Dr. Michael Balle has said that Lean is a Big Tent; which means, that there are several flavors and applications of lean, regardless of value stream. We’ve seen application of Lean in Branding, Kanban for Creative and Knowledge Work, Lean in Marketing and Sales, Lean UX, Lean Teaching, and now Lean in Publishing.
To that end, we’re excited to have Peter Armstrong speak with us today regarding Lean Publishing and how the principles of Lean also apply to how we publish books. In this interview, among other things, you’ll learn:
- Why Peter Armstrong thinks writing a book is like starting a startup company
- Why lean principles applies to how we publish books
- Why the worst waste of all is writing a book nobody wants
Enjoy the interview and be sure to read more about Peter Armstrong after the article. Also, be sure to check out Leanpub if you’are an aspiring author. We thank Peter for taking time to speak with us and allowing us to learn from him. And feel free to check out other lean leadership interviews.
Thanks, Peter. We appreciate you taking the time to speak with us.
My audience is varied, but consists generally of Lean practitioners in various settings – from manufacturing to healthcare. If you were to explain Lean Branding to someone on the shop floor who is very well aware of Lean principles from Toyota, how would you do it? On which points would you build a common bond?
The interesting thing for me about the branding around Lean is that there are two very strong brands which are associated with the word “lean”. The first is Lean Manufacturing, which is what you think of when you think about the shop floor. This is the lean manufacturing work of Taiichi Ohno – the Toyota Production System. The second is Lean Startup, which is the work of Eric Ries.
Eric Ries’ work is named after lean manufacturing, but is mainly is based on marrying the ideas of Agile software development with the Customer Development ideas of Steve Blank. Steve Blank brilliantly articulated these in his book *The Four Steps to the Epiphany*, which is required reading for anyone doing a startup. The main idea of customer development is that startup founders should get out of the building and talk to potential customers, to ensure they’re building something people want. (This sounds a lot like the “make something people want” mantra of Y Combinator, actually.)
Now, as far as Lean Publishing and Leanpub is concerned: Leanpub is called Leanpub because of the Lean Publishing ideas I developed, and I developed those ideas because of the Lean Startup and Customer Development ideas of Eric Ries and Steve Blank.
So, there is a connection to lean manufacturing, but only a loose one.
I think where we would build a common bond is on the ideas of iterating, continuously improving the product, close connection to the customer, the value of feedback, etc.
Tell us about Lean Publishing and Leanpub.
Lean Publishing is defined as the act of publishing an in-progress book using lightweight tools and many iterations to get reader feedback, pivot until you have the right book and build traction once you do.
That’s a mouthful, but are familiar with Lean Startup theory, you’ll see the parallels right away.
The interesting question is: Why would you want to publish a book while it is in- progress? That’s still a really foreign idea to many people.
Now, the epiphany I had was this: A book is a startup.
There are four parallels to consider when comparing books and startups: (1) they’re extremely risky and most fail, (2) they’re both highly creative processes undertaken by one person or a few people, (3) they have historically been done in “stealth mode”, and (4) in recent history, both have been funded by external sources (VCs, publishers) which have a tendency to meddle–sometimes in a good way, other times in a bad way.
A few years ago, I published a book on Dog Poop – yes, you heard that right. If I were to do things over, can you walk us through how an author would use the Leanpub platform?
Sure! You would start by just going to leanpub.com and creating a new book. You wouldn’t need to ask anyone’s permission to start, and you wouldn’t have had to sell a publisher or development editor on the idea or outline.
You would click a button and start writing your book. You’d either write on leanpub.com in your browser, or you’d write on your own computer and sync with Leanpub via either a Dropbox folder or using GitHub. Most of our authors write in a Dropbox folder. So, you’d choose Dropbox when creating your book. We’d create a new Dropbox folder and invite you, and you’d start writing in it. You would write in plain text files, just like if you were using a typewriter. We don’t do much formatting, but that’s a good thing, since for most authors, formatting is just procrastination. The formatting that we do support is done in something called Markdown, which is really easy.
