In this Episode
Paolo Amoroso is the author of the Leanpub book Space Apps for Android: Discover the Best Astronomy and Space Apps. In this interview, Leanpub co-founder Len Epp talks with Paolo about his background, how he got interested in space and astronomy, big changes that have taken place in the way experts can popularize space and astronomy, SpaceX's big accomplishments and Jeff Bezos's ideas about colonizing space, what it means to be a Google Product expert, what happened to Google+ and why a lot of people really liked it, his book, and at the end, they talk a little bit about his experience as a self-published author.
This interview was recorded on May 14, 2019.
The full audio for the interview is https://s3.amazonaws.com/leanpub_podcasts/FM116-Paolo-Amoroso-2019-05-14.mp3. You can subscribe to the Frontmatter podcast in iTunes https://itunes.apple.com/ca/podcast/leanpub-podcast/id517117137 or add the podcast URL directly: https://itunes.apple.com/ca/podcast/leanpub-podcast/id517117137.
This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.
Len: Hi I’m Len Epp from Leanpub, and in this Leanpub Frontmatter Podcast I'll be interviewing Paolo Amoroso.
Based in Milan, Paolo is a space and astronomy popularizer, a Google Product Expert, and co-host of AstronautiCAST, the first Italian podcast devoted to space, that's been around since 2007.
He has spent his career in space- and astronomy-related outreach and education at the Brera Astronomical Museum, and the Ulrico Hoepli Planetarium in Milan. He's also a board member of the Italian Space and Astronautics Association, the parent organization for AstronautiCAST.
Paolo is the author of the Leanpub book Space Apps for Android: Discover the Best Astronomy and Space Apps. In the book, Paolo sets out some of the best Android apps available on the Google Play Store, for anyone with an interest in space and astronomy - and people just discovering the amazing ways for understanding and exploring the Moon, the solar system and the universe - and anything else you'd like to know about the space around us.
The book is based on Paolo's very popular collection, "Space Apps for Android Mobile Space and Astronomy," which had nearly a quarter of a million followers on Google+ and was featured by Google.
In this interview we're going to talk about Paolo's background and career, professional interests, his book, and at the end- we'll talk about his experience using Leanpub to self-publish this book, based on the Google+ collection.
So thank you Paolo for being on the Leanpub Frontmatter Podcast.
Paolo: Thanks to you Len for having me, and hello to the listener of the Frontmatter podcast.
Len: I always like to start these interviews by asking people for their origin story. So, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about where you grew up, and how you first became interested in space and astronomy?
Paolo: I was born in southern Italy in a small town named Cupertino, which has the same origin for its name as the Cupertino in Silicon Valley - but it's a completely different place. But I have always lived in the northern part of Italy in Milan, which is the second largest city in Italy.
I got interested in astronomy and space at a very young age, when I was a kid, in the early 1970s, when I followed the news on TV and media about the Apollo program - for example, moon exploration and the follow-up missions Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz. So, I got started by learning about space from, what was back then, news - what was currently going on in the space program.
Len: And did you study a related subject in school?
Paolo: Yes. I enrolled in physics at university, but didn't complete it. I switched to computer science later, but I'm a serial dropout - so I didn't do either.
Len: And how did you get into the popularization of space and astronomy?
Paolo: Almost by chance, in the early 1980's. Back then in Milan, where - as I said, I always lived there - the astronomy popularization and education community was born. So, when there was some need for someone to, for example, do a lecture or something, some other related public outreach, TBT, the major institution back then - the local planetarium reached out to the few amateur astronomers available. So I got in touch with them. I was an amateur astronomer. I was a member of the local astronomy club, and so it was easy to get involved.
Len: It's really interesting - when I was researching for this interview, I was reminded of an experience I had a couple of years ago, where I was talking to a colleague's young brother, who had just started university - and he was majoring in chemistry. And it just struck me all of a sudden how much the teaching of chemistry must have changed in the last, let's say, 25 years, since I studied it in university.
I started watching online lectures, and it was just amazing to me, the advances in the ways you can communicate concepts and chemistry to people now, compared to back then.
I'm sure the same thing has happened in astronomy and space. Can you recall one or two of the biggest moments you had, where things really changed in the way you could communicate to people about space?
