When the world shut down and we were left to our own devices, it didn’t take long to realize that many of us were lacking in some basic life skills. We didn’t know how to cook in or clean our own kitchens. The bathroom was a mess. And we had officially run out of fresh undies. It was clear that much had been taken for granted – and that just as many home economics lessons had gone unlearned. Thankfully, the free market stepped in to lend a helping hand, with new ways to show people how to DIY.
“I knew people were overwhelmed and needed things simplified for them,” says Sarah McAllister, chief executive and founder of Calgary-based housecleaning business GoCleanCo – so she decided to do something about it. She had trained her company’s cleaning staff, who had no previous experience, and figured if she could turn them into pros, she could teach anyone how to clean. And that’s exactly what she did, with her 10-page downloadable e-book The Cleaning Army Handbook.
From knitting and kneading to photography and illustrating, PDFs, e-books and other downloadable guides are surging in popularity. Selling DIY digital downloads is becoming the modern-day way to let your creative and entrepreneurial passions fly. On Etsy, makers sell digital downloads of face-mask designs, knitting patterns and printable 3-D gift boxes. No middlemen, no shipping, no waiting.
For McAllister, her 1.5-million-strong Instagram #cleaningarmy followers gravitated toward the thorough cleaning advice she had been doling out for free (using bleach features prominently), so they downloaded her info-packed e-book in droves.
“The handbook has supported our cleaning business in ways I couldn’t have dreamed,” McAllister says of her digital windfall. “We’ve grown from five to a team of 25 women.” Included in that number are six full-timers, just to support the handbook sales alone.
Cookbook author Julie Van Rosendaal noted her fellow Calgarian’s formidable success and set about putting together an online offering of her own. The author of 11 previous cookbooks, Van Rosendaal launched a digital download leading up the Christmas holidays, called It’s Hip To Be Square, which featured recipes for nostalgic treats such as Hello Dollies and Browned Butter Blondies.
“I had been thinking about the different ways to connect and share recipes with people, and how much potential there is to do it digitally,” Van Rosendaal says. It typically takes several years to bring a cookbook to market, but with digital downloads, it can take mere weeks. “I figured it was a worthwhile experiment – it would only cost me time.”
While she feels digital downloads lack the cachet of the printed book, the $5 payments for Van Rosendaal’s PDF translates into far more money per purchase than she’d receive with a traditional book deal. She has sold almost 400 copies to date, and is about to release her next one, all about brunch.
Inspired by both McAllister and Van Rosendaal, I too decided to jump on the pandemic PDF bandwagon. I had the recipes – all I needed was a team. I got three friends together to manage the art direction, food styling and photography, and another pal to design the 47-page e-cookbook, titled 21 F*cking Delicious Recipes for 2021. So far, we’ve sold about 150 copies at $10 a pop.
Painters, knitters, crafters and creatives of all sorts have also gotten in on the e-commerce action. Pixie Faire, a U.S.-based company featuring online patterns for doll clothing, has had more than 3.3 million digital patterns downloaded, including a fetching 1860s-era doll dress ($8.99). Elsewhere on the Web, you can buy guides for all manner of textile handicrafts, from downloadable traditional Fair Isle knitting patterns to step-by-step floral embroidery guides.
Toronto-based knitter Kate Atherley is the author of the new Custom-Fit Hats e-book ($20). “The last time I self-published a book, I ended up with a living room full of them, in addition to a lot of complicated tasks – including dealing with inventory and expensive shipping,” she says.
Atherley, managing editor of Knitty.com and author of several books about knitting, knows knitting enthusiasts well, and says they like having a digital option. “It’s a reference they can keep on them, with lots of tabs open on their iPads in their knitting bag. It’s actually more convenient than having a bunch of traditional books for reference.”
She notes e-books don’t feel as secondary to their print counterparts any more – and then there’s the relative ease of execution as well. When Atherley and her editor decided it was ready to publish, they hit the Save button on the PDF for Custom-Fit Hats, and it was done.
“Because we had set up the e-commerce site in preparation, we were ready to launch within hours,” Atherley says. “It hasn’t sold as many copies as some of my physical books, because the presence of a book in a store is still a very powerful marketing piece.”
That said, the cost of marketing a digital book is much less expensive, so from a revenue perspective, she is doing just as well while having sold fewer copies – much like other creatives and entrepreneurs also selling DIY downloadables online.
McAllister’s cleaning handbook proved so popular, in fact, that her company recently began offering coil-bound hard copies. “People still wanted to hold a physical book in their hands, but we really rolled the dice on doing a print run. It was a scary investment,” she says.
They sold out of their first run in just 23 minutes – and their second in 45. While the pandemic has driven the demand for all things digital, maybe print isn’t dead after all.
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