published Jan 22, 2014
Derek Sivers is a blogger, musician, and founder of CD Baby, one of the first online stores for music by independent musicians. In June 2013 he founded Wood Egg, which is using Leanpub to publish ebook guides to starting a business in 16 different countries in Asia. You can read his blog at sivers.org and you can find him on Twitter @sivers.
This interview was recorded on January 15, 2014.
Len Epp: Hi, I’m Len Epp from Leanpub and I’m here with Derek Sivers, blogger, musician, and founder of CD Baby, one of the first, and most popular online stores for music exclusively by independent musicians. Amongst his many activities, including some very popular TED Talks, Derek is the author of Anything You Want, a chronicle of his adventures and lessons learned founding, building, and eventually selling CD Baby. In June, Derek launched his new company, Wood Egg, which is publishing annual ebook guides on how to to start and build companies in 16 different countries in Asia. Along with his team of 22 writers and 17 editors, Derek is using Leanpub to publish and update these guides, which are comprised of thousands of answers to questions posed by over 100 researches to over 300 experts. In this interview we are going to talk about Derek’s professional interests and history, his work at Wood Egg, his experiences using Leanpub, and any suggestions he might have for us at the end.
So thank you, Derek, for being on the Lean Publishing Podcast!
Sivers: Thanks Len, thanks for having me. Hey, I had to say, have you ever heard of this thing how there are an extraordinary amount of dentists that are named Dennis, and there are a lot of lawyers that are named Larry, and how there’s this feeling that our name actually influences our career choices in life? Right, have you heard about this before?
E: I haven’t heard it, but I’ve thought it before.
S: Well, when I first started communicating with you I was like, wow, Len Epp. Lean Pub. It almost looks identical. I think it’s destiny that either Leanpub was named that because of you or that you were working with Leanpub because of your name.
E: It could be, yeah, names are a powerful thing. And definitely I’m glad I didn’t go the used car salesman route because my middle name is actually Lawrence.
S: There you go.
E: So that could be Larry as well. Ok Derek, many of our listeners are familiar with your biography already I’m sure, but we do like to start our interviews by getting people to talk a little bit about themselves. So, I was wondering if you could give me a brief two-minute autobiography of Derek Sivers in your own words?
S: Sure. Born in California, I’m very American despite everything else we may talk about here. When I was a young teenager I picked up guitar and that just changed everything for me. I said I want to be a rock star or at least I want to be a really successful musician. But knowing that one in a million gets to be a successful musician, to me that was a real turning point in my life because I started to focus. Wanting to be a successful musician is like wanting to be an Olympic athlete. You know that you’re going to have to be the best of the best to be that one in a million that actually makes a living doing the thing that everybody wishes they could. It got me really focused and serious as a teenager. I started reading lots of self-improvement books and always trying to learn about the world and learn about business and communication and marketing and all these things. Even just the philosophies of how to overcome adversity and not let things get to you, and healthy attitudes towards making your way in this world. After that I noticed that life became easier and business became easier. Learning to see things from the other person’s point of view really made all the difference in the world for me. When I was 20 years old, I moved to New York City to be a professional musician, and I did it. So, for 13 years I was a full-time musician. I actually made my living playing on people’s records and touring and doing gigs and producing people’s records and even bought a house with the money I made making music. So that’s the life I was living when I was selling my own CD on my band’s website.
Back in 1997 when I was doing this, it was a very different world. There was no PayPal. Amazon was just a bookstore. So if you were a musician with a CD and you wanted to sell your CD online there was literally not a single business anywhere on the Internet that would do it for you. So I had to build my own. So I got a book about cgi-bin Perl programming and it took me three months of effort. But after three months, I had a “buy now” button on my website, and that was huge. In 1997 that was a big deal, so when I told my musician friends in New York City that I had this buy now button everybody went “Dude, could you sell my CD too?” So literally as a favor to friends I started putting my friends’ albums on my band’s website. Like “click here to buy my CD” or “click here to buy my friend’s CD”. And after a while, friends of friends started calling so I had to kind of take those people off of my band’s website and put them on their own website, and that was CD Baby.
After 10 years of doing that, CD Baby grew into the largest seller of independent music online from 1998 through 2008. It just blew up. It ended up selling music for a quarter-million musicians with millions of customers and 85 employees and a big giant pick, pack, and ship warehouse in Portland, Oregon. It was really much bigger than I ever wanted it to be. I really thought it was just going to remain a hobby, so it really grew against my wishes. So, in 2008, after doing this for 10 years, I sold the company, which is something I thought I would never do. I thought I was just going to do CD Baby for the rest of my life. But, in 2008, the learning, growing experience was to actually move on and force myself to do something new. Probably like most people here reading or listening to this, we’ve all hit a point in your life where you want to make a major change in your life. Whether it’s a divorce, or a death, or a graduation, or getting fired, or something like that. You hit a point in your life when you make, when you want to make a real big change in your life. To me, selling the company was like that. I realized I could go start another company the next day but I wanted to make a real change to my operating system, if you know what I mean. I wanted to change the way I think, and change what I do. That’s when I started lifting my head up to the world and speaking at TED conferences, and visiting different countries, and vowing to spend the rest of my life outside of the US. Trying to expand my mind and see things from different perspectives. So here we are.
E: Ok, great. Thanks very much for that. I know that recently you moved to New Zealand. Can you tell us a little about why you made that decision?
S: Sure. Well, three years ago I moved to Singapore and thought that that was going to be my permanent home. In fact I filled out ten months of paperwork and I applied for a permanent residency and I became a permanent resident of Singapore which I’m really proud of. I love Singapore. I’m really proud of that little country. I really internalized it. I’m really happy to be a permanent resident of Singapore. I love it. But I think we all need to re-evaluate in our lives sometimes why we are where we are or what we’re doing.
Even in the music business, for example, I saw some miserable rock stars. I worked at Warner Brothers for a few years. I was running the tape room when I was 20 years old. It was my first job inside the music industry., and I got to meet a lot of miserable rock stars, because they would come in for a meeting with the VPs or something and then they would kind of come into my tape room to exhale and regroup. So I got to have some interesting conversations with some famous people that were really miserable because they wanted to be a rock star when they were a teenager, and so they followed through on that, and they became a famous rock star. But now they were 30-something with kids, but they were still acting like their 19 year-old dreams. Even though it didn’t really apply to what they really wanted out of life now. You know what I mean? So I think a lot of us are maybe in a job or a situation that we got ourselves into years ago but we but if you re-evaluate what you need in your life now, it’s not always what you want now.
So last year I was in Singapore. Very, very social. Saying yes to every invitation. Every conference. Every university that wanted me to speak to every class and every person who emailed me out of the blue saying “let’s meet for coffee”. I just said “yes, yes, yes, yes, yes” to everything and I was so social that I was getting nothing done. And now everybody knew I was there and so every person that passed through Singapore would send me an email saying “let’s meet”. Even if I said no to four out of five of those I was still swamped in social activities. And I realized that what I really wanted was solitude. That at some point in your life being out there and meeting everyone is what you need, and sometimes at a different point in your life being in here, and meeting no one, is what you need. You need to focus. I just hit that point. And that’s why I symbolically just packed up and went off to New Zealand where I didn’t know anybody and it’s wonderfully under-populated, and nobody passes through New Zealand. Its been wonderful. I’m getting a lot of work done.
E: I’m very interested in when you’re speaking about evaluating and evaluating yourself. It reminded me about something from your book Anything You Want that really struck me which was, I suppose, that negative form of evaluation where you and invoke “the invisible jury”.
S: [Laughter] Yes.
E: I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about what you mean by that.
S: Ok, the invisible jury. I thought about this first with programming, right. There are a few different ways of approaching programming. Either you can just hack together whatever works. The bare minimum, ugly code, whatever it takes to make the computer do what you want it do. Or you can try to please this invisible jury if you imagine people on GitHub reading your code and you think “Oh no, am I doing my proper object-oriented encapsulation? Am I doing my semi-colons right in a way that I won’t get criticized for on Stack Exchange or whatever it’s called, Stack Overflow?” And sometimes I find when programming that I’m trying to please someone, I don’t know who, this invisible jury that I think is going to tease me if I do something wrong in programming.
And it’s the same thing in business I think. We read books like, whether it’s 4-Hour Workweek, or whatever book that said you start to re-evaluate your business or life or work decisions through the lens of pleasing some invisible person out there that you think is going to be criticizing you if you do it wrong. I think that’s really hard to let go of. It’s kind of tied together with, I don’t know, anxiety or insecurity or who knows what kind of mental issues.