If you want to make a new chapter, you type the chapter name on a new line with a # sign, like this:
# Chapter One
And if you want to make stuff italic, you use *one asterisk*; for bold, you use **two asterisks**.
Basically, if you’re writing fiction or a business book, that’s about all you need to know.
Of course, we support a ton more stuff like inserting images, footnotes, etc, and we’ve added small syntax extensions for things like embedding external code samples (if you’re writing a computer programming book).
But the point is, the focus is on your writing, not on fiddling with Microsoft Word.
So, anyway, you start the book, and you’re happily writing in Markdown.
Now, for your dog poop book, you still wouldn’t know, however, whether the book would be a good idea or a, well, poopy one. So, what you’d want to do is find out! Otherwise, there could be the risk that you’d write a book that was a piece of poop, and it would be a poopy way to spend your time.
As soon as you create a Leanpub book we set up a landing page where people can sign up to be notified once you first publish that poop. Or if you don’t like attention, you can turn on stealth mode and hide that poop and just go for it.
Once you have completed a few chapters, you should publish an in-progress version. This way, you’ll get feedback to see if your book either entertains or helps anyone. If not, then you may want to consider pivoting, or abandoning the idea altogether.
To publish a book on Leanpub, here’s the complex process in detail:
- Click the publish button.
If anyone has signed up to be notified, we email them automatically. Hopefully they buy the book!
On every sale, you get 90% minus 50 cents royalties. So if you sell your poop for $10, you keep $8.50. Or if you sell it for $20, you keep $17.50.
Once you’ve clicked publish, you should get on Twitter and Facebook and start marketing. We don’t do that for you–but unless you’re J.K. Rowling, no one does anymore. Authors need to promote. Sorry.
Anyway, assuming you have validation, then you just keep writing and publishing. You can click a checkbox to email your readers when a new version is published, and they can always get new versions for free.
You own your work. At any time, you can do a deal with a traditional publisher. So, if they want to publish that poop, and their royalty deal smells good, go for it.
What’s wrong with traditional publishing? What about with Kindle Self Publishing? What problems does Lean Publishing address that traditional and Kindle Self Publishing doesn’t?
Traditional publishing has lived in a place for the past hundred years where the publishers feel entitled. If you want to be an author–a real, published author–they were mandatory. So, they all had basically the same contract: between 10% and 15% royalties.
When the ebook revolution started, they still felt entitled. So, the deal terms were the same.
But there are no gatekeepers anymore!
(Well, maybe Apple, Google and Amazon will be the new gatekeepers, since they make phones and ebook readers. And shockingly they all offer the same deal for selling on their platforms: they keep 30%. Hooray for oligopoly. Imagine if your credit card companies charged 30% fee for you to order a pizza.)
Anyway, the point is, everyone is optional except the writer and the reader. Everyone. At Leanpub we have a profound understanding that we are optional.
So we treat our authors and our readers with a respect, and hope to add value for both.
In terms of Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP): Nothing is wrong with KDP.
KDP is great.
We encourage every Leanpub author to consider also selling their completed Leanpub books on KDP. It’s a great channel — as long as you price your book between $3 and $10, you get 70% royalties, and hopefully you reach a wide audience. If you want to sell your book for more than $10, however, it’s trash. Instead of paying you 70%, Amazon pays you 35%. I have two words for that. However, I’ll say two different words:
Now, there’s KDP, and KDP Select. KDP Select is the most blatant attempt at creating a monopoly that any company has done in recent memory.
Basically, if you sell on KDP Select, you are not allowed to sell anywhere else.
So, we think KDP Select is abusive and disgusting. Ironically, if KDP Select succeeds, Amazon will end up subject to anti-trust laws — so chances are they are being shortsighted here too.
If you were to list the 7 Wastes of Book Publishing, what would they be?
I’m not sure about 7 Wastes, but I’d say the number one waste is writing and publishing books that nobody wants.
What are some common objections to Lean Publishing? Can you address each of those for us?
