Leanpub Podcast Interview #17: W. Jason Gilmore
published Jun 19, 2015
W. Jason Gilmore is a Columbus, Ohio-based software developer, writer and consultant. He is the author of eight books on web development, and has published over 300 articles in publications like JSMag, and Linux Magazine. He has published three books on Leanpub, the most recent being Easy E-Commerce Using Laravel and Stripe
This interview was recorded on May 28, 2015.
W. Jason Gilmore
Jason is a Columbus, Ohio-based software developer, writer and consultant. His recent projects include a Linux powered autonomous environmental monitoring buoy, and an e-commerce analytics application for a globally recognized publisher. Jason is the author of eight books on web development, including the best-selling “Beginning PHP and MySQL, Fourth Edition”, “Easy PHP Websites with the Zend Framework, Second Edition”, and three Leanpub books, “Easy Active Record for Rails Developers,” “Easy Laravel 5”, and most recently, “Easy E-Commerce Using Laravel and Stripe,” which he wrote along with his co-author Eric Barnes. Jason has also published over 300 articles in publications such as developer.com, JSMag, and Linux Magazine, and he has instructed hundreds of students in the United States and Europe.
In this interview, we’re going to talk about Jason’s professional interests, his books, his experiences using Leanpub, and ways we could improve Leanpub for him and other authors. So thank you Jason for being on the Lean Publishing Podcast.
Jason Gilmore: Thank you for having me, it’s quite a pleasure and an honor.
E: I’d like to start maybe with a biographical question, going way back. Can you tell us how you first became interested in being a software developer?
G: Sure. I think I’ve spent the majority of my life sitting in front of a computer of varying types. By the time I went to college, it was really a forgone conclusion, that I would wind up in software, just out of a pure interest in the topic that has again really been a lifelong interest. At the time didn’t know where I would end up in the software world, but I just knew I had to find a place somewhere within the industry. And I’ve had a lot of fun ever since.
E: So did you study computer science?
G: I did, I studied computer science at the Ohio State University based right here in Columbus, Ohio, and upon graduation, have since spent the majority of the last 17 years or so working for a wide variety of companies and clientele. I’ve spent the majority of my career working as an independent contractor. And I’ve worked with universities, with startups, small mom-and-pop type businesses, as well as a lot of other larger organizations as well. And I’ve always found it very interesting, because no matter whether it’s a mom-and-pop organization or a large company, there’s always a new and unique angle to the project you’re working on. So I’ve really enjoyed really every minute of it.
E: I imagine working freelance, or maybe “independently” might be a better word, must have a lot of advantages in terms of control over your time and the projects that you’re working on?
G: Absolutely. Especially I think - and this happens to a lot of more experienced developers - over time you begin to have the luxury of choosing more interesting projects. And that has certainly been the case in recent years. I’ve had the opportunity to work on a variety of e-commerce projects, both on the sales side and the analytic side. I’ve worked on some data warehousing projects. And as you mentioned in my bio, I had this really, really fascinating opportunity to work on a Linux-powered environmental monitoring device, which was way out of my general scope of knowledge, so it was quite a challenging project and a lot of fun. So, like I said, it’s great to work in this capacity, because there really always seems to be something interesting going on.
E: It sounds really interesting to have such a wide array of things to work on, and never knowing what’s around the next bend. Perhaps this is related to that, but at what point did you start writing about your work?
G: Interestingly enough, my writing career, if you will, started almost at the very same time that I landed my first professional programming gig. Making a very long story short, I was living overseas at the time, and I was working on a project for a company in Italy, and it just so happened that it was PHP based. At the time of course, PHP - this was 1998 I think - PHP was of course just a few short years old at that time. So I was scouring the web for learning resources, and happened upon a website that is still around today, called devshed.com. I went to the homepage - I remember this like it was yesterday.
I went to the home page, and there was an ad, a banner on the front page that said, “Devshed is looking for authors.” And I thought, “Wow, that sounds like it might be interesting.” So I emailed the individual running the site. And it was a gentleman named Randy Cosby. I sent along a couple article ideas. It was for both PHP- and MySQL-related topics. As I mentioned, they were looking for authors. So Randy was excited that somebody had inquired I guess. And next thing I know, I was writing regular articles for the website. I really enjoyed that, and interestingly, that began what I commonly refer to as my two careers in the software industry. One - hands-on doing development and consulting. And the other, a much more, let’s call it academic career, in which I was at least attempting to educate my fellow developers in some fashion.
And that project led to - now I’m dating myself, this was a long time ago - some early tutorials for the very new mysql.com at the time. Again, they were very happy to receive material, I guess. I wrote for zend.com, for O’Reilly Net when they were actively publishing tutorials, Web Review, and a wide variety of publications that were really popular at the time, I guess. And a lot of those have gone away, but what that did was give me experience, right? I prior to that had really no writing experience, other then that gained at college, writing the occasional essay.
