The Lean Publishing Manifesto
by Peter Armstrong, Co-founder, Leanpub
This is the 1.0 version of the Lean Publishing Manifesto. It's here for posterity. It was written in 2010 and whose last meaningful update was on March 29, 2011. The newest version of this manifesto, which represents my current thinking about Lean Publishing, is here. Please read that instead unless you're primarily interested in the evolution of these ideas.
- Publishing Today
- The Future of Publishing
- Lean Publishing is Not Just Self-Publishing
- A Book is a Startup: Four Parallels
- The Lean Startup and Customer Development
- Lessons for Writing and Publishing from Lean Startups and Open Source Software
- Lessons Learned from Blogs
- The Lean Publishing How-To Guide for Non-Fiction
- Lean Publishing Is Great For Technical Books: The Technology Adoption and Information Distribution Lifecycle
- Lean Publishing Is Not Just For Technical Books
- What Does Lean Publishing Mean for Readers?
- What Does Lean Publishing Mean for Publishers?
The statement "The Book is Dead" is interesting, not because it is correct, but because it is an increasingly popular idea, expressed in a mere four words, which has the feature of being wrong on two different levels.
The first mistake that pundits who proclaim the death of the book are making is that they are incorrectly equating The Book with mass-market print books. While the mass market print book is threatened, the long tail of the print book market is more alive than ever. Print-on-demand technology has made it possible for books to never go out of print. Self-publishing sites have made it possible for authors to produce print books without the gatekeeper of traditional publishers. Finally, Amazon has made the distribution of print books, both bestsellers and niche books, a commodity.
The second mistake which these pundits are making is more interesting. While the mass market print book is indeed threatened, for once the threat is not from political or religious extremists. Instead, it is from the ebook. However, an ebook is a book. It does not matter whether the ebook is formatted as a PDF (for reading on a computer), as a MOBI file (for Kindle) or as an ePub file (for iPad, Nook and the rest of the ebook readers): in all cases, the thing in question is a book.
The book is dead; long live the book!
The reason that the second mistake is so interesting is that it indicates there is some confusion about what a book is. The statement that a book is a distinct thing from a newspaper or magazine (or blog post or tweet) is entirely uncontroversial. This is true whether the book, newspaper or magazine are published in print or electronically--it is the content and organization which makes them distinct, even if all three are being read on a laptop, a Kindle or an iPad. It is not a matter of length--a typical issue of The New Yorker or The Economist is longer than most children's books, and contains more thought than most adult books--it is a matter of intent. A book is a book based on the author's intention.
The intention to create a book does not need to happen before the writing begins, as books can begin their life in many different forms. Books such as On Bullshit began their lives as journal articles; books such as Getting Real began their lives as blog posts which were edited into book format. The process by which a book is born is, like any birth, varied, interesting and messy. It certainly is much more interesting to understand how books are born than it is to determine whether one of their formats is dying. This is true primarily because it concerns authors: the way that new books should be conceived, written and brought into the world is much more interesting than the question of how much money publishers, Google or Amazon will make from already completed books. Charles Dickens does not care whether Project Gutenberg exists or whether his books are freely available on a Kindle or via a Google search.
More important, regardless of whether newspapers, magazines and mass-market print books die, authors will still write. The rise of email and blogs--and in the degenerate case, of Facebook and Twitter--have meant that more people than ever are writing now. While the average quality is by definition average, the sheer quantity of writing means it is a mathematical certainty that there is more good writing produced today than ever before. The Drake equation applies to the blogosphere.
In short, writing is changing. These changes are not just about blogging, Facebook and Twitter; the way that actual books are written is changing too. It is now possible to imagine brave new worlds, in which ideas previously regarded as science fiction can occur.
The Future of Publishing
Imagine a world in which authors could actually make money writing books.
Imagine a world in which authors could have meaningful conversations with their readers about their books. Now imagine if this was possible before these books were even finished--and before the authors even had publishing contracts!
