Leanpub Podcast Interview #38: Don Jones
published Oct 04, 2016
Don Jones is an expert on Microsoft’s business technology platform and a popular conference speaker. A co-founder of The Dev Ops Collective, he is also the author of The DSC Book: Second Edition, which teaches “everything you need to know about Microsoft’s Desired State Configuration technology”.*
This interview was recorded on July 21, 2016.
This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.
Len: Hi, I’m Len Epp from Leanpub, and in this Leanpub podcast, I’ll be interviewing Don Jones. Don is a leading expert on Microsoft’s business technology platform, and a popular speaker at technology conferences, and he has received Microsoft’s Most Valuable Professional award since 2003. He co-founded The Dev Ops Collective and powershell.org, and is currently a curriculum director for Pluralsight, which offers online video training courses.
Don is a prolific author who has written over 40 books, including PowerShell in Depth and Learn Windows PowerShell in a Month of Lunches. Recently, he published his first book on Leanpub, I think - *The DSC Book: Second Edition. His book is focused on the topic of desired state configuration - or DSC, which we’ll be talking about a little bit later.
You can follow Don on Twitter @concentrateddon, and he blogs at donjones.com. In this interview, we’re going to talk about Don’s career, his professional interests, his book, and his experience self-publishing an in-progress book on Leanpub.
So thank you, Don, for being on the Leanpub podcast.
Don: Thank for having me. Good to be here.
Len: I usually like to start these interviews by asking people for their origin story. I’ve read a little bit about your story on you blog, and I was hoping you’d talk a little bit about how your career got started, and how you got to where you are now.
Don: Yeah, so I was working for a company called Electronics Boutique, which has since been purchased by GameStop. They’re a video game retailer. That was my first IT job. I worked in one of the stores for a while and wound up with a job at the home office in IT. I was an AS400 operator, but I’d always had a programming hobby background, and so it wasn’t too long before I was doing a lot more than just helping run the AS400. And from there, I’ve worked at companies like Bell Atlantic. I’ve worked for Microsoft training partners. I’ve been independent. I was independent for about 12 or 13 years, I guess.
I did a lot of consulting and a lot of work for different clients - all kinds of different stuff - and a lot of writing. That’s, I think, when I did probably the most writing, particularly in the long-form published books. Then a couple years ago I took a job as a curriculum director with Pluralsight, which kind of gives me an opportunity to reach out a little bit further than myself, and help work on large projects, and help other people becoming better trainers and reach people. So it’s been a lot of fun.
Len: I read on your blog that your first job was working on military jets, that you were a military jet mechanic? Is that right?
Don: I was a civilian employee for the Department of the Navy, for their depot-level maintenance which is when they pull the airplane all the way apart to nuts and bolts and rework the whole thing. The Navy guys don’t do it, just because it takes so long. By the time you’d finish it, your enlistment is up and you can get out. So I was a four-year apprentice, and worked on A6’s and F14’s.
Len: This is going to be a little bit left field, but it just occurred to me when I read that. As someone who used to work on those jets, I was wondering if you have any thoughts about the F15? (Note: Len meant the F35, not the venerable F15 - eds.). This controversial fighter jet that’s been developed over the past few years - and has run into so many hurdles, but may have jumped the last one recently.
Don: So the 15 has actually been in service for a long time. That’s an Air Force aircraft, and it’s kind of a contemporary of the 14 I worked on. I forget what the number is - I know that - think it’s the F32, or something like that? That’s the one they were going to develop one airplane for all four forces. And I don’t know. I’ll believe it when I see it. It’s a tall order, it’s tough to do that. You’re taking an aircraft that the Air Force wants to be able to fly and do their missions, which is great, and they have a lot of things - when they design an aircraft, they want to be able to change an engine in 20 minutes, and have all these metrics for how the airplane has to be serviceable, which is hugely important to their mission. The Navy on the other hand, basically wants it to be able to crash land on a floating postage stamp in the middle of the ocean - which is a totally different aircraft. Bigger landing gear, much bigger thing - maintenance is often harder. So it’s going to be really interesting to see if they can pull that off.
