Simplifying Leanpub’s Focus

We just shipped some pretty big changes. In this essay, I’m going to explain what we’re doing, and more importantly, why we’re doing it.

Leanpub is a powerful and productive way to write books and courses, but it currently suffers from a number of problems. Here were three of the biggest ones:

  1. It was too confusing and frustrating to get started for a new author.
  2. Some of our writing modes were underpowered or buggy. Specifically, our visual editor was underpowered for anything but the simplest of novels, and our Google Docs plugin was buggy for a number of reasons. (This just added to the confusion and frustration for a new author!)
  3. Our freemium model is starting to work, but the upgrade path was bumpy. We don’t want someone who is struggling with Leanpub to hit a monthly preview limit and need to upgrade. We don’t want people to struggle with Leanpub at all, and we don’t want things to be broken either, but we certainly don’t want someone to pay us because things are broken! Instead, if they do pay at all, we want it to be because things are working great on the Free plan, but they want some of the features of the Standard or Pro plan.

So, we just shipped an update to Leanpub which we think goes a long way to solving these issues:

  1. We just launched our new in-browser text editor. It’s actually good now. Seriously.
  2. We’re doubling the number of monthly previews and publishes on the Free plan from 10 per month to 20 per month. This should be enough for most people to properly try Leanpub, and for most authors to keep their books current after they’re published for as long as they choose to do so.
  3. We’re hiding and deprecating the Google Docs, Visual Editor and Word Upload writing modes. They still work for books which already use them. However, we will no longer provide customer support for them or make improvements to them, and you can’t make new books in them or convert existing books to them. We had previously announced that we would turn off these writing modes on March 1, 2020. It’s currently December 2020 and we have not done it yet. When we do actually do this, we will save a version of the manuscript for every book in these writing modes, and then convert them into our in-browser text editor writing mode. Authors using any of these writing modes are encouraged to convert their books to a different writing mode sooner rather than later. You can do this with one click on the Writing Mode settings page.
  4. For new books, we’re making the Dropbox, GitHub and Bitbucket writing modes and the print-ready PDF export feature require a Standard or Pro plan. All books or courses created before October 30, 2019 are grandfathered and still have access to these writing modes and features even on the Free plan.

With all these changes made, Leanpub is a lot more understandable:

You write new books and courses in Markdown, and you upload completed books in PDF, EPUB and/or MOBI.

That’s it.

No WYSIWYG-to-Markdown mapping which doesn’t really work, and no half-baked tools which don’t have the features you need.

Just Markdown.

Markdown isn’t just for in-progress books, of course. If you have a completed book, you can convert it into Markdown and use Leanpub to generate your book. We even help with this: Leanpub can import into Markdown from HTML files and Word documents, and from services like blogging platforms, Wattpad or WordPress.

The important point is that the “how do I want to write” decision for a Leanpub author just got a lot simpler.

When you create a new book, you now only have three choices:

  1. Write in Markdown in our in-browser text editor.
  2. Write in Markdown on your own computer, and sync with GitHub, Bitbucket or Dropbox. (This requires a Standard or Pro plan.)
  3. Upload a completed book in PDF, EPUB and/or MOBI, with our bring your own book feature.

Regardless of the plan you’ve chosen and the writing mode you’re in, the choice really is just whether you want to write in plain text in Markdown, or upload a completed book.

Yes, you can upload an in-progress book in PDF, EPUB and/or MOBI, of course. You’ll just need to do that every time you publish a new version! For most people, this is more work than doing the work once to convert their book to Markdown, switching to writing in Markdown, and then publishing every new version with one click.

Also, many authors are actually sitting on a completed book which is ready to sell! And for those people, all they need to do to use Leanpub is to sign up, upload the book, add some info for the book landing page, and click a button. Their book will be for sale and earning 80% royalties, just like any other Leanpub book. This whole process takes about 20 minutes.

Now, most of our authors are people who are working on an in-progress book. And Leanpub is freemium, and most new users of any freemium product will choose the free plan. So, for these people, who will presumably be most of our new customers, there’s a really simple decision:

Write in Markdown using our in-browser text editor with a Free plan.