It turns out that this is possible for authors to do today, via a process I am calling Lean Publishing.
Lean Publishing is the act of self-publishing a book while you are writing it, evolving the book with feedback from your readers and finishing a first draft before optionally using the traditional publishing workflow.
While Lean Publishing is a new term, and this is its first formal definition, the ideas behind Lean Publishing have emerged over the past decade from a number of sources. These sources include the Lean Startup community, the "beta book" or "early access" programs of a few savvy publishers, my own experience in writing and self-publishing a successful technical book, and the blogging community, especially authors such as Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson who have pioneered evolving blog content into bestselling books.
The Lean Publishing process can be used by authors of almost any type of book--as we'll see later, there is even historical precedent it can work for novels--but it is especially suited for authors of non-fiction books. This is because non-fiction books, and especially technical books, benefit the most from early exposure to their readers.
As we'll see in the case studies, this was true for my book, Flexible Rails: it earned me over $13,000 in royalties as a self-published technical book before it was even finished. To date, I have earned over $48,000 in total royalties from Flexible Rails, and one of the most interesting things is that over 70% of that has been from PDF book sales.
Lean Publishing is Not Just Self-Publishing
Lean Publishing is a subset of self-publishing.
Self-publishing refers to the act of writing a complete book and then publishing it yourself, whether in print or electronic form. This is not very different from working with a traditional publisher, except you don't get the benefit of a development editor, copy editor or typesetter.
Lean Publishing is the act of self-publishing a book while you are writing it, evolving the book with feedback from your readers and finishing a first draft before using the traditional publishing workflow, with or without a publisher.
In short: Lean Publishing is the act of self-publishing an in-progress book.
Lean Publishing owes its origin to more than just self-publishing. One of the driving ideas behind Lean Publishing is Lean Startup theory. Before considering how Lean Startup theory applies to Lean Publishing, we need to understand the parallels between books and startups. For those of you who aren't geeks: by "startup" I mean companies that are started to try to take over the world--or at least their portion of it--this is what Steve Blank has called a scalable startup.
A Book is a Startup: Four Parallels
Technically, a book is a bunch of words written by one or a handful of authors which are printed on paper or delivered electronically via PDF, EPUB or MOBI, whereas "a startup is a human institution designed to deliver a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty". So, strictly speaking, a book is not a startup.
However, there are many parallels between the act of writing a book and creating a startup. Both are risky, creative processes, often undertaken in stealth mode and with hit-driven economics.
These parallels mean that the startup metaphor for writing a book is instructive, and can inform authors in their behavior.
There are four parallels to consider when comparing books and startups.
There are market risks, technical risks and a very low probability of success.
Both writing a book and creating a startup are highly creative processes undertaken by one or a few people working closely together.
Historically it has taken about a year, often spent in isolation or "stealth mode", to develop and release the first version.
Historically, startups have been funded by VCs and authors have been funded by publishers, both of which are hit-driven businesses.
We will consider each of these parallels in more depth now. This way, we'll be able to see why ideas that apply to startups also apply to books.
Doing a startup is a highly risky endeavour. There are market risks (Is there a market for the product? Will some other company beat us to market?) and technical risks (Is the product even possible? Will it be any good?). Together with all the other ways a startup can fail (Founder issues! Lawsuits!), these risks ensure, there is a very low probability of success: the standard calculation is that 10% of venture-backed startups succeed, 20% limp along, and 70% catastrophically fail. The founders take all these risks because of the potential for a huge payday and to change the world--this has been referred to as "changing the world, one million dollars at a time.".
Writing a book has a similar set of risks. There are market risks (will anyone want to buy the book? will someone else write a similar book first?) and technical risks (do I have what it takes to finish a book? can I write a book that is entertaining and engaging?). The author takes these risks for the possibility of fame and fortune--albeit a much smaller fortune than can be acquired by building a successful startup.
