There's been some interesting discussion over the past fews days about Leanpub, both on Twitter and blogs. Jurgen Appelo posted Why I Don't Use Leanpub and Peter Armstrong responded. I think the biggest selling points of Leanpub as a publishing platform from an author's perspective may have been lost in the discussion. So, here's why my take on why I use Leanpub for Software Architecture for Developers.
I pitched my book idea to a number of traditional publishing companies in 2008 and none of them were very interested. "Nice idea, but it won't sell" was the basic summary. A few years later I decided to self-publish my book instead and I was about to head down the route of creating PDF and EPUB versions using a combination of Pages and iBooks Author on the Mac. Why? Because I love books like Garr Reynolds' Presentation Zen and I wanted to do something similar. At first I considered simply giving the book away for free on my website but, after Googling around for self-publishing options, I stumbled across Leanpub. Despite the Leanpub bookstore being fairly sparse at the start of 2012, the platform piqued my interest and the rest is history.
I use Leanpub because it allows me to focus on writing content. Period. The platform takes care of creating and selling e-books in a number of different formats. I can write some Markdown, sync the files via Dropbox and publish a new version of my book within minutes.
I frequently get asked for advice about whether Leanpub is a good platform for somebody to write a book. The number one question to ask is whether you have specific typesetting/layout needs. If you want to produce a "Presentation Zen" style book or if having control of your layout is important to you, then Leanpub isn't for you. If, however, you want to write a traditional book that mostly consists of words, then Leanpub is definitely worth taking a look at.
Leanpub uses a slightly customised version of Markdown, which is a super-simple language for writing content. Here's an example of a Markdown file from my book, and you can see the result in the online sample of my book. Leanpub does allow you to tweak things like PDF page size, font size, page breaking, section numbering, etc but you're not going to get pixel perfect typesetting. I think that Leanpub actually does a pretty fantastic job of creating good looking PDF, EPUB and MOBI format ebooks based upon the very minimal Markdown. This is especially true when you consider the huge range of ebook reader software across PCs, Macs, Android devices, Apple devices, Kindles, etc. Plus the readers themselves can mess with the fonts/font sizes too.
It's like building my own server at Rackspace versus using a "Platform as a Service" such as Cloud Foundry. You need to make a decision about the trade-off between control and simplicity/convenience. Since authoring isn't my full-time job and I have lots of other stuff to be getting on with, I'm more than happy to supply the content and let Leanpub take care of everything else for me.
My toolchain as a Leanpub author is incredibly simple: Dropbox and Mou. From a structural perspective, I have one Markdown file per essay and that's basically it. Leanpub does now provide support for using GitHub to store your content and I can see the potential for a simple Leanpub-aware authoring tool, but it's not rocket science. And to prove the point, a number of non-technical people here in Jersey have books on Leanpub too (e.g. Thrive with The Hive and a number of books by Richard Rolfe).
Before starting, I'd already decided that I'd like to write the book as a collection of short essays and this was cemented by the fact that Leanpub allows me to publish an in-progress ebook. I took an iterative and incremental approach to publishing the book. Rather than starting with essay number one and progressing in order, I tried to initially create a minimum viable book that covered the basics. I then fleshed out the content with additional essays once this skeleton was in place, revisiting and iterating upon earlier essays as necessary. I signed up for Leanpub in January 2012 and clicked the "Publish" button four weeks later. That first version of my book was only about ten pages in length but I started selling copies immediately.
Another thing that I love about Leanpub is that it gives you full control over how you price your book. The whole pricing thing is a balancing act between readership and royalties, but I like that I'm in control of this. My book started out at $4.99 and, as content was added, that price increased. The book now currently has a minimum price of $20 and a recommended price of $30. I can even create coupons for reduced price or free copies too. There's some human psychology that I don't understand here, but not everybody pays the minimum price. Far from it, and I've had a good number of people pay more than the recommend price too. Leanpub provides all of the raw data, so you can analyse it as needed.
As I've already mentioned, I pitched my book idea to a bunch of regular publishing companies and they weren't interested. Fast-forward a few years and my book is the currently the "bestselling" book on Leanpub this week, fifth by lifetime earnings and twelfth in terms of number of copies sold. I've used quotes around "bestselling" because Jurgen did. ;-)
In his blog post, Peter Armstrong emphasises that Leanpub is a platform for publishing in-progress ebooks, especially because you can publish using an iterative and incremental approach. For this reason, I think that Leanpub is a fantastic way for authors to prove an idea and get some concrete feedback in terms of sales. Put simply, Leanpub is a fantastic incubator for books. I know of a number of books that were started on Leanpub have been taken on by traditional publishing companies. I've had a number of offers too, including some for commercial translations. Sure, there are other ways to publish in-progress ebooks, but Leanpub makes this super-easy and the barrier to entry is incredibly low.
What does the future hold for my book then? I'm not sure that electronic products are ever really "finished" and, although I consider my book to be "version 1", I do have some additional content that is being lined up. And when I do this, thanks to the Leanpub platform, all of my existing readers will get the updates for free.
I've so far turned down the offers that I've had from publishing companies, primarily because they can't compete in terms of royalties and I'm unconvinced that they will be able to significantly boost readership numbers. Leanpub is happy for authors to sell their books through other channels (e.g. Amazon) but, again, I'm unconvinced that simply putting the book onto Amazon will yield an increased readership. I do know of books on the Kindle store that haven't sold a single copy, so I take "Amazon is bigger and therefore better" arguments with a pinch of salt.
What I do know is that I'm extremely happy with the return on my investment. I'm not going to tell you how much I've earned, but a naive calculation of $17.50 (my royalty on a $20 sale) x 4,600 (the total number of readers) is a little high but gets you into the right ballpark. In summary, Leanpub allows me focus on content, takes care of pretty much everything and gives me an amazing author royalty as a result. This is why I use Leanpub.
Simon is an independent consultant specializing in software architecture, and the author of Software Architecture for Developers (a developer-friendly guide to software architecture, technical leadership and the balance with agility). He’s also the creator of the C4 software architecture model and the founder of Structurizr, which is a collection of open source and commercial tooling to help software teams visualise, document and explore their software architecture.