The only reason my self-published book has been successful is because of my website. This website is a marketing machine. By posting the book online for free for a year, I generated an enormous amount of traffic to my website. This got me links from other websites and gave me the top ranking on Google for the "Crystal Reports .NET" search term. What a stroke of luck! But if I would have waited to start marketing my book after I finished publishing it, this never would have happened. I would have spent months struggling to promote my book and getting very frustrated by the low sales. But just the opposite happened. Right when I released the book it immediately jumped to the top rankings on Amazon and sold very well. If you want your book to sell, you better start working now to put up a website with some good information and promote it so that other sites link to it.
Another benefit of putting up a website is that it will help you judge the book's likelihood of success. If your website generates tons of hits, then your self-published book will probably do well also. But if you don't get any hits, then either the topic isn't of any interest to people or you aren't very good at marketing. Either way the results are the same: no sales. Always remember that website marketing is your primary focus. Writing the book is secondary (but tremendously harder).
The Internet and the Self-PublisherOne problem affecting book sales is the availability of free information on the internet. I know that I have personally decided not to buy certain books because a search on the internet gave me the answers I needed. Why spend $40 when I didn't need to? This is the beauty of the internet: free information. But if you are an author, this is something you have to consider. Before the internet came along, an author had to look at what other books were written that would compete with his/her new book. But I now feel that you also have to search the internet to see how many sites cover your topic as well. If too many sites tell everyone how to do everything that your book was going to tell them, your sales are going to suffer. I was researching whether I should write a book about Reporting Services and I decided not to. Not only are there already some great books on the topic, but a search of Google shows that a ton of information has already been publicly posted on web sites and on the newsgroups. As Reporting Services increases in popularity this will only get worse. No sense in trying to compete against that. I'll let other authors fight that battle.
When I wrote my first book, "The .NET Languages: A Quick Translation Guide" it was pretty unique in that it made it easy to convert your programming code between VB.NET and C#. But within a year of the book being released I saw similar things on different websites and in magazine articles. Then to top off, there are now websites where you can just copy and paste your code into the page and it converts the whole damn thing to the other language. That's a pretty cool tool and I've used it myself quite a few times. But it pretty much kills any prospects I had of doing a second edition of the book. In fact, I know a best-selling author who took a series of great articles he wrote online and made them into a book. The book was much better than the articles (I bought a copy), but the articles really told you 75% of everything you need to know and he said that this book was the worst selling book he has written. When I wrote the Crystal Reports book I busted my butt to research all these topics and the book had great reviews. But now I can Google the internet and a lot of stuff getting posted to the web is my best content. It's not like people are copying from my book, after all none of this is rocket science. And its the nature of the internet for people to share what they learned about a tool. But still, there are a lot of people going to these websites and learning what they need for free and never buying a book. I even debated whether it will be worth it to revise the book for .NET 2005. By that time there will be so much free CR.NET stuff posted on the internet that there won't be much point to getting a book on the topic. Of course, I'm still going to give it my best shot because I've learned more cool stuff over the past year and the book will have great value to those who do read it. But there is going to be a much smaller audience needing to read what I'm writing.
It's great to have all this free content available for people to read and I'm definitely not complaining when it's me searching for answers to my problems. But it makes it tough for an author to stay motivated.
Here is something else I'm looking at: I'm researching a new book topic to be released for the end of 2005 (no, I'm not going to tell you the topic). I searched the internet and found almost no information regarding this topic. At first this is a good thing. It tells me that my book will be the only source of information and that people will really need to buy the book. I don't have to worry about losing sales to sites that have free information on them. But I also have to consider another possibility: maybe there aren't any websites about the topic because it isn't very popular. After all, a great way of judging what people want is to see what people are talking about. If no one is talking, then no one is interested. So I have to reconsider whether this is a good idea or not. I'm still evaluating how I feel about the topic, but it's my impression that I will be ahead of the game by writing the book now. I feel fairly confident (but not totally) that by mid 2006 there will be a huge interest in this topic. If my analysis is correct and I can time the book to beat everyone else to market, then book sales would explode and I will be known as the expert in this category. Everyone knows that in the computer field the first one to market becomes the dominant winner. Technology changes too fast to wait to see who is in second place. But if I'm wrong then I wasted months writing and I will have to find other ways to pay the bills. Choosing a book topic is not to be taken lightly. The lesson to learn from this is that researching the web can help you not only decide how much competition you will have against the free web sites, but also determine how much interest there is in a particular topic.