E: It’s just such an interesting idea because, you know, one of the things that I imagine makes it hardest to let it go, is when you realize no one was listening that whole time to your internal defense against that non-existent jury
E: …and there was no trial.
S: It’s hard to get over that. To just stop trying to please other people and just let it go and do whatever you personally want. Realizing, actually, sometimes I believe that you need to realize that people are going to tell you you’re wrong no matter what you do. With coding you could have your perfect code that would please whatever Rails guru you look up to or something, and still somebody somewhere else is going to tell you you’re an idiot and doing it wrong. It’s the same thing with life, you know.
I think about these big life decisions. Big life paths we could take. Some people are pursuing money. And they want to make as much money as possible. And if you follow that path, some people are going to tell you that you’re wrong. They’re going to tell you that you’re being greedy, or that you’re shallow, or whatever. Other people in life are giving up money and instead pursuing the charitable life or something. They’re giving themselves all the time, they’re donating their time, and life, and money to charity or whatever. And you know what, somebody is going to tell you you’re wrong for doing that too. They’re going to tell you you’re stupid. You should try to make as much money as you can now while you’re young. And other people, you know, I’m in the music business, and so I know lots of people that are pursuing fame. Even if it means making no money. They’re getting themselves out there into public situations trying to get famous more than trying to get rich. Somebody is going to tell you you’re wrong for pursuing that. The point is no matter what you choose somebody is going to tell you you’re wrong and you just have to let it go and not worry about that or just accept it in advance. Of course people are going to tell you you’re wrong. There is no path you’re going to follow that’s going to be devoid of criticism. So instead you just have to ignore those other voices and just listen to that quiet voice inside that knows what this is a thing that you really, really want and kind of optimize your life and career to do that, even if it’s an unpopular decision.
E: Speaking of being told you’re wrong in one way or another, that leads very well into my next question. I have a couple of big questions about CD Baby and this one is about - you had a notable incident with Apple and Steve Jobs that you talk about in your book and on your blog. And without necessarily going into the details of what that was here, I would like to ask you what you think the best thing is that Steve Jobs did for the music industry, and what you think the worst thing was.
S: Oh, I’d say there actually is no worst thing, even though that little scuffle I had with him was nasty, and I don’t own any Apple products, maybe because of that.
Actually I think the launch of the iTunes music store in 2004 was massively important for independent musicians. It was one of the best things that ever happened to independent musicians and here’s why. Up until that point indie musicians couldn’t really get their music into most places. Yes, I set up CD Baby because in 1998 there was no place that would sell your music. But within a few years there were lots of competing companies. So if you were an independent musician, you could put your CD out there on a dozen different little CD Baby-type indie shops. And then eventually Amazon started their, I forgot what it’s called, Amazon Associates or something. Amazon Advantage Program I think it was called, where just anybody could put a book or a CD or something into the Amazon system. So technically you could still be on Amazon, but it was very difficult. It wasn’t very optimized. But then CD Baby represented over two million songs or something like that in our digital catalog when the iTunes music store launched. And iTunes called us into their office and asked us to be a distributor. To send all of our catalog into the iTunes music store. And in that moment, that changed everything for musicians, ‘cause now every independent musician, no matter how unknown or small, was truly in the level playing field that everybody had been desiring because every album from Madonna to, you know, an unknown plumber from Oslo, Norway now looked exactly the same on iTunes. Everybody had the same treatment, the same placement, the same visual display. Being sold in the same store. There was no difference. And if you went into iTunes search engine and typed, whether it’s salsa music or you typed the name of your favorite song - say you typed in, whatever, “Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison. You decided you wanted to buy that song. You would type it into the iTunes search engine and now there’s Van Morrison’s version and here’s five cover versions by unknown musicians from Finland or Uruguay are listed equally with Van Morrison in a search engine on iTunes. It was brilliant!
And I think it was one of the single best things that ever happened to independent musicians because after Apple did it, then of course the Amazon MP3 store launched a year later, and then the new Napster, and Rhapsody, and Yahoo! Music. All of these companies now, in order to compete with Apple, contacted companies like CD Baby and said “We want everything. We want your whole catalogue.” All four million songs, or whatever it grew to be. They took everything, no questions asked. Every independent musician had equal placement. Now you almost take it for granted. There’s so many companies out there. A new one that I really like is called DistroKid.com. Personally, actually, that’s where I’m distributing my music through right now. My albums are up through DistroKid. So it’s amazing that just anybody could make some noise into a microphone right now, save it as an MP3, upload it to any number of distributors out there and it will be for sale on iTunes tomorrow. And Amazon. That’s amazing! That’s a world of difference from where we were at ten years ago. Night and day. It’s just amazing the change that one thing made in 2004.
E: And in the contemporary music landscape are there any companies or certain individuals out there who are doing something very special that you think is maybe setting the tone for the next few years?
S: I think that DistroKid, that I mentioned, it’s not a revolution. They’re not doing anything massively different. But, it has the same friendly, no-nonsense, cut the fluff, kind of simplicity that I launched CD Baby with in 1998, and I think made it really charming. I think DistroKid is doing that now for digital distribution. They let go of the concept of an album. If you have an album, you can still create an album, but their system is very optimized for musicians recording a song at a time. As soon as you finish a song, you want to put your song out on to iTunes, Amazon, and the rest. Their system will let you do that very easily. It’s great.
E: I have one last music industry question for you which is about piracy. This obviously has been a big controversy in the music world ever since things went digital and online. And I would like to know your opinion about it, just in general. I know independent musician friends of mine are often in conflict with each other about whether or not piracy is good for small bands.
S: Yeah, I’d take the side of, piracy is not a problem. I don’t think there are a lot of people out there on PirateBay, or something, searching for the name of a local unknown band. I don’t think it’s a big problem.
I think when you’re not as famous and successful as you want to be, it’s easy to look for anybody to blame. It’s almost a comforting thought to think that if it weren’t for piracy, I would be world famous right now, or I would be rich if it weren’t for piracy. Very often, when I was with CD Baby, people who would email us to complain that iTunes was stealing money from them because they had been on iTunes for three months and hadn’t gotten any money yet. We’d ask them to provide any proof of sales. We’d say “Wow, ok, let’s look into this. Can you show us some sales on iTunes that have happened, that you haven’t gotten paid for?” And they’d say “well, I don’t know any”. Then we’d ask them to buy the album themselves from iTunes. Just to make sure that the system was working. And we’d say “Well, don’t worry, you know if you’re buying it yourself. So you’re going to spend $9.99 but $8.99 is going to come back to you” or something. And sure enough they would buy the album themselves on iTunes and then the iTunes report would come in a few weeks later that that was the one and only sale of that album. So it’s nice to think that we would all be, really, much more successful if it weren’t for piracy. But I think the truth is that piracy may be hurting a few ticket sales of Iron Man 3 or something, but, I don’t think it’s hurting most of us on the independent level.
E: Ok, great. That’s a very clear answer. Thank you.
S: Well, I love the statistics that more people are killed by pigs than sharks each year. That sharks are the newsworthy, noteworthy, media-shocking, headline-grabbing news. But, very quietly, more people are killed by pigs each year. So I kind of feel that way about piracy. That it’s a shocking thing that’s easy to demonize, and talk about how this evil Internet is making piracy rampant. But I think it’s actually the other things that are hurting our careers more than piracy.
E: Oh, and what would one of those other things be?
S: [Laughter] People’s communication skills. People’s production and engineering skills, or ability to go hustle and get themselves some gigs, or their media-friendly presentation. Their photos. Things like that. Just off the top of my head. Any one of those seven things I just named, I think, are likely hurting your career more than piracy. And I’m sure there’s a hundred more.
E: Ok, thanks. Moving on to discuss publishing a little bit. Your first book, Anything You Want was published as something part of something called The Domino Project. Can you explain a little bit about that project and who’s involved in it, and why you were published as a part of it?
S: Yeah. I never wanted to write a book. I know some people have this life-long dream to be a published author and it’s a dream to see their name in lights at Amazon. But I never wanted to do a book. People had been asking me for years to turn my blog posts into a book or write a book and I just said “No, too much work. Don’t feel like it. Not interested.” And then one day Seth Godin called me, or rather sent me an email, saying “I’d like to talk to you. It’s important.” I got on the phone and he said, “I’m starting a new publishing company and I want you to be my first author.” So of course I said: “Oh, yes. Yes sir.”
