An Interview with Luc Beaudoin, Author of Cognitive Productivity: The Art and Science of Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective

Feb 22, 2017 · 31 min read

Published Sep 17, 2013 by Len Epp

Luc Beaudoin is the author of the Leanpub book Cognitive Productivity: The Art and Science of Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective.

Luc is President of CogZest and Adjunct Professor of Education at Simon Fraser University. At Simon Fraser, Luc is leading the Cognitive Productivity Research Project, investigating knowledge worker cognitive productivity.

This interview was recorded on August 19, 2013.

The full audio for the interview is here. You can subscribe to this podcast in iTunes or add the following podcast URL directly:

Len Epp: I’m here with Luc Beaudoin, President of CogZest and Adjunct Professor of Education at Simon Fraser University, based in British Columbia, Canada. Luc is currently running the Cognitive Productivity Research Project at Simon Fraser, investigating psychological questions regarding knowledge worker cognitive productivity.

Luc has a Ph.D. in Cognitive Science from the University of Birmingham, where he conducted research on computer modelling of goal processing and motivation. Over the course of his career, Luc has held a number of positions in different fields. For example, he worked as a technical writer for Tundra Semiconductor, as a Senior Software Developer for Abatis Systems Corp., and he was Assistant Professor of Military Psychology and Leadership at the Royal Military College of Canada.

Luc is the author of numerous scientific publications on a wide range of problems in cognitive science. One of his most recent publications is his Leanpub book, Cognitive Productivity: The Art and Science of Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective. In this interview, we’re going to talk about Luc’s research interests and his book, and about his experiences using Leanpub. We’ll also talk about ways we can improve Leanpub for him, and for other scientific and academic authors.

So, thank you Luc for being on the Lean Publishing Podcast.

Luc Beaudoin: It’s my pleasure.

E: Just to start out, can you tell me a little bit about how you first became interested in cognitive science?

B: Whoah, we’re going back! 1980s. I was a psychology student, and my career path was to become a clinical psychologist, and I was taking a neuroscience course, and that had me broadening my horizons a little bit, as university does to students. I was very interested in neuroscience, with this course I was taking, and I worked in a neuroscience lab. We were studying the neural basis of motivation and reward. So that basically opened me up to all kinds of possibilities. I took a philosophy course, an epistemology course — it was a requirement at the University of Ottawa — and there I discovered cognitive science, and that really intrigued me.

Cognitive science is basically the study of the human mind, and the reference model that we use for that, or the way of thinking that we use, is information processing. So it’s not that the human mind is a digital computer, but that it’s a device that could be understood as something that processes information. I thought that was very interesting. It’s also an approach to the human mind that recognizes that the human mind is too complicated to be studied just from one perspective. So there’s no one discipline that’s constitutive of cognitive science, that owns cognitive science. We often think of psychology as that which studies the human mind, but actually there are many contributing disciplines to this cognitive science thing. So there’s artificial intelligence, there’s philosophy, linguistics, and other disciplines. Neuroscience contributes as well.

To make a long story short, I just fell in love with the idea. And there was a professor there, called Claude Lamontagne, who was just an amazing professor, and I was told “Luc, you have to take Professor Lamontagne’s course on perception”. I was going to take cognition, and I took perception in addition to that, so beyond the requirements I took that course, and I guess they knew that he and I would really hit it off. Which we did. He has a tendency to blow people’s minds, and that he did with mine. He basically convinced me that this was the way to understand the human mind, using information processing as a kind of metaphor.

E: Speaking of the connection between cognitive science and psychology, you’ve mentioned online that your Ph.D. thesis and your honour thesis “diverged from empirical psychology approach to the issues you addressed in your theses, and you instead used a “designer approach”. Can you explain what you mean by a “designer approach”?

B: The idea is that if we’re to understand the human mind with this approach, we have to, in a sense, reverse engineer it. So we think, what are the requirements that this system implements? Typically we don’t look at the entire human mind. Some of us do look at the big architecure of the human mind, but typically people focus on perception, or linguistic processing, and usually some very specific aspect thereof. But basically, we proceed as engineers would. First, understand what are the requirements of a system, and then we propose designs to satisfy those requirements.

And then we move on beyond that to developing computer programs that implement those designs, and then we actually press the Run button — the Compile button and the Run button — and we find out, well, this doesn’t exactly do what I thought it would. Actually it doesn’t compile. Or, more typically, you don’t even get to the point of being able to write the program, because what this does is it exposes gaps in your understanding.

