I wanted to share some brief notes on my experience self-publishing on Leanpub. This isn’t an authoritative assessment of publishing options, but that’s actually kind of the point: I love Leanpub because it made it easy for me to self-publish without having to become an expert.

I had written a book-length tutorial on test-driven development in React and published it online at outsidein.dev. Some folks had shown interest in the content, so when I was planning a significant rewrite of it I decided I’d like to sell it, for a few reasons. Charging some money for content increases the perceived value of it, and I believed the content had value (and you can always discount it if someone can’t pay full price). For longer form content I enjoy having a book (or ebook) that I can bookmark, so I figured others might as well. And a book is a more permanent way to capture the information.

I didn’t have any experience with print layout tools, and I didn’t have any interest in learning them. But I was aware that Leanpub offered a toolchain for formatting books written in Markua, a Markdown-like syntax. This made self-publishing an option for me. But first I had to find out if I should look for a traditional publisher instead.

I sent emails to several authors of technical books, both self-published and through a traditional publisher. Many of them responded. I learned that some of the benefits of a traditional publisher include giving your book a sense of legitimacy, help with editing, and help with marketing. Some of the downsides include a much smaller percentage of royalties, publisher timetables, the fact that the publisher owns the content and it’s up to them to decide whether to invest in a second edition, and the fact that they can only afford to publish content that has a broad enough appeal.

In light of this I decided to go with self-publishing for several reasons. The material is content I care about and want to make sure is out there in the form I believe in. I don’t mind if some people don’t read because it’s self-published; I would rather have some people read it in the form I prefer than have more people read it in a form that I might not like. I want to be able to keep it up-to-date with new versions of software libraries. Although I’m not a full-time writer or editor, I have enough experience that I feel like I was able to get the book to good quality on my own. Plus, since with Leanpub I retain ownership of the content, I could always change my mind and work with a publisher in the future.

My next step was to convert the book to Markua for Leanpub’s tooling. With a free Leanpub account you can try out the tooling with a limited number of book themes and publishes per month. But pretty quickly I updated to Leanpub’s $8.99 per month plan for more customizable themes and unlimited publishes per month. I think you may not need to keep that subscription up after your book is complete, but for now I’ve decided that as long as my book is still selling a copy a month I want to keep up my paid membership to support Leanpub.

The work of converting my Markdown content to Markua was pretty quick and easy. The largest amount of work was converting my “diff”-based code blocks to use Markua “insert” and “delete” features, which results in a nicer look and feel in black-and-white print.

Although it didn’t apply to my case, I want to point out that Leanpub has great support for selling in-progress books and distributing updates to purchasers. Because my book was already content-complete I didn’t need this, but I hope to write another book someday and I’ll absolutely take advantage of this incremental-publishing approach to gauge market interest and get early feedback.

My next decision was how to sell the ebook. First, I wanted an option to sell the book DRM-free. Leanpub.com is an option, but you don’t have to sell on Leanpub.com just because you use their tooling to generate the book. There are other digital download services, with the advantage that they took a smaller percentage of royalties than Leanpub (around 5%) and they would give me access to all purchasers’ email addresses. But I realized that Leanpub is not just a digital download service: it’s a whole store. They have a landing page, search functionality, and weekly and monthly sale newsletters that could help with discoverability of my book. I decided that discoverability was more important to me than getting a little incremental revenue, so I went with Leanpub for DRM-free ebook sales.

Test-driven development isn’t the most popular topic so I didn’t expect to be on any bestseller lists. But it was exciting to see that after just a few purchases I would have some money! That wouldn’t be the case with a traditional publisher. Once I made $70 in revenue I decided to re-invest it in buying a sponsored spot in the weekly sale newsletter and on the home page, and that quickly paid off with more purchases.

I wanted a book cover that would feel like a legitimate technical book because I believe in the quality of the content. I ended up hiring a family friend to design the cover, and I’m really glad to have made the investment–I love how it turned out.

With a professional book cover, I was ready to submit my ebook to Apple Books and Kindle. I didn’t realize at first, but both platforms have an option to offer your book DRM-free, so that’s nice! It helps with discoverability to have your book in those stores. The downsides are a smaller royalty percentage and (as I discovered) that the store controls the price. Apple decided to sell my book at half price, so I unlisted it. I may put it back up there someday, but I’m not ready yet to sell the book at a discount. Kindle started at full price, but after I temporarily dropped the price for a sale, then raised it back up, Kindle didn’t actually update the price for over a week, so I got nervous and unlisted it there for now as well.

Thanks to Leanpub’s tooling, there was one more exciting thing I was able to do: a print-on-demand paper book. Leanpub will produce a PDF that is print-compatible. There are a few print-on-demand services; I went with Amazon KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) since they handle both the printing and the listing on Amazon.com, of course. There is no up-front money required and no pre-printed stock: the books are printed as people order them, and you just pay a few dollars for the printing cost of each book. If you’re going to go this route, be sure to get a print book cover designed at the same time as an ebook cover: the print cover image has to include the front, back, and spine in one contiguous image.

After all this, where I ended up is very exciting. I have a legitimate book in print and available as an ebook DRM-free. I’m able to easily make updates to the book on my own initiative and publish updates. Ebook readers automatically get the updates for free, and since there is no back stock of paper books, the next person who orders gets the updated book. I have the option of listing the ebook on Apple and Kindle in the future, and the option of going under contract with a publisher in the future if I choose. I’ve made a little money from it, but more importantly some technical content I care about is out there in a form that’s easier for some folks to browse and that represents that the content is worht a little money. I recently did a job search, and I think being a self-published author had a positive effect on how I was perceived by potential employers.

If you have any questions about my experience using Leanpub, feel free to ask questions using the comments or contact links in the footer!