Also, both startups and books can be derailed by personal issues. These can include interpersonal issues between co-founders or co-authors, or personal problems (health, relationship) that can crush a founder or author. These problems seem to happen more frequently than with normal 9-5 jobs, since doing a startup or writing a book is so much more demanding than a normal job. To understand the level of commitment required by a startup, read Founders at Work or Paul Graham's essays.
All things considered, it's completely unsurprising that the probability of success for both startups and books is so low. That people attempt either, and do so on a regular basis, is a testament to the entrepreneurial spirit. (Speaking as a Canadian who has lived and worked in Silicon Valley for a number of years before settling in Vancouver, the ability to take huge risks without a stigma attached to failure is one of the things I admire most about the culture of the United States, and of Silicon Valley in particular: this spirit is more alive there than anywhere else I have lived...)
There is a reason that there are no startups founded or books written by 100 people: doing anything creative with that number of people produces a product in which any brilliance is diluted. (This is the reason why the phrase “designed by committee" is not a compliment.)
A book or a startup is best created by 1 or 2 people, who are the authors or founders.
You can create a book with 3 or 4 authors, but essentially all the great books have been written by one author. In fact, if you have more than 4 authors, you're not even really producing a book–you're really producing an anthology of individual essays.
Similarly, a startup typically has 2 co-founders (Apple had Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Microsoft had Bill Gates and Paul Allen, etc.). You can create a startup with 3 or more founders (BEA had three: B, E and A), but that's the exception--and it's extremely rare for any successful startups to have more than 4 founders.
There is actually an interesting, subtle difference between the ideal number of authors and founders: to achieve great results, it seems the ideal number of authors of a book is 1 and the ideal number of founders of a startup is 2.
My personal take on the reason for the difference, having written two books and started one startup, is that writing a book is essentialy the technical portion of creating a startup--a solitary endeavour which requires long periods of sustained thought. (Also, in writing, having one voice in the book is essential.) However, creating a startup is a more multi-dimensional activity: besides the solitary time spent at your computer creating the product, there are a vast number of activities (raising funds, reacting to the market, acquiring customers and evolving along with their needs, etc) which are too much for almost all individuals to sustain over the time it takes to develop a product.
Startups have traditionally operated in secrecy from the moment of being founded until the "first customer ship" or "product launch." In this time, the founders and the early employees rapidly and secretly build the product envisioned by the founders in order to get it to market before anyone else does. There has typically been very little outside feedback sought or received until the product is ready for beta testing, which is usually very shortly before its launch.
A similar situation exists for authors. Many authors will work on their manuscript in isolation until it is complete, before submitting it to publishers. Sometimes they seek an agent to market the completed manuscript to publishers. Alternatively, authors can submit book proposals to publishers, seeking a contract for a project before beginning serious writing. In both cases, the manuscript has little contact with its true customers--readers--before it is largely completed. Traditionally in the technical book space, only a handful of readers are brought in as reviewers before a book goes to press.
Typically, startup founders spend much of their stealth mode period not only in building the product, but also in raising money from angel investors (accredited wealthy individuals) or Venture Capitalists (VCs). While many startups are bootstrapped by the founders (either by their savings or by doing consulting on the side), the goal for almost all startup founders has been to get funded.
Similarly, the goal for most authors has been to get a publisher. Historically, publishers have been needed by authors not only because of their access to printing presses and distribution channels, but also as a source of funding. A publisher often pays an advance against royalties, which the author typically uses to replace some of the lost income that s/he would have earned during the time spent writing the book. Since the prospect of repaying an already-spent advance is distasteful, this typically gives the publisher a lot of leverage over the author in terms of the content of the book. This can be a good thing, since it motivates authors to actually finish their books as well as to listen to good suggestions from their development editors, but it also can lead to a book being finished prematurely or at a lower quality.
So, in both cases, the investors (angel / VC / publisher) end up having a significant effect over the startup or book that they are funding. This is entirely unsurprising, since people naturally want a sense of control over what they are buying. If you were a publisher and you had an author making what you felt were bad choices, chances are you'd have something to say too!