Paolo: Yes, everything changed in the way we do outreach and education in astronomy. The most important thing that changed is probably the internet, the web. Not just for the most obvious thing we may think about when considering this new channel for communication - not just the way, for example, we can get imagery from space exploration or data, but the way the professionals who do outreach and education can access first-hand sources and data.
Before the internet, it was really difficult to get our hands on even popularization books or resources, let alone the original sources.
In Milan, there was a very well-stocked library focusing also on science and astronomy. We had to pre-order to purchase books that were difficult to find, and it took them months to ship them, to get from the original sources. And with the internet, online commerce - Amazon back then - it was much easier to get our hands on the original sources, and enough material to use in these activities.
Len: I imagine one of the big changes too, has of course been in visualization. I remember as a kid, I had a poster on the wall - probably from National Geographic, or something like that - of galaxies, and just enjoyed looking at it. And I mean, if I'd had some of the stuff that was available today to visualize things, it would have been way more interesting than a dead tree poster.
Paolo: Yes, back then we could buy, for example, slide sets. Kids today think of slides as in PowerPoint slides, but our generations was familiar with film slides. We used those media, those visuals in our lectures and activities. We needed slide projectors, which were bulky, difficult to find, expensive to use. So it was even difficult to show some visuals.
Len: One was one thing I was looking forward to asking you about is the Italian space industry and space program. One of the fun things about this podcast, is interviewing people from all around the world. And often I get to ask them, what's the tech start-up scene like in your country or in your city? I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the space program and the space industry in Italy, currently?
Paolo: Yes, there are major space industries in the country. If you think that slightly less than half of the US part of the international space station was built in Italy - either as a contribution to the International Space Station program on behalf, for example, of the European Space Agency, or a contribution with the bilateral agreements with NASA and the Italian space agency. Or on behalf of NASA itself, for their own contribution to the space program. So most of the part was built in Turin, in the plants of what is now Thales Alenia Space, for example.
Len: And I believe you've worked on a book by an Italian astronaut?
Paolo: Yes. The astronaut is Samantha Cristoforetti. She's the friend, and of the astronauts who is part of the latest group of European astronauts. They were selected in 2009, and she's one of two Italian astronauts.
I happened to meet her before she became an astronaut, because she was a space enthusiast like me and many others. She joined the online discussion forum I was a member of. It is is now one of the resources of the Italian Space and Astronautics Association. So she joined the forum, and she started discussing space with us. And when the time came, she applied for the selection by the European Space Agency, in 2008, and she was selected the following year.
Len: That's amazing. It must have been so exciting to follow her path.
Paolo: Yes. Her complete journey from a space enthusiast, to a space professional, to a real astronaut.
Len: And has she been to the International Space Station?
Paolo: Yes. She was in the International Space Station, from November 2014 to June 2015. She spent about 200 days on the Space Station.
Len: Wow, what an incredible adventure.
So, space is in the news all the time, but it's interesting - I'm just a headline reader who enjoys following such things, like so many other people. But I wanted to ask you a few questions about some of the things that people see in the headlines, and what you think about them - for example, when it comes to SpaceX, they've been doing a lot of innovating. Amongst their many achievements, what has impressed you the most?
Paolo: What impressed me the most is, of course, the landings of the first stages of their rockets. It took them much longer than expected, but the technology now seems to be quite solid. It's really impressive, because this is something that has been discussed and planned for a very long time in the space industry. But they were they were the first to make these practical. And beyond their technical achievements, they should be credited also for reviving interest in space - enthusiasm, real enthusiasm for space.
Len: Of course the other big private company that we read about generally in the news is Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos's company. While preparing for this interview just last night, I watched this recent presentation he gave. It was just I think a few days ago, about his vision for the future of human expansion into space. Have you seen that yet?
Paolo: I have heard the news, I haven't seen the presentation yet. But, again, there's something similar to what we discussed earlier about SpaceX. In a way, Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin, are refining an idea that has been circulating in the space world since the 1970s. That is the idea of building human colonies in space - this is, of course, in the long term - and using space around planets to colonize, to thrive - and to use the resources of. Not to build settlements on the surface of planets, which takes a lot of energy. But to use the space around planets.
