The Leanpub Blog: On Writing, Publishing, Self-Publishing and Ebooks

Leanpub Podcast Interview with Mirela Roncevic, Founder of the Free Reading Zone Project

by Len Epp

published Mar 28, 2017

Mirela Roncevic

Mirela Roncevic is a writer, editor, and the Editorial Director of No Shelf Required. In this interview, Leanpub co-founder Len Epp talks with Mirela about her career, and in particular about “Free Reading Zone” project, which recently openeda virtual library of books to the entire country of Croatia.

This interview was recorded on January 31, 2016.

The full audio for the interview is here. You can subscribe to this podcast in iTunes or add the following podcast URL directly: http://leanpub.com/podcast.xml.

This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.

Mirela Roncevic

Len: Hi, this is Len Epp from Leanpub, and in this podcast episode, I’ll be talking with Mirela Roncevic. In addition to being a writer, editor and publishing industry consultant, Mirela’s the Editorial Director of No Shelf Required - an online resource for book industry professionals to help speed the spread of literacy and open access to knowledge, and which has a special focus on subjects related to ebooks and digital content.

Mirela is also the Founder and Director of an organization that seeks to create free reading zones, and in December 2016, turned the entire country of Croatia into an open virtual library - including over 100,000 books freely available to download, without requiring that anyone have a library card or any type of access code.

In this interview, we’re going to talk about Mirela’s career, No Shelf Required, and her experience with setting up free reading zones. In addition to her work, I should mention, [in addition to work she has published] at noshelfrequired.com, you can also read content by Mirela on her website at mirelaroncevic.com, and you can follow No Shelf Required on Twitter @noshelfrequired.

So, thank you Mirela for being on the Leanpub Podcast.

Mirela: Thank you for having me.

Len: I always like to start these interviews by asking people for their origin story. I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about your history - how you became interested in the publishing world and in the library industry as well, and some of your experiences that led you to where you are today.

Mirela: Well I always knew that I - growing up in Croatia, I was born in Croatia; I moved to New York when I was a teenager, and I always knew growing up that I would be a writer, that I would be involved with writing and books. So it was no surprise that I ended up at NYU studying literature and journalism and combining the two.

So getting that first job in publishing was a natural progression of my work at NYU as an undergraduate student, and then as a graduate student of comparative literature. So when I ended up in publishing, I was a standard editor. The first two years of my work in publishing involved classic editorial work. Simply, I worked with books.

Later I landed a job at Library Journal, where I wrote about books and reviewed them, and wrote articles about the publishing industry.

It was a very natural progression that started during my college years. And from there it just grew. And little by little I ended up on the digital side, which was a surprise. It wasn’t something I was pursuing. I fell into it.

At first I was very resistant. I was in my, at the time, mid- to late 20’s, and the job of the person who would handle ebooks at the time, was simply given to the youngest person on staff - which was me. But I ended up discovering, not only discovering the potential of ebooks to transform the world in ways we haven’t seen before, but I also became an avid ebook reader.

And so that’s where I am today, the advocate of reading in digital format, and someone who’s very passionate about - despite my traditional publishing background - as someone who’s very passionate about what digital books can do for the world. And what they can do for the world beyond libraries, beyond institutions. So this idea of one day - perhaps not in my lifetime - but one day, the world becoming an open, virtual library - is something that I’m naturally very drawn to.

Len: I’d like to talk to you about that in a couple of minutes. But before moving on, I think people might be interested in hearing about what the classic duties of an editor were in the publishing industry, and maybe how they’ve changed in your time - especially over that transition to digital?

Mirela: Well I didn’t spend as much time editing books in my career, as I did working as a book review editor for a magazine - especially Library Journal, where I spent 12 years. But I did spend a significant number of years as a classic book editor, managing editor and acquisitions editor.

How things have changed? Well, things have gotten really hectic. They’ve always been, but it does seem to me that books are produced at a faster pace, simply because books used to be printed, and now they’re printed and digitized at the same time. So there are a lot of people involved with the production of every book.

And then of course there’s the onslaught of self-publishing, which has been - it’s a phenomenon we cannot ignore. And that has challenged traditional publishing in many ways.

So in many ways, publishing is not really much different than it used to be - except that a lot more is being produced.

I think I read somewhere that over a million new titles are produced or published every year - half of them are self-published. That’s a lot of books to keep up with, and a lot of people involved in that process.

Len: And do you see that growth in ebooks, or in self-publishing, sorry - to continue along its current trajectory?

Mirela: Yes, yes. And that’s the other [thing]. If I could single out two things that I focus on at No Shelf Required, the first would be - obviously - my passion for free access to books. But the second would be my increasing interest in self-publishing - coming from a traditional editor, from someone who’s spent 12 years of her career being a book review editor, and being a firm believer that books need to be vetted, and that there needs to be a strict filtering process in place. And that no book that isn’t professionally produced inside a reputable publishing house could ever be as authoritative and as good as a book that’s published by somebody on their own.

I’ve come a long way in that thinking. I’ve really opened up. And - again - ebooks had a lot to do with that. I opened up to self-publishing in recent years, because I became more educated about it. I took my time with it, to understand what is really out there. And discovered that there is a lot of good stuff out there.

There are a lot of dedicated individuals working on various books, not all fiction - many non-fiction titles - even independent academics. People are really investing a lot of time and energy into crafting books that are worth our attention. So, we use No Shelf Required as an outlet that promotes independent publishing.

In fact I don’t like to call it “self-publishing”. I much prefer calling it “independent publishing”. There’s just something more honorable about that. Because there’s a lot of discipline involved, and the more I read about these books and the more I…. As someone who spends a significant amount of time now producing content on her own, it’s hard work, and there are a lot of people out there doing it with a lot of dignity, and we have to pay attention to that, and they will not go away. These new emerging technologies are really making it easier for them to publish their work.

And not to mention - going back to the earlier question - what is different about publishing? One of the challenging things about publishing has always been how much good stuff is simply never selected to be published in the first place. The competition is fierce, publishers can only take in so much.

So now we live in a world that allows for all of that expression. And there’s nothing to be afraid of, we simply have to embrace it, and I do believe that the good stuff finds its way to the surface - and that the world in general is pretty good at censoring, self-censoring and deciding for themselves what they ultimately gravitate towards. It’s a pretty organic process.

Len: Speaking of new-ish technologies, I suppose in the self-publishing space, the giant in the room is Amazon. I was wondering what your opinion is about the relationship that Amazon’s developed with self-published authors, and seeing where they may be going?

Mirela: This will be one of those questions I wish not to answer, simply because I don’t know much about it. I tend not to be so focused on the business aspects of self-publishing. I am more drawn to it from an editorial perspective and the freedom of it, the ideology behind it.

I don’t have any reservations about Amazon, as problematic as it’s been, its relationship with the publishing industry overall. I tend to be more focused on alternative models, and the different things that we can do beyond…. To me, Amazon is another version of - it’s just a much bigger version of how things have always been sold and packaged. It’s not radical enough, it’s not showing the true potential of the digital medium yet. I mean it’s certainly making books more affordable - I’ll give them that. But that has its own problems, doesn’t it?

Len: Yes.

Mirela: Certainly for the author. I’m not sure the solution is to devalue the book to the point where you can buy it for $2 or $3. I’m not sure what to make of that.

Len: Speaking of ideology and the radical potential that you speak of, I think I came across a bio of you on No Shelf Required, or it may have been somewhere in a blog post where you spoke about how, when you were growing up, you really didn’t have a great deal of books around. Pardon me if I’m wrong about that.

But it struck me because - one of the dividing lines I’ve found anecdotally in my experience talking to people about the potential of ebooks, is that the access people had when they were young, or when they began to thirst for knowledge - those who felt that it was limited, are often those who are much more quick to see what the potential for ebooks represents.

Mirela: Absolutely. I grew up in a very small town on the Croatian Adriatic. I did write about that, you’re right, it was in one of my blog posts. The first time I walked into NYPL in New York, and the first time I walked into the NYU library, I remember being overwhelmed. I mean just to see so many books in one place, it was - it’s one of those things you never forget in your life.

We quickly forget how many people on this planet still don’t have access to literature. How many people don’t live in urban areas, or affluent areas? How much, how limiting that access always has been with the print book, as glorious as all these urban libraries out there are.

As much as we like to worship them, and we do, sometimes I wish we would spend less time doing that, admiring the physical, and more time focusing on - okay, so if this physical [library] has to stay where it is, what can we do digitally? What can we do virtually to level the playing field?

And that’s where ebooks come in. That’s where my excitement comes in. And that’s what No Shelf Required, these days is about. We live in a world now where we already can do so much more than we do. And in that world, there are a lot of very wealthy urban libraries with unbelievably rich collections, that are not accessible to anyone beyond the right zip code.

We can do better than that. We can do much better than that. And I think libraries have to wake up to that potential as well. Even within a country like the US, there’s a lot of discrepancy between what a major urban library can offer, versus a small library in rural Texas.

So to me, that’s what ebooks are about. They’re about democratizing the written word, the way even Gutenberg couldn’t pull off. Print never really gave us that full democracy of the written word. It was always tied to the library, to the physical entity, to the city, to the affluent urban area. The ebook can be accessible to anyone anywhere, period. That holds so much potential, and it really is difficult to ignore that.

The more you get into it, the more you experiment, as I have in recent months. The more you experiment with ebooks….

But that’s the key word. You have to be willing to experiment. Publishers have to be willing to experiment, libraries have to be willing to experiment.

We don’t know exactly what the right, or if there is the right, the perfect model that can accomplish all that we want to see with ebooks. But with all due respect to all my colleagues in publishing, I don’t think as an industry we’ve done enough, because we still rely on that old mentality. We buy, we sell, we borrow, we lend. That seems to be where we’re stuck. And with ebooks, it really does not have to be about - just about buying or selling or borrowing. It requires a completely different frame of thinking.

Len: Speaking of that different way of thinking and experimenting and trying to improve things, this seems like a good moment to ask you about the free reading initiative - and how you got things set up in Croatia, and what it was all about.

Mirela: So the Free Reading Zones project actually initiated in the US, with a company called Total Boox. It’s a company that I consulted for about three years. It’s an Israeli company that entered the US market about three years ago with a brand new model for reading ebooks and I was very drawn to it from the very beginning, because it was so radical.

It wasn’t about buying or selling, but simply about paying for only for what you read. Not per page, not per view, but for what you actually read, similar to how Skype works. If you load up your balance, and you read only a percentage of a book, you are only charged for that percentage.

Total Boox became a good model for libraries, because it offered instant, simultaneous access to books, which has been a major issue with public libraries in the United States - dealing with waiting lines, all kinds of restrictions placed on reading.

So the libraries that work with Total Boox had the option to make those books available instantly in places other than libraries. For example, parks. Any physical, any geographical area could be turned into a free reading zone where - with your library card, you can read.

So it’s basically going beyond the library walls to turn public spaces into these areas where culture is abundant, if you will. And it was a great way for libraries to attract more library card holders, and encourage more reading.

And then it dawned on me somewhere along the way - why do we have to only ask libraries to sponsor this reading? Why don’t we go beyond libraries? Why don’t we make reading available to people without restriction? Even asking them to put in a library card still means that you’re preferring library patrons in a certain area, so it’s still not 100% free.

That’s where the idea was born, the idea that the next step should be free reading anywhere, where reading is welcome. If a bank wants to sponsor people’s reading, or an insurance company or any kind of government entity or organization that supports literacy - it can.

And I felt that the Total Boox model was a really good one, again, because of that instant access, because there’s no buying and borrowing, and the books simply are always available and exposed for reading. So the idea then becomes - we transfer the cost of reading from the reader to the sponsor.

The first project I did, that did not involve a library, it was actually turning a cafe into a free reading zone. And the cafe was here in Zagreb in Croatia, the capital of Croatia, which worked the same way. Any person on premises, anyone who visited the cafe could go into a virtual library bigger than the collection available at the biggest library in Croatia - the library, the National Library of Zagreb - and browse and read thousands of books in several languages. And as long as they stay at the cafe - and I think they were able to - they could also finish the reading at home through the end of the day.

But that was more of a pilot. It was more of a staging for what would come next. And what came next was what I call the project of my life, the turning of the entire country [into a Free Reading Zone] - we went from a cafe to the entire country.

The reason it happened in Croatia was really simple. I was at a point in my career, after finishing my work with Total Boox, where I was looking for a change, and I had spent most of my life at that point living in New York. There comes a point in your life, in your career when you seek a change, and you decide it will be a good idea perhaps to reconnect with the source, if you will.

So going to Croatia was a personal decision for me. I certainly, at the time, had no plans to turn the country into a Free Reading Zone. That was not on my to-do list. It was mostly to travel on trains and visit relatives that I haven’t seen in years, and just give myself and my family a year away from New York.

The cafe project was fun. I did it with a group of people, local enthusiasts who helped, and the cafe owners, who were really interested in the project, because the cafe itself was not a regular cafe. It’s kind of literary, it has a history of literary events and it’s always been like a cultural hub where people gathered to discuss arts and literature. So it was very natural, it was a very natural place to do that.

The big country project kind of snuck up on me. And I honestly - looking back, I’m not even sure at what point I decided that I was ready for it. But it all kind of fell into place. And I was fortunate enough that I had the company Total Boox backing it, they were interested in it. And I explained my idea, I explained that it would be only in Croatia.

Here’s why: it was small enough that we could pull it off. Croatia’s not a big country, it’s got less than 5 million people. More people live in Queens in New York than in this entire nation. It’s a touristy country with 15 million people visiting it a year. So that’s three times as many than residents.

So all kinds of languages are spoken all over the place. Which is good, because the collection we would expose would be multilingual. It would include thousands of books in English and French and German, Italian, etc. The smallest number of them were actually in Croatian. Because we added them at the last minute.

And then also, it’s a rural country. It’s a country of a thousand islands scattered all over the place. Very few urban areas. A country where ebooks never, never even took off. Nobody’s interested in them. Most publishers don’t even digitize their books. Those that do, many of them only have them in PDF.

Which made it perfect for this experiment, because if I’m going to prove that, if we create the right conditions for people to read ebooks, they will embrace them; and if we can prove that in a country like Croatia, then that’s going to be a powerful statement. It’s going to make all that much more believable, and it will have that much more weight.

It was a process, it didn’t happen overnight. I certainly put my personal life on hold for it. It had many more challenges than I expected. I exposed myself publicly, I went on national TV, which, for a writer and editor, it wasn’t exactly a natural atmosphere.

But we understood that we had to build the momentum, that we had to explain to people what was about to happen. The uniqueness of the project, the revolutionary aspect of it - that no other country really, to the best of my knowledge has ever attempted something like that. That one day in early December, they will wake up and the whole country will be an open library. And they will be able to read and go into this free app and just read for one month, and well, we didn’t say for one month, we were hoping it would last longer. But it ended up lasting for a month.

There was a lot that went into it. I certainly couldn’t have done it by myself. So I organized a group of people who helped, from IT specialists to publishing consultants, to family members who cheered me on. It was intense. It was an intense six months leading up to the big finale, which was the actual launch.

And then there was also another component, and that was speaking to potential sponsors and government officials. That was the most important and exhausting part. It wasn’t just about the pilot. We secured the funds for the first month. We knew that the reading was covered for the first month, and that would work. That would work out fine.

What I was really interested in is for somebody to pick it up, so that it would not stop - so that it would continue. So I spent a lot of my time talking to government officials, going to presentations, going into banks - all kinds of corporations, presenting the project, asking them essentially to sponsor it, but presenting it in a way that it wasn’t a humanitarian action. That was very important to me. I wanted it to come across as this exciting new way to support literacy and culture through sponsorship - advertising, if you will? But keep in mind the library itself was not going to be flooded with ads.

There was going to be a simple greeting by the sponsor upon the entry into the app, and that was it. And then the reader would be left alone. So, it was a very discreet way of branding and allowing organizations and corporations to sponsor something that I think is beyond big. Because it doesn’t involve - as I would explain to them - it does not involve, like it always does when you support a cultural event, you’re essentially supporting the organizer.

You’re supporting the author, you’re supporting the festival. So it’s always the creator. But in this project, you’re actually supporting the end user. So that is like culture at it’s highest level, benefiting everybody, complete - coming full circle.

And to make the very, very long story short - the government officials that we spoke with in the end showed the most interest. We had several meetings with the Minister of Culture here, the Ministry of Tourism, as well as education. And we are still in the process of waiting to hear from them, and hope - I really hope - that this inspires them to continue, because the project was a huge success.

Thousands of people registered within hours. Tens of thousands of people read every single minute of the day. The support was enormous. People thought it was too good to be true. The only negative comments we ever got were at the very end, when we had to notify them that the pilot was put on hold until a sponsor was ready to continue. Why a sponsor? So that we could pay publishers. Because that’s what made this so special.

Len: I’m very curious about that aspect of it. As I understand it, there was a pre-existing app - and by the way, what a wonderful story, and congratulations on your success with it - so, as I understand it, there was an app that pre-existed, and then a really big part of the work that you did, I imagine, was convincing publishers to allow their books to be distributed through that app?

Mirela: Right, that was the work I did for Total Boox, the Total Books model, the pay-as-you-read model only pays publishers for what is read. And this is a very radical concept. I spent three years of my life as a consultant to Total Boox, convincing publishers to sign. And I was pretty successful at it. We created a very robust collection, over 300 publishers represented. Very, very, very well-known brands. Brands like Lonely Planet, Berlitz, Source Books, F&W. A number of Canadian publishers too - ECW, etc.

So this model basically - the contracts that publishers signed with Total Boox, said, in a nutshell, you will get paid not for the price that you set every time somebody downloads. Let’s say it’s $20. If I download that book, but I only read $2 worth of it - I only read a few pages, we owe you $2 of it for that particular book. But we will pay you every time anyone, anywhere reads - so it’s incremental revenue.

This is a departure from what publishers are used to, because they are used to making predictions, and getting the $20 for every book they sell - whether people read or not is really not the concern. But all of a sudden with this new model, it becomes very much part of the game.

So in all honesty, many publishers are still not ready for that - that they will only be paid if people read. It’s almost like we’re holding them, in a way, responsible to earn, based on what is actually read.

So that is the model. That’s the same model that we used in Croatia. We did not have to go back to those same publishers and say, “Are you going to participate in this pilot?” Because no matter where people read inside that app, they will always be paid. The only difference is, in Croatia - this was the first time, that in Croatia it did not come from any individuals. It came directly from the sponsor.

So somebody picked it all up on their behalf. That’s basically the model that I designed. Let’s transfer the burden of paying for the reading from the reader to the sponsor - whoever that may be. And it can still be a library. Except in Croatia - and by the way, this is also something that libraries in the US may not be so aware of - libraries outside US, the vast majority of places I’ve been too, not just in Croatia but all around Europe, truly don’t have the funds to even consider working with ebooks.

Libraries in the US have made tremendous progress with ebooks. As chaotic as it’s been to us - and I’ve been critical of some of the ways things have turned out - but still, in comparison to the rest of the world, the US is in a much better shape. My point is, if we’re going to spread reading around the world, we cannot rely on libraries outside the US. They simply don’t have the means to do it. They need all the help they can get.

So in Croatia, we just used the collection that Total Boox already has, and that it already makes available for reading. It did not affect publishers. I don’t know if I’m making sense? I hope I am.

Len: Yes.

