I recently released my book that you may have heard about. From the very beginning, I decided to make it absolutely free. It caused a lot of people to wonder why am I doing this. Essentially, I’m giving almost a year of my effort and time for free. Knowingly, sober, free from the very start! In this short post, I will try to justify my decision and share my thoughts on why someone would ever want to do this.
Before I start, I should say that I was initially set to go a traditional route. I approached a few book publishing houses, which all declined my proposal. Miserable failure? I don’t think so. My book proposal was backed by my blog and at least a dozen people telling me that it was a good idea and that the book could fill an important gap in the area of SW development. So, that didn’t break my intentions but instead made me sit and rethink my goals and how I could make this happen. After I brought everything together and reevaluated potential ways how I could go about writing a book, it became clear to me that writing a free book is a viable option. Below is the mix of pros and cons as to how I see it.
Let’s start with the thing that first comes up in the mind of most people: money. The average lifetime sales of a non-fiction book do not exceed 1000 copies1. When I began writing my book, I couldn’t expect to be better than average, so I took this number as a baseline. Whatever my book’s price would have been, it would translate into negligible side income compared to my yearly income. I live in California, US, where the cost of living is very high. So, I knew that I couldn’t earn much money from the book.
Frankly, I knew that unless you’re a god-sent author, writing a book with the goal of earning money is a bad idea. The thought of not missing out on the opportunity to make some money appeared many times in my head, but thanks god, I was smart enough to take it out from the equation. Sure, it’s always great to have some additional income, and I admit that it could be a substantial amount of money for someone. I’m not a super-rich person either, yet I decided to focus on something else and began to think about what really matters to me.
It turned out that building my personal brand is much more important and could provide a greater return in the long run. It’s hard to measure, but you can always measure it indirectly. For example, how many people follow you on social media, how many people downloaded your book, retweets, comments, etc. I prioritized having maximum reach so that as many people would read my book as possible. I intentionally gave away my efforts for free in exchange for establishing leadership.
The book was downloaded more than 2000 times on the first day of release, and the number keeps growing2. How about comparing it to the average lifetime number of readers? There is no way I could get that many readers would I have sold the book for dollars. In that sense, it has proven itself as a reasonable strategy to reach my goals. Yes, people can drop reading a book. But they can just as well drop reading a purchased book. Simple universal reasoning applies here: the book has to be good and provide value to developers. In that regard, I was inspired by Agner Fog’s optimization manuals that are very popular and free.
Many people said to me: “Don’t you understand, making your book free diminishes its value”. Well, it depends. If what you wrote is good, people would be keen to share it with their friends and colleagues. But it has to be good; otherwise, yes, the value will be diminished quickly. Since my goal was maximizing the number of readers, I believed that making my book free will only help spread it.
Another significant benefit of a free book is that it opens collaboration opportunities. You see, people contribute easily to open-source projects. I was lucky enough to have excellent engineers helping me to write entire sections of the book. I doubt I would have such generosity if people would know there are some “strings attached”. This allowed me to dump many great brains into the book, which made it much stronger.
Overall, having a free book while collecting donations was a good tradeoff for me. Likely, donations would sum up to a much smaller amount than if the book would be sold for dollars. Anyway, it is too early for me to sum up the results.
I will share more details of the story of how I wrote a book in an upcoming post. Make sure it will be an exciting read as well!
It varies for different publishing agencies, but it should be in the right ballpark. You can google the numbers yourself. ↩
It’s hard to control the exact number of readers since people can drop reading it or bypass my analytics by sharing the PDF directly. But I’m OK with that, and I even encourage people to do that. Please do share my book in whatever way you feel is appropriate. ↩