So this was a great way to formulate my thoughts, and I guess prove to myself that I understood whatever that topic was. And again, back then it was primarily PHP and MySQL. And over the years again, that lead to writing for Linux Magazine, for TechTarget - so a wide variety of publications. And it gave me the experience to formulate these thoughts and try and communicate a usually highly technical topic in an understandable way. And I continued doing that very regularly. Certainly on a monthly basis, all the way up through graduating from college when I returned to the United States.
I finished my degree, and I’m not sure, it was two weeks after I had graduated that I received an email from a gentleman named Gary Cornell, who was a founder of Apress, a computer book publisher. And Gary said in the email - I also remember this like it was yesterday - “I really like your PHP articles. Do you want to write a book?” And I had never in a million years considered this idea of writing a book. Again, I had just graduated, and I was doing some contract work, even at that time. I responded and said, “Sure, let’s do this,” and ended up writing a book that was called, “A Programmer’s Introduction to PHP 4.0.” And that published in January of 2001, if I’m not mistaken. I effectively dropped everything and wrote that book over the course of about four and a half months. And I mean, I just - I dropped everything and just wrote full time. Because I was so excited about this interesting opportunity. And that book published, and it did moderately well. But what that did was really give me the writing bug, and really motivated me to devote an increasing amount of time to writing. And that led to the next book, which published in 2004. And the next in ‘05. And here we are, this is hard to believe - 14 years later, and I just published the ninth book through Leanpub.
Along the way, I stepped further into the publishing industry. I spent several years working as Apress’s open source editorial director, acquiring books that fell into the open source genre of all types - Linux, MySQL, Postgres - you name it. Pretty much anything exciting that was open source-related. I worked with authors to publish their books - that was a lot of fun as well. But here we are again 14, 15 years later and I’m still writing away and still having a great time doing it.
E: That’s a really great story. Obviously I have quite a few questions about your opinions about publishing and the industry, and where it’s going and your experience. But before I get to those, I’ve just got a couple of other questions I’d like to ask about. I know that you’re a co-founder of the annual CodeMash Conference, which is the largest multi-day developer event in the mid-west. I was just wondering if you could explain a little bit about what CodeMash is, and why you helped found it?
G: Sure, CodeMash is an annual event that is held here in Northern Ohio, in a town called Sandusky, Ohio, which is also home to Cedar Point, the large amusement park, just for a point of reference. And CodeMash was started, I guess, 11 years ago - give or take. By myself, a gentleman named Brian Prince, and another gentleman named Jim Holmes. CodeMash came out of a series of conversations that a group of us had about the mid-west and the lack of at the time - now this has very much changed - the lack of tech conferences. Given our three respective professions, it just so happened that we traveled on a regular basis to - well really all over the country, but to the east and west coast primarily to attend tech conferences.
I was at the time working for Apress as an editor, and that meant going out and meeting prospective authors all of the time. And one of the best places to do that logically is at conferences. So I would attend all of the conferences, and always marveled over how they were always in California, or always in Portland or Seattle or New York or Boston. And this, despite there being a very large technical community in the mid-west. And we just really concluded that the mid-west, and Ohio in particular wasn’t getting its due in that regards, and had the crazy idea - trust me, very crazy idea - that we would change that and start a conference.
And that conference became CodeMash. And CodeMash is, I think, a very unique event in that, well, it’s held in Sandusky, Ohio, which was not a tech hub for starters. But it also happens to be held in a place called the Kalahari Water Park and Convention Center. The Kalahari is the largest indoor water park in the United States, among other things. Well, we hold this in January, and Sandusky, being in the northern part of Ohio, is a very cold place, very snowy. So we have this interesting scenario where the weather is usually absolutely horrible, but there’s a large group of attendees inside, because the Kalahari is like a small city, it’s a very large complex, wearing shorts and sandals and it’s almost like a tropical environment. It’s really kind of funny. And so we have the water park, and there’s all of the things that you might imagine would come with that water park. There’s a large arcade, there’s all sorts of forms of entertainment. But, at the same time, the conference, which is now four days in duration, hosts - I’ve lost track, somewhere north of 250 sessions over four days.
E: Oh wow.
G: Half day sessions, which are four hours, full day sessions which are eight hours. And then something like 200 one-hour sessions on the Thursday and Friday. We also have something called KidsMash, which is a companion kids’ conference. So because the Kalahari’s a fun place for families to attend, the kids have the opportunity if they’d like to attend KidsMash, and learn about robotics and learn about programming and technology in general. So it’s certainly earned a reputation as being a very family friendly conference. And that’s something that you certainly do not see at other conference venues.
