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How I made $3,300 on a short niche philosophy book

The Based Deleuze project is now officially complete, so it’s time to do some final accounting. Here I will review the financials, the labor/time costs, and the main lessons learned.

Based Deleuze was conceived and executed as a hard test. In research design, a hard test is a study that’s unlikely to find evidence for a hypothesis. If you use a hard test and you still get the results predicted by your hypothesis, then you can be extra confident in your hypothesis. As soon as I quit academia, my top priority was to generate reliable data about how much I could earn for my research and teaching on the open market. So for my first book, I strategically chose to do something as fringe/weird/unmarketable as possible, as quickly as possible. If I could get half-decent results, then I could confidently make future plans based on that data, because it’s very likely future books will do at least as well, and probably much better.

No matter how much I planned and strategized, I knew that my first attempt at a whole product cycle would be riddled with imperfections, so I purposely chose to do something that felt fun, light-hearted, and low-stakes, so I could move as quickly as possible.

I did so many things sub-optimally that I’m dumping most of those observations into a separate document, which I’ll post later. In this post, I’ll outline some of the biggest mistakes I made and highlight a few of the main things I did well.

Pre-launch

It all started on June 20th, when I tweeted an idea for a short book. It only got 6 retweets, but that was enough to take the idea seriously.

I made a pre-order product on Gumroad priced at only 5 bucks, drafted a quick cover on Canva, and then I literally DMed the link to everyone who retweeted, liked, or replied favorably to my tweet. This worked well and honestly it was a pretty great tactic for securing some initial buzz. I told them if it doesn’t get to at least 50 sales, I’m not doing it (this also gave them reason to share it, if they really wanted the book to happen). It crossed 50 sales so I committed to doing it. I set the release date to September 20th.

Then I got to work writing, which was my main project for about 2 months. I probably did about a thousand words per day, 2-3 days per week, on average. Pretty easy-going, to be honest, especially because I was free to do it however I pleased. I crossed my minimum target of 20k words after about 2 months. Then I did editing, formatting, and logistics in the time that remained.

The writing itself only took about 70 hours (measured hours of focused time actually writing, not a vague estimate of my time at the desk). See my detailed time-tracking below.

It was good that I announced a release date and a minimum word count from the beginning. The release date forced me to be done at a certain point, whether I was satisfied with the book or not (you never are). And the minimum word count gave me and pre-sale buyers at least some kind of objective standard for what would be enough. That was the only cold, hard promise I made about what, exactly, I would deliver on September 20. So I had at least some measurable standards for what I needed to achieve, and by when.

While writing the book, I tried to regularly tweet interesting and insightful stuff about Deleuze. I also made some Deleuze videos and uploaded them to Youtube. When uploading content I would generally link back to the pre-sale web page on Gumroad. I am pretty sure that work was effective at driving some sales but I did not measure any of that very carefully. And I had no systematic plan or schedule for this “content strategy.” I just did what I felt like doing.

Gumroad before Amazon

I decided to publish the ebook first, via Gumroad, and only much later publish to Amazon. I made this decision because Gumroad allows me to stay in touch with readers, whereas Amazon doesn’t. For obvious reasons, this is quite valuable for someone who plans to write many more books.

The audiobook and video course supplements

When I published the ebook on Gumroad, I also created and published a DIY audiobook and a 6-lecture video course. I learned this from Nathan Barry’s book Authority. One takeaway from that book is you should always have a few options, and one should be relatively quite expensive. This is because some small fraction of your audience wants everything you can possibly offer, some fraction is relatively wealthy, and some fraction just wants to give you more money because they like what you represent.

Gumroad let’s you create tiered products through what they call product “variants.”

So initially the price for the ebook was $5, I asked $10 for the ebook+audiobook, and $50 for the ebook+audiobook+course. These were bad prices. One huge mistake I made was under-pricing all of these things (more on that in a later post). I just lacked confidence for my first attempt, so I sold myself short. Maybe that’s necessary at first, though. Now that I’ve delivered on my first serious offering to seemingly happy readers, next time I’ll feel comfortable asking for a bit more. In the case of Based Deleuze, I would later bump up these initial prices, as you’ll see on the product page now, but only after 90% of the sales already came through.

