, beer and the bed while writing a book. No wonder is so difficult to write a book!

Writing everyday is a good way to force ourselves to keep moving forward with the book.

I chose to write 1000 words a day to finish my book within a 5 week deadline. If 1000 words a day is too extreme for you, feel free to keep a less rigorous schedule. One of my good friends is now writing at a rate of 300 words per day on his new book as we speak.

The third trick for writing a book is to get someone to keep you accountable for your work.

A marathon can get incredibly difficult to finish if you are the only person running it. It can get lonely and demoralising when you think of the long journey ahead.

Writing a book is the same way. It may be an even tougher journey than the marathon since you not only have to write, but also, sell your book.

Also, the book is never quite finished, no matter how much you have written.

It is easy to cut yourself some slack and let the book fall apart when the going gets tough.

I almost gave up writing, and I almost gave up selling. My partner was the one who pulled me back on track. You would never have heard from me today if I didn’t have a partner with me.

Finally, get an editor.

Editors are like marshals. They stand at choke points to help guide a path for you. They make sure that you keep running on the path that you are supposed to run.

Editors do the same job when working with a book. They help to check the structure and flow of your book and make sure everything makes sense. They also let you know if you need to add anything, or if something is wrong.

My editor practically saved my life with the book. She helped me correct tonnes of my ill-written sentences when I sped through the writing process. Without her, the book may have been unreadable.

One more small tip. Besides getting an editor, it’ll also be helpful to get someone to review the book for you. This will also make sure you’re on the right track.

I was lucky to get Sacha Greif to take a look at the first few chapters of the book, and the comments he gave made a big difference to how the book turned out eventually.

Marketing The Book

Marketing is the prelude to selling and this is the hardest process to crack. I have certainly not cracked the entire code yet, but I think I’m beginning to see some light.

Have you heard of the cliché “the money is in the list”? Forget about the money for a moment and consider the list, where does it even come from?

Do you buy it? Or do you create it?

The list is a community of people who want to hear from you. They gather around you because they feel that there is real value in listening to what you have to say. Naturally, the community only grows when you keep providing new value to the people in it.

A major mistake I made early before I started the journey was to treat the list as a money making tool. I viewed it as nothing more than a list of names.

Things started to change when I started to view them as individuals, as a community that I could help to grow.

Marketing became intuitive, humane, and honest. It became all about giving away as much value as possible.

The value I could give to my community is straightforward since I’m writing a book about Susy – More information about Susy. I decided to give away sample chapters for free.

I created a landing page, hooked it up to a Mailchimp list and started giving away a third of my book (5 chapters) for free.

I shared this giveaway on Twitter as well because it was such great value. Specifically, I sent a tweet to Eric, who helped to retweet the message to his followers. That brought in some initial subscribers.

Twitter wasn’t the end of the story.

I created a series of blog posts that helped to educate and share more of what I had learnt about Susy in the last few months. I made sure to send it to everyone on my list, and tweet it out whenever I published a new post.

One other channel that brought a significant number of people into the community was writing guest posts.

I sent an email to Louis at Sitepoint expressing my interest to write for them, and I was fortunate enough to be given a chance to do so (You can find this email at the end of the article).

There is one more thing I want to share with you. You have to contact people in the industry and give them value, without asking for anything in return.

You will be amazed at what happens when you do so.

I contacted many people who have used or want to use Susy and offered to send them a copy of my book without asking for anything in return.

One of these emails unexpectedly landed me a guest post with CSS Tricks (You can find the email I sent to Chris Coyier at the end of the article as well).

I’m thankful to Chris and Louis for giving me the chance to write my first two guest posts ever.

Selling the Book

I had a bad experience with selling, and I was afraid that the community I worked so hard to build would disperse as soon as I tried to sell them something.

It was a barrier that I couldn’t break until I came across “Presell” by Sean D’Souza.

Note: The link above contains a free sample to pre-selling and that was exactly what I used in my sales process.

The selling process became a series of announcements and blog posts filled with great information about Susy. Each post had a small mention about the book.

I also decided to reward people who took the plunge and stayed with me early on in the journey by giving them a pre-order discount of 50%.