Len: When you say a postage stamp I assume you’re referring to the aircraft carrier, obviously. Did you ever have an opportunity to go on one of those?
Don: Yeah. Not for anything where they were in combat or anything like that, but as part of our apprenticeship, we got to go take a tour. I think it was the John F. Kennedy that we got to go on to, and see the airplanes that we were working on in real life and operation.
Len: That’s really fascinating to me.
Don: Yeah, they’re amazing machines.
Len: Two nuclear generators on some of the bigger ones, is that correct?
Len: And they’re powered for like 50 years or something like that?
Don: Oh yeah. They can go forever. I mean, they go out to sea for incredible lengths of time with their fleet that travels with them - six months, eight months is pretty common.
Len: Another totally from-another-direction question - you write on your blog about how you became attached to being independently employed, in spite of the uncertainty and the risk. And I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what it was like to have that kind of independence? I assume you have quite a bit under Pluralsight now, as well. But I’m just curious about that dynamic - about being an independent consultant, versus being an employee.
Don: It’s tough. I mean, the upsides are - when you want to take off, you take off. So if you’ve got nothing going on on a random Tuesday afternoon, and you want to go see a movie - you’re free to do that. You don’t have to hang out and just put in your hours at the desk. So there’s a lot of upsides. If you work really, really hard, and you take on a lot of work, and you get it done well, you get to keep all that money. So it’s not like working for the man where you can really bust your butt and not necessarily come out any further ahead.
On the other hand, you’re the only one making the money. So you’re kind of constantly worried about, “Am I getting today’s job done? Am I marketing for tomorrow’s job? Am I making sure I’m lining stuff up?” You have to kind of get used to when your valleys and your peaks are so that - maybe you have to pile on really hard at a certain time of year, to cover a traditional slump at another time of year. And you have to be able to really manage your money. It’s not like living paycheck to paycheck, where you can spend this one because you know there’s going to be another one just like it in a couple of weeks. That’s rarely the case. The money tended to flow very, very, very unevenly. And so you have to really plan things out.
I enjoyed it a lot. You have to come to accept that you can’t ever be more than you are. So if you can produce a certain amount, you can get paid a certain amount for that - then that’s probably all you’re ever going to be able to do. You can optimize, create some efficiencies here and there a little bit, but only to a point. So if you’re the type of person who really wants to work on big stuff - bigger than one person can do, you wind up being with a company and a team.
And I’ve enjoyed both - the environment at Pluralsight really sets everybody up to be their own little entrepreneur. So you get that impact of working for a large team, but you still get to call your own shots within whatever it is that you’ve been trusted with. And that really, really fits my personality well. So it’s been a good match.
Len: And as a curriculum director at Pluralsight, what is it that you do? It sounds interesting.
Don: We have several curriculum directors that are on different branches of our library. I’m in charge of the stuff that applies to the IT operations crowd. So Windows server, SharePoint server, Linux servers, Windows clients - all that type of stuff. Not software development; that’s another whole chunk. And then we have another whole chunk that’s creative stuff. Your CAD/CAM software, your Adobe software, stuff like that.
So my job is to do research, plan our curriculum, decide what courses it is we should have - either to meet specific customer needs - or to make sure that we’re leading the customer, that we’re going to have the right training that they’re about to need, and maybe they don’t realize they need yet. And then I work with our acquisitions editors to recruit authors to produce those courses.
I work with our authors to get the proposals together, and get the courses outlined. And I work with our editorial and production teams to make sure that the courses eventually do get done and published in the right sequence. So it’s kind of a big coordination job. But I really, really enjoy instructional design - so it kind of fits into a little hobby thing that I’ve touched, on and off again for years.
Len: Speaking of instructional design, one of the topics that often comes up in the interviews that I do with Leanpub authors, and partly because I bring it up, is the - not necessarily the tension, but the relationship between the burgeoning field of online training and learning, and more conventional ways of learning and training. Like actually enrolling in a college or a university, and going there and taking courses. And I was wondering what your thoughts are on that? Do do you see online training replacing entirely some university degrees?
