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Ebooks and online courses are two of the most popular digital products out there. But which should you create? Which one is easiest to make? And which one will be most profitable?
Digital products are a great way to make passive income, diversify your income streams and become much less reliant on social media and search engine algorithms. Two of the most popular formats for digital products are ebooks and online courses (sometimes known as ecourses or digital courses). But which one should you create?
In this article, I’ll take you through the advantages and disadvantages of each format to help you make your decision about which format you should choose for your first (or next) digital product.
But first, let’s look at what exactly these formats are… (Because there are a lot of misconceptions floating around the internet!)
What is an ebook?
An ebook is a book that can be read on a digital device. These typically come in two formats. The first and most simple is a PDF. Many bloggers sell ebooks on their own sites which are simply downloadable PDFs. These can be read on the purchaser’s computer, tablet or smartphone. Alternatively, they can be printed off or reformatted to work on an ereader device, like a Kindle.
The more complicated route is to create an ebook to sell on Amazon and other digital marketplaces. These require special formatting to meet the specifications of Amazon et al.
What is an online course?
An online course may contain similar material to an ebook, but it is delivered in a very different way. And online course is typically hosted by an online course platform (for example Teachable* or Thinkific) and is broken up unto modules and units. Online courses are typically multimedia in their approach: most online courses will be a mix of video teaching, written teaching and downloads, such as worksheets, cheatsheets, templates and swipe copy.
There are many different types of online courses too. The most passive model is to sell a self-access course which students can do as and when they want and at their own pace. But online courses can also be taught ‘live’ or involve a blend of self-access and ‘live’ elements… for example a self-access course with monthly group coaching calls.
Quick and Simple
Perhaps the biggest advantage of creating an ebook is that they are very quick and simple to make. You can create a basic PDF-style ebook in a couple of days, by writing your text in Word and then formatting it as a PDF, or by using a design tool like Canva and then formatting it as a PDF.
Low creation costs
If you make a simple PDF style ebook and use free tools to create it, your creation costs are super low… it’s really only the opportunity cost of what you could otherwise have spent that time doing.
Because ebooks are quick and very low cost to create, they are a relatively low risk product to create. If they don’t sell well, you haven’t lost very much.
Ability to sell on Amazon and reach a greater audience
If you want to, you can also sell your ebook on Amazon and other similar marketplaces. If you do well on Amazon, this could significantly increase your sales and help you reach people you would never have been able to reach via your blog and social media channels. However, note that phrase ‘if you do well’… More about that in the cons…
The problem with ebooks is they have a ceiling price. It’s very hard to sell an ebook, no matter how well it is written and no matter how beautifully formatted, for much more than $20… maybe $30 at a push. Contrast this to online courses where the AVERAGE price of an online course on the Teachable platform is over $170! This means that in order to make a good income from ebooks you have to sell a lot of them…
For example, if you wanted to make $2000 per month, you would have to sell 100 x $20 ebooks, but only 10 x $200 courses. (And from my experience it is much easier to sell 10 x $200 courses!)
Another issue with ebooks is actually getting them into your customers’ hands (and getting money from your customers). Usually this involves using a third-party platform, such as SendOwl or Payhip. And these platforms typically charge a monthly fee and/or a transaction fee.
Another option is to sell your ebook via ConvertKit*. This is a particularly good option if you already use ConvertKit for email marketing. (But with no monthly fees for this service and fairly low transaction fees, this is a good option full stop!)
Alternatively, you can sell your ebook via Amazon. In this case, Amazon will take care of the transaction for you, but they charge a hefty fee for this. Typically 30-65% of the sales price, this is vastly more than the ecommerce platforms like SendOwl, Payhip, ConvertKit etc. where fees are typically below 5%.
Be aware that when selling your ebook via an online marketplace / ecommerce platform you may need to charge VAT/sales tax, even if you are not VAT registered and even if you do not live in a country that charges VAT/sales tax! Often VAT is payable according to the rules of where your customer is based, not where you are based. Fortunately, many online marketplaces / ecommerce platforms will handle VAT for you. But not all of them! So make sure you talk to your accountant / a tax expert to find out what your position is before you start selling your ebook.
You may be good at writing, but how good are your design skills? Creating a good ebook is more than simply writing the text. You also need to format your book correctly and make it look good. Your book is much, much more likely to sell if it looks professionally and attractively designed. (That old adage about judging a book by its cover… well, like it or not, most people do!)
If you have good design skills, this may not be much of a problem. But if you don’t, you will most likely need to pay a designer to format your book and design an attractive cover.
And all of this goes up a notch if you want to sell your book on Amazon. Amazon have a strict formatting guide that you will need to adhere to if you want to get your ebook published on Amazon.
Because ebooks are fairly easy to produce, lots of people do it… and not all of them are very good… in fact most of them aren’t!
This has two implications…
The first is that writing a book is a skill and it’s a different skill to writing a blog. If you have good writing skills you may be able to write a good ebook by yourself… But you might find that you need to employ the services of an editor to help you make your book the best it can possibly be and to meet your customers expectations.
