The Charles Darwin Guide to Writing and Selling an Effective eBook

image of charles darwin

Out of the primordial soup — back in the early 1990s they came.

They weren’t pretty. They weren’t compelling. They’re repulsive to look at today.

But we bought them — lots of them.

They were the first ebooks.

Remember Times Roman? There was page after page of it, like an 8th grade book report.

Remember the yellow highlighter on the sales page? How it made our hearts beat a little faster?

Remember how the sweat beaded on our upper lips when we thought we might miss out on the low, low price, available for only a few more hours? That’s what the red headline said.

We spent good money on those ebooks, and we thought they were first-rate. We thought wrong …

We just didn’t know any better.

We’re older and wiser. Are we smarter?

We’re different now. More discerning.

And if you’re reading Copyblogger, chances are good that you not only buy ebooks, you create them yourself, or you want to.

We’d like to think we’re smarter now than we were back then. But what have we actually learned about how to write, create and sell ebooks successfully?

It’s a jungle out there. Let’s cover the basics so your ebook will survive and flourish.

An ebook is a performance

The cover of your ebook is like the curtain rising at a theater.

It’s the first glimpse of your information. Will the audience like what they see?

That depends on how well you know them.

Because if you know your audience well and understand their challenges and problems, you’ll know what to offer them in an ebook. Here’s how to discover what to write about:

  • Pay attention to the questions you’re asked over and over
  • Read and respond to the comments on your blog
  • Ask new visitors and customers what brought them to you
  • Find out demographic information like gender, age, and education level
  • Survey your readers to discover what their challenges are

When you know your audience, you can present them with a “show” they’ll want to buy tickets to — an ebook with information they need, that they want, and that they’ll pay for.

Work with the marketplace’s natural selection process

Nature can be cruel.

Your species is humming along, doing its thing, and all of the sudden a species better suited to your environment swoops in. Before you know it, you’ve gone the way of the dodo.

It happens with ebooks, too. This year’s “Ultimate Guide” is replaced by next year’s “Last Guide You’ll Ever Need.”

To avoid this fate, give your readers your best work. Make it useful, original and fresh. Keep it updated and timely.

Natural selection in the marketplace applies to design, too.

The best ebooks are well designed and easy to read. Many people read their ebooks on screen and never print them.

To make your information easy to absorb, break it into short paragraphs. Add plenty of subheads to make your pages simple to skim.

Use a layout with lots of white space. Add subheads, call outs, and images. Go over it carefully and clean up any spelling or grammatical mistakes.

Buyers expect clean, crisp pages, and will pay a premium for them.

Your information should be well designed if you want it to thrive.

Leave your cave or perish

None of this advice applies if you don’t actually write the damn thing.

Sounds obvious, I know, but admit it: how many ebook ideas do you have floating around in your head?

It takes discipline and a special kind of tenacity to plow through the unglamorous middle and ending phases of ebook creation.

But your ideas deserve to see the light of day, so do the work and forge ahead. Get them onto the screen and bring them to life.

Your ideas can’t spread if they hide in a cave.

Adapt your methods to survive

Have you heard about super bacterium?

They’re antibiotic-resistant bacteria that are a product of overuse of antibiotic medicines.

In the marketing world, we’ve developed yellow-highlighter-and-red-headline-resistance. Those sales techniques just don’t have the effect on us they used to. What does that mean for you and your ebook?

It means your sales methods need to be as robust as your ebook content in order to survive. Try these techniques:

  • Offer solid, information-packed content in the lead up to your launch
  • Combine no-opt-in giveaways with sneak peeks of your ebook content
  • Leverage your professional network to get the word out about your product

When you write your sales copy, remember your audience’s challenges and write about them. Don’t assume they know what your product is about: spell out the details.

And please, don’t rehash the same old promises: position your ebook so it’s unique and memorable.

Natural selection is your friend

Nature and the market can both be cruel.

But now you know what to do to give your ebook the best chance:

  • Write it, don’t hide it
  • Polish it up and make it professional and appealing
  • Create and share valuable content before you launch it
  • Position your ebook so it’s memorable, and use your network to spread it

Only the smart survive, and now you’re one of them. :-)

About the Author: Pamela Wilson is the owner of Big Brand System and co-creator of eBook Evolution — a complete system, including customizable templates anyone can use, for writing, designing, and launching eBooks.

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Reader Comments (43)

  1. says

    Great Insight!

    I’m in the process of writing my first ebook and over the course of the last few weeks I’ve been going over some keys things to include in my ebook. Needless to say a good amount of what I came up with was here in this post so I must be on the right track!

    Thanks for the tips!

  2. says

    Well, at the risk of being overly mercenary, BUT completely on topic, authors ought to consider book trailers as part of their overall strategy, especially when considering digital books. My company offers them. I’ve seen some really bad ones out there that do more harm than good but if you can get a true Hollywood style trailer for your book (whatever the genre) it adds interest and peaks curiosity about the rest of the contents.

      • says

        Most authors have developed their own marketing strategy. If not, we can help tangentially but defer to marketing professionals who are the real experts at that. On a basic level we help them to get it online in widely accessible formats, submit it for search engine return results and give them tips on using them in social media. Some authors find that it’s easier to connect with media and press when you have something that is video viewable and media ready.

        Long term we’re planning a promotion where author trailers will be broadcast in movie theaters. We think that would be a fine way to promote their books. We’re researching that now and are open to working collectively with others. Please feel free to reach out. I’d love to collaborate.

        • says

          When I worked at a publisher we had some in-house design guys who did some reptty impressive book trailers just using After Effects – I now get a couple of them to do freelance stuff for projects. It’s a super way to market books, especially as video is becoming such and influential search channel.