Over the years we’ve hosted a number of different bands. So we’ve had a number of rock bands, if you will, play on Thursday night. We have a water park party, and there’s a game room that goes on I think 18 hours a day, where you can play Settlers of Catan and all kinds of other interesting games. So a lot of fun, a lot of networking goes on. The event has grown to somewhere north of 2,000 attendees. So great networking, a great opportunity to learn.
And over the years, even as the conference has grown, we’ve stayed true to the really central idea that it would be low-cost. If you go to the west coast or the east coast, because the cost of everything is much higher - I mean the cost to rent a conference center in Portland is just astronomical, right? Because it’s so much higher, you wind up paying a pretty hefty price for a conference ticket. CodeMash, for all four days is just a couple of hundred dollars.
E: Wow, that’s amazing.
G: We have a very special hotel rate, yes absolutely. And the conference is, it’s a non profit 506-E3. The committee have certainly stayed true to that tenet of providing this low cost, high quality event. And just to clarify, I say “we” because of course, this goes back more than a decade, and I’m still in many ways very wedded to the conference. But I, and one of the other co-founders, are - we call it “retired” as of last year. So we are consulting members to the board, if you will. Which means we complain about whatever, and are generally useless. But it’s a great event, and if you’re - I was going say anywhere in the mid-west, consider attending. But the reality is, if you’re anywhere in the United States, I would suggest giving it a look. We have people from California, Florida, Georgia, Texas. People come from overseas every year - from England, from Germany. So it’s grown to be quite a sizable event, and I strongly recommend checking it out.
E: Well thanks for that, it sounds like a really great thing to have created, and very innovative in the best sense of the term.
Just switching gears a little bit. I have a question I read in the introduction to Easy Laravel 5, your Leanpub book. You focused on PHP for much of your career, as you’ve been saying in this interview. But then you wandered away from PHP for a while, before coming back to it via Laravel. Can you explain this professional journey, and why you were losing interest more or less in PHP, and why you came back to it?
G: Yeah, absolutely. Back in - let’s say 2008, 2009, I think the sentiment was shared by a number of other programmers at the time. It just felt like maybe the PHP language was being passed by, in a sense, by other emerging technologies. And certainly this is maybe a general characteristic fault of many developers - myself included, that you’re always looking for the next new interesting, shiny object to learn about. And there was quite a bit going on at that time. Node had just come out, in ‘09. I think Angular had just come out. Rails of course was a very, very hot topic at the time. And it just seemed like there was a lot going on in these other areas, that wasn’t necessarily going on in PHP. It almost sounds like an accusation, when in reality, maybe I was part of the problem, right? But being an open source project, if I had felt that, and others had felt that - maybe we should have attempted to inject some excitement into the community. But at any rate, there were a number of individuals who did do that, right? And I think the sentiment was widely held at the time.
And, so I’d stepped away. Not stepped away, I just had gotten caught up in doing a lot of Rails work at the time, frankly. But none the less, having been involved with PHP for so long over the years, of course I just kept an eye on what was going on. And out of nowhere, along comes - for instance, Composer, the package manager, which was and still is a huge improvement to the overall workings of PHP application development. And then of course, a number of frameworks really started to get popular. And we saw a lot of micro frameworks come out of nowhere. Laravel came along. And all of a sudden, there was - PHP went from being an area that, although still in very widespread usage - I mean, there’s no debate about that, it was just not a particularly exciting place to be in, and suddenly it became an incredibly hot topic again. And really it was Laravel in particular that captured my attention. And here we are. I’ve since written 2 books about the topic. But it was really interesting and I think exciting to see this community that has been so prominent for so long, really - it has a second wind right now, or maybe third wind. But I think there’s really no more exciting time than now to be a PHP developer. Which is pretty cool considering the language is, I guess technically, 20 years old, right?
G: And you can’t really say that about a lot of programming languages. It’s just a very exciting time for PHP developers, and I’m glad to be part of it.
E: Speaking about your books, I noticed that sometimes you involve the idea of getting the person who’s reading the book involved in the development of a real world project. I found the Arcade Nomad project to be fascinating in particular. After I read it, I lost some time doing retro gaming, specifically Shinobi. I’d forgotten that if you touched someone or something, you just die.
G: That’s right.
E: No health points or anything like that, you’re just gone.
G: I have a Shinobi arcade game in here in my house. It’s one of my favorite video games of all time.
E: Oh yeah, it’s fantastic. Before I move on, I have a question related to that. Can you give a description about what the Arcade Nomad project is, and what inspired it?
