My adventure in “pay what you want”

One Tuesday morning not so long ago, I woke up to the news that my publisher had abruptly closed its doors. Their site was gone, along with any way of finding or purchasing any of their books, including the book I authored: The CSS Animation Pocket Guide. Change of plans, Tuesday, we have some big decisions to make!

Losing your publisher definitely falls into the category of bad news. But I wanted to turn it into something more positive and I knew that whatever that was, it had to happen fast. No pressure or anything.

My solution was to take matters into my own hands and make my book available on my site with a “pay what you’d like” price tag. There would be no strings attached, paying would be encouraged but entirely optional. Thankfully it was only available in digital formats so I had that flexibility to try something like this. To me it seemed like the best way I could keep sharing what I’d learned with the community even without the help of a publisher’s reach and expertise.

An experiment

In a sense this was an experiment. I had no idea if this would work and I’d never tried anything quite like it before. It was risky.The “pay what you’d like” model isn’t new of course, Radiohead did it famously and they haven’t been the last to use it. But it’s still scary when it’s your own work that’s being offered up.

Can you really make any money if you make paying for your product completely optional? Will anyone pay for something they could also just take for free? These were the questions I was worrying about as I moved forward with my plan.

Thanks to some helpful friends, the morning after the announcement I pushed my new book page live over coffee and hoped for the best. My book was available again — this time at any price people wanted to pay — just 24 hours after my publisher announced its closure. I wrote up a quick post, Tweeted about it, and hoped that it wouldn’t turn out to be the the dumbest idea I ever had.

Show me the numbers!

The initial attention this got was beyond anything I had expected. Tweets about the book were retweeted over 500 times, and there were over 1000 downloads of the book in just the first few hours. Crazy!

The majority of downloads took the book for free, which was totally fine and exactly what I expected. Around 12% of downloads were accompanied by a payment which I was very impressed with. An entire 12% of people opted to pay even though they didn’t have to.

The average price that people have chosen to pay is $4.75. Just about the price of the ebook originally. Essentially most people who did pay, choose a price near my $5 suggestion even though it was 100% optional. Some even chose to pay more.

Reading up on it after the fact, it seems that didn’t really follow the same rules most “pay what you want” offers do. I didn’t set a minimum price and I didn’t require an email address to get to the free download. Neither of those things felt right to me. That may have been a poor business decision, but I don’t regret it for a second.

If I had gone with either of those safety nets, I might have seen quite different results, like this author, and had the majority of people pay. I suspect the total number of downloads would have been far less (resulting in a higher percentage of paid downloads) with extra hoops to jump through.

Even with the small percentage of people choosing to pay, my earnings on the book were on track to at least match, and likely exceed, the royalties I had been receiving through my publisher in the first few weeks. More people were getting the content I wanted to share, and I wasn’t going broke over it.

This may not have been the dumbest thing I’ve ever done after all! The numbers were suggesting that it may have even been a smart thing to do. Cue sighs of relief and of course, more coffee. As it turns out, the numbers were the smallest part of the story.

More than the numbers

From day one I noticed some very surprising responses on Twitter and in my inbox. This feedback completely changed how I thought about the author to reader relationship.

For example, some people took me up on the free download and then came back later to pay for it after checking out the contents of the book:

The fact that ebook was being offered directly from me made some people feel more inclined to pay for it:

While I didn’t expect it, this makes sense. When it’s me offering up my own work instead of a third party the transaction feels completely different. It becomes more of a personal interaction.

Less publicly, some people chose to pay more than the the suggested $5. A few very sweet people (yes, people who are not my mom) choose prices of $10, $20, or more for the download. I was incredibly flattered that they felt my content was worth more than I was asking for it.

Most importantly, doing this made me feel more connected with the people who were reading my book. I was more human and more approachable doing things this way. It completely changed the dynamic between me, the author, and anyone reading the book. That is both a wonderful and scary positions to be in. This was the most valuable part of the experience for me.

After the honeymoon period

You probably noticed the feedback tweets I referenced are all from around the time I first made the book available on my site. I still get comments via Twitter and email even now, but the reality is this sort of thing is time sensitive. People’s interest in any one thing is not a constant. This is especially true when you don’t actively promote a product. Which I didn’t.

My publisher’s closing served as a good push for my offering of my book for the first couple of weeks. After the first month, downloads started to drop off. 25% of the total downloads to-date happened in that first week, the other 75% were spread out over the fifteen weeks since. At this point paid downloads have dipped slightly to 11% of total downloads through my site and the number of downloads per day has dropped significantly over time.

Obviously, more active and consistent promotion would have had an impact on my total downloads and paid downloads. I quite literally did none beyond that first week. In my case money wasn’t my main motivator. Had this been a brand new product or if I had hard costs to recoup that would be a completely different story. For me this was a lemonade out of lemons situation, not a fully planned out move.

The biggest takeaway here: If you try this for your product, have an actual plan for promoting it. (Crazy talk, I know.)

Being realistic – I can’t do this forever

Putting my book out like this has been a hugely positive experience, but the longevity of this model for me right now is pretty short. I just don’t have the time to properly promote and maintain the book without help. The book needs to be promoted, it needs to be updated, there are errata to be addressed, and so on. I don’t have the resources to tackle all of that on my own right now.

Thankfully, some very nice and super smart people have decided to bring my original publisher back to life. Yay! So I’ve decided to sign back on with them because I know, we can do bigger and better things together.

The takeaway

This experience changed my opinions on self-publishing and how successful putting your work out there all on your own could be. A risky “pay what you want” model won’t work for every situation or product. It’s scary, but after the result I saw with my far less than perfect plan, it’s worth considering. With a digital product you have the flexibility to try something like this and benefit from both the monetary and non-monetary benefits I saw. Probably in even bigger and better ways with some proper advanced planning.

The biggest thing I learned from this experience is that when you provide something that has value, people want to pay for it. I think that says a lot about the nature of the web design community too. We’re a community built on open sharing of knowledge. We learn from each other’s source code, blog posts, and articles on a regular basis. We know the value of shared knowledge and we’re willing to pay for things that help us. This makes our community especially great.