Don: I’d like it to. Particularly in the IT field, and particularly because I’m an American, and we have a particular situation and worldview around it. I don’t have a degree. As I mentioned, I graduated from an apprenticeship, so it was very vocational. I think there are colleges out there that do a fantastic job of preparing people for a job. In the US, it tends to be community colleges and vocational schools.
And they’re very lean, they’re very agile. They’re able to update their curriculum fairly frequently to keep pace with what the market demands. And a lot of times they’re only after you for a couple years. You’re after an associate’s degree or something like that. And a lot of employers, for entry level jobs, that’s what they want.
But we have a situation where kids are going and spending $30,000, $45,000 a year for a four-year degree - and they come out insanely in debt. They’re a couple hundred thousand dollars in debt. And they have a degree that is essentially useless in the marketplace, at least in the IT field. No one cares about it. “Okay great, you’ve got a degree. That means you essentially know nothing other than how to sit in a classroom for four years”. Well, that’s kind of an expensive way to be taught how to sit down for four years.
And it affects our economy, it affects it deeply. We have a lot of millennials who are in that situation, who are not buying homes, because they’re already under a crushing amount of debt, and the last thing they want to do is take on another 100 grand on a mortgage. And home buying is one of the things that deeply drives the fundamental core of our economy.
And so you create this whole situation where everybody feels like they have a degree - because everyone has a degree, it’s not special anymore. So you spent all this money getting something that’s not special whatsoever. It doesn’t differentiate you in the job marketplace. And in the process of doing that, we’re creating this horrible economic black hole that is eventually going to have to collapse in on itself.
So I would really like to see online training - whatever other types of training, particularly for jobs. Just completely replace that. At The DevOps Collective, we’ve put together an educational program that was designed to help someone get the skills they need to get an entry level job, say on a help desk, in a common IT organization. Now, that’s a job that, in the US, pays $35,000 to $45,000 a year. If you’re 19, 20 years old, that is kick-butt money for a first job. And IT tends to promote from within. So once you’ve got that job, you’re going to learn on the job and you’re going to get a $60,000 job, an $80,000 job - and eventually more.
So it’s an inexpensive program that someone can run themselves through. We don’t run it, we just kind of point to where you can go get it yourself, and we’ve laid out the curriculum. And I think over time - I hope that counselors at schools, and career advisers, will start to direct kids to some of these other options. If you want to be a doctor or a lawyer - yes please, go to a lot of school. Go to tons of school. But if you want to be an IT guy, it’s just not necessary. And I hate that we shove it down kids’ throats.
Len: And for those who aren’t familiar with the reasons, what do you think the reasons are that university education has become so expensive in the United States?
Don: Because they can. We live in a market economy, and if people are willing to go take a loan for 45 grand - and other people are willing to loan that money, then that’s how much the universities are going to charge. I mean, they’re going to literally charge as much as they can get away with. Particularly the private schools, and particularly the private career colleges - the University of Phoenix and things like that.
The public schools, the in-state schools, especially ones where you can get your in-state tuition - [they’re] financially [a] much better deal - community colleges. The problem is, those guys just - they’re academia. They’re designed to change at the rate of physics, which rarely changes. And they can’t keep up with really fast, quick changing dynamic fields like IT. So I mean, literally by the time you start - even if they have a brand new curriculum for you on your freshman year, by the time you graduate it’s useless. It’s all changed. And what they haven’t done is taught you how to keep up. And so it just doesn’t work out so well.
Len: One thing I’ve found out of a lot of the people that I interview who are Leanpub authors, and are in tech in some way or another, and I would say, probably at most half of the people I interview studied in school, what they ended up doing eventually in tech. And it seems that people have all sorts of paths to where they end up, and formal training and what they end up doing doesn’t really correlate.
Don: No, it doesn’t seem to.
Len: I wanted to ask you specifically about AR, and what you think the possibilities are in that space - augmented reality for online training.
