Julia Evans

Why sell zines?

Hello! As you may have noticed, I’ve been writing a few new zines (they’re all at https://jvns.ca/zines ), and while my zines used to be free (or pay-for-early-access-then-free after), the new ones are not free! They cost $10!

In this post, I want to talk a little about why I made the switch and how it’s been going so far.

selling your work is okay

I wanted to start out by saying something sort of obvious – if you decide to sell your work instead of giving it away for free, you don’t need to justify that (why would you?). Since I’ve started selling my zines, exactly 0 people have told me “julia, how dare you sell your work”, and a lot of people have said “your work is amazing and I’m happy to pay for it! This is great!”

But I still want to talk about this because it’s been a pretty confusing tradeoff for me to think through (what are my goals? does giving things away for free or selling them accomplish my goals better?)

what are my goals?

I don’t have a super clear set of goals with my blog / zines, but here are a few:

  • expose people to new important ideas that they might never have heard of otherwise. I think in systems a lot of knowledge can be hard to get if you don’t know the right people, I think that’s very silly, and I’d like to make a small dent in that.
  • explain complicated ideas in the simplest possible way (but not simpler!!!). A lot of things that seem complicated at first actually aren’t really, and I want to show people that.

free work is easier to distribute

The most obvious advantage is that if something is free, it’s way easier for more people to access it and learn from it. For me, this is the biggest thing – I care about the impact of my writing (writing just for myself is useful, but ideally I’d like for it to help lots of people!)

A really good example of this is this article Open Access for Impact: How Michael Nielsen Reached 3.5M Readers about Michael Nielsen’s book Neural Networks and Deep Learning. 3.5M readers is probably an overestimate, but he says:

total time spent by readers is about 250,000 hours, or roughly 125 full time working years.

That’s a lot! This was the biggest reason I held off selling zines for a long time – I worried that if I sold my zines, not that many people would buy them relative to how many folks would download the free versions.

selling zines makes it easier to spend money (and time) on it

A huge advantage of selling zines, though, is that it makes it way easier to invest in making something that’s high-quality. I’ve spent probably $5000 on tablets / printing / software / illustrators to make zines. Since I’ve made substantially more than $5000 at this point (!!!), investing in things like that is now a really easy decision! I can hire super talented illustrators and pay them a fair amount and not worry about it!

I decided earlier this year to buy an iPad (which has made drawing zines SO MUCH EASIER for me, the apple pencil is amaaazing), and instead of thinking “oh no, this is kind of expensive, should I really spend money on it?” I could just reason “this is a tool that will more than pay for itself! I should just buy it!“.

Also, the fact that I’m making money from it makes it way easier to spend time on the project – any given zine takes me weeks of evenings/weekends to make, and carving that time out of my schedule isn’t always easy! If I’m getting paid for it it makes it way easier to stay motivated to make something awesome instead of producing something kinda half-baked.

people take things they pay for more seriously

Another reason I’m excited about selling zines is that I feel like, since I’ve started doing it and investing a little more into the quality, people have taken the project a little more seriously!

  • “bite size linux” is a required text in a university course!. This is extremely delightful.
  • a bunch of folks who work at various companies have bought zines to give to their coworkers/employees!

I think “this costs money” is a nice way to signal “I actually spent time on this, this is good”.

people are actually willing to buy zines

At the beginning I said that I was worried that if I sold zines, nobody would buy them, and so nobody would learn from them, and that would be awful. Was that worry justified? Well, I actually have a little bit of data about this!! The only thing I use statistics for on this website is how many people download my zines (I run heap on https://jvns.ca/zines). Here are some stats:

  • my most-downloaded zine is “so you want to be a wizard” with 5,000 clicks
  • my most-bought zine is “bite size linux” with 3,000 sales (!!!)

3,000 sales is incredible (thank you everyone!!!!) and I’ve been totally blown away by how many people have bought these zines.

This actually feels like selling zines results in more people reading the zine – to me, 3,000 sales is WAY BETTER than 5,000 clicks, because I think that someone who bought a zine is probably like 4x more likely to read it than someone who just clicked on a PDF. (4x being a Totally Unscientific Arbitrary Number).

how do you decide on pricing?

PRICING. EEP. GUYS.

I find thinking about pricing SO CONFUSING. There’s this “charge more” narrative I see a lot on the internet which basically goes:

  • tie whatever you’re selling to someone else’s business outcomes
  • charge them relative to how much money the product can help them make, not relative to how hard it was to build

I think this a reasonable model and it’s how things like this guide to rails performance are priced.

This is not really how I’ve been thinking about it, though – my approach right now is just to charge what I think is a reasonable/fair price, which is $10/zine.