Originally he thought maybe I would do a music book. Like, a how to make it in the music business kind of book. But as we talked more, he said “No, actually, let’s take a lot of these articles on your blog and turn them into a book, plus add some more. It’ll kind of tell the story of starting, growing, and selling CD Baby, including your philosophies throughout. We’re just going to turn it into a little 88-page manifesto.” That was his big idea. He felt that most books are too long. That most of us have what he called a manifesto inside of us, that would be short, powerful, the kind of book you could read in under an hour. And it would be sold exclusively through Amazon, Kindle and hardcover, using their print-on-demand system, I guess. And that he setup a system with no advance, but, royalties were split 50/50 with the author. Something like that, I forget. The details didn’t matter to me. It was Seth. I said yes. I think I thought it was going to be an ongoing publishing company. Like he had setup this new company that was going to go for years, but he actually just did it for one year.
And in hindsight, I look at other things Seth has done and I realize that’s what he always does. He actually started a record label for a year. That’s how I first met him, when I was at CD Baby. He started a record label and signed a few artists and put them on CD Baby. And he started a publishing company and did that for a year. And he started this and that project. And he tends to do things kind of as a way of testing out his ideas in the real world. But then he delegates it off to somebody else. Or sells it and moves on to the next idea. Which, honestly, I really admire. He keeps his systems very streamlined. He has no employees. When he launches a new project like Domino Project, he got a dozen interns. People that were clamoring to work alongside him. I think he paid them, but it was clear to them that this was just, come in for nine months, help get this company going. You’ll get a lot of great experience and then it’s done and we’re on to the next thing. So yeah, that’s Domino Project. I think it’s - as far I can tell, they’re not doing any new books.
E: Speaking of launching publishing companies, on to Wood Egg. You launched Wood Egg in June, 2013. I was wondering if you could give me a description of what it is and why you founded it?
S: Yeah. So moving to Singapore three years ago I was now living in the middle of South-East Asia and realized that I knew nothing about all of the countries around me. That I could literally see Indonesia out my window but I knew nothing about Indonesia. And I could also see Malaysia out my window, and I knew nothing about Malaysia. And knew nothing about Myanmar. Or Cambodia. Or Vietnam, except something about a war a long time ago, that we see lots of movies about. I didn’t really understand the relationship between Taiwan and China. And I didn’t really understand Mongolia. Some place with Genghis Khan and some yaks I think. I wanted to understand these countries more, now that I was living in the middle of them. So at first I started out just kind of taking trips occasionally. Taking three-day vacations off to Indonesia and walking around and talking to people. But after a while I felt that that was too casual. I wasn’t learning enough, fast enough. I wanted my learning to be more focused.
They say the best way to learn something is to teach it. So I thought, “Yeah, this will help my understanding. I will commit now to starting a new company that for the next five or ten years will publish 16 books about these 16 countries in Asia. Every year. And every year I’ll release the new updated version, improved, rewritten, etc.” And at first I thought I was going to go write these 16 books myself. And that’s actually why I limited it to 16. I thought “Ok, three weeks each in 16 countries. That’s 48 weeks. Take a few weeks off for Christmas and do it again.” That’s how I’m going to spend my next few years. But, that idea only lasted about two minutes because my wife was pregnant at the time. So, then I kind of decided that I was going to be the owner/publisher of this company and I was going to have to turn it into more of a system for learning and research and turning the knowledge into books. So, that’s how it began. Really just out my own self-interest and desire to share what I was learning with others.
E: You’ve got a post at sivers.org/robust about some of the hurdles you’ve had to overcome along the way in the last, well I guess, not quite a year now. Can you tell us what were one or two of those problems and what kept you going through them?
S: Yeah. So imagine if this was you. Sitting in a hotel room in Indonesia and you decided that you wanted to publish 16 books per year about 16 countries in Asia. But you knew that you couldn’t do it all yourself. So probably then your first impulse would be to hire 16 different writers. Like one per country. Let me hire a guy from India to write the India book. And let me hire a guy from Taiwan to write the Taiwan book. So that’s what I did. And that idea lasted a few months. Actually the people from India and Taiwan did a good job but the guy from Indonesia flaked out and disappeared. And I realized that this was too fragile of a plan. That I can’t have the whole book project collapse because one person changes his mind. So then I had to think a little deeper about everything I had learned about the wisdom of crowds, and wikinomics, and crowdsourcing, and all of those books about combined efforts.
And one of the big points that those books shared that I thought was really insightful is that crowdsourcing works best when people are given simple, specific instructions. I think of Hot or Not as the extreme example. I know it’s been ten years or something since that site. But, if you remember Hot or Not, all you had to do is just, you were just given two pictures and almost like a mouse with cheese you just had to click on the one that you thought was more attractive. Or maybe give it a number or something. And that’s it. That’s all you had to do. So I realized that the problem before, that I was finding a brilliant person in India and saying, “I want you to write this book about India. Please cover these ten subjects. Go.” And it just left, what’s that saying, enough rope to hang yourself with? It was too vague. It was too broad a definition, so that’s why it wasn’t getting done. That’s why authors I was hiring were flaking out. Because it was too broad.
So then I realized the pressure was on me because I wanted to be my target. Or, I already knew that I am the target market for this book. People like me that would consider moving to a new country like Thailand, to live there and start a business there. I know it’s a small niche but there are probably a few hundred or a few thousand of us in the world who consider doing that. And so I wanted a book that addresses that.
So, here’s what I did: I came up with two hundred specific questions that I wanted to know about living and working in these countries. Two hundred questions per country. Two hundred questions to be asked of each of the 16 countries. And then it was much easier because then all I had to do was go onto elance.com and odesk.com and hire business consultants in each of these countries to answer these two hundred questions. And now I had a robust system, in fact, I made it even one level more robust by - again, I realized that if a person dropped out it would collapse. Or if a person gave me a bunch of bad information the book would suck. So instead I hired three researchers in each country to answer all two hundred questions. Now every question had three different answers, and I tried to find a variety of people. You know, one native local person to that country, one ex-pat that had been living in that country for a while, and one third person that would now give a broad perspective to each question. So then I hired a writer to combine those three different research answers into one essay. Now, this was my robust system. Researchers would occasionally drop out. No big deal. Replace them with somebody else. It doesn’t matter that much if they’re brilliant or not because their answer is just one-third, or their research is just one-third of the final answer. And it became this really robust system that has worked really well to make these books no matter who comes and goes.
E: And the books, you intend them to be updated annually?
S: Yeah, so, in fact, the ones that you see on the woodegg.com website right now are actually the second year’s books. Last year in June I released 16 books that were not very good, and luckily I knew that from the beginning. I think when I first had this idea, the reason I said that I was going to commit five or ten years to doing this is I think any of us who think about launching something, or I’m sure you have plenty of listeners who would like to write a book and have not yet and are scared of the criticism of putting a book out there into the world that might not be genius - I think it really helps instead to commit a few years to doing constant improvements. Because then you admit the first one you put out there is just not going to be that good. And you admit that up front, but you commit then to the following year, making it better, and the following year making it much, much better. So, yeah, my motto was that I know the first year’s books would be not-good. Second year’s books should be quite good. The third year’s books should be very good. And maybe by the fourth or the fifth year I’ll be able to call them great, or even amazing. If you just keep committing to massive improvements every year.
E: And at that point there will also be a record of how things have changed over the last few years as well. And actually there’s, I mean, you’ve covered 16 countries. It’s an amazing project. There’s one country I’d like to ask you about specifically, which is Myanmar, or Burma. Can you tell us what you’ve learned about the situation for entrepreneurs there, and how it’s changed in the last couple of years, and where you see things going in the next few years?
S: Sure. Actually, I don’t have that much to say about Myanmar. It’s so really tough. Up until just two years ago I think, they were completely closed to foreign investment. You really couldn’t go to Myanmar and do business. It wasn’t allowed. And just two years ago they started to open some doors but it’s still incredibly difficult. There’s even mixed information about how to incorporate a business. Some people say that you can just fill out the official forms and set up your business. And other people say that you have to prove that you have a million dollars in capital and then you have to know someone, or bribe someone, to get your company even started. It’s all a big chaotic mess but in a, hey - rule number one of investing is risk equals reward. So the few that are in there doing it right now and learning the ropes are probably going to be the ones that are rewarded the greatest in the future. You think of the people that came to the US in the late 1700s and setup the first, whatever, boot manufacturers or something. It was probably incredibly difficult to start a company in this untapped land, but those who got in early and stuck it out through the difficulties are the ones who profited the most.