But, you move along, and you do try to run these simulations, and then you can actually test your predictions in one way or another using your computer program. And then what you do is you study the relations between these different levels. So, by going through this whole process, you find out that you maybe didn’t understand the requirements properly, so you have to study that more in detail, your design wasn’t right. This is basically an engineering stance, which involves some reverse engineering to understanding the human mind.

Coincidentally, I had taken a psychological assessment my first year of university, in psychology. They said, “Did you every consider being an engineer?” And I thought, what are you talking about? I’m in psychology! I want to do therapy and understand the mind! Then, later I realized that this person, this psychologist, was spot-on. But I just didn’t know it was possible to study the human mind using engineering methods.

E: That’s fascinating. Is that still something that you carry on with, in your work for the Cognitive Productivity Research Project?

B: Yes. If you read my book, you’ll see that I do delve into that. As a matter of fact, I think it’s generally useful for people to have a working model of themselves, and each other, and to think of the components of ourselves and what they do. It helps us understand all kinds of things. Our emotions, each other’s emotions, how people respond, etc. We kind of have to do this anyway. Whatever reference model we use, we have to think about ourselves, and our behaviour, and what implements it. But cognitive science gives us some new concepts to think about ourselves, and to think about each other.

It’s a point I make in the book, that natural language has provided us with concepts and ways of thinking about psychology. That’s called “folk psychology” and it works very well, most of the time, but there’s all kinds of limiting cases. If you want to go beyond that, then you enter into the realm of cognitive science.

E: Actually, I wanted to talk about your book later on, so I’ll ask you some questions about that specifically. When you talk about some people’s misperceptions about the impact that technology can have on the mind. But before we do that, can I ask you a little bit about what CogZest does, and the story of how you founded it?

B: Sure. CogZest is an ambitious enterprise. The project actually started in 2002. It had a different name. I’ve switched domains many times, and you always bring some knowledge with you when you switch domains, but you also have to do a lot of learning. So as you mentioned, I started in psychology, then I was doing artificial intelligence, for my Ph.D. in Cognitive Science, and then I was teaching psychology at the military college, some courses that I hadn’t even taken myself, so I had to come up to speed quite quickly. That happens, that’s typical for a professor to do that. And then I worked as a technical writer, and all these different things.

So I’d gone through this intense, very intense series of learning cycles, culiminating at Abatis, where I was the first employee. We set up this company, and we had very ambitious objectives for it, and we were all just learning lots of stuff. I was the person who probably had to learn the most, in the early days, because of my bakground being different. They wanted somebody who was more of a startup expert, but I had done a startup before, and proven I could work on different parts of the business. So I was actually the first, and I had to learn about internet protocol, and routers, and all these things. I had to basically absorb lots of specifications, IETF documents, Internet Engineering Task Force documents. For a lot of people, including myself, that was new stuff at the time, the RFCs.

So I had to absorb this, as did other people, and it just occurred to me that the technology wasn’t really supporting us in the learning we had to do. We had these specs, and we’d print them out, so the printer was very very busy at Abatis, although the founders had ensured that we had the best technology. We had very fast computers, and we had the best monitors available, CRTs in those days. But still, we’d print out these documents, and we’d highlight them, and mark them up. So it occurred to me, as I was going through my learning process, at Abatis, that somehow, there’s something wrong with the browsers and the PDF readers. They’re not supporting our learning if we’re printing. So I thought to myself, you know, there’s got to be a better way. And coming from a cognitive science background, I had some ideas about what those ways might be.

After Abatis was acquired, and as things go, our parent company started to implode, so I started thinking about what do do next, and I had a lot of projects in mind. The one that appealed to me the most was, basically, bringing together cognitive science and technology to solve the problem of helping people learn, with cognitive science and with technology. My goal was to understand, first of all, what would be required. Again, the engineering approach, right? What would technology look like to better support our learning? As experts, now. I wasn’t looking at childhood or classroom learning. My interest since 2002, or 2001, has mainly been adult learning, thinking that then we can go back and help students with that, I think that’s true. So how can we help experts, at the top of their game, learn. So, I wrote some specs, and started a business — I was writing a business plan, all kinds of functional specs, that kind of stuff.

And then I met a professor called Phil Winne, who was studying self-educated learning from an educational psychology perspective. He had done a software project before, and he wanted to continue doing that. And he was doing another one at the time, so he invited me to join him, and we decided to join forces. I brought the Cogsci Plus technology, he had the educational psychology, and had done technology work as well, and we had business aspirations, and so we decided to work together, and we did. And we spent to the end of 2009 working together on various products, which did part of this. That’s the story.

