Why Don't I Use Leanpub?

published Aug 28, 2014

by Peter Armstrong, Leanpub Cofounder

Today Jurgen Appelo wrote a very well-written post entitled “Why I Don’t Use Leanpub”.

Go read it now. Seriously.

Now that you’re back, you’ll know that Jurgen essentially makes the following arguments:

  1. No self-publishing experts suggest Leanpub.
  2. Leanpub is not a professional authoring tool.
  3. Leanpub does not have great formatting.
  4. Getting feedback by publishing in-progress does not make sense for him. Who would want to read a book more than once?
  5. Leanpub is focused on IT, so it’s a narrow distribution channel. No bestselling authors outside of IT are using Leanpub.
  6. Leanpub has high royalties (90%) but does not drive readership, so the book has less impact.

These are interesting points. There is much in them that is valid, actually. However, they also miss some of the point about what Leanpub is good for, and how Leanpub should be used.

The fact that there is so much validity in them, however, as well as some misguided points, is why we’re posting this here.

This post is not a rebuttal; it is me providing a whole bunch of context around all of the arguments. This way, you can have a more sophisticated understanding of what we are doing, and judge the arguments on their own merits.

First, however, the way the post starts makes me so thrilled:

It seems not a week goes by without someone asking me, “Why don’t you publish on Leanpub?” or “Have you considered writing on Leanpub?” or some other variation of the same question.

As a startup founder, seeing this is fantastic! This hints at the best three words in the entire world.

No, not “I love you” – I’m talking about the other three words: “Product-Market Fit”!

Anyway, reading that paragraph is so thrilling to everyone at Leanpub that I’m going to paste it in again. That way, whenever any of us look at this post in the future we get to read it twice:

It seems not a week goes by without someone asking me, “Why don’t you publish on Leanpub?” or “Have you considered writing on Leanpub?” or some other variation of the same question.

OK, with that fun out of the way, let’s get to the Serious Business of considering the arguments.

1. No self-publishing experts suggest Leanpub.

This is actually a huge achievement on our part.

Seriously.

Since I wrote most of the copy on the homepage and the author page, as well as an entire book, called Lean Publishing, explaining what we are trying to do, I am so proud of this.

When you look at Leanpub’s homepage and the author page, you will not see the words “self publishing” anywhere. I hate the term. It’s the polite way of saying “vanity publishing”. If I wore glasses, I wouldn’t be able to say it without looking down my nose while saying it.

Leanpub is not a platform for self-publishing.

Leanpub is a platform for publishing in-progress books.

Leanpub is the best way in the world to publish a book while you’re writing it. This is true whether you’re writing a programming book, a business book or even a cookbook!

The type of in-progress publishing we advocate is called “Lean Publishing”. It’s a nod to Eric Ries.

Leanpub is called Leanpub because of Eric Ries and his Lean Startup ideas.

I founded the Vancouver Ruby Meetup Group in 2007, at roughly the same time as I founded Ruboss, the company that created and runs Leanpub. (Back then it was called the Vancouver Ruby/Rails Meetup Group.) In 2009, before he was super-famous, Eric Ries actually talked at my meetup! I titled the event “Eric Ries (!!!) - The Lean Startup: a Disciplined Approach…”. His talk was called “The Lean Startup: a Disciplined Approach to Imagining, Designing, and Building New Products Speaker”.

Leanpub is trying to do for publishing (yes, for publishing, not to publishing) what Eric Ries and The Lean Startup did for startups.

After Eric spoke at my meetup in April 2009, we went for drinks, and over some tasty scotch we talked about publishing his blog as a book. The publishing platform that Scott Patten and I were working on would be able to do that, trivially. (Back then it was called Sopobo, which we thankfully renamed to Leanpub. Thanks Eric!)

The result was Eric Ries’s first book. No, not The Lean Startup. I’m talking about Startup Lessons Learned.

This book, a collection of Eric’s excellent blog posts, organized by month, was the first book published and sold on Leanpub. It was published and sold its first copy on April 21, 2010. I’m a romantic, and that date is my wedding anniversary, which is the perfect day to launch products.

Anyway, from that day forward, we did not focus on convincing anyone that we were a good way to self-publish. We convinced people that we were a good way to publish in-progress books according to the Lean Publishing principles.

