The Tale of my Ebook “Business” Failure

I didn’t think I’d ever write this post, but it’s finally been long enough that the pain has [mostly] subsided.

Every other month I hear about someone who moved to Thailand, Costa Rica, or the Philippines, worked on an idea of theirs, and – six months later – has a successful web business.

And if you look around, you’ll see plenty of people who are willing to sell you their guides on how you can do exactly that. They even have pictures of smiling people, having drinks on a beach, who they say are earning thousands of dollars a month.

There are certainly people who achieve that lifestyle.

But what about when it doesn’t work?

Here’s the story of a site I built to sell an eBook on how to move overseas. I ran it for 18 months before finally giving up and shutting it down.

The idea

Before I moved overseas, I met a few other people who had the same idea. We met for drinks a few times to discuss our plans. When I left, I promised to send them e-mails with my experiences.

After a few e-mails telling them what I wished I had done before making the move, I had a nice little collection of advice. Since it seemed like it would be useful for other people, I put the tips into a small guidebook.

My original plan to earn money while living abroad fell through – due to an extremely unusual event. So, I figured it might be worthwhile selling the guide.

The execution

At this point, I looked at some of the popular websites and forums that discussed selling “information products” on the Internet. The biggest one out there [unfortunately] focuses mostly on slightly scammy businesses; get rich quick, lose weight without exercising, how to pick up women, etc. But it looked like it had some good ideas for selling legitimate products.

So, I used what I learned from it to develop a rough plan for selling my book.

Creating the book

I wrote the book in Microsoft Word and found an editor and cover artist on one of the temp worker sites (I think it was odesk or elance). They did an OK job – good enough to start out. The first version of the guide was around 25 pages. I also got a freelance editor the same way, who also did a “good enough” job.

Over time, I kept adding to the book, until it was around 100 pages. I found another inexpensive artist who did a better cover, and I did the rest of the editing myself.

Selling the book

The recommended way to sell eBooks (according to most of the people on the forum I visited) was to use ClickBank to manage the sales (and affiliate commissions) and E-junkie to deliver the PDF copy of the book. So that’s what I did. ClickBank had a one-time $49 fee, and E-junkie was $5 per month.

The price for the original version of the guide was around seven to eleven dollars – it’s been a few years, and I don’t remember exactly. As I expanded the book, I raised the price up to $17, and then $21 – giving free updates to everyone who bought the book at a lower price.

I registered a domain and wrote a sales page for the book. As a programmer, it was simple for me to make the web page; however, writing something that would make people buy the book was a completely different skillset.

That first website got around 100-200 visitors a month and sold between zero and two copies per month.

Advertising the book

If the book was going to earn me any serious money, I’d need to get a lot more people to the sales page.

The forum members recommended writing a blog on the subject, get people on your mailing list, and then [somehow] in your e-mails, convince them to buy your book. So, that’s what I tried.

I set up another website with a blog and signed up to build an e-mail list at AWeber ($19 per month).

Every week, I wrote two or three long, informative blog posts (usually 600 to 2000 words), and sent out a weekly summary of the posts to my mailing list. Each post usually took me from four to twelve hours to write and edit.

I also saw on the Internet marketing forum that you could get more visitors with SEO – Search Engine Optimization. This is a set of techniques to make your website show up higher when people search for certain phrases. The forum had plenty of people selling SEO services, many of them somewhat spammy. But, it seemed like that was what you had to do to get visitors, so I used them.

My website starting showing up in more search results, and getting more visitors. I also put AdSense advertising to the site as a way to earn a little bit from people who didn’t happen to buy the guidebook.

I started making a little more money.

However, even after doing all this, after 18 months, my gross monthly income only reached around $150 in my best month.

The end

Working for 18 months, and only grossing $150, wasn’t very motivating. But each month had been getting a little better. So I had some hope. If I could keep the same growth rate for another year, it might start to be a respectable amount of money.

But then I saw what happens when you use spammy SEO services.

Google is constantly updated the logic they use to rank websites. They say they make around 500 changes per year. Most changes are minor, but some aren’t.

One of their changes was to prevent people from using some of the “low-value” techniques I had used with my site. Overnight, I lost 90% of my traffic. That’s when I decided it was time to re-evaluate the whole idea.