Because of the influence that investors in a startup or book have over the output, it helps to understand their goals. Both publishing and venture capital are hit-driven businesses.
VCs encourage their portfolio companies to swing for the fences, as they need the huge wins to make up for the majority of their portfolio companies that fail.
Similarly, publishers produce many books but get the bulk of their profits from only a handful. Once these books are developed and begin to be marketed, the publisher gets a better sense of which books (if any) have the potential to be breakout successes, and focus their marketing efforts on those ones. Since publishers want to produce hits, they tend to force all books to seek as wide an audience as possible. This presumably isn't much of a problem for fiction, but it is a problem for technical books such as computer books, since it forces much introductory material (that the author doesn't want to write) into books, in order to theoretically broaden the potential market for the book as much as possible. (Of course, the risk is that this material will bore and alienate some readers, but publishers seem willing to take this risk.) This doesn't just apply to computer books: how many otherwise-decent business books about startups seem compelled to explain (badly) the history of Silicon Valley or who Marc Andreessen is?
The usual outcome of the above is as follows: with a startup or a book, what typically happens is that the founders or authors get some money, lock themselves in a room and slave away to produce something targeted at a very broad market (it has to be a hit, remember?), which the market may or may not want. If they get the product slightly (or completely!) wrong the first time, the money (the advance or seed money) is mostly (or entirely!) gone and there's not enough money left to buy the time to iterate enough times to actually produce a product that people want.
For the past few decades of startups, and much longer for books, the methodology outlined above has actually been the state of the art. VCs and publishers have used the models described above since there hasn't been any credible alternative articulated until recently. VCs and publishers are many things, but stupid is usually not one of them. The above approach seemed to be the best process available.
After all, startups are hard (let's go shopping!) -- surely this kind of failure is inevitable, right?
The Lean Startup and Customer Development
Recently, the startup community has been energized by new ideas about how a startup should be done. This thinking originated in Steve Blank's ideas about Customer Development, explained in his seminal (self-published!) book The Four Steps to the Epiphany. Steve Blank's ideas were applied by Eric Ries to the problems of creating web 2.0 startups, resulting in Eric Ries' idea of the Lean Startup.
Briefly, the concepts of Customer Development and the Lean Startup involve launching the product extremely early (so early that you're embarrassed by it) and iterating rapidly in response to customer feedback. These iterations follow the OODA loop (Observe, Orient, Decide and Act) of USAF Colonel John Boyd, applied in close consultation with customers known as "earlyvangelists" who will be the early adopters of the product and who will evangelize it to others.
The Steve Blank and Eric Ries intellectual connection is more than the standard mentor relationship: Steve Blank actually funded IMVU, which Eric Ries was the CTO and co-founder of, on condition that Eric Ries take his class about Customer Development!
Since writing books and doing startups have so many parallels, understanding how the Lean Startup ideas apply to startups helps understand how the Lean Publishing process applies to writing and publishing books. So, Eric Ries's and Steve Blank's blogs and books are an excellent resource for all writers, not just for people doing startups. This is especially true since both Eric Ries and Steve Blank are excellent and entertaining writers.
The Lean Startup approach of doing Customer Development and getting meaningful feedback from early customers is very similar to the process of releasing a book very early in the writing process and getting meaningful feedback from readers. In both cases, if the Lean approach is done well, the startup or book will evolve in ways that are not necessarily planned from the outset. (This is similar to the concept of Agile software development, but the scope is actually broader in that the entire direction of the startup or book can change.) We will now consider specific lessons learned from the Lean Startup approach, as well as from Open Source software development.
Lessons for Writing and Publishing from Lean Startups and Open Source Software
Eric Raymond has explained the development process used by Linus Torvalds in developing the Linux operating system kernel as follows:
"Release early. Release often. And listen to your customers."