Len: During his presentation, he plays a clip of Isaac Asimov saying, many of us in the science fiction world have always been planet chauvinists. When we've thought about expansion into space, we've always thought about colonizing the surface of planets. But this idea that, instead of living on the surface of planets, one option humans have for colonizing space, is to extract resources from planets, and then construct these habitable environments in space...
Paolo: Yes. There's much more flexibility.
Len: I don't want to get you in trouble with your community, but I confess, personally, having no stake in it, I'm a total skeptic. I don't believe at all that it's ever going to happen. I found it quite strange the way Bezos grounds his argument for why we should do this on the idea that, if we don't, we're going to have to ration electricity in the future, or energy. I mean, the amount of work it's taken to create and maintain and operate the International Space Station, which is an amazing achievement - seems to me to be in itself all the proof we need that we're never going to be able to do something like Bezos is proposing. What do you think?
Paolo: You are not the only skeptic about, not just the possibility of doing something like that, but also the time frames, for example. The International Space Station is a good example. Because the main lesson learned from this huge project, is how to operate a very complex machine with humans aboard, even in low earth orbit, which is just around the corner - and the scale of even a small colony, and the challenges of operating it - that is making it just work, let alone produce energies or resources or do other activities.
But the scale of all this is huge. Even just to keep the International Space Station running, you have teams with thousands of engineers and technicians all around the world, working around the clock every day, and planning and replanning everything. Whenever changes, for example - they have more than one plan. So it takes really a lot of work to scale such an effort.
Len: Yeah, and you kind of have to be a superhero to be an astronaut in the first place. It just seems like - maybe we'll have some space tourism from Blue Origin, and Virgin and stuff like that. But even that term, it's kind of like, "We're going to get you into low earth orbit for a few minutes for $300,000 each, thank you very much." And it just strikes me that like that's as far as we're ever going to go with that kind of thing - is the feeling I'm left with when I think about it.
Paolo: Yes. Both these companies, SpaceX and Blue Origin, are taking a lot of time. Not just for the technical challenges of such an endeavour, but for the unknowns, for the setbacks. For example, the accidents SpaceX had in the past, and recently testing a crewed capsule. So it takes much longer than expected.
Len: I wanted to ask you about AstronautiCAST. It was very interesting hearing this. I believe the podcast started in 2007 -
Len: Which is quite early for podcasting, and I believe it's also award-winning. So, I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about the podcast?
Paolo: We started AstronautiCAST in 2007, as a spin-off activity of our online discussion community, based on the discussion board we had for Italian space enthusiasts. We started with online discussion, that is the text-based discussions that the traditional discussion board platform makes possible. But among us, among the founders and the main contributors to this community - there were a few podcasting enthusiasts. So, it was natural to to try something similar, with the resources of our own community, and start doing an Italian podcast.
Back then there were no space podcasts in Italy, and even few independent podcasts. And to this day, AstronautiCAST is the only space podcast. And besides doing the regular audio episodes, we occasionally do also some live stream. For example, for space events like air launches and so on - space shuttle launches a few years ago, and now launches to the International Space Station. And we do also video streams. For example, we comment in Italian, on the images from NASA TV and other official sources.
We also did this for the launch of our friend Samantha Cristoforetti back in November of 2014, and we had a peak of around 60,000 simultaneous viewers. We were the major online source to do a livestream, because although the Italian Space Agency also had a plan to set up by live stream on their own website, their own website crashed around an hour earlier, due to the huge load. Because Samantha Cristoforetti is the the first female Italian astronaut, there was a huge interest. We use YouTube as our video streaming platform, which of course has no such scale issues, so it turned out very well.
Len: It's just so great to hear that there are, there's so much interest in space and in launches - that it can sustain 60,000 viewers for a live stream. That's just wonderful.
So, moving on to the next part of the interview. In addition to your work popularizing space and astronomy, you're also a Product Expert for Google.
Len: And I believe you were a founding member of the Google+ Create Program. I wanted to ask you a little bit about that. What is a Product Expert for Google?
