The Skinny on Lean Publishing

Lean Startup Co. Faculty member Hisham Ibrahim and Leanpub Founder & CEO Peter Armstrong discuss the parallels between books and startups, and how going Lean can help authors overcome the psychological barriers to writing in order to create an MVP, publish early, iterate based on feedback from early readers (adopters), and ultimately, publish a successful book.

Don’t miss our companion blog below where we further explore how authors can more easily build community, test ideas in real time, and release books that readers want to support by putting Lean Startup practices into play.

“You can test the market for a book before you've even written a word.” -@peterarmstrong Click To Tweet [su_youtube url=””]

If you’d like to read the full transcript of Hisham Ibrahim’s conversation with Peter Armstrong, you may download it. 

Using Lean Publishing to Release Books Your Customers Want


When we think about book publishing, we often imagine the slow-moving processes of the past. An author toils away on a project for years, working off an idea pitched to an editor, hoping that there’s an audience invested enough in its premise that they purchase it by the time the writing’s done.

Of course, there are more innovative ways to approach publishing, methods Eric Ries and other authors have been publicly testing, thanks in part to such platforms as Leanpub and Kickstarter. By putting Lean Startup practices into play, authors can more easily build community, test ideas in real time, and release books that readers want to support.

We focused on the practicalities of Lean Publishing in a recent webcast conversation between Lean Startup Company Faculty member Hisham Ibrahim and the co-founder and CEO of Leanpub, Peter Armstrong. Here is the quick lowdown on Lean Publishing, below are the highlights of Peter’s tips and tactics.

It’s an Excellent Time to Publish Lean

As CEO of an eBook company, Peter says our current era offers amazing publishing opportunities. “Books can go from having commoditized margins with returns, shipping, [and] physical stores to having software margins with no marginal costs, [and] millions of customers with computers, billions with phones.” He says we’re shifting away from industry models burdened with barriers to entry and toward using data and customer feedback to lead the way.

Making Lean Startup Part of Your Book Publishing Practice

At its core, Lean Publishing is about figuring out if there’s a market for your book, says Peter,  and discovering what clicks with your audience. You’re getting your ideas in front of people so you can iterate based on what you’re learning.

“You can test the market for the book before you’ve even written a word,” he says. “Put up an attractive landing page and see if people sign up.” By using Lean Startup you’re not just revising for your editor, you’re out there in the public developing the arc of your product with the people most eager to consume it. “You want to measure, is there even a market, or can I reach that market?” Peter says.

Both Leanpub and Kickstarter offer potential customers a synopsis of what you’d like to publish, and you can test directly whether people are willing to pay for that project. “You get an idea roughly of your total addressable market or what portion of it you can reach,” Peter says.

Once you have an understanding of your audience, he says, you can start writing—and then ship quickly, as you would any other MVP. “You should ship your first version of the book for your MVP when you’re kinda embarrassed by it still,” he says. “I recommend you ship when you think you could…save an extra one or two hours of time.” He says typically a one to three chapter book offers an author the opportunity to save time by iterating in real time. You can show a book of that length to both a novice and an expert in the field and get their feedback, and then publish often and gather more feedback.

“Keep releasing, keep iterating, getting feedback from readers, find out what works, what doesn’t, produce new versions,” Peter says. “This process can go as long as you need it to. Typically, we expect that when people use Leanpub, for example, they iterate in public for months.”

Sales are Just one Marker of Success, Engagement is Another

Obviously money helps define success when it comes to publishing, but Peter says engagement is another key factor to watch. “Some authors have set up their own private forums like mailing lists,” he says. “Lots of people engage with them on social media, Twitter, email, so as an author, you can tell when your publishing in-progress is disconnecting with people or not—first from the sales, [then] qualitatively from the type of engagements from your reader.”

Don’t Worry About Being an Expert at the Outset: Iterate as You Learn

Peter says generally the first step towards Lean publishing is writing a blog. But from there, his advice shifts into what not to do. Don’t worry that you’re not an expert just yet. “Lots of people who have written successful books on Leanpub aren’t world experts in their field,” he says. Instead, focus on whether you have something you’re passionate about sharing with people.

Once you start writing, he adds, publish sooner rather than later. “If wondering if you should publish or not, chances are you should have published,” he says, adding that the importance of building community as you go can’t be overstated.

This is especially true when it comes to niche topics. Books that wouldn’t make it to market with the big publishers of the past do really well on Leanpub, Peter says, because they reach and build the communities most interested in these subjects as they’re being written.

Don’t Spend Time Worrying About People Stealing Your Ideas

If you release nascent ideas into the world, there’s always a chance that someone else will notice and run with them. Peter says that it’s no different with publishing than it is with startups. Success doesn’t come from strong concepts alone—you need a community listening to what you’re saying. “If the only thing that helps you is your initial idea and you’re not going to execute better, and you’re not gonna build a community around your work, who cares?” he says. “The insecurity that nobody cares is the bigger fear…. what if no one wants to steal your idea?”

He adds that the Internet has a good memory, so getting those rough ideas out there early, iterating upon them, and building a community offers some insurance that you’ll be the pioneer in the public’s eyes, and those copycats will be the derivative ones.

Thank you to Jennifer Maerz for contributing this piece. Give us a shout out on Twitter @leanstartup and let us know what you thought of our non-traditional Lean Startup piece.


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