Mirela: So that’s really all we did. We used the same, exact existing app. But we gave it a new name, it was called Croatia Reads, and it looked exactly the same as the Total Boox app. The only difference was that there was no one keeping track of your balance. Inside Croatia, there was no balance for the individual user.

Len: That’s very interesting - how was the app aware of where the user was?

Mirela: There’s several ways to do it. There’s the easier way and the more expensive, more evolved way, which is through GPS, which is something I’m working on right now. The simplest way to do it, is to limit the app to a certain area or country - in this case, Croatia - in the App Store.

If you make the app only available in the App Store for certain countries, as well as in Google Play, it will only be available inside that country. But that makes it a little bit more challenging for tourists. Because in that case, if a tourist arrives from the US, he still has the US App Store in his app. So in that case, it’s - and GPS is a better option - but Free Reading Zones can work several ways. It can be via IP address, GPS coordinates, or simply by limiting the app to a certain country inside the app store.

Len: Thanks for that, that’s a very clear explanation. I think I’m getting a much richer understanding of what you’re up to. I wanted to go back to libraries again.

Mirela: Okay.

Len: You said some things in your blog post that I found created an original pattern, and all the reading I’ve done around ebooks and print books and libraries and things like that - and so, I’m going to quote you a little bit. This goes back also to your wonderful point about actually doing experiments, and how this Free Reading Zone in Croatia was a big experiment to see how people would respond.

And you say, quote, “Readers do not care to get ebooks through libraries. Like other digital content, they simply want to access ebooks freely and without a cumbersome process.” - end quote. You also talk about how there is no clerk keeping track of what they were borrowing or buying.

And one of the reasons I found these observations so - these results so fascinating, is that it gets at the heart of a kind of contradiction in the print/ebook discourse that I’ve seen, where, on the one hand, people will be critical of, say, big companies like Apple, or like Amazon, for gathering data on us, in order to let us know recommendations better than they would otherwise for the next book to read.

But the very same person will then argue, on the other hand, the main value of something like an independent book store, is that the staff know you personally - and know you so well that they know better than you, what you want to read. And what you’re getting at, is just, it comes from a totally different direction, which is people just want a friction-less experience.

They don’t want a clerk getting in the way. As you were saying before, the internet has figured out pretty good ways of - if you know what you’re looking for, separating from your perspective wheat from chaff. I mean, if you do know what you’re doing. And that people just really desperately want to read, and if you just get out of the way, they’ll do it.

Mirela: Right. Get out of the way. I wrote about that this morning in my post, in which I write about what books want. That one, which you’re quoting was the article about what readers want. There’s something really, really delicate about this, and that’s what I was trying to get at.

The beauty of, the wonderful thing about the word, “free,” is it’s got two meanings. Free as in free to read, no charge, no pay. But the other one, which is more important for this project - which was the freedom of reading, and the complete, no restrictions. The way you read when you are inside a virtual library, affords you the kind of privacy that - people say that everything in digital is not private. Because if it’s digital, if it’s in a virtual environment - somebody is always keeping track.

Well in this case, we keep track to pay the publishers, but it’s in aggregate. No personal information is ever revealed, and it’s not kept track of.

But what’s really special about this - there are so many books out there that people simply cannot get through libraries or book stores. In a place like Croatia, I have never in this very conservative Catholic country seen various types of books in book stores.

For example, gay fiction - we had a collection of 3,000 titles from Riptide - Riptide Publishing. And the other publisher of gay fiction - I’m forgetting the name now - those types of books are not available in bookstores. They simply are not. They’re not even available in libraries. People may, even if they were - may not be as comfortable buying them or checking them out. Or books about domestic violence. Or any kind of sensitive topic, that for whatever reason, a person wants to keep to themselves in private.

The wonderful thing about reading in a virtual environment, is that nobody stands in the way between you and the book. And I’m a big, big proponent of that. This idea that everybody gets out of the way.

And coming from a former book review editor - we need to get out of the way too. Our job is to produce, create and make available. Once we do our jobs as publishers and librarians, we all need to get out of the way. I really believe that we overthink vetting and filtering. We overthink recommendations.

One of the big, one of the most important feedbacks we received was how much people enjoyed browsing. You cannot browse like that in a physical environment. You simply cannot. And this isn’t - I don’t like to - I’ve always, since day one, believed that one format did not compete with the other, and I still believe that. I just like to focus on the strengths of those formats - print and digital.

And these are the strength of the digital format. That wonderful privacy that it gives you to explore. The way you cannot explore in a bookstore or a physical library. And going in and out of books, and reading parts of books and creating your own shelves. This was the wonderful feature of the app that allows you to build your own shelves, and then share them with others if you choose.

That exploration part, browsing - I think that all reading matters. I don’t believe that you have to read everything cover to cover. I think that we learn, even when we read in fragments - I think it all matters.

The perfect library of the future is that virtual - that river of knowledge that flows any way it wants to. And books have a way of finding readers on their own.

And so it’s a wonderful process, and I think that we don’t explore - we don’t allow for it enough. There are so many people in the middle, so many middlemen. So many. And with Croatia Reads, there was none of that. There is nothing waiting for you there, but this wonderful library. And all you have to do is download and read.

You can read and look at other people’s shelves and recommendations, but inside the library there’s none of that. People later said, “Why don’t you have the social media component, where people can discuss books?” And I said to someone, “Well I kind of like that this older app did not. Because it really was just a library.”

We live in a world where everybody’s a critic, everybody has something to say. It’s overwhelming. So there’s something really wonderful about a digital library, without the comments section. There’s the book, and there’s the shelf. And you get to go in and out of books, and that’s pretty much it. You’re on your own. It’s very quiet in there.

Len: Speaking again of being on your own, I wanted to go back - before we move onto discussing the future perfect library, which I’m very interested in hearing about - the point you made about locality. This is a concept that - and privacy - this is a concept that people often, I think, romanticize. “I should read local authors, and I should read the limited selection of books that my local bookseller chooses to make available to me.”

And I think - again - people who perhaps grew up totally in sync with their environment or, alternatively, with a sense of total abundance, and no sense of lack - are often very insensitive to what it’s like to have needs like the ones you described. Say, for a book on domestic violence, in a place where you might want to keep that private - or where those books aren’t even available in the first place in that locality. Restricting one’s self to one’s locale can actually be a kind of prison, rather than a warm and fuzzy activity.

Mirela: Right, right. Yes, I have nothing to add to that.

Len: Yeah, sorry.

Mirela: You just said it nicely, very nicely. I have all these different ways of saying it too, not just negative and sad things. Like a woman walking into a library kind of wanting to help herself. Or being in a difficult situation. But also like, the lighter - the lighter more enjoyable metaphors like - I have two PhD’s, and I’m on vacation, and I just want to read a trashy romance novel. Just wanted to sink my teeth into it.

Just allowing people to have the widest array. Because I think one of the wonderful things about the - what we can do with monitoring reading and having the data that shows, in aggregate again - very important - not what people read, but also how people read. People have the widest interests.

Would you believe me if I told you that the most popular books are not the most read? [Here are two articles on this interesting topic: If You Sell the Book, Will They Read It? & People are Not Reading the e-Books they Buy Anymore- eds.]. That the books that are the most well known in the Total Boox collection are often the most downloaded, but they are not the most read. People often download books impulsively, because they want to be part of a cultural phenomenon. This is all part of that PR machine that the publishing industry drives all over the world.

Len: I see.

Mirela: So I will frantically download, 50 Shades of Grey, because I want to read it, because I somehow have to - because if I don’t, I’m not part of this, I will not be able to keep up with the cultural dialogue. Even though really, it doesn’t interest me that much. So when I’m in that virtual environment, this is why that incremental revenue makes so much sense. Because people read all kinds of things.

They stop, they read, they start. They start reading a book, they stop. Bestselling has never meant most read. It’s just that we never took interest in that. The publishing industry has never really been interested - are people actually reading what they’re buying? And very often, they don’t. But in a virtual environment, you can take a book that’s 20 years old and discover it for the first time. And to you, that is a brand new book.

I read The Power of Now three years ago. I was at a point in my life when it started to matter to me. When it came out, I think it came out in 1996, I was still in college. I had no use for that book at that time, and at that age. So to me, The Power of Now, 20 years later was a discovery, a revelation.

This is, again, another drawback of print books. They are not available to us at the point of need. And that need comes to us at different points in our lives. So there’s that too, there’s that element of - what is new? What is old? One of the most challenging things about the publishing industry is - how did it get so impatient with books? We publish so much stuff, books age quickly - so quickly, why?

Why do they age so fast? If you don’t get it within - publishers move onto the next catalog the minute that catalog comes out. And five, six years later, those books that are not available in bookstores - and very few are bought by libraries - obviously, are nowhere to be found. I mean you can order them online, but they rarely make money off of those books. At a certain point they stop making revenue.

When you make them, when you reopen them for discovery - people will not buy a book just because it’s available on Amazon. But if you open it up to them for discovery, like is the case with Total Boox - then you allow for that reading to take place. So that’s extremely beneficial for publishers. It’s beneficial for everybody. Readers benefit because it’s right there when they want it. And publishers always have a chance to earn, based on what people read.

And I really like that balance, I think it’s important, because I think books should not age that quickly. It’s always bothered me, how quickly publishers move on to the next list. It’s very, very difficult, even for librarians. And this is what I often tell them. “You cannot keep up anymore. You shouldn’t even have to. It’s really difficult, there’s got to be a better way.”

I think the future - for libraries, certainly - does not involve creating collections and hoarding books in print format, simply because the volume is impossible to keep up with. Even the best -

Len: Speaking of a certain type of hoarding - one topic that really interests me, partly because I know so little about it really - is the concept of territorial rights, which can often be a way - just on a general theme of open access - can often be a way of restricting access to things from one part of the world, where it might be available in another.

Currently a very prominent example of that in the film world, and television world, is Netflix, which has basically said it thinks there should be no territorial rights, and there should just be one territory - which is planet earth. And that there should be no negotiating of cantonized rights, and that this is basically a rent-seeking legacy from the past. I was wondering what you might have to say about this issue.

Mirela: I couldn’t agree with it more. I think that this is something that we deal with in publishing - we deal with this issue in publishing still. There are books, there were books from that collection of 100,000 books that people could not read in Croatia, simply because the rights were not there for this particular country.

The vast majority of books, I think - as we move toward the future - do grant, the digital rights are automatically world rights. So eventually it’ll phase out. It has to. It’s really difficult. It’s just illogical. It makes no sense. Digital content cannot function otherwise. It’s restricting it in ways that makes it impossible for it to flow. And we also live in a world where people travel all the time. All the time.

The minute I set foot outside of the US, half of my apps don’t work anymore. It’s annoying, and I’m a frequent traveler. And I live on two continents. Pandora - when I’m in the US, it’s I listen to Pandora. Once I get out, the rights are not there anymore. That’s what you get when you click on Pandora. It tells you, “Sorry, rights are not available to this country.”

So Netflix, interestingly enough, is available here. And I enjoy it every day. But not the same Netflix. So even they are dealing with these rights issues, and not all movies are available in every country and every time. But that is the future - that’s that river that I - I love the metaphor of river, the flowing river of content. That’s the river of the future.

It’s like - to me, books are in many ways not different than websites. They’re containers that house content of some kind. And the same way we can go on a website, and read the content there, we should be able to eventually consume all content that way, including books in digital format.

I have to say - to give credit where credit is due, it’s getting better. It’s getting much better than it used to be. It’s not as big of an issue as it used to be. I think it was a much bigger problem 10, 15 years [ago]. As new books are released, digital rights are handled in such a way that they’re pretty much automatically worldwide.

Len: Well that’s really great news.

Mirela: Well, that’s been my experience. I do want to say that I don’t - we still haven’t worked with the Big Five. It may be more complicated with some of their books. And the only reason we don’t have the Big Five content, that we haven’t used it in Croatia, is because the Big Five - some publishers, they simply are not ready for this experiment. They are very much adhering to the traditional one copy, one user model. And I would love nothing more than for them to open their doors to us. That has not been something I’ve been able to conquer yet. But I will keep trying.

Len: Speaking of an even better future and this river - I was wondering if you could talk, just for a few minutes about what, your current vision. I mean of course, there will still be experiments to do, but what is your vision of a global open virtual library. How would it work? Would it have a sort of single, central administration or - ?

Mirela: I have visions of it. Somebody asked me in an interview, “What is the ultimate Free Reading Zone?” That was the question. I remember that was the question. And I answered, “Oh, the world is the ultimate Free Reading Zone.” So not a particular country.

But I do think for many, many reasons - we have ways to go to get there. It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s probably not going to happen in my lifetime.

It’s possible. It’s possible that it’ll happen sooner than we think. Is the technology already there? Absolutely. Can we make every book available to everyone on the planet right now? Absolutely. But there’s a lot at stake. There are a lot of - there’s an army of people who work in this industry, and families that need to be fed and supported. And business models to be protected. Institutions to be protected.

So the way to move forward, I think, toward that ultimate goal, is to - this is why I believe in free reading, this concept of zones, is because they are more manageable, financially speaking. They’re more manageable. So when you take a country like Croatia, you could get a lot of government entities involved to pay for its citizens to read. To take the money that they set aside for literacy and education and cultural budgets, to support what matters to them.

So when it’s community driven, it’s a lot easier to manage financially. Now, turning the United States of America into a free reading zone would be - it would be a huge endeavor, involving millions and millions and millions of dollars. So it’s not likely - it’s not going to happen. Croatia - again - is a small country. So it made a lot of sense. Many cities around the world have more people than the entire country of Croatia. But a lot of cities out there could be zones.

I think the way to get there is for libraries right now to rethink their presence. I like to say to librarians, there is tremendous power in being invisible. So this idea that if you are in the right zip code, you get to use the right library, should stay in the past. And I want to see libraries show more courage there, and more support for areas beyond the areas that they serve.

I mean it’s complex, we know it’s all tied to taxpayers’ money, etc. etc. But still I think we can aim higher. This is books, this is not Prada purses. This isn’t fashion we’re talking about. This is knowledge. This is the sharing of knowledge.

If MIT can educate millions of people for free by exposing its digital content online, without it hurting the whole physical experience on campus - I don’t know if you’re familiar, I hope you are, with MIT’s open courses online. Open to people all over the world.

Len: Yes, I’m familiar with that.

Mirela: Right. So there’s no reason that libraries cannot do something similar with books. Is this the only way to do it? Probably not. This is the way I’ve done it. This is my first attempt to try something beyond. It’s a bit of a scary phrase, but I’m starting to use it more. I notice when I speak about it. Detaching knowledge from institutions. That’s what this is about.

Detaching it not in a negative way, but in a way that it just gives it the wings to fly to wherever it needs to go. That’s what the future is about. That’s the next step for libraries. Libraries spend a lot of time - a lot of time, and this is universal, it’s not just in North America - defending the physical entity, the physical institution. This idea that you come to the building, you go where the knowledge is, is very old school to me. So the mentality there needs to be reversed a little bit, so that it becomes exciting that the knowledge goes out there. Not the other way around.

And this is my challenge. This is something that I write about. Sometimes more successfully, sometimes not so successfully. But I try to capture that. I try to capture this idea that knowledge does not want to belong. It really doesn’t. It’s the opposite from what libraries think, because it had to be guarded in printed format. But digitally, it requires a completely different way of thinking and going about it. So I challenge libraries that way. I challenge them to not be the guardians of knowledge in digital format. But to set it free.

Len: Well on that note - well no, please finish.

Mirela: That’s basically the gist of this project. This was basically at the core of it. This is what drove me to it. And I just want to say that - I said earlier, I don’t even know how it happened. And I really believe that these types of mission-driven projects have a way of finding you.

I felt at one point that this dream of free reading found me. I wasn’t going after it, I wasn’t chasing it. I didn’t have a vision in my head that it was my job or my mission to turn places into Free Reading Zones. It kind of falls into place, and it becomes a calling, and you feel that you are privileged enough and knowledgeable enough.

Because you’ve lived enough, and you’ve worked enough in that particular industry, that you can see beyond what’s there. That’s what’s required - going beyond what seems obvious. And that is the ultimate goal. That is, detaching knowledge, and knowledge flowing outward. And librarians actually holding the key, being the key to freeing that knowledge.

Len: Well thanks very much. On that note I think our time might be about up, and it’s time for me to let you be free.

Thank you very much for sharing your passion and your story with us. And I wanted to say, once again, congratulations on your success in Croatia, and I wish you all the best in what you do in the future.

Mirela: Thank you very much. Hopefully this is the beginning, and we’ll turn many other places into free reading zones very soon.

Len: Thank you.

Mirela: Thank you.


Leanpub Podcast Interview #47: Mike Driscoll

by Len Epp

published Mar 09, 2017

Mike Driscoll

Mike is the author of three Leanpub books, Python 101, Python 201, and wxPython Cookbook. In this interview, Leanpub co-founder Len Epp talks with Mike about his career, his books, and his experience self-publishing on Leanpub.

This interview was recorded on October 25, 2016.

The full audio for the interview is here. You can subscribe to this podcast in iTunes or add the following podcast URL directly: http://leanpub.com/podcast.xml.

This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.

Mike Driscoll

Len: Hi, I’m Len Epp from Leanpub. And in this Leanpub podcast, I’ll be interviewing Mike Driscoll. Mike is a computer programmer, who writes the popular blog, “The Mouse Versus the Python,” at blog.pythonlibrary.org. He has been programming in Python since 2006, and has been a technical reviewer for Packt Pack Publishing since 2009. He also blogs occasionally for the Python Software Foundation.

Python 101 by Mike Driscoll

Python 201: Intermediate Python by Mike Driscoll

wxPython Cookbook by Mike Driscoll

Mike is the author of three books available for sale on Leanpub, Python 101,” Python 201, and wxPython Cookbook. *Python 101 was written mostly for beginners learning how to program in Python 3. Python 201 is the sequel to Python 101, and is meant primarily for intermediate level Python programmers. And wxPython Cookbook is full of great tips and tricks for using the wxPython toolkit.

In this interview, we’re going to talk about Mike’s professional interests, his books, and his experience in self-publishing, which is really interesting. So, thank you, Mike, for being on the Leanpub podcast.

Mike: Thank you very much Len.

Len: I usually like to start these interviews by asking people for their origin story, so I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind telling us about your path to becoming a programmer, and the kind of work that you’ve done since?

Mike: Sure thing. When I was in high school, I decided that I really wanted to get into computer graphics. And then I realized that I wasn’t that great at drawing. So I decided that instead I’d look into computer programming. And the first two years are really rough. I took computer science in a community college, and didn’t really get it. And then in my third year, everything just started to click. And I was like, “I can do this, this is going to rock.”

And then the dot com busted, and I couldn’t find any work. So I started doing website work for an auction company, and eventually got hired by local government to work in Python. Basically I learned Python on trial by fire. They said, “Figure it out, or get fired, basically.” And I learned it and excelled at it, and that’s been my career ever since, is doing Python.

Now, while I did do the Python, I started realizing that to help me cement it into my brain, I could start writing about it. So I was using blog software - it was kind of a brain dump at first, to help me remember this is how I did something in the past - and I don’t want to forget that later on. Which frequently happens if you don’t use a library for a while.

So that’s why the blog started, and eventually my readers got to be so many and so numerous, and they just all wanted to know, “Hey, can you start turning these into books?” And that’s kind of how the book writing got born.

Len: One thing I like to ask programmers in interviews is, if you were starting out today, would you get into it the same way that you did? For example, would you go to college and study computer science now? Or would you start another way?