E: Speaking of being there at the beginning of a big change: you’re the founder of CD Baby, and now you’re getting into publishing, and I’d like to ask you how you think the book publishing industry in 2014 compares to the record industry in 1998?
S: There aren’t many similarities but the biggest, and most important one, is that there are now no gatekeepers. In a very similar position, in 1998 things had changed radically just in four years. Because say in, like, 1994, if you wanted to put your music out into the world so that people could buy it, you couldn’t. [Laughter] You couldn’t. You would have to go know someone who knew someone to kiss some ass at a cocktail party to get a meeting with a lawyer who could introduce you to a record executive who, in between puffs on his cigar, might think that your music is good enough to sign you to a deal. And only then, and after a year, and after this and that, and debt that will never be recouped, could your music get out into the world. That was the only way in 1994, say, to put your music out there. Except obviously you could sell your CDs and cassette tapes off of the stage in person. But that was it. The only way to get into record stores was through the major labels.
So in 1998, that all changed. Now you had companies like CD Baby that would sell just anybody, anywhere, internationally. So, I think 2014, as compared to just a few years ago, now anybody who wants to put a book out into the world can do it. There’s no gatekeepers. Think about what a huge difference that is from just five or ten years ago or something. You couldn’t. If you had a book in you, the only way to get it out to the world was to know somebody that knew somebody that tried to get an appointment with a publisher, and in between puffs on his cigar, if he liked your book, you know, maybe it would be released to the world a year later. Now just anybody can put it out there. So, that’s huge. I think it’s not appreciated as much afterwards, what a massive difference that is. We take it for granted now.
E: Yeah, that’s very interesting. It reminds me again of the, if I remember, one of the main issues that happened in your incident with Steve Jobs was that he said “You know people can just put their music on there.” And then you say in your book that he obviously changed his mind about easily letting independent musicians onto iTunes. I find, I don’t know if you’ve encountered this as well, but often in the publishing world there’s a sense of elevated status. That people are, even to the detriment to their own interests, protective of the power that, say, I guess in the music world, that big labels have, to make you a real musician, and that big publishing companies have to make you a “real” author.
S: Yeah. And culturally, speaking of Asia, that’s still more true in parts of the world where in the US, for example, or in America in general, there’s this champion of the underdog that’s almost cool to be indie and not sign your life away to a corporation. But in Asia, the biggest one is still considered the coolest one. It’s actually, you don’t want to tout your credentials as a small underdog indie as much in Asia. Instead it’s almost better to appear bigger than you are, and you can see a culture difference.
E: That’s very interesting.
Now, moving to just a couple of questions on Leanpub. You chose Leanpub to make your books. I know that you’re also selling them on Amazon. Can I ask you what led you to choose Leanpub for your publishing company?
S: Markdown. I love that Leanpub uses Markdown as the book format. That was just amazing. I think even, I don’t know if you consider CreateSpace to be competition, but I looked into CreateSpace once and they talked about “upload your Microsoft Word file.” I was like [blows raspberry]. Gone. Forget that. These books are generated by my database full of essays written in plain text. I’m not going to put things into a stupid - I don’t even own a copy of Microsoft Word. I don’t want to, you know. So, I love how Leanpub is this, kind of, Linux nerd-friendly, programmer-friendly system for those of us that like to use a format like Markdown. I think it’s just brilliant. And then the fact that you, that the same system system that helps me make the books also sells them at a wonderful, friendly, author-friendly price, is just ideal. I’m a huge fan and I’ve been sending everybody your way. Everybody that asks. You know “Hey, I’ve been thinking about writing a book. What should I do?” I tell everybody to go to Leanpub.
E: Oh, ok. Well that’s great. Yeah it’s interesting what you say about Microsoft Word. Yeah, I mean, it makes me cry when I open it now. And I spent, I mean, I’ve got a Ph.D. in English and I spent all those years writing in Microsoft Word. And it was absurd when I look back on it now. So it’s great to hear that, because one of the big bets for Leanpub was that Markdown is the way to go for the future. And so it’s really great to hear that people like you agree.
E: Can you tell me a little about how you found about us? Were you just surfing the web, or did someone mention us to you?
E: OK. Actually, one thing I’m sure that our listeners who are either publishers or self-published authors would be interested to know is how you’ve gone about promoting the Wood Egg books.
S: Actually, I don’t have anything interesting to share there. Because Wood Egg wasn’t started as much of a business as it was a personal curiosity project, that I only finished this year’s books 12 days ago. And up until 12 days ago, everybody would ask me “Hey, what’s your marketing plan? What are you going to do to sell these?” And, I would just shrug. I just wanted to get them finished. Get them done. I was 100% focused on just getting them made. I was spending all my days just editing, and improving, and writing. Just as of 11 days ago now they exist in the world, and it’s such a huge relief. But, don’t have any business, marketing, brilliant ideas to share. Sorry.
E: [Laughter] Ok, nope, that’s fine. It’s actually, there’s a lot of important things I think for Leanpub authors in that answer. Including, think about the writing first, maybe, before you get ahead of yourself and start worrying about a lot of the marketing.
S: Well, it’s funny because, if you don’t mind, let’s look at the flip-side. There are some people making a ton of money doing helpful ebooks in the world. I forget, it was the top story on Hacker News today, it was somebody who made $350,000 on an ebook about creating iPhone apps or something. And there lots of stories out there that are worth paying attention to, but I think the difference is you can choose upfront whether you are making a book for the marketplace, or whether you’re making a book out of a sense of, like, personal, this is just something I feel like doing, whether it makes me a dime or not. So if, on the other hand, you feel like making maximum profits from the book, the best time to think about it is actually before you start writing. If that’s your intention, to make a lot of money and sell a ton of books, then you should be thinking, before you write a single word, what does the marketplace want? And the 4-Hour Workweek book gives some brilliant examples of that about - I think he wanted to call that book Drug Dealing for Fun and Profit because he was running a vitamin supplement company at the time and he was going to share some lessons learned from running his vitamin supplement company - and felt very passionately about that title. He loved that title. Drug Dealing for Fun and Profit. But apparently he contacted Walmart and found out that they would not sell a book with that title.
S: So he, you know, begrudgingly said “OK, I guess I need a new title.” And he started Google AdWords campaigns with a handful of title ideas, and then even with his subtitle ideas. I forget what the subtitle is. Something like “How to join the new rich and live a free life” or something. Each one of those things was tested in Google Ads to see what phrases people would click the most. And choosing that ended up helping him - seeing which phrases people clicked the most ended up shaping his whole project, in deciding what kind of book to write based on what people were clicking on the most. So Leanpub is actually a great way to do that kind of thing, I think, where you can, first start running some ads or surveys, or whatever it may be, to find out what kind of book people want. Or what will be the biggest seller. And then you can start writing it, and that as-you-go process, chapter by chapter. Getting feedback on people saying “Yes! You need to talk about this some more.” And voilà, your chapter three is now different than what you had already expected because of what feedback people gave you in chapter one and two. So I think you could write a much more successful book if you think about the marketplace from day zero.
E: Hmm, yeah. That’s very interesting. One of the features we do have that is intended to accommodate that, is that you can easily create a landing page for a book with different titles and people can sign up and say “I’ll buy this if and when you release it.” So people could do tests of different books they might want to write. Even different titles. But it reminds me, Peter Armstrong, Leanpub’s co-founder, has this great line about how “A big success for Leanpub can be when an author stops writing a book.” And that’s because, as you were describing earlier, often, people can, well I think we were talking about this, but people can feel like the thing needs to be complete and done, done. And you work pm it for years. Toiling, toiling away. And then you release it and, you know, crickets can happen sometimes. So one of the things about Leanpub is, set up a landing page. Test the idea. If you get some responses, then work on that project. Get to the end of three chapters. Get going. Start publishing that and seeing if there’s interest out there for what you’re working on. If that’s a necessary, an essential criterion for evaluating your own success - getting a lot of readers.
S: Exactly, yeah. And I think most people probably would like to sell as many books as possible. But for those of us that are actually just doing this more as a personal project, like, this is something I feel like writing for my own sake. Even technical books. I know a lot of people - I think there’s a guy, Steve Klabnik or something, that’s currently writing about Rust a lot. And he’s writing about the programming language Rust on his blog as a way of learning Rust. So to him, he might end up - somebody like that might write a book about Rust as a way of learning about Rust, and whether it actually sells a lot or not is a secondary concern. First and foremost it’s your own self-education or personal project. As long as you know which way you’d like it go, you can optimize your workflow based on which one.