E: That’s great, that’s exciting, startup life is fun.

B: Yup!

E: Speaking of fun, I was looking over your list of publications, and I can see that you’ve coauthored the introduction to a forthcoming book called ‘From animals to robots and back: Reflections on hard problems in the study of cognition’. That’s a fascinating title — can you explain what the book is about?

B: Actually, I think the way I put it is that I’ve been invited to co-author, but I haven’t actually written that document yet. I’m co-authoring, is the idea here. What’s going on here is a volume of papers for Professor Aaron Sloman, who’s had his Festschrift, which is a celebratory conference, and a book being prepared for him, in 2011. He was my Ph.D. thesis supervisor, at the University of Birmingham, where I did my Ph.D. We decided that this warranted a book, and the book is a collection of papers from his various students, and people who worked with him, etc. What I’ve got, is a paper, the title of which I can give you — I think it’s on the website — it basically explores learning, learning with technology, i.e., the project that I’m currently on.

E: You’ve also written about “super-somnolent mentation”.

B: You picked up on that!

E: Yeah, I had a lot of fun reading your list of publications. I did read a little bit of it, but could you explain what “super-somnolent mentation” is?

B: Funny you should ask! Again, you can think of this as a proof-of-concept for cognitive science. The problem that I address in that paper is reducing sleep onset latency. Many of us have limited contact time with our beds, whether we’ve got insomnia or not. Let’s say you give yourself seven or seven and a half hours in bed — well, let’s say you sleep seven or seven and a half hours. In order to get enough sleep, you need to sleep all the while you’re in bed. Typically, it takes people 15 minutes, sometimes 45 minutes or more to fall asleep. So the problem I’ve been addressing, one of my background problems over 20 years, is, how could we reduce that sleep onset latency? And I think I’ve found a way.

E: Great news!

B: Yes, yes. Because it’s not just the initial sleep onset that’s the problem. By the time you hit 35 or something, you’re waking up in the middle of the night, and then you’ve got to go back to sleep. So then you’ve got to go through this cycle twice. So I thought, this is a really interesting problem, let’s solve it.

To make a long story short, I developed this theory, which basically said that if I could get people into a state that’s very much like the mental state that they’re in as they fall asleep successfully, that might be part way to helping them actually fall asleep. So that was one part of it, that was one angle on it. The other thing, I distinguish between different kinds of thinking that happen at sleep onset, or that happen at any time. I distinguish between “asomnolent thinking” — somnolence has to do with falling asleep — so “asomnolent” means that’s neutral, to sleep. Often we have “insomnolent” mentation, right? “Insomnolent” is the kind of stuff that keeps you up. So this is what most of the pschyology techniques aim to help you deal with. If you’re going to sleep thinking about problems, or problem-solving, planning, etc., that’s inconsistent with falling asleep.

E: So, overcoming a negative thing, that’s preventing you from getting what you want.

B: Yeah. To overcome that is counter-insomnolent. Most of psychology deals with counter-insomnolent stuff. So I thought, really, if we want to do something which is better, let’s combine the counter-insomnolent with something that actually takes you ever the edge.

Take meditation, for instance. That’s a technique that’s sometimes advocated for helping people fall asleep. Now, meditation, if done right, does not put you over the edge into sleep. It actually is a very focused state. You’re alert; you’re not supposed to fall asleep if you do it well. But it does deal with the insomnolent mentation. If you’re doing it well, you’re not bothered by these insomnolent thoughts.

So I propose that there are certain features of somnolent mentation that really take you over the edge. That involves having very disjointed thoughts and imaginings going on. And as a matter of fact, if you wake somebody up who’s falling asleep, you’ll find that they’re having these random memories and images and thoughts. Now, the trick is to get people into that state, and that’s one of the things I think I cracked with that paper. We’re actually working on a little project that implements that — that helps people implement that. That’s going to be out very soon.

E: Speaking of disjointed thoughts, I’d like to return to your book. Sorry for having changed the subject abruptly, but you were bumping up against something, a great quote I found in your book that I wanted to ask you about. Near the beginning, you talk about “public epistemic overexuberance”. Maybe you don’t remember that line, but I really liked it! You’re talking about Steven Pinker and claims about how the internet can rewire our brains, by Nicholas Carr -

B: Hey, that’s pretty good, you found that in a footnote. Yes, I think that sometimes people get a little bit excited about neuroscience. I think neuroscience is great, it’s something to get excited about, but we sometimes get overexcited, and we lose sight of the way progress happens for the most part, in cognitive science. A lot of people are pushing brain-based education, and that kind of cognitive concept, and they’re not being called on it very often. So my book does a bit of calling, right? There are some things you can do at the brain level to take some barriers out of education, there’s no doubt about it. But I think it’s important to separate levels, just as we do with computers.

