Once upon a time, there was a straightforward solution to “monetizing” your website when you got tired of trying to make AdSense work:
Write an ebook!
Having something of your own to offer, even a simple $7 ebook, virtually always beats trying to monetize your traffic with advertising. And that’s still true. (In fact, sales of ebooks hit $9 billion in 2015.) But as more and more people have taken that advice, we need to get a little more strategic to build strong businesses around ebooks.
It can still be done, and I’ll be talking about folks who are doing it. But you can also let ebooks become part of a bigger game, within a larger digital business strategy.
The straight ebooks-for-sale play
We all know that some fiction authors are making a killing selling digital-only books on Amazon.
In fact, a few of those authors are dear friends of ours.
But that’s not what we’ll be talking about today. The world of fiction is a fascinating one in its own right, but the other type of ebook — the somewhat traditional “information product” designed to teach something valuable — is one we have a lot of experience with.
Two powerhouse ebook publishers
It’s getting trickier to build a business around ebooks alone, but if you look at Darren Rowse’s Digital Photography School, that site grew to an ecommerce powerhouse on the strength of ebooks.
(In recent years, DPS has expanded to offer courses as well — a natural evolution that can be remarkably profitable.) The DPS ebooks each focus on a topic the audience wants to know more about — with titles like Life in Natural Light and Captivating Color.
There are a few keys to the success of their library:
• The books are gorgeous. Darren’s team does an exceptional job with the design of their ebooks, creating digital equivalents of “coffee table books,” featuring, of course, lots of superb photography.
• The books are also ultra useful, walking the customer through a specific photography technique so she can get better results in her own work.
• And the ebooks offer impressive value at just $10 each. That’s a small transaction, but because there are lots of them, and because DPS enjoys a large and passionate audience, the revenue adds up.
Another person who knows a thing or two about ultra-successful ebooks is Brett Kelly, author of Evernote Essentials. Brett wrote the definitive guide to the popular app Evernote. Despite the fact that there were dozens of $1 and $2 guides available, his (at $29) won the war — because it was, quite simply, massively more useful than the cheaper guides.
Brett has done lots of projects since then. He even worked for Evernote for a while — the company loved his book so much, they brought him on, while allowing him to keep his lucrative digital business.
Both Darren and Brett showcase three features that any successful ebook needs:
1. Great design
2. Incredible usefulness
3. Excellent value for the investment (of time or money)
The low-cost introductory product
With the explosive rise of Amazon’s Kindle, readers have become accustomed to paying just a few dollars for ebooks.
(Note that isn’t always the case — Brett’s pricing, mentioned above, survived because of that book’s excellent reputation and quality.)
If you’re trying to make your entire living with ebooks, a low price point can be tricky. But you can also use the lower price point to your advantage by using ebooks as ultra low-risk entry points to your business.
For example, on Big Brand System, Pamela Wilson uses low-cost ebook guides as launching points to an ongoing relationship with her business.
Titles like Business Name and Tagline Guide and Quick-Start Guide to Branding your Business showcase Pamela’s expertise and give potential clients a taste of how she can help grow their businesses.
Her library of low-cost ebooks creates a list of buyers for Pamela’s pricier offerings, including private coaching slots.
Why is that cool? Because a list of buyers (even if they’ve just picked up an inexpensive item) is always much more responsive than a simple interest list.
Buyers have already made a micro-commitment with your organization, which research has shown often leads to a greater willingness to take similar actions.
For many of your lower-priced buyers, going on to a more intensive offering will be a natural next step. And if you put the work in to make your low-cost ebook exceptional, there’s no better “ad” for how you will handle a larger project or product.
A list of buyers, of course, also weeds out the “looky-loos” who subscribe to lists but don’t read them or are only on the list to get free resources.
The thought leader
For a long time now, writing a book has been a way to open many more doors beyond the revenue you get from the book itself.
Josh Kaufman, author of The Personal MBA and The First 20 Hours, puts it this way:
“Writing a book still tends to have a positive effect on your reputation: if you invest the effort to write a good/useful book, you’ve spent more time thinking about the topic than other people, which makes you rare and valuable to people who are interested in the topic.”
– Josh Kaufman
Given enough time and exposure, an excellent ebook (or series of books) can provide both revenue and a doorway to greater things.
“When we launched Copy Hackers on Hacker News in 2011, we sold $20K worth of ebooks in a few days’ time. That money was everything to me then. It was a signal that our little ebook experiment could turn into a business, that there was a market for what we had, and that the market would pay us for what we knew. Without our ebooks, I would have had to find a job (ugh) at someone else’s business (ugh); with the ebooks, I could afford to try my hand at blogging.
“Years after our launch, our ebooks have become far less about generating revenue. Promoting them on sites like AppSumo and Freelancer has helped us grow our list. And getting them in the hands of makers and influencers has brought us consulting projects, interviews, and speaking engagements.”
– Joanna Wiebe, Copy Hackers
The relationship builder
Many have written about using an ebook as an opt-in reward. In other words, you can use an ebook as an “ethical bribe” to get people to sign up for your email list.
And it works really well for that — but it’s smart to understand the deeper business reasoning.
Offering something valuable, like an ebook, is a reward for taking action. But it also needs to become the cornerstone of an ongoing business relationship.
As any competent sales professional can tell you, before they make a purchase, buyers need to:
• Know you,
• like you, and
• trust you.
An ebook that only gets the prospect to sign up for your email list isn’t living up to its potential.
Those “ethical bribes” need to entice the prospect to take action, and they also need to further the professional relationship to build the case for an eventual purchase.
For example, My Copyblogger is a completely free membership site with an extensive library of free content marketing ebooks.
When we created the free membership library, we took the traditional “trade an ebook for an email opt-in” to a completely new level (and increased our email sign-ups by about 400 percent).
Could we have offered them for sale and made a few dollars? Definitely.
But by using them as the cornerstone of a valuable free membership experience, we’re nurturing relationships for more advanced products like Digital Commerce Academy. (Digital Commerce Academy will reopen to new students on August 21, 2017, so if you’re interested in joining, add your email address to the waitlist below.)
A rose is a rose is a rose
As you’re deciding the role an ebook might play in your business strategy, remember that you don’t actually have to call it an ebook.
In fact, ebooks in other guises can be powerful business-boosters.
So, a values-based, inspirational digital entrepreneur like Chris Guillebeau might (and did) call his ebook a manifesto.
If you offer B2B products or services, at least some of your ebooks will probably be white papers.
At Rainmaker Digital, we’re fans of the special report, but we also like other downloadables like checklists, worksheets, and infographics.
And one of my favorites to play with recently has been the workbook, with the pragmatic, hands-on associations that label brings.
The more flexible you are about how you think about and package your ebooks, the more powerful a tool they can become in your digital business strategy.