Don: It’s hard to tell. It’s still something people are playing with. I look at the first video training that was available ten years ago, eight years ago, and you look at where we are now. Back then, it just wasn’t there. And everybody said, “This is going to be the new wave, and the new wave”. And eventually it was, but it took it a really long time, almost a decade. And people’s learning preferences and how your brain learns are really, really fickle. And the new shiny [thing] is not necessarily going to actually work for people’s brains.
I mean, there’s still tons of people out there, thank God, who buy books. They don’t want to go to a class because they don’t learn well that way. They want to be able to sit, read, play with, come back to it. And a book works for them. There’s other people who just hate to read books. So I look at new training modalities like that, and I worry a lot less about, “Is it cool? Can we do it?” And I worry a lot more about, “How does this actually serve someone’s learning needs? How does it fit the way someone’s brain is going to be put together?”
I’m sure there’s a lot of fields, like aircraft mechanic, where it would be fantastic to be able to sit down with a giant visor on your head, and actually work on a thing in virtual space. There’s probably a lot of mechanical, physical fields like that. You get into something like software coding, you could already sit down and do that right in front of you. You don’t necessarily need a honkin’ thing on your head. So if it’s applied well and to the right spaces, like everything else, “right tool for the right job”, I’m sure there’s probably a good future for it.
Len: I’ve seen one or two examples online where it seems like people are using AR to kind of replace training. Where essentially what you do is like you’re looking through these glasses with an overlay of video, or design of some kind. And it’s kind of just like telling you, like a little arrow like pointing at the distributor cap, “Pull this up”. And then it’ll point to your left and say, “In your tool box, there’s another distributor cap. Pick it up. Put it here”. Have you come across anything along those lines?
Don: Yeah, and I think it highlights the difference between training and teaching. I hate the word training. as it applies to anything I try and do. Trainers are for dolphins and dogs. And if all you’re doing is teaching someone to perform a repetitive set of tasks, then that’s fine. If you are the person being trained to do that, and it literally is as easy as someone saying, “Take the distributor cap and put it here”, you have to wonder how long it’s going to be before we just have a robot to do that and then we don’t need you anymore.
Teaching on the other hand is much, much higher level. It’s synthesis, it’s application. It’s helping people change the way they think. So that as a problem comes up, their brain is geared to deal with that problem. And - again - the modality doesn’t matter there, so long as you’re presenting the information in a way that makes sense to someone. But it’s always going to be really difficult to do that with any kind of rote, computer-based, just simulation-type thing, because a simulation can’t do anything really but train you. It might be a great supplement to teaching, but teaching is always still going to be a uniquely human endeavor.
Len: And you spoke earlier I think about course design. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that. When you’re designing a course, are you thinking about a certain type of student, or how to accommodate multiple types of students at the same time?
Don: We start with an audience design. I think that’s the most important thing. I view teaching as a story, and you have to know where your - your learner is the hero in your story. They’re the ones who are going on whatever path it is you’re taking them. And you’ve got to define exactly what that path starts as, and exactly how that path ends. Who are they at the beginning, and who are they going to be at the end? And so long as you know that, you can then start structuring a path that has as few distractions, as few gullies, as few hills as possible, and try and anticipate where those hills are, and pre-smooth those out by presenting the material in a sequence that leads them nicely up a slope instead of running them into a cliff that you then have to climb them over.
I think knowing who your learner is, who you want them to be, having reasonable expectations - if you’re trying to do a four hour course, you can only so much. And it might not be the last course they watch. But for this course, what’s the beginning and what’s the end?
And so we spend a lot of time working with the authors at Pluralsight on that. It’s something that I’ve done a lot in my books - “The Month of Lunches” series that I created that Manning Publishing runs, even in the DSC book I’m doing now. Even though it’s being produced roughly a chapter at a time - is when I tend to release updates. I had a plan for that from the outset. I knew what the path was.
Now, given that it’s lean publishing, I might be able to go back later and I might be able to take the skeleton path that I created in the first path, and then start filling in. Maybe some more examples. Maybe covering other scenarios that are a little divergent. So I can go flesh that out and make it a little fatter, but I’ve still got that path from the beginning to the end.