E: Speaking of self-education, that actually leads right into the last question I wanted to ask you. Not just self-education, but dedication and training. You have a great post about learning to sing over the course of 15 years, I think, on your blog. And you talk about the years of practice and hard work it took you to get to the point where you could sing well enough that people assumed you’d been born with a great voice. Have you taken a similar approach to writing?
S: Writing. Programming. Everything. Even my cultural understanding in living outside the US and traveling. I think once you understand that you’re not going to be great at anything at first, it really helps to instead make that long-term commitment. There’s a book called Mastery by George Leonard, and I’m sure there’s some other books like this, that use the martial arts metaphor, that if you go into a karate dojo, studio, and say “I want to be a black belt this year,” they’ll just laugh because that’s not - you don’t get to be a master like that. First you need to do this simple move 150,000 times before you’ll really be good at it.
It’s all about the ongoing dedication. So the problem is if you’re impatient. You just want to be great and fast. In anything. I want to be a great writer. I want to be a great programmer. I want my business be big, big, big! If you’re impatient, which sometimes we think that impatience is a virtue: “Hey, I’m not going to stand for the speed limit that everybody else sets for themselves. I’m going to, what is it called, growth hacking. I’m going to hack master. I’m going to hack marketing. I’m going to hack this. I’m going to speed this process.” The problem is, if you are expecting everything to go so fast, then you might end up being a miserable dabbler. And that’s where you do a couple years of this, and then you get frustrated. You throw that away and go do a couple years of something else. You spend a couple years trying to be a good writer, but you’re not a great writer after nine months, so you lose interest and now you try to go get your pilot’s license or something, I don’t know. So that is the opposite path of mastery, that you will never be great at anything if you have that impatience - that instead you need to understand that to be great at anything, it’s going to take a long time.
Maybe having that impatience upfront can be healthy if it makes you focus harder, try harder, practice more. But then you still have to understand that it’s still going to take years. Maybe if you’re impatient you’ll be much, much better in ten years than somebody who is just kind of lackadaisical and committed for ten years, but you still have to understand that it’s going to take years regardless. So, yeah, sorry, to answer your question, it took me 15 years of trying to be a good singer, and I think it’s going to take me 15 years to be a good author and 20 years to be a good programmer. I just assume that these things are going to take a long time, but work as hard as I can in the meantime.
E: Well, “Focus harder, try harder, and practice more” sounds like a great slogan, not just for martial arts, but for anything!
Thanks very much Derek for being on the Lean Publishing Podcast, and for using Leanpub as a platform for Wood Egg.
S: Yeah. I love it! Thanks Len!
E: Thank you.
published Jan 22, 2014
Matthias Noback is the author of the Leanpub book A Year With Symfony: Writing Healthy, Reusable Symfony2 Code.
Matthias is a freelance developer from the Netherlands. You can read his blog at matthiasnoback.nl
This interview was recorded on September 12, 2013.
Len Epp: I’m here with Matthias Noback, a freelance developer, consultant and writer based in Zeist, in the Netherlands. Previously, Matthias has worked as software developer, paying special attention to internal quality assurance. He’s been a PHP developer since 2002, and has been developing with Symfony web application framework since 2007. He regularly writes about advanced Symfony2-related topics on his blog, which you can find at matthiasnoback.nl, and you can find him on Twitter @matthiasnoback.
Matthias is the author of the Leanpub book A Year With Symfony: Writing healthy, reusable Symfony2 code. In this interview we’re going to talk about Matthias’ professional interests, his book, his experiences using Leanpub, and ways we can improve Leanpub for him and other technical authors.
So thank you for being on the Lean Publishing Podcast!
Noback: Thank you.
E: I’d like to start by asking you to go back a little bit, and ask you for a brief introduction to your career. How did you get interested in programming in the first place?
N: It was at high school. I tried some things with HTML and I noticed there were some very nice editors around the time like Microsoft Frontpage. I used it as well as Dreamweaver. It started with the usual WYSIWYG modifications and all of a sudden I had created a web page to begin with for my father. He is a photographer. So this was my first non-official assignment. And only later I started looking behind the images and the layout and looked at the code. Well, as soon as I saw code, I wanted to know more about this, and I started reading everything I could on the Internet - still over a telephone cable at the time, with a modem that said [dial up noise]. Great time! Later, with faster Internet connections. Also, I went many times to the library. The local library. They had a computer so I could use it to find out more about the Internet and how you could put some stuff on it yourself. So this was very interesting to me. I was 16, maybe 17.
E: Ok, and did you study programming or web development?
N: Not at all.
E: Ok, ok.
N: No, that’s something many people don’t know. I started with philosophy. It took me eight, I think eight years to finish it. All the time I was working on websites and applications. So I think I spent just a couple of hours every week to study philosophy. The rest of my week, I was already a freelancer, in 2002. But only after a couple of years, I noticed that I was repeating myself. I was living literally in an attic with my uncle near the place where I live now. I missed the fact that there were other people around me that I could talk to about the technical issues. I started looking for some company that I could work for in a team. And there was a company in Amsterdam called Driebit, it’s “three bits” translated. They had quite a nice team of, maybe I think at the time, eight people. Some front-end developers, some back-end developers, some project managers. They had some great products, projects which I loved to work on. Even before I started there I got a book on Symfony1 and I started reading it. This was a great revelation for me.
E: I was going to ask you what led you to start working with the Symfony framework.
N: It was at this time that I had created a CMS system for myself. For my own customers. This wasn’t a very good system of course. Yeah, what could I do with just me as a developer? But yeah, I noticed that after reading this book on Symfony there were so much more possibilities to create software with just PHP and Symfony of course. I became very excited about this new of doing things. I think there were already good CMS tools and also frameworks but I think Symfony was even then one of the best.
E: And what was it that distinguished Symfony from the other ones that made it better for you?
N: Yeah, I’ve always found the documentation very clear and very friendly. Also, the community has always seemed very warm or welcome to me. Though I must say I don’t have that much experience with other frameworks so you may just call it bias. This Symfony thing.
E: Fair enough. That’s something I’ve found with people who, the way they choose different frameworks, is often sometimes even just the first response they had when started entering into a new community.
N: Yeah, yeah. That’s right. But I think Symfony has always had it’s documentation very good. So from the start even with Symfony2. In the very beginning there was already a good site with some information. Although it changed a lot, it changed frequently.
E: And you’ve contributed to the documentation yourself.
N: That’s right, yeah. Only later. I worked in Amsterdam at the time and there was a lot of discussion in that company should they take the step from the first version to the second version and do things differently. Very much. There’s almost no way, I think, to port a Symfony 1 application to a Symfony2 application.
E: And can you tell me a little bit more about Symfony2 and what in particular was it meant to address? Who was it useful for? Things like that.
N: Yeah, well, I think Symfony2 is very useful for developers who are looking for a more advanced way to do things while they are developing Internet applications. They want to have as much, I mean, they should be able to make as many choices as possible. The builders of the framework have made, have built in very many options for them to choose from.
E: Ok. I’ve read from things you’ve written on your blog, I think, and also in your book that developing software for re usability is very important for you and you’ve already mentioned it. I was just wondering if you could explain a little bit about what this means for you and why it’s so important.
N: Yeah, I see this happening all the time. Especially now that I pay so much attention to it. I see many people who love frameworks develop software only for this framework. For example, there are Twitter clients, Twitter API clients, just for Symfony. There is someone who build it just for Symfony. This was especially so for Symfony 1 and now there has been and more and more knowledge about how to create packages or reusable parts of software so I think this is changing right now but still people have much to learn about this. Many things are too specific. Too specific for just one framework.
E: I see. So you’re saying when someone’s developing an application, and parts of an application, they should keep in mind that if they develop in a certain way then this can be useful, not just in this particular instance, but in other instances as well.
N: Right, right. Yeah. I always encourage people to share their work so if they make it reusable from the beginning this will be much easier to do.
E: When did you first get the idea to write your Leanpub book A Year With Symfony?
N: I think in April this year. I don’t know what I thought exactly. At the time. If I could ever finish this, it seemed like a very big task. Though when I think back of this, I had a blog already with more than 50 articles on it. I was a bit encouraged by this idea that if I could write all this stuff and put online I could surely write it and keep it offline for a while and later release it to the public.
E: So some of the content in your book came from your blog?
N: Not exactly, but some ideas. I’ve taken some from my blog.
E: In your book you say that Symfony encouraged you to do things right. Can you tell me what you mean by that?