The computer metaphor is really powerful. It’s used at a high level, but it’s often not exploited as much as it should be. Because in computer science, you have very clear ideas of what levels you’re operating with. There’s the TCP/IP stack, a very clear conception of levels. In psychology sometimes, that gets blurred a little bit. You can do things to improve your brain — exercising is absolutely very important, it’s critical for brain health — and nutrition. But those are fairly indirect. So they give you some enablers, but the information processing level is different nonetheless. That’s what I’m getting at there.

E: It’s very timely. There was a great article in The New York Review of Books a couple of months ago, a review by Colin McGinn, of a book by a French neuroscientist, who was moving into the philosophical realm more than McGinn believed he should. It’s discussing exactly this — I just wanted to draw your attention to it, there’s a fascinating exchange between them in the Letters section of the latest issue where they’re talking precisely about what you’re talking about. It’s actually funny, to see the contrast between the neuroscientist, and the philosopher who’s calling him on a lot of these claims. That’s one of the reasons [for] the “epistemic overexuberance” [claim], which would perhaps apply not only to the public, but also to neuroscientists themselves often.

B: Without being critical of anybody in particular, I worked very hard on that footnote, because one has to be careful what one says. But the quote I have by Pinker there, I think he’s just got a great quote — I invite people to read the book, just to get Pinker’s quote.

E: On the broader subject of the book, you talk about “meta-effectiveness”. Can you explain a little bit about that?

B: Yeah. Actually, that’s really what the book’s about. “Meta-effectiveness” is basically a matter of becoming more effective at becoming effective.

The main problem that I address in this book is, how do we become more effective at taking information on the input side — I refer to knowledge resources, be it a book, a podcast, a lecture, it could be any piece of information that has conceptual artifacts in it, so ideas that are packaged up by somebody to help us learn something. That’s the input side. How do we use that information to get to the other side? What is the other side? We’ve got to specify again, if we’re looking at requirements here, we’ve got to think of, well, what are we after? Often we just want to be able to remember something. Or we want to be able to develop some understanding of the thing. Or you want to develop a skill, if it’s a programming skill or whatever, and you want to be able to apply it when the time comes.

So in the book I look at these different outcomes, and I ask, how do we connect the input side to the output side? That’s a problem that we face when we pick up a knowledge resource. When we’re using knowledge resources, we often just want to solve an immediate problem with that knowledge resource. So it’s not as if we always want to use knowledge to become more effective in general, or disconnected from the resource. But sometimes we do, and we call that learning. Learning’s a word that’s used for all kinds of things, including this problem of developing understanding from information that we read. The book poses this meta-effectiveness problem: how do we become better at becoming effective?

E: Can you give us an example of one of the — I don’t want to give away the whole book, but maybe one of the techniques or tools for achieving better meta-effectiveness?

B: Sure. The book deals with a lot of the problems we face just processing information.

I should maybe say something about the structure of the book, in order to put his into some context for people who are listening. In the first part, we characterize the problem, including this problem of meta-effectiveness, and the roadblocks that we face in solving this problem. In the second part of the book, I deal with the science that I think is most relevant to this problem. And in the third part, I deal with applications. There’s all kinds of concepts and tips and workflows and solutions for using information to become more effective. In the last two chapters, I really focus in on the problem of applying, and sometimes remembering, information.

I develop a concept there called “productive practice”. It’s an extension of some important concepts and findings in cognitive science, having to do with the importance of testing ourselves and learning. That’s called “test-enhanced learning”.

Then, there’s this concept of “deliberate practice”. So if you look at experts in performance practice, say a pianist or a golfer, or an athlete or musician or some artist who performs for the public — they do a lot of practicing, right? It’s essential for expert performance.

Now, knowledge workers also tend to practice in their own way, but it doesn’t tend to be as systematic. As students, a lot of us use practice, as a way of learning. Students test themselves, they might read a chapter, and then write down questions that they need to able to answer without reference to the material. Then they test themselves on that. That’s quite a good way of learning content, and learning all kinds of things, like developing skills as well.