Paolo: The Product Experts, as they are now called - we were first called "Top Contributors," but there was recently a rebrand of the program. I'm the volunteer who answers support questions in the official Google Product Forum. For example, if you have an issue with Google Play, Google Maps, or Google Photos or any other of the Google products - you can post in the official platforms. We are the volunteers who answer these questions, and we are recognized by Google. We have a few additional resources, for example - such as access to Google for, say, escalating some major issues, or get some clarifications on how products work - to better answer user questions, and so on. This is a formal program from Google. They select volunteers in all their forums, and we are part of this official program.
Len: And how do you become a part of it, for anyone listening, who might want to have that kind of access and influence themselves?
Paolo: The best thing you can do is to just start posting in any of the official product forums, and you'll get noticed by us or by Googlers - and you'll be contacted if you do good work; you'll be invited to join the program. There's also an application form, but if you don't have any activity before, it's a little bit more involved.
Len: I'm really curious, because I rely on quite a few Google products in my day-to-day life, personally and professionally - and I spend a lot of time shouting at the screen. If I were, particularly at Gmail - and I say this in the context, that I use these things all the time, and they're mostly quite amazing - but there are some things that just seem insane. If I were to go on to say, like a Gmail forum - what are the chances that a nobody like me could actually have an influence on the product's design?
Paolo: Do you mean by providing feature suggestions, or other feedback?
Len: Yes. Just to be very specific, for example, I find it incredible that Gmail hides email addresses from the user. If I'm creating an email in Gmail, and I type in someone's email address, it will replace it with their account name. And it might even completely hide the "from" account, and only show a name for the "to" account, rather than an email address. I'm only going into detail, because I'm sure everyone listening here, has some specific thing like that.
Len: That they find crazy. I used to work in a job where if you emailed the wrong person the wrong information, you could get sued or go to jail. And so the idea of hiding information - the crucial information about what you're doing from you, for the sake of the pleasantness of the experience or something like - is wild. Would I have to haunt them for months in order to get listened to?
Paolo: I don't know what are the chances of a specific suggestion to be implemented. But what I can say, is that it's very important to submit your feedback. Because even if Gmail or other major Google products have hundreds of millions, even billions of users, it's important for Google to have all this feedback. Because, they can see, for example, trends. If many people request the specific feedback, they may consider it. What I can say for sure, is that Google does monitor and read the feedback users send.
I've talked with Googlers, who do read this feedback. They encourage this feedback. They can't guarantee of course that each and every request is implemented. And if you think about it, not even open source software projects implement every feature request, for example. Even if you submit to an open source project, they may reject it, for example, for technical reasons, feasibility reasons, or because it's not a good fit for the product or so on.
But all suggestions, all feedback is monitored and reviewed by Google. If they don't know what the users want, they cannot implement what they don't know users want. Keep sending through your feedback.
Len: Thank you very much for that, that's really great to hear. I guess probably like many other people, I've always related to Google as this huge corporation that is not necessarily listening.
I'm very sympathetic to what you were saying about how not every feature request gets implemented. We get these every day, and we love hearing them. Anybody who has any feature requests - or any complaints similar to mine about Gmail, about Leanpub - please let us know, we love hearing them. But when you're relating to something so big - it's often easy to relate to it as faceless, when actually it's made up of many different very face-having people.
One thing I wanted to ask you about in particular - you were an early adopter of Google+, I believe?
Len: I'd like to talk to you about that. Because one thing you mention in your book, and I think in your blog, is that the image people who read the tech sites might have of Google+ does not necessarily match the experience that a lot of its users had of it. Just to be clear for everyone listening, Google+ was Google's - I mean Paolo can give a much better explanation of it than I can, but in brief, it was Google's attempt at a social media platform. And it just closed down for good on April 2nd, I believe?
Len: If there was someone out there who'd never used Google+, and only came across snarky references to it on TechCrunch or something like that, how would you explain to them what Google+ was really like, for users who liked it?
Paolo: Google+ was different from other social platforms for a number of reasons. It didn't have a specific, defining feature that set it off from other platforms. But many features combined, made the experience better.
For example, all posts were publicly viewable on the public web. You didn't have to sign up or to have an account to view the posts. And Google+ pioneered a number of features that were later adopted, or became a more widespread. For example, the Hangouts video calls. Many activities took off from these features, which became popular. Video streams of events or discussions, or something like that. So it wasn't a single feature that set Google+ apart from other platforms, but combinations of features and community - that made it a unique and a great experience.