N: Yeah, that’s an interesting question. This is one of the facts I wrote recently on my blog. I wrote an article called “Why Symfony - 7 Facts”. This is all sort of controversial of course because facts, well, they are just strong opinions. But the seventh one is interesting. It’s the most interesting I think because I’ve noticed around me start using Symfony are becoming better developers right away. They look at the code from the framework, written by very good programmers around the world, and many times they will feel inspired by this. They will, in the first place, try to replicate this coding style and write their code in the same way.
E: Ok. Since you say you started in, you just got the idea in April. How long did the book take you to write?
N: Yeah, I was already finished in July and then I had a holiday and some time to think about the book. Is this the way I wanted to become known to many people? My conclusion was yes. This is ready. I had three, no, actually more, four or five people who had read the book already. Or partially. Their comments were not very substantial. They were good comments, so the book has become better in those few weeks but no reasons to postpone release.
E: Ok, so it’s mostly you but with some opinions from other people. That’s great. I wanted to that sort of, I think a lot of people who, you know, are developers and are thinking of writing a book themselves like to hear about those details that you normally don’t hear in kind of big stories. It took you from the moment you started thinking about it to when you were finished it was about three or four months. Then you took a break and had other people read it before releasing it. But also, one of the reasons I gather you could do it in that period of time was that you’d actually been writing about it already for a long time and already had an audience of people for your blog.
N: Yeah, those are important things. The writing experience. If I had tried this two years ago it would have taken me much longer. Some good native English writers or speakers had to correct me on many things.
E: Who is the intended audience for the book? Your ideal reader that you were keeping in mind when you were writing it?
N: That’s interesting. I sometimes thought of a new colleague or a fellow developer who would become a member of my team. I would explain to him some things and then another developer and I wouldn’t want to tell him everything in person again. So I would like him to read the book. It would get me a lot of free time back.
E: I see, that’s really interesting.
N: Yeah, this has been a good idea I think because my idea from the beginning was there is a lot on Symfony on the web. There is a good documentation. It’s called “The Book”. That was already a program for me. Yeah, “The Book”, so how could there be another book on Symfony? Right? But this documentation is very, yeah, it contains only the facts and no suggestions on how you could create your project or know best practices. Even some very bad practices on this side. Especially when it comes to security of web applications.
E: I have a very specific question that is very important for successfully launching and spreading word about an ebook. Which is who made your amazing cover? It’s fantastic.
N: I did.
E: Oh you did?
N: It is a picture I bought from a stock photo website. So yeah, that would have been awesome if I had such a mosaic in my garden or something like that. But no, just the image and then some overlay. But it looks very good. If I may say so.
E: It does, yeah. It’s just amazing and one of the things, and again it’s a very precise thing to talk about but it’s very important for selling ebooks, that the font you chose and the sort of precision of it is very clear in a number of different sizes including small ones. That’s something that a lot of people who are making book covers don’t take into account that it’s not just the size of a big book page. People are often are going to see a sort of thumbnail and your title stays clear at different levels of zoom I guess. I just wanted to mention that. That’s one of the things that I found so impressive about the book when I first came across it.
N: Yeah, it was more intuition that really designers knowledge or something like that.
E: You launched your book in a really interesting way. Can you explain what you did?
N: Yeah, I thought of this just a couple of weeks before I would release this book. I thought it would be great to really release the book real-time with an audience in the room. Well this is possible with Leanpub, of course, there is a button I would have pushed myself, but then in the room with just me. When you push it, it says “Publish Your Book”. You see all the build steps being taken with the real book as a result being published online. So after that, immediately, people can start buying the book. This is what happened, actually, two weeks ago. I had a presentation at the local user group of Symfony. Two users. I put the page on screen and also the publish button. I clicked it there and people were waiting and looking at the screen.
E: That’s amazing. So they were seeing the build process live.
N: Right, yeah. And this was very nice. It took only a couple of minutes. It would have been longer this would have been quite boring but people were actually very excited while they saw the progress. They even saw the message “sending mails” to interested readers. Many of the people were interested readers. Interested people. They were even subscribing at that same moment.
E: Oh, well that’s very cool.
N: So it was a great time that night.
E: I guess that’s a good transition to the next part of the interview. I’d like to ask you some questions about your experience with Leanpub and the lean publishing process. Can you tell me how you found out about Leanpub in the first place, and why you chose us for your publishing platform?
N: Yeah. One big example for me was Chris Hartjes. He has published with Leanpub two books on PHP unit testing. I didn’t actually read the books, but I saw it was very good at this. He’s very good at marketing and at promoting his own brand. Which is “The Grumpy Programmer”. He does this very well. I thought well, maybe I can do this too. I have something to say about Symfony and I feel very passionate about this. It was a good moment to start. I also mentioned this to him and he was very happy about this.
N: Yeah, yeah.
E: Oh you’ve seen it? Ok, ok great. Well that’s great that you came to us through Chris. How would you describe your experience using Leanpub from when you got started to when you published?
N: It was a very clean sort of experience. I wanted to write a book but not have many troubles with layout things. I was very happy that the whole infrastructure was there. So, the Dropbox folder and the build process. Whenever I wanted I could have a preview of my book. Also, Markdown, the format of the original manuscript, that is a very good format. It has many good options but not too many. So you have to use the right options and automatically be consistent in your writing. This is a very good combination of techniques. And since it was launched, I have had no trouble at all to see people buy the book, see who bought it, which discount.
E: Is engaging directly with people who’ve bought your book important to you?
N: Very much. I reserved last week a couple of days just to spend some time with these people. Sending messages, listening to what they said, making small corrections to the original text.
E: Is there more we can do to help you engage with your readers?
N: Not that I can think of, no. It is already very good: the discussions, the way people can reach me by sending an email.
E: And you’ve enabled the feedback feature so that people can either use the Disqus comments or actually email you directly.
N: Yeah. This was one of my main goals with this book. To mention Chris again, he said somewhere that one of the problems always is determining a price for your product. He said he would think of something that made himself feel uncomfortable. A bit too high, really, and that would be a good price. I thought no, not for this first book. So I chose the average price that was suggested to me by the Leanpub calculations itself.
E: Ok, oh that’s interesting.
N: Around $20. Or maybe $15.
E: So was this from people who’d gone to your page before you published the book and had entered a price they’d be willing to pay for the book?
N: That’s right. About 500 people. So I thought that would be quite representative for the price they would really want to pay. Some people were very generous at that time so they had said $30, $40, $50. Most people around $20. I thought that was a friendly price. Also, my main goal was to reach as many people as possible at this time. So I chose not too high a price.
E: You’ve chosen $25 I see.
N: Yeah, but in the beginning this was $15.
N: If you were an interested reader and you supplied your email address, I gave all these people a discount code.
E: And you’ve also chosen to have the minimum price and the suggested price be the same. Is there a reason for that?
N: Not really I think.
E: There doesn’t have to be.
N: I think it’s good to have one fixed price. I have noticed not many people would want to go higher with the price.
E: Ok, so you haven’t found too many people clicking and dragging the pricing slider to the right?
N: Yeah. That’s right.
E: I see that actually already, even though you just launched recently, you already have four translations on the go.
N: Yeah, that’s amazing. As soon as maybe an hour after the official release, there was already someone saying “may I translate this book to Portuguese, German, Polish, and Spanish?” The Spanish translator already wanted to translate before the book was published. He trusted me that much that he would want to do this.
E: What is your plan for splitting royalties with your translators?
N: This will be 25% for them. I know this is kind of generous, but I see that this takes a lot of effort for them and I’m not sure if it will pay back. So I think this is a good middle way.
E: Some people actually do 50%.
N: Ah, right!
E: So you don’t need to feel like you’re being… I mean I just ask these questions because when an author is doing pricing, especially the first time, it’s hard to know what to do and whether or not what one is doing is unusual, or right down the middle. Sharing this kind of information is very useful.
N: Yeah, it is difficult in many ways. I’ve looked very much at other Leanpub authors, publishers, and people writing books and what they do with the price.
E: Is there anything generally that you’ve thought, even if it’s very minor, when you were using Leanpub, or when you think about it now that you’ve published your book, that we could improve?
N: Well, not really big things. Some things thats come to mind… when it’s formatting the text, I would like to have more freedom to choose my own font.
E: Oh, fonts. Ok.
N: Yeah, but overall it’s a very clean way of doing things. Very fast.
E: So you had used Markdown before you started using Leanpub?
N: Yeah, it’s a common format for developers who write documentation for their own code. So that’s no problem.
E: So there were no big features that you’re thinking “ah, I really wish Leanpub had this”?