E: That’s a great connection, between something that we’re familiar with, such as practicing for sports or things we do with our bodies, but don’t necessarily think often about doing with matters of the mind.

B: That’s right. But again, students do this and they kind of have to. There are studies on this, and about 30% of students say they test themselves systematically as part of their way of learning.

But, student learning, one of the things that I draw attention to is that student learning is different from knowledge worker learning. For instance, students become very skilled at figuring out what’s going to on the exam, what am I going to be tested on, etc. And then they adjust a lot of their mental work towards those aims. And that’s great. It’s good if as a student you can also think beyond that, and there’s ways of learning to get you down the long haul, but that’s a different story.

Many students will learn these tricks, and then graduate, but then practice kind of drops out of it. It’s not that practice totally drops out of it — we still practice. For instance, if you’re given a presentation, you may well rehearse it. If you’re learning a computer programming language you might do a whole lot of practicing to build up your skills.

But for the most part we don’t have a very systematic way of practicing, as knowledge workers. There’s many reasons for that. One is that there’s a lot of information to learn. Another is, so what do you practice? Another problem is, the tests of life are kind of flash exams, they’re implicict, you don’t know exactly when they’re going to come, how they’re going to come.

Another problem is, it seems to me that the tool developers haven’t really made the connection that I’m trying to explain in this book, which is that to master information, and to master stuff, you really do need to practice, and systematic practice can be very beneficial. This is one of the things I realized in 2001 and 2002, is that we still don’t have these tools to help test ourselves on what we’re learning. I had previously developed tools like this, in 1991 and 1992, in Smalltalk [a programming language]. I had developed my first tools, because I fell upon this way of learning in the 1980s. I realized it was quite potent.

To make a long story short, if you can find a way to test yourself on key information, which I call “knowledge gems”, as you’re learning, then that could be very useful. One of the reasons why it’s useful, is that it changes your way of looking at a document. So all of a sudden you’re looking for knowledge gems. You’re saying, ok, what do I want to do with the information? Is there something in this document that is so useful that I could actually become a better person with this information, I could solve all kinds of problems on the fly with this information, or I could avoid problems. And I give some very potent examples from other researchers of things that, it really helps to know these things. So it makes you focus on these knowledge gems, and then it gives you a way of exploiting these knowledge gems. And that’s through practice, so to fully answer your question, it’s practicing with yourself, with challenging, that’s the way to do it.

E: I was going to say, on the subject of making better tools, and people who are making them, you’ve got a tantalizing little story in your book about how once you wrote a white paper for Steve Jobs on how Apple could better support cognitive productivity in its products.

B: That’s right, yeah.

E: Can you tell us a little bit about that?

B: What happened was, because I had been working in this space for a long time — the space of using technology to learn — we all knew that approaching 2010, Apple was working on a tablet. That was no secret. Of course we were all speculating on, what would it be? So I thought, I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. I think I should document what I think it should be. So, I was interacting with the folks at SharpBrains, and I proposed, or they proposed, a paper, something on the iPad, and I said, I can do a piece on what the iPad should have, to support — I think at the time I pitched in terms of cognitive fitness, which actually ended up being titled “Brain Fitness”, which contradicts what I’m saying in terms of the levels, so I’ve felt uncomfortable about that title for a while. But really it was about cognitive productivity. So I wrote something for SharpBrains, and that’s publicaly available, saying, here’s some things that I’d love to see in the iPad.

And then when the iPad came out, it blew my mind. I was really impressed. But I thought, you know, there’s still some things missing. So I wrote about the iPad in light of what I had previously written — I wrote, it’s got a lot of things, but here are some things that are still missing. Basically, I felt that the iPad as a platform, just taking the iOS basically — it wasn’t even called iOS in those days — taking the iOS, the iPhone operating system and slapping it onto a bigger device, that just blew my mind, I thought, that’s so beautiful. And I thought, you can do tons with this, but it still hasn’t been done, so I then said, Why not? I can keep trying to do this myself, or I can go to the top here. So I offered some kind of collaboration with Steve Jobs, including a white paper, and he wrote me back and said, sure, send me a white paper on it.

E: Great.

B: I thought, that’s pretty exciting! I mean, people knew, if you were in the Apple world in those days, you knew occasionally Steve Jobs would answer people he didn’t know. It’s explained in his biography why he did that — he had a similar experience in the 70s, being on the asking end. So, I spent the most exhilarating week of my life writing a pretty hefty white paper for Steve Jobs, basically collecting a lot of my thoughts from the last ten years.

