Leanpub and AI

Over the past few months, many of us have been playing with AI, specifically GPT-3, ChatGPT and now GPT-4. From the progress, it’s clear that writing and publishing are forever going to be different. And not just in the distant future. Today.

So, today we’re launching the biggest Leanpub features since we launched in 2010. In fact, this isn’t just a feature launch, it’s an expansion of our mission:

Leanpub is building the best way in the world for authors to publish books and courses using lightweight, AI-powered tools and many iterations to get reader feedback, pivot until you have the right book or course, and build traction once you do.

(Yes, you can still use Leanpub without using the AI tools, of course!)

Besides this homepage essay, there’s also a video about these features here. The video explains why we’re building AI-powered services in the context of Leanpub’s philosophy and history, and provides the details of the four new Leanpub AI services we just launched. The last time I was this excited about doing a talk was my Lean Publishing talk at the TOC 2013 conference, from exactly 10 years ago!

This new, expanded mission is actually the natural evolution of Leanpub’s original Lean Publishing mission. The definition of Lean Publishing from 2013 is:

“Lean Publishing is the act of publishing an in-progress book using lightweight tools and many iterations to get reader feedback, pivot until you have the right book, and build traction once you do.”

The Epiphany

The 5 most important technological updates in book writing and course creation in the past 500 years are happening right now:

  1. AI-powered translations: AI is going to be able to translate a book into every human language.
  2. AI-powered copy editing and writing: Regardless of whether the text was typed or dictated, AI will be able to copy edit it, improving sentences and paragraphs, or just adding its own.
  3. AI-powered course creation: An online course will be able to be automatically created by AI from a book manuscript, with automatically generated quizzes, exercises, and online marking.
  4. AI-powered speech-to-text: Books can now be dictated (or produced from podcast audio or lecture recordings), and AI will ensure enough accuracy for it to be useful without massive editing required.
  5. AI-powered text-to-speech: Instant audiobooks. AI-powered text-to-speech will read books in a way which sounds human.

It sounds obvious, but all these innovations are based on just two things:

  1. AI
  2. Plain text

At Leanpub, we’re going to use the power of AI and plain text to automatically produce books and courses for the whole world, in their own language.

Leanpub is building the AI-powered book and course printing press for the internet.

The eventual goal is as follows:

From one plain text manuscript, we will generate the ebook, ebook translations in dozens of languages, audiobooks of the book and all its translations, an online course based on the book, including quizzes, exercises, and automated marking, and online course translations also in dozens of languages. And we’re going to be able to do all of this with one click. One single click, once.

Now, we’re not there yet. Not even close. Getting there will take years.

So what are we launching today?

Four New Leanpub Author Services

We’re Leanpub, after all, so we believe in launching early and iterating. So today we’re launching the Minimum Viable Product of four parts of our big grand vision:

  1. TranslateAI: We will translate your book into another language, using GPT-4.
  2. EditAI: We will use GPT-4 and some custom prompt engineering to copy edit your book.
  3. TranscribeAI: We will use OpenAI Whisper and GPT-4 to transcribe up to 30 hours of audio, and do lightweight formatting on the resulting audio.
  4. CourseAI: We will create use GPT-4 to produce a course based on your Leanpub book.

So, four new AI services: Translate AI, Edit AI, Transcribe AI, and Course AI. You can click a button, and we will use AI to make your books better, translate them, and create courses from them.

There’s also a bonus, the MagicAI Bundle. This bundle combines the four new Leanpub Author Services in a way which is magical, for someone starting with audio recordings of lectures or a podcast. We take up to 30 hours of audio files, use TranscribeAI to transcribe them into a Markua book, use EditAI to do the copy editing, then use TranslateAI to translate the EditAI output. We also feed the EditAI output into CourseAI to create an online course, and then we use TranslateAI again to take the online course and translate it into the same language as the book was translated into. So from a handful of audio files, you get an ebook, which has been edited and translated, and you get an online course, which has also been translated. Magic!

Now, there’s one very important note:

In the MVP version of these services that we just launched, we will be interacting with the AI for you.

In the months and years ahead, we’re planning to offer all these services as self-serve services, where you just click a button and it’s fully automated, or you click a button and there’s an interactive mode.

