Episode #78 – Leanpub with Peter Armstrong

Featured speakers:

Jade Meskill Jade Roy van de Water Roy

Drew LeSueur, Jade Meskill, Roy van de Water, and Peter Armstrong discuss:

  • Leanpub
  • Agile in the publishing world
  • Advice for publishing books
  • Minimum viable product


Drew LeSueur:  Hi and welcome to another episode of the Agile Weekly Podcast I’m Drew LeSueur.

Jade Meskill:  I’m Jade Meskill.

Roy van de Water:  And I’m Roy van de Water.

Drew:  With us today we have Peter Armstrong co‑founder of Leanpub. Hi Peter.

Peter Armstrong:  Hi nice to be here.

Drew:  Hi. Peter we’ve read a little bit about you. We like the idea of Leanpub and how it fits in with Agile. Can you tell us a little bit about Leanpub? What it is? Why you started it?

Peter:  Sure. I’m the co‑founder of Leanpub. Leanpub is a way to self publish in‑progress eBooks. At Leanpub we believe that the way most books are made today is pretty broken and that Lean and Agile approaches should be applied to the process of writing and self‑publishing an eBook. So that’s why we created Leanpub.

Drew:  Great. Reading a little bit about you, you’ve got a software development background. Is that right?

Peter:  Yeah, I was a programmer in Silicon Valley for about eight years, and I live in the Vancouver, BC area in Canada.

Drew:  How did you catch on to Lean or Agile software practices?

Peter:  In terms of Lean for software I sort of, being sympathetic to the Agile, I mean I read the “Agile Manifesto” along with everyone else, you know. As a software developer you realize pretty quickly that lots of the ways you build software Agile makes a lot of sense for.

When I started writing my first book, “Flexible Rails,” I sort of used similar approaches where I’d self‑published it in Progress, and I sort of hacked together my own workflow that made sense for that.

I had a secret URL where you could download it. I had a GOOGLE group for feedback. I self‑published it in Progress, kept updating the book at the URL. I basically cobbled together a workflow that I felt made sense and that let me iterate, let me get feedback from my customers, who are my readers, and do something similar.

Nothing existed like that in the book space when I was writing my first book, so we’re sort of fixing that with Leanpub.

Drew:  Cool. Even before Leanpub existed, you wrote your first book in the Leanpub way, is that right?

Peter:  Yeah, I did. Leanpub was kind of the tool that I wish had existed when I wrote my first book. Because when you think about it there’s lots of do‑it‑yourself approaches, like even back then or now. I used Lulu because Lulu, obviously everybody knows it for print books, but they also sell pdfs, since I was like it’s 20 percent for a store front, but whatever, I don’t feel like building my own storefront just to sell a download, right. Of course now of course, if you want to sell a download yourself there are services such as Gum‑Road, you know, E‑junkie and all of the equivalent that do a good job of doing that, right.

But there’s a lot of stuff you have to do if you want to sell an in‑progress book. You have to, provide updates, you have to build a community of readers, you have to do all these things, and you also want to produce a book. Back in 2006, writing a book, the tools were pretty terrible. I used Open Office on a Mac, and I’m not sure, you sort of laughed…


Peter:  You can imagine how bad it was in 2006. My book got to about 200 pages and I could maybe edit three pages before it would crash. Then I switched to Word and that was really…I mean, Open Office had the benefit of, you know you could make a table of contents and stuff. When I switched to Word, I could not really, there were all sort of separate files for chapters and the whole things was a mess.

I mean, this is 2012? We’ve had books for about 500 years, we’ve had computers for decades, and like there’s no good way to write a book? It’s pretty terrible. At “Leanpub,” we’re kind of everything…we want to be sort of the offices of the keyboard, but with their laptop, we do everything else, and then there’s a reader. Everything between the author and their words and the reader should just magically happen, right.

For us the best way to write is Markdown, and we’re like why can’t you write a book in Markdown? OK, well one answer is like you want to have lots of files. OK. Have a list of files, call it “book‑dot‑text.” Tada! There’s your book. Right! You should be able to just sit there, write in Markdown, click a button, a book appears and then you click another button and it’s for sale. That’s how easy it should be.

Jade Meskill:  Awesome.

Peter:  You really boil it down to that. We tried, we iterated a lot with “Leanpub.” At one point we were using Git and GitHub, and you’d add us as a deploy at GitHub, and that is a little elitist because if I have to explain that I’ve immediately eliminated 98 percent of humanity.


Peter:  The other two percent I’m going to have to support Git? Like, no, sorry we’re a bootstraps start‑up. So, figure out, write in Markdown, sync with DropBox, click a button. It’s like, yeah, that’s the way books should be made.

Drew:  Yeah OK, that’s the way books should be made. That’s pretty cool. Have you experienced doing that like developing a book as a team, as well? That seems to me like in the past you’d have to email a word document around.

Peter:  I know one of our authors he’s doing a book with a lot of collaborators and he’s doing a new version. Drop box seems to help him a lot he’s very big in the Agile community. For me, I’m kind of, I don’t like writing in a theme for me, writing is like more individual than coding. Like coding, if you want to do anything meaningful you do it as a team because it very rare that one person can grade something.

But for me, writing I tend to write by myself don’t know it more…yeah. I mean drop box is great for sharing. Some authors have wanted to experiment with collaborative editors like for example using Google docs to collaborate. But then like right now there’s no good way of sort of live editing documents.

I’m not going to claim that Leanpub makes that awesome. Like drop box is OK if like you and I are sharing a document and were kind of taking turns and what not. But if we are all going to be in there you know what was that line from the “Fantastic Mr. Fox?” Cluster cuss? I think would be the right word.