So I did that. But that’s not a public document. But I decided after he passed away, with different stories coming out, about how he approached innovation, I thought, this is a story that’s worth sharing. I’m not making a big deal about it, but it’s a nice little anecdote, and it speaks to a beautiful aspect of Steve Jobs, that he would accept to interact in this way with some person that he didn’t even know.

E: That’s a great thing to do. So, you mentioned some things are public, and some of your writings aren’t, so that’s a great segue into the next thing I wanted to ask you about, which is academic publishing. We’ve seen a couple of authors publish the Ph.D. and Master’s theses on Leanpub, but I’m quite sure yours is the first original book-length academic work. What are your thoughts on self-publishing and academic writing?

B: That’s a pretty general question.

E: I was trying to think of a way to put it more precisely. So I could say, Do you think that self-publishing is compatible with the traditional practice of academic publishing?

B: I think it really is a way forward for academics to do it. I think it’s a very significant way forward for academics to do their work. Let’s face it, the open access, it’s not exactly the same as open access — self-publishing and open access are not the same — but there’s some parallels, and they can intersect. Particularly with Leanpub, there’s no obligation, I don’t think — books can be free on Leanpub, right?

E: Yes.

B: I take the question in particular in terms of what Leanpub offers, which is to develop important ideas, important documents, and to publish them as you’re developing them. Which, I think a lot of strong thinkers should be doing anyway. There are some, I think of Aaron Sloman, he’s my Ph.D. thesis supervisor, if you look at his website, he’s got these presentations and these documents that he iterates. It’s the same ideas, but they’re developing over time. You track his thinking as it’s developing over time. So he’s got these different documents, and you can trace their lineage.

That’s what a lot of people are doing, and that’s great. But it’s nice to be supported with a structure like Leanpub, in which it’s basically understood that, this is what’s going on here, that people are putting their ideas-in-progress on a particular site, and they can receive feedback and update their documents with feedback from their peers, or from anybody out there. It puts you in a mindset of thinking lean, which is, start small, iterate, and get feedback, and continuously improve your work.

If you look at what academics often do anyway, there’s a lot of rehashing that happens. Sometimes it’s the same idea being expressed in different terms, for a different publisher or whatever, but often there’s progress. So something like Leanpub I think really opens the door for academics to do this idea development in an open, honest, transparent fashion.

E: I’ve often encountered a stark contrast between the typical reactions of humanities professors and scientists, on the subject of in-progress self-publishing. Can you tell me about the reaction you’ve had from your colleagues when you tell them about your Leanpub book?

B: Actually, so far, I can’t say that there’s been a negative or a positive response, there’s hasn’t even been a big response so far. Yes, some people have said, if you want to be recognized, then you should put it through a decent publisher and get it published through there. But hey, I’m an adjunct prof, I’m not out there for recognition. And you know what? Maybe that’s important for the progress of science as well. But this book, while it has a lot of practical information, there’s a core scientific piece. This book really is proposing some new ideas as well. That aspect of things is not something that I’ve ever been too troubled about. I’m not a career publisher, so that’s not a big deal for me.

But I think, you know, a professor, or somebody who wants to be on the tenure track, probably, will want to be sensitive to those concerns. But one can also do parallel processing. To self-publish is not necessarily an impediment to doing another work using the traditional ways. And as you mention in your publications on the Leanpub site, there’s nothing in principle stopping from publishing their books with a regular publisher, after they’ve published it on Leanpub.

E: Yeah, that’s actually one of our hopes, that people will do that. And that publishers will start to see in-progress publishing that way. So that, instead of, sort of, passively waiting to be approached by agents, or people submitting manuscripts, or proposals for manuscripts, they’ll actually go hunting.

B: Yup. I think that the publishing industry is facing very significant challenges, and what’s going to happen is basically a process of economic natural selection. There’s going to be some publishers who are going to realize, doing this Leanpub way is really good, so let’s find a way to work with Leanpub authors. And it’s actually a great way to vet work, and to get some good content to publish. I think the publishing industry, and you’re a great example of this, is in transformation, and those publishers — there will be some more dinosaur-like publishers who will survive for a long time, but there’s a lot of pressure, and I think some of the publishers who are not adapting properly will have difficulty.

For instance, one of the big problems I have, is with platforms like Amazon and the iPad, even publishing for the iBookstore. I think of Kindle as an information jail. It’s so difficult to get information in and out of a Kindle book as a reader, and that’s a big problem. So in my book, I talk about how one could learn with PDF readers, and you could see that reading with a great PDF reader is a superior experience, compared to reading with, say, Kindle. To be fair, Amazon has improved Kindle, but it’s still a jail.