Mike: Well there’s definitely pros and cons to each path. I think you have a much more structured way of getting into programming if you go the college route, because you’ll get the algorithms and the math that you need, most likely. On the other hand, if you take the path of running the programming language itself, I think you’ll better understand the language fairly quickly, because you’re learning it while you’re using it.

Most of the time in the classes that I took, you had a semester to work on, really, rather lame programs or projects that really didn’t teach you a whole lot. It just taught you the concepts and the syntax, but not how to actually use the language. So, like I said - there’s pros and cons.

You definitely need the algorithms, if you’re going to get into like, [an] engineering degree. You need the math for that too. But if you want to learn a language - a lot of the time, I think just diving in and starting a couple projects to figure out the language, is probably quicker at picking up the language.

Len: And was there something that happened in your learning, in that third year, something specific that happened that helped you to turn the corner? Or was it just a gradual build of knowledge and experience?

Mike: I believe I was taking a C++ class, and something about the way that the instructor taught it just clicked with me. And I think the previous two years, all those concepts and knowledge that I was learning - everything just kind of melded together. And I became, “Oh, this is how it all works.” And I started understanding all those abstract concepts, and how to apply them.

Len: I was curious how your blog became so popular. Was it organic growth, it just started happening? Or were you promoting it various places?

Mike: Originally I believe it was just organic. I ended up joining a place called Planet Python, which is an aggregate for Python blogs. People would occasionally tweet my articles, and post on Reddit. But for the most part, I didn’t really advertise that much. And then eventually I started adding - I think it’s called TweetFeed, which is actually going out of business, unfortunately, this year. They would automatically tweet my articles for me, so I didn’t have to always remember to do that. But other than that, and a couple of postings to Hacker News, I don’t do a whole lot of advertising myself.

Len: That’s really interesting to know. You write in Python 101, near the beginning, about how learning the basics isn’t enough. And in your book description you talk about how you switch perhaps more quickly into intermediate-level content, than most beginner books might. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that? About why learning the basics isn’t enough?

Mike: Sure. I’ve read a lot of Python books and a lot of programming books. But I’ve noticed in a lot of these beginner books - you learn the syntax, and then not how to apply it. So when I wrote my own book, I wanted to get past just the basics. I wanted to get into the stuff that’s actually kind of interesting. Interesting to me, and hopefully interesting to my readers.

The other thing that I noticed that was missing from a lot of these beginner books, is that they don’t tell you how to write a program, and then distribute it. So if I wanted to write a module and distribute it to the rest of the Python community, most books don’t tell you how to do that. Or I want to create a program, and turn it into an executable or an installer for Windows, for example. Most books don’t tell you how to do that either.

So I decided, I’m going to fill that gap, and show how to get into Python quickly. Show them what kind of libraries there are already in the standard libraries - you don’t have to install anything. And then show you how easy it is to install stuff, create your own modules, how to distribute them - and then create your own executable at the very end.

Len: I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind talking a little bit about what the wxPython Toolkit is, and your involvement with that?

Mike: Yeah, so the wxPython Toolkit is a cross platform user interface. It’s a wrapper around wxWidgets, which is a C++ library, kind of like the Qt toolkit. The nice thing about wxPython, is that it typically will take the native widgets on whatever OS it’s written on, and actually use those widgets, instead of drawing a facsimile like Qt does. So what you end up doing, is you actually have the very native widget on each platform, and it looks correct. And there isn’t any kind of weird or wonky-ness you’ll sometimes see in like TkInter or Qt.

I got involved in it, because I was actually converting some VBA code - that was on top of Excel and Access into wxPython. And so I learned how to do that. Then, I worked in the community a lot, and they helped me figure out how to use the toolkit. And then I just gave back, by helping out other new people who wanted to use it as well.

Len: Helping out is a theme in the work of yours that I found online. You’ve got screencasts, for example, for your book, and videos helping people out. And your first book, Python 101, which I believe you published in 2014, had a Kickstarter campaign associated with it, and for your subsequent books. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that? What was your experience like starting a Kickstarter campaign for the first time?

Mike: It was quite interesting. I’d never done that before, but I had supported some Kickstarter campaigns in the past, and it occurred to me that doing the Kickstarter campaign would be a good way to gauge whether or not my book’s contents would interest other people. So I created a table of contents, and posted that as part of my Kickstarter, and explained all the different parts I was going to cover in each Kickstarter, and why I thought they were important.

Kind of like I just told you why I wrote the first book the way I did. People really responded to that, and by far, Python 101 brought in the most backers, and the most funding of any of my projects. I really enjoyed that process. I got to learn who my readers were, what they’re interested in, and what kinds of things they might be interested in in the future. They’re always giving me feedback through my blog or by email as well.

Len: I noticed that, like many people who publish books on Leanpub, you have a section at the beginning of your book, where you include an email address for people to contact you, and you ask them for feedback. Has that method worked for your books? Do you think it’s helped improve the content in your books?

Mike: Yes, I think so. Most of the time they don’t contact me through that method. They actually contact me through my web - through my blog.

I do get contacts through those email addresses as well. And I’ve had several bug reports mentioned. Most of the time they’re just silly typos. But occasionally there’ll be an example that I just didn’t test well enough, and I have to modify. But overall, it’s been a really good way to connect with my readers.

Len: You mention in, I think the video on Kickstarter for Python 101 and for Python 201, that you intended to do some advertising with some of the funds that you raised. And I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your experience advertising your books?

Mike: Well for, Python 101 I didn’t get to do as much advertising as I wanted. But for Python 201, I’ve done a lot of soft advertising. I’ll do promotions through my blog mostly, but also send out emails to my email list that I’ve gained over the years. And I’ve also been looking into trying to find some targeted ads, [that I could use on] Facebook or Twitter.

But my research has indicated that a lot of those methods don’t return investment very well. You have to use like less than 10%, for example. So if you had $1,000 funding, you’d want to use maybe $100 to advertise, to get any kind of return on investment using those methods. And that doesn’t get you very much advertising using that kind of quote or quotas or percentages. So I haven’t done too much that way.

But I discovered something kind of interesting last week, where I posted a promotion, where I give away my second book for free for 48 hours. And that brought in a lot of new readers.

Len: I was watching that happen. You got something like 16,000 readers in just a couple of days. It was really great to see. I wanted to ask you specifically about that. Was there a famous person who tweeted about it? Or was there something special that happened that you noticed?

Mike: I don’t believe there’s any famous people. In fact, when I originally did this, I was just going to post it on Reddit - and there’s a Python subreddit on there. So that’s where I posted it. And I think that’s where the majority of the people came from, from what little analytics I can gather through my previous publishing websites. But it just kind of organically grew from there. And then I decided to also promote it on my blog. And I do get a lot of people going through my blog. So I think the two combinations brought in a lot of readers.

Len: You also actually have print versions of your books available, or at least of your first two books. I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind telling people how you went about making those print books? I believe they are for sale on Lulu and Amazon.

Mike: Yes that’s correct. When I wrote Python 101, I was using something other than Leanpub to create them. I had a home brewed script written in Python, that would actually generate the books into PDFs and MOBI and EPUB versions.

Well eventually, I needed to figure out a way to put the PDF up on Lulu to generate the book. And so I’d have to create versions of the book that didn’t have the cover, and sometimes other information, because Lulu doesn’t want the cover part as part of the PDF. You have to upload it separately. So I just stepped through that process with whatever book I was using. And occasionally, you had to generate the book and cut off the front, and get Lulu to process it. And then add it on on the back end.

Overall, I think it’s gone pretty well. They have a global reach program, which allows you to publish through Amazon and Barnes & Noble and a bunch of other websites, as well as internationally. And they have really stringent rules. So if you don’t put in the ISBN on the right page, they won’t accept it. There’s lots of little gotchas that I didn’t know were even there, that I’ve had to cross, and make sure that I always add it on if I recreate the book again. Just little things you don’t even think about.

Len: And what have your print book sales been like?

Mike: Not that great really. The print books usually sell a handful a month. I probably get maybe 10 to 50 the first month a book is released. And then two or three per month after that. So the bulk of my sales are obviously electronic. People want the digital versions or the Kindle versions, on Amazon for example.

Len: You’ve both written technical books, and you review them as well, and I was wondering - I wanted to ask you what your opinion is about, if you have one, about trends that you see happening in technical book publishing, going forward. Where do you think the industry’s going to be in 10 years?

Mike: The big trend I’ve noticed lately, is that the big companies like O’Reilly and Apress are going for niche markets. They’re writing really targeted books. So, for example, O’Reilly put out a SQL alchemy book, which is just for the SQL alchemy library in Python. Packt Publishing really does this a lot. Where they have all kinds of books on scientific computing, Pandas, Django - they even have a Turbo Gears book. They just have all kinds of little sub-library books, and you don’t normally see that.

Well like 10 years ago, when I was first starting this, this journey, you couldn’t just go out and buy - I want a book on this little library that has 10,000 users, or whatever. And now you can. And that seems to be the trend. Because even O’Reilly’s doing that, and some of the other big companies are trying to do that as well.

Len: Your books are available for sale through your blog on Gumroad, on Lulu and Amazon, and also on Leanpub. I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind talking a little bit about why you decided to also publish on Leanpub?

Mike: I’ve seen other authors through Planet Python that have mentioned using Leanpub successfully. And I thought that opening up another channel of revenue would be worthwhile to try. So that was my main impetus to trying them. And so far it’s worked out pretty well. And I actually like the way that Leanpub generates the books.

I think it looks a little bit more professional than my home brewed version of generating the books. So I’m probably going to start cutting Gumroad out a little bit. Just because I think Leanpub does a better job of tracking sales, and the book quality seems to be a better than what I’ve done myself.

Len: One of the techniques that our authors have for increasing sales, is to make packages on Leanpub, so they sell their books along with their videos. And that’s a trend that I’ve seen. I think O’Reilly specifically bought a company - I think in Canada, last year or the year before - which is all about making videos. And I was wondering if there’s a reason you haven’t made a package on Leanpub with your screencasts yet? Or if that’s just something you’re not interested in doing.

Mike: Actually, I was going to do a package, but I didn’t realize I could use the videos. I didn’t think the screencasts could go with… I thought Leanpub was mainly for books. I didn’t think I could combine the videos with the books.

Len: Oh, so that’s our fault for not communicating well enough. Yeah, you can actually create packages with - you can sell the book along with digital content. So that can be code samples. It can be spreadsheets. And it can also be videos. One of our very popular data science books is sold in a package that’s doing quite well, along with some very large video files, that are really popular.

This packaging together of text content and video content seems to be one thing that’s becoming quite common in the technical publishing space.

One thing that I noticed right away that you do very well in your books, is you have fantastic covers. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you managed to get such great covers? I imagine you used some of the funds from your Kickstarter campaigns to hire graphic designers?

Mike: Yes, basically. For my Python 101 book I actually funded the cover art myself beforehand. And I actually did that for Python 201 too. But basically, I went and looked for someone who could draw a design that was based on the idea of a mouse versus a python, which is my blog title. And I took that idea, and created this idea of a classroom - Python 101 - where the mice would learn about pythons.

And the first guy I used was really great. I liked working with him, and he did a good job. But then he ran through some bad - basically a bad year, and couldn’t do anymore work for me. So I actually ended up having to find some other artists for my next two books. And I think that’s actually kind of good, because it gives them kind of a fresh look, when you look at the different covers, because each book is done by a different artist.

So for, Python 201 I hired a nice Russian lady to draw the art, and she did a really good job, and got lots of compliments about that. She’s actually done work for another book of mine that’s not published yet, but I’m looking forward to announcing next year.

And then the other lady I got for wxPython Cookbook is from the Ukraine, and she also did a really good job. But as you can see, if you look at each of the covers - they’re all very different in their styles.

Len: Yeah, I’ve got them all up on my screen right now. They are very different, but they share the quality of all being excellent. Was there a specific service that you used to find them?

Mike: The first artist, I actually ended up asking my brother, because he knows a lot of artists. And he just recommended this guy. And for the other two, I went on Adobe’s website. And they run a program that you can look up artists on. I can’t remember the name of it off the top of my head. I found it, the website was called Behance, it’s an Adobe affiliate. Basically artists can go on there and show their work, and people can contact them through Behance, and find out if they’re available to do commissions.

Len: Thanks for that, that’s really useful. I’m sure a lot of the self-published authors listening will be happy to hear about a source of high-quality covers. I mean it really does make such a huge difference, I find, for sales.

My last question is - if there were one feature we could build for you, or one thing we could fix, or something we could improve, or something that we’ve missed that you would like us to do on Leanpub - what would that be?

Mike: The one feature that I’ve noticed I need for my current book is image scaling. I’m doing a lot of screenshots for the wxPython book, and doing it with restructured text, I can tell a program to rescale the image any way I want to. But there doesn’t seem to be a way currently with Leanpub, to actually scale it programmatically. So I have to find a different way to do it. And the ways that I’ve tried so far, haven’t worked very well, so….

Len: Okay, thanks for that. I’ll communicate that to the team. Images is an area where we know that there’s more work we can do to improve things, and that’ll be really good feedback.

Thanks very much Mike, for doing this interview. And for also using Leanpub to publish your books. We really appreciate it.

Mike: Well thank you for creating such a wonderful service, and for having me.

Len: Thanks.


Leanpub Podcast Interview #46: Alex Lancaster

by Len Epp

published Feb 21, 2017

Alex Lancaster

Alex Lancaster is co-author of the Leanpub book Python For The Life Sciences: A gentle introduction to Python for life scientists (you can also learn more about the book here). In this interview, Leanpub co-founder Len Epp talks with Alex about his career, his books, and his experience self-publishing on Leanpub.

This interview was recorded on November 7, 2016.

The full audio for the interview is here. You can subscribe to this podcast in iTunes or add the following podcast URL directly: http://leanpub.com/podcast.xml.

This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.

Alex Lancaster

Len: Hi, this Len Epp from Leanpub, and in this Leanpub podcast, I’ll be interviewing Alex Lancaster.

Alex is an evolutionary biologist, engineer, writer and consultant based in Boston. He completed his doctorate in Computational and Genomic Biology at Berkeley, and has worked in R&D in the broadcasting and IT industries in the US and Australia. And he’s also helped research in faculty positions in academia, including a research position at the Whitehead Institute at MIT, and a faculty position at Harvard Medical School.

You can read his blog at biosysanalytics.com, and follow him on Twitter @biosysanalytics.

Python For The Life Sciences: A gentle introduction to Python for life scientists

Along with his colleague Gordon Webster, Alex is co-author of the Leanpub book, Python For The Life Sciences: A gentle introduction to Python for life scientists. The book serves as an excellent introduction to computer programming for biologists, including those who have never written a line of code.

Along with the book, you also get copies of code samples that you can learn from and adapt to your own specific research.

In this interview, we’re going to talk about Alex’s professional interests, his book and his experience self-publishing through Leanpub.

So, thank you Alex for being on the Leanpub podcast.

Alex: Thanks Len, happy to be here.

Len: I usually like to start these interviews by asking people for their origin story. I know from your bio that you studied both physics and electrical engineering before you got into evolutionary biology, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your path through all these disciplines, and how you ended up at Berkeley?

Alex: Yeah. How long have you got?

I started life thinking I would be an astrophysicist, basically. It was where I was originally when I was an undergrad. And actually I spent about a week in a radio telescope down in Canberra - a while ago now, shall we say? Another century. And I realized that that wasn’t really going to be it for me for the rest of my life. Astrophysics has changed a lot since, but there was a lot of sitting in very quiet, desolate places, pouring over data, and it sounds very glamorous on the outside - but the reality of the day-to-day just turned out that it didn’t really appeal to me.

So, trying to figure out what to do, I decided to finish my engineering degree, which I started with. But I was always interested in evolution from a very young age, I think [from] when I picked up Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker, which was written sometime in the 80s. I was just fascinated with the idea of these biomorphs, which were these little creatures that he had built evolutionarily on a Mac. It was nothing to do with real biology, but it was very - basically you could construct these creatures from this very simple genetic code. And it sort of always stayed with me.

So I always sort of followed along, thinking that if I could get training in physics, then I could move that over to biology at some point. But I didn’t want to go back to academia straightaway. So after I’d finished up my undergrad, I went and worked in the software industry for about four years.

I started as a design engineer at the ABC - which is the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in Australia, it’s like the equivalent of BBC - in their R&D section for a while. And I cut my teeth on coding. I did a little bit of hardware stuff, but I rapidly realized that software was where it was at. And the web was growing, and - those were very early days.

And so I basically sent myself around the world doing software contracts. I went to the UK for about a year in the mid-90s. I worked a little bit in the banking sector, a little bit in the telecommunications sector, building my tool bag. But I always had this idea that at some point I’d come back and do grad school.

And then, sometime in the late 90s, I decided - I stumbled across - well I actually I hadn’t knew about it before, this place called the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. I had been following what they’d been doing out there, and they are sort of really on the cutting edge of complex systems and biology and all that stuff. And I thought, “Well that’s a great place - I should somehow get myself a job there.”

So I ended up downloading, I think, a very early version of the Swarm software in the late 90s, and basically playing around with it. I ended up moonlighting - while I was working in a bank, on their website - building these models, computational neuroscience models, with some folks that I knew in Australia, that I had found in Australia. And back then it wasn’t as easy to find collaborators, so I had to go to conferences and chase down physical papers and stacks and stuff like that.

I helped build a bunch of models for those folks. And in doing that, I learnt this software package, called Swarm. And then it turned out there were a couple of job openings. So I applied, and I got it. And so I found myself in Santa Fe, New Mexico in ‘97, not knowing a soul, wondering quite why I’d gone there. And I was part time in a PhD program at UNM, University of Mexico in Albuquerque.

And I was doing that for a while, trying to do it part time. But I was really having a lot more fun at the job, working at the Institute. So they hired me as one of their software developers, and I was sort of able to work with a lot of researchers. That solidified my interest in biology, basically, in moving back towards the evolution side of things.

I ended up postponing my program, and then I reapplied, ended up going to Berkeley, and studying population genetics and theoretical models of biology for grad school. But all the way along, I was interested keeping up my software skill. So I always had a foot on the computational side, and a foot in the biology.

Then I ended up doing the standard academic track, of doing a postdoc. I did a couple of postdocs, and then I was faculty at medical school briefly for a couple of years. And I just decided that the way - well, a lot of things have happened since I’ve moved here, but one of the things that have happened in academia, as you may know - it’s become a very tough environment to do more “out there” research.

And in the way that I see academia going for probably a while now - it’s really accelerated in the years since the crash, I think. So I decided that it would be more interesting to try my hand at some kind of hybrid career. And at some point, Gordon and I met, and we kicked around this idea of creating this company. And we really got going about a year ago. And that’s what bought us to Amber Biology.

That’s probably an overly long-winded answer to a shorter question. But that takes us right up to the present. I’m happy to go back into any of the eddies that you found interesting there. That’s how I got here.

Len: That’s a really great answer, thanks very much for that. I’ve had a bit of a - in conventional terms, I suppose - meandering career myself. So it’s really interesting to hear from someone who follows their curiosity, where it takes them. Which is, it sounds like, what’s motivated you.

Alex: Pretty much, pretty much. I’ve never been one for really mapped out career plans. And in a funny kind of way, I think the way things are moving now, that notion of the career plan is becoming somehow less relevant. But that’s something we can definitely talk about if you want.

Len: I have a doctorate myself, in English, not in biology, but I could talk about academia and things that have been happening there forever -

Alex: I’d love to hear your experience in that too.

