Leanpub’s Year In Review: Looking Back on 2015 And Looking Forward To 2016

by Len Epp

published Dec 22, 2015

In this post I’m going to highlight some of the improvements we made to Leanpub for our authors and readers in 2015, and discuss briefly what our main goals are for 2016.

Being a bootstrapped startup is a big and exciting challenge for the people involved, but not always in obvious ways. Our development team does a ton of work building new features and products all the time (like our “Bring Your Own Book” feature and our iOS app), but as with any startup, there’s also a ton of work happening in the background that no one sees. And there are of course the usual ups and downs, the best ups being when you see that you’ve really helped people do amazing things, the worst downs when you feel like you’ve failed them in some way.

This is our chance to recap what we’ve done this year, and speak broadly about what we’re planning to do next year.

The Top Books On Leanpub In 2015

We’ve already posted about the most important thing we focus on at Leanpub: the success of our authors. We’re proud to say that by this measure, 2015 was our best year ever. 2015 saw many new books from many new authors on a wide range of topics.

Leanpub is still dominated by technical books written by technical authors, but authors and academics with diverse interests are constantly kicking the tires. Hopefully we’ll soon be attracting more fiction authors, in particular authors who are writing serial fiction. Peter likes to talk about Dickens, Dostoyevsky and Mary Elizabeth Braddon a lot, but Leanpub hasn’t caught up yet to our vision for serial publishing.

If you look at either the list of our top ten bestsellers or the list of our top ten most popular books, you can see that Data Science was by far the most popular book category of the year.

New Leanpub Features and Initiatives In 2015

We’re always building new features and launching new initiatives at Leanpub, often in response to requests from authors and readers who’ve thought up new ways for us to improve. Of course, this doesn’t mean we just do what we’re told, but we do work hard to internalize everything we hear so every decision we make is informed by the customer development process.

Packages

One of the most important new features we built this year was Packages. This lets authors sell videos, code samples and other digital content along with their books. Given the huge and growing popularity of online video courses as a form of instruction and education, this feature has been used successfully by a number of Leanpub authors.

In fact, packages accounted for 10% of our sales by revenue in the last year. Perhaps the most notable example of a successful use of packages is Roger D. Peng’s R Programming for Data Science.

If you’ve written a programming or a technical book and you have the time and the inclination, we definitely recommended producing an instructional video to sell along with your book in a package.

People love videos, so even if you don’t have the time to make a lengthy video to accompany your book, you can still make a short book trailer that people can watch from your book’s landing page. The one on this page is a great example.

Leanpub Podcast Reboot

We’re really glad we rebooted the Leanpub Podcast in June 2015, since it’s so much fun hearing directly from authors about their work. I had a great time interviewing a number of successful Leanpub authors, including Roger D. Peng, W. Jason Gilmore, Ryan Bigg, Jeff Leek, Paul M. Jones, Brian Caffo, and Thomas Davis.

In the hopper awaiting transcription are even more interviews, with Patrick Kua (coming very soon!), Jeff Geerling, Emmanuel Nataf, and Claire Bowern.

Yes, it’s true: at the beginning of 2015 we still didn’t have a shopping cart. We received surprisingly few requests for one, actually, but obviously we were really glad when we finally deployed this.

Our Brief Experiment With An Affiliate Program

We experimented for a couple of months with an affiliate program, whereby authors who signed up for the program could share their royalties with “affiliates” who posted links to the authors’ books that generated sales. Eventually we shut the program down for a number of reasons; basically, the whole thing just wasn’t very “Leanpub”. We may try a version of this program again in the future, but for now we’re focusing our attention elsewhere.

Buying And Distributing Multiple Copies of Ebooks on Leanpub

Something we should surface more openly is the ability to buy multiple copies of ebooks on Leanpub.

If you’re buying on behalf of a team, we’ve built a great feature that lets you distribute individual copies of Leanpub books to the individual members of your team, using just their email addresses. That means they don’t just get a copy of the book: they also get a Leanpub account where they can access the latest version of the book any time, hassle-free.

Bring Your Own Book

We designed a workflow that lets you upload your own book files to the Leanpub bookstore, rather than using the Leanpub writing workflow.

A good way of describing one of our main goals at Leanpub is that we want to give authors a magical typewriter: a great way to write that suits individual preferences and, with the click of a single button, lets authors publish their work in multiple ebook formats and put them up for sale on the web, while simultaneously distributing an updated version of their books to all their existing readers.