For instance, one of the techniques that I propose is to mark up a PDF file as you’re reading, to tag the key concepts that you’re after, or the important thing, important information. Versus, say, your knowledge gaps, things you don’t understand. Those are three kinds of things that from an educational perspective, there’s no doubt that it’s very important to do that. So you go through your document, and you can actually mark things up that way, and then when it comes time to review or take action on a document, you’ve marked it up, so you can go and you can quickly list, say, with a PDF reader called Skim, you can quickly list a document using the techniques I’ve described, say, to pull out your knowledge gaps.

Well, what’s the difference between an A student and a B student? After they’ve read a chapter of a physics book in grade ten, for example? Well, if you quiz these two grade ten students on that chapter, an A an a B student, odds are you’ll find that they’ll get a very similar grade. The A student actually won’t necessarily beat the B student on the first reading of a book, of a chapter. Where the A student shines, however, is if you ask him, What is it that you don’t know? What did you not understand? The A student has a pretty good idea of what he or she doesn’t understand. And that makes a lot of sense, because how do we improve ourselves, how do we come to understand things better? It’s not by focusing on, “Hey, man, this is the stuff I really got figured out, right?” It’s by focusing on what you don’t understand.

So if you look at the Kindle, where’s the tool for designating a piece of text as a knowledge gap? It doesn’t exist. Those tools aren’t currently available, but there’s ways of using, say, Skim, to do that kind of things. For knowledge workers, that’s very important. It’s also important for students.

E: That’s fascinating. It reminds me of Socrates — the wisest man, because he’s aware of his own limits.

B: That’s right.

E: On the subject of Leanpub, now that we’re nearing the end of the interview — can you tell me generally what your experience was like using Leanpub, and if there’s anything we can do to improve it overall?

B: I’ve really enjoyed using Leanpub. I had written my first draft, which was quite an extensive draft, using Scrivener, a tool that I really like. But then I realized, I want to do Leanpub — well I had realized, half way through this, that I really wanted to use Leanpub. I had not used Markdown extensively before, so I needed to convert the content from Scrivener to Markdown. Scrivener’s got a tool to generate Markdown, but I couldn’t work with that Markdown, that didn’t work for me. So, I ended up doing an HTML export, and your tool managed to import quite well, I was really surprised.

And at first I thought, well, this is not going to be that much work. But actually it ended up taking me several weeks. But, you know what? It was a big book. The Leanpub way of doing is you start with Leanpub. So, for an author’s who’s starting in Leanpub, he doesn’t face that, in Markdown, he doesn’t face that problem. This is not a small book, you know, so I had a lot of content. But I did reserve some — there’s a chapter that I started, that I’m working on from scratch, on the Leanpub platform, so that’s the deliberate practice chapter, that’s not complete. That’s chapter seven, and the conclusion, because I want to go through that experience of really adding new content with Leanpub. So, what can I say? Just generally I can point to the fact that that was not as easy as I had hoped it would be.

Now, in terms of other things that I would like to see in Leanpub… Right now, for some reason I’m drawing a blank… I had proposed certain things, I’d like there to be an even better PDF reader, and I thought, this would fit so naturally with Leanpub, but that’s not really targeted at authors, that’s more targeted at readers, and I realized that Leanpub is really focused right now on supporting, getting authors to get their content out.

E: That’s true, although we’re now expanding our focus a little bit to be more reader-centric. It’s sort of the next stage in the evolution of Leanpub. In particular, we see the relationship — the idea of in-progress publishing like this, is relatively new, and it’s a way of potentially establishing a new kind of relationship between authors and readers. Authors and readers have always communicated with each other, but not as it were in real time, on the subject of an evolving book. So maybe that might — is there anything along those lines maybe that you’d like to suggest?

B: Well, here’s one thing, and we’ll come back to that particular aspect, before I forget the other thing.