Len: And so what ultimately killed it?
Paolo: It's difficult to know. One of the factors was certainly, most likely, low adoption. We probably will never have any reliable numbers, metrics or other data - what was probably likely, is that it didn't have the critical mass to make it a platform for keeping. But it's very difficult to know what was, what ultimately was the reason why Google killed the product.
Len: And as it does it still exist in under a different name in an enterprise version?
Paolo: Yes, it's now called Google Currents. It's the same name that was previously used for a product that later became Google Play's Newsstand - and now is Google News. But the name is the same.
Paolo: It's now available only to G Suite enterprise customers.
Len: One interesting thing I came across that you wrote, I think in a blog post, was, when Google+ was finally killed, you and many other people were we're stuck. You had all this content, you had all this time you'd spent on the platform. And you still had more things you wanted to say, and you had to find a new place to say them. You mentioned, very specifically in this blog post, "Anything Facebook is a deal breaker for me."
Len: Facebook has been in the news a lot lately. It's been in the news a lot for a while now. But they've been talking about an annus horribilis and things like that. And so I was wondering - I mean, I've got some pretty strong opinions about it. What is it about Facebook that makes it a deal breaker for you?
Paolo: There are a number of reasons, both technical and related to the company.
The technical reasons are that I don't like the product, the user interface, which is very busy, cluttered. There's too much content, too many ads and so on.
And then, I don't like the company. It's a personal preference of course. There are lots of people who use and enjoy the platform. So, good for them.
But I think that Facebook went way beyond even the pretty loose standards of the technical industry, they went way beyond. I think they can't change, they're - I'm uncomfortable at the idea of using the product. I still have an old account I'm going to delete soon, but I haven't been using it for years.
Len: I couldn't agree with you more about the experience of using it - and the busyness, and the complexity that you're presented with. And when you start to understand that behind every one of those things shouting at you is somebody who's highly incentivized to get you to click on that part, and they're in competition with other people at Facebook to get you to click on the that part of Facebook that they're in charge of - once you realize that that's actually what you're what you're looking at, a bunch of people competing for your attention in that way - even internally to Facebook, not just Facebook as a monolith - it becomes a very gross experience.
I just wanted to share the best, meaning the worst, Facebook story I've ever heard. A very good friend of mine decided, for a number of reasons, he just wanted to delete his Facebook account. I think it's a lot easier now than it was then, he did this a year or two ago. But he had to click to delete a number of times, and he kept getting prompted, "Are you sure, are you sure, are you sure?' And at one point, it showed him the face of someone he hadn't seen for three years saying, "So-and-so will miss you if you leave."
The manipulativeness of that in itself is bad enough. But the reason he hadn't seen the person's face for three years, was because it was his brother, who'd committed suicide three years earlier. And here was Facebook serving up this face after his repeated attempts to get off of it, to try and straightforwardly manipulate him emotionally, to stay on.
When I hear stories about Facebook's other transgressions - it's the very idea that people could be behind something like that, and what would be motivating them to do things like that to users? That really ultimately, I think, crystallized my feelings about that product.
Paolo: By the way - I don't mind having a company, a corporation, a business entity have my data - if I get some value back. But in the case of Facebook, I think they cross every line of - not just ethics, but fairness or trust, or anything like that. They go way beyond what's expected, even considering the loose ethical standards of the tech industry.
Len: I couldn't agree with you more. Thanks for sharing your opinion about that.
So moving onto the next part of the interview, and talking about your book. So, you had this "collection" on Google+, which was a term of art for the platform. As I understand it, you could post things, and you could create a collection of your posts around a particular topic. And you had created this wonderful collection of space and astronomy apps for Android. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what got you started posting about space apps?
Paolo: If you compare a Google+ profile to a blog, for example, a collection would be a set of posts tagged with the same tag. For example, all posts about astronomy or Google, or publishing also. A collection was a field, the grouping of related posts. So, just a fancy name for related posts, on the same topics.
I started posting about space apps and astronomy apps for Android early in my use of Google+, around late 2012, around that time. Because it was just one of my interests. This was before there were collections in Google+. These features was released around 2015. So at that time, I grouped all of these posts which were part of the same collection. They were browseable, for example, in a single page, and the user could subscribe and could follow those posts to get updates.