It might have been possible to clean things up and start getting high search results ranking again. But it probably would have taken a few months or maybe longer. And even if I did that, I’d still barely be making any money – especially after you took out the expenses for the services needed to run the site.

At that point, I realized I had put hundreds of hours into this idea, lots of money, and had made no profit. It got to the point where I really hated the website, and the time I had been putting into it.

After taking a few days to think about it, I shut down the site. I immediately felt relieved – like a huge weight was lifted from me.

What I think went wrong

Obviously, one big thing that I did wrong was to use spammy SEO services. Instead of hiring people who promised me “100s of backlinks”, I should have spent time building relationships with other expat bloggers, writing guest posts, answering questions in forums, etc. That would have gotten me “real” links from high-value websites. But that also would have taken more time and work.

Another problem was my sales technique. I’m not a smooth-talking salesman, or very good at convincing people to do things, but I was the person writing all of my sales pages.

There are plenty of people out there making huge amounts of money selling information on moving overseas. Most of them are using techniques that I consider to be very sleazy – using outrageous hype or fear to get people to buy their products and services.

I could just be bitter, but I went into this wanting to deliver honest facts about what you needed to do to move to a new country. And it seemed like people only spent money on things that would confirm their particular dreams or fears.

But the biggest problem (in my opinion) was that I didn’t have any sort of plan for a product line. Once someone bought my book, I was never going to earn any more money from them – because I didn’t have anything else to offer them. I just had one book (although I did put together a little Kindle guide on Uruguay that I sold for a couple of dollars, which made around $20-25 per month).

Many of the big, successful sites that discuss moving overseas have a huge number of products and services you can buy from them – guides on individual countries, big seminars, monthly magazines, or newsletters.

What I learned

The bad things

A lot of these can be summed up with, “I had a product, and not a business”.

If I had treated this more like a business, and not just assumed that, “people will buy it because I created it and it’s great,” I might have had more success.

  • Don’t use sleazy SEO techniques. They will almost certainly hurt you in the future. Whenever Google changes their ranking algorithm to discount these bad practices, the message boards are filled with people who suddenly lost all their traffic (and income) overnight.
  • Consider the Life Time Value (LTV) of your customers. The most I was ever going to make from anyone was around $25. For all the time I was putting in to build up credibility with my site visitors, I could have earned much more money – if I had more products or services available for them to buy.
  • Ask yourself if you really want to be dealing with this product, and market, for several years. There is a lot of negativity in the “moving overseas” market. After a while, I got very tired of being surrounded by those kind of thoughts and the people who feel a need to go on and on about them. In the end, much of my relief was from the fact I wouldn’t be surrounded by that negativity on a daily basis.
  • Look for more than one channel to get your customers. I was relying almost exclusively on SEO, when I should have been drawing in people from several different places.
  • Sell people what they want. Frankly, most people don’t want to buy an exercise plan. They want, and will pay for, a magic pill that makes they lose weight while they sleep. I was trying to sell “education”, when they just wanted “answers”. That was a mistake.
  • Before starting this, I should have looked at what I was bad at (like writing sales copy) and figured out what it would cost to hire someone good. Then I’d have to evaluate all those costs against what I could expect to earn (based on the LTV of my customer and the number of customers I could realistically expect). If those numbers worked out positively, and I could put the required money into starting the project, I’d go ahead. If I couldn’t, I’d pass on the idea.

The good things

  • I learned a lot about the mechanics of creating and selling an information product. If I make something else in the future, it will be much simpler to start it.
  • Even though I’m kind of mad that I stuck with the idea for so long, it was good to see that I could do it. Now I need to find something positive to put that energy in to for the next time.
  • The “bad things” list tells me what to avoid the next time I try a similar idea. That will save me a good amount of time, energy, and money.

Will I do it again?

Probably, but only after taking into account what I’ve learned.

I’m still amazed at how the Internet gives us the ability to share information with a huge number of people, all over the world. And, just like Gary Vaynerchuk, I believe it’s possible for many people to make a living sharing the unique skills and information they have.

Plus, for those of us with certain personality types, we need to find something to do with our lives other than sit at some company’s desk, moving numbers from one column to another.

So, I’ll be at it again. I already have my list of ideas.

But this next time, I’ll be a little wiser and much more successful – hopefully.

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