Lean Scholarly Publishing With Leanpub

published Sep 26, 2014

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Luc P. Beaudoin is the author of Cognitive Productivity: Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective. He is founder of CogZest, a cognitive productivity training and publications business based in Metro-Vancouver, Canada. He is also co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp., the developer of mySleepButton. Luc is also Adjunct Professor of Education at Simon Fraser University, where he runs the Cognitive Productivity Research Project. His previous jobs include being a research associate, software developer, technical team lead, technical writer and Assistant Professor of Psychology. He is currently designing more cognitive productivity books and apps.

I published the first original scholarly book on Leanpub in 2013: Cognitive Productivity: Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective. The Leanpub platform is so attractive to scholars that I have begun to spread the word to the academic community by offering faculty development workshops on the topic.

Scholars will appreciate the same benefits that other Leanpub authors enjoy, such as:

  • Being free from MicroSoft Word without being chained to LaTeX or DocBook,
  • receiving feedback early and progressively from readers.
  • incrementally developing their book with co-authors, editors, reviewers, and other contributors,
  • being able to set and adjust their price,
  • easily publishing their books in formats that are compatible with all the major e-book readers,
  • using very powerful yet user-friendly tools for detecting differences between versions of their documents and merging changes, and
  • having the potential to have their books translated into multiple languages.

Because of the context of their writing projects, these benefits are particularly appealing to academics.

A cognitive scientist once told me that when she wants to learn about a particular topic, she writes a book about it! In the process, she develops original knowledge. Scholarly writing often is knowledge building.

We build knowledge most productively when we do so collaboratively. However, one of the biggest challenges authors face is establishing relationships with people who can provide invaluable feedback on their work. It is difficult for the author to find the right collaborators. Conversely, it’s difficult for potential collaborators to find the author they need before his or her book is published. And if these two people should happen to meet, technical problems often slow down their progress. (E.g., sharing documents over email and even Dropbox is not very effective).

Leanpub addresses these issues. It is not just a publication platform. It allows you to develop knowledge in the form of an evolving book, while facilitating collaboration.

Leanpub facilitates getting feedback from experts and general readers alike. Using Leanpub makes it more likely that potentially interested readers can find you and your work. The feedback you receive from bright, knowledgeable minds might not only clarify your writing and understanding, it can lead you to historically new insights: i.e., to build new knowledge.

When I put my book on Leanpub, I solicited feedback from experts around the world, many of whom generously contributed their time and mental energy. (They are listed in the acknowledgements pages of Cognitive Productivity.) With this coupon, they gained perpetual access to my book in the format of their choice at the time of their choice. Often, several weeks passed between me sending them the invitation and them starting to review my book. I didn’t need to email them the latest copy, or manage a Dropbox folder, because they could download the latest copy from their Leanpub account.

I also received unsolicited feedback from many readers, including other scholars, which also improved Cognitive Productivity. As a further boon, connecting with scholars led to productive new relationships beyond the scope of this project.

The Future of Ph.D. Thesis Production?

The core, intellectual process of writing a Ph.D. thesis has not changed much over the years. Ph.D. theses are normally written by the candidate with substantive feedback coming mainly, and often exclusively, from the thesis advisor. This is partly because the thesis is not only a contribution to knowledge; it is also considered a test of the student’s merit of the “Ph.D.” title. Originality is therefore a major criterion. One doesn’t want a competitor to publish one’s ideas first. And the thesis committee needs to know that the candidate did not get inappropriate help along the way. However, developing a Ph.D. thesis is also the ultimate training exercise for tomorrow’s elite researchers. To be most effective, the writing process should involve working closely with other experts and using the best knowledge development and dissemination tools available.

Such considerations led Aaron Sloman, Professor Emeritus of Cognitive Science and Artificial Intelligence to write the following email to his colleagues at the University of Birmingham, England.