Len: It's always a pleasure to research for these interviews, but it's rare that it's just straightforwardly fun - and I had a lot of fun researching for this one. Because I just pulled out an old Android phone I have, and downloaded apps like the ones that were in your collection, and are now in your book. It was an incredible amount of fun.
It's amazing, the diversity of apps out there on astronomy and space - at least at least to me, as an outsider with no expectations about it. The idea that my phone knows where I am in the world, and it knows what direction I'm facing, and it knows what angle I'm pointing the phone at towards the sky - so it can show me what the stars would be if -
I was looking at these apps in the daytime, but if it were nighttime, I would have been able to match up what I was seeing on the phone to what I was seeing in the sky. I could download really detailed 3D visualizations of the Mars rovers from different apps, and also AR experiences. And there are also these apps that are just - I mean, for things that I don't claim to even remotely understand, but for people who are really into astronomy, the amount of data and information that you can get, in a matter of seconds, on your phone, is just incredible. What's the app that blows you away the most?
Paolo: And by the way, this is related to something we discussed earlier about the availability of firsthand sources and data. The app that blows my mind is an app, it's actually better to access their mobile website to get the real-time telemetry of the International Space Station. It was an app originally developed by NASA, and then spun off - so they no longer maintain it, but a private a private aerospace company doesn't let them. There's a website and an app that's no longer maintained, on which you can follow the real-time telemetry of the International Space Station. Most of the data, the actual flight controllers can have - the main subsystems that is.
I had a friend that worked at one of the control centers of one of the laboratories of the International Space Station. He could compare the telemetry from the app, and from the actual telemetry - and they were almost in real time. There was a delay, no more than a second or two.
For example when there's an extra vehicular activity going on a spacewalk, the astronaut enters an airlock. They depressurize it, and then they exit in the vacuum of space. And you can see the pressure in the airlock falling. You can follow, for example, the decrease. Or when there's an issue with the electrical system, you can follow the telemetry of the decrease of levels, for example, voltage energy production, and so on.
Len: That's really amazing. It's amazing not only that it's available, but that you can technically get that information through a mobile website or through an app - but also that it's shared. Is thatsomething in space programs, that public sharing of so much information?
Paolo: Do you mean, why there's so much information now?
Len: Yeah. Was it the kind of thing that would have been kept secret in the past, and was only recently made available to people?
Paolo: I don't think so. I think the Space Agency or whoever had the information didn't realize there may be interest for this kind of data. It's more the lack of such information in the past, I think, was more incidental than a deliberate decision.
Len: That never occurred to me. I always thought of it as something - I guess this kind of dates me, but I always saw so much of space as being kind of a cold war endeavor that that people would have been actively keeping information secret. But that's a part of history now, I suppose?
Paolo: Well in some cases, there's still something like that going on. For example - for exploration, for scientific missions in the solar system. In some cases the group of researchers that manage these spacecraft, these missions - decide to release only part of the information, so that they can have access to the older science data, and they can rightly publish earlier results, discoveries. So they may release the data later, or never talk -
Len: Speaking of publishing - that actually gives me an opportunity to move on to the last part of the interview, where we talk about your experience as an author writing and publishing a book.
You found yourself with this very popular collection on Google+, and wanted to find a new outlet for it - and eventually you chose Leanpub. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what led you to make that decision?
Paolo: It was a natural fit, because Leanpub focuses on allowing the publication of works in progress, or works that need to be updated frequently. And that's the case of both my own collections, and Android apps in general. I didn't have a complete book from the collection, but it was a good starting point. It's as if I imported the posts from a blog. Which is something that Leanpub supports natively. For example, you have tools for importing posts from WordPress or Blogger. There was no specific tool for Google+, but it was easy to just copy and paste the original posts in the source manuscript.
This is one of the reasons. I didn't have a complete book, but a good starting point. And I wanted to publish an initial version of this book to Leanpub, before Google+ was shut down, so that I could discuss both the book and the process with fellow creators. For example, members of the Google+ Create program - we frequently discussed publishing content, using content.
And shortly after the publication of my book, we did an online discussion and interview about my experience with the Leanpub. I was interviewed by one of them with the other members of the Google+ Create program.