As this fantastic essay explains, the idea is that rapid, sometimes daily, iterations on something as complex as a computer operating system kernel can occur was revolutionary. If it's possible to do iterative development on something as difficult as rocket science, surely it is possible to do this with a book?
However, historically it has been extremely difficult to iterate on books: the only iterations are second and subsequent editions, and those editions only get produced for successful books. It has been very difficult to iterate on an unfinished or unsuccessful book, in a way that distributed these iterations to its readers.
Lean Publishing is based on the premise that the inability to iterate on a book is a historical problem which is overcome by ebooks and current technology. This is done both by sites such as Leanpub or by authors assembling enough of the Lean Publishing pieces themselves. For example, for my first book Flexible Rails, as we will see in the case studies, I used a combination of Lulu, two Google Groups and a custom website to do a similar--but more cumbersome--process to what Leanpub offers.
So, Lean Publishing repurposes Eric Raymond's idea for books as follows:
Publish early. Publish Often. And listen to your readers.
By publishing early you get your ideas out there. If no one cares, you find this out as quickly as possible, sparing yourself as much wasted effort as possible. In the startup community, this idea is called "fail fast".
Furthermore, by publishing often, you build an authentic community, as your readers feel connected to the development of the book. As we'll see in the case studies, with my book Flexible Rails I released 23 versions in the 18 months it was an in-progress, self-published book. By releasing often and listening to my readers I built a strong community around the book. This is the same effect as in Open Source software: Linux had an engaged community of developers since Linus released it early and often, whereas commercial software that is released as Open Source long after it is done--such as Sun's OpenSolaris operating system--often fails to gain momentum and build a community.
Building a community of readers is essential, and not just for marketing purposes. Most importantly, you can listen to them. You can ask for guidance if you are unsure about major decisions. Also, if you are writing a non-fiction book, it helps to have readers early since it helps you set the tone. If you are oversimplifying your readers will tell you. If your explanations are incomprehensible, your readers will tell you. With Flexible Rails, I even had readers submitting everything from broken links, grammar corrections, compilation errors--and even one security bug! Regardless of how good your development editor is, chances are he or she doesn't compile your code or follow your links.
Lessons Learned from Blogs
Lean Publishing also draws heavily on lessons from blogs. It is important to recognize that the content in a good blog is often easily turned into a good book. Examples of books based on repurposed blog content include 37signals' Getting Real and Rework, Paul Graham's Hackers and Painters, Eric Ries' Startup Lessons Learned and Joel Spolsky's many books. This is a fantastic thing. These successful blogs have built authentic communities around the author, and the community is happy to support the books that result from the blog. As we'll see in the case studies, this often leads to very good and very successful books.
The main lesson to learn from blogs is to publish often and to engage your readers in a conversation. Almost all blogs have comments, and the conversation that occurs in the comments--when done properly--can lead to a real connection between the blog author and the readers. Examples of excellent blog comment communities include Fred Wilson's A VC blog and 37signals' Signal vs. Noise blog. In both cases, the keys to a good comment section are active participation by the authors and intelligence and civility on the part of the readers.
Lean Publishing argues that books should be published early and often so that the author can engage the readers in a similar conversation while the book is in-progress. When done properly, this can result in a good-blog-level of community forming around the book.
The Lean Publishing How-To Guide for Non-Fiction
If you're an author, you may be considering applying the Lean Publishing principles to your current book, or to your next one. However, you may be unsure how exactly to proceed. The good news is that if you are a non-fiction author, there's a very specific set of Lean Publishing steps you can follow. (If you're a fiction author, see the section "Lean Publishing Is Not Just For Technical Books" below.)
Once you have chosen your topic, you need to start writing. If you're writing non-fiction, you absolutely need to start a blog and get a Twitter account. The blog is important for you to find your voice and build a loyal following; the Twitter account is essential to help other people discover you.
What's a Minimum Viable Book? It's the smallest in-progress subset of your book that you could sell and be able to claim with a straight face that it is worth the money right now.