Len: I’d just like to ask you one more question before moving onto talking about your book and the way you’re publishing it, which is - you said the learner or student is on a journey. Do you set that - or do you encourage the course authors to set that up?
Len: End at the beginning. So you sort of set the stage for what the journey is in the first course?
Don: Yeah. And given that my audience is IT operations, we’re a very pragmatic people. We just want to make it work so we can go home. And so I try to have every course start out with a very clear, upfront motivation. “Hey, you know how it sucks when this happens? Well we’re going to learn how to fix that”. So that someone can immediately say, “Okay great, I can relate to that. I know the situation I’m in. I can start to impute some of the problems that are around the edges of this. And so I can get a feel for where we’re going, just with that one sentence. And yeah, that sets the stage for someone. That gives the learner an expectation. And the clearer you can make that, the more likely they are to be happy with the outcome.
Len: Yeah, that sounds really effective. Putting people in a situation where you’ve communicated to them, “Here’s where we want you to start, and where we want you to end. So you’re on a shared narrative.
On the subject of your book, I was wondering if you could explain a little bit about what DSC is, and who your intended audience is for the book?
Don: Yeah. Desired State Configuration is a part of Windows management framework. Which is what includes Windows PowerShell. So DSC actually builds on Window’s PowerShell. It’s kind of a high level part of PowerShell. And its idea is, if you’ve got a computer, maybe a server or a client computer, you tend to want it to be configured in a certain way. And the way we’ve approached that typically in the past is - maybe we’ll write a script, so we don’t have to manually configure the server.
When you set it up for that first time, you’re going to provision it somehow. And you get it the way you like it, and then you put it into production. And then invariably it starts to change. And so organizations spend a ton of time - and there’s management frameworks - COBIT, ITIL, all these other things that create - there’s huge processes around change management. So the idea is, you put something in place, it works. How do we make sure it never, ever changes - ever? So that, because - if we don’t change it, then it should always keep working the same way.
Desired state configuration is designed to kind of flip that on it’s head. You start with a computer and human-readable description of what you want the computer to look like. And then you hand that to the technology, and it builds the computer that way and then it makes sure it stays that way over time.
And if you change your mind - okay, well now we want the computer to look like this. You just change that document. And the technology goes in, and fixes it or alters it or whatever else - and then maintains it in that state. So it’s really kind of, not bleeding edge, but it’s definitely at the leading edge of where IT operational management has been for a couple of years. And this is Microsoft’s flavor of that.
Len: And how does it make sure things stay the same?
Don: It scans the machine every so often, and checks every single thing that you’ve said you want to be true - and makes sure that it is still true. And if it isn’t, then it’s got code underneath that remediates that and fixes it.
Len: You mentioned already that you’re publishing the book in-progress, and I wanted to ask you a few questions about your strategy around that. I think it’s something that other Leanpub authors, or potential Leanpub authors too, would be interested in hearing about. So you mentioned before I think - you had a pretty definite plan before you published for the first time.
Don: Oh yeah. I have a very detailed outline. Down to like second and third level headings. And that’s pretty common for me when I write a book. And I got in that habit for two reasons. One is that, with a traditional book, once you hand a chapter off to the publisher, it’s really kind of a pain in the neck and outside the process to change it. So you kinda have to know what the whole plan is. It’s not like you can get to chapter twelve and go, “Crap, I forgot to mention that back in chapter three”. It’s painful to go fix that. So I’m very used to this kind of top-down design approach.
That made it a little bit easier to just jump in and know what I was going to do. The difference is, instead of releasing a chapter at a time to the publisher - who then saves them all - I just publish it. And sometimes it’s a little ugly, sometimes there’s an error or two. But I think people in the space now are comfortable, so long as they feel they have a way of reporting that to the author, and they see progress. And Leanpub obviously gives people - I’ve gotten emails from people that said, “Hey there’s a typo on page blah, blah, blah”. “Okay great”. I fix that in the next update. That just gets pulled in, and now it’s fixed.
Len: So did you give you email address to readers?