In pursuit of the magical typewriter, the first thing Leanpub did was build a writing workflow that let people write on their own computers, using their favorite plain text editors, and share their work with Leanpub through Dropbox. This eliminated the common step in the publishing workflow of uploading or sending files in a separate, manual sharing process, and then converting the text from one format to another. It’s an important feature of the magical typewriter.

Leanpub authors write their books in a simple plain text markup format we call Leanpub Flavored Markdown. (In Q1 2016 we will launch the successor to Leanpub Flavoured Markdown, Markua, while still supporting Leanpub Flavored Markdown for the foreseeable future.) Essentially, this is the magic workflow that lets you write in plain text while simultaneously, efficiently, and easily doing the work required to automatically generate good-looking ebook files in multiple formats with one click, using the Leanpub book generators. I think of it as punctuation for publishing in the digital age.

Over time, we introduced integration with GitHub and Bitbucket in addition to Dropbox. We also built our own in-browser editor, so authors wouldn’t even have to share a folder with us.

Eventually we realized that in order to accomodate the needs of even more authors (especially those with already completed books!), we needed to accept that not everyone would want to write with any markup format, no matter how simple or how superior in a technical sense to a more conventional way of writing. We strongly believe that more and more people will switch to writing in plain text over time. If people could at one time switch from pens to keyboards, they can certainly switch to writing in plain text, which is in so many ways better than writing in, for example, Microsoft Word. But conventions like these can take a long time to change, and we knew we needed to adapt.

Also, we knew that there were authors coming to Leanpub in order to take advantage of our in-progress publishing workflow and features, but who wanted to have much more control over formatting details than a plain text markup format can offer. This is especially likely if the author has finished writing the book, which is the proper time to start focusing on detailed formatting, if it’s important to the project. (One of our basic principles is that for almost all writing projects, formatting is procrastination unless the writing is already done. This is especially true if people are reading on phones or e-readers where they can change the text size, screen orientation, font, text and background color, etc.)

Finally, by restricting authors to using the Leanpub workflow, we were excluding everyone who had already made an ebook using some other process. We encourage Leanpub authors to try other platforms, but at the same time, of course we want authors who are already selling books on other platforms to also give Leanpub a try.

So, we added a “Bring Your Own Book” workflow, which lets anyone easily upload their own book files onto Leanpub and distribute their book through our bookstore. This has attracted some amazing projects and authors, including some where authors had already completed books but couldn’t find publishers for them, like these.

A New Role for Len at Leanpub

I was granted cofounder status at Leanpub this year, joining my co-founders Peter Armstrong and Scott Patten.

We’ve got a lot of things planned for 2016.

First, Markua will launch in Leanpub near the end of Q1. Markua will give authors an even simpler and more powerful plain-text writing experience: it’s the result of over a year of thinking about how Leanpub Flavoured Markdown should evolve. You can read the spec here right now — it’s being published on Leanpub while it is in-progress: we believe in Lean Publishing. Markua isn’t just for Leanpub, by the way–we’re shipping an open source version too. See http://markuapad.com/ for a demo and https://github.com/markuadoc for the various repositories.

Second, if you’ve had problems syncing your Leanpub manuscript via Dropbox in 2015, we’ll have a proper solution for that in 2016 as well. Stay tuned.

However, without revealing all the details, the biggest change to Leanpub in 2016 is going to be an expansion of our priorities. This will involve paying a lot more attention to the reader experience.

Since Leanpub was created by book authors for book authors, it’s always been our natural inclination to try to solve the hard writing- and publishing-related problems first. We’ve got more exciting developments for authors planned, but one thing we’ve always looked forward to spending more time on, is radically improving the experience for readers.

This doesn’t just mean improving the reading experience on our app and online (the current online versions of Leanpub books actually need quite a bit of work, we know), and adding reviews, which is something we plan to do soon. It means thinking really hard about how in-progress publishing should look from the reader’s perspective.

What should a library of unfinished books look like? What features should it have? How should readers be encouraged to interact with authors who are still working on their books? What’s the best platform we can build for delivering a coherent experience to readers, that helps better connect them with authors in the Leanpub spirit?

We’ve got lots of work to do 2016, and we have a clear idea of where we going. Peter likes to describe Leanpub as “Steam for books” — by the end of 2016 it should be a lot clearer why we think this way. Please follow us on Twitter and stay tuned for special announcements in the new year. We’re looking forward to showing you what we’ve come up with, and listening to your feedback whenever we release something new.

Thanks!

As always, if you have any suggestions for improvements or new features, please reach out to the entire Leanpub team at hello@leanpub.com.

Thanks to everyone in the Leanpub community, authors and readers alike, for making 2015 such a great year!

– Posted by Len Epp


Originally published at leanpub.com.

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