Here’s the definition of Lean Publishing, which I’ve been saying at conference talks around the world (NYC, Frankfurt, Brisbane, SF and Edinburgh) over the past couple years:

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

This applies for both self-published authors, and for publishers.

One of the bestselling books on Leanpub, The Rails 4 Way, is an Addison-Wesley book. It was published on Leanpub as it was written, and then retired when it was complete. Obie and the other authors had a great experience writing it using our platform.

Do you think Addisson-Wesley considers it a self-published book?

2. Leanpub is not a professional authoring tool.

Correct!

Leanpub is a way to publish and sell in-progress ebooks.

Leanpub is not in the text editor, word processor or page layout business. Yeah, sure, we added a way to edit your Leanpub books in the web browser, but we did this primarily for demo purposes and as a way for new authors to kick the tires if they didn’t have a Dropbox or GitHub account to use to sync with us. Leanpub is as much in the authoring tool business as GitHub is: not at all.

This is great, by the way!

You can use many tools to write on Leanpub. I use a combination of Emacs and iA Writer. I like Emacs since I’m a nerd, and I like iA Writer since it makes the entire focus be on your writing while writing Markdown, and the minimal formatting gets out of your way. (I’m writing this blog post in iA Writer, in Markdown.)

3. Leanpub does not have great formatting.

Correct!

At Leanpub, we believe that for an in-progress book, formatting is just procrastination.

You should not be spending your time formatting; you should be spending your time writing. The amount of formatting that we support is essentially what Markdown supports, with some book-specific extensions for things like asides, footnotes, etc.

However, we do believe that semantic things like callouts, asides, etc are needed. Currently we support Asides (with A>), Warnings (W>), Tips (T>), Errors (E>), Discussions (D>), etc. And you can add custom icons using any icon in the amazing Font Awesome library. By the way, we love Font Awesome so much that we paid $1999 to be sponsors of Font Awesome Black Tie’s Kickstarter campaign.

So Jurgen, if you’re reading this, you can customize your asides with custom icons, so it could be that we kind of do what you want. And it could be that we should add a Callout section. Email me if you want to discuss that!

Anyway, that’s not really important. The important thing is this:

Once your book is done and you have written every word in it, what to do next?

Well, for one, that is the perfect time to do the formatting!

So, we support easy InDesign export with one click! This way, you can use a professional formatting tool to make your book look good. But the key is, you are doing this once, at the end of the writing process. This is much more efficient than doing it throughout the writing process.

4. Getting feedback by publishing in-progress does not make sense for him. Who would want to read a book more than once?

I’ve written a lot about this already, so I’ll keep it short:

Publishing in-progress makes the most sense for computer programming books, since technology changes so quickly. You need to reach the innovators and early adopters, or “earlyvangelists” in Steve Blank’s terms, while the information is still current. If you wait to publish until your book is done, then the innovators will have gotten everything they need from blog posts and moved on. You need grassroots buzz around a book from thought leaders, and thought leaders don’t read tired old books.

However, it’s a lot deeper and broader than that.

I recently read Ben Horowitz’s book The Hard Thing About Hard Things. It was a fantastic book.

But I’d already read about half of it before! Where? On Ben’s blog. Blogging lets you develop your voice and build an audience. Much of what you write on a blog can be refactored (to use a programming term) into book material.

If you are writing a book, whether it is a programming book, a business book or another type of non-fiction book, you can go about it a couple of ways:

  1. Write the whole thing in stealth mode and then publish it all at once. Have a launch and hope for the best.
  2. Publish parts of it as you are going, and get traction and feedback from readers.

Note that #2 can be done by blogging, by using Leanpub, or by doing both! This is why we have one-click blog import functionality: chances are if you have a blog, it has some good raw material for your book!

This is true for technical books, but also true for business books and other non-fiction.

Now, fiction is a bit trickier: for fiction, you typically do only want to read it once.

The solution here is serial fiction. I’ve talked about this a lot at publishing conferences, connecting this to everything from Victorian England (Charles Dickens, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Wilkie Collins, etc) and Fifty Shades of Grey, which started as Twilight fan fiction called Master of the Universe.