One of the other big missed opportunities was not including the audiobook and the video course options as variants in the initial pre-sale product. I only added them in time for the Gumroad release date. I’ll definitely do all of that up front, next time.

The audiobook took some time but it was pretty simple. I just recorded myself reading the book. I did some basic editing but not much. It’s not quite Audible-quality but it’s really quite good, I think. My sales data below show that this was worth the labor. It also came in handy to have extra audio content. I posted the Preface of the audiobook as a podcast, for instance, to help promote the book.

For me, offering some kind of video course was a no-brainer because, as an academic, I can fire off lectures quite easily. But when I published the ebook on Gumroad, I hadn’t yet prepared any course content. So I just created a separate variant of the product, posted a planned curriculum of videos, slapped a $50 price tag on it, and in the description I said buyers would get the content over time after purchasing. I followed through with 6 one-hour video lectures uploaded over the course of a few months.

So let’s review the results separately for Gumroad and Amazon.

First launch on Gumroad, September 2019

I didn’t do a very sophisticated launch. I just uploaded to Gumroad, clicked “publish” or whatever, tweeted a bit, and emailed my list. At the time I had 1,215 subscribers. 52.2% opened the email. And 23.3% clicked the link to Based Deleuze. Here is the email I sent.

I earned $1,243 in the first month on Gumroad, as you can see in the graph below. By the time I was ready to publish, I had accumulated a healthy number of pre-orders, and then some publication buzz brought a bunch of new buyers.

Revenue From Based Deleuze: Gumroad
Revenue From Based Deleuze: Gumroad

The second spike in March 2020 coincides with the paperback release party in Los Angeles. Interestingly, launching the paperback on Amazon increased sales on Gumroad as well.

We can break down the number of sales for each variant of the product. As you see below, I only sold 11 courses but this generated more revenue than the 49 audiobooks.

Breakdown by variant: Ebook, audiobook, and course

Second launch on Amazon (paperback and Kindle), February 2020

The launch of the paperback was even more haphazard. The release party was at the very end of February but, to this day, I never really did a proper online launch for the paperback. I tweeted some stuff and mentioned it in my weekly newsletter, but there are a lot of things I just never did. For instance, I never even emailed the buyers of the ebook to let them know the paperback is available. And I never made a concerted effort to encourage Amazon reviews. I later learned that reviews are quite important for a few different reasons. (If you want to leave a review, I’d be grateful!)

Revenue From Based Deleuze: Amazon KDP
Revenue From Based Deleuze: Amazon KDP

Naturally, sales decrease over time, but I’m actually quite pleased with the lower numbers in the quiet months. In those months, I pretty much did zero work on promotion. If Based Deleuze continues to earn $100/month over the next several years, the financial success of this book would will be substantially more impressive. Maybe I’ll report back again later!

How much time did it take?

From beginning to end, I clocked 195.28 hours. These are focused hours, and I am pretty hard on myself about subtracting for distractions. I also don’t time all the little tasks that sometimes pop up randomly, so this estimate is a lower bound.

As you can see from my Toggl data below, writing the book and producing the lectures were the two most time-consuming parts of the project. Then, learning how to format the book for Amazon KDP was the third most time-consuming task. Fortunately, I learned a lot about how to do these things efficiently, so future projects should be significantly easier.

Time Spent on Based Deleuze
Time Spent on Based Deleuze

One big lesson here is that I should have outsourced more. Next time I will definitely not transcribe the lectures manually. That was stupid. My intern Ben Williamson helped with editing the videos, and my wife gave the final book a one-over for spelling and grammar mistakes. I think the grammar and spelling is quite solid; there are 2 or 3 sentences I cringed at after revisiting the book, but what can you do? As for the formatting and cover design, they are as good as my amateur design skills were ever going to get them.