Everyone else had the chance to grab the book and related packages at 20% off up till the book was made public.

And the book has been full price from launch date onwards.

Selling became sharing, telling and giving. That was all I did. I’m extremely grateful towards the community for believing in what I had written and have chosen to purchase my work.

Before I end the selling section, I’ll like to share with you the tool that I used to sell the book.

I used Gumroad.

Gumroad has a friendly user experience that makes selling super easy and enjoyable. People I know have had great experiences like this and this when selling with Gumroad.

It’s also much easier to set up Gumroad to sell when you compare the process to setting up PayPal buttons on your site. Here is a detailed Gumroad tutorial made by the Fizzle guys where you can learn everything you need to set up Gumroad and start selling.

Finally, this has you covered if you wanted to set up pre-orders.

Conclusion

That’s everything I know about writing and selling a book in a 3000-word nutshell.

I hope that this has given you the courage and know-how to begin working on your own project. Please give yourself the permission to make and sell your product.

I would like to end this article with a list of helpful courses and books that I have used on this journey.

Most of them are paid items and some can be expensive. Please feel free to explore the list and pick up anything you may find useful.

Note: I don’t get any money for promoting any of them.

  • Write and Sell Your Damn Book is a short free course by Paul Jarvis that helps you start your book, finish writing it, & get it out there for other people to read.
  • Authority by Nathan Barry is a book that shares the details about writing a book. It covers topics from writing to designing your book cover to selling it and beyond.
  • This book will teach you how to write better is a tiny ebook on copywriting by Neville that may change the way you write everything.
  • Presell by Sean D’Souza teaches you how to presell your products without being sleazy.
  • Lifestyle Liberation Academy by Henri Junttila is a small cozy community where you can share and get direct feedback about your business and the troubles you are facing.
  • Zero To Launch is a course by Ramit Sethi that teaches you everything you need to know about running an online business. It tells you what to do next in every stage of your business, even if you don’t have one yet.

And here are the two emails I sent out while marketing my book:

Hey Louis,

How’s it going? I’m Zell Liew. I saw your article on writing for Sitepoint and I thought I’ll shoot you an email with a few ideas and a little on my background.

A little about me

After starting from scratch and learning to code two years ago, I am now a freelance frontend developer and I dedicate part of my time contributing back to the industry by sharing the things I know on my blog

I have written a few tutorials for Susy – a flexible and lightweight grid system – like this and this and this, which have been featured on Susy’s tutorial page. These articles are very beginner focused and have generated considerable interaction with the community on my own blog.

Here are some ideas I think would resonate well with your people:

  1. Idea 1
  2. Idea 2
  3. Idea 3
  4. Idea 4

Of course, I’m also interested in writing stuff that are Sass related as well if you happen to have a certain topic that’s trending right now. Its just generally tough to catch any cracks that Hugo has left opened :)

Thank you for your time, I look forward to hearing back from you!

Hey Chris,

How’s it going? I saw you tweet about wanting to use Susy a few months ago and I thought I’ll write back to you regarding this.

I’m currently writing a book on Susy and I think it’ll really help you out alot if you haven’t had a chance to touch Susy yet.

I’ll love to send it over when I’m done with the book. It’ll be awesome if you could give me some feedback or review, but thats not necessary.

Let me know :)

Finally, thanks to all my friends and heroes for helping me make this book happen. I could never have done it without you guys. In no order of merit,

Eric Suzanne, Sacha Grief, Hui Jing, Wei Ping, Julia, Meiyee, Seth Godin, Ramit Sethi, Henri Juntilla, Chris Coyier, Scott Tolinski, Louis Lazaris, Paul Jarvis, Sean D Souza, Jordan Lewis, everyone at ECI…

And you.

Thanks for everything.

PS: Let me know if I missed you out accidentally. PPS: Give yourself the permission and make something! Feel free to contact me if I can help you with anything.

Oh yes. If you want to find out about the book, its here. :)

If you enjoyed this article, please tell a friend about it! Share it on Twitter. If you spot a typo, I’d appreciate if you can correct it on GitHub. Thank you!

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