Len: But actually I was wondering - when it comes to academia and the sciences, this is a topic that one sees in the news recently, about the difficulty that young scientists have getting tenure, and the importance that’s placed on getting published, regardless of necessarily the relevance of the publication. Is this something that you’ve had direct experience with?

Alex: Yeah. I would say that it’s more than just the people getting tenures. People getting the tenure track positions in the first place. The bottleneck is I think even greater there. And you have a lot of very highly trained, highly motivated people who are competing for a very, very limited number of slots.

The slots are certainly not increasing, and if anything, they’re probably decreasing, because universities are oftentimes cutting their budget, and they’re often looking to supplement the people that they do bring on.

It’s one of these things, it could be overstated, but I certainly think that at the level of the higher administrations, there is definitely a push towards finding sort of faculty and research areas that are sort of highly fundable, because a lot of the costs of running a university have been sort of shifted toward federal grant money, especially in United States, and so that puts a lot of pressure on those administrators. And that gets translated down into in the department. And I think now in the department levels it’s probably - the picture’s a bit more mixed, because I think that most people there really want to hire people that are doing interesting things. And I think that, in general, most people want to do the right thing, and are interested in intellectual balance, and the usual things that academia’s known for. But they find themselves under a lot of pressure.

So I think that that combination… it’s sort of a system, the pressure to publish in prestigious journals, and how they’re ranked in terms of grants, has a tendency to factor into the grant making decisions. And so that feeds back to the faculty. So there are a set of interlocking factors, you might say, that drive the system towards a setup where you want to minimize risk and maximize return.

That militates against people doing more unconventional and risky approaches. And it also militates against doing smaller scale, and actually cheaper research. Which is sort of a strange thing, because oftentimes these little side rivulets can be the things that can actually drive science forward. And you really don’t know where the next big discovery’s going to come from. So yeah, definitely the publishing part is part of a larger network of problems, but it’s definitely a big driver.

Len: It’s really fascinating to me, to watch, in North America, what I call “admin creep,” like mission creep, but happening at universities, where tuition costs are rising and rising. The cost of running a university is increasing. And yet there’s this budgetary pressure on professors and scientists, and people doing research. And so costs are going up, and yet there’s this squeeze. And it’s -

Alex: No, absolutely. And in fact, we were pretty much talking about this for almost a full day on Saturday at the Ronin Institute’s first Unconference. I don’t know if you might have seen that on my blog?

Len: Oh no, I didn’t see it, but I know what an Unconference is. Actually if you could describe that, that would be good, I think.

Alex: So the Unconference - I’d actually never done one myself before, but it was pretty cool. The idea is that the topics and the areas that get discussed, and the talks are effectively self-organized by the participants. And the way that they did it on Saturday, I was loosely involved in organizing it.

There were three seed speakers at the beginning. They spoke for about 10 minutes each. And then that generated a list of things in people’s heads, and people would write down on a piece of paper a topic they’d like to discuss. And then you put those pieces of paper around the room. And then people walk around and identify the things they’d like to discuss.

And then we proposed topics that were similar, you kind of merge. And then out of that, we got about three distinct groups. And we have a discussion for about an hour and a half, I think, or an hour or so. Really interesting group of people. And then we break for lunch, and then it’s a repeat in the afternoon, then summarize it at the end.

It makes for a really interactive kind of format, as opposed to a traditional conference, where everybody’s like half paying attention, and on their laptops and that kind of stuff. It was perfect for the kind of thing that we were trying to do, which was to really generate a robust discussion around the future of scholarship in general. And not just in sciences, but in humanities as well - to try and think about ways that we could do things that don’t necessarily involve the traditional kind of institutions that we’re using.

So that was big, that was great, because we got - there were people, as I said, from like theology and English literature. And there were a lot of biologists represented there, because they tend to be over-represented in the Boston area. But yeah, that was really interesting.

Len: That is really interesting. Do you feel that there’s a pressure building to push people to a model of education that’s not university-based?

Alex: That’s an interesting question. That may happen. I mean, I think there’s certainly room for a lot of different paths to getting knowledge, that don’t involve going through the ivory tower. I think there’s sort of a realization - I kind of get the sense, that sort of realization that, when you get a scarcity of positions, or a scarcity of - what’s the right word I’m trying to think of?

Basically a scarcity of educational good, shall we say? Everyone’s so focused on getting into sort of colleges, so they can get top jobs, and so on. And I think what happens is that people attach a sort of monetary value to that - to that luxury good. And then oftentimes, that becomes the goal rather than the education.

I always assumed for many years that that was a byproduct - that should just be a byproduct of getting education. But I do think there’s a lot of pressure to getting, sort of, credentialism, I call it. I don’t want to be the pot calling the kettle black, beause I played that game too. But I realized the limitations of that sort of thinking. And so I do think there’s a realization that maybe having everyone go to college in the standard way won’t necessarily work for everybody and may not be desirable in all cases.

Especially with the student loan thing. I feel like that’s the next bubble, that’s the next scary bubble that people haven’t really confronted - is the student loan crisis in the United States. Because if everybody’s told they have to get this kind of education, but then they go through life saddled with all this debt, that they always feel they need to get the kind of job that can support that debt. Then that cuts down on career options that people can pursue.

Len: Yeah, and very crucially, one of the interesting aspects of student loan debt in the States, which is over a trillion dollars, and greater than credit card debt, is that you can’t -

Alex: Can’t go bankrupt.

Len: You can’t go bankrupt. It’s incredible. I was listening to a podcast interview by Ezra Klein, with Joseph Stiglitz recently - the Nobel Prize winning Economist. And he was saying two of the most consequential decisions that the United States made in the last 20 or so years, is - one was that if a company went bankrupt, rather than the people working for it - having the primary claim upon the assets, it was people who held derivatives in the company.

And the second one was that if you go bankrupt as a student, you can’t clear your debts. And this can happen. It can happen where, if there’s a student debt that’s associated with a parent, the child can actually die before completing the degree. And if the parents go bankrupt, they can’t clear the debt. It’s very perverse. And when you add into that the importance that’s placed on the rank of the university that you’ve attended, and when you think about the pressures that are on someone who’s 17 or 18 - You know if you don’t get into one of these universities at this age, you can still get ahead in life, but you feel like you’re behind. And you will be, in a sense - in the conversation, behind, your whole life - you really will be, if you don’t get on that track, if you don’t go to Berkeley, or Harvard or something like that. And the pressures are extremely intense.

One of the topics that comes up on this podcast, just because of the type of people that often publish Leanpub books, is, if you want to become a computer programmer or software engineer, developer - should you go to university in 2016?

I was wondering what your opinion is about that very specific question - if your goal is not to get an education, not to become an educated person, but to be a developer and work, do you think that people in the States, should get university degrees in computer science?

Alex: It’s a good question. My sense is - not, if that’s just the one thing you want to do. Like if you know that’s the one thing you want to do, and that you can educate yourself in the areas, in other ways, then I’d say that probably - at least it shouldn’t be a necessity. I mean I do think that it’s kind of silly to force people into…. the more general answer to that is we’ve still got a kind of one-size-fits-all system, that doesn’t really take into account the nature of people’s individual, quirky career paths. There’s an expectation that there’s a set of norms that you follow. And if you’re off those norms, then you’re probably a little bit weird, and you’re probably some kind of person who’s failed.

Which is kind of weird. Because at the same time we laud all the college dropouts - like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, for starting all those things. But at the same time, they’re kind of the exception that proves the rule a little bit. I feel like, in general, I would say also - growing up in Australia, I never felt that same pressure in the same way. Partly because the culture is different. Now things have changed a lot in the 20 or 25 years since I was an undergrad. But there was never a feeling that -

There were always options, if you really wanted to do those super-professional things. But there was a sense that you could get ahead if you didn’t finish school or you didn’t go to grad school. Maybe you went to college, but you didn’t really necessarily want to build a career in whatever thing that you studied. But it was a period of your life, and it didn’t define you in the same way that I feel that it defines people here. Or at least it feels like they’re defined by that experience.

That’s a part of a cultural difference. And also the fact that we do have student loans, but they work totally differently. That’s, again, a long winded answer. But yeah, I would like to see a world in which we didn’t push people into career paths which they either don’t want, or aren’t really a necessity. Just a general openness to like people finding a different way to whatever their passion is.

Because I feel like - ultimately - that’s the thing that matters. And that’s the thing that’s going to make people productive members of society. It’s not to say you have to do it this way. But, figure out ways to support what they do - rather than sort of pre-defining it for them, and map it out. Because things are changing so fast anyway, that I feel like almost any career advice these days is going to be like five years out of date.

Len: And where did you grow up in Australia?

Alex: I grew up in Sydney, in the suburbs of Sydney. I was there until like the mid/late 90’s. And I went to the UK and I came back. I bounced around before I come to the United States.

Len: You did the walkabout.

Alex: I did the walkabout, yes. And we’re sort of known for that - we tend to like go overseas and then come back.

Len: When I was living in London, I always had an Australian roommate. Which meant I always had at least three Australian roommates, because people would always be visiting. Including parents on the couch for two weeks - that kind of thing.

Len: But I saw - who was it? Paul Rudd. Not Paul Rudd. [Note: This might be Len’s funniest gaffe ever - eds.]

Alex: Kevin Rudd.

Len: Kevin Rudd.

Alex: Yes.

Len: I worked for Macquarie Bank for a couple of years in London.

Alex: Oh really? I worked for Macquarie Bank for about six months.

Len: No kidding.

Alex: Yes.

Len: At 1 Ropemaker Street?

Alex: One right at the stock exchange there in Sydney.

Len: Oh, in Sydney.

Alex: Yeah Sydney, yeah not–

Len: Oh pardon me, I worked for them in London. But I had my training in Sydney. Yeah, that’s funny.

Alex: I worked on their first website ever.

Len: Oh really?

Alex: Yes, I was on the team that helped build the first Macquarie Bank website. It was about ‘96 I think?

Len: That’s fantastic.

Alex: Running Perl objects and stuff like that. Yeah, it was an interesting learning experience too. I realized that banks weren’t really my future at that point.

Len: Yeah, I realized that after two and a half years. It took me a bit longer. But it was an exciting experience. Especially working for an Australian bank, trying to make its way in London. It was quite curious.

Alex: Which side of the banking pot were you on?

Len: Investment banking. I was doing mergers and acquisitions. It was pretty interesting. In fact, actually quite a few of my colleagues - one of the curious and great things about working for Macquarie, was that people weren’t - there were fewer business school graduates than you might get at other investment banks.

Alex: Oh that’s interesting.

Len: People were - for example - one of my colleagues, who was brilliant, had done maths and had gone to London on a holiday. And the job he got was being an investment banker for Macquarie Bank, or Macquarie Group, as it came to be known.

Len: I remember the word “holiday” played a role in his passwords and stuff like that. But there were a lot of people - a chemist from Perth and people from all over, from all kinds of different backgrounds. This was in the mid-2000’s, and it was a really interesting, interesting time. I’m sure things have developed a lot since then.

I wanted to ask you about Swarm - it was one of the first open source agent-based modeling tools. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit, for people who might not know what those are, what that is, and why Swarm was important?

Alex: Swarm came originally from folks, before my time, at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. And there, there were… I sometimes call it a think tank. They don’t like to use that term. It’s a small, private, non-profit research institute that’s dedicated to what they call a science of complex systems.

And that, in practice, means people building computational and mathematical models of all kinds of systems. From natural systems, like biological systems through to model the economy. And even to things like archaeology. And so you might think of it as a sort of set of language primitives that a lot of these models are built in. Sort of in the language of agents.

Where, rather than like a lot of typical mathematical models, where you sort of have an equation that describes the aggregate behavior of a bunch of individuals, using say differential equations and things like that - you build models where you represent the actual individuals, as code. And the natural representation is - in computer science terms, is that of an object.

And so, there was basically a push. People basically found they were building code structures that were almost identical to each other. And then there was a realization that, “Well maybe we should have sort of a common platform that we could reuse, and then build our domain-specific stuff on top?” So you’d have a library that you would then write your code for your model in, that would call functions from that library.

And that’s basically how Swarm came about in the mid 90’s. It went through a number of iterations. But I wasn’t involved in the prototype. I came into the project a little later. And we were at the point then where we were now interacting. So my job was actually interacting with the scientists at the Institute, and visiting people to talk about the science, and think about how we could translate that science into the model, and then work with the other people. Building the kernel to create the right infrastructure.

So it’s kind of a bit of a translator between a lot of different disciplines. To try and sort of figure out, okay, how do we represent these things, that would work for the largest number of people, and the largest number of kinds of scientists. And then also figure out at what abstractions you would want to use, that’d be generally useful, and what abstractions that are very specific - say economics or sociology or things like that.

The fundamental notion is that you have a bunch individuals that all interact. And they have a set of rules, and they have state. It’s like SimCity or something. You set the things up, then you sort of let the thing go, and you see what happens.

So Swarm was the first tool kit to do that. It’s inspired several others. And there’s still the SwarmFest meeting, that we started back in the late 90’s, it’s still going strong. It’s been for about 20 years, and I hadn’t been for 10 years, and I went again - the first time in many years, 10 or 11 years - two years ago. It’s sort of great to see that the community is still sort of out there, trying to push the boundaries. Because it’s still, in some sense, it’s still kind of a little bit on the edge. I am surprised that it’s not more mainstream actually.

Len: And why do you think it’s not more mainstream than it is?

Alex: Probably because models are complicated. I think, there was probably some early overselling. This happens a lot in areas of science where everyone’s very excited. They start making promises that they probably can’t deliver. And so there’s been a little bit of a backlash, to complex system approaches in general and agent-based modeling is one of them. So I think that had some role.

They are more complicated to analyze than just traditional models. You don’t have the same set of tool kits you can use to do sensitivity analysis. And I think it sort of dovetails a little bit, with the problem with academia in general. There’s just not as much - I feel like there was more appetite in the late 90’s, to just try new stuff in general, in science.

It could just be that I’m getting older. Or it may be in my head. But my sense is that it’s harder to do stuff that’s a little on the edge now. People really want to see something like return on an investment, whatever that means in science.

I think it’s unfortunate. Because I still think that it’s important, for people doing stuff, to do stuff that doesn’t always work, and might fail. Just because it hasn’t worked yet, doesn’t mean it will never work.

Len: It’s interesting that the theme of stress in academia’s coming up. Because it’s something I think about a lot. I mean - Einstein goes for a walk, and sees a workman on a scaffold, and imagines him falling down, and has a great insight that changes the world. You can’t possibly quantify Einstein going for a walk.

There was something that happened a few years ago in the UK, called the Research Assessment Exercise. Where basically, an incredible amount of professors’ time was wasted in assessment of work, under the futile illusion that you can quantify research. And you end up with the people who should be doing the forward thinking, subordinated to - to put it crudely - politicians who are trying to make a point to people who are skeptical about higher education fundamentally.

It’s very cart before the horse kind of stuff.

Actually, that’s probably a bad metaphor. It’s kind of like - people who really don’t have an appreciation for what happens at higher levels of research - being skeptical about it, because they don’t see progress. And you need to give people the time to have the revelation in the shower. And to pursue paths that may actually ultimately be fruitless. Because that’s what cutting edge thinking is.

I was actually wondering, what was the work you did for your thesis, for your doctoral thesis back in the day?

Alex: I kind of switched gears a little bit away from the purely agent-based stuff when I was working in immunogenetics, or immune system genes - it was actually fairly empirical. I was looking at all these data sets coming from different populations around the world, where they would go up and genotype sets of genes called HLA genes - human leukocyte antigen. They’re basically involved in the immune system, and they’re the things that help detect - like when you have a bad pathogen that’s invaded your body. And one of the questions that have puzzled evolutionary biologists, and people who study population genetics - why this region of the human genome is incredibly polymorphic. Why are there so many alleles in different variants?

And so, I was working on trying to quantify that, that nature of that variation, and then building tools to analyze it and see if we could basically measure the strength of selection at the level, not just in the whole gene itself, but also at the level of the individual residues, amino acids in the actual 3D structure of this molecule.

So, I’m going off on a tangent here. But it’s effectively trying to figure out if we could use the population data to get at functional questions about how evolution has shaped the sort of nature of these molecules. And so there were some statistical analysis, and a fair amount of coding. I built a pipeline for that, that’s still used today, called PyPop - Python for Population Genetics.

I was also developing this methodology for figuring out like how to use things like Monte Carlo, Markov chain stuff to better analyze this data - it’s basically on that sort of interface. That is really quite classic computational biology meets evolutionary biology. It’s where I was at. And I’ve still got colleagues at projects that will probably see the light of day eventually.

But it really got me interested in the - it sort of cut my teeth on learning one specific biological system really in a lot of detail. Because the complex system stuff is great, but you can often find yourself going off into abstract speculation. So I feel like even though it’s not really what I still do on a day to day basis, I still think it was a valuable, for someone like me - I will always like to be trying new things, it’s good to have the training in one area. I think of it like the fox and the hedgehog, if you’ve heard that analogy? Which is why I call one of my blogs, “the curious foxhog”, because it’s like, I feel it’s good to have deep training in one area, but at the same time it’s good not to get tunnel vision. So yeah, that was where I came in on that stuff.

Len: And is that related to evolutionary systems biology? Which I’ve read you’re involved in - or is that something different?

Alex: It’s part of it. After I left my grad program, I started working in models of evolvability, but specifically related to prions. And it turns out that prions are this interesting mechanism for storing variation that can be released when an organism’s in a moment of stress. It’s kind of a fascinating, and I think of that as a classic example of evolution systems biology. Because systems biology, I think of it as like the mechanisms and the networks that are ultimately sculpted by evolution. And that’s why - I think ultimately, people that are trying to integrate sort of….

Evolution for a long time was very - evolutionary theory’s very abstract, and it didn’t refer to any sort of real systems. Just they would have these models about, consider these two alleles and play around with it. But now we have a lot more data, and we can say things like, “Well, now we know this trait is generated by these networks. What are the different evolutionary paths that you might take? Will the system take?” And so that’s kind of what I think of as evolutionary systems biology.

But my PhD wasn’t really in - it didn’t really exist even as a discipline. But, again, it was the training I needed to get into that area later.

Len: This is kind of a selfish question, because it’s a preoccupation of mine, but what do you think of evolutionary psychology?

Alex: I don’t really think about it a lot. I used to read a lot about it back in the day. I’m a little bit skeptical of it in general. I’m always a little bit skeptical of explanations that involve pre-defining our notion of what’s fit in the environment. And I think the problem that I see with evolutionary psychology, or some of it anyway, is that it tends to overestimate the role of competition and the survival of the fittest side of evolution.

Whereas evolution as a whole, includes all kinds of - not just competitive processes, but cooperative processes, and symbiosis and mutualisms. And all these rich dynamics that I feel with some of the evolution psychology stuff, it’s a little on the simplistic side.

It also interfaces with these arguments that come more from the political and economic side, that can easily be used to justify some of the existing power structure…. There’s always a danger when you go into nature and say, “Oh look, it’s done this in nature, so it must be - that must be right” - you know what I mean?

Len: Yeah.

Alex: That’s my main problem with some of the evolutionary psychology. Having said that, I don’t have a problem in principle with studying - using evolutionary principles in all kinds of areas. In economics and psychology. I really like the stuff that David Sloan Wilson works on, which is integrating economics and evolutionary thinking, complexity thinking. I’ve been reading his Evonomics blog quite a bit lately, and that involves psychology.