Then, once you fall in love with how easy Leanpub makes it to write, preview and even publish and sell your book, you may decide you want more features.

Maybe you want to write in a text editor on your own computer. Or, maybe you want to click a button to get a print-ready PDF to sell on KDP or Lulu. Or maybe you’ve already published your Leanpub book, but you want Google Analytics on your book landing page. In all these cases, you can just click a button to upgrade to a Standard or Pro plan. The key point is that this upgrade path was simple, and it was driven by happiness and features, not unhappiness and bugs.

To be fair, even though this looks simple enough, there’s still some other complexity here.

The biggest piece of complexity is actually the “Markdown” part. As many Leanpub authors eventually discover, it’s not just Markdown, it’s one of two Markdown dialects: either Leanpub-Flavoured Markdown (LFM) or Markua. And while the Markua spec is complete, our Markua implementation is still in-progress. However, our Markua support is very well documented in The Markua Manual, which explains everything which works in Leanpub and omits everything else. As long as a Leanpub author sticks with The Markua Manual, they’re fine and everything works. (Similarly, we also have The Leanpub Flavoured Markdown Manual, which takes the same approach, but for LFM.) So, since Leanpub’s Markua support is so thoroughly documented and since Markua is already better than LFM, Markua is the default Markdown dialect in Leanpub.

Anyway, while there’s clearly some complexity that we still need to address, we’re really excited about these changes. We really expect them to make Leanpub simpler and easier to use for all our authors.

This doesn’t just benefit all our authors, by the way: it will also make operating Leanpub simpler and easier for us as well! This will help us focus, saying no to technologies and platforms that we don’t control and whose integration with Leanpub didn’t spark very much joy for anyone, and saying yes to spending more time on those that do. This includes things like finishing our Markua support and improving the overall Leanpub reader and author experience on mobile.

Finally, we expect that the changes we are making to our Free, Standard and Pro plans will help give us a solid, predictable and growing foundation of subscription revenue, which, when coupled with our marketplace revenue, will help us build Leanpub into what it can become.

So far, we’ve paid authors over $8,000,000 in royalties, and saved up to 25 million pounds of CO2 and up to 46,000 trees. Leanpub is on an important mission, but we’re still just getting started.

We launched Leanpub in April 2010, and it’s now Halloween 2019, so Leanpub is about nine and a half years old. We believe these changes will help Leanpub grow up better, not just into a surly and brilliant teenager, but into a capable and mature adult.

Peter Armstrong

October 31, 2019

(updated on December 11, 2020 to reflect plan changes)

P.S. Retiring the Leanpub Apps (on November 1, 2019)

This essay is all about simplifying Leanpub for authors. This is appropriate, since we typically think about our authors first.

However, we also need to simplify Leanpub for our readers, of course. So, today we have begun this process in earnest:

We just retired our iOS and Android apps, and our desktop app for Mac, PC and Linux.

They didn’t spark joy for us or our readers, so they’re gone.

(We have the analytics, so we know exactly how few people are affected by this. Trust me, hardly any of our many readers will miss them either!)

Someday we might write new mobile apps and desktop apps. If we do this, we’ll be rethinking everything about their design. However, we’re not even going to think about doing this until we have a mobile website which sparks joy.

(So, that clearly won’t be in 2019.)

To read a Leanpub book on your Mac, PC or Linux computer, there are four excellent ways to do this:

  1. Download the PDF and open it in Preview, Adobe Reader, or any PDF-reading program.
  2. Download the EPUB file and open it in Apple Books or any other EPUB reader app that you prefer.
  3. Download the MOBI file and open it in the Amazon Kindle app.
  4. Read the book in your web browser on Leanpub.

To read a Leanpub book on your iPhone or iPad, there are two excellent, solid choices:

  1. Apple Books - download the EPUB file of a Leanpub book and open it in the Apple Books app
  2. Amazon Kindle - download the MOBI file of a Leanpub book and open it in the Amazon Kindle app

To read a Leanpub book on an Android phone or tablet, there are two excellent, solid choices:

  1. Google Play Books - Download the EPUB file and use Google Play Books, or any other EPUB reader app that you prefer.
  2. Amazon Kindle - Download the MOBI file and use the Amazon Kindle app.