How I Launched ‘Learn Ruby on Rails’ on Kickstarter

The Secret to Publishing a Technical Book


Learn Ruby on Rails is my new book for Rails beginners, launched on Kickstarter. Take a look if you want to know more about it: The Kickstarter campaign for Learn Ruby on Rails. The campaign has raised more than $11,000, over 150% of the funding goal. In the final days of the campaign, I’m hoping to reach my “stretch goal” of $14,000.

None of this would be possible without KickStarter.

Daniel Kehoe

Do you want to write a technical book? First, build your following. If you contribute to open source projects and post to Twitter, you’ll accumulate followers. Even better, regularly write a blog, let people know you are writing a book, and encourage readers to opt-in to a mailing list for book announcements. My Twitter @rails_apps account has 11K followers, all because my RailsApps open source project is popular. This turns the old-fashioned publishing model on its ear; twenty years ago, you’d write a book to get a following, now your following is helping you write your book.

Write your book in short pieces and encourage feedback from your following. After six months of work on my book, I have over 900 followers volunteering as advance readers. Among the volunteers are dedicated proofreaders and technical reviewers who did the important work of testing all the code in the book. With help from advance readers, the quality of the edited text is superior to what I would get from a traditional publisher, even if that publisher were to foot the bill for copyediting and proofreading. Take a lesson from open source; crowdsourcing is superior to solo craftsmanship.

Even more significant, after launching the book on Kickstarter, I’ve earned more from two months of advance sales than I would have gained from a publisher’s advance payment.

Not my book, and not really an O’Reilly Book

With a traditional publisher, if an author is very fortunate, he or she might get an advance of $6000 (remember, that’s an advance against royalties, so the author must earn back royalties of 5% to 12% of sales before any more checks arrive). With my loyal following of 900 advance readers and 11K Twitter followers, and the Kickstarter campaign, I’ve brought in over $11,000 from advance sales before even releasing the finalized edition of the book. And my royalty rate? 100%.

Revenue from publishing comes from exploiting as many channels to market as possible. Twenty years ago, market channels included bookstores, school and library sales, book club sales, premium sales (such as books sold for use as gifts at corporate sales conferences), and foreign rights sales. For traditional publishers, personal relationships opened the gates to coveted market channels. Today the biggest market channels are no longer gated. To sell your book on Amazon, Apple iBooks, or Google Play, you don’t need to buy anyone lunch. And not every market channel looks like a bookstore.

You probably know Kickstarter as a place to validate a concept and raise funds from advance sales of technology products. Guess what? Just like Amazon, Kickstarter is a channel for books to reach market. Your tech book is a technology product.

Let‘s look at some numbers.

That’s right. Over 30% of the funds raised on Kickstarter came from people who only knew about my book because of Kickstarter. 30% of my book sales to date resulted from solely selling into the Kickstarter market. What makes Kickstarter such a lucrative channel?

Like an NPR pledge drive, Kickstarter thrives on the psychology of event-driven marketing. It’s an odd quirk of human nature. Give people a year to make a donation and they’ll never act. But restrict their opportunity to a few weeks out of the year and they’ll eagerly part with their cash. Someone who wants my book can wait for it to show up on Amazon next year. But given the choice, over 500 people have rushed to make their purchase during the 60 day window on Kickstarter, even though the book is not finished. Sure, some want to learn Rails immediately, but many are just excited to be part of a time-limited sales event.

Furthermore, the time-boxed nature of a Kickstarter campaign helps with promotion. Rather than just announcing the forthcoming release of the book with a Twitter post, an author can beat the drum as campaign milestones are reached and count down the days to foster the sense of urgency that drives event-driven behavior. Michael Herman, the author of Real Python for the Web raised over $26,000 in thirty days on Kickstarter. Initially he only asked for $2,500, but set “stretch goals” of $10,000, $15,000, and $20,000 as he got closer to the campaign deadline. Each stretch goal was an opportunity to reach out to his audience.

If you view a Kickstarter campaign as advance sales, not fundraising, you’ll recognize you are selling your book at multiple price points. If I’d simply released the book on Amazon at $18, I’d never have seen what happens at six different price points. Kickstarter encourages the construction of tiered pledge levels, with different rewards for backers at each level. I’m happy to take orders at $18, but it is even more exciting to find that people are willing to spend $25, $35, $50, and even $100 for the book. To my immense gratification, I found that most people want to spend more than $18 for the book. The average pledge is closer to $20, indicating to me that the book is more valuable than I thought. Kickstarter is a great way to get feedback about pricing.

Kickstarter is a great market channel but it has some flaws. To sell advance copies of an ebook, you’ll need a fulfillment mechanism. You’ll get an email from Kickstarter when a backer makes a pledge, but it is up to you to deliver an ebook to your contributor. That’s a manual process and there’s no API to automate it. Furthermore, Kickstarter doesn’t let you track donations as conversions, so you can’t directly measure the results of an AdWords campaign or closely track the source of traffic from promotional efforts.

Kickstarter recommends limiting a campaign to thirty days. I’m running my campaign for a full 60 days. Perhaps a shorter campaign creates a greater sense of urgency; I wanted to leave the campaign open for advance sales as along as possible. Interestingly, Kickstarter continues to serve as a market channel even after a campaign ends, if you update your campaign page to point to your other market channels. People will find your book on Kickstarter and follow the link.

This is my first Kickstarter campaign so I’m sure I could have done some things better. For one, Kickstarter recommends uploading a promotional video. In the midst of writing and preparing everything else, it was just too much, and I never produced the video. I also recommend plotting out your publicity campaign in advance, identifying opportunities to promote the campaign before it begins. It is not easy to write, produce, and market at the same time. That has always made self-publishing difficult. But I can say, judging by my experience, it is worth it.

My Book

I’m only two months into the rolling launch of the book, so (I hope!) I’ll have more to report about publishing in the 21st century. Hit the RECOMMEND button below if you would like another dispatch from the frontier. Here’s a link to the book, if you’re interested: Learn Ruby on Rails. And the The Kickstarter campaign for Learn Ruby on Rails.