What Kevin Gao taught us about publishing an ebook

Since this is going to be our first ebook, we’re climbing a very steep learning curve, and the shortest way to go from zero to hero is to learn from true experts.

Kevin Gao, co-founder and CEO of HyperInk knows a lot about ebook publishing. The awesome Jared Tame, who financed his startup by publishing Startups Open Sourced introduced us to him after our initial conversation.

Kevin was very quick and open to offer help. The first thing we did was crawling the web for ebook marketing advice he already has shared. Doing this can cost a bit of time, but then there are only so many questions you can ask busy people, and it’s worth to make these questions worth their while.

We found some true gold nuggets on Quora. Kevin had already answered a question on…

How to create buzz around a self-published ebook

1. A book that meets readers’ needs. Notice that I didn’t say “well-written” or “high-quality” since those standards can vary widely by demographic, topical focus, etc. However, it must first and foremost meet your readers’ needs, whether for nonfiction that’s to accomplish a goal, or for fiction that’s to entertain themselves for an hour. The way to figure out your readers’ needs is to WRITE, WRITE, and then WRITE some more. And do it publicly. Start blogging, be active on Twitter, engage with your readers, give your books away for free, beg family & friends for their time. The more feedback you get, the better you’ll understand their needs, both explicit and implicit, and you’ll get both the high-level and detailed feedback that will make your “product” better and better

2. Great reviews. If #1 is done well, this should come organically, but we’ve found positive customer reviews to be the biggest driver of long-term sales (at least in standard ebook marketplaces like Amazon Kindle, B&N Nook, etc). Sure, a crappy book can sell well for a brief period of time, but eventually negative reviews, lack of viral/word-of-mouth promotion, and tweaks to your books’ rankings both via search and sales history in ebook marketplaces will take their toll

3. A beautiful cover. Pay someone to do it. If you’re serious about self-publishing, it’s the best $200 investment you’ll ever make. Message me if you’re looking for great cover designers and don’t know where to start

That’s some great advice.

He also shared some more general information about ebook publishing in another Quora answer, where our main takeaways were:

  • give away free sample chapters/excerpts
  • but don’t focus on “freegans”  (people who love free books), because they are very hard to convert into paying buyers
  • micropayments don’t work well (e.g. pay by chapter is not a good strategy – people want the whole book)

He also mentions some resources for staying up-to-date with ebook technology in general:

Another thing he mentioned was that in ebook market places, people are trained for low-priced products (below $10). Which made us consider the idea of doing a really low-priced version for ebook marketplaces like Kindle, Kobobooks, etc. Although that’s currently very low on our priority list.

Kevin started out as an ebook author

Kevin isn’t “just” a digital publisher – he actually started out as an ebook author. He sold an ebook for $25, and within 1 year it generated $100,000 in sales, and even more revenue from jobs that were generated through his ebook.

The book was a job interview guide for big consulting firms. Kevin had worked for McKinsey before and did a lot of recruiting on campus, established a lot of contacts, and people kept asking him questions. So he wrote an ebook and referred people to it when they asked him questions about interviewing at top consulting firms.

His ebook actually turned into a real business that he later sold, and now someone else is running it (you can see the revised and upgraded version here, it’s now selling for $50).

How long did it take Kevin to create his first ebook?

About 1 week, were he worked on it eight to ten hours a day. Most of the knowledge was already in his head, and he just had to get it on paper. Then he went back, reworked, refined and edited it, and in total after about a month the first edition of his book was finished.

How did he promote his ebook?

Mostly through blogging, and focusing on related keywords. He also participated a lot on Wall Street Oasis, an online community where he answered questions and added a link to his website in his signature.

How did he structure and outline his writing?

These were his steps:

  • •. Write the title of the article
  • •. Put down the components of this article in bullet points.
  • •. Build sub-bullets
  • •. Write the whole thing out.

How would he would do it today

I’m just going to quote from the original Mixergy interview here:

the way that I would do it, I would probably interview a few startups about their future, about their vision, try to get as big a name as I can, put that content out there on Hacker News, on your blog, share with friends. Do people respond to it? Do they spread on Facebook and Twitter? Do they engage with it? Is that something that people really care about?

He also said that the competitive landscape in terms of SEO has changed, and that it’s a lot harder now to get the kind of organic traffic he was getting with a new domain. He advises to either buy an aged domain, or partner with existing sites.

Now this was what we learned from Kevin before we got on the phone together.

Once we got on the call, some of his main points were to

  • focus on quality content and
  • interact a lot with supporters and readers.
  • To have a good free content strategy and give away a lot of great information for free.

In his opinion, there were two factors that could make the difference between success and failure for our project:

1. Our commitment level.

2. The access we would get to project creators. 
How willing would they be to share? To what extent would they pull back the curtain behind their campaign?How good would our questions be?

We were focused on big projects, and Kevin made the point that the biggest names don’t necessarily always provide the best info. A smaller Kickstarter that would be willing to share details could be much more valuable to readers than big projects where we would talk on a superficial level.

He also recommended to interview failed Kickstarters, and to show people what mistakes to avoid.

Choosing a Book Title

We were a bit stuck on choosing a title for our book. Kevin’s advice was

  1. come up with a couple of good ideas that
    1. we liked
    2. we could get the .com
    3. that were unique.
  2. Then narrow it down to 5 and
  3. ask friends for their opinions.

His main point was to decide on a title fast. Great content matters more than a great title. The result? Kickpreneur.com 🙂

Thinking Big & Long-Term

He also made a point that the potential for this project could be significantly bigger than what we were aiming for, but that it would require us to stay committed to this project for a long time. Which was both encouraging and discouraging. We might be getting a lot more than what we hoped for. But it might take us a bit longer than expected.

Kevin Gave Us Good Advice, But…

During this phone call he helped us to move past some of the challenges we faced at that point.

And he shared lots of great, relevant advice.

But that wasn’t the most valuable thing we got from this call.

What was the most valuable takeaway from the conversation for us?

A shift in our mindset. About how we’d approach this project, and how we’d look at it. And to some extent, ourselves.

Mostly by asking us a couple of questions.

And that’s something very hard to do by reading books or “consuming” information.

What About You?

Think for a moment about something in your life you want to do or achieve.

Then ask yourself: Whom could I learn from?

And then reach out to those people.

Not everyone will be willing and able to talk to a total stranger asking for a favor. But you’ll probably be surprised by the generosity of some, and more importantly: you’ll be at least one step closer to reaching your goal.

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