Drew:  All right, so I think it is great you’ve taken the Agile principles and applied it to something that traditionally people wouldn’t think of with book publishing. In your life or your experience have you applied it to something else and seen good results.

Peter:  Let’s see, well, we researched the company that created Leanpub we’ve used those approaches. We’ve evolved. We’ve used those approaches in our consulting. We like to use Agile approaches which is our client work. In my own life, well in some ways if you think about you know when I went to university I started off, I changed majors a lot.

I was everything from psychology to philosophy to economics before I ended up with a double major in computer science and psych. I sort of…if I did well at it, I tried and sort of pivoted my way through my degree. Like I ended up three elective short of two complete separate degrees. I had so many electives. I took like six years worth of classes in five years, you’re only supposed to take four years.

In my career I found that I’ve never once been able to predict where I’ll be five years from now. If you develop a five year plan of what you’re going to do you sort of lock yourself in. Then you’re going to miss all the opportunities it’s like “pump man” being up‑winded. I think that’s what he called it. So we try to be pretty opportunistic with you know how we’ve grown lean pub and how we’ve if we think something’s the right thing to do, we do it.

If I say something and then a day later I say something that is completely opposite, we change our minds a lot I have to change my mind at lean pub it an idea meritocracy. We do what we think the best thing to do is and if that means that were doing something and then we decide it’s wrong we do something different and that’s OK.

Drew:  So how do you think that embracing a Lean thinking and Agile philosophy, how’s that helped you in developing the actual lean pub platform itself?

Peter:  One thing I really like is our Google group. We have a community of authors on a Google group and we have a couple of ways people can communicate with us. We have a whole email that goes to everyone at lean pub and we have a Google group for us.

I think I’ve found the Google group has helped us so much. We get a sense of not only what is important to our authors but what you get from whole and lean pub as well. But you see people offering suggestions developing. People come up with all kinds of things like offering coupons to the Leanpub authors like doing like sharing ideas. We found that having a community around your product is so important. We’ve had a couple people ask us, “Hey, can you do one of those web‑based tools that lets you prioritize feedback?”

We’ve said, “Yeah, we understand it,” but we resisted it because you go to a group right now for us. So it gives us I think the sense of what the community wants and where they think the product should go. We have our own sense of where the product should go, and they’re pretty similar. We use Pivotal Tracker internally for our backlog, but we have a gigantic backlog. I don’t think anyone’s solved that problem of backlog management really well.

It’s an icebox. We’re a gigantic icebox. [laughs] Yeah, so trying to figure out what to do next, we have pretty good clarity of what the most important things to do in the next month are. But what will we be doing six months from now? I’m not sure.

Drew:  So what would be some advice that you might have for, say, I’m an author and I want to get started writing my wonderful work that I’m going to share with the world? What advice would you give me that falls in line with your manifesto and your Lean thinking?

Peter:  The biggest advice is click the publish button. There are some in Leanpub that would sell, that have people queued up waiting to pay and that are really good and should be read right now. They haven’t been published yet. Let’s say you’re writing a programming book. If you have a programming book that you think will save someone who’s relatively good a couple hours, click the button because if it’ll save them a couple hours, it’s worth it right now.

Even if you’re hit by a train tomorrow and you never write another word, right? Because if they bill their time, saving them two hours is worth a book, and in an office you’ll save them 20 hours. Also, if you publish really early, I’m talking when you have two chapters written, then you evolve it in public. You get early adopters for your book because your book will probably go in some directions that you hadn’t planned.

The feedback will help you pretty clearly understand. Are you targeting it right? Is it too advanced? Is it too basic? Are you annoying readers with explanations of stuff they know, right? Are you not explaining something you need to? If you publish it really early and it’ll iterate in public and get feedback, you’ll get a better book out of it.

Also, as you go, Twitter’s a wonderful thing, right? Readers will be tweeting about your book. You’ll get momentum. When you think about when a company open‑sources something that they’ve worked on for a long time and it fell flat, like thud…like “Oh, here’s this big thing,” and you compare that to, say, Linux, right? You think about if you’re going to get a community around it, you need to release it when it’s really early, like before it’s even good.


Drew:  I like that. Before it’s even good.

Roy:  Yeah. One of the XP guys had a great quote that says, “You should be embarrassed about your first release.”

Drew:  [laughs] Yeah.

Peter:  Minimum viable product, right?

Drew:  Yeah.

Peter:  When it’s really early, really rough, but contains the core of…if someone reads this you’re being credited with releasing something that you don’t plan to…you’re not some scammer. You’re not watching a title page. You’re watching something with actual content there and a direction, and you want people on board that will be interested in where you’re going. That’s I think the biggest advice. Launch early.

Roy:  Great. I think that’s awesome advice. All right. Well, thanks a lot, Peter, for joining us today. Do you have anything to share with the listeners?

Peter:  Well, OK. At Leanpub.com we just put a video up actually. If you just scroll down, we have a bunch of videos. We have a cartoon with cartoon animals talking about making books, and we also have a new video about why Leanpub exists. This has the honor of being the first Leanpub video with any production values at all.

Drew:  [laughs]

Peter:  Audio for once. So yeah. Check it out. I’d be curious to see any feedback on that. Yet, also just join the Google group. If you’re interested, even if you’re not writing a book, go and sign up. Go to Leanpub, find the Google group, and join. It’s an interesting place.

Roy:  Great.

Drew:  Awesome, thanks.

Roy:  Thank you so much. For our listeners, to join the conversation visit Facebook.com/Agile Weekly.


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