But yeah - so as far as the classic evolutionary psychology stuff, again I haven’t looked at it in a while. But I felt like at least the version of it in the 90s, early 2000’s, was always a little bit iffy to me.

Len: The fundamental question I have about it, is how do you do experiments? If you can’t do experiments, it’s not science, and it seems, to put it crudely, and so you see things - like for some reason, I think probably now, the former editor of the Science and Technology section of The Economist, loved evolutionary science just-so stories. And you see this in the science press generally.

I mean to think they actually did this in The Economist once. But they said that they’ve proven that women have a preference for pink. And that this is cross cultural. And that it’s probably because when, in the olden times, in the long, long ago, women had to search for berries. And so they were selected for experiencing pleasure when seeing color in nature. And this was in like the 2000’s. This wasn’t in like 1810. This was in like 2010. [See the last paragraph of this article from 2007 - eds.] It just seems like - I mean, the stuff that surfaces in the press, is obviously going to tend towards nonsense. But how can one possibly run experiments on human psychological evolution?

Alex: That would be my problem with it too. The just-so nature of it rears its head in those circumstances. And the danger is it can easily reinforce people’s preconceptions and scientize something that really shouldn’t be scientized. To coin a term.

Len: That’s a great word. On the subject of science and programming, which is what your book is about, I wanted to ask you how important is it for scientists these days to learn how to program?

Alex: I think it’s pretty important. Especially as… the more quantitative disciplines like the life sciences are becoming rapidly…. But I also don’t think that one should assume that that’s the only thing you need, and that everything should be - that you should drop your pipettes and just do coding. I have done pipetting once but, I know that I’m never going to be a great bench biologist.

I think getting your head around, going a little bit beyond spreadsheets - I mean, we say this in the book blurb - is going to be really important. And it’s interesting actually. Especially with the SwarmFest, I’m meeting a lot of people who are not even scientists, and the digital humanities people are really picking up on the programming side of it too.

And so yeah, I think it’s important. I think also, you have to simultaneously keep in mind that programming is ultimately still just a hammer, and you don’t want to make everything a nail. So on one hand, I’m like yeah, people should get used to computational and quantitative thinking and all that good stuff. But at the same time we shouldn’t get rid of people who work in museums and that love collecting specimens.

There’s room for all of those skills and people. So I get a little bit nervous when people say, “Well everyone needs to learn to code, because everyone’s going to be coding in the future - I don’t think that’s true.

Having said that, I think another reason to code, for everybody - and scientists in general - is that it’s good to know the thinking. Because a lot of the systems that you’ll be interacting with are going to be engineered - which means knowing the fact that there’s code behind that, what does that actually mean, and what the limitations are, just to be a generally scientifically literate citizen.

There’s a great book by Douglas Rushkoff, called *Program or Be Programmed. I don’t know if you saw that? It’s really small. I always give it to people who wonder about programming, because he has a good spiel about, “Yes you should probably code, but you don’t have to. But you should definitely know what’s involved as this becomes more part of your world kind of thing.”

My position is maybe a little bit more nuanced than you might expect, just because I also realize the limitations of the data-driven, metric-obsessed kind of thing that we often can get ourselves into. But at the same time, I feel like it’s good to know those things - know how to analyze and use code, even if you don’t do it as your full time job, it’s for no other reason than you know what’s going on behind the scenes. And you know code is being deployed. So I think from that perspective, I think, yes, people should learn to code, even if it’s not their only thing.

Len: And my last question is - why did you decide to publish your book on Leanpub? I should say - by the way, Python For The Life Sciences is a really great book. A ton of work went into it. It’s really well done.

Alex: Thanks.

Len: I mean that. I see a lot of books. I was wondering why you chose to publish it with us?

Alex: We kicked around a lot of different things when we started our consulting firm. And one of the things that Gordon and I both agree on is, we don’t love gatekeepers. We love the idea of people doing things from the bottom up. And so we thought about approaching a publisher and proposing it. But we just felt, that’s going to add a lot of stuff in front of us, and let’s just write the damn thing and see where it lands.

And then when we started looking around - actually a friend of mine on a Slack channel that I recommend, he’s always got cool things, he writes a lot of cool things about programming and science and complex systems, his name’s Bill Tozier vaguery.com is his website - he just mentioned it in passing. I was like, “Oh, I should check this thing out.” And I went over there, and I said, “This is really interesting.”

So we were initially thinking, “Oh well, we’ll just sort of put it up and see what happens.” We really thought that… fit our general ethos. And obviously you have a really great revenue model, which I think is really good. And to be honest, looking at the way Amazon works, and the big e-publishers, they are starting to act more like rentier-type models.

Len: Like what sorry?

Alex: They’re sort of monopolizing the market now. And so they’re able to set the - like able to set monopoly prices. And I would rather support, in general, new, emerging businesses and organizations that are trying to make a way to make a living without necessarily having to create a massive infrastructure. That’s why Leanpub and self-publishing seems the way to go.

And that said - if a major publisher was to pick us up tomorrow, I guess we could continue doing both. But… for example, with our consultancy, we’re trying to build a sustainable business. We don’t necessarily want to be taking over the world. We’re not after world domination, we’re after - earn enough money to keep paying the bills, so that we can do the cool science or research or art or whatever it is that we’re doing. You know what I mean?

So that was part of it. I like it when I see other people doing cool new things. I’m always like, “I want to support that thing.” Even if it means like, okay, I don’t get the massive return in the immediate. I feel like in the long run, we’ll all be better if we do that.

Len: Thanks, that’s a really great answer. In many ways your book is the classic Leanpub book. And I mean that in the sense of books that we love to see. Because I think both your minimum and your suggested price is $34.99. It’s 304 pages. And if you’re in the life sciences or a biologist, and you’re looking to learn to code - I mean, this is a book you get great value from. Definitely worth 35 bucks.

Alex: Right, and we think so too.

Len: One of the interesting things - we’re still learning about this new model of self-publishing. But Amazon decreases the royalty rate that it pays when you go over $9.99 for a book.

Alex: Yeah, we noticed that too.

Len: I mean from 70% to 30%, right? [Note: On Amazon it’s actually 35% royalties for books over $10, not 30%–which is still terrible compared to Leanpub’s 90% minus 50 cents royalty rate - eds.] So they’re basically saying, “All ebooks are interchangeable, and the price should be less than $10.”

Alex: Right, exactly. They drive you towards that.

Len: I think that that’s probably an appropriate price point for novels. And I still think if you are writing a novel, you should have it on Leanpub as well. Because you will make more money, because it’s a 90% royalty. But if your book is worth more than $9.99, and I don’t just mean, because the price is more than $9.99. If it’s actually worth more than $9.99, you should not be publishing in a place that’s meant for novels.

Books like yours, books like so many other Leanpub books - well I mean, not specifically your book, but like for other types of books - they can change the amount you can charge people for the work that you do. Because you’ve learnt something new, and you’ve got skills that you didn’t have before. They can help increase the skill level that you have. And something like that, people are willing to pay more for. And authors should earn more from, I think.

Alex: Right. It was basically - a little under a year, I mean, not full-time, it wasn’t like a 40 hours a week, 7 days, 24/7 type-thing. But we put a fair amount of… and the other reason I liked it, the way we did it was that, because we had the freedom to do it at the pace we wanted, we could write the book that we wanted to write. Not the book that someone else had decided like fit the right market niche. So we could take our time and make it a little bit lighter, and put in jokes and things like that, that might not have passed muster, or may not have been into some other publisher’s conception of what they wanted.

So we liked the idea of having a book that has a bit of personality. Beause textbooks can be kind of on the dry side. But that was another nice thing about it. And also the iterative nature of it, because it just goes with the whole software development philosophy that we kind of use in our own consulting. The sort of Agile type thing of - release it, get feedback, improve. I feel like that’s a really good model to….

And we didn’t fully embrace it. We didn’t do chapter by chapter. But we’re certainly going to upload new versions. So I feel like that that approach is really, it’s still pretty new for the book publishing world still, I think. But you see how effective it is in software. At getting a better, more robust, if it’s done properly of course - kind of result. So that was another thing that was cool about the Leanpub thing. I liked that. I liked that idea that - doing anything creative or anything new. Get something out there, it’s not perfect. Improve it. Improve it. Do it in public. Improve it, get better. I’m learning this, just myself by taking improv classes. The same kind of thing. Like you’re not that great at the beginning, but you - when you get in front of an audience, you get better, so it’s a bit like that. I mean, just like not taking the risk, exposing yourself. People might not like every little bit of it, but that’s okay - you get better at it. So I feel like it fits with that sort of philosophy.

Len: Just before we go, I feel like I would be remiss if I didn’t ask someone living in the United States the day before the big election what’s the mood like in - well you’re in Arlington, Massachusetts - you were saying before we started this interview - just north of Boston, I think. What’s the mood like down there?

Alex: In the greater Boston area?

Len: Yeah.

Alex: I think - what’s the thing, your acceptance, grievance, with the stages of grief. I feel like we’re at the acceptance phase now, with, just in a sense of like, whatever will be will be. Everyone’s just so over it. So much, so many - I don’t know. I can’t read anymore editorials. I can’t read fivethirtyeight.com. I feel like almost everything has been said that is going to be said, and it’s just going to be up to the voters now.

But yeah, people are concerned obviously, I think, definitely in our community. Because we’re around a lot of academics and scientists and people who - what the results will be for all of that. But that’s something I think that definitely comes up when we’re in conversation with friends and colleagues.

Len: Well thanks very much for that, that’s very well said. It’ll be an interesting artifact, because this will come out after people know the results.

Alex: Yeah what the result was. May I ask you what your - what’s the view from Canada?

Len: I could talk about that for a long time, I suppose. I think that probably most Canadians are quite concerned that Donald Trump could win, to put it straightforwardly.

Canada’s a more complicated place than Canadians pretend it is. But the spectacle over the last like two years of the campaign we have one border, right? And it’s with the United States. And to see someone who appears to be driven by no sense of responsibility, and not constrained by reason - within a hair’s breadth of being the President of the United States, is something that I think people are concerned by.

Knock on wood - when this comes out, we’ll all know.

Alex: Hopefully we will be able to breathe that sigh of relief.

Len: I think people here are in a sense, complacent. I mean, we just kind of take it for granted that Americans will make the reasonable choice. I don’t want to speak on behalf of all sorts of people who disagree with me, and generalize dramatically, but like, it’s - we’re watching. We’re always watching what’s happening in the States - we’re definitely watching now. I’m just getting a memory of when I stayed up late in 2000, to make sure that Al Gore won Florida, before going to bed. And woke up to a different world.

Alex: Yes, yes, I remember that election well. I had only been in the States for a few years at that point. And that’s when I started paying attention to politics…. I think it’s true, I gave a massive generalization, to say that academics and researchers tend to try and go about their business, to pretend that like nothing’s going to affect them. Or it’s like, it’s above them, or….

I think this election has certainly made people sit up and pay attention. Because even in the other elections of other Presidents, candidates, there’s a general agreement that probably the NIH would continue, and NSF always - they’re not about to abolish them, but sort of all bets are off with Trump. I think that’s what makes people really scared. Because it’s like, you really don’t know. It’s like a lot a lot of the things that you take for granted, just could not be true anymore.

Len: I hadn’t actually thought about that, but that’s the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation - nd I hadn’t thought about that.

Len: Thanks very much Alex. I guess–

Alex: Yeah on that cheery note!

Len: On that cheery note, thanks very much for taking the time to do this really fun interview. And thanks for publishing your book on Leanpub.

Alex: Oh, you are most welcome, it’s been really fun.

Len: Thanks.


Leanpub Podcast Interview #45: Gordon Webster

by Len Epp

published Feb 17, 2017

Gordon Webster

Gordon Webster is the author of the Leanpub book Getting Started With Python In The Lab: An Introductory Python Tutorial For Life Scientists and co-author of Python for the Life Sciences: A gentle introduction to Python for life scientists. In this interview, Leanpub co-founder Len Epp talks with Gordon about his career, his books, and his experience self-publishing on Leanpub.

This interview was recorded on October 12, 2016.

The full audio for the interview is here. You can subscribe to this podcast in iTunes or add the following podcast URL directly: http://leanpub.com/podcast.xml.

This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.

Gordon Webster

Len: Hi, I’m Len Epp from Leanpub, and in this Leanpub podcast, I’ll be interviewing Gordon Webster. Gordon earned his PhD in biophysics and structural biology at the University of London, and has worked with life science R&D in both Europe and the US. He’s currently based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

He has both academic and commercial experience, and is the author of a number of patents, in addition to scientific articles. In his profile, he writes that his “career path has reflected his belief that the most interesting and potentially promising areas of research lie at the intersections between the traditional scientific disciplines,” and I’m sure we’ll get to talking about that in just a bit.

You can follow Gordon on Twitter at @gwebster, and read his blog, The Digital Biologist at digitalbiologist.com.

Getting Started With Python In The Lab: An Introductory Python Tutorial For Life Scientists

Gordon is the author of the Leanpub book, Getting Started With Python In The Lab: An Introductory Python Tutorial For Life Scientists, and more recently - along with Alex Lancaster, he is co-author of the Leanpub book, Python For The Life Sciences: A gentle introduction to Python for life scientists.

Python For The Life Sciences is a great introduction to computer programming, written with the interests of biologists in mind - in particular those who haven’t written any code before. Along with the book, you get code samples that you can learn from, and even use for your own research. The book covers topics including biochemistry and gene sequencing, molecular mechanics and agent-based models of complex systems.

In this interview, we’re going to talk about Gordon’s professional interests, his books, his experience using Leanpub, and at the very end, ways we can improve Leanpub for him and other authors.

So, thank you Gordon for being on the Leanpub podcast.

Gordon: Oh thank you for having me.

Len: I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind telling us a little bit about yourself, and what I like to call an interviewee’s “origin story” - how you first became interested in biophysics and structural biology, and how you got to where you are now.

Gordon: I think my interest in biophysics started with seeing three-dimensional structures of DNA and proteins and stuff like that. I remember being very captivated by that intersection of physics and biology. And so I went into biophysics - kind of related to the thing you mentioned a moment ago, about the fact that I really enjoy things that are on the boundaries of two different disciplines.

So the idea of using physics to study biology, actually really appealed to me. There’s a sort of a certain mindset and methodology to physics that doesn’t always work, I have to say, in biology. It’s an incredibly interesting area.

The other thing that’s spurred my interest in biophysics was computers. I remember in the 1980’s, I got a home computer. I was completely hooked from the minute I started writing BASIC on a home computer. All through college, I always pursued projects and electives where I had a chance to do computing. So that’s always been a big part of my career too. Biophysics is a very computational, quantitative, numerically-intensive field, and so the computer stuff has always played a very large part in that.

Len: And what is the difference between what one might conventionally understand to be biology, and biophysics?

Gordon: I paint this picture of a spectrum. At one end of the spectrum of biology you have evolution, and field biology - studying species and animals and the way they interact, and all this kind of thing. And then there’s all the classification, taxonomy and botany and stuff. And then at the opposite end of the sort of spectrum, you have the almost atomic and molecular biology.

I call it the study of dead stuff. And it gets kind of ironic, that when you get to the very small scale in biology, down to atoms and molecules, nothing really looks like biology anymore. Because you’re essentially studying things that are governed by the laws of physics and chemistry.

And it isn’t till you get further towards that first end of the spectrum that I described, where you start to look at organisms and reproduction and survival and evolution, and populations of organisms and the dynamics of those populations - that you see anything that you could really call biology. So it’s kind of interesting that at the very small scale, a lot of the stuff that biologists study really looks like chemistry and physics.

Len: That’s really fascinating. I wanted to ask you, what was the subject of your research for your PHD at University of London?

Gordon: I studied structural and computational biology. There was a great interest at that time in finding ways of shutting off certain gene sequences. And we didn’t have the kind of technology then for developing these, like silencing RNAs and technology that’s out there now of that sort.

People were very interested in looking at drugs that could bind to DNA, and actually close down a certain gene, essentially by binding to the beginning of the gene, or the gene promoter - and shutting off that gene. The goal was always to try to be able to control gene expression, so that you could - for example - cure cancer, or other diseases that had a genetic component.

Len: I’m sure probably some of the people listening to this podcast have heard about CRISPR and how powerful that is. I was wondering, since I’ve got you here, if you wouldn’t mind maybe explaining a little bit about what that is, and why it’s so important.

Gordon: CRISPR is an interesting system - it’s sort of enzymes or a gene editing system that people have found in organisms. It’s not human made, it’s not invented. It existed in nature. And now there’s a number of companies who are trying to essentially patent it, and develop it for use as a gene editing tool.

So the former dogma of biology’s always been that once you’ve established a gene sequence in a cell, that it’s there forever and that there’s not much you can do about it. You can put things into the cell, maybe to switch it off. But then those things need to be there all the time.

The difference with the sort of CRISPR approach, is that now you’re basically going in and looking to edit the genes themselves that are in the cell, so that you’re interfering with the cell’s processes at the genetic level, which is something we’ve not really been able to do before.

Len: And what do you think some of the new applications might be, that people can make of this?

Gordon: I know that obviously people are very interested in disease. So some of the genetic diseases - there are genetic diseases where people are born, for example, without the gene that codes for a vital enzyme for example, that processes carbohydrates in the cell.

There are some people that have deficiencies in processing certain kind of chemicals that are essentially vital to growth and life. And those people often don’t live very long. They often die as children. I know that there’s a lot of interest in trying to fix those genes, whereas previously, all you could do was try to intervene with drugs and things like this.

Now there’s an effort to try to fix those kind of diseases - again - at the genetic level. So that’s something - again - that we’ve never really been able to do before. There were attempts sort of in the 90s. I mean, you probably heard about gene therapy, which was in the 90s. People were trying to do gene therapy with viruses. And viruses also have a very interesting kind of gene editing capability.

So for example, a lot of viruses, when they invade cells, they’ll splice their own gene sequences into cells, and co-opt the cell to produce more virus, instead of producing what the cell wants to produce. And so people thought that maybe viruses could be a way to do gene editing, and a lot of the gene therapy early on, was done with viruses.

And that field is still going. It’s not dead or anything. But I think that the CRISPR thing is an advance beyond that, in terms of having much more control over the way the gene is edited. The problem with the viruses, I think, is that it wasn’t always very easy to control where the virus would put the gene that you wanted into the cell.

Len: My next question is kind of personal, a little bit selfish. I lived in London for a few years working, and I studied in the UK at Oxford doing my doctorate there. And I always thought Oxford was the perfect distance from London. It was just far enough away that it took some time to get there. But it was close enough that you could still go there and enjoy London.

But I always wondered what it would be like, because there’s so many great universities in London - what it would be like to actually be a student, with all the fantastic distractions of London life around you. What was that like, studying, doing your doctorate in London?

Gordon: It was awesome. And you’re right that it was - it was sometimes not easy to - to focus on work, when you had all that stuff. But you have to also bear in mind, I mean - I was there in the 80s. So I mean this was the era when people like [The Clash])https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Clash_ were playing at the Hammersmith Palais. It was an incredible time to be young, and also to be a student in London. And I absolutely had a marvelous time there. Maybe sort of too good a time, sometimes. But yeah, it was - it was fantastic. I just had a really, really great time. It’s a wonderful city.

Len: I wasn’t there in the same era you were, but like, just going to Camden any given night, you can find fantastic bands playing. It’s just so amazing.