The other reason why Leanpub is a good fit, is because mobile apps are frequently changed, some no longer exist. New ones are released, and others have new features. So it's important to be able to update a MOOC or any source that covers these apps.
Len: I'm really curious about what your experience was like creating a book from these posts. So, your book was written in plain text on Leanpub in Markua, which is our plain text markup syntax for writing books.
The way it works is, for anyone listening who's doesn't know what those words mean, it's kind of like, in the days when you were typing on a typewriter - if you underlined something, that was an indication to the publisher that it should ultimately be turned into italics. And so when you write a book in Leanpub, you're writing it in plain text, which means if you want something in bold, you put asterisks around it, in the manuscript itself.
Were you familiar with writing that way, before writing your Leanpub book?
Paolo: Yes, I was comfortable with Markua, because I've been a long time user of, for example, LaTeX. They are formatting languages that I'm very familiar with - text formatting languages. So Markua was just one of them.
Len: That's great to know. And so, you had this content on Google+ - sorry to get in the weeds here, but were you able to download that content in plain text format?
Paolo: I did download the data from Google+ before it was shut down. But I didn't use that data as a base for the manuscript. I just copied and pasted the plain text of the posts from Google+, while it was still online. So that was an additional motivation for getting the book out before the shutdown of the platform. It was pretty slow to copy and paste the text of around a hundred and fifty posts, but it was probably easier than figuring where the content was in the couple of gigabytes of data I had downloaded from Google+. It was a one-time job, so I took the plunge and did it.
Len: Thank you very much for sharing that that experience with everyone. It's always nice for people to hear the details of other author's experiences doing things like this. I believe you are the first author we've had, who has come to us from Google+ with content like that. So it's great to hear about how that worked.
The last question I always like to ask in these interviews is - if there was one thing we could build for you on Leanpub, or one thing we could fix - what would you ask us to do for you?
Paolo: I'd like you to improve the Leanpub storefront by both promoting it more among readers, and making books more discoverable for authors.
The reason I say it should be more promoted for readers, is because - although you have, for example - some social media profiles, they don't have many followers - as many as such a platform would deserve, for example. And Leanpub, itself is relatively little known. I have been discussing Leanpub with others. Both Google+ users, and others online. And although they are interested in such a platform, for publishing works in progress - it is little known between both authors and readers. So it would be better to promote, to make readers and others aware of it more.
As for discoverability of books, I think it would be useful to have some kind of algorithmic recommendations. Even something as basic as, for example, "Readers who bought this book also bought this other one," or some kind on topic recommendations. Even from the home page, it's a bit difficult to get to the Leanpub store itself. It's a homepage more oriented to authors than readers. You have to click a menu to get to the store, and there are only a couple of major categories of the store. For example - featured and bestsellers.
Before drilling down to specific categories, for example, computers and software, programming languages and so on - you have to open one of these categories, click on a very long list, and scroll down, way down, to reach a popular programming language item, which is way down alphabetically.
If you enter the words of my book in the search box - you don't get any results. You have to type the exact, full title. This is also true for other books, and it would be better to have more discoverability of book, of titles or categories - to be more accessible.
Len: Thank you very much for that really great and very specific feedback. We really appreciate hearing things like that. One of the things that we are aware of is that we do sort of naturally approach things from an author's perspective. And so, book discoverability, the search, in particular in our bookstore and things like that - are areas where we know we need to improve. And in particular, your description of the experience of trying to drill down into a category being difficult, is definitely something that that we want to improve.
There's a lot of other things around discoverability and interaction. Things like - I'm not I'm not saying we're going to do this, but things like letting authors have followers in the way that you might typically have on other sites. We do have recommendation features, where we show, "Top sellers like this one," but they are obviously not surfaced as well as they should be.
So thank you very much for sharing that. And thank you very much for being a Leanpub author, and for taking the time to do this interview. I really enjoyed it.
Paolo: Thanks to you, and thanks to the listeners of the podcast who follow us this way.
Len: Thanks very much. And thanks as always to all of you for listening to this episode of the Frontmatter Podcast. If you like what you heard, please rate and review and like and subscribe wherever you found it. And if you would like to be a Leanpub author, please go to our website at leanpub.com. Thank you.