For a while now, industry pundits have predicted that online education would become one of publishing’s biggest growth areas. Occasionally, trend articles report on publishers’ dabbling in online courses, but no major trade publisher has made a convincing long-term effort.
My career began at F&W Publications (now F+W Media), a midsize enthusiast publisher that excels in online education. It’s both book publisher and magazine publisher, and once upon a time it also ran consumer book clubs and correspondence courses. Once the Internet came along, those correspondence courses were transformed into online courses (and the book clubs became online storefronts).
When creating online courses, F+W held an advantage: it had deep knowledge and experience in teaching its audiences through a variety of mediums, and it had the company infrastructure to support the creation and administration of online education. Few publishers are able to make that kind of commitment or knowledgeably advise authors on the opportunities available. But this is where authors can do something meaningful on their own to move the needle on book sales, without publisher assistance. Authors in nonfiction categories should be looking at online education—free or paid—as a key component of their book launch or marketing plan.
Last year, I discussed author-driven online courses with David Moldawer, a former editor at Penguin who also worked at CreativeLive, an online education program by Adobe. He said that many authors don’t recognize the potential of online education in their fields of expertise, simply because they’re not hearing from other authors on the same level who are successfully pursuing it. Plus, most people have aspirations of writing a book, not teaching a course.
There are many potential opportunities to exploit in the area of online education (especially courses that can pay more than your average book advance), but, for now, I want to focus on its use for a book launch, when you offer content for free to help market and promote visibility for your book.
1. Create a free email-based course leading up to your book release.
What could you teach readers in an email series? What kind of tip series could you create based on content from your book?
The emails don’t have to be lengthy (or give away all your best stuff): brief tips that are easily and quickly understood are ideal for email. You should time it so that the last course email goes out just before your book launch, so you can include a call to action that drives people to buy the book. This is a strategy that worked well for David Kadavy’s book launch for Design for Hackers.
How do you get people to sign up for the email course in the first place? Look for guest post opportunities at websites or blogs that hit your target market, spread the word on social media, and ask influencers in your community to tweet or link to your free email course. MailChimp or ConvertKit are good tools for creating “drip courses”—email newsletters that can be set up in advance and delivered on a specific schedule.
2. Create a free webinar series leading up to your book release.
Similar to the email strategy, create and schedule a series of webinars that teach people lessons from your book. During the final webinar, you can close with a discussion about your new upcoming book. This strategy works best if people register for the series with their email address, so you can follow up with the book release announcement. For tools to facilitate and manage the process, consider Leadpages combined with GoToWebinar. Michael Hyatt recently offered a free webinar series as a promotional tool, although not for a book, but a paid course.
3. Offer an interactive online education opportunity to readers who buy your book by a particular date.
Share a limited-time opportunity for buyers of your book to join you for an interactive learning experience. Make sure you publicize this opportunity leading up to your book release date, and encourage purchasing during your first week on sale.
What should the interactive experience be? Whatever makes sense for your content and readership. Some authors set up a Facebook group or create a private forum to build what may become a long-term community; some develop a formal online course with additional material; and others offer group Q&A sessions or even one-on-one time (for a limited number of people, of course). You can also—once again—use an email course as a supplement. Author A.M. Carley recently offered such an opportunity to early purchasers of her book, Float.
Over the long term—and beyond the book launch—ambitious nonfiction authors should pursue the development of courses that people pay for. But you can start to dabble in a very satisfying and effective way by focusing on how online education can complement your book’s entry into the marketplace.
Jane Friedman teaches digital media and publishing at the University of Virginia and is the former publisher of Writer’s Digest.