Subject: Leanpub — future of research publishing?
Some people who have been here a long time will remember a [former] PhD student, Luc Beaudoin (recently founder of
He is now writing a book using
leanpub.com. I thought Leanpub was yet another self publishing service (like http://www.lulu.com/) offering a route to rapid publication without involving major publishers, high costs, and lengthy delays. But I was quite wrong.
Leanpub is far more radical: inviting authors to share the process of creation with potential readers, somewhat like the open-source software movement and also like some great writers of the past, including Charles Dickens, who published many of their novels a chapter at a time in monthly magazines and benefited from reader comments, suggestions and requests both during production of later chapters and when the final book form was produced.
Maybe we should encourage all PhD students to consider using this for thesis production, with world-wide supervision by interested readers?

Given that a Ph.D. thesis is a very specialized document and that experts on the problem it addresses are normally few and very far between, it makes tremendous sense to use a platform like Leanpub, because it streamlines the processes of review and revision (as explained in the previous section).

The Leanpub revision history (backed by Git) mitigates the possibility of competitors plagiarizing the student’s work as does the fact that readers must sign up to download a copy.

Ph.D. candidates could also even charge for their evolving dissertation, often written long after the last scholarship payment has been received.

Leanpub also streamlines the process of creating books out of disparate materials a potential author has developed, so that they can share and monetize their creations. This can be particularly attractive to scholars, because they create a lot of publishable content. For example, they often develop knowledge in the form of

  • course materials (slides, hand-outs, videos, tutorials, assignments, etc.),
  • scholarly papers,
  • blog posts,
  • grant proposals,
  • conference presentations,
  • email threads, and
  • posts on websites and forums.

Some of the content can be used with little modification. Other content requires more massaging. Most of these documents can easily be converted to Markdown using open source tools. Leanpub also has a very simple mechanism for packaging, distributing and selling “extras” — digital content associated with your book. The “extras” can be included in the price of the book, or sold at an additional cost.

To give you an example: On the 3rd of June of this year, I told my SFU Cognitive Science colleague, Michael Picard, about the Leanpub platform. Before the end of July, Michael published over 300 pages of his essays on Leanpub as Philosophy A to Z. That one’s 95% complete.

If you’re a professor, imagine bundling your lecture notes and slides using Leanpub. You can gradually add to them as the semester unfolds. As teaching assistants or students find errors, you can gradually update your book. You can even add your teaching assistants as contributors or co-authors.

Cutting-edge knowledge is often complex and particularly subject to error. In traditional publishing, few people are involved in the review of the manuscript, so errors are more likely to make it all the way to final publication. It is often difficult for users to obtain errata once they are listed. If the problems are significant enough, or knowledge advances rapidly beyond the published book, a second edition of the book is required — i.e., a huge process.

Leanpub does not have a rigid concept of “final copy”. The lean approach inherently allows errors to be fixed very rapidly, giving current and new readers nearly immediate access to the improved conceptual artifact. To be sure, an author can mark her book as “100%” complete. But she can update the book freely, and notify consenting readers.

For example, a faulty or missing entry in the bibliography can delay readers who want to build on the current work. With Leanpub, a reader can email the author about the errata. The author can quickly update the book.

For academic authors, the value of rapidly fixing errors and gradually improving their work cannot be over-estimated.

Involving multiple authors in the development of a book can increase its quality and impact. The development of co-authored and edited books are some of the most promising scholarly applications of Leanpub. (I’m currently considering a couple of edited book projects, myself.) Leanpub provides a lean web page for adding authors. Just type in the author’s username, set his or her royalties, and invite them.

With traditional publishing, edited books often take a long time to be released. In July of 2013, I contributed the final version of a chapter I started to write in 2011. The book only became available in August 2014 (and at a high price). With Leanpub, this book would have started to become publicly available in August 2011 (or earlier). It could have been finalized in 2012, if we had not sought a publisher. Two years is a long time in the Knowledge Age.

Of course, it costs money to outsource the services that publishers provide (see It Takes a Village, below). In some situations, the editor or one of the co-authors might have applicable research dissemination funds. A contributing or associated individual could assume these costs in exchange for the (possible) royalties.

Publishers themselves can also use Leanpub, but that is another topic.