For a technical book, once your book can save an advanced reader a couple of hours--which should be true after you have written a couple of chapters--you have written a Minimum Viable Book, since if this is the case your book will save a novice reader ten or twenty hours. In both cases, the reader will have received excellent value for his or her money, as saving an expert two hours or a novice twenty hours should be worth a few hundred dollars in any technical profession.
You can start marketing and selling your in-progress book on sites such as Leanpub which cater to selling in-progress books, or you can use sites such as Lulu that can also sell PDFs. If you are a technical, do-it-yourselfer you can also start with a blog and integrate a shopping cart, such as the one provided by E-junkie.
Once you reach this step, you will have released your book, created a blog, and you should see some slow trickle of sales and followers.
Now comes the hard part!
Don't think that when you've written a Minimum Viable Book that you are even close to being done your book.
If you really released the book early enough, you should have only spent about 10% of the total time you will end up spending on the book. Chances are it will have taken you at least 40 hours to write the Minimum Viable Book, meaning that you should expect to spend at least 400 hours to complete a first draft.
After you've released the first version, you need to stay focused and keep the stream of releases flowing. Thankfully, assuming you have some early readers, your early readers will be there to provide encouragement--or to nag you if you haven't updated your book in two months!
Lean Publishing is hard work, not a Get Rich Quick scheme. Unlike most book writing today, however, it is also not a Get Poor Slow scheme.
After the first draft is done, you have a decision to make: Do you self-publish the print book or work with a traditional publisher?
The fact that this is even a question shows how much the world has already changed.
If you decide to self-publish the print book, sites such as Lulu do a great job of taking a PDF (such as one produced by Leanpub) and selling it, providing order fulfillment and remitting your royalties.
If you have built a strong following, however, you may have publishers fighting over you. After all, you will have already done the two hardest parts: finishing a book draft and building an audience. For a publisher, this means you are starting far ahead of other authors, so you have negotiating power.
When I was negotiating with publishers over Flexible Rails I put it to them this way: "The book is done. It's selling well. People are blogging about it. If you can't figure out a way to turn this into a successful print book you shouldn't be in the publishing business."
That's the simple version of the how-to guide for all non-fiction books. Next, we'll look at why Lean Publishing is especially suited for technical books, such as computer programming books. Even if you're not a technical book author, this section may be interesting reading if you're interested in technology.
Lean Publishing Is Great For Technical Books: The Technology Adoption and Information Distribution Lifecycle
The Technology Adoption Lifecycle is a very famous bell curve describing how new technology spreads. For disruptive innovation, such as a revolutionary new technology product, author Geoffrey Moore has argued in Crossing the Chasm that there is a gap between the early adopters and the early majority. This curve looks like this:
The Technology Adoption Lifecycle has profound consequences for publishing. Currently, Ebook readers such as Kindle, Nook and iPad are crossing the chasm from early adopters into the early majority. PDF has already reached the late majority in terms of distribution of programs that can read and write the format, but the suitability of PDFs for books still has an image problem for everything but technical books.
For the past five years, even before the Kindle and iPad were created, PDF sales have been steadily growing for technical books. Why technical books and not, say, novels?
The key is something I call the Technology Adoption and Information Distribution Lifecycle.
The name is a mouthful, but what the concept refers to is the ways that information can be distributed about a given technology as that technology moves through the Technology Adoption Lifecycle.
One of the main drivers of this is that the speed of technological change is increasing, so the length of time that the x axis of the Technology Adoption Lifecycle exists for a given technology is being compressed. Whereas in decades past, a book about a given technology could be relevant for 5 (or 10!) years, now you're lucky if that's true for 2 years. Since it takes time for a book to get written, this often means that by the time the book is written, copy edited, typeset, printed, put on trucks and shipped to stores, parts of it are obsolete. It is possible for entire books to become obsolete before they are even finished!
One consequence of this is that there is a pressure to start early, building and shipping print books based on beta versions of software, and hoping that the information will still be correct when the final version is released. Sometimes this works, other times it does not.