The other lesson is that I definitely could have sequenced things to derive more positive externalities. I have a lot of ideas on this. Tweeting in a way that feeds the book content, writing the book content in a way that functions as lecture material, and so on. I’ve noticed many little ways one can structure and sequence a project like this to increase a bunch of little efficiencies, which might multiply quite powerfully. I’ll try to put them into practice for my next book and I’ll be sure to report back again.

Conclusion

At the time of this writing, 8 months after publication, the Based Deleuze project has netted a grand total of $3,290. That’s net revenue after platform fees, but before taxes and excluding my monthly fixed operating costs.

In terms of units, I have sold:

  • 452 copies of the book (ebook and paperback combined)
  • 49 copies of the audiobook
  • 11 copies of the video course

For the 195 hours I spent, I effectively earned about $17/hour so far. But if Based Deleuze continues to earn about $100/month for, say, another 3 years, that would roughly double the total revenue to $6,890 for an hourly wage of $35/hour. Still nowhere close to what a PhD generally commands, but as I said at the beginning, this was a hard test: Writing a weird super-niche philosophy book—which promises the reader nothing economically valuable—is one of the hardest possible ways to make money on the internet. I can certainly choose to do more lucrative projects, if necessary.

This is just the beginning. It’s hard to know how dramatically these numbers might improve as my audience increases, as I build up a catalogue of books and courses, and as my systems improve with every iteration. Personally, I’m pleased enough with the results to feel quite confident that writing and publishing books will continue to play a major role in my post-academic intellectual business model. I’m now most excited to observe the delta between book one and book two…

Truth = Joy = Power: Spinoza's Galaxy Brain

We live in a bourgeois culture where people hate intellectuals, the truth is. So, yes, of course there are stupid people on the internet who are really pretentious and think they're really smart. However, there are also really smart people on the internet who are very interesting and independent, and I think real intellectuals actually know this type of exploding galaxy brain moment, and it's one of the things that we live for as thinkers, I think. And I think the fact that the galaxy brain meme was a thing, and that it's generally a kind of resentful, negative meme — it's usually used to make fun of someone else or to object to them or to belittle them — is really just a representation or an emblem of bourgeois anti-intellectualism really, and a kind of resentful nay-saying...

A univocal ontology prohibits us from false distinctions, and it forces us to rely on these qualitative differences, which I think Spinoza and Deleuze want to say are the real differences. And they are real in part because they are immanent. When I encounter someone and I feel joy, I feel my power is increasing, right? (Puissance, not pouvoir.) Remember the galaxy brain meme. This is why I introduced that. You feel like a galaxy brain when you're talking with someone that you really get along well with. You can just feel immanently, intuitively, that this person is somehow increasing your power. It's increasing your capacities and that is associated with the emotion known as joy. That's all happening immanently, automatically. It's happening from within what is already going on. You're not calculating, you're not strategizing, you're not creating a model. It's an automatic kind of pre-conscious process. And I think Deleuze wants to say that that is what's real. Those differences are real. We're all one substance, but those differences are real.

Univocity: Lecture 3 on Based Deleuze

What is an "image of thought" for Deleuze?

From Lecture #3 in my video course for Based Deleuze:

What's really at stake here, I think, is the attack on representational thought... That's one of the core components of the Deleuzian project. Deleuze argued that any philosophy presents an image of thought and that this image of thought, it's not really explicit. It's never really demonstrated or proven. It's sort of a presupposition. Whenever a philosopher or any type of thinker or theologian or whatever presents a philosophy, there is in the background a certain image of what thought is and what thought should be, and what thought can be, and that's never really fully spelled out. It's never really justified.


It's essentially a kind of aesthetic. And there are different images of thought. This is something that Deleuze really wants to show to us… That we have a choice: an essential, irreducible kind of freedom or aesthetic decision to make about what type of thought we want to engage in.

In retrospect, "choice" is not the best word, because Deleuze wants to steer us away from any naive conception of free will. One is almost tempted to use an ugly deconstructionist term here, such as undecidability. The key point is that an 'image of thought' is extra-rational. It's never justified or formalized rationally, although it's implied in modes of justification or formalization. We might not "choose" our image of thought, exactly, although there is a kind of pre-rational selection process that sorts creators and their creations. Perhaps we could say that our 'image of thought' chooses us...