I wanted to ask you about Amber Biology, which is the consulting firm that you have with your co-author, Alex Lancaster. When did you set up your consultancy, and what kind of work do you do?

Gordon: I created the consultancy about three years ago. Originally I had a partner who was somebody I used to work with when I was working more in the mainstream of the pharmaceutical business. He was somewhat engaged at the beginning, but he had a day job and he didn’t really want to give up his day job, and he ended up kind of becoming a silent partner. And in the end, I guess, the company was kind of moribund for a few months. In the end, I persuaded him to relinquish his partnership, so that I could work with Alex, because Alex was very interested in being actively engaged in Amber Biology. And so we had a change of partnership last year.

They finally got all the paperwork through in summer of last year, about when we started on the book as well. And then essentially, we’ve been building the business. The business had been going for three years, as Amber Biology. But Alex and I have been working together for about a year and a half now. So it’s about a year and a half we’ve been doing it together.

And the kind of work we do is all computational biology. So anything you can do in which biology can be done on computers. This includes a lot of things that are - I mean, when you talk about biology and computers, a lot of people immediately think of bioinformatics. It’s the big area that everybody’s heard of. People think about gene sequencing and genomics and gene analysis. And that’s certainly stuff that we do as well.

But both of us have a background in modeling and simulation in biology, and that’s an area that we are really keen to pursue. There’s a whole backstory here, and we can get into that if you’re interested. But I would say it’s still very early in biology for people doing modeling and simulation.

If you think about physics and civil engineering and things like that, simulation and modeling are a main stream of research. In physics, for example, people model the movement of stars and planets, using sort of gravitational models. They plug the observations from telescopes into them.

And then when you have a deviation of the model from the observations, that’s actually interesting. This is an example I like to give. Where models can be wrong, but still informative, and that is that if you’re studying a binary star system - you plug in the Newtonian Gravitational Model, and you find that it doesn’t match the observations.

What that often tells you is that there’s hidden mass there that you can’t see with the telescope, and there are one or more planets orbiting one of the stars. And so the deviation of the model from the observations, gives you a clue as to how much mass is missing and where that mass is.

And that kind of thinking, that kind of mindset of using modeling and simulation is really prevalent in physics and civil engineering, similarly. I mean, you want to build a suspension bridge. It’s going to get built in CAD in a virtual sense, before any steel or concrete gets built in the real world. And then all the pieces get tested in CAD, and there’s feedback from the physical testing of all the pieces of the bridge, back into the computer model.

That’s the kind of place that we would like to see biology go. But it’s still extremely early, and most modeling in biology right now is exclusively the confine of people doing, for the most part, theoretical biology. And those people are often people who have backgrounds, for example, in computer science, and who are doing this kind of thing that you talked about earlier - of straddling different disciplines, and bringing computer science ideas into biology. This is the area that we’re really interested in. But like I said, it’s very early in biology right now.

Len: I really liked that analogy. I found it in something that you wrote - I think - on your blog. I mean, I don’t know if you used this example specifically. But I think it was Neptune was discovered because people saw deviations from the expected movement of another planet. So they derived from the deviations, from the model they had of the way the whole system worked what must be going on. What you’re saying, I think is that biology is, given our current understanding of it, too complex, to have a whole model in the simple way -

Gordon: Right, exactly.

Len: I mean people think physics is really complicated. But even physicists will tell you in some ways that it’s very simple. And it reminded me of the story of Vulcan, which was this planet people thought existed, because they saw deviations in the movement of Mercury that they couldn’t explain. And it took centuries until Einstein, to figure out that there wasn’t - well I mean, people realized from observation that it wasn’t there. There was no planet there causing the deviation, so it must be something else. And then it actually took a fundamental change in the entire model, to understand why Mercury was moving the way it was. And I guess what you’re saying is - biology is so far from even having a kind of model of the first type, in the first place, that getting to that second step, isn’t there yet. You have a blog -

Gordon: Yes, that’s exactly right. And the other issue is that people who have not had a lot of experience with modeling, which is true for the most part in biology - they tend to think of modeling like weather forecasting. The idea is you have this very big, very complete model with, essentially, data points for everything…

All the data are very well represented, very - very complete. And then you run the model and you make predictions. This idea that an incomplete or partial model could be of any value is something that - I think most people in the biological field tend to dismiss modeling, because of these kind of fears. Because of the complexity. Well, how could you model the inside of a cell, because there’s just too many moving parts?

Len: You have a great blog post called, “Big Data Does Not Equal Big Knowledge”. I’m sure everyone’s heard talk about Big Data by now, and I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind talking a little bit about what you were getting at in that blog post. You talk in particular about how visualizations - or the type of visualizations that people often get from data - are not necessarily as useful in the life sciences, as they might be in other fields.

Gordon: With these numerical quantitative approaches, it’s a little like the kind of demographic data mining that political campaigns and advertisers do. It’s like sort of looking at trends in the data. And I think there are lots of areas where that kind of approach works really well.

And in biology, I mean, you can do it too. I think I give the example of dose response curves and things like this. Where you have a relatively simple system with not too many variables operating under the surface. And the problem with the examples - for example, where this kind of stuff has really failed dismally is in areas like gene expression and genomics. So people were sure that once the human genome project was complete - I remember, I think it was Watson, was saying, “Oh within a couple of years of this, cancer will be a thing of the past, and we’ll have a handle on all of the disease genotypes,” and so on.

And really, what we learned from that, is that we don’t really understand the genome as well as we thought we did. So, having the human genome sequence is a bit like having the physical location of any neuron in your brain. It’s still a long way from explaining consciousness. I mean, yeah you could map the brain in the greatest detail, but it still doesn’t exactly tell you how the system works.

And I think with Big Data, what people are trying to do, is say, “Well I don’t really understand what mechanisms are under the hood here. But if I look at the data under one set of conditions, under another set of conditions, and I carefully weight the data, so that I’m not comparing apples and oranges, then basically if I can see some significant differences in the data, those may point to where the problem or where the issue is - whatever the thing is I’m trying to investigate actually lies.”

And it’s a valid approach in a lot of ways. I mean it’s not crazy. And some of the low-hanging fruit has probably been picked in that approach. But, for example, patterns of gene expression, or patterns of phosphorylation in the phenotypes of cells - those things are so complex, there’s so many different moving parts.

And it might be, for example, that what you’re looking for isn’t the biggest difference between one set of genes expressing in another, but maybe some pattern of differential expression, that might be buried in all the noise that you cut out, because you think it’s not significant. But it might be some recurring pattern of 10 different genes, all of which have very small but significant deviations when you look at them all together.

So these are the kind of things that Big Data is trying to uncover. And the visualization thing is also usually - you apply a lot of filters to the data. You try to pull out the differences in the data, in the way that a sound engineer would try to filter background out of a recording. As you were saying earlier about your software for doing audio filtering.

And I think that the problem is that, it’s an effort to sidestep the complexity of the biology. It’s partly driven by this fear that, “Well, I could build a model, but how could I ever build a complete model?” It’s always going to be a partial model at best. And so that probably isn’t going to work.

Len: You mentioned earlier, failure, and you just mentioned side-stepping. That leads me into my next planned question for you, which was - I wanted to talk to you a little bit about Theranos. I’m sure a lot of people listening have heard about this company that’s turned into a pretty catastrophic failure in the health sciences area. I know you’ve written about it on your blog, The Digital Biologist, which is the reason I’m bringing it up.

And I wanted to ask you, how can something like this - if you could explain a little bit about what Theranos is, and how it failed, and how can something like this happen in the sciences? I think it’s a question that a lot of people have. The lay person associates science with rigor. And there appears to have been this huge fraud.

Gordon: Right. I mean, I think the one thing I would say is that - yes - that lay people do tend to think of scientists as being almost kind of like Mr. Spock - that is logical, and everything is kind of decision making, devoid of all that other human baggage like emotion and ambition and greed and all that stuff.

And the truth is, it’s really still very much a human activity. And the application of the scientific method - there’s this kind of ideal view of it, if you look at the books on the philosophy of science and Karl Popper and all this kind of stuff. There’s this very idealized, sort of Platonic ideal of what the scientific method is. But when you start to combine science and commerce, then all that human stuff, it still plays a role. And honestly, it plays a role even in academic research.

There it’s not so much about money, but about prestige and ambition, and people in academic research sometimes stray because they want the result that they want, because they know it’s going to get them that Professorship, or the prize or the prestige or the recognition within the community that they want. And so, the number of cases of academics going off the rails - even over issues about prestige and standing in the community - are well documented.

And when you start to think about that in the context of the Theranos thing, I mean there, the stakes are even higher. You’re talking about ambition and prestige and standing, but also about billions of dollars and entire careers. And so the human stuff definitely plays a role in science.

Len: It’s really interesting. In particular, I remember when I first heard about the company. I looked into it, and I saw that– I mean, this is currently on its [corporate] board - but it’s also, in addition to being very human, and a business with lots of money at stake - it was extremely political.

Currently you’ve got a former Wells Fargo CEO. A company that’s also in the news these days. And a retired Marine Corps general on the board. And on its lists of Counselors, currently it includes Bill Frist, the former US Senate Majority Leader. And Sam Nunn, a former Senator - and Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. And incredibly, to top it all off, Henry Kissinger was involved.

Do you think that one of the reasons they could get away with their self-representation was, all of these powerful people were behind it, and that that may have deterred people from seeing the truth early?

Gordon: Yes. I liken the Theranos problem, and problems that a lot of biotech and pharmaceutical companies have, generally, with the kind of problems, for example, that NASA had. I understand that one time there was kind of a management culture - you had a lot of people managing projects who are driven by deadlines. And as you said, political considerations - who weren’t really engineers, and didn’t really understand the risks and understand the complex systems that they were building.

And the Challenger disaster was an example where this kind of management culture essentially overrode the culture that should’ve prevailed at NASA. Which is one where - in my opinion - for those kind of projects, you need engineers who understand the systems that are being built, and the risks inherent in those systems. Those are the kind of people that should be running the project.

And at Theranos - and not only Theranos, but other biotech and pharma companies too - what you often have is kind of a management mindset where you have people who maybe did an undergraduate degree in science, never really done a lot of research. I don’t want to slam MBAs here, but there’s definitely a - you see a lot of MBAs in high places in the pharmaceutical industry, driving R&D, who’ve never really done any R&D themselves.

And so I think that you have this culture now, where there’s this management culture - people go to business school, they get an MBA. They feel that it makes them qualified to oversee all kinds of human activities - whether or not they really understand the risks and the processes inherent to whatever it is that the company, or the organization is making.

And I feel like with Theranos, you have a similar kind of thing. I mean they didn’t publish any data. Everything was just like radio silence, in terms of actually validating the technology. And they held out for a really long time. I mean - obviously now, we know, thanks to the Wall Street Journal’s reporting - that that was because, essentially the stuff didn’t work.

But it it would’ve behooved them to have taken a more rigorous approach, and known before they had gone down that path of wasting all those millions of dollars - that this technology wasn’t going to work. And somebody else might’ve intervened, or the R&D might have been done differently. Or they might have pivoted much earlier, as they’ve pivoted recently to this new thing, when they’re no longer a provider of blood tests. Now they’re going to be, as I understand it, a developer of hardware for this?

Len: It’s really interesting, what you said about MBA’s and the concept of overseeing. That subject has come up on some of the interviews that I’ve done for this podcast, repeatedly. And I think it’s partly because a lot of the people that I interview are software developers. I could talk about it for a long time. But the theory behind a lot of management, I believe is based on being able to oversee. Being able to see what people are doing. And it’s deep, it’s deep in the structure of the way MBAs are taught. So deep that people don’t even know it’s there.

For example, if you’re managing people laying bricks, or if you’re managing people building a house - you can have a kind of abstraction around watching. You can see whether people are having a pint, or laying the bricks. You can see whether people are hammering. You can hear whether they’re hammering the nails, or whether they’re playing cards.

But a scientist? I mean, you can see her at work in the lab. Or a software engineer, you can see him sitting at a desk with a computer. But you can’t see the work. Because the work is mental. And it seems to me that this is a real problem in an era where software is eating the world. We need a new way of thinking about management. And the thing that keeps coming up in these conversations is, that you need to have domain-specific expertise, in order to manage people who are doing work that involves primarily things you can’t see.

Gordon: Absolutely. And the other thing about R&D generally, is that it’s a very non-linear process. I think the management mindset has arisen out of these kind of industries where you have a production line, and you have this chain of processes from A through Z. And you go A, B, C, D. And then if there’s a bottleneck at D, you fix that bottleneck, so the thing works better. But it’s all very much a a process of box checking and crossing T’s and dotting I’s, and you have a defined process. I feel like that management mindset works really well for that.

So the kind of people who manage well in the pharma business, tend to be more, I feel, on the regulatory side. Where, once the drug gets through this sort of R&D phase, and it’s now being in development and clinical testing, I feel like the process there - t’s still not completely linear for sure. But there’s much more of that kind of production line mindset there.

But R&D - it’s iterative, it’s non-linear. You start an experiment. You see something really interesting. It can take you off in a whole different direction. No amount of management deadlines can mandate that nature is going to behave in the way that you want it to. “Well, we must have an answer from this particular cell line before December, so we can tell the investor something.” And if the cell line doesn’t want to behave as you expect it to, then you’ve got all kinds of questions you haven’t answered.

This comes back to the modeling again. I see modeling as very much an adjunct to this experimental sort of method, where you’re basically helping to determine what the next experiment is that you really ought to do, to answer the questions you need to answer.

I wrote a piece on this on LinkedIn. I likened a good R&D team to a jazz ensemble, rather than an orchestra. And I talk about this quite a lot in that thing too. I have certainly worked at companies where I have seen this kind of management decision-making going on. And it’s really based more on what the company needs to do, but without a real understanding of what the company is actually able to do.

I’ve worked quite a lot in software development too, and I’ve also seen that in software development where you have a similar kind of situation, where you have people who’ve never really written or tested code - overseeing a software development effort.

One company I worked at, I ended up having to leave, because they felt that testing was an unnecessary waste of time and money. And this was not an ideal world, I was told. And in an ideal world, we would test everything - but here, we just don’t have time to do that. And so it all turned really sour for them, because - of course - a lot of the software they were rolling out, just didn’t work - it was embarrassing, and I was embarrassed to be a part of that effort.

Len: I’ve spoken with a couple of professional testers about that very issue, and so I have a little bit of a sense of how frustrating it can be to be part of a project where people are just profoundly mishandling it under a false view of efficiency.

Speaking of writing code, I wanted to ask you - what was the inspiration for you and Alex to write, Python For The Life Sciences, which is a book devoted to helping people who haven’t coded before, to learn how to do so?

Gordon: The biggest single reason is that, well, partly it stems from what we said earlier about the fact that modeling and computational approaches are still relatively non-mainstream in biology. What that translates into is that there isn’t really much in the way of a computing component in the core life sciences curriculum. So most biologists can go through college, and pretty much avoid using computers - other than maybe for writing their articles, and maybe using Excel spreadsheets and stuff like that.

If a few of them are lucky, they may get to have some kind of training in MATLAB, or R or something like that. But for the most part, a lot of biologists graduate and start doing research. They go into grad school, or even become postdocs, without ever having really done much in the way of computational research. And what you see in labs is people doing endless calculations, still with hand calculators. People are using Excel to process all their spreadsheet data, painstakingly copying stuff into tables.

Nowadays, there’s more lab automation. So a lot of the lab instruments produce data that’s ready to be visualized in Excel. But Excel - it’s a great tool for what it is, but it’s not really the tool for most quantitative biology. There are certain things, for sure, you can do with it. But being able to write code gives you the opportunity to look at your data in ways that’s just not possible using hand calculators and spreadsheets. And so that was really our major…

So when I worked, for example, at one pharmaceutical company, I remember that the really the only numerical piece of software in the entire company that was used by everybody from the financial people in the accounts department - to the scientists at the bench, was Microsoft Excel. And that was in a company doing the kind of quantitative work that drug development is. This is the progressive aggregation of knowledge. It just - it struck me as kind of bizarre that in such a quantitative field, where data and numbers are so prevalent, and more so now than ever, that you have so many people working in that field who just have no real way of using computers to their full potential.

Len: And why did you choose to focus on Python?

Gordon: Because it’s, I think in the book we call it, the Swiss Army Knife of programming languages. It’s a wonderful language that you can just start using right away. I trained also in Java, for example. And Java requires you to use the kind of object-oriented paradigm for programming right from the outset. So there’s a steep learning curve there for anybody who’s not familiar with object-oriented programming.

And it’s also kind of a sledgehammer to crack a nut. If you just want to write some small scripts to open a file and read some data in, and reprocess the data in a different format, or find some patterns in a sequence, or something like that, you don’t really need to be writing object-oriented code all the time. So I like the fact that Python gives you that option to just jump in and start writing the procedural code that we all used to write, when we were writing in C and Basic and stuff.

Or for more complex applications, you can scale it up and use that object-orientated programming paradigm, to help you - to organize all the moving parts. And write applications in the large.

Len: You mentioned earlier, and I believe I read on one of your blog posts, that the book took you about a year to complete.

Gordon: Right.

Len: Or to get to the state it did, that it’s in now. Was it your plan from the beginning for it to take a year?

Gordon: No. I think the book ended up being much bigger than we thought it would be. I think it was going to be a little 50 to 100 page thing about biocomputing with Python. And almost like a get-you-going tutorial. But then, it just blossomed, mainly based on both of our previous experiences in modelling and using Python in our own research. And, “Oh, wouldn’t that be cool? Remember when I did that stuff with the robots?” And, “Remember when I did that stuff with next generation sequencing? We should include some of that.”

And so, there was definitely - I guess in the software world, you’d call it feature creep. But we’re very happy the way it. We were glad we did it. It’s much more of a full-fledged book than I think we imagined in the beginning.

Len: It looks great. And I wanted to ask you - you didn’t use the Leanpub workflow to make your book, rather you used our “Bring Your Own Book” feature to upload your book, so you can sell it on our bookstore.

I was wondering what tools you used to make your great-looking book?

Gordon: The entire book was actually built and edited in Google Docs, because we needed a collaborative platform. And I use Macs, and I use Linux and Windows as virtual machines on my Mac. But Alex is a Linux guy. We couldn’t really use something that was primarily in the Mac world as a tool, and so we settled on Google Docs, and it worked really, really well - until we got up to about 250 pages. And then you start to see the limitations of trying to edit large documents in a web browser.

I’ve got to give the Google people credit. Google Docs is a great tool. But once we reached pretty much the maximum size that’s practical for a Google document, around the 300 pages mark, we already started to see that it was unresponsive sometimes.

And the other issues that we had were - when you create a PDF out of the Google Doc, it does some silly things. For example, all of the internal links point back to the original Google document, and not to the new PDF. So if you have a link in your new PDF to page 100, it will actually point to page 100 in the original Google Doc. Which is kind of absurd. I mean, if you’re exporting to PDF, you would hope those internal links would remain internal.

So what we ended up having to do, was to save the entire document as a .docx file in Microsoft Word format. And then we used the Mac Pages program. Well - initially, let me say - I tried using Microsoft Word 2011. Which is the version I happened to have on my Mac. And that does not preserve the links.

When we first published the book on Leanpub, all the links inside - the external links, were dead, because Word didn’t handle those properly. And when we put it into the Mac Pages program, then it did a good job of exporting the document. And also, there were some other issues with Word. The images would stray. It didn’t really know how to place images where we’d placed images in text. The images would stray into the margins of the page, and look kind of ugly. And you ended up having to go and do a lot of fixing of the positions of the images and stuff like that.