However, none of these four services will be available as self-serve services for months, as we need to ensure the quality is at an acceptable level.

So, we’re not only writing code to build the services, we’re also going to be running the code on behalf of people who are purchasing the services. Then, we’ll be inspecting the output, and improving the code and the prompts, and making any needed changes to get the output to the level it needs to be.

This way, we will be using our services to get better at using OpenAI GPT-4 and Whisper, developing the knowledge to ensure the code we write to fully automate this is better than it would have been if we hadn’t used the services in a semi-automated way on a bunch of books already.

So, with these services, we’ll be using the code ourselves until it’s good enough for our authors to use, and then we’ll offer the services as a self-serve option. The primary goal of offering these services now is to improve the services. The added revenue is a bonus, and we’re excited about being able to use it to improve the services themselves.

Our belief is that authors who have a reasonable amount of success from their current books are better off paying for the services now, instead of waiting months or years for the fully automated versions (which may or may not be cheaper). The added revenue in the time difference may pay for part or all of the cost of the services, and the fact that we will be doing some QA on the output means that the services in their beta form are an especially great value. (We’re pricing the services at the value that is produced by an unassisted AI service, and the fact that we’re doing some manual QA for now is a bonus.)

By the way, if you think that this approach is Leanpub doing Customer Development: you’re right. We’re launching very early to get validated learning about customers, as well as to improve these services.


Next, I want to share two thoughts about TranslateAI:

  1. I think it makes a lot of sense for any English-language book which sells reasonably well to be translated into a handful of non-English languages which also sell well on Leanpub. For starters, this would be (alphabetically) French, German, Japanese and Spanish. Since we pay 80% royalties, if you sell the translation for $20, you earn $16 per copy. So, the $249 cost of the translation is covered if you sell 16 extra copies in the translated language at that price. For example, as I write this, the Japanese translation of Cloud Strategy is the #2 bestselling book on Leanpub this week. (No, this wasn’t a TranslateAI translation: it was done by a human!)
  2. There’s lots of debate about whether AI is good or bad, but one really interesting thing to think about is that services like TranslateAI are especially valuable for people whose first language is not English, because AI translation will empower these people to have an English-language version of their book. Those of us whose first language is English are kind of spoiled. If I write a computer programming book in English, lots of people in the world can read my book, since English is in many ways the lingua franca of computer programming. But if you don’t speak English, you haven’t been able to write a computer programming book in English. Well, now you can.

In case you think these two thoughts are contradictory: my point is that (a) for a popular book it’s worth it to produce a translation into many languages for $249 since you reach additional readers (even though some subset of them may have bought the English version if there was no translation) and (b) for many non-English books, it’s especially worth it to produce an English translation, since that lets you reach the largest single-language market on Leanpub.

I think both of these points are very relevant to a number of Leanpub authors.

Frankly, TranslateAI is probably the most important of the new services we are launching. But CourseAI might be a close second, depending on how Leanpub authors use it. I want to see hundreds of Leanpub authors using AI to create courses based on their books. If this happens, someday our course revenue might even exceed our book revenue–which would be good for us as well as for many of our authors!

A Long Journey

Finally, this is a launch, but for us it’s just the beginning of a very long journey. We know it is going to take years to build everything that is explained in the video. But we’re starting here and launching now, and we really want your feedback.

It’s been 10 years since my Tools of Change conference talk was recorded, and 10 years ago none of us could have predicted the changes that happened in the past 2 weeks with the launch of GPT-4. So, I’m not going to try to predict everything that you’ll be able to do with AI on Leanpub in the next 10 years.

All I’ll say is that we’re fully committed to the expanded mission of building the best way in the world for authors to publish books and courses using lightweight, AI-powered tools and many iterations to get reader feedback, pivot until you have the right book or course, and build traction once you do.

Finally, on a personal note, I consider myself to be extremely fortunate: if I could have foreseen the development of GPT-4 10 years ago, I couldn’t have picked a better product to build, or a better set of customers to serve.

Peter Armstrong

March 29, 2023

P.S. If you’re a VC or angel investor and our launch video reminds you of a pitch, that’s because we’re finally raising a seed round, in conjunction with our pivot into being an AI startup in the publishing industry. Email peter@leanpub.com if you want to see our full pitch deck.