In-Progress Publishing and Ebook Mitosis

by Len Epp

published May 04, 2016

One of the many interesting things we see at Leanpub is surprising requests from authors for unexpected processes and features that are inspired by their work on in-progress ebooks.

Leanpub was built to allow authors to start publishing their books before they are finished. (Of course, you can also use Leanpub to publish finished books too.) In one sense, in-progress publishing was already conventional for publishing novels in the form of serial fiction. But we realized huge advances in technology have opened up possibilities for in-progress publishing that are new and distinctive and go way beyond the publishing processes of the past.

Now, you can put up a landing page for a book you haven’t even started writing to see if you can get people interested in your proposed book. You can build up an audience while you are writing, and even sell your book while you are writing, as you publish it chapter-by-chapter or in even smaller increments. (Since publishing is as easy as clicking a button, you could publish a new version whenever you wrote a new sentence, if you wanted to.)

Crucially, you can also incrementally improve your book in response to what your readers are saying about it. If someone tells you about a typo, for example, you can fix the book and publish a new version in under two minutes, and make that new version available not only to any future buyers of your book, but also to all your current readers.

That’s all pretty amazing, but recently we had an unexpected request. An author who had been publishing a book-in-progress on two related subjects realized that really, he should be writing two separate books, with each book being more effectively focused on one of the two subjects.

In one sense, this is actually a pretty familiar enough experience for authors. In the conventional writing and publishing process, if you were writing one book and you realized it should be two books instead, you would effectively divide your plan or manuscript into two plans or manuscripts. When each manuscript was finished, you would eventually deliver it to your publisher, who would then publish each manuscript separately (assuming they accepted your decision and saw value in both manuscripts).

But with in-progress publishing, our author already had over a thousand readers of his two-headed book. The question was, how do we divide it into two books, and make sure all readers get both books in the best way? Does the author convert the first book to be on the one subject, and create a new book on the second subject, and then try to reach all the first book’s current readers with a coupon to buy the second, new book for free?

We concluded that sending out free coupons seemed clumsy and even potentially a bit spammy, which is always a concern when you’re doing something pretty new with digital products. Using a coupon means following a link and putting the book in the shopping cart and completing the purchase, even if it’s a free purchase.

Also, we recognized that the potential for this “ebook mitosis” situation to arise is inherent to in-progress publishing, and we needed to build a process to accommodate it. (Yes, I know, in mitosis the two new cells are supposed to be identical. If you have a better metaphor, I’d love to hear it. I’m sure there’s got to be one in classical mythology.)

The next thing we considered was just adding the new book to the Leanpub library of each existing reader of the first book. That idea had a certain tempting simplicty on its side, at least from a process and engineering standpoint.

However, that option didn’t last longer than it took us to realize we would have been repeating a proven mistake. Shoving new digital content into a person’s collection in this way is just something no one should do, even if you’re giving them something new for free.

There is just a basic distinction between a person’s collection of purchased content, and a subscription service, where doing something like this, once understood, would probably be seen as a natural bonus. No one feels like a principle has been violated when, say, Netflix adds a new comedy special. That gets to the heart of the difference between subscriptions and collections, and the way people relate to the objects within them (music, books, films) in definitively different ways.

So, what we’ve built is a feature that allows us to explain this development to existing readers of the book, and then give them an opportunity to either get the new book in their Leanpub library by just clicking a single button, or decline the offer by clicking a different button. We think this is the correct balance: at Leanpub we have a deep respect for the interests of both authors and readers, which we hope is reflected in the design of all our features.

Currently we’re doing the new book accept or reject by an email (which can be unsubscribed from, like all Leanpub email), but eventually readers will also be able to accept or reject a new book via a notification in Leanpub itself.

For now, authors have to contact us to do a book split. Since we will be handling any related support requests from Leanpub readers, we want to be prepared with an understanding of the details in advance.

As with any book update, whenever an author publishes a new version of their ebook, it has to be re-downloaded by readers, either on a computer or via the Leanpub app. Only the most recent version of an ebook (or in this case, the ebooks) is available for download from Leanpub, but readers can obviously keep files they have already downloaded onto their computers. With the Leanpub app, the old version of an ebook remains there until it is replaced by downloading a new version.

We’re guessing most of readers will be happy to participate in the evolution of the author’s overall project by embracing the new arrival.

In some cases, two books can be better than one.

We’d love to hear your thoughts.

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