So in the end, the workflow was - Google Docs, save as .docx, import into Mac Pages, fix any kind of page formatting stuff that we needed to fix, and then export as a PDF. And that worked for us.

Len: That’s quite a journey. Thanks for all of the details.

I wanted to ask for any other self-published authors listening: both of your books have great covers. And I really like the one for Python For The Life Sciences, where the sort of strand of DNA is the snake, presumably a python.

Gordon: Right.

Len: I was wondering, do you have any advice for people about how to find a source of good book covers?

Gordon: I used Keynote to make that cover. Which is kind of the Mac equivalent of PowerPoint. I find that to be a really versatile graphic design tool. I don’t claim any great expertise or knowledge in graphic design, but Keynote is actually a really great tool if you want to blend some images together, and make some simple shapes. If you look at the cover of the book, it’s all fairly simple shapes, and takes a bit of playing around with gradients and colors to get it right. But yeah, Keynote - it’s a fantastic tool for putting together designs. That cover was completely designed using Keynote.

Len: You have a section at the back of your book where you ask for readers to send you any errors or omissions they may find, and just send them to you via email. Have you had any responses like that?

Gordon: Not yet, no. But, I mean, one of the things that attracted us to Leanpub - we both have software development backgrounds. We really like the iterative publishing model. It’s liberating to be able to get a book out there. Not to have to worry that every little typo is fixed, every diagram has the right caption.

Obviously we did our very best. We didn’t want to put something out there that looked sloppy or half-finished. For our own pride, as much as anything. But it’s great to know that if - there are always errors, and it’s great to know that with the Leanpub model, you have a way to go back in, fix the errors, upload the book, and all your readers are able to benefit from that too. That’s a really nice feature, something that really attracted us to Leanpub.

Len: Do you plan to make a print version of your book?

Gordon: We actually do, so actually - here I can show you on the video. Here’s a proof copy. With the cover. I actually expanded the cover, so that we’re on the back and it has the spine. We went to a local book store. They have a machine called a Gutenberg Machine, obviously named after the old printing press. And it does a really nice job of printing books on demand. It’s a black and white copy now, so the interior of the book is black and white. The machine unfortunately doesn’t do color. But we are exploring a number of places right now, where we might be able to produce physical copies of the book.

There are people who still like physical copies of the book. And I think also for libraries and schools and things like that, there’s still a place for having a physical copy of a book.

Len: If there was one feature we could build for you, or one problem we could fix, what would that be?

Gordon: I think putting the book together and collaborating on the book is something that it would be great to have - a more fully fledged tool for doing that kind of thing. And not necessarily in a web browser. I mean it could be like an app. For example, I’ve made some photo books previously. And a lot of those photo book, online services - they have an app you can download to your desktop. And you can actually build the book in the app, and then it publishes it to the website for you. So you’re not being forced to work in a browser with all of the limitations that entails.

So I feel like it would be great to have something. And also, a tool for creating a book, that would allow you to immediately go into multiple formats. PDF, MOBI, eBook - ePub, sorry. All this sort of thing.

Len: We do have that if you write your book using Leanpub.

Gordon: Right, right.

Len: We automatically produce PDF, EPUB, MOBI, and you can make a website if you want to. But around collaboration, that’s something where, it’s this huge area, where we’re definitely going to be doing work at some point.

Gordon: I can give you some tangible examples of the kind of problems we faced. We had lists of topics and things we wanted to cover. And we’ve put them all out on this whiteboard, that’s actually behind my desk. And then you’d have things like - well, okay - I wrote the chapter. Do we introduce Matplotlib in chapter four or chapter six? Oh, I think you introduced it. So some parts of the book, we would have explanations for things, where somebody had already introduced it previously in the book. And we’d have to move the explanation back in the book.

Had we covered all the topics? It would be really nice to have almost a kind of a meta book assembler. So that you could assemble the book in a kind of outline manner, with all the topics you want to cover. And then as people are working on it, you could tick off the topics and where they first appear in the book. And all that kind of thing. It’s more of the structure of the book, like a way to collaboratively define and keep track of the structure of the book as you’re working on it.

A lot of the features of most sort of book editors, are focused very much on layout and putting images in the text, and the markup and, what’s bold and where the links are. And chapter headings and tables of contents and stuff like that. Which is great. You need all that stuff too. But I don’t see much in the way of meta kind of - do you know what I mean? I don’t know if meta’s the right word, but…

Len: I do - I do know what you mean. Thanks, that’s very clear and that’s really interesting. That’s a really great observation too. I mean, especially where there’s so much emphasis placed, in so many writing tools, on formatting - but not on structure. When presumably, when it comes to the reading of a text, or most texts for most purposes, the structure of the text is far more important than the formatting. So that’s a really good observation. Thanks for that, we’ll process that internally.

Gordon: Alex and I both used - I don’t know if you’ve ever used TeX or LaTeX? They’re these sort of markup languages for creating typeset text. But something along those kind of lines, that way, you can really define the meta structure of the book as well.

I mean, like you said - the structure of the book is really important. And then to be able to, in essence, kind of apply stylesheets, like that CSS kind of model, where you have the structure of the book, and you say, “Okay, a chapter’s going to have a header and a footer. And it’s going to have this block of content at the beginning that describes the chapter, and maybe a picture and all that kind of stuff.”

And you lay that all out, and then you can just - “Okay, let’s look at it in this style. Let’s look at in this style.” And yeah really, really decouple the content and the structure of the book from the layout.

Len: That’s a request that we’ve had from some of our best authors in the past. And it’s something that we’re thinking about. It’s really - conceptually it’s very consistent, as an idea - it’s very consistent with Leanpub’s approach to writing. Which is that - when you’re writing, you should be writing, and you should consider formatting to be a separate process.

Gordon: Right.

Len: Like for 99.9% of books, that’s the appropriate approach. And separating those things too conceptually, is very important to us.

Gordon: Right.

Len: Unfortunately, I think our time is about up. And I just wanted to say - thank you for a great interview, and for making such a great book.

Gordon: Oh thank you.

Len: And for being a Leanpub author.

Gordon: Thank you very much, it’s been a pleasure. We loved it. I’m sure it won’t be our last one.


Leanpub Podcast Interview #44: Cal Evans

by Len Epp

published Jan 24, 2017

Cal Evans

Cal Evans is author of five Leanpub books, Signaling PHP, Iterating PHP Iterators, Going Pro, Culture of Respect, and Uncle Cal’s Career Advice to Developers. In this interview, Leanpub co-founder Len Epp talks with Cal about his career, his books, and his experience self-publishing on Leanpub.

This interview was recorded on September 15, 2016.

The full audio for the interview is here. You can subscribe to this podcast in iTunes or add the following podcast URL directly: http://leanpub.com/podcast.xml.

This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.

Cal Evans

Len: Hi, I’m Len Epp from Leanpub and in this Leanpub podcast, I’ll be interviewing Cal Evans. Cal is based in Jupiter, Florida and has been working for the past 15 years with PHP, MySQL on OS X, Windows and Linux. He’s worked on projects of widely ranging size, including multi-million dollar applications. Cal also builds websites and is a popular conference speaker, delivering both talks on technical subjects, and also motivational speeches. And I believe he also likes bourbon, so if you ever see him at a bar, please feel free to buy him a shot.

Uncle Cal's Career Advice to Developers

Cal is author of five Leanpub books Signaling PHP, Iterating PHP Iterators, Going Pro, Culture of Respect, and most recently, Uncle Cal’s Career Advice to Developers. A little bit later, I’ll be asking Cal some questions about his books.

In this interview we’re going to talk about Cal’s professional interests, his experience self-publishing using Leanpub, and ways we can improve Leanpub for him and other authors.

So thank you Cal for being on a Leanpub podcast, and for sitting through that intro.

Cal: Not a problem, I’m happy to be here.

Len: I usually like to start these interviews by asking people for their origin story, so I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about how you became Cal Evans.

Cal: Sure. But before I say that, you listed the five that I actually have released. You skipped over the like 10 books that I’ve started, and never released - including such developer-centric books as “Oh crap, why did I do that?”, reviewing my old code. But no, back to my origin story.

I started programming when I was 18 years old. That was way back in the early 80s. I started programming, I got married the same year. You know what that means. I ain’t going to lie. I got married. I got a computer. I spent all my time programming, because I’m a geek.

I started working on a Commodore 64, and all of a sudden I discovered that people would pay me to do this - and it was surprising to me. So I started coding for a living. I’ve had various other career paths, short career paths.

I used to do live concert videos. I used to direct and edit them. And at one point, I ran a printing company - but old school, offset press. But for the past 15 years I’ve done MySQL and PHP. And for the past 10 years, my focus has been on developers, building better developers. And that is my goal, to help people become a better developer.

On one of my profiles, it says “I don’t want to change the world, I just want to help you become a better developer.” So, that’s what I am. I’m old school. As long as people still keep paying me to do this, I’ll keep doing it.

Len: And what are you working on currently?

Cal: I am the manager of training and certification for Zend. So I handle, amongst other things, the official PHPs, or the official Zend PHP certification: Zend Certified Engineer. I also manage the team that built all the training, and builds and delivers all of the online training.

And then, of course - like every good developer, I have in addition to the books, a couple of side projects. Nomad PHP, which is - we get together twice a month now, we have two meetings every month. We get developers together online, and I’ll have a conference speaker come online and give one of the conference talks, because not everybody can make it to a conference. So we get together and we do this twice a month.

And then three or four times a year, it really depends on my mood, we will do what we call Day Camp 4 Developers. I get five speakers, and we all get online and we’ll have teams get online, throw it up on a projector, order pizza. And we’ll just spend the day focusing on one topic. Recently, we’ve done modern techniques for building applications in PHP, things like that. So, those are my side hustles.

Len: And how did you get into conference speaking in the first place? I’m interested to hear about that.

Cal: The very first time I was ever asked to do a conference talk was, I believe, right around 1995, and I was doing FoxPro, and I was so scared that I actually told them no, I can’t do it. And I went on to do one the next year, but I co-presented with somebody. And then, I just kind of ignored it. It wasn’t really interesting to me, until I went to work for Zend the first time. This was in 2005, I believe, and I was the “community guy.”

We didn’t have developer relations or developer advocacy or evangelism. I was just the community guy, and I was going a long right nicely. I built a website for Zend called “Dev Zone,” and I posted on there. And all of a sudden, my boss calls me and says “Hey, in three weeks Apple is having their Apple FileMaker conference in Orlando. There’s going to be 1,500 developers there, and you’re the closing keynote.”

Okay. So I had three weeks, not only to put it together, but to get my head around the fact I was going to get up in front of people. And let’s just say I was not awesome, okay? I still don’t think that I’m awesome, but I really feel that I shortchanged these people for what they had to pay to be there. But I did survive it.

Len: And did you do any kind of reading about presenting or speaking anything like that? Or did you just jump right in?

Cal: No, no, no - I’m way too arrogant for that. I’m a developer, I don’t read the manual. So, I just figured that I could do this, and I put together a presentation. I put together a demonstration, because this was FileMaker and this was when Zend and Apple had worked together to build the gateway for PHP and FileMaker. And so I put together a little thing using the now-defunct Netflix API. And it was really fun, and I learnt my very first lesson of presenting at technical conferences. Which is, “If your presentation requires the internet, make sure you have backup slides because when I -“

Len: Oh my God, yes.

Cal: - when I did my run through, while everybody was at lunch - man, everything clicked. It was wonderful, because I had the entire network to myself, because everybody was at lunch. I get up to present, and I go in there - and there are no IP addresses left in the network, and they didn’t have a dedicated speaker network, so I had no internet whatsoever. So, I would point and describe and say “If we could see this, you’d say ‘I got to get me some of that,’” so -

Len: I’ve done a fair amount of pitching. And yeah, you learn very quickly that you need to have all the equipment with you. I think I ended up with like a 24-foot HDMI cable, because the situations that you find yourself in, are so totally unpredictable. And you don’t want to be caught unable to do what you came there to do. Somehow the tech becomes your responsibility.

I was wondering - you talk about, on your profile - about “management by walking around.”

Cal: No, no, no, no, no. “Management by walking around” was either Hewlett or Packard. That was what they were famous for. Mine is “Management by wandering around.” Vastly different, vastly different.

Len: Sorry, I got that wrong. Can you maybe explain the difference to us?

Cal: I ran a team - when I coined that phrase, I was running a team back in Nashville, Tennessee. And this was - this sounds so stupid. It was around the turn of the century. And I had put everybody in cubicles. So I had these really high cubical walls. I tried to give them as much privacy as possible. And I realized that even though I had 15 people working on three different teams, and the team leads knew what was happening, I wanted to get a feel for where everybody’s head was.

And so literally, I would wander from cube to cube. And I don’t mean down the line. I would go here, and then I’d go visit her and then him. It’s all over the place. One of my developers brought in two buckets of Legos, and that’s how they would think problems through, was play with Lego. Usually if you couldn’t find me, I was over there at their desk playing with the Legos.

But that’s what I started doing, and I learned that I can spend five minutes with somebody without interrupting their flow. Because if I see them in the flow, I’m not going to bother them. But I can spend five minutes with somebody, and if I do that every two or three days, I know where everybody’s head is, and I can take the temperature of the team.

My team leads knew the project, and knew how things were running and all that - I wasn’t worried about that. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t burning people out, that people were feeling good about the project. Things like that.

Len: In your book Culture of Respect, in addition to finding and hiring people, you talk about keeping them. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what you say in that book about, How do you develop a good culture? What is a good culture for keeping developers in the medium term, or even the long term in your company?

Cal: Really I talk about that? I really need to read that book! No, I’m kidding. In line with the “management by wandering around,” one of the things that I am just really huge on is - I didn’t realize there was a term for it until later - what is called “servant leadership.” I was the first person into the office most days. I was the one that fired up the coffee pot. We worked right next to this huge Target Superstore. And so, I would go over to Target once a week, spend 50, 60 bucks on candy - and I had bought everybody a candy jar. So, on Monday mornings, I would wander around. And if your candy jar was empty, I would take your candy jar, take it back to my desk, and fill it up, and put it back on your desk. And I made sure that there was always coffee made.

That team - I’m not proud of the fact - but we got to the point where we were behind the eight ball, and we worked some long hours. And there’s only so much pizza that one human can consume. So I started catering in from some very nice restaurants in the area. And my food bill was three, four thousand dollars a month, for about two months while we were doing this. But I was asking a Herculean effort from these people. It was important to me that I showed them that kind of respect.

I also sent flowers or appropriate gifts to all of their significant others. When the project was finally finished, everybody got gift certificates. I think most of them were to The Melting Pot a high-end fondue restaurant, enough to cover a nice meal for two, and things like that - to show not only them, but their family and their significant others that me and the company really appreciated what they were having to go through.

Niceties and little things like that, that’s like a having a foosball table or a kegerator - it’s not going to make the difference. But the respect - the fact that I took the time to do this. I didn’t say, “We need to go do this.” I didn’t assign somebody to do this. I took care of making all these things myself - to show them that I respect what they do.

And quite honestly, that was a team - we were running Java and Oracle, and I know a little PL-SQL, and I can read Java, but I couldn’t do their job. I couldn’t dive in and help them. So, I did the next best thing. I tried to take care of everything else. That was also the office where we had two doors into the developer area. Both of them had combination locks on it, and if you weren’t a developer or my direct manager, who was the CIO, you did not have the combo. Even the COO and CEO had to be escorted in and out.

Len: That’s really interesting. I’ve never heard of having locks like that. But what a comfortable space that probably provides for people. Knowing that you can’t suddenly sort of look up, and there’s the CEO wondering why you’re playing with Legos. And then you’ve got to explain.

I was wondering, approaching the subject negatively - can you maybe talk a little bit about the worst workplace culture you’ve seen or worked in, or - I was going to say the worst example - the best example of poor management you’ve ever seen?

Cal: It’s funny, because I’ve actually got a blog post on my blog called “Good Boss…Bad Boss”, in which I break down four of my bosses. Two of them were my mentors, and two of them were Satan incarnate.

One of them was - I was working for my parents’ company. I’m the boss’s son, so it’s obviously not a great situation to begin with. But I’m the only computer person in the entire company of 40. I’m the computer guy. And we were using an accounting system – I believe at this point we’d migrated to FoxPro system. But the sales manager kept saying, “These numbers don’t look right, these numbers don’t look right.” I said, “You’re saying these numbers don’t feel right. I can show you the line items where this data is coming from, these numbers are right.” And she looked at me in front of everybody and says, “I don’t think you’re a good programmer. I don’t trust these numbers,” and walked away.

Even though I’m the boss’s son, there’s limits to what one person can put up with. It was at that point I decided it was time to make a career change, and get out of the nest, move out of mom and dad’s company. I had enjoyed my time there, but it was time to go. That was the absolute worst, because this person had no concept of how to treat people. This person was an old-school command-and-control manager. I don’t know anything about managing accountants or sales people. Maybe that’s how you manage them? You don’t manage developers that way.

I’m famous for making enemies by saying “If you’ve never been a developer, you have no business managing developers.” And this person had never managed a developer. They didn’t understand deadlines or anything like that. And so it came through, and they were a horrible manager.

Len: Yeah. It’s interesting. I was talking to an author named Janelle Klein recently on this podcast about issues around this, at a theoretical level like that. One of the images I like to use to convey the difference - not having been a developer myself, I mean I was kind of hazed by having to internationalize Leanpub when I started - is that, a lot of management practices are actually based, since ancient times, on visual cues.

So as a manager you can just, whether it’s stacking bricks for the pyramids, and you’re working with people under horrible enslavement, or bricklayers in Victorian times, as a manager, you can stand and watch, and you can see progress - are the bricks getting stacked? But with developers, that’s completely gone.

All those ancient instincts about ways that - whether they were ever good or ideal or not, did work. All those ways of managing people, like watching what they do, just completely blows up when your “worker” sitting in front of a screen typing away.

I mean, even if you do look at what they’re doing - and I’m just sort of supporting your point - if you’ve never been a developer, well you have no idea what you’re looking at.

But there’s other things you won’t understand as well, like - say they’re on Slack. You don’t go like, “Get back to work, guy.” That’s work. Hacker News, that’s work. Facebook, that’s work. You want your developer to have a wide net of information that they’re receiving and engaging with all the time.

Cal: I had another manager when I was working in Nashville that - this was my last FoxPro job, and he had been a FoxPro programmer. But if you don’t know FoxPro - FoxPro started off as a procedural language, and morphed into an object-oriented language. It’s a wonderful way to learn object oriented concepts. Because I already knew the language, I could control the concepts. He considered himself a very good FoxPro programmer, but I was an object-oriented programmer, and he considered me just a little better than him.

Well, he gave me this task to do, and it took me about two weeks, because this was some deep stuff, it was a compiled language - we did nested inheritance, and all this. Because you didn’t pay any penalties for it at that point.

And so, I was digging through this legacy code, and rebuilding it. And he came up to me one day, and he’d just had enough. It was a Friday. He needed to blow off steam. So he yelled at me for two hours.

Because he asked me “When’s this going to be done?” I said, “I have no idea.” And so he yelled at me for two hours. And I went back to my desk totally energized, okay? Because I was feeling the burn at this point. And I finished it up about an hour and a half later. I finished the project up. I didn’t know that was the point. But he had no concept. Even though he was a developer, he was the old command-and-control, “You do what I say, work harder.” That kind of stuff. Of course, I left that company. And I was told that six months later, he was escorted out of the building by security. HR had him escorted out, because he explained to a female business analyst that he could train a German Shepherd to do her job.

