In early 2017 I self-published my first print book, Designing Ecommerce Websites. I had put out a couple of decent-length ebooks before but creating something in print was a much bigger deal.
I always thought of that 2017 release as a ‘v1’ rather than a completed thing, and part of its job was to test the interest in the book content as well as learn the whole process of creating it. In early 2019 I launched the second edition, which built on everything I’d learned first time around.
Here are those important lessons and improvements I’ve made, from content and cover to the back end printing platform.
The key thing I learned from the first edition was there was strong enough interest in the concept of simple UX guidelines for desinging online stores. It sold about 500 copies across different formats, and shifted about another 500 when I made the abridged Kindle version available for free for a few days.
It became a bestseller in several Amazon Kindle tech and business categories and it brought in a small but regular income. Without pushing for reviews it picked up an average review score on Amazon of 4.8 from nine reviews. The fundamentals were solid and readers seemed to like the no-nonsense approach, with the feedback saying as much:
“Excellent, easy to understand yet comprehensive guide”
“This book serves as a very quick but informative guideline”
“Short but punchy, informative and functional”
This was all great feedback to know that I was on the right path and that it was something worth improving. People seemed to be getting value from it an actually reading the content (which was what I wanted when I decided to break it up into short, accessible tips/guidelines). If I kept that essence but added more to it, I knew I could make it the best resource it could be.
Obviously the most important reason to revisit anything is to materially improve the content. There were three ways I wanted to do this:
The same spread in the old version (left) and the new version (right).
The book took longer to write and edit than I had thought. I was very much doing it part time and fitting around my client work but it took me about six months to tackle. In the end almost every word got changed in some way.
I did my own editing and proofreading in this time too. I find this can be done if you leave enough time between the writing and editing so you can revisit with a fresh eye. Another thing that helps is to print it out and/or read it aloud—you soon spot things that you wouldn’t find on screen.
When the first edition was designed, I thought the book cover managed to be clean and striking, by playing with the book’s illustration style and sticking with just three colours (red, dark grey, white). It was created by my designer who is very experienced in books and print design.
However not long after launch it soon became clear that it wasn’t optimised for its primary purpose. I don’t think it’s ever been on the shelves of an actual book store, with the vast majority of sales coming from Amazon where it is mainly seen at about 150px high.
At this size it’s pretty hard to read the title let alone any other information on the cover, which means the image what it could be. Compare this to the books it would sit next to, where the majority of the titles hit you instantly (see example above). As a result a year into its release I updated the Kindle cover to something a bit more punchy. Unfortunately it took it quite a long way from the print book cover that it was supposed to be related to.
Left to right: 1st edition book cover, original 1st edition Kindle cover (the first Kindle version had seven fewer tips than the print book), the updated Kindle cover.
As a part of the second edition I wanted to revisit the cover based on what worked on the small space available online and make sure all the formats were as similar as possible. I still liked the concept of taking the wireframe illustrations used throughout the book and scaling one up for the cover but I wanted to make sure mine held its own alongside the best covers in similar genres.
I did a bit of research and gathered up the covers I thought were most impressive (see below). The key elements that most shared were using one main colour, a single simple design element, and having a big title.
Below is the new book cover in all its different formats, and now designed to work well on screen. The concept is the same but the title is much bigger, the design is simpler, there’s two dominant colours without any transparency and the different formats are identifiable with different colour circles.
Left to right: 2nd edition print book, digital/PDF book, Kindle book, Audio book.
When I started the journey of self-publishing I wanted to use a print-on-demand platform to sell the paperback and opted for Lulu as they seemed the most established and could distribute your book widely. For the second edition I’ve moved to print with Amazon for three main reasons:
I’ve been happy with my choice since launch and have been able to quickly release a couple of minor updates to fix some typos. They’ve also been very quick to respond to support requests and do things like link up the new edition with the old one on the product details page.
The first edition product details page on Amazon with the link showing ‘there is a newer edition of this item’.
I primarily see the book as a print one and it is optimised for this format but I’ve also made it available as a PDF, Kindle, and audio book. This is something I did with the first edition and it’s worth using those extra formats to maximise the sales, and the number of people who can access it.
The most interesting of these formats to update is the audio book, as it turns out you can’t actually release a 2nd edition. When creating a book with ACX (Amazon’s and Audible’s creation service) it involves signing a 7 year contract to publish it. This means rather than removing the old one and releasing a new version, you have to update the existing one.
I didn’t appreciate this audio nuance and it meant I was unable to remove the old version whilst working on creating the new one. As recording and editing takes the most extra time of any additional format, this has meant the audio book has been out of sync with the print book. A couple of months after launch, my second edition update is nearly ready.
It’s very easy to launch the Kindle format with Amazon too and the promotions you can run drive some extra sales and downloads. To benefit from the promotions your ebook has to be exclusive to the Kindle but after my first exclusive period is over I’m keen to try listing it on other platforms too. The big ones are Smashwords and Barnes & Noble (who bought the Nook ereader).
Finally I also sell a PDF version on my website. This is different from the standard ebook, which is text only. The PDF is exactly the same as the print version, for those who want the same design, layout, and illustrations. Gumroad make selling the PDF very easy to do and handle payment and file storage. I’ve used them for several years and can thoroughly recommend them.
I hadn’t pushed for reviews the first time round but now I was a lot prouder of the content. I was confident in giving this new edition out for review and getting some positive scores should help generate sales traction.
One minor thing to think about when self-publishing with Amazon is that the book has to go live before author copies can be ordered, so you don’t have the ability to build up pre-release reviews. Of course you can do a soft launch by putting it live on Amazon and not tell anyone.
I used a combination of relevant work contacts and the most engaged people on my mailing list to form my review group. In terms of hit rate, I asked 30 people in total if they would like a free review copy, I got 25 positive responses, and ended up with 10 completed reviews. Of course a few more might yet appear too.
One frustration I have with reviews on Amazon is the way they treat different territories as completely separate sites (which feels like an old publishing throwback. So as I’m in the UK I have 14 reviews on the UK version of the site but just 5 on the US one (at the time of writing). This is despite the fact that the content is exactly the same for all readers. It would be great if they could have one master review score, even if it’s in addition to the local site score.
The second edition has been live for two months at the time of writing. As mentioned above I’ve done a couple of updates to fix some typos and the new audio book will be up in a couple of weeks. Otherwise I’m now considering it to be ‘done’.
As it’s on a relatively niche subject it’s never going to be a huge seller but it’s now established and there when people who are working on ecommerce sites need the advice. It’s early days but sales are on course to surpass the first edition.
I’m hoping the next edition is several years away but when the subject matter is the web it might need to be looked at sooner than that…
In the meantime here's where you can get the book with everything you need for designing online shops that convert.