When I wrote my Ph.D. thesis, I had two time sinks to choose from: LaTeX or Word. I carefully considered using LaTeX for my book. Then I discovered a very comfortable authoring program, Scrivener. But as the book and Leanpub evolved, I realized Leanpub was the way to go. So I exported my content to Markdown. I contended with many conversion issues, such as broken hyperlinks. But it was well worth the effort. I find it much more pleasant to write with a powerful plain text editor (like BBEdit) than even the best WYSIWYG authoring environment. So, I would recommend starting directly with Markdown. If you’re on a Mac, then you’ll want to use Brett Terpstra’s Marked2 to preview your content.

Scholars will appreciate the simplicity and elegance of /Markdown. The Markdown syntax and its augmentation by Leanpub likely contains everything you need for writing your book. Where it doesn’t, Leanpub staff are quite responsive. For example, when I first published Cognitive Productivity, Leanpub didn’t support hanging indents — a major problem for the bibliography. I raised the issue with Leanpub; they quickly responded by supporting new syntactic expressions, {begin-hanging-paragraphs} and {end-hanging-paragraphs}. All you need to do is put that at the beginning of the references section. Subsequently, every paragraph will be indented in the usual bibliographical manner. Coincidentally, as I was editing this paragraph, Leanpub notified me they’d just fulfilled another scholar-friendly feature request of mine. Normally, Leanpub generates a footnote for every hyperlink you include in your book. That’s helpful in the body of a book. But bibliographies can have a huge number of hyperlinks. So, Leanpub now supports the {footnotes-off} and {footnotes-on} incantations, which behaves as you would expect.

A major advantage of writing in Markdown compared with writing in Word is that you get to choose from a variety of powerful text editors — the same tools that software developers use for writing software code. That may seem strange at first, but when you think of it, a book and software have many similarities. Given that I work on a Mac, I chose BBEdit by BareBones Software. Most software developers realize that using a mouse or trackpad instead of a keyboard incantation slows them down. Good text editors, like BBEdit, allow you to do most of what you need to do without taking your hands off the keyboard.

With Leanpub, you can split your book into separate book files. (This is similar to Adobe FrameMaker®, but much more powerful.) Using BBEdit, I can see all the chapters of my book listed in the left window pane, and rapidly access them. Scholars will also appreciate having access to “regular expression” facilities that allow them to flexibly search for and replace text in a document. This is very handy for finding cross-links, section headers, bibliographical citations, and other formally distinctive text.

Authors grounded in scientific research methods will also appreciate the lean product development principles enabled by Leanpub. Author Eric Ries, in his books Lean Startup and Startup Lessons Learned explained how empirical research methods can be used in developing products. These principles can be used on Leanpub. Each iteration of a Leanpub book represents a scientific hypothesis about value provided to the market. One can assess this hypothesis by gauging the market’s and reviewers’ response to one’s book.

Developing a scholarly book is team work. An academic publisher would provide most of the team. But as an academic self-publishing author, you’ll need to find the key people you will thank in the acknowledgments section of your book:

  • general reviewers (colleagues, friends, family, etc.),
  • domain expert reviewers,
  • a website developer (Jeff Rivett is my web developer),
  • a copyeditor (Brian Holmes edited my book),
  • a graphic designer (for the cover page — Lam Wong did my beautiful cover),
  • a bibliography editor (to ensure that the bibliography is correct and complete; James Cullin edited mine), and
  • an indexer (in my case, Jen Weers).

For the editing and indexing roles, I recommend you find people who are either already familiar with Markdown, or who clearly have the ability and inclination to learn. Markdown is easy, but many have low “perceived technical self-efficacy” or simply are not inclined to learn. (Incidentally, these attributes are discussed in chapter 3 of Cognitive Productivity). If your network can’t provide the recommendations, there are several freelancer websites that can help (e.g., oDesk and freelancers.com).

Leanpub facilitates these aspects of book development too. You can set up a private Leanpub book and make the editors co-authors. That way, they can push the “preview” button to see how the book will look with their changes. You can use a “diff”/”merge” tool in your text editor to review and merge their changes.

Of course, hiring a team costs money. But if your book is at all successful, it likely won’t cost you as much as the royalties you would lose by signing away your brainchild to a publisher.

Originally published at leanpub.com.

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