Leanpub and Climate Change

Leanpub launched on April 27, 2010. It’s now September 25, 2019, so we’ve been working hard on Leanpub for over 9 years!

Over these years, Leanpub authors have done many amazing things. You’ve reached millions of readers and earned over $8 million USD in royalties. (Leanpub pays 80% royalties to authors.)

However, there’s one other thing that Leanpub authors and readers have done together which I doubt any of them know:

You’ve helped save up to 25 million pounds of CO2.

The Math

Print books may look and smell nice, but this comes at a huge cost. According to GreenPoint, “on average, each printed book releases 8.85 pounds of carbon dioxide into the environment. Together, the newspaper and book-printing industries cut down 125 million trees per year and emit 44 million tons of CO2.”

Now, from when Leanpub launched to the time of writing, we’ve had 2,875,093 free and paid ebook purchases. Of these purchases, about 20% (574,166) have been paid, and about 80% (2,300,927) have been free. Some of these purchases have been for multiple copies, but for the purposes of this back-of-the-envelope math, every free and paid purchase will count as saving one printed book. (Leanpub has only ever sold ebooks.)

Since each printed book releases about 8.85 pounds of CO2, this means that readers buying Leanpub ebooks instead of print books has saved a lot of CO2:

  • If you count all free and paid purchases, you’ve helped save up to 25,444,573 pounds of CO2. This is 11,541,478 kilograms of CO2, or 11,541 metric tonnes of CO2.
  • If you count only paid purchases, you’ve helped save up to 5,081,369 pounds of CO2. This is 2,304,873 kilograms of CO2, or 2,304 metric tonnes of CO2.

Given the climate emergency we are in, the CO2 saved is the important thing.

These savings compound, by the way. Reading ebooks saves trees, and the trees which are used to print books would otherwise be busy reducing atmospheric CO2, so they’re a good thing to save. Specifically, since one tree can produce an estimated 62.5 books, you’ve saved a lot of trees:

  • If you count all free and paid purchases, you’ve helped save up to 46,001 trees.
  • If you count only paid purchases, you’ve helped save up to 9,187 trees.

Yes, even though some computer programming books are printed on partially or fully recycled paper, this still counts. Using no paper at all is a lot better than using recycled paper, since recycled paper is fungible: if the recycled paper was not being used to produce physical books, it could be used for something else where there is no effective substitute. You know, like toilet paper.

Also, producing, shipping and storing physical books still produces CO2, even if those books are printed on recycled paper. And don’t get me started on all the waste in storing, shipping and destroying unsold physical books.

Now, Leanpub is a tiny company. So, while we’ve had a small impact, so much more could be done.

Stop the Presses

Leanpub primarily sells computer programming books and courses.

Most physical computer programming books have a short shelf life: after about a year they will be outdated, and after about two years most will be obsolete. My first traditionally-published print book was outdated in a couple years, but the second one became obsolete a lot faster.

This is not true of ebooks, however. An ebook can be kept current for as long as the author chooses to do so. At Leanpub, we make this as easy as possible: you can update your manuscript in plain text, and then publish a new version with one click. You get to choose whether to notify your existing readers of the new version, etc. We call our publishing process Lean Publishing, and it’s why Leanpub is called Leanpub. Other publishers who sell direct to their readers can also produce and distribute ebook updates in a similar, if more cumbersome, manner.

Now, some computer programming books are exceptions and are relevant for a lot longer. For example, a new edition of The Pragmatic Programmer was just released, as it still has something to say after 20 years. However, the reason this is true is that it’s about general principles, not about a specific programming language or technology stack. Furthermore, even The Pragmatic Programmer can be read perfectly well as an ebook, and we are in a climate emergency.

Two Leanpub competitors who we greatly respect are Manning and The Pragmatic Programmers. When I was young, I learned to program from their books (and O’Reilly books), and I’ve even written a couple of Manning books myself.

Someone in the software industry in 2019 could limit their book purchasing to ebooks from Leanpub, Manning and The Pragmatic Programmers and they’d have most of their professional book needs met.

So, I’m personally calling on Manning and The Pragmatic Programmers to completely stop producing physical books by the end of 2019.

Stop the presses.

If you do this, you will sell more ebooks. Since your ebooks have a higher margin than print books, you may make more profit–even while holding costs constant and putting in the same editorial, layout and marketing work to your books that you do today. Furthermore, since you sell ebooks direct, you will make most of the money, not Amazon.

Just like Leanpub, both Manning and The Pragmatic Programmers sell their ebooks direct from their websites. Chances are many Leanpub readers have, like me, bought a number of ebooks directly from both of them.

Hardly any readers who want to buy a particular book from Leanpub, Manning or The Pragmatic Programmers will think “gee, this book which I want doesn’t exist in print book form, I guess I’ll go buy a different book from some other publisher”.

I wouldn’t do this, and neither would you. Books are nowhere near as fungible as paper: some books are better than others, and you should buy and read the best ones.

Leanpub, Manning and The Pragmatic Programmers make some of the best computer programming books on the market. Let’s send a signal to the market that these books are even better because they didn’t generate thousands of tonnes of CO2 and kill thousands of trees in the process.

Furthermore, if Leanpub, Manning and The Pragmatic Programmers all don’t sell physical books, maybe we can start a movement in the computer programming book industry in particular, and in the larger industry overall.

Gratitude and Goals

I recently took a proper vacation: it started with a family vacation, and I added a solo hiking vacation onto the end of it.

When I was totally alone in the mountains, I realized just how not alone I was. I wasn’t just connected to my family back in Victoria, but to my team at Leanpub, and to all the Leanpub authors and readers all over the world.

I recently turned 44. So, I’ve probably lived about half my life.

It is a good life. I have a wonderful family whom I love very much, I live in a truly beautiful city, and I get to wake up every day and work on something which I believe in.

This isn’t a cynical belief, like “I believe the market will buy at this valuation.” It’s a deep belief in Leanpub’s mission.

Just continuing along the path we’re on, sometime in 2020 or 2021 Leanpub should hit $10 million USD in royalties paid to authors. At that point, we’ll have saved up to 30 million pounds of CO2, and up to thousands more trees.

However, there’s a lot more that could be done. If we can scale Leanpub 10x we can pay authors about $100 million USD in royalties and save hundreds of millions of pounds of CO2, and if we can scale Leanpub 100x we can pay authors about $1 billion USD in royalties while saving billions of pounds of CO2.

These are important goals, and for me, pursuing important goals is the right way to live. I am deeply grateful to every Leanpub author and reader for giving me this opportunity.

Peter Armstrong
Founder & CEO, Leanpub
September 25, 2019