G: Sure. I am a very big believer of including companion projects in the book - so, basing the book around some sort of thematic project that would certainly be a viable, real world application that somebody might want to build, and maybe turn into a business. And at the same time, I’m very adamant about only writing about technologies and topics that interest me. Because I think you’re going to write a better book if you’re truly into the topic, and interested in the topic, then I think a better book is going to come out of it. And being a child of the 80’s, I spent a heck of a lot of time playing arcade games inside malls and gas stations and grocery stores, and you name it. Of course as the years have passed, those arcade games have become very few and far between. At least here in Ohio, there’s almost no arcades left.
So I thought it would be interesting to basically build a companion project that would allow fellow interested aficionados of arcade games to add arcade games that they find out in the wild - maybe if they’re at a gas station or a laundromat or whatever. They could add the game to the site and help fellow arcade gamers find those as they’re passing by. That became the theme project for Easy Active Record For Rails Developers. I had a lot of fun building it. Unfortunately, I don’t travel anywhere near as much as I used to, so I don’t exactly contribute to the site. But yeah, you really want a project that captures the attention or the fascination of the reader, and can hold their attention throughout the course of the book. Whether the reader is 20 years old or 50 years old, I think pretty much - I’m stereotyping a bit here - but pretty much everybody in tech can relate to video games at one level or another.
E: On that note, I actually noticed an interesting element to your latest book, Easy E-Commerce using Laravel and Stripe. There’s sort of a gaming element built into it, where there’s this fictitious lawn care company named, “We Do Lawns.”
G: That’s right.
E: And there’s this villain, who’s actually a boss, whom you set up as the surly company owner, Todd McDew. You set up this narrative where you’re actually doing work for this company owner and trying to sort of satisfy him at the end of each chapter…
G: That’s right. “Easy E-Commerce using Laravel and Stripe” was without a doubt the book that I had the most fun writing. And that was with a co-author, Eric Barnes, who’s also the founder of the very popular Laravel News website and newsletter. I had an absolute blast writing this book with Eric. The whole concept of the “We Do Lawns” fictional company and its owner, Todd McDew, and it’s assistant Patti Oregano, came about during the course of a very early conversation that Eric and I had about the book. We knew we wanted to base it around a companion project. I’m pretty sure it was Eric that came up with the idea of the landscaping company, and I think the name as well. And so of course we bought the domain, because of course that’s the first thing you do when you think of any project, right? Rush out and buy the domain before somebody else snaps it up.
And that just very quickly evolved into this story within a story, in which we had the company owner, Todd McDew - he’s a very gruff individual who knows he wants the website, but he doesn’t like tech. And so he begrudgingly basically works with you, the reader, to build the site. So we wanted to inject, even though it’s of course a little melodramatic, we wanted to inject this sense of realism into the book, where not only are you learning about Laravel and Stripe, but you’re additionally getting some sense of the tension that you might encounter when you’re working with a client who might not be entirely rational. He might be making odd requests for certain features and things like that. So we just had fun with it. And I think the book is much better because of it. We have some really - I hope - funny dialogue at the end of each chapter, in which you’re interacting with Mr McDew, and you’re telling him about the features, and he’s asking questions, very valid questions - and offering his opinion.
Not all tech books need to be boring and dry and very academic in nature. I mean the reality is, you can write a book that people enjoy reading, and have fun reading, and hopefully learn something from it that ultimately enriches their careers. I know that’s the type of book I want to write, and I have a hard time believing I’ll ever write a book that does not include some sort of companion project for those very reasons.
E: On that subject, and the subject of your writing and your experience with publishing and the kind of books you want to write - I wanted to ask you, given you’ve had experience writing a successful print book, and your work with Apress - I’d like to know why you decided to switch to Leanpub?
G: How many hours do we have? My interaction with Apress, as I mentioned, goes back 15 years now, and I’m still great friends with many of their employees. Apress is very much a part of me in many, many ways. And you’re right, I did write a very successful book for Apress, that has been in print for 11 years next month - and that’s very hard to believe. The book is called, “Beginning PHP and MySQL,” it’s in its fourth edition. And that was published in June of 2004. So we’re fast approaching it’s 11th year in print. By any measure, that’s a rare, an extraordinarily lucky outcome or result, to have a book that’s been in print that long. I’ve had a royalty stream for 11 years because of that book, and it’s worked out great. I can’t even imagine it could’ve worked out any better, right?
So logically - believe me, I’ve been asked this question many times - logically, why would you not continue working in that fashion? And the answer is, I think, complicated, but it really boils down to several key factors, first and foremost being control. I have complete control over how I write the book, how I go about writing the book, what my schedule is going to be for the book, how I want to market the book. Do I want to sell it just electronically, or do I want to do a print book? Which I have done, I self-published, “Easy PHP Websites with the Zend Framework” back in 2009 and 2010. And I published that as a real-deal print book, through a real, very famous computer book printer up in Michigan, called Malloy, and went through the process of publishing it in a very traditional fashoin. I’ve since moved away from that because the electronic format has become, without a doubt, the predominant way to purchase computer books these days. But certainly control is a big part of it. I control all of those factors now, and I very much like that.
