So you want to self-publish books and courses on programming

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John Resig and I recently self-published our book on GraphQL. There are tons of how-tos for self-publishing a book, or even online classes, but very little in the way of why you would want to, or whether it’s even worth your while. I’m going to share my experience and revenue numbers with you in this post, as well as those from others who have self-published material. I’ll go specifically into the pros and cons of self-publishing books and courses in tech.

Revenue

This is probably what you’re most curious about, right? When I originally started working on our book, I sent a book proposal to publishers. But by the time John and I joined forces, we were both set on self-publishing. He had written two popular JavaScript books and a blog post about traditional publishing for programming books, which includes:

  • Programmers aren’t that into reading books! Programming books, by and large, are poor sellers. They rarely sell more than 4,000 copies.
  • He made $7,500 on his first 4,000 copies, where his royalty rate started at 10% for print sales and 20% for digital copies.

On the topic of traditional publishing revenue, Randall Kanna says: “Nothing comes from a tech book. Just the credibility.” A book can make significantly more, but it’s rare. Martin Kleppmann’s book on machine learning was O’Reilly’s second most popular seller in 2019, and he made $478,000 in the first three years (with 108,000 copies sold, a 10% royalty on print sales, and a 25% royalty on digital sales).

The Pragmatic Bookshelf is the outlying publisher when it comes to royalties: it gives authors 50% of gross profit. In their first 10 years operating, 42% of their authors made more than $50,000, and 12% made more than $100,000.

That said, self-publishing has much higher royalty rates:

  • Amazon: 70% (for e-books; 60% minus printing cost for printed books)
  • Leanpub: 80%
  • Gumroad: 96.5% ($10 monthly membership fee)
  • Your own website: 97%

This gives authors the potential to make more money. Discover Meteor was probably the most successful self-published programming book of its time, with around $500,000 in sales (9,000 copies) between 2013 (when they launched) and 2018 (when they made it available for free). The authors Sacha Grief and Tom Coleman put a lot of effort into marketing it (described in their Gumroad case study), and it became the recommended learning resource in the Meteor community. The current best-selling book is Adam Wathan and Steve Schoger’s Refactoring UI, which I believe passed $2 million in 2020! 🤑 Their success was also largely due to their ability to market the book, in addition to addressing a significant need for a broad audience (practical user interface design for front-end developers).

That’s books. Looking at publishing video courses, there are a few options:

Like self-published books, self-published courses have a lot of potential. Level Up Tutorials, Kent C. Dodds, and Wes Bos don’t share revenue numbers for their courses, but I’m assuming they have made considerable sums. Wes, for example, has sold his courses to over 140,000 people at the time of writing!

Those are the outliers, of course. The majority of resources out there make significantly less. Take, for example, the self-published books in the GraphQL space that we were entering:

Title (Author)SalesPriceEstimated Revenue
Production Ready GraphQL (Marc-André Giroux)3,000 (this is a guess)$49–$79$147,000–$237,000
The Road to GraphQL (Robin Wieruch)2,250$30–$80$67,500–$180,000
The GraphQL Guide (John Resig and Loren Sands-Ramshaw)1,000$30–$279$78,000 in sales; $68,000 in sponsorships
Advanced GraphQL with Apollo & React (Mandi Wise)200$30–$45$10,000+
Fullstack GraphQL (Julian Mayorga)100$39$3,000

So, yes, the potential is big. But it’s not a guarantee.

Self-publishing pros and cons

ProsCons
Potential for more revenue. You get to set the price, sell different packages, and receive a larger cut.It’s much harder. A publisher does a ton of things for you: editing, gathering feedback from technical reviewers, the build toolchain, translating, an online store, getting it on Amazon and other bookstores, customer service, tracking errata, etc. Doing all of these things yourself takes a lot of time, especially if you also decide to build a Gatsby site to display the text online. 😜
Flexibility. You get to decide what goes into the book as well as how it’s formatted and sold.No built-in marketing or distribution. The success of your own book completely depends on your ability to market it. This is hard, as you can read in swyx’s notes on the topic. Books published traditionally usually sell more copies.
Updates. You have the email addresses of your readers, and can send them updated versions of the book.No print edition. While you can print on demand with some services, like Kindle Direct Publishing, most people don’t put in that effort.

These pros and cons are for books. If you’re wondering about a breakdown of pros and cons specifically for self-published courses, they’re very similar because they face the same opportunities and challenges.

Should I create a book or course?

This is the big question. And while I wish I could give you a definitive answer one way or the other, it’s always going to be the same answer we love to give in tech: it depends.

Why would you want to self-publish a book or course? Here are some reasons:

  • Income: It’s nice to put something out there and have it generate an income as long as it’s available.
  • Positive impact: Creating a digital asset has high potential leverage. For example, if something takes you X amount of resources to create, and you distribute it to a thousand people who each gain Y amount of utility from learning with it, you’ve produced 1000 * Y utility in the world, which can be much larger than X. For more on this, I recommend Kleppmann’s post on the topic.
  • Reputation: Having written a book can help you get a job, gain clients, or simply elevate your reputation. Eve Porcello says publishing boosted her credibility—and as an added benefit, many readers hire her to teach workshops.
  • Knowledge: If you’re like me, you’ll find that you learn much more about the topic you’re writing about than you knew when you started. I know I certainly did—I finally read the GraphQL spec, learned Vue and Android, ran into and solved a ton of bugs, and went through countless blog posts and conference talks. 😄
  • Enjoyment: Some people enjoy the creative process. I liked learning, building example applications, and writing. In other words, there’s a level of self-fulfillment you can get from the work.

Those are the reasons why you might want to self-publish material. But whether you should actually do it depends on:

  • Your writing ability: You absolutely need to be good at explaining complex concepts in simple terms that are easy for anyone to grasp. That’s a seriously high bar, especially if there’s existing good content on the topic.
  • Your willingness to market: You need to be willing to get the word out, because no one will do it for you (at least at first). That takes some guts. I know there are many of people out there who have a tough time promoting themselves and their work.
  • What it’s worth to you: You’ve seen a lot of the benefits that self-publishing content can offer, but are they worth it to you? Do impact, knowledge, and reputation motivate you? Maybe none of that matters and you’re simply looking for a labor of love. Whatever your motivation is, it’s important. Without it, you could lose steam and wind up with an unfinished project.
  • The opportunity cost: What else would you do with your time and energy if you didn’t self-publish? Is that thing more valuable to you? Is there anything you’d regret missing out on because of this?

For me, while writing a book had an opportunity cost of lower income (compared to doing more consulting work), I’ve made a positive impact, increased my knowledge on a subject I care about, gained reputation, and enjoyed the process. And it also feels great when someone goes out of their way to tell me they’re “blown away” and appreciate reading my book. 😃🤗✨

Thanks to Chris Coyier, Geoff Graham, Sacha Greif, Robin Wieruch, Mandi Wise, Sebastian Grebe, Julian Mayorga, and Rachel Lake for providing input for this article.