Publish While Writing – An Interview with Scott Patten, co-founder of Leanpub

by Jakob Fricke written on June 27, 2011

One of the most inspiring articles of the last months is Craig Mods essay Post-Articfact Books & Publishing. – A young Canadian startup, Leanpub, is a really good example how to incorporate Mods ideas into a business modell. Heavely inspired by Lean Startup evangelist Eric Ries et al. Peter Armstrong, one of the co-founders, wrote the Lean Publishing Manifesto which is the foundation of their company and worth a read if your interested in the future of publishing.

Tell us about yourself: who are you and what do you do?

I'm Scott Patten, the co-founder of Leanpub. Peter Armstrong and I founded Leanpub; we're both technical, but he's more of a product guy and I'm more of a pure technologist and server-side developer. I'm the lead developer of Leanpub's backend, taking the lead on the importer and book generator, as well as running our servers.

We're in the middle of a publishing shakedown. What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the publishing industry right now?

We think that the biggest challenge facing the publishing industry is lag. Books take about a year to produce, but we live in a world where not much information is relevant a year later. Peter and I are both technical book authors, so we've been aware of this for years, since technology changes so fast. However, this has now spilled over into the mainstream now: what is topical today is often not topical a year from now, and if it's not topical it's not marketable. This is a problem for publishers, since it forces the book production cycle to be compressed.

You started together with Peter Armstrong Leanpub. What is the idea behind it?

Leanpub is based on a simple idea: 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. Basically, it's self-publishing brought into the internet age.

There are 3 sources for the ideas behind Lean Publishing: (1) the beta book programs of some technical publishers, (2) the Lean Startup community, led by Eric Ries and Steve Blank and (3) Peter's experiences self-publishing his book Flexible Rails as an in-progress PDF, building a community as he was writing it.

Peter wrote a short manifesto about Lean Publishing; it's free on Leanpub at http://leanpub.com/manifesto.

How does it work for authors to publish their books?

The short version is that the author signs up at leanpub.com, gets a free Dropbox folder for their book, and edits their manuscript on their computer. Whenever they want to publish their book, they just click a button on leanpub.com. (They can also preview the book first, of course, as many times as they want!) I said "whenever" they want to publish instead of "when" since we want authors to publish their books early and often. If you have readers, they'll get an email letting them know whenever there's a new version.

For authors that are bloggers, they can import their blog's RSS feed as a starting point for their book when they sign up. For everyone else, we put some sample content that shows how a book manuscript is created into their book's Dropbox folder. The book manuscript is written in either a bunch of HTML or Markdown files (HTML is for normal people, Markdown is for geeks like us).

How do you help the author marketing their books?

We don't! The sad truth is, unless you're a famous author, nobody is going to really help you market your book that much. In 2011, authors need to market themselves, on Facebook and Twitter, and with a blog. For the perfect example of how to do this, look at what Tim Ferriss did to market his first book: he did this himself; his publisher didn't do it for him.

Currently you just offer eBooks on leanpub.com. Do you plan to expand the sales channels and offering the books at Amazons Kindle Store or Apples iBookstore? Do you even consider going one step further and sell the books via print on demand?

Today authors can submit their Leanpub books to Amazon's Kindle Store and Apple's iBookstore themselves. They can even put the PDFs of their Leanpub books on print book self-publishing sites like Lulu.com. Eric Ries's Startup Lessons Learned blog is a Leanpub book, and the Leanpub book of the first year of it is on Lulu as a print book. It's currently ranked #1014 by revenue, and it's a Leanpub book.

Note that we're thrilled about authors submitting their Leanpub books to other channels like Lulu, the Kindle store and the iBookstore. Even though we don't directly make a penny from this part of the process, we see it as good marketing for Leanpub (since the verso page mentions Leanpub and has our logo in it). Also, it shows to authors that we don't have any kind of lock in: authors own their work, not us.

Now, in the future we may offer premium tools to make this process of submitting Leanpub books to other stores easier, so that authors don't have to do all the work themselves. Ideally, authors should just have to click a checkbox for each store that they want their book in, and then when they publish their book it should be distributed to all the storefronts.

The one thing we want to emphasize is that these storefronts are best for finished books, while Leanpub is good at selling in-progress and finished books. So our expectation is that Leanpub authors will use Leanpub while their books are in-progress, and once their books are complete they will submit their books to these other stores as well as leaving their books on Leanpub. (We expect them to keep their books on Leanpub since our royalty rates are better, and since the book is already there in the first place.)