The other implication is that customers are getting more and more savvy and increasingly wary of self-published ebooks. You will need to go the extra mile to convince your potential customers that your book is one of the good ones.
Many bloggers choose Amazon as an easy way of selling their ebook and reaching a larger market. Unfortunately, there are some serious downsides to selling an ebook on Amazon.
The first, as we’ve already looked at, is that they charge a hefty fee. But there are other problems too. For example, it’s very hard to stand out in such a competitive marketplace – you are competing against a gazillion other books… and many of those books will be by well-known authors and/or professionally published by well-established publishers who know all the tricks to marketing a book effectively and standing out on Amazon!
Another considerable disadvantage is that you don’t own your customer relationship. You don’t get to email your customers and invite them to join your mailing list / sell them further products further down the line.
You also don’t have control over your own marketing. You can’t just run a flash sale whenever you want or have a Black Friday sale. Worse still, it’s Amazon who get to decide if your ebook goes on offer and what price they will sell it for – you have very little control over that.
And finally, because you are competing in such a fierce marketplace, you will probably have to charge even less for your book if you want it to sell well. Ebooks typically sell for between $2.99 and $9.99 on Amazon.
READ MORE >>> Why you shouldn’t sell your ebook on Amazon*
When you consider you may have to pay for a designer and/or an editor for your book (if you want it to sell well and meet customer expectations of quality) and when you consider the ceiling price of $20-30 (and the fact that it’s more like $2.99 – $9.99 on Amazon), not to mention the monthly fees / transaction fees which could be anywhere between 3% and 65%, suddenly you realise that you are going to get a very low return from your ebook (unless you are one of the lucky few who have a runaway success) … and worse, you may not even break even!
Even if you do have some modest success with your ebook, you will need to sell a huge number each and every month in order to make a decent income. This is in direct contrast to online courses where you may only need to sell a small handful each month to make a decent income.
Lack of engagement
And finally, perhaps worst of all, is the issue of a lack of engagement… how many of your purchasers will ever even read your book, let alone actually put it into practice?! (After all, how many ebooks have you bought and NEVER read?) This matters because if people read your book and put it into practice, they will (hopefully) get a significant transformation in their lives and want to tell all their friends about it and/or give you a glowing testimonial… which will enable you to sell more (or even put your prices up!)
Online course pros
You can charge a lot more
One of the biggest advantages of an online course over an ebook is that you can charge A LOT more for an online course. A course is perceived as a premium product and, as such, customers expect to pay a premium price.
According to Teachable*, one of the most popular course platforms, an average course sells for $177 and many creators sell their courses for more than $1000. Personally, I sell my courses for between $97 and $297 and find that they sell well enough to give me an RPM (rate per mille / $ per 1,000 pageviews) of between $100 and $200 (and much more during launches, Black Friday, flash sales etc.) This compares very favourably to the RPM I get from Mediavine ads on my food blog (typically $20-30, depending on the time of year).
You don’t have to sell many
Because you can sell a course for so much more than an ebook, you need to sell far fewer per month to make good money. Depending on how much you charge, you may only have to sell 5 or 10 courses per month to make a very reasonable income. And if your course is good and you market it well, this is easily achievable.
Easy to create
One thing that puts people off creating an online course is the perception that it will be difficult or that you will need a lot of fancy tech. In fact, neither is true. It’s actually much easier to create an online course than an ebook, as the course platform will handle all the design, functionality and tech side of things. All you really need is a computer and a smartphone. (Although, you can upgrade to fancier tech if you really want to!)
Course platform handles the delivery/payment
As I mentioned above, one of the best things about creating a course is the course platform you use will handle all of the tricky stuff. The design and functionality, of course, but also delivering the course to your customer, accepting payment and (usually) dealing with taxes.
For example, Teachable*, the course platform I use, will charge VAT / sales tax where applicable and remit it to the appropriate tax authority, all without me having to lift a finger. Better still, if your course has a personal/interactive element, you may not even need to charge VAT/sales tax. (Do check with your course platform / your accountant / a tax professional if you are at all unsure about this.)
Your customers are much more likely to get better results from an online course compared to an ebook. This is partly due to format… courses tend to be multimedia with action steps, support and often interactive elements like group coaching or a Facebook group.
But this is partly (And I’d argue a much bigger part) due to attitude… People tend to buy a course with the intention of doing the course and doing it properly (especially as they will often have paid hundreds of dollars for it and will want to get their money’s worth!), whereas ebooks are often impulse purchases and may only get flicked through and never actually implemented.
Why does this matter? Well first and foremost most course creators care about their students and want to see that their students get the transformation the course promises. But from a purely financial perspective, if you have lots of happy students who’ve got great results from your course, that will result in a real buzz around your course, lots of word of mouth sales and glowing testimonials. If the buzz is big enough, this may even mean you are able to put your prices up!