But let’s, I mean, let’s not beat around the bush here. It also comes down to the revenue side. And Apress is, almost becomes, irrelevant when we move onto the revenue side. Because all traditional book publishers generally structure their compensation agreements, their royalty agreements, in the very same way: typically, an author gets an advance, which could be anywhere between - let’s call it three and six or seven thousand dollars these days - and there’s also the royalty stream that comes from it, which typically, this does vary a bit, but typically starts at 10, 12 percent. And what a lot of first time authors do not understand is that that comes from the net sale of the book. So if a book has a price tag of, let’s call it $50, it’s sold into a chain - Amazon, what have you - at a discount, because logically, the retailer needs to make money, so they’re not buying it at list. They’re buying it at discount. And I’m just throwing out a number here, just to keep this straight, let’s say it’s 50%. So a $50 book is sold in at $25. That is the number from which royalties are calculated. And again, just using the number 10% to keep this simple: a $25 sell in gives the author a $2.50 per unit royalty.
And there’s a million different other factors that come into play in regards to that money. That money of course is paid out a quarter in arrears. So you’re looking at 6 months before you see that money. But of course, the advance needs to be recouped, which makes perfect sense. But also a certain percentage of those royalties are held, often up to a year and a half, because of potential returns, which these days is really kind of irrelevant considering almost everything is electronic, or print on demand. So there’s a lot of revenue related factors that come into play as well.
Now granted, this is not - and I want to be very clear about this - this is not imply that a publisher is taking you behind the woodshed in terms of making money, because they have editors, they have marketing, they have printing, they have production, they have offices. They have all of this infrastructure that self-publishers logically do not have. And that’s a great benefit to a lot of first-time authors. Because, well, you get an editor. Which are expensive. You get a marketing team, you get all of these extra things. Right? But that plays a big part in determining what, in terms of the monetary side - what you wind up earning. And I invite everybody to pull out their spreadsheet and do some math to figure out how many copies you have to sell - again, using that $2.50 per book number, to make real, to make a decent amount of money. You have to sell a lot. Especially when you take into consideration the certainly hundreds, if not thousands of hours that you’ve put into writing the book. And that’s a big deal.
Now on the flip side of that, working through a service such as Leanpub: obviously Leanpub has its expenses. Leanpub’s only taking 10% of the sale, meaning the author gets 90%, right? [Editor’s note: Leanpub pays author a royalty of 90% minus 50 cents on every sale]. It completely, quite literally, given the example that we’re using, turns that revenue agreement upside down. The author, the content creator, earns the majority of the money derived from the sale. And again, I invite everybody to run those numbers. They’re completely different. Now, you do not have a marketing team, you do not have editors. There are a lot of things that you do not have. But because that revenue model was flipped on its head, you only have to sell a fraction of the number of books that you would otherwise have to sell through a publisher to earn the same amount of money.
I maybe went on a bit of a tangent there, but it’s very important I think that people who are weighing whether they should use a traditional publisher or a self-publishing service such as Leanpub, I think it’s very important that they understand that dynamic. Although, if you ask the question to any publisher, they’re going to be perfectly clear and explain that very matter to you, I still think it’s lost on a lot of first time authors.
So, there’s the control side of things, and there’s the revenue side of things. And of course, there’s the customer side of things. When working through a publisher, I have no idea who bought my book, unless they email me. I’ve no idea. And using a publishing service such as Leanpub, of course I can email those authors through the Leanpub interface, which I do on a regular basis - I can interact with many, many more readers than I would otherwise be able to, working through a traditional publisher. That’s an aspect of book writing that I absolutely love. It’s really great to find out what other people are working on, and how they’re using my book to accomplish that.
Maybe jumping back to the revenue and control side of things again, another great advantage of self-publishing is the flexibility. When you take a look at the Easy Laravel book for instance: I sell the book. I also sell the book plus three and a half hours of video. I sell the book, plus the videos, plus consulting: if you would like to consult over Skype, maybe I could look at your code, maybe I could explain some of the more complex aspects of Laravel or PHP in general. There’s that option as well. And those options just aren’t - because of the nature of the beast when it comes to traditional publishing - those options really aren’t readily available. You just can’t do that stuff so easily.