N: No, not really. Some convenience, maybe some tools…. There is a feature where you can create a sample of your book. The assumption here is that you can take some chapters and provide them as a sample to the readers, potentially. I chose to not give entire chapters away, but only parts of chapters. I devised my own system for extracting parts of every chapter.
E: Oh, I see. And then you’ve got to maintain two different files, and so if you update the complete, primary copy then you’d have to update separately the sample partial?
N: Right, but I had created a tool for this. I would have comments in the original files saying “this is the beginning of a sample, this is the end of a sample”. Then it would take from all the different chapters the sample parts and put them in one file. It removes the duplication.
E: If you had any advice to give to any other developers out there who are thinking of writing a book, what would your advice be?
N: My advice would be to just start and try this. I think within ten minutes I was already writing this book. I had some ideas and I had a small brainstorm in a text file. From that I started to split this in real chapters and, well, take my time. Maybe one hour a day to write a book. It is easy because of the infrastructure that Leanpub provides. It’s very much appreciated. Anything like this. Developers really like to read each other’s ideas.
E: My last question is that, at the end of A Year With Symfony, you say that if you were ever to write a book again, it would be about PHP package design. What are the chances you’re going to do that?
N: I’ve already created a new book on the site. On leanpub.com. I’ve already started writing on it.
E: Oh, excellent, good luck with that! If you ever have any questions or feature requests, or run into any problems, please get in touch with us directly.
N: I will.
E: Ok. Well, I think that’s about all the time we have. Thank you very much for being on the Lean Publishing podcast and for being a Leanpub author!
N: Thanks for having me.
published Jan 09, 2014
We’ve read quite a few posts showing how having a coupon input on checkout can really hurt conversion rates. People see the coupon box and go off into the wilds of the internet looking for a coupon and never come back.
We’ve also heard from authors who are getting a lot of emails from people asking for coupon codes to their books, which would be pretty annoying.
However, the ability to give discounts is still extremely important – it can really drive sales, and it’s great for things like giving free copies to reviewers or friends.
So we decided to get rid of the coupon input on the purchase form and replace it with a coupon code in the URL.
Normally, when you go to buy a book, the url looks like this:
A URL with a coupon will look like this:
Try it out – the coupon works. You can see that we highlight the packages that this coupon applies to, and clicking the “Buy Now” button will take you to the purchase page with the coupon already applied.
What happens to my old coupons?
We know you might have coupons that you handed out at a conference or or on a slide in a presentation that’s still on the web or somewhere else that you don’t have control over.
So the coupon code input will still be shown on the purchase page for as long as you have valid old-style coupons for your book. Once all of your valid coupons are of the new url variety, we won’t show it any more.
Also, your old coupons will work right away with the new-style coupon URLs. Just append
/c/coupon_code to your book’s URL.
Guest Post by Josh Earl: $16,920.12 earned, 1054 copies sold: Lessons learned from a year as a self-published author
published Jan 07, 2014
$16,920.12 earned, 1054 copies sold: Lessons learned from a year as a self-published author
This is a guest post by Josh Earl. Josh is an author and software developer from western Pennsylvania. He blogs about writing and marketing at http://joshuaearl.com. If you are a Leanpub author and want to contribute a guest post to the Leanpub blog, please email email@example.com.
A little more than a year ago, every dollar I earned meant minutes worked for someone else. I was trading my time for income, and the only way to make more was to take on consulting projects.
But that all changed one day when I stumbled on a post by Jarrod Drysdale, a graphic designer whose self-published book made $30,000 in two months.
Was it a fluke? Or might I be able to do something similar?
Then I started hearing more success stories: First it was Nathan Barry, who earned $12,000 with his launch of The App Design Handbook, then proceeded to crush that figure with successful launch after successful launch.
And there was Pat Flynn, who made hundreds of thousands of dollars helping people study for the LEED architectural exam.
These guys weren’t well known – they were desk jockeys like me, two freelance graphic designers and an unemployed architect.
Their only assets were a set of professional skills and a willingness to teach others.
I realized that, as a software developer, I also had a coveted skill set. Maybe I could follow in their footsteps and enjoy the same success.
I didn’t have an audience, other than a few hundred Twitter followers and a handful of daily visitors to a few ill-maintained blogs.
But I’d glimpsed what was possible – all that was missing was the impetus to get started.
That came one summer afternoon, I was mowing the lawn and listening to Scott Hanselman talk about a book he was writing with his wife. They were using a site called Leanpub to write a book using Markdown and publishing it from Dropbox.
Like most programmers, I’m a sucker for a cool set of tools, and this just sounded like way too much fun to pass up. So one evening, I sat down, fired up my favorite writing tool, Sublime Text, and started writing a book about my favorite coding tool … Sublime Text.
I’m glad I did. Since I pushed the Publish button last fall, my book, Sublime Productivity has brought in nearly $17,000 in royalties and earned me an audience that I can continue to serve with more products.
And in the process, I’ve learned some valuable lessons that will allow me to replicate this success in the future.
In this post, I’d like to share some of the specifics of my success, as well as a few of the lessons I’ve learned in the hope that I’ll inspire you to take the next step on that ebook you’re considering.
By the numbers
When I was starting out, the numbers shared by Jarrod, Nathan and Pat helped motivate me, so in the spirit of paying it forward, let’s take a look at my sales and the growth of my audience.
Here’s how my month-to-month earnings have stacked up:
My launch last September wasn’t a Nathan Barry-sized home run. I didn’t know what I was doing, and I didn’t put in nearly as much work as he does. I was also launching a beta version of my book rather than a finished product.
Still, I was pleased with the results. I’ve written previously about my launch, but to summarize, I launched with a list of only 157 potential buyers and supplemented this meager reach by recruiting the help of others with larger audiences like Peter Cooper. I also offered a limited-time discount as an incentive to buy.
During launch week, I netted 136 sales and $2,000 in income.
I was excited but also afraid: Was that it? I’d heard that ebooks tend to make most of their earnings during the launch. Would this book be a good source of extra income for me, or had it run its course?
The next several months proved that I could generate steady income with the book if I put in consistent effort to promote it. When the launch-week excitement faded, sales tapered off, then held steady around 5 to 7 per week for several months.
But in June 2013, they suddenly fell off a cliff. I didn’t sell any copies for 5 days. Then I sold a few copies, and had another dry spell of 3 days, and another of four days.
I was panicking: What happened? What did I break?
I’m still not sure what caused those lulls. A little online research revealed that June is often a bad month for online sales, as summer is starting in the U.S. and many people take vacations.
But things looked grim at the time. When the Sublime Text 3 public beta came out on June 28, I jumped on the opportunity and immediately put the book on sale for a week. To my surprise, the spike in sales nearly matched my launch numbers, and June ended up being a great month.
Several smaller contests and giveaways helped generate above-average sales in September and October and had the added benefit of growing my mailing list in preparation for a big Cyber Monday sale.
A little over a year after I first published my book, my 2013 Cyber Monday sale surpassed my most optimistic estimates, generating $2,025 in income from 167 sales, breaking in three days the sales record I set during my launch week. To my surprise, the sales surge continued through New Year’s. All told, last month I sold 249 copies and earned $3,457.16 in royalties.
These sales numbers didn’t just happen naturally – they’re the direct result of growth in my audience.
When I started writing my book, I had no audience to speak of. My only asset was a few hundred hits a week on a blog post I’d written about Sublime Text. Over the next several months, I focused on extending my reach in three main channels.
Shortly before my launch, I set up a Sublime-focused blog and started posting tips and how-to articles.
I’ve also posted some Sublime-related articles on a personal blog, which now generates more traffic than the Sublime tips blog:
These are pretty anemic numbers, really. After an initial burst of posts, I haven’t invested as much time in these sites as I could have, and the results are plain.
Still, I get a steady stream of subscribers to my mailing list who mention these sites, and I know I’d see a nice uptick in sales if I devoted more time to blogging on them.
Let’s get this straight up front: Twitter is horrible for selling things. And yet I’ve invested a lot of time in Twitter and have seen a solid return on my time. (More on this shortly.)
In early August 2012, I created a Twitter account to help market the book I was writing. Using a combination of automation tools, I grew this account to 520 followers by launch day, and by the following spring, it had more than 6,000 followers:
In April, Twitter changed its terms of service, outlawing some of the automation tools I’d been using.
But I continued to grow the account by sending out hand-picked tweets of interest to Sublime fans, and since this spring I’ve averaged about 100 new followers per week, for a total of 3,400 additional followers:
I didn’t start a mailing list until early in 2013, but once I saw how effective email is, I shifted all of my promotional efforts to growing my list.
