Given I'm a first time author I've done my fair share of mistakes with SurviveJS - Webpack and React. It was an attempt to change the direction of my career. Being a subcontractor's subcontractor provides income, sure, but was a dead end for me with no room to grow in an economy that keeps getting tougher. Interestingly the book has garnered a lot of attention and I believe some have found it useful. It has been bit of a disaster economically and it's hard to imagine I could keep a business like this up for long if something doesn't change.
The first steps towards the book were taken at the end of January. I happened upon a blog post about Webpack by Christian Alfoni. As I had worked with webpack and React earlier I of course couldn't resist commenting. I even proposed that it would be nice if there was a cookbook about the topic. The comment has been lost to the history but Christian took on my initiative. As a result react-webpack-cookbook was born.
We worked on it together for a few weeks and I started to realize there's demand. It would have saved me so much time if someone had gathered this information to one place. As a result I poked a contact of mine at a quite known book publisher that pays decent royalties. And so the negotiations began. We negotiated till early April but in the end the publisher wasn't interested. We failed at writing style.
That could have been the end of the story but the opportunity seemed too good to miss. There was a clear demand for a book. Why not to write it? As Christian got busy with work and I was getting increasingly frustrated with my situation I decided to channel the frustration towards something constructive and so I started writing the book. Sometimes you have to go "all in" no matter what.
As I didn't feel like going through another round of negotiations with other publishers and I was aware of Leanpub I decided to pick them. Early on I agreed with Christian to keep the material open. I was a bit hesitant at first but the approach has shown some of its benefits. I'm still a bit unsure about the financial part, though.
The nice thing about Leanpub is that it allows you to test the market so to speak. I actually released the initial, raw version of the book for free and slowly but surely started to bump up the price as the content matured. That allowed me to gauge interest in the topic. One day Leanpub decided to feature the book and this in turn converted to a nice amount of sales. It always gives you an extra dose of motivation to see people actually appreciate your work.
An alternative would have been to start pre-sales through a platform such as Kickstarter. Unfortunately that was not an option for me as a finn given our legislation is against it. There are strict regulations against donations to protect citizens against fraud. Even though understandable it can be a little restricting at times.
Having the content out in the open has resulted in numerous external contributions. I believe this has contributed towards the quality of the book immensely and will continue to do so. But here lies the great conundrum. Why would you pay for something that's freely available?
So far the book has earned around $1177 excluding Leanpub's cut (10% + $0.50 per sale). After all the middlemen (PayPal, government, co-op) get their cut and taxes have been paid, that translates to 614 euros. That would be even less if I earned more per year due to the way tax progression works. It would have been more profitable for me to fiddle my thumbs at home and live on social security.
The big question is can this situation be changed somehow? I would of course love to keep on developing content. The goofy prefix
SurviveJS implies a series of book. But if I can expect profits like this it just doesn't make any sense economically. Even though I write because I want to write I still need to make enough to have butter on my bread.
The initial plan was that people that feel they get value out of the book would buy the digital version to help fund the maintenance effort and development of new content. Unfortunately this isn't working out as you can see from the figures above. Sure, the book might generate some income but nowhere enough to make this worth it financially.
As far as I can see there are a few options. The easiest option would be just to give up and move onto something more profitable. I had a good run but it wasn't enough this time. End of story. That would be a silly way to end this, though.
As donations are illegal that rules out Kickstarter, Patreon and such. I can see these approach have worked for many but unfortunately it's not possible here.
I could stop maintaining the open content while putting all the effort to a superior, commercial version. I feel this might result in a lot of bad karma, though. That said I could develop commercial content on top of the free content and sell that perhaps.
Even though the book has been a success in some ways and exposed people to webpack and React, unfortunately it has failed in the only way that matters in the end. If there's not a sustainable source of income it is hard to justify the effort financially. I would love to develop more content but if the invisible hand decides it's not possible, then it's not.
In the end if we want to keep this project alive we'll need to climb that final, financial hurdle. It is the hardest hurdle for me as I may have to bend on some of my principles. How is it possible to combine open content and business?