Monday, March 2, 2020

Meson manual sales numbers and a profitability estimate

The Meson Manual has been available for purchase for about two months now. This is a sufficient amount of time to be able to estimate total sales amounts and the like. As one of the goals of the project was to see if this could be a reasonable way to compensate FOSS maintainers for their work, let's go through the numbers in detail.


At the time of writing, 45 copies of the book have been sold amounting to around 1350€ of income. The first month's sales were about 700€ and the second one's about 500€. This is the common sales pattern where sales start at some level and then gradually decrease as time passes. Depending on how one calculates the drop-off, this would indicate total sales over a year of 2000-2500€.


The ecommerce site charges ~10€ per month, which is 120€ per year. Credit card processing fees should land somewhere in the 200-300€ area depending on sales. Accounting services come to about 500€. Then there are many small things that probably sum up to 100-200€ in a year. After these immediate expenses roughly 800-1300€ remains. Unfortunately this is where things get uglier.

The book was launched in my presentation at Linux.conf Australia. Having some sort of a launch is a necessity, because just putting things on the Internet does not work. This cost about 2000€ total in travel and lodging expenses. This single expense takes out all remaining income and then some. One could have gone to a conference nearer by but as Finland is far away from everywhere, the expenses are easily 500€ even for continental Europe. This also assumes that one would have gotten a talk accepted there, which is not at all guaranteed. In fact the vast majority of Meson talks I have submitted have been rejected. Thus depending on how you look, we are now either 700€ in the red or 300-800€ in the black in the best possible case.

Writing a book takes time. A lot of time. The way I got mine was to make a deal with my employer to only work four days a week for several months. I spent that one day a week (specifically Wednesday) writing the book and working out all the requisite bureaucracy. In my day job I'm a consultant and my salary is directly determined by the number of hours billed from customers. Doing the math on this says that writing the manual cost me ~9000€ compared to just being at work.

With this the total compensation of the manual comes out to a loss between 8000€ and 9500€.

So was it worth it?

It depends? As a personal endeavor writing, publishing and selling a full book is very satisfying and rewarding (even though writing it was at times incredibly tedious). But financially? No way. The break-even point seems to be about 10× the current sales. If 100× sales were possible, it might be sufficient amount for more people to take the risk and try to make a living this way. With these sales figures it's just not worth it.

Bonus chapter: visibility and marketing

The biggest problem of any project like this is marketing: how to get your project visible. This is either extremely hard or downright impossible. As an example, let's do some Fermi estimations on reachability on Twitter. Suppose you post about your new project on Twitter, how many of your followers would then buy the product? Ten percent is probably too much, and one tenth of a percent is too small, so let's say one percent. Thus to sell 400 copies you'd need to have 40 000 direct Twitter followers. Retweets do not count as their conversion rate is even lower.

Your only real chance is to get visibility on some news media, but that is also difficult. They get inundated by people and projects that want to get their products to be seen. Thus news sites publish news almost exclusively on large established projects as they are the things that interest their readers the most. Note that this should not be seen as a slag against these sites, it's just the nature of the beast. A news site posting mostly about crowdfunding campaigns of small unknown projects would not be a very tempting site and would go out of business quickly.

Advertising might work, but the downsides include a) it costs more money and b) the target audience for a programming manual is the set of people who are the most likely to use ad blockers or otherwise ignore online ads (I have never bought anything based on an ad I have seen online).


  1. Hi! Thanks for your post and some mind sharing. For KPIs - too=)).

    I'm not currently working with Meson but I know small things about digital marketing.

    Your case - it's case not about advertisement and solid marketers on outsorce. You have no budget for it. So you should get it on your hands.

    About "only real chance is to get visibility on some news media" - it's bullshit. You no need at this stage some media. From media in this case you will get a lot of cold leads. More views != more byers.

    Advertising might work, but the downsides include a) it costs more money and b) the target audience for a programming manual is the set of people who are the most likely to use ad blockers or otherwise ignore online ads (I have never bought anything based on an ad I have seen online)." - advertising is an instrument which means what you have marketing budget and marketing plan.

    As I understood at this point you have no marketing plan at all.

    So if it siutable I'm sharing my vision for you. It may be help.

    1. Define your target audience and define persona models of your users. Persona model give you understating where you target audience (some facebook groups, telegram, medium and so on) and which it need

    2. Use marketing instruments (GTM, google analytics) and write all your content with UTM tags. I checked your site - you have no it. At this stage - just install it on your site.

    3. Start inbound marketing activities. Why? Because you have no budget, but you know your audience, you may create useful content. Check out hubspot course "Inbound marketing". In short - you should write content for your blog or for other platforms with useful content with links to your book/site. There is ACD framework for this. You can google it.

    4. Distribute your content by free channels and channels with minimal cost (facebook groups, linkedin, tekegram and so on). It's free. In "minimal cost" I mean somethink like referral programs (share it and get free)

    5. Get feedback and calc KPIs again again and again. Over all your distribution channels.

    6. And only after some metrics you can start think about advertisement, retargeting and so on.

    At this time I think you should create some backbone for your marketing:
    1. Install GTM/GA
    2. Create UTM tags for sharing
    3. Create persona models
    4. Collect facebook/linkedin/reddit/telegram groups in which you can share it
    5. Start pushing only link to your book

    And only after this you can start inbound marketing activities which should increase your organic searches hit and wides your first level CJM.

    If you have any questions - welcome to telegram @danilborchevkin

  2. Books are hard business, I've been in it. Unless you write a bestseller it's a success if you cover your costs.
    BTW have you considered converting the book to ebook and selling it e.g. through Amazon? They take 30% of the revenue, but they expose you to a much larger audience.

    1. According to this page you only get 70% if your book costs less than $9.99 (and even then there are extra delivery fees):

      Otherwise you get 30%.

    2. Are you aware that your website is in finish? I see buttons like "Kirjaudu uios" and "Julkaise".