I wrote a book, Hello! Flex 4, which had the latter outcome: the print book version was broken within 2 months of being released, since Adobe made minor changes to Flex, the technology the book was about! And while it is possible to update and distribute changes to ebooks, it is impossible to update an already printed and sold print book. (The best you can do is list errata on a website, which isn't optimal.)
Even in circumstances that aren't as extreme as this example, different methods of information distribuion apply to different parts of the Technology Adoption Lifecycle. We'll consider how this applies to various methods of information distribution, including blogs, in-progress ebooks, completed ebooks and print books.
First, we’ll see what this looks like for print books. Since print books take a while to get written, edited, copy-edited, printed, put on trucks and shipped, the curve looks like this:
There are some very interesting consequences here.
First, due to the time required to produce a print book, print books completely miss the innovators and early adopters! These people represent a minority of the total addressable market, but by their nature as enthusiasts they are the most passionate customers. They are the evangelists of a technology, and the exact people that you want to evangelize your book. Choosing print means you will miss them completely.
Second, since shelf space is worth money, print books currently don’t go all the way to the end of the curve. Over time this will be changed by print-on-demand and Amazon for distribution, but today print books still do go out of print.
Next, completed e-books. This curve resembles the curve for print books, since it takes time to write, edit, copy-edit and typeset an e-book. The curve starts a bit sooner, however, since the bits in an ebook don’t need to be shipped in trucks and sit on shelves, the way that print books do.
Smart publishers such as The Pragmatic Programmers, O’Reilly and Manning have realized that completed ebooks still miss a significant segment of the ebook market, so they have created "beta book" (or "rough cut" or "early access") programs to sell in-progress e-books, in order to get more of the curve:
These beta book programs represent the closest thing to Lean Publishing when a traditional publisher is involved. However, this process still requires that the authors run their own blogs, and the imposition of a development editor and other traditional publishing planning workflows ensure that the development of the ideas in the book are not as connected or responsive to the community of readers as in the pure Lean Publishing approach.
Note that as a technology matures and starts to wane, no new books are started about it. This is why the In-Progress Ebooks curve stops before the technology itself dies: for essentially every technology, there is a point when no new books about it are being started.
Taken together, when you combine in-progress e-books and completed e-books, they cover the whole Technology Adoption Lifecycle curve:
Finally, blogs. People start blogging about something new and shiny right away. So, blogs reach the innovators (or are written by the innovators) and the early adopters. Once a technology reaches the mainstream, however, it’s less blog-worthy. So blogs cover the entire area under the curve, except the laggards who are served by obsolete blog archives. Dead technology gets dead blogs.
The big point here is that only blogs and ebooks address the whole Technology Adoption Lifecycle, and only blogs and in-progress ebooks address the passionate innovators and early adopters who will be effective evangelists for a given technology or book. This is something I stumbled upon when writing Flexible Rails, as we will see in the case studies.
The Technology Adoption and Information Distribution Lifecycle shows that it makes the most sense to use Lean Publishing principles when publishing books with the shortest lifespans. Today, these books are technical books.
Lean Publishing Is Not Just For Technical Books
While Lean Publishing is especially suited for technical books, it is not limited to them. The approach works well with many types of non-fiction, such as business books or cookbooks. Good business books are similar in tone to good blogs, and the approach of developing a minimum viable book and growing it with the audience is a natural fit. Similarly, a cookbook could be released with, say, 20 recipes, and a new recipe could be added daily or weekly until the book was complete. This approach would reward the early customers, who would be waiting to try new recipes, and who would feel like they were part of an exclusive club. Furthermore, their feedback would help the authors, who would know which recipes were well-received, and which were half-baked. The prevalence of food-related blogs on the internet serves as further evidence of the suitability of the Lean Publishing approach for cookbooks.