As an author, I keep track of my release notes, but I haven’t actually published them yet. I published them once, but I didn’t like the structure, so I’m going to come back and let people know what’s changed between revisions. Now, O’Reilly, as you know, has this feature — I don’t know how they do it, but it must be self-driven, it is O’Reilly, after all — where the author, in a systematic fashion, is able to indicate what’s changed in each revision. So, right now, as an author, when I publish a new revision, I have a choice of emailing all my readers at once, which I don’t like to do, you wouldn’t want me to do that either. I’ve already got I think over 60, maybe over 70 releases,of my bookk.1Because I love lean, I love this idea, I embrace lean, I think it’s great. So although I did a “Big Bang” integration with my first integration into Leanpub, since then I’ve just been doing these minor modifications as I go along. Why not? If I find a typo, why should I wait? I just press the publish button. Or, more significant changes, I’ve done all kinds of changes already. But I’d like to systematically be able to indicate the problems to my readers. I’d like to have a form, or, even better, in Markdown, or a spreadsheet or something, a tab-delimited file or something where I can say, OK, chapter, page number, original text, new text, description of change, attribution, you know, to thank whoever found the error. Something like that would be cool.

E: Attribution, that’s a very interesting idea. It would encourage people to respond, and give them some positive feedback, a positive sense of participation in the project.

B: Yeah, and then readers could go, and they’d have access to this release note on the website, they can see what’s changed. Then they can get a sense of the book, this is an evolving [document]; you can look at the velocity of change, and it’s cool. I’m sure you’ve got all these data in your Git [repository], so there’s endless possibilities, even scientifically, for you, with all your data. So that’s one thing.

The other thing I would say, maybe getting back to your reader concern, is helping my readers, who would adopt the ways of working with PDF and other formats, that I propose — say, a user marks up a document, using Skim, which is a PDF reader — he marks up a book, say, finds several key ideas, marks them up, and then I come out with a new revision, and then what? Well, his annotations are now lost. So here, Kindle wins. I don’t know how Kindle handles updates, but presumably they try to anchor and re-adjust the annotations. So a framework like Diigo for instance, does that all the time — Diigo’s a web annotation tool, so you can go to a web page and highlight or make annotation or add notes — and if that web page changes, then Diigo’s got some logic to take a best guess at where the annotation should be anchored. I’ve developed tools with teams of software developers previously to do this kind of thing with web content. So, right now, the PDF readers such as Skim, they’re not set up for this, but if you wanted to get into that, then I think it would be very important for this tool to be available.

E: So what you would like to see, perhaps, from us, is something of a metadata kind, that an external app, designed for annotating, could then use in order to do things like appropriately anchor a note, in a section that’s actually been deleted, or something like that.

B: That’s one way you could do it. You could perhaps provide the metadata, that would be one approach. The other approach would be to collaborate in some other way with a small business that’s developing an enhanced PDF reader, that would handle this aspect, or maybe other problems. What’s the big picture? It’s to allow a PDF reader to continue to delve an evolving document. “Delve” to me means “actively read”, in this context.

E: And is there anything we could do to help you discover more readers, or help readers discover you, that occurred to you as you were launching your book, and starting to tell people about it?

B: I don’t necessarily have solutions, but I’m acutely aware of the problem. That is an issue, right! But I’m sure it’s one that’s going to be solved. I thought, well, maybe connecting is one thing that could be done, maybe on the service side, connecting service providers, editors or book marketers or whatever, who you’ve vetted in some way, that would help in the book marketing process.

E: Ok, like Leanpub-approved cover designers, and things like that?

B: Right, yeah, and even on your site — I don’t know how integrated you want to do it, but something in that direction.

E: Ok, that’s a very practical suggestion.

B: I’m just very happy, I’m really pleased with Leanpub. I’ve recommended it to other authors, and I’ve had a great experience with it.

For instance, the bibliography thing. We talked about Leanpub for academics, and bibliographies weren’t being formatted properly because Markdown doesn’t handle that. Within a couple of emails, the feature implemented, and then all of a sudden, bang, my glossaries and my bibliographies are up to a standard that they’d be if I was publishing this with anybody else.

E: It was hanging indents I think that Scott implemented for you.

B: Hanging indents, yes.

E: Thanks for all the positive comments and suggestions. I have one last question. Are you planning on writing another book?

B: Oh yes, we’re quite ambitious actually. There’s a follow-up to this one, which would be focusing more on the practical stuff. Taking ideas from chapter three and re-presenting them, and extending them, minus the science.

E: Ok, so the techniques and tools.

B: Yeah, so there’s that. We’ve got sleep products coming out, and there’s a need for a book on sleep, specifically on sleep onset acceleration. So things like that. I think I will write more, with co-authors, perhaps. I’m looking forward to it.

E: I’m looking forward to reading the full article on how to fall asleep! That’s very good. Ok, well, thank you very much Luc for being on the Lean Publishing Podcast, and for being a Leanpub author!

B: Thank you very much, and we’ll be in touch.

E: OK.

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