E: Thank you very much for that. I really appreciate all the detail. I think you explained everything very well. On that note, when it comes to doing things that maybe couldn’t be done before, and in particular in relation to royalties, that’s one of our big hopes - there’s this sense in which we’re hoping to unlock the creation and the successful publication of books that previously would never have been written. Because let’s say you’re writing, especially in the technical space - let’s say you’re a specialist, and there’s only 1,000 other people out there in the entire world who are sophisticated enough in the area to be interested in reading a book. Conventionally, what publisher is going to take you up on that?
G: That’s right.
E: How much of a commitment are they going to really make to it? And how valuable is it for you as an author to do that? Well now, with something like Leanpub, that pays a 90% royalty, minus 50 cents per transaction, if you can reach 500 of those 1000 people, but sell the book at say $20 or even $50 per book - you’re getting a 90% royalty, and suddenly it actually becomes worth it.
E: And so there’s a whole new space opened up for especially specialists, but anyone to actually write a book. And make enough to get a car or whatever it is you need to do. Or pay some tuition for your kids or something like that. It’s a whole new way of making publishing valuable to authors.
G: That’s right, and you’re - you hit the nail on the head. That book, if the perceived audience were 500 to 1,000 members, that book just would not be signed. And logically, I mean, this makes perfect sense. A traditional publisher’s just not going to look at that. Because it would be in turn, a hard sell for them to get it into the retail chains, right? I mean, what retail chain is going to want to put a pre-order in on a book that has such a small perceived audience? Whereas with Leanpub, that is a - if an author can turn around and reach those 500 members, or the 1,000 members - that, for all involved, is a fantastic outcome.
E: Yeah, I completely agree. One of the interesting things that’s unlocked by this approach as well, including self-publishing, and in-progress publishing that you can do with Leanpub, is that, especially in the technology space where things can move really fast - well, maybe a lot of people had their first or second book published conventionally. But eventually they’re like - the subject of one of the first interviews we did for this podcast series told us that, between starting a book and having it appear in the bookstores - he had a child.
E: And the world moves on from when you start writing to when something gets finished.
G: That’s right.
E: And the timeline of a conventional publisher - you were a thought-leader when you started writing it, but no one knew that, and by the time your book comes out, it looks like just conventional stuff.
G: And this is a very good point. I can draw upon very recent experience with the Easy Laravel 5 book. That book was published on February 4th or 5th of this year. And I tallied it up coincidentally yesterday. I have released 105 updates to that book since February 4th. Bug fixes, new chapter, improvements to sections. You name it. 105 updates, okay? If that book had gone through a traditional publisher, when that February 4th date hit, and the book was released - you’re looking - unless there is a really egregious error, a show-stopper - you’re looking at minimum 6 months for updates to occur. Just because that’s just the way it works. There’s just a process that is necessarily lengthy to do those sorts of updates. Now, contrast that with what I’ve just done here over the last 3 months. I released 105 updates to readers. And it’s so easy through Leanpub. I mean, I manage everything in GitHub, and write the book in Markdown.
And maybe a reader emails me and says “Hey, this changed.” This just happened last week. “This changed in Laravel, you need to update this path.” No problem. I open up Sublime, make the change, commit the change, go into the Leanpub interface, publish new version. If it’s a big change, I tell the readers. If it’s not, I just do the update and not bother anybody. It’s great. I mean, in terms of writing environments - and I think I’ve used them all over the years. Whether it’s Word or DocBook, LaTeX - you name it. This is the perfect writing environment. I can write the book in my code editor, which also happens to be Sublime. I can use the very same tools that I use every day for other work. Git, namely Github, to manage the book. And then, and maybe most importantly of all, I can use the Leanpub production mechanism. I press the magic button, and the book is formatted.
Having gone through, in 2009, 2010 with my first self-published book, I went out - and this is how insanely stupid I am sometimes - I went out and bought InDesign, spent $700 or whatever it was. Laid out the book myself to printer specifications at the time, because that book was - it was printed as well as in electronic format. I just had a horrible time managing all of that, and making the book look good. I used DocBook in a subsequent book, that was great too. But still quite a process, a chore, right? That’s not my strength. I’m not a production editor. I want to write. I don’t want to make the book look good. I mean, I want it to look good, but I don’t want to invest my time in doing it. And Leanpub does that flawlessly. The book looks professional, it looks great. I mean, I don’t know what else - I could go on and on about how great it is.
E: Well thanks, thanks very much. We really appreciate hearing that. Our customer development is very important - sort of a philosophy at Leanpub, you know the Steve Blank kind of philosophy. It’s been through interacting with people, with authors directly, that we’ve managed to build the Leanpub engine, as it were, into something that has hopefully a more or less automagical book creation button now.
G: That’s right.