We’re at the beginning of a renaissance for serial fiction. Watch this space.

5. Leanpub is focused on IT, so it’s a narrow distribution channel. No bestselling authors outside of IT are using Leanpub.

It is true that no bestselling authors outside technical and business topics are using Leanpub. This is due to a number of factors:

  1. Leanpub used to be really hard to use, so only computer programmers could figure it out.
  2. The initial traction that Leanpub got was in the computer programming and agile community. Since Leanpub is primarily growing by word of mouth, this explains our current distribution of books. (I like to joke that we are a viral loop startup, but that we have the world’s slowest viral loop: at every cycle through the loop, it involves someone writing part of a book. Think of Leanpub as kind of like Ning in this regard.)
  3. Markdown seems scary. Now, this is actually a problem that will go away as much better funded companies (e.g. GitHub) expose more and more people to Markdown. Also, Microsoft Word is a generational thing: my son’s generation will not be as attached to it as my father’s. Hopefully Leanpub can play a small role in that happening.

6. Leanpub has high royalties (90%) but does not drive readership, so the book has less impact.

This is a false choice.

First, our royalty rate is actually 90% minus 50 cents, so it’s $8.50 on a $10 book (85%) and $17.50 on a $20 book (87.5%).

But at every price point, our royalty rates are better than Amazon KDP, which is essentially 35% between $0.99 and $2.99, 70% between $2.99 and $9.99, and 35% at $10 and up. I say “essentially” since it’s more complex; the actual pricing page for Amazon is here.

Now, why is this important? Simple:

At Leanpub, authors own their work and can sell it wherever they want. This includes on Amazon and Apple.

Since we pay better royalties, it makes sense for authors to send their direct traffic (from Twitter, their blog, and mailing list) to Leanpub. However, it also makes sense for authors to publish their Leanpub books on any other channel that works for them in terms of getting sales.

This is why we encourage authors to sell their Leanpub books on Amazon KDP and Apple.

By the way, if they use KDP Select, they can’t sell anywhere else (including Leanpub). So, obviously, we don’t encourage that, since it destroys the business model of every other bookstore and publisher in the world. But if a Leanpub author wants to publish their book in KDP Select, they are free to do so–they should just retire the book on Leanpub first, to comply with Amazon’s terms of service.

Conclusion

In short, with Leanpub you can have your cake and eat it too! You can write using your favorite tools, publish on Leanpub as you are writing and when you are done (earning a great royalty rate the entire time), and also publish on channels like Amazon and Apple when you’re done, in order to get the reach that you want.

Now, does that mean Leanpub is perfect?

Hardly.

Right now the Leanpub website is kind of ugly, especially for readers after the purchase is completed. We’re fixing that.

Also, one thing which we really want to do is help our authors build their own email lists. We’re going to be integrating MailChimp to do this. This is something we’ve been asked for a lot, and we wanted to ensure that we did it the right way. We want to be transparent for our readers, so that readers do not get any emails they don’t expect, etc. But we think we’ve figured this out now, so stay tuned.

Furthermore, the process of reading Leanpub books on mobile kind of sucks right now. You need to drag files into iTunes or send them to your Kindle somehow. And who knows what you do on Android. We’re fixing this. Yesterday we submitted the first version of the Leanpub reader app to Apple for review. Hopefully it will show up in the App Store in a few weeks. Now, it won’t be able to buy Leanpub books (so the whole “mobile purchasing” story still sucks), but you’ll be able to read your Leanpub books and add new books to your Wish List. (Yeah, we’re adding wish lists too, finally!)

Finally, we have done about 1% of what I want to do for serial fiction. I want Leanpub to be the best way in the world to write, publish and sell serial fiction, and we’re nowhere near that yet. At Leanpub we love fiction authors, especially the genre fiction authors who have been marginalized historically. The snobbery toward self-published authors is only surpassed by the snobbery of literary fiction toward genre fiction or serial fiction. (The great people I met at GenreCon in Brisbane know how I feel about this.)

The goal is this:

In a couple years, when an aspiring author is considering writing and publishing something, whether it’s genre fiction published in serial, or an in-progress book about the latest great Javascript framework, the question should be the same:

Why Don’t I Use Leanpub?

blog comments powered by Disqus