No need to pay for a designer / editor etc.
To create a good quality ebook you may well have to pay for a designer and/or an editor. But there is no need to pay for a designer / editor etc. for an online course, since your course platform will handle most of the design side of things and typically online courses do not need much editing.
You get to keep all the money you make!
Apart from your course platform fees (see below) and the standard credit card processing fees (that have to be paid no matter what kind of digital product you create), you get to keep all the money you make from selling your online course. This is very different from selling an ebook on Amazon where they will take up to 65% of the sales price!
Online course cons
Takes longer to create
Generally speaking, it takes longer to create an online course than an ebook. (Though this very much depends on how fast you write and the format of your online course. If you are a slow writer, but you can record tutorial videos fast, it may be that, for you, an online course is actually faster to produce.)
There’s no getting around the fact that, for most online courses, there does need to be a video element. Now, if you love being on camera, then this is a pro not a con for you! But if you are a little camera shy, then this may be a big con.
However, if you are in the latter camp, I have good news for you! Firstly, you don’t necessarily have to do a lot of video… ask your audience what format they would prefer – you may be pleasantly surprised to discover that they would be happy with a largely written course. And secondly, honestly, video is not so bad. I have to confess; I don’t LOVE doing video… but it’s nowhere near as bad as I thought it was going to be the first time I did it.
And remember, your audience don’t care about how you look or the quality of your videos (so long as it’s a reasonable quality and your appearance is not distractingly awful!) What they care about is the quality of your teaching… If you deliver high quality teaching, they will almost certainly forgive the odd slip / stumble / bad hair day!
Another downside to online courses is that it is definitely a less passive way of making money than selling ebooks. This is because, typically, when someone buys an online course they expect a certain level of customer support – either via email, Facebook group, group coaching, office hours etc.
The good news is that you can make your course much more passive by managing expectations from the outset. For example, by telling students how they can get help if they have a problem – perhaps via your Facebook group rather than via email.
What I would say though, is that typically students who receive support get better results and go on to be your biggest ambassadors. So it can very much be in your interests to offer some form of personalized support, even though this means it’s not quite completely ‘passive’ as a form of income.
You have to pay for a course platform
Perhaps the biggest downside to creating an online course is that you will have to pay for a course platform to host your course. (OK, technically you don’t HAVE to, you could DIY is with a bunch of plugins, but that’s a big headache and not for the faint hearted… I don’t recommend it unless you are very technically minded and don’t mind the fact that the buck stops with you, and you will have to deal with all the tech support issues – even when you are supposed to be taking a day off or on holiday. People have paid good money for your course, so if they can’t access it you need to fix that fast… Personally, I’d much rather let Teachable handle those kind of headaches!)
Course platforms typically charge a monthly fee and sometimes a transaction fee on top of that monthly fee. For example, Teachable* charges $29 per month plus 5% transaction fees OR $99 per month and 0% transaction fees. However, it’s important to remember that you only have to sell 1 course a month to cover those fees – after that the money is yours!
So, which is best? Ebook or online course?
For me, online course wins hands down. Online courses are easier to create, more profitable and deliver better results for your customers.
NEED SOME HELP CREATING YOUR ONLINE COURSE?
Then why not check out ONLINE COURSE JUMPSTART – everything you need to create and launch a successful online course in just 8 weeks!
Here’s a sneak peep of what’s inside…
- The FIVE BIGGEST MISTAKES people make when creating online courses
- The ONE BIG DIFFERENCE between a SUCCESSFUL course business and an UNSUCCESSFUL one
- How to find a course topic your audience wants to learn about SO BADLY, they’ll be falling over themselves to THROW THEIR CREDIT CARDS AT YOU
- How to properly VALIDATE your course topic idea (so you don’t waste time creating a course no one wants!)
- Why creating a COURSE OUTLINE is so important (and HOW to do it!)
- Why you almost certainly DON’T NEED AS MUCH TECH as you think you do to create an online course
- How to create HIGH QUALITY course videos, downloads and bonuses EVEN ON A BUDGET!
- Tips on choosing the RIGHT PRICING STRATEGY from an ex grocery sector promotions manager (yep, that used to be my job before blogging!)
- Step-by-step help to create a KILLER SALES PAGE that converts like CRAZY!
- The SEVEN essential components of a SUCCESSFUL COURSE LAUNCH
- Bonuses and downloads GALORE!
Over to you?
Do you agree with me? I’d love to hear your opinions on this topic and your experiences with ebooks vs online courses. Did I miss any pros or cons? Let me know in the comments below!
- 20 reasons why you should create an online course
- How to create your first online course: a 10 step plan for success!
- How to choose a profitable online course topic: step by step
- How to create the perfect outline for your online course
- How to earn passive income from a blog: a step-by-step guide
Don’t miss a thing!
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*This blog post contains affiliate links, this means if you click on a link and go on to buy the product I recommend, I will get a small commission, but you will not be charged a penny more – thanks in advance!