E: And again thank you very much for your kind words. I actually have a very kind of “working author” question for you. I noticed that all your Leanpub books have the minimum and suggested prices set to the same amount. And for anyone listening, on Leanpub, authors actually set a suggested price for their book - which is presented to customers on their landing page. But they can also set a minimum price that is lower than that, and Leanpub customers can actually take a slider and slide that down to the minimum price if they want to. Or they can slide it up, and even pay more than the suggested price. So, Jason, I was wondering what led to your decision to make the minimum and suggested prices the same on all your books?
G: This is going to be a very anti-climactic answer. I’ve never given it that much thought. I mean, it’s definitely a cool feature of Leanpub. And you see, I’m always scouring the Leanpub catalog, and just looking at the different books, because it interests me more than anything else, and I see that a lot of authors do set those differently. I just, I don’t know. I just haven’t given it that much thought at that level of detail. Basically, my approach to pricing is really simplistic, and really underscores my general lack of expertise in that side of publishing. I start out by setting a price that I think is reasonable and fair, and reachable by your average readers. Not something too extraordinarily expensive, and which tends to fall around $30 more or less.
And then I will slightly tune it, which is another great aspect of self-publishing. I will start to tune it in the weeks that follow. If the book is not selling as many copies as I had maybe thought, well then logically I’ll drop the price a couple of dollars. And over the weeks, I basically try and find the perfect balance for the book price. But I just haven’t given the whole minimal pricing concept much more thought than that. I’m just trying to find, again, a fair and reasonable price. And I leave it at that, and basically put the majority of my time and effort into continuing to improve the book as quickly as possible, following that initial publication.
E: Thanks for that. I think that’s a great answer. It includes a lot of things including changing the price over time, but also taking into account where your energy and attention ought to be best directed when you’re working on a project. We’ve had some authors who really obsess over pricing. What’s the psychological impact of having a different minimum price from a suggested price? But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll do it one way or the other. And other people are like, “You know what? The pricing is not something that I want to spend a lot of time thinking about.” Obviously people will adjust it and maybe have sales, like a coupon on Twitter every once in a while. But it’s a really interesting thing how, sometimes you can optimize your processes by sticking to the things you really care about, and not trying to be someone you’re not and get involved in a type of customer engagement maybe that isn’t just something you’re really interested in.
G: To the audience, I’m sitting here listening to this, and really smiling ear to ear. Because that in a nutshell describes the transition that I have made as a self-publisher over the last five years, six years. Back in 2009 when I published the Zend Framework book, as I mentioned earlier, I was doing the production myself. I designed the cover myself, and if you’ve ever seen anything I designed, I am horrible at it. Designed the original cover myself. I had an e-commerce site set up through wjgilmore.com. So I was managing the sales myself. Well, I ask everybody - how much time did I have left to write books? Not much, because I was dealing with all of this other stuff, that were not my core competencies. And over time, I learned the hard lessons in regards to understanding what my core competencies are: writing books and hopefully talking to a lot of customers or potential customers about those books. Sticking to those competencies, rather than trying to be a control freak and manage everything else, right?
In the last eight months or so, I published the Active Record book in August on Leanpub. This has without a doubt, from a writing perspective, been the most productive eight months of my career. There is no question. Let’s see, 200 - I’ve written over 500 pages of published material, and have at least another 500 pages in development right now. So, I mean, without a doubt - not dealing with production, not dealing with e-commerce, not dealing with cover design has freed up the time to do that. There’s a very important lesson there to be learned there, because it’s easy to get caught up in pricing and fret over that, and easy to get caught up in all this other stuff that is not part of what - not only what you’re good at, but what you enjoy doing. I never enjoyed that stuff. Right? I mean, I guess the e-commerce stuff was - it’s always been fun but I just never liked that other stuff. I like writing, and that’s all I want to do.
E: It’s interesting that, in the context of technical publishing, that it reminds me of an old colleague of mine, an English professor, who, when his first book of poetry was published, I talked to him about it, he said to me, “Of all the things I had to go through to get my book published, almost none of them had anything to do with writing poetry.”
G: That’s right.
E: So yeah, it’s true across genres, because of the way the industry has always worked.
G: To be frank though, even in self-publishing, the last 20% of the time spent on any book, self-published or otherwise, is by far the most stressful, and the most time consuming, precisely because you have a million little details to wrap up. I’d love to be the fly buzzing around every would-be author’s room, because it’s that time that I believe most book projects wind up dying. The author becomes so tired and frustrated with himself and with the process, that there are probably countless books that have never been published, simply because that last 20% of the project is so rough. So by removing all of these other very important tasks from my stack, I can power through that 20% much, much more effectively than before.
E: On that note actually, I have one last question for you.
E: Is there anything on Leanpub that you would like us to improve? Or something that you think is missing, or that would just make your workflow even better?
