How to sell and fulfill limited edition ebooks for free

My friend (and brother in law) Tom Alexander is a writer / artist / publisher / very clever guy. His latest project is Six Six Six – one hundred and eleven six-word stories about Hell, in three editions.

I helped with the logistics for fully automating selling the limited edition ebook, and this post explains how we approached it.

TLDR: use Stripe Payments, Zapier and Google Script.

The problem

Tom’s idea was to allow customers to purchase a limited edition ebook. This ebook should then be emailed to the customer, and this process should be automated. Each ebook would have the edition number embedded in it, and the email to the customer would also know which edition the customer was getting.

Each ebook costs 66p, so the budget was very limited and certainly couldn’t sustain ongoing monthly costs.

Limited edition ebooks are not normally a thing people want, so there’s no established way to handle this.

Thankfully, Tom wasn’t worried about DRM or other file sharing protections for this project, so we didn’t have to take that into account. 

The ideas

We considered generating the ebooks on demand, with the edition number embedded in them on creation, but this seemed unnecessarily complicated. Instead, Tom created 600 separate pdfs using Affinity and a merge, and then used a python script to split the file into the individual books. 

To sell the ebooks I initially thought we could sell through SquareSpace, where Tom hosts his site. SquareSpace allows you to sell digital products, but doesn’t allow you to do something as odd as sell individual digital products only once. We could have tried to treat them like physical products. However, the automation of sending them would need to be outside the system, and the automation options with SquareSpace are limited. 

We hatched a plan to use a Stripe Payment and then process the orders using Zapier. This worked quite well. I created a Zap that checks for Stripe checkouts, filters based on what was bought, extracts the customer email, increments a number in a table in Zapier, finds the correct file in Dropbox or on Google Drive, and then sends it to the customer through Gmail. Incredible. 

But. Due to the complexity of the Zap, this not unreasonably required a Zapier subscription, which Tom did not already have. This made it prohibitively expensive for sending 66p ebooks. I looked at the Zapier alternatives, but none of them seemed to work as well, and none of them were magically free.

The solution

Then I discovered Google Script. This let you tie together bits of your Google landscape to do all sorts of clever things. For example, you can write a script to format a spreadsheet for you. Or to read a spreadsheet and do something with the data. Or send an email. Do you see where this is going? 

In our case, we used a free Zap from Zapier to write to a Google Sheet whenever someone buys one of Tom’s books (Zapier lets you do one-step processes like this for free). Then the Google Script checks that Sheet on a regular basis. When it finds a new book order it assigns it a book number, incrementing by 1 each time, then finds the book in Tom’s Google Drive, and sends the book to the customer through Tom’s Gmail. 

Simple and effective. 

This was a really fun challenge to wrap my head around. Take a look at Tom’s site to see the range of what he does. He’s incredible. And let me know if you’ve got something fun like this that I could help with somehow. 

The importance of ‘owernship’ in technical partnerships

In my career to date, I’ve managed technical suppliers, and been a supplier myself.

Good professional partnerships can be defined by the principle of win / win. If both parties feel they’re getting something positive from the relationship, beyond just the money, then it’s a relationships that can grow. In a client / supplier relationship, those positives can include learning, opportunities to reach new areas, streamlined, easy processes or perhaps just a pleasant working relationship. However, if the criteria of ‘win’ for either party is purely about the money then things can get rocky fast. On the supplier end this can happen when they are paid for services they’re not interested in supplying or can’t supply effectively. At the client end, it can be about refusing to invest in services they value. In both cases, frustration looms.

Good suppliers understand what clients are trying to achieve, and provide solutions that meet the client’s goals while ensuring the process and approach also works for them. In the parlance of flight safety videos, suppliers need to put on their own oxygen mask before helping others. A supplier that provides services it doesn’t gain from does no one any favours.

An example of a win / win relationship in tech would be an IT company understanding the need for backups. If they research solutions and implement those solutions in ways that are highly efficient for the IT company, they can also charge a premium on top of supply costs for the research and setup. The better it works, the happier everyone is. Happy customer. Happy supplier.

A bad example addressing this same problem would be the IT company telling the client they need a backup solution, offering a range of confusing options, some of which are difficult for the IT company to manage, and blaming the customer when the cheap but ineffective backups don’t work.

In short, good suppliers own the problem and the solution, and empower clients to achieve their goals. This isn’t about removing choice, but it is about acting as a trusted adviser understanding what the client is trying to achieve. They understand the client’s goals and engender trust, so customers are happy to go with recommended solutions, and are happy to pay for a good service.

Warning signs of a bad relationship, which I’ve experienced recently, are conversations with your supplier that include:

“We made some changes because [Person A at client org] and [Person B at client org] weren’t happy with the performance. Perhaps that broke it. I’ll ask [Person C at supplier org].”

In this case the supplier isn’t owning the problem and they aren’t owning the solution. The subtext is “you think it’s a problem, but we don’t really agree, or perhaps we don’t care enough to have a view. We also don’t really care what we might have done to break it. I’m now passing the buck internally.”

“We don’t know how it works because your previous developer built it.”

Another scenario of not owning the problem or the solution. They aren’t proposing a way to solve this long term, and are just providing an excuse for why they don’t know what’s going on. This could be transformed into a relationship you’d value with the next sentence: “And so we’re going to work it out and document it so we can handle this in future”.

At heart, suppliers don’t own issues when the client’s problems don’t fit their solutions and their services aren’t aligned with the client’s business needs.

Almost the worse case for a client is a situation where the problem and solution remain ‘owned’ by the client, but a supplier is doing some work around the edges. This gives a completely false sense of security and progress, but in reality is likely to be making a complex situation even more complex.

If this happens to you as a client, at the very least you should address this with the partner. However, in my experience it’s almost always time to cut your losses and find a partner who’s business needs and solutions more closely align with your needs and problems.


Are Twitter trolls the kids (bullies) you hated at school?

A few months ago I had the briefest of brushes with some Twitter trolls. Under the guise of free speech yada yada they sent some aggression my way about an opinion I dared to share on Twitter.

As a result, I got to thinking about who these people are, and started to wonder if at least some of them are the bullies and mean spirited people I used to avoid at school. That would make a certain amount of sense to me: there were people who thought tripping other kids up in the corridor was funny, and would rip you off in a playground deal because you weren’t sharp enough to mistrust them. They’d call people names and laugh at the weak kids. They were bullies. At varying levels, sure, but bullies. And something happened to those kids when they grew up. But because I avoided them, I wouldn’t know what.

I assume some of those kids just grew up and experienced some more of life and became compassionate people with open minds. Some of them are probably my friends in adult life.

It wouldn’t surprise me, though, if some of those kids turned into the people who think hurling abuse at people on Twitter is funny. And spend their time finding women who have opinions they don’t agree with, so they can be brought down a peg or two. And of course it’s not all black and white – some of them probably hold down really great jobs, have nice stable family lives and a circle of friends who likes them. Just like some of the bullies at school did. But they’ll still be hurtling abuse on Twitter like people with no social skills.

And then I wondered if those people are, in fact, the majority. Are these the people who read the Daily Mail and the Sun?

And then I got depressed and decided not to think too hard about it anymore.