In terms of print on demand, we've had discussions with people. However, we feel that ebooks are the future, and we want to focus exclusively on that. We're happy for authors to put their Leanpub books on sites like Lulu themselves. As an example, I created a cookbook as a fund-raiser for my daughter's pre-school using Leanpub (http://leanpub.com/stgilescookbook), and printed it myself using 48hrbooks.com.

Leanpub helps the author free himself from the traditional publishing houses. What's your take concerning the future of the traditional value chain in publishing?

We feel that Leanpub helps improve an author's BATNA (Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement) when negotiating with publishers. In the past, if you wanted to be an author, you had to work with a publisher. Publishers had all the power, and all offered similar terms. Now publishers are optional. So as an author, you have a lot more power than ever before. You can self-publish in-progress books on Leanpub, as well as completed books on Leanpub, Amazon, Apple and Lulu. So publishers aren't as important for distribution.

However, we feel that publishers do add value. Publishers with good brands offer marketing value. Also, in terms of the book production process, publishers provide valuable services such as development editing and copy editing, indexing, typesetting, etc. This type of work is valuable, and is a horrible chore for an author to do alone. However, the important thing to note is that with the exception of the work of a development editor, essentially all of this work occurs near the end of the creation of a book. For technical books, this is when the author is basically sick of the book and just wants it out the door.

Since most of this work occurs near the end of the book creation process, we expect that publishers will end up using Leanpub as a resource, and attempting to sign the best and most successful Leanpub books. If a book is successful on Leanpub, there's a lot less risk for the publisher. For starters, lots of books that publishers sign contracts for don't get finished, or don't get finished to the publisher's expectations. After all, writing is hard. So there's execution risk. If the book is already mostly finished on Leanpub, this execution risk is essentially gone. Next, a publisher won't be sure if a book is marketable. If the book is already selling well on Leanpub, this should be evidence of its marketability. So, as Leanpub grows, savvy publishers will see it as a place to go shopping. Of course, they'll have to offer better terms to the authors than they're used to offering (especially on the ebooks), since the historically standard book deal doesn't look very generous in comparison to what Leanpub offers.

What was the biggest challenge while building leanpub.com?

The biggest challenge is usability. For Leanpub to be really successful, we need to offer the control that very sophisticated technical book authors need, as well as the simplicity that lets anyone use Leanpub. Leanpub should be the natural choice for someone who wants to write a cookbook from scratch, or a book based on their blog, or a book from scratch about computer programming.

So, our authors will have a wide range of technical skills. Since we're programmers, our first impulse was to try to build something that would make everyone happy. Since we chose HTML and Markdown as formats for the book manuscript, our first idea was to let authors do all the writing inside a web browser. So, we hacked up a version of WordPress that would let authors edit their books just like they were editing blog posts, along with an online drag and drop editor written in Flex where authors could organize the structure of the book. It turns out that while a web browser is a fine place to write something of blog post length, it's a terrible place to write a book. So our next idea was to provide that web interface essentially for the people who were importing blogs, but to also provide a separate way of using Git (a version control system) and GitHub to provide the manuscript content, but let people write the books on their computers. Well, the "write on their computer" idea was a good one, but choosing Git was rather elitist of us. So we woke up one day and realized that we'd created a system that had two ways of writing books, neither of which was usable to anyone.

The epiphany was to use Dropbox for the manuscript sharing between authors and Leanpub. This lets authors write the books on their computers, and simply click one button on leanpub.com to generate a new version of their book in all the formats.

What are the next steps for Leanpub?

We need to make Leanpub even simpler to use, while making it even more powerful and flexible. As I mentioned earlier, we're going to look into offering a premium feature of automated exports to Apple and Amazon. Also, we're considering features for our highly technical authors such as allowing LaTeX documents as an import format, as well as the HTML and Markdown formats we support today. But we'll only do something if it can be made simple and understandable. This is so hard to do, especially when you're someone who is technical and doesn't mind complexity. For example, I wrote my book in DocBook. (We used to use DocBook internally in Leanpub, before we scrapped it and switched to LaTeX.) Now, when we were considering what to use for manuscript formats, we had a number of choices, such as HTML, DocBook, Markdown, reStructuredText, AsciiDoc, LaTeX, etc. But every time you add choice you add complexity, so it's an iterative process where we need to learn what our customers are trying to accomplish, and figure out the most elegant and simplest way for us to support that.