Don: No, not yet.
Don: I need to set one up where I do that. And we’re about 50% through the book’s initial pass, so I need to do that. But I’m not that difficult to contact either. Most of the folks who are reading this know how to get me on Twitter, or they can find me on powershell.org. Or through my website, donjones.com. So most of the folks reading it at this point have found the book because of me, and they already know how to get hold of me.
Len: And you enjoy those interactions with them?
Don: Oh yeah, absolutely.
Len: That’s something a lot of our authors talk about. Some will actually put their email address in their introduction, and say, “Email me”, which we see as obviously a very good thing. But one of the things we’re thinking about is trying to optimize that relationship. Would you prefer to be contacted like through Leanpub or something like that? Or do you prefer it the way we’ve got it working?
Don: Yeah I think large scale, it’s probably a little easier to have some bottleneck, where everything can come through. Because obviously I’ve got a job. I’m doing this in my spare time. And so it’d be nice to have it in a queue that I could say, “Okay, once a week, once a month - whatever. I’m going to sit down, and I’m going to start running through all of this”. And that creates a good expectation for people, and you can tell them, “Look, if you send something - don’t expect a reply for this period of time, because I tend to process them in these batches”.
So I do that with my email organization right now. But it would be nice to have something in the platform. And I think it would give people a better perception that there is a feedback mechanism. This is the person I bought the book from, this is the person who wrote the book, and they’re going to help me - all talk to each other.
Len: Before I ask this next question, how much of your book had you written when you’ve first published it?
Don: The first chapter.
Len: The first chapter. So is that about 10% or something like that?
Don: Probably less than that. It was - honestly - the overview, it was probably 2,000 words.
Len: Oh, wow. Okay. Were you trepidatious about that, or did it just come naturally from you to publish something so early?
Don: No it - I write really quickly. And I think the majority of the folks who are accustomed to my work have a good expectation of what it is and how quickly I tend to produce. So I felt fairly comfortable doing that. We didn’t sell a ton of copies right away. It was one or two copies. It was when I hit the 50% point, and I think did a couple of things to make specific commitments to my productivity - that the sales started to spike up a little bit, which really does help keep the project moving.
Len: When it comes to the project moving, this was the question I delayed. I was wondering if you would like to be able to show to readers a sort of history of your progress somewhere on Leanpub. Would that be like, “I released the first chapter on this date. I released the second chapter on this date. Here are the things that I updated when I - or added when I did that. Here are the things I corrected”.
Don: That’s probably a good idea. It would at least show readers that you’re serious about it, and this is a real thing. And if an author publishes a chapter and then vanishes for three months, then readers have reason to be trepidatious - unless there was some commitment otherwise. So yeah, I think that’s reasonable. It kind of makes you a little bit accountable to the audience, which is good.
Len: One of the [things] we’re thinking about is sort of establishing that trust. So someone comes along and sees a book is 30% complete, and maybe they’re not so familiar with Leanpub and the concept of publishing that we’re trying to spread. And then if they can see, it’s only 30% done, but it’s like one chapter per week for the last 3 weeks. That’s a pretty good sign that I should trust that this author is going to complete what they’re doing and that they have a plan.
I was wondering, how did you - this is a big question for self-published authors - how did you decide pricing for your book?
Don: I’ve written a lot of traditionally published books, and so I know what a book of this length - and I’ve got a really good idea what the final length is going to be - I know what that’s usually going to be priced at. And so that’s my target price. I’m actually not priced at that right now as we speak, I’m priced a little lower. I decided to start with kind of an early bird price, to reward the people who jumped in early and helped support the project initially.
When I cross the 60%/75% point, I’ll bump the price up to its final [price], and it’ll be a little bit cheaper than an equivalent, traditionally published paper book would be, because there’s no paper costs. I’ve always felt that the majority of the value in the book should be the material in the book, not the paper. Not the copy editor, not the things that really don’t add a lot of value. So it should be about 20% less than a traditional published book of the similar length.