G: I would say the book cover. The dedicated book pages are great, I mean, in that they serve the very obvious purpose of telling would-be customers about the book’s contents. I think those could use some work.
G: And again, this is coming from - I just told you I have zero design acumen. So I would not be the person to do that. But I think there would be some interesting opportunities to give authors the ability to add even more content to the book, and maybe organize it a little better.
G: One of the reasons that I have companion websites for each book - easyactiverecord.com, easylaravelbook.com, easyecommercebook.com - is precisely because I can provide even more potential information to readers, even though maintaining them can be teidous.
Now at the same time, I appreciate very much there being a single page for the book, the admin interface. You go in, you can use HTML source if you want. In some cases you can use Markdown. It’s very streamlined, you can input the information, hit update and be done with it.
So there’s two sides to that coin, right? On the one side it’s very streamlined and great. On the other side, I just wonder if there would be the opportunity to add a little bit of additional information. Other than that, I very much enjoy the service. As your colleagues know, I email hello@leanpub probably once every two weeks saying, “Did you know this is broken or whatever?” Little minor things. And I think, “Boy, these guys must really get irritated when they see…”
E: Oh no, no. Quite the opposite. That’s some of the most important work we do, is listening to people. And I’m not saying that in a precious way. It really is. One of the wonderful things about working with authors is that they like to write, and they have long attention spans. So when it’s sort of like the perfect kind of customer to have, for customer development.
E: They think hard about what they’re doing and are investing a lot of time and thought in what they’re doing. Sometimes their books are very important to them professionally, intellectually and also personally. And so any feedback we get is very good for us, and we really appreciate it. So I just wanted to say thanks for that feedback about how we might be able to improve those initial pages in the book, and also for what you were saying about your websites. I noticed in particular with easyactiverecord.com, you have a “what readers are saying” section. Something like that where people can put testimonials, would probably be really useful -
G: And those sell books. They have very profound impact on book sales. Yeah, I mean stuff like that, right? Stuff to really polish the edges of the page. Because fundamentally the important material is there, right? You guys definitely nailed that. But polishing the edges and adding those - again, optional features. They don’t have to be mandatory but… Maybe now that I guess, now that the gears are turning, it would be interesting to receive a little bit more in terms of customer demographics. For instance, country, or state. Little details like that, because that helps, if I wanted to do a Facebook campaign, which I’m running right now. Or a Twitter campaign, advertising campaign, because you can highly target individuals, and hopefully put your book in front of them, your advertisement. Having that sort of information - and I understand why Leanpub doesn’t divulge, unless the reader allows it.
G: I totally understand that, why Leanpub doesn’t divulge all of the customer details. But having some general information - state, country, city. Or any other optional information - profile information that the customer, again, would like to divulge. That would be pretty useful.
E: Thanks for that, that’s a really good suggestion. We do have some Google Analytics I think that you can use for tracking people who come to your webpage or people who convert.
G: I do use that, yeah.
E: But as you say, obviously for us, there’s always this trade off where we know, obviously the kind of author who’s into it wants to have as much information, and publishers who use Leanpub as well, want to have as much information as they can. But it’s very important to us to protect our readers so that information that’s important to them isn’t being released - basically, we don’t want people to have to opt out. That’s just not very Leanpub.
G: Totally agree with you there. I mean people can opt-in to share email addresses with authors and things like that. For example the feature you were describing earlier, where you can actually email your readers. That’s done through the Leanpub kind of form, so that actually they don’t see your email address, and you don’t see theirs.
E: That’s right, and there’s a certain type of author for whom that is a deal breaker. They’re like, “I want my list.”
E: And they want as much information as I can get about the customers. That’s just always a tradeoff for us, and we’ve got a pretty straightforward position on it. But it’s always something that we can work to improve, and maybe even be just clearer about.
G: Yeah, and my answer to that is a simple one, because I’ve had this very conversation with other Leanpub authors and customers, about that concept, authors who are adamant about collecting other customer information. I get that side of it as well. I understand that. Well, then there are other services out there in which you can do that. If that is what you need, then go there. Or build a list through a newsletter, right? I mean, there are other ways in which I do exactly that. I manage my email list through, in my case, MailChimp, and use Leanpub for a significant part of my sales. Leanpub strikes, in my opinion, an appropriate balance in that regard. Because I put myself in the position of the reader. If I’m the reader, do I necessarily want to divulge my details to a potential author? I don’t know - maybe. But as the customer, I appreciate having that choice.
E: Well thanks very much for that! I think our time is just about up. Thanks very much for being on the Lean Publishing Podcast, and for being a Leanpub author!
G: Oh it’s my pleasure, and thank you very much for your time.
This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.
– Posted by Len Epp