          Funnily though you tend to have more success with independent/small publishers and directly with authors. Large companies just churn out those dreadful James Patterson TV slots or resist the idea completely.

  3. says

    I too, am in the process of writing my first E-Book… this is first rate awesome information. Thanks so much copy-blogger.

    I feel better equipped.


  4. says

    “None of this advice applies if you don’t actually write the damn thing” Yes, that is the problem. but you’ve inspired me to pull it out, dust it off, and get it out there. Thank you!

  5. says

    When referring to ebooks, the word “book” is misleading. Many ebooks are only a few pages long. Understanding that no standard length exists for ebooks should help some folks get off the dime with respect to the writing. Thanks for the tips!

  6. says

    I always find it interesting that these are ebooks we’re promoting yet most ebooks have a graphic image of this thick, elegant hardcover textbook. I understand why, I just think it’s kind of funny that these thick textbook images somehow became the default image for ebooks.

    Good advice. Just do it. Presentation is very important and I like the trailer idea too.

    • says

      Agreed: we need to come up with some way of representing eBooks graphically, and we haven’t found it yet.

      It’s an interesting design challenge, because some people read them on screen, and others print them and read them on paper, so there’s not even a consistent physical form we can use to represent them.

      Maybe we need to show an iPad and a printer? 😉

  7. says

    I don’t know how many times I’ve been seduced by the sales page, but turned off by the ebook’s cover. If I’m not impressed all-around, I’m not buying it.

    Presentation REALLY is powerful.

    Thanks for such a wonderful post, Pamela!


    • says

      Thanks, Jennifer.

      We’re sharing a lot of information on covers in our product because we feel the same way. You’ve got to make a good first impression from the sales page on.

      No matter what we were taught, we do judge books by their covers!

  8. says

    Once you’ve created your first ebook and seen how that performs, you then constantly tweak and “evolve” the process.

    It’s been really cool to watch. Had some unexpected results in there too.

  9. says

    And now Charles, himself, is an ebook (or several ebooks, in fact). Which reminds me of that other influential book – has the Bible been made into an ebook, yet?

  10. says

    I needed that post!

    I wrote my first e-book (well, it’s more like a workbook) a few weeks ago and I’m not even selling it, I give it to my newsletter’s subscribers and it does not really work! I feel like my cover is great but people don’t sign-in anyways!

    I’m going to make sure I follow everything you wrote in your post! It might help!!

    Thank you!

  11. says

    Hi Pamela!

    This post is just timely. I am actually in the process of making an ebook and these guidelines are truly helpful! I can’t express my appreciation enough. Thanks!

  12. says

    With the help of copyblogger advice, my sister has written her diet and weight loss book. I’m in the process of writing my first book as well.

    The most difficult part is not getting started, but maintaining the momentum. I constantly had to push my sister to get it done. Being a non native speaker, we had our own extra challenges, but it’s a great learning experience.

    • says

      You’re right, Adarsh: maintaining momentum is challenging. It’s easy to feel enthusiastic at the beginning and the end, but it’s that middle part — where most of the work lies — that you just have to push through.

      Congratulations for getting through it, to you and your sister.

  13. says

    Hello Pamela. Thanks so much for your wonderful post.

    You have lots of good advice here for writers. I’ve written several short ebooks that were distributed with newsletter subscribers and can always use some encouragement and wisdom to keep moving forward ~ and get better at it, too:)

  14. says

    Great points about natural selection.
    We can chalk that up to supply and demand. The more supply there is for a product may cause your demand to go down.
    Create an eBook that is strong enough in content to surpass this.

    • says

      Strong enough in content, yes, and one that uses an approach that’s unique. If you can communicate it in a way that’s remarkable, you won’t have as many competitors.

      Thanks for the comment, David.

  15. says

    Forget about SELLING eBooks, even gating them for free is a challenge. Most of the companies I’ve worked for have created lots of free eBooks, but required a login or site registration to access them. This is hardly uncommon, but even then, as a publisher, you want to make sure that whatever you are forcing people to sign up for is worth their time.

    And once you create an eBook successfully, the urge is to create more and more (more subscribers!). But you don’t want to spread yourself so thin that the content suffers. Otherwise you’re left with a lot of dissapointed (and annoyed) new site members, and that’s the last thing you want.

    • says

      I agree, Brendan. It’s a lot easier to make your business memorable if you stick to demonstrating your expertise in one area rather than a whole bunch.

  16. says

    Pamela, you’re right–clean, attractive design is key:

    “The best ebooks are well designed and easy to read….

    To make your information easy to absorb, break it into short paragraphs. Add plenty of subheads to make your pages simple to skim.

    Use a layout with lots of white space. Add subheads, call outs, and images. Go over it carefully and clean up any spelling or grammatical mistakes.”

    Also, an appealing, simple, clean, well-designed cover is critical, especially since it’s the first image of the book that potential buyers will see.

    In many ways, writing and designing an ebook is very similar to creating a blog. Which makes sense, since they’re both primarily viewed by readers on a screen.

    Having just published my own first ebook, I can attest that we spent almost as much time on the design, formatting, and proofing aspect as we did on researching and writing. Maybe more actually.

    Often, it was very tedious work, but well worth the time and effort, given, as you say, that “An ebook is a performance.”

    • says

      Quality of delivery is so important, especially now. People aren’t willing to settle for sloppy, hard-to-read pages. I don’t blame them!

      EBooks are often more expensive than printed books. Good design is a way to justify the asking price.

  17. says

    Thanks for those tips Pamela – I’ve been rummaging around in my cave for too long and these will help lead me out!

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