The most common objection is that publishing in-progress books won’t work for fiction.
To that, I just say that this objection is the result of an ignorance of history. In the 1860s, all popular fiction was published as serial fiction. In magazines. The book was just what you did with successful completed serials.
This was true for everything from the “Sensation Fiction” of Victorian England (Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Wilkie Collins) to literatue (Dickens) to Russian novels (Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy) to activist fiction (Uncle Tom’s Cabin).
My claim is that there’s going to be a renaissance in serial fiction. It’s already happening in China, but in the west we’re too biased to pay attention.
Currently Leanpub is a decent way to do serial fiction, but once we do some tweaks to our royalty structure to support selling individual chapters or parts for say $1 each, we’re going to be a great way to do serial fiction. Stay tuned.
In Lean, PDCA is the common framework for problems solving. Eric Ries modified that for building products and advocates Build-Measure-Learn. Within the Lean Publishing context, Build makes sense. How does Measure and Learn work? Can you share specific examples from your experience?
Build-Measure-Learn totally makes sense for Lean Publishing! Measure, at its simplest, is “did anyone buy my book”? If no, the question should be: “Should I pivot the thing, or should I abandon it?” In terms of learning, this also applies. Readers love giving feedback to authors. When a book is in-progress, this is also true, tenfold. I’m a very introverted person, but with my first book, I built a community around it, in the form of a Google Group. I found that as the book got better, and longer, the quality and quantity of feedback that I got dramatically decreased
This is why you should publish in-progress, and why Leanpub’s motto is “Publish Early, Publish Often”. (It’s also a nod to Eric Raymond and the “Release Early, Release Often” mantra from Open Source, of course.)
If there are budding authors in my audience who would like to try their hand at Lean Publishing, how do you suggest they begin?
Go to leanpub.com, sign up for free, and just start! You’ll be amazed at how much motivation having, say, three completed chapters and a bunch of readers eagerly awaiting the next book version will do for you!
Is there anything else you’d like to share with my audience?
I lead a double life: besides being the cofounder of Leanpub, I’m also the cofounder of Dashcube. (Actually, both Leanpub and Dashcube were built by my software development and consulting company Ruboss, so it’s more like a triple life!)
Anyway, the reason I’m bringing up Dashcube is this: if you are interested in Lean Manufacturing or Lean Startup thinking, you need to try Dashcube. We’re in free public beta right now, and you can sign up at dashcube.com.
Dushcube marries the Kanban board metaphor from products like Trello with the focus on conversation of products like Slack. Our purpose is to build a powerful new collaboration tool that integrates planning and communicating to profoundly improve productivity both for small teams and for the enterprise.
Dashcube immediately helps the entire enterprise reduce email dependency, have more meaningful interactions, fewer interruptions and shorter meetings. By combining planning and communicating, we enable organizations to develop a new kind of institutional memory that can be visualized and replayed.
By the way, when I say replayed, I mean that literally: you can use Dashcube’s interactive replay feature to watch how a project has developed like a sports team can watch game film, and at any point in time, you can pause and see how the project looked (every task, every message) at that point. Right now, the basis of retrospectives in lean or agile projects is a finished Kanban board and our own faulty memories and diverging perspectives. With interactive replays, teams can, for the first time, truly arrive at a shared understanding.
About Peter Armstrong
Peter Armstrong is the co-founder of Leanpub and Dashcube and the author of 4 books: Programming for Kids, Lean Publishing, Flexible Rails and Hello! Flex 4. He has over a decade of experience as a software developer, with 8 years of experience doing software development at Silicon Valley startups.
Peter coined the term “lean publishing” to describe the act of self-publishing an in-progress ebook. He has written a manifesto about lean publishing; Leanpub was created based on the principles in this manifesto.
Peter is a frequent speaker about lean publishing and startup entrepreneurship. He lives in the Victoria, BC area with his wife and son. Besides writing, he enjoys snowboarding, stand up paddleboarding and playing StarCraft 2.
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