Len: Oh my.

Cal: Yeah. We all got a kick out of that. We got together for a developer reunion one day, and we all got a kick out that one.

Len: Wow. I guess it’s easy to judge from a distance, but if people have one flaw - I mean we all have flaws - but if a person has one kind of flaw that manifests itself in aggressive behavior, they might have others.

On that note, actually in the book Culture of Respect, you talk about building a character sheet for potential hires, like you would playing Dungeons & Dragons, and I found that really interesting. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that idea and what the division is between what you call soft skills and hard skills.

Cal: You know, it is like Dungeons & Dragons. I’m so deep into marketing, that these days it is a persona that you build. But no, it’s a D&D character sheet that you are building. And this forces the hiring manager - not HR, okay? I’m not a fan of HR. In my entire life, I’ve met one person who works in HR that I did not absolutely hate–and she did get on my nerves sometimes. But the hiring manager has to sit down and think through, “What do I really need this person to do? And what are the skills I’m looking for, and what are the traits I’m looking for?” Because there’s a huge difference.

Skills are hard. Can this person code in Java? Can they do C++? Can they do PHP? This kind of stuff. Traits are: Can they communicate their ideas with others? Can they have other people communicate their ideas to them? Because I’ve worked with developers who could tell you exactly what they were thinking, in ways you could understand. But if you explain to them that they’re off base, and you need them go this way - they would go ballistic on you.

So those are the differences, and I urge managers to sit down and think it through. Because if you don’t, what you end up with is what we call the “kitchen sink” job ad. “You need 15 years’ experience in PHP 7.0 or better. You need Photoshop, you need HTML, you need to be able to stand up your own Linux server.” All of this stuff. Which sounds real great - but really all you needed somebody to do, was to manage this application that you’ve got running on a server - or maintain this application.

So, think it through, don’t ask for everything and - I rail against HR, because HR usually likes to add things in. “This job requires Photoshop.” Well no, it’s a developer. He’s working, she’s working in a command line. There’s no Photoshop equivalent of the command line. So no, we don’t need this person to be able to do Photoshop. “Well it’d be nice to have.” No, not really, it wouldn’t. It’s just going to limit the candidates you get.

To those people - honestly, if you’ve got a kitchen sink ad - you’re not going to cast a wide net and get everybody. What you’re going to get is those people who will apply to anything. Because the people that you actually need, see all of that and understand you have no concept of who you actually want, and so they just pass over.

Len: I’m curious about your thoughts about interviewing people. Once you’ve got the ad out there, the proper ad, you’ve managed to fight off HR from corrupting the process - and there you are in the interview with the person. I was just curious about what some of your thoughts are, about what to do and what not to do.

Cal: There used to be a site, a long time ago, called Freshmeat. It was a sister site to Slashdot. I hope people still remember Slashdot. I actually wrote an article for Freshmeat one time called, “Nerd Herding” - it’s now up on my blog - and I talk about this very thing.

My process is this. I put out the ad, I do work with HR. We get the legal requirements covered, but I don’t let them add things like skills and traits and all this.

I get the ad out there, I get the resumés unfiltered. HR can’t tell the difference between Java and JavaScript. I need to actually see them. And I’d filter through them - I was hiring one time out in California, and I’d get 150 resumes a day, and I would pick 20 - and this was just posting on craigslist. I’d pick 20 out of that, that seemed reasonable, and I would fire off an email. I don’t go for trick questions, but I’d go for questions that cannot be easily answered. They’re going to require some thought.

I would say, “Hey, I got your resumé. Thank you. Why do you program?” - things like that. I would look for some insight to the person. Honestly, if they gave me anything at all, that would usually warrant a phone screen. So, that would usually filter about half of them. So out of that 150, I got 20. Out of 20, I got 10 people that I would sit down and call. I would talk to them on the phone for five or 10 minutes, and just get a feel for the person. I already know that the person has the technical skills - or at least is saying that they have the technical skills. And I know that they are a little bit insightful, because they responded. I just want to talk to them.

But out of the 10 people that I would talk to on the phone, eight to 10 of them would usually end up in an interview with the team. At that point, I turned it over to the team. I told everybody I hired, “I don’t have to work with you, I just have to manage you. These are the people you have to work with, they’re the ones that you’re going to have to impress.”

So we would do the team interview. I would call everybody into the room. This is a very expensive way to interview, but it’s still less expensive than making a bad hire decision. I would bring everybody in, juniors up to my architects. We’d sit down in the room. I would not say a thing after I introduced the candidate. And they would go around the table, just asking questions. As long as it was legal to ask the question, there were no filters that I put in place. And they would ask until they got finished. I didn’t stop them.

I think the longest one was an hour and half, and we were literally interviewing a rocket scientist. He worked at - what is it in Huntsville, Redstone? Anyhow, he worked at the NASA Center there in Huntsville. He was literally a rocket scientist, and it was fantastic. We ended up hiring him, he was great.

Then I would thank everybody. I would escort the candidate back out the front. The team would stay there, and then we’d sit and talk. “What would you think?” You think this, you think that. And then we would take a vote, right then. While it’s fresh on everybody’s mind, I’m going to take a vote.

If I had one person say “no,” then immediately, that candidate is no longer viable. Now that seems very harsh, because you’ve got junior programmers that have the same weight as my architects, and the juniors had to go first. I didn’t want them “me-too-ing” one of my senior developers. So we went around the room, everybody got a vote in hiring over 50 people in this way. I had two that we just walked away from, because somebody voted “no”. Because by the time you get to that point, everybody is either “yes” or “no, this is not going to work.” When I say I had two we walked away from, I mean we had two we walked away because we had one vote “no.” Usually, it was pretty obvious by the time I got back to the room, the mood of the team, and whether this was going to be a viable candidate or not.

I built some great teams using this methodology, because by the time the candidate got on board, they already knew everybody. The people were comfortable with them already. We had already started that break-in period. And so you get right down to getting to work, and building those bonds, that esprit de corps that is so vital on a development team.

Because when you have to work with someone on a project that is overdue - I hate to use the analogy “death march,” because that kind of minimizes what a death march really is, and what we’re doing is long and uncomfortable, but it’s not really a death march - but when you get into one of those situations where you’re working long hours, you’d better be comfortable with the person in the next cube or two cubes over - or tempers are going to start fraying. And I never had that problem.

Len: That sounds like a really fascinating process. I mean I can just imagine the impact it has on people, if they see someone that they’ve all endorsed, maybe having difficulty; they might be more motivated to help than otherwise, knowing that you’ve got a kind of collective buy-in.

Cal: That was the thing. The team had buy-in on each hire. So the team was committed to each hire. I did not bring people in and say, “Here’s your new team mate.” Other than the very first person. The first person on any team, I’m the one that hires them. After that, it’s a collaborative effort.

Len: In your latest Leanpub book Uncle Cal’s Career Advice To Developers - which I gather is the text of a talk?

Cal: Yes, the text of a keynote that I gave.

Len: You write about how - I guess is more from the individual, rather than the team perspective - you write about how the job will never love you back, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what you mean by that?

Cal: This was advice given to a friend of mine, Samantha Quiñoes, up in New York. he said her high school counselor gave her this advice: “The job will never love you back.”

I’ve worked for San Francisco startups. I’ve worked in that culture, I’ve worked in the, “We’ve all got to pull together and do things.” And the team I was building in Nashville, we were working so hard on - I was there, almost the entire time. I like to be the first one in. I hated to do it, but I wanted to be the last one out. Now we had some people working till two, three in the morning.

I let them stay. But I was there literally 14 to 16 hours a day, towards the end there. And the COO would walk out at two o’clock to make his tee time. And you’d see the sales people wander in, and wander out for early lunches and stuff like that. And it didn’t hit me until Samantha and I got to talking at a conference one time - because we get to hang out with each other at conferences - and she said that, and it just struck me - that’s the problem. Everybody tells you, you’ve got to love your job, you’ve got to give everything towards the company. Well, the only people that’s actually going to make anything off this company are the founders and the investors, okay?

You’re not going to get anything but your paycheck. So when it comes to your career, you have to be a mercenary. You’ve only got so much time to trade for money. So you’ve got to make sure you’re trading it for the most money you can get - money and benefits. And if you love the company, and you think it’s wonderful - hey, that’s great. But if you think that the company is going to love you back, it’s not. You’re not family, and if you want to put that to the test - be the slack-ass cousin who doesn’t work for two weeks, and see if you’ll still get the paycheck. Not going happen. You’re not family. You’ve got to treat it like a business.

Len: That’s a great lead up to my next question, which is - you’ve got a great line in the book where you say, “Some days, I’ve been the windshield, some days I’ve been the bug.” I really like that image, and I was thinking a little bit about it. Then I realized, in this context, this might be an interesting ambiguity there, that I’d like to ask you about, especially if you’re working in start-up land. You can interpret that as being, “Sometimes you’ve got to do really unpleasant types of work.” And this is actually a part of being responsible in your role. Is that what you meant, or were you talking about something else?

Cal: Actually that comment is much more of a day-by-day comment. Some days, you’re going to knock it out at the park, and some days, the bat’s just going to hit you. I have a version of that, that says, “Some days, you’re the windshield, some days, you’re the bug. If I’m the bug today, let me be an armor-piercing bug.” Because I want to blow through.

But you’re right. There are times when you just have to power through it. And I have another talk, which I believe is actually one of the books, called “Going Pro.” And in it, I talk about a similar topic, in that there are times when you, as a team member just cannot find your happy place on that team. For whatever reason - they’ve made a technical decision, you can’t get along with your manager - whatever reason, you can’t find your happy place. As long as the paychecks are clearing, you’d be an adult. You give your 110%.

But you start looking. Because if you’re not happy - you owe it to yourself, and to that team - to go find another job. You are not doing that team any favor by hanging around if you’re pissed off. Because if you’re pissed off, you’re not happy. It’s going to affect your work, no matter how much you think it’s not. So, you give your 100% while you’re there on the job. You don’t slack, you don’t, “I’m going to goof off today. They’ll never know, what are they going to do, fire me?” Well, no. You’re an adult. Do the right thing. But start looking around, and as soon as you can do it - exit gracefully.

And I don’t mean get so pissed off that you rage quit. Rage quits feel really good for about a day. I know, I rage quit a McDonald’s one time. The most pointless gesture I’ve ever made. But rage quit feels really good, until you call your buddy who - you knew it was a sure thing, because they’re looking for somebody just like you, and then your buddy says, “Yeah, my manager was talking to your previous manager. You kind of left them in a lurch. We can’t talk to you anymore.” All of sudden, that rage quit don’t feel so good anymore. So be an adult, do your job. But if you’re not happy, you owe it to yourself, and the team, to find you something else. Don’t be the bug everyday.

Len: I just love that image.

You mentioned it at the beginning that I left out of my introduction your unpublished books on Leanpub, and I was wondering if there’s one in particular that you’re more focusing on now? Or if you even have a plan for what your next book might be to release?

Cal: I am almost finished with my next book - I don’t know if it’s on Leanpub or not. My wife actually handles all of that now. Used to be, I did it, and that’s why I did Leanpub. Because Leanpub is easy enough that even I can concentrate on writing, and not have to worry about the book production. It’s a wonderful platform. But I don’t know if she’s put this one up yet. I have full intention to put it up there. It’s called Spin a Good Yarn, and it is everything developers need to know to build presentations. I don’t build slide decks, because my slide decks suck. My slide decks are white backgrounds with black text. And I upgraded on my last one, and actually put a picture of myself and a picture of one of my books. I mean, that’s a graphical upgrade for me.

But everything else that you have to do, from coming up with the concept, to writing the abstract, to getting a title, that will actually convince the conference organizer to bother to scan your abstract. To the practice, to how you do all of this. And then what do you after you present? How to be a good speaker for a conference, and not just a good presenter.

I will never ever do this again, but I recorded an audio version of it. And oh my God. Editing audio - I grew up around audio, but having to edit an hour and half worth of audio and take out - it just seems like I take these huge breaths on the microphone - having to edit all this out is a pain. But I got the book, the audio, five or six videos to go with it and all of that, and I’m putting it up. It’ll be at - and this is the worst URL I could find - spin-a-good-yarn. Or you can just go to my blog, and there’ll be a picture of the book up there.

Len: You’ve partly answered it already, but why did you choose to self-publish on Leanpub?

Cal: Well, that’s two questions. Why did I choose to self-publish? I have actually published through a traditional publisher before, and I got 20% of my book sales. And I just felt like I deserved more. One of the reasons that Culture of Respect is not on Amazon is, because of the price, I would only get 35% royalties. No. Amazon doesn’t deserve the 65% royalties. They didn’t do anything worthy of that. So, that’s only available on Leanpub, because you guys have a good platform and it’s fair. But the reason I self-publish is, I know I can probably sell more. I don’t know that I could make more, and I just like the control.

Why did I use Leanpub? I got to researching what it would take to do it. And I actually had systems set up, and I was playing with them - on how to create a Kindle [Note: Cal means a MOBI format ebook file - eds.], because that was my focus. I wanted to create a Kindle book, okay, and it was just a pain in the rear end. And yeah I’ve got KindleGen, and I’ve got all this other stuff. And I can edit the XML - what is it, the OPF file, or whatever it is - by hand. I can do all this stuff. But that’s not what I want to do. I want to write books.

And then I came across Leanpub, and I don’t know if I found you because of Google search, or somebody introduced me. But about the time that I found you, all of my friends found you also. For a while, I thought all you published was computer books, because every time I turned around, somebody’s publishing a computer book on Leanpub. I’m like “Okay, this is the platform I need. And I have published - I think you said five - I’ve started three or four more, and I have plans for at least three or four more next year.

I have looked at doing my own thing. while Leanpub is a wonderful platform, I want a little more control over things like stylesheets for PDFs. Where possible, I want to make it look really nice. And my wife’s a graphic designer, and she says, “Well this is all we can do in Leanpub.” And so I looked at several other platforms. I’ve even got a droplet out on DigitalOcean that has Pandoc installed. And, yeah that took a weekend, and some PHP code…. I can publish the Markdown, and it will– I’ve got stuff that’ll convert it to HTML and PHP, that will create the OPF. I’m like, “This just isn’t worth it.”

Leanpub gives me most of everything I need. I can either figure out the rest, or live without the rest. I don’t have anybody screaming at me, “If only your PDFs were a little more colourful, I would buy them.”

Len: That’s a really interesting challenge for self-published authors. To what degree do you focus on - in the end, after you done writing - on formatting? Or do you just go ahead and start selling?

One feature we developed, we launched a few months ago was, upload. So one way you could use Leanpub is to write your book in-progress on Leanpub, and then when you’re done, we have an InDesign export feature that you can use, so then you could take it, and then get it to your book designer. And then you can actually switch writing modes to the feature that we launched a few months ago, which is, “Upload your book,” so you can actually upload a PDF and/or a MOBI, and/or an EPUB file that you’ve made yourself.

We’ve got quite a few very good-looking books that people spent a lot of time, working even with teams of people, to get them to look really nice. And then they can upload them to Leanpub. And they can do that as many times as they want. And then they can take advantage of our high royalty rate, and a lot of our other features. Like email the author, email your readers - coupons, bundling - things like that, that aren’t really available on Amazon.

I just wanted to actually address that point that you brought up at the beginning of that great answer, which was that, for books that are priced higher than $9.99 on Amazon, they drop the royalty rate from 70% to 35%.

For people who aren’t familiar with it, there’s a whole discourse around ebook pricing. And there’s been a controversy since the Kindle came out, basically around this. But Amazon - it’s at a complex and evolving sort of position. One way of describing their position is, ebooks should not be priced higher than $9.99. They want that idea in people’s heads. And when I say people, I don’t just mean readers - I mean authors and publishers as well. Which is partly where the controversy comes in.

And so, if you’ve got a book that’s worth $9.99, and you’ve got a book that’s worth $11.00 on Amazon, you’ll make more money from the book that’s worth $9.99 per sale, from the book that’s worth less. So, it’s an interesting strategic move on Amazon’s part.

That’s one of the things that does make selling on Leanpub different. One of the reasons Leanpub is popular with people who write technical books, is that they are often books that ought to be worth more than $9.99.

I mean you can imagine - if reading a book gives you skills, that means you can now command a higher price for your consulting per hour. How much is that book worth to you? Well, lots.

And we’ve actually even got one book right now - that’s about getting a technical certification, that’s got a $200 minimum price. And people are buying it. This is a book that’s got no DRM, a self-published ebook. But it’s worth that much money to a lot of people.

Cal: Well, I fully support authors being able to charge whatever they want, and I fully rail against Amazon’s control of the market. But, I’m happy to put my $9.95 and below books up there. I’ve got series of books called, “Learn One Thing Books”. They’re short books; specifically, technical books. They focus on a single topic, and they’re $9.95. And what I do is, I publish them on Leanpub - take the MOBI, and shove it up on Amazon. It’s nothing deep or anything. I don’t recreate it just for Amazon. I take what you give me, and just put it up there. But I did not know that you had the “upload” thing. That’s really cool. I’m going to have to start doing that, because my wife is a designer.

I usually start in Google Docs, because that’s what I’m most comfortable in. And [my wife will] take it, and she’ll start breaking it up into text files, and putting it on Leanpub. But now that she can produce it, I think she will start using that. That works a whole lot better, and I don’t have to fire Pandoc. Because yeah, I got friends that use Pandoc, and they love it - but, that’s not what I want to do. I don’t want to manage yet another system.

I thought about actually writing my own, and I’m like, “Oh my God, why?” Just more code to maintain.

Leanpub is not a perfect platform - I’ve had disagreements with you all, although that was early on - and I think you’ve resolved most of the issues I had. It is not a perfect platform. It is a platform that has served me very well. And I’m very pleased with the service I get from you guys, and will continue to publish my stuff on Leanpub. And hopefully, help put a few pennies in your pocket, so that you can keep doing this.

Len: Thanks, I really appreciate that. And we appreciate you being a Leanpub author. I think you’ve been around for quite some time in Leanpub’s lifetime. so we really appreciate that.

My last question is about self-publishing. Is interacting with readers something that you do? Is it important to you to get emails from readers, or get communications from readers with questions about your books, or suggestions, or anything like that?

Cal: I don’t get a lot of interaction with readers over email. Occasionally, I will get tweets. I love the fact that you put a tweet in the front of the book. “Tweet off that you’ve bought this book.” I’ve had people do that, and it’s awesome. But, I go to a lot of PHP conferences, and most of my audience is PHP developers. Even for my non-technical [books], that’s mostly who reads it.

And I get to sit down at lunch and talk to people. And they say “Okay, you said this, but what did you mean?” I get to talk with them, and they gave me feedback. I had somebody write me today. “I’ve got one of [your] books,” and he gave me a long list of - the book is on creating brown bag lunch programs. He says, “I like your book. It has a lot of good points. But here’s how we’re doing it, and I think your readers could benefit from that.” And so, I’m about to go - hopefully in October - go into a revision cycle, produce a new version of that - based on Jeremy’s feedback.

Len: Thanks it’s interesting. I just love to hear about the different approaches that people take in the way - that publishing books can be part of a wider kind of environment that you’re operating in. Talking at conferences and things like that.

Well, thanks very much for your time today, Cal. I really appreciate it. And thanks for being a Leanpub author.

Cal: Hey, thank you for the platform.