Len: And why did you decide to publish this book on Leanpub, rather than with a conventional publisher? Which - pretty clearly - you could’ve done if you’d chosen to, you’ve done it so many times in the past.
Don: This technology, like a lot of them, is extremely agile. It changes a lot and it changes fast. And there’s literally no upside to working with a traditional publishing model. I can write a book, I mean if I sit down and take the time - like if I took a sabbatical from work for a month - I can write a 300, 400 page book in a month. I write quick.
And that would be fine, except then it’s going to take two months to copy edit and two months to dev edit. Another month for a tech editor to go through, and then two months in layout. And then, even though it took me a month, it’s nine months to a year before the stupid thing gets out. And now it’s changed, and now it’s not good anymore.
So I really started looking around. I mean obviously there’s sites like GitBook, and Penflip - both of which I’ve used. PowerShell.org’s free e-books are dual-published. We publish those on Leanpub, and on GitBook. And I think GitBook is great for the model, but it’s non-commercial. I mean that’s kinda the whole point of it. Is that there’s no - there’s no storefront. There’s just all open source books.
That’s fine for powershell.org, it’s a non-profit, it’s a community organisation, not looking to sell those books. But this was something that if I wanted to be able to maintain this over time, there needed to be a financial reason to do it, because although I do enjoy writing, and I like getting this stuff out there. If it’s something I’m going to have my head in every month, I’m going to lose interest - unless there’s a - if I can take my family out to dinner once or twice, that’s a financial motive. So sure that works. That keeps me going.
And Leanpub was really kind of the combination of those. It lets me treat the book a lot like an open source project. Meaning, it isn’t open source obviously, but it has a lot of the same characteristics, in that I can make changes to it as often as I want to, or as often as I need to. But it still puts that commercial end on it, so that there is a financial arrangement going on that keeps me interested.
Len: Your book is currently priced at $39.99. I should mention, anyone get the deal now, if you’re listening. And of course, we don’t do DRM at Leanpub.
Len: And so you’re selling a $40, self-published, DRM-free book. We’ve actually got someone else, a guy named Nick Russo, who’s selling his book for a minimum price of $200, and a suggested price of $300 right now. So it’s offering something of a - for a book, a pretty high monetary value, something that people could easily not pay anything for.
Len: Is that something that you think about? Or do you just not think about?
Don: Not any more. I mean first of all, there’s no such thing as DRM. One of my first PowerShell books - some Russian guy bought it, shaved the cover off of, scanned and made a beautiful Windows help file out of. And that was online. I have never ever written a printed book that wasn’t pirated almost immediately. Any DRM can be stripped off really, really easily.
All it does is inconvenience your legitimate customers. It makes it harder for the people who did pay you money to take value for what they got. So I’m not going to punish the people who are supporting it. My experience has been - at least with the audience I work with - that they’re pretty upright people. And if they find value in something, they’ll pay for it. Now my price - my minimum price is $39.99. I’ve had more than a few people pay 60, 70 bucks for the book. So they’re paying what they feel the value is.
And if somebody’s out there, and they’re working with this stuff, and they’re in a country where $39.99 is two months’ salary, and so they’re going to grab the thing pirated some place - that’s fine, okay. Maybe they’ll do well someday, and maybe they’ll take their appreciation and go to DevOps Collective, and make a charitable donation to a non-profit that’s helping kids learn technology. So if that’s their value, it’s fine. My feeling is that it’ll all square itself out in the end.
You don’t write books to get rich. I’ve been doing this since 2001. There’s reasons to write books beyond the money. And so long as there’s enough of a financial thing to make it worth my time - and so far there has been - then that’s fine. I’ll go with that. But I think most people in the industry are accustomed to paying for something of value.
I’ll give you a really good example. I mentioned the free e-books on powershell.org. We put those on GitBook, which is very useful. But a lot of people are blocked at work from accessing GitBook, and one of the reasons we decided to also dual-publish them to Leanpub, was because we can set a minimum price of zero, and let people pay for the book if they want to. And it becomes a charitable donation really, because we give the books for free already. 90% of the people who get the book from Leanpub pay for it. Maybe they’re paying two bucks, maybe they’re paying four bucks. But I think people are willing to pay for it if they find value.
