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Oct 14, 2005
Case Study

How to Sell Sponsorships to Ebooks (More Profitable Than You May Think)

SUMMARY: Did you know Microsoft, Dell, McAfee, Novell and other big online advertisers are paying $80k or more sponsorship fees per ebook title? ContentBiz takes you behind the scenes at a happily profitable ebook publisher that is generating all revenues through sponsorships. Our new Case Study includes three sample ebook formats, tips on ebook distribution and an FAQ sheet the publisher uses to help turn prospects into sponsors.
Like most technical book authors, Sean Daily was frustrated with traditional book publishing because he didn't think authors were paid enough for their months of work and the lagtime between writing and publishing meant books could be outdated by the time they hit the shelves.

Incited by dreams of Internet wealth, in early 2000 Daily decided to launch his own new media publishing company, Inc.

Instead of publishing in print, he'd publish ebooks in PDF. Instead of distributing via bookstores, he'd offer the books as downloads online. And, instead of making people pay for content, he'd get advertisers to sponsor the ebooks.

About 30 seconds after choosing this as the business model, the online ad world bubble burst. Undaunted, Daily decided to continue bootstrapping his dream publishing company.

Of course, the big question is not only how do you sell sponsorships in a down market, but also how do you keep the editorial-advertiser conflict at bay? If all the content in your book is paid for, the likelihood a sponsor will want to "just tweak it a little bit" is enormous. And that's one thing any nonfiction author worth their salt can't stand for.

Daily had written many best-sellers in the IT market and also had run a consultancy for IT companies in the past. So, his company launched with three critical factors that gave them an edge.

o Personal contacts with an initial group of potential sponsors; o Personal contacts with more than a dozen other best-selling authors; o Gut-level knowledge of what sort of content the end-reader (IT professionals) adore so much they're willing to pay for it and by filling out registration data instead of dollars.

BTW: MarketingSherpa data shows most professionals are beginning to consider filling out a registration form to receive free content equally or more onerous than paying for content.

Next, he used three best practices to build the company.

-> Best Practice: Cookie-cutter editorial development

Content is easier both to write and sell sponsorships to if everyone knows precisely what it will contain from the start. So Daily invented three templated formats all ebooks he published would adhere to (link to samples below).

o The Definitive Guide to... (175+ pages); o Tips & Tricks on... (150-ish pages); o The Shortcut Guide to... (60-80 pages)

He only hired writers with solid track records of turning out content on the proposed topics in a similar length. Corralling a professional writer used to meeting deadlines is a lot easier than a subject expert who's never written anything of real length before.

The editorial process included:

- An agreement between and the sponsor that determined the ebook’s topic, an outline of the scope of the editorial coverage and the best ebook format to reach the sponsor’s target audience.

- A rigid schedule of when each chapter was due. Maintaining the schedule was assigned to an project manager.

- A technical review schedule. Prior to each chapter’s publication, the sponsor was permitted to review for technical accuracy but couldn’t make any changes to the content.

- A clear and publicized policy of vendor neutrality no matter who the sponsor was.'s Senior Marketing Manager David Knight explains, “If the sponsor is mentioned in the ebook as a vendor solution, then we list a range of players in the space. Never do we list just the sponsor.” However, the sponsor's name and logo were added to the cover and pages within the PDF in areas separate from the main textual content.

- A contractual understanding between the author, the sponsor and that the latter owned the copyright. The author had the right for their name to appear on the cover, and the sponsor had the exclusive right to market and distribute the ebook (via unlimited downloads) for two years.

-> Lead generation-focused sponsorship sales

Media studies show whenever the economy takes a downturn, brand advertising dries up while direct response advertising holds firmer. Therefore, although a branded ebook is a wonderful device to help with brand perception, Daily's sales team pushed sponsorships as a lead generation and sales cycle nurturing device.

Here’s how it worked:

- An IT buyer registered to download the ebook at no charge by filling out an online qualification form, either on the sponsor’s site or's content portal.

- This registration (complete with a demographic profile of the prospective IT buyer) was collected by the sponsor as a sales lead.

- By email, the registrant received links to download the ebook one chapter at a time (the chapters were published approximately one month apart, until the book was finished).

Why publish month by month instead of waiting until all chapters were completed? Daily needed the cash flow upfront to fund the company and pre-pay authors. But, he knew marketers wouldn't pre-pay for a lead generation campaign that might launch as many as eight to 10 months later.

Plus, the added benefit was sponsors would get multiple "touches" from the campaign to registered leads instead of one. This helped better educate the prospect, reinforced the sponsor’s brand and kept the leads warm during critical stages in the purchasing decision process (particularly important since that sales cycles in IT are long, averaging six to nine months).

-> Key: aiding sponsors with lead generation

Although sponsors were encouraged to use marketing campaigns to generate their own leads from the ebooks (just as they would for a normal white paper), sweetened the pot by helping to generate leads.

By asking sponsors to co-register email addresses, and by running offers in all of the ebooks hotlinked to its own content portal, tried to build a sturdy email list of its own.

Then every month, the company emailed the list with news on all the latest ebook chapters they could download for free.

In addition, leveraged the fame of its authors by sending press pitches about the new ebooks to all the IT press -- in particular online publications that might hotlink to the ebook itself. “Mentioning a top author’s name for a new ebook usually gets us in,” says Knight.

“Realtime publishers has been profitable since the day the doors opened,” says Knight. Since 2000, the company has sold and completed nearly 60 sponsored ebooks, with more than a dozen additional titles scheduled to enter the publishing cycle by the end of 2005. Sponsors have included Microsoft, Dell, McAfee, Novell and Computer Associates.

The company now has nine full-time employees as well as roughly 35 steady freelance writers. Daily is able to focus on management rather than writing everything himself.

The average sponsorship is $10,000 per chapter -- about the same amount you'd expect to pay for one expertly written white paper.

Knight attributes much of the success of selling sponsorships to's ability to attract well-known, highly respected authors.

Trade shows have given sales an unexpected boost. Some sponsors offer sign-ups to the ebook right from computers in their booths. When neighboring exhibitors get wind of this, they are often quick to seek out a sales rep about how to sponsor their own ebook.

The co-registration tactic worked despite the fact that many times setting up co-registration on a client’s site can run into hurdles (example, techs on the client site don’t want to alter sign-up screens or do other backend changes to support the co-reg function).'s total opt-in email list size is now 155,000+, and the list continues to grow by just over 5% per month. Although sponsor's success is naturally somewhat dependent on how much they themselves promote the ebook, a typical sponsor generates 10,000-20,000 sales leads per ebook title over the two-year period.

Useful links related to this article

Creative samples – what the ebooks look like, a sponsor FAQ, and sample of RTP’s newsletter:

Co-Reg Complete – tool (not currently used by to manage co-registration programs with partners:

Content Central (RTP’s content portal for readers):

See Also:

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