My subscriber count has grown in fits and starts:
The big spikes are from several contests I ran, including a couple of Sublime license giveaways that together generated more than 2,000 subscribers.
This last year has been a marketing crash course, and while I’ve had some bumps and bruises, I’ve also learned some valuable lessons about selling on the Internet.
Here are seven of my biggest takeaways.
I launched my book before I was ready. Way, way before.
That first version, which I advertised as a “beta,” was only around 50 pages. Entire sections were just entries in an outline. There were typos.
But I shipped it anyway, and I’m happy I did. The income from my launch and subsequent sales motivated me to keep working on the project, and the feedback I received from readers was invaluable.
Price by value, not competition.
Everyone knows that $9.99 is the “best” price for an ebook, so I took some flak early on for setting the minimum price for my book at $19.
It was a hard decision to make, but I firmly believe it was the right one. The book’s audience is software developers, a group of professionals who might earn $100, $150 or even $250 an hour. At those rates, minutes saved on routine tasks are money in the bank for my customers.
This has been validated repeatedly by buyers. Leanpub allows buyers to voluntarily pay more than the cover price if they want to. My sales page specifies a minimum price of $19.99 but allows buyers to pay more if they choose to, and 38% of buyers pay more than the minimum, accounting for 47% of the book’s total revenue. One buyer shocked me by ponying up $50 for the book (thank you)!
Pricing high also gives me room to occasionally offer discounts, always with a short time limit, to help convince fence-sitters to buy.
Email is king.
It’s hard to overstate the importance and effectiveness of email as a tool for selling a product.
When I launched my book, all I had was a list of 157 people to email, but of those, more than 20% bought a copy.
And during my recent Cyber Monday sale, I was able to compare Twitter and my mailing list head to head. I sent out different discount codes to my mailing list, which had around 4,800 subscribers, and to my Twitter audience, which numbered around 9,300 at the time.
The result? The mailing list generated 1100% more sales than Twitter. Nearly 10,000 Twitter followers netted only 13 sales.
It’s because of my mailing list that I was able to beat my launch week sales figures with my Cyber Monday sale just by sending three emails.
Build a funnel.
If Twitter followers don’t convert well into customers, why do I still devote a lot of my marketing time and energy to Twitter?
Twitter has proven to be a good starting place for my marketing funnel. It’s a great place to meet and learn about your audience, and to introduce yourself to them. It’s a low-cost way for me to get myself out there where other potential customers can encounter me.
And while it’s hard to convert Twitter followers to customers, it’s pretty easy to convert them to mailing list subscribers.
My main objective with both my Twitter account and my websites is to direct people to my mailing list, where I can stay in touch with them over time and, hopefully, eventually convert them to customers.
Bundling several related products together and offering them at a discount is a great way to increase sales – it’s hard to resist a good deal.
I’ve been planning for a while to publish other Sublime-related books so I could do my own bundles.
I was initially concerned that bundle sales would cannibalize my regular sales, resulting in less income overall. But that hasn’t happened – instead, they seem to have just increased sales overall. By bundling my book with other authors, I’m gain exposure from their marketing efforts, and they benefit from mine.
I’m happy with the results of the bundles I’ve created, and to date they’ve generated 30 sales and $443.27 in royalties.
Good things happen when you have something for sale.
Earlier in the year, I got discouraged when my sales flatlined. Nothing I did seemed to move the needle.
But I kept at it, and eventually things started to shift. In the last several months, several opportunities came up seemingly from nowhere that have helped me sell more books.
First, TradePub approached me about promoting my book as a giveaway on their site.
And third, Azat and Jack approached me about bundling my book with theirs.
When you consistently invest time in promoting a product, you never know when you’ll get a break.
My biggest mistake with this book was overreaching. I set out to write the definitive book on Sublime Text, but I’ve since learned what a tall order that actually is. Sublime adds new features with each beta release, and dozens of new plugins come out every week.
By contrast, my time is pretty limited: I have a full time job and a wife and two kids and can only devote a few hours a week to book-related activities.
My plan to address this problem is to do what I should have done at the outset: Breaking the book up into smaller pieces that I can focus on and check off as completed.
This last year was amazing, and my plan for 2014 is to double down on the things that are working.
I plan to continue writing every day, but this year I’m also going to take a more systematic approach to my marketing. I’m dedicating every Saturday to promotional activities like blogging and cultivating my mailing list.
I also plan to wrap up Sublime Productivity and publish several more books, which will give me the opportunity to bundle my own books together and increase my per-sale average royalty.
As my friend and fellow entrepreneur John Sonmez says, “When you hit a vein of gold, keep digging.”
About Josh Earl
Josh Earl is an author and software developer from western Pennsylvania. He blogs about writing and marketing at http://joshuaearl.com.
published Oct 21, 2013
Today we just deployed a new feature: the Write tab. It’s hidden under the Actions tab.
Yeah, we’re going to reorganize the author app so things are less nested, but that’s another blog post for another time
Anyway, back to the Write tab
For many of you, this will be totally unimportant. We’re still 100% committed to the notion of “write on your own computer (or tablet), using your favourite tools”, etc. And we still think that Dropbox is a fantastic way to sync files between your computer and Leanpub.
However, that said, there are times when it’s nice to be able to edit a book in a web browser. For example
- If you’re on a shared computer and can’t use Dropbox and local files, etc.
- If you just want to make a really quick fix or change to your book, and you’re already in your browser.
- If you’re on your tablet or phone.
- If you want to show a friend how great Leanpub is, and wish you could get from the create account to book preview exists status in 3 minutes, instead of spending the time signing them up for Dropbox, accepting share requests, etc.
Ironically, I (Peter Armstrong) learned the lesson of #1 firsthand recently: I was doing a 2 hour, hands-on “how to use Leanpub” workshop in Brisbane for a room full of fiction authors at GenreCon. Problem is, the computers in the lab could not save local files. Epic Workshop Fail – but also, a great Customer Development experience.
There should be absolutely no reason that anyone in the world can’t sign up for Leanpub and create a book in 5 minutes. None.
So, because of this epic fail, we now have a Write tab, and we hope it’s useful.
Right now, it’s very much a Minimum Viable Product. You can’t even upload images or a title page.
To try it out, go to https://leanpub.com/YOUR_BOOK/write.
Here’s what works right now:
- You can load up the page and see a list of the files in your book.
- You can edit the files and then save them.
- Saving the files syncs the changes to Dropbox and does a git commit internally in Leanpub
- You can edit the files in your sample (by using checkboxes to choose what is in the sample).
- You can reorder files (but see point 1 below).
- You can create and delete files.
- You can start a preview.
- You can download your PDF, EPUB and MOBI files from the Write tab.
Here’s what we’re planning to fix soon:
- There is no notion of “this file has changed and you are going to lose stuff if you move away from it”.
- The display of the preview progress bar is a little flaky.
- You can drag and drop to reorder files, but there’s no indication that this is possible.
- There is no image tab.
- There is no Markdown help tab.
Here’s the most obvious two enhancements to consider:
- a nice distraction-free Markdown editing environment
- a WYSIWYG editor that degrades gracefully
Here’s the most important thing:
Using the Write tab is not a decision you need to make up front.
The Write tab just lets you edit Markdown. It’s the dumbest UI imaginable: it took about 15 minutes to wireframe in Keynote in a hangout with Scott.
It’s not a decision that an author makes about whether they want to edit the book in their browser using some WYSIWYG editor or whether they want to edit the book in Dropbox. Our intention here is for people to sign up for Leanpub, kick the tires using the Write tab, generate a preview, download the previewed book, realize the potential of what Leanpub offers – and then accept the Dropbox share request and edit their books using their favourite tools
We’re never going to do a visual editor that precludes us from supporting Markdown editing in Dropbox. We may, however, if this takes off, do a visual editor that degrades gracefully to editing Markdown text if it encounters something that it does not understand. However, that will be non-trivial to build, so doing a nicer looking distraction-free Markdown editor would presumably be a higher priority. If and when we look at doing a visual editor, we will consider all the available starting points, including the recently released Sir Trevor, etc.
Anyway, thanks for reading. We hope the Write tab is helpful, and not just for demos
P.S. No, we did not do this because I’m speaking at Books in Browsers on Friday, Oct. 25 at 10:30 AM. But, the timing is a nice bonus, and I’m very happy (thanks Scott!!!) that it got done beforehand. (For any Leanpub authors in San Francisco, let Leanpub buy you drinks: October 25, 6 PM, the Kanpai Lounge in Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason Street…)