Len: Thanks for that, that was a great response. I agree, there’s so much in there that we agree with, and it’s great for us to hear that we built that, it can accommodate that. Our bestselling book in terms of copies and revenue last year has a free minimum price.
It’s just a fascinating thing to watch how our variable pricing model is succeeding for authors in this way - that they can offer the book for free and for money at the same time. And so do both those things that you can do as an author, two of the big reasons to write - the main one is to get whatever your message is out there to people. But one of the main advantages is to gain an audience. And the other one is to potentially make some money. And the idea that you can combine those two by making a free minimum price, but also having a suggested price that allows people to pay, has turned out to be very powerful.
So was one of the reasons you chose to publish your book on Leanpub rather than with a conventional publisher - was obviously, sort of ease of production. But was it that freedom to set your own price, and maybe play around with your pricing - did that - was that part of the reason as well?
Don: Yeah, that was a factor. And honestly another factor is - publishers just don’t do much to help you sell books, but they keep the majority of it. Most authors are getting 10%, 12% and that’s not a lot. So you’ve got this massive machine that really, in a lot of cases, doesn’t add a lot of value.
I’ve been very happy with Manning. I think they’re a great publisher. And for the “Month of Lunches” series, they’re a great fit. But this is a niche technology, it’s a very high-end technology. There’s never going to be 5,000 copies of this sold.
And it just made sense that if I was going to do this, to do it on my own terms. I’m going to be responsible for bringing the most readers to this. That and word of mouth. And so I don’t see any reason why there should be a giant publishing machine skimming 75% of the revenue off the top, when I and my audience are the ones who are going to have to do most of the work on it.
Len: Are you intending to make a print version when it’s done-done?
Don: No. I mean people can get a PDF and print it if they want to. But I’m not planning to traditionally publish it.
Len: Great, it’s interesting actually. I’ve just got to tell a little story I heard from my co-founder once. I think this was a Leanpub book. I was just reminded of this when you mentioned that it was someone from Russia who pirated your book once.
We had a story about a guy who published a book, and then someone from Russia translated it and was selling it. And so the original author - instead of getting mad, pointlessly, and trying to do something that you can’t do about that, got in touch and said, “Hey, would you like to translate my next book, and let’s sell it together?” And of course the translator was like, “Of course, I’d love to do that”.
It was interesting that something that a segment of the authorship community sometimes sees as a big threat, other people can see as a potential new connection. Building an audience for them.
Don: Yeah, and I’ve done similar things in the past, and I would do so again. I think you get a lot further creating opportunities for people than creating barriers. And I do have just about five more minutes too, so–
Len: Just one more brief question while I’ve got you here. If there was one thing we could build for you that would help you, what would that be? Or if there was one thing we could fix, what would that be?
Don: Gosh, I don’t know. It’s been working so well and so smoothly. I would say - oh man, I don’t even know. The one thing that I’m not doing in this book is any kind of professional copy editing. And it’s the one thing that I feel a little bit guilty about, because it does put it on the audience to do that. And I’m very patient with it, and I try to be very responsive when they point out errors.
But I’m not sure how I would collaborate with an author. Because I’m using the Dropbox publishing method, we basically [could] just have a shared Dropbox. I’m not sure how to loop an editor into that, like if I was going to use an editor and kind of notch this up a bit. It’s the one thing I feel little bit guilty about, that I wouldn’t minding putting a little money into.
But I worry about it just really slowing down the whole workflow. I’d want to release a chapter to the editor, let the editor do their thing - and then release that to the publishing queue. And the next time I hit publish, it grabs everything in that queue, and makes a new version. So that it’s - there’s a clean hand off back and forth. Or I can have two or three people working on the same document at the same time.
Len: Okay thanks, that’s a really great answer. We’ll think about that. I know your time’s about up, so thanks very much for being on the Leanpub Podcast, and for being a Leanpub author.
Len: We really appreciate it.
Don: Oh thanks for having me. Have a great day.