Finally, while Lean Publishing is a natural fit for many types of non-fiction, it can even be used for fiction. This has historical precedent, dating from before the invention of the computer. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published the Sherlock Holmes stories in Strand Magazine in serial form. Charles Dickens also published many of his novels in serial form, and unlike many other authors of the time, he often created the stories as they were being serialized.
What Does Lean Publishing Mean for Readers?
The primary concern of Lean Publishing is authors, not readers. However, readers will benefit from earlier access to more cutting edge information (in the case of technical books), and from a more authentic connection to the author and to fellow readers. The earlier the book is, however, the rougher it is--so there will be much more variability in what is produced and in the communities that form around books. For technical books especially, readers will win the most: common knowledge is cheap knowledge, and Lean Publishing can have a material impact on readers' lives if they read the right in-progress books. I'm proud to say that many people have made money doing consulting based on Flexible Rails, which would never have happened without these principles.
What Does Lean Publishing Mean for Publishers?
Much of the writing and concern about the future of publishing is written by people employed by the traditional publishing industry. However, the primary concern of Lean Publishing is authors, not publishers. That said, it's interesting to consider the effect on publishers.
Does Lean Publishing mean that the publishing industry is doomed?
However, if Lean Publishing becomes widespread, there will be some natural consequences. We'll consider three of them now.
In a Lean Publishing world, talent discovery will be much easier. Publishers will be able to focus on more promising books that are further along, just like VCs are now putting more money into later-stage startups. If you can bootstrap an idea to the point where you can get your first customers or readers yourself, whether that idea is a book or a startup, then you don't need investment until it is starting to succeed!
Second, publishers have always added the most value at the end of the book creation process. Lean Publishing will ensure that their processes will become optimized to be executed in a compressed timeframe, if they have a complete first draft as input instead of just a two-page book proposal.
Copy editing, indexing and distribution are areas that publishers will continue to add value in for a long time. However, a Lean Publishing world does have consequences for development editors. Development editors are the people who work with an author throughout the first draft of a book. If the first draft of the book is the starting point, this has obvious consequences. However, smart development editors will not become obsolete; instead, they will be able to rebrand themselves as specialists in reorganizing book drafts. In software, such large scale reorganization is called refactoring, and it's a learned skill. It may be that Book Refactoring Specialist is a new job title.
Third, authors will have an improved Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA), so they will be able to drive a harder bargain if they have written a book that has traction. This was what I did with Flexible Rails, and it's what many startup entrepreneurs are doing today when raising money from VCs. On the flip side, if your book has no traction, the deal you get as an author may be worse than it is today, or the publisher may tell you to try Lean Publishing first and to come back when you have 1000 Twitter followers, 500 Facebook friends and a first draft.
One of the main contributions of self-publishing sites such as Lulu and Lean Publishing sites such as Leanpub is to shift the balance of power from an oligopoly of publishers toward the authors. It's all about BATNA: if you can make $16 per copy selling PDFs, why should you agree to the abysmal terms of the standard publishing contract? Typically, if a book sells for $50 in a store, the publisher gets $25 (minus returns) and the standard author royalty of 10% means that the author gets $2.50 (minus returns). So, typically, your $50 book bought the author a (small) coffee.
If you're an author, Lean Publishing gives you tremendous negotiating power: you no longer need a publisher. You can make about 6 to 8 times as much money per book selling $20 PDFs yourself on Leanpub or Lulu as you can if a publisher is selling $50 print books for you.
To be clear: You need to sell between 6 and 8 times as many books with a publisher with the traditional royalty rates just to break even. For many books--especially ones where the bulk of the marketing is done by the author on the internet--this won't happen.
One final thing to realize about the book market is that it is segmented: some people buy ebooks, others never will. As an author, if you are interested in making as much money as possible from your book, you should attempt to sell as many of the higher-margin ebooks (via Leanpub, Lulu or E-junkie) as possible before selling print books to the remaining laggards who won't buy ebooks under any circumstances. Producing and selling print books what publishers do best; using them after you have profited from the ebook lets you attempt to "have your cake and eat it too".