The Univocity Debate in a Nutshell

From Lecture #3 in my video course for Based Deleuze:

Aquinas wanted to say that — he did say, famously, in the Summa Theologica — if we say God is wise, and then we say that Socrates is wise, we're not really saying the same thing. We're saying what is a kind of analogy. That's the argument. And that was the dominant viewpoint but then this guy John Duns comes around and he's like, hold up homie. It ain't like that. Actually, when we use words to describe God and we use words to describe earthly things, those words actually mean the same exact thing, and that's okay. In fact, it's even a good thing.

To this day, scholars and theologians debate, what are the implications of these different perspectives? And you have some people today, like Radical Orthodoxy, a group of theologians, mostly in Britain, who are anti-Duns Scotus. And they say that Duns Scotus was one of the big problems that led to the weakening of Christianity and the development of secular culture. By saying that we speak of God and we speak of earthly things in the same words, that mean the same things, this was the belittling of God and a kind of arrogant elevation of earthly things that ultimately allowed us, as a species, to have done with the idea of God. That's one of the arguments put forward by the Radical Orthodox people.

But then there are also interesting theologians today who make the opposite argument... That Duns Scotus was accurate, and had salutary implications, even for Christianity.

Post-Structuralism and False Authority

A major epistemological foul in Continental Philosophy is that it often treats concepts as if they were tested and validated empirical models, when they are not. People routinely speak as if X’s concept is “built on” Y’s concept — but the only justification for thinking and speaking this way is scientific method, and they don’t use scientific method. As soon as you’re referring to an accumulated intellectual consensus, there are only two possible principles behind that consensus: either selection from experimental and intersubjectively verifiable tests (science) or, essentially, fashion. If X’s concept is seen as the contemporary frontier of some philosophical position, it is not because X discovered and validated something beyond the previous scholarly consensus. It is because social circumstances are such that X commands respect at the moment. The good post-structuralists took this seriously and called bullshit.

It’s a sociological reality that philosophy is a relatively arbitrary, competitive language game, and thinkers such as Deleuze ask: Well, what should we do if this is the case? And the answer is to set sail. Don’t go back to port, the port of whatever you are supposed to respect as the consensus structure, because that consensus is arbitrary. This might sound anti-authoritarian, but it’s not exactly — it’s opposition and flight from fake authority. Deleuze says anyone can form an alliance with the outside, with external reality.

Rebel against false authorities, but become a scientist or an artist or a philosopher — and to the degree one becomes such things, one becomes loyal to true authorities. All forms of loyalty are forms of submission to authority. The point of post-structuralism was to free us from false authorities, and to figure out what to do from there. Turns out, it’s complicated. But there can be found a sincere search for answers and solutions in this movement. How can we produce social cohesion without fascist implications? Deleuze made real discoveries on this puzzle, they deserve to be understood without fashionable obscurity…

In a strange way, post-structuralism was rebelling against precisely what contemporary “anti-postmoderns” such as Jordan Peterson blame post-structuralism for representing. The old structuralists were the real charlatans, but people like Jordan Peterson want to shoot the messenger. Post-structuralism said “These older philosophers and social scientists are claiming structures not really justified by science, we’re going to be honest about this and work from there…” But then they get blamed for the fallout.

Introducing Deleuze vs. Heidegger on Technology, Enslavement,
 and Escape

That’s the title of an online course I’m developing with Johannes Niederhauser. You may remember Johannes from his widely admired appearance on Other Life: “Heidegger, Ecstatic Time, and the Community of Mortals” (livestream, podcast).

Our plan is to produce about 8 hours of content, mostly traditional lectures and a couple of discussions. There is no firm date set for the release — whenever it’s ready — but it shouldn’t take more than a couple months or so.

We’ll be doing a livestream introducing the course project this Sunday. The watch page is here. Subscribe and click the bell to get a notification when we go live.

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