I had a super interesting conversation with Stephanie Hurlburt, though, where she argued that I should be charging more for different reasons! Her argument was:

  • We want to build a world where artist/educators can get paid fairly for their work
  • $10/zine is not actually a lot of money, it’s only sustainable for julia because julia has a big audience
  • if I could figure out how to charge more, I could share that with other people and make a world where smaller creators could be more successful

I find that argument pretty compelling (I would like more people to be able to make money from selling zines!). But I don’t have any plans to charge more for individual zines than $10/zine because $10 just seems like a reasonable price to me and I know that it’s already too much for some folks, especially people in countries where their currency is a lot weaker than the US dollar.

experimenting with corporate pricing

While I’m pretty reluctant to do experiments with the $10/zine price for individual people, experimenting with corporate pricing is a lot easier! Folks generally aren’t spending their own money, so if I raise the prices for a company to buy a zine, maybe they won’t buy it if they decide it’s too much, but it’s a lot less personal and doesn’t affect someone’s ability to read the zines in the same way.

Right now, companies buy zines from me for 2 reasons:

  1. to give them to their employees to teach folks useful things (I charge somewhere between $100 -> $600 for a site license right now)
  2. to distribute them at conferences/other events (eg microsoft gave out zines/posters by me at a couple of conferences this year). I’ve only just started doing this but it seems like a super fun way to get more zines into the world!

I have been doing some corporate pricing experiments – for Help! I have a manager! I raised the minimum price to $150 because I think it’s pretty valuable to help folks work better with their managers. We’ll see what happens!

why not patreon?

As a sidebar – a lot of folks have suggested that I use Patreon. Right now I definitely do not want to use Patreon/other donation-based models for various reasons (though I support creators on Patreon and I think it’s great!). I don’t want to get into it in this post but maybe I’ll talk about this another time!

Basically to me the model of “pay $10 for a zine” is super simple, I like it, and I have no desire to switch to Patreon :)

a tradeoff between free & paid: post drafts on Twitter

What I’m doing right now is – I’ll post drafts of almost everything I write in my zines on Twitter. This works really well for a lot of reasons:

  • I get really early feedback on whether something is working or not – folks will suggest a lot of great improvements in the Twitter replies!
  • I get to see what’s resonating with folks – for example, this comics about 1:1s got 2.5K retweets, which is a lot! Knowing that folks found that page really useful helped me decide where to put it in the zine (near the beginning!)
  • people who maybe can’t afford $10 for the zine can follow along on Twitter and get all the information anyway
  • obviously it’s great advertising – if people like the comics I tweet, they might decide to buy the zine later! :) And if they want to just enjoy the tweets that’s awesome too ❤

As an example, most of the pages from Help! I have a manager! are in this twitter moment.

a few things that haven’t gone well

Not everything has been 100% amazing with selling zines on the internet! A couple of things that haven’t gone well:

  • some people don’t have credit cards / PayPal and so can’t get the zine! I would really really like a good solution to this.
  • Gumroad doesn’t have great email deliverability – sometimes when someone buys a zine it’ll end up in their spam. This is pretty easy to resolve (people email me to say that they didn’t get it, and it’s always easy to fix right away), but I wish they were better at this. Otherwise Gumroad is a good platform.
  • On my first zine, I didn’t put my email address on the Gumroad page, so some people didn’t know how to get in touch with me when there was a problem and one person opened a dispute. Now I put my email address on Gumroad which I think has fixed that!
  • I sent an update email on Gumroad to past zine buyers saying that I had a new zine out and one person replied to say that they didn’t like being emailed. I think there’s a little room for to improve here – the fact that Gumroad autoenrolls everyone who buys a zine into an “updates” email list is IMO a bit weird and it feels like it would be better if it was opt-in.
  • Someone posted my blog post announcing a new zine to lobste.rs and folks commented that they didn’t think it was appropriate to post non-free things on lobste.rs. I agree with that but this seems hard to prevent though since I can’t control what people post on tech news sites :). I think this isn’t a big deal but it didn’t feel great.

I’m sure I’ll make some more mistakes in the future and hopefully I’ll learn from them :). I wanted to post these because I worry a lot about making mistakes when selling things to folks, but once I write down the issues so far they all feel very resolvable. Mostly I just try to reply to email fast when folks have problems, which isn’t that often.

let’s see how the experiment goes!

So far selling zines feels like

  • I end up with a comparable amount of readers (I think there’s not a huge difference?)
  • I can make something that’s higher quality (and pay more artists to help me!). It’s way easier to justify spending time on it.
  • People take the work more seriously
  • Folks have been really positive and supportive about it
  • It’s maybe helping a tiny bit to build a world where more folks can get paid to write really awesome educational materials

I’m excited to try out some new things in the future (hopefully printing???). I’ll try to keep writing about what I learn as I go, because how to do this really hasn’t been obvious to me. I’d love to hear what you think!

New zine: Help! I have a manager! Some possible career goals