IT Workers Are Not as Inept as Jurgen Appelo Makes Them Out to Be: Response to His Criticism of Leanpub

Author Jurgen Appelo lambasted agile developers and IT workers in a blog post a while back, criticizing the Leanpub platform for writers, authors and publishers.

In his article, “Why I Don’t Use Leanpub”, Jurgen Appelo claimed that most people “in Agile and IT”

[…] don’t look beyond their own needs and their own communities.
[…] don’t take the time to research available tools and platforms.
[…] don’t take the time to really understand requirements, matching them with available solutions.

That’s quite a vituperative (over-) generalization about his own readership and about the employees that his books (and “kudo cards”) are meant to help us manage.


Appelo stated his reasons for not using Leanpub as follows:

1) I want a great authoring platform when I’m writing.
2) I want a publishing platform with great formatting.
3) I want the best possible tools for getting feedback.
4) I want distribution channels that are not focused on IT.
5) I want increased readership, not increased royalties.

The original article is two years old. I nevertheless wrote a response to it, given that Aaron Sloman forwarded Appelo’s post to me yesterday, and the replies on Appelo’s site were incomplete. Please note that my reply includes quotes of Appelo.

My Response (Updated)

Hi, I’m the Leanpub author of Cognitive Productivity, first published in 2013, and last updated last week. I have quite a bit of experience with the Leanpub platform.

I’ve read at least 15 different books about writing, self-publishing, and book marketing […]

What I find interesting is that none of the experts in the global self-publishing community suggest using Leanpub. Let me rephrase that, just to make sure to get the point across: In all the best books I read about the self-publishing industry, nobody ever suggested using Leanpub.

Being someone who does R&D on/for expert knowledge workers, I certainly value the importance of reading and getting the opinion of authors on the subject. However, it is also a mark of expertise to read critically. (Compare the “Evaluate” chapter in part 3 of Cognitive Productivity.) I can think of many very good reasons why Leanpub wouldn’t figure in these books and yet still be a superior platform for writing. I will leave that as an exercise to the reader. (As an additional but related point, it would be interesting to note how many books on book publishing best selling authors read. My hypothesis is [for which I have several reasons] is not that many. But that is an empirical question.)

I appreciate that you wrote

This post is not intended to bash or ridicule Leanpub. On the contrary, I’m sure it’s a great tool for a selection of authors with other requirements than mine. I’m just a little tired of the never-ending question, “Why don’t you use Leanpub?”.

I’m responding here not to convince you or anyone to use Leanpub. I agree with you that experts (should) choose their tools carefully. Cal Newport makes a great case for this with respect to deep work (the eponymous concept of his book) in general. Max Wertheimer in Productive Thinking (1943) made the case even more generally: understand the problem before selecting solutions. I agree that one can’t speak universally about the best tool for writing, of course, as needs differ.

However, I do think it’s worth pointing out my own experience in relation to each of your points because some people will interpret your post more generally.

1. I use Leanpub because “1) I want a great authoring platform when I’m writing.” Some people like MS Word. I think I am typical of a huge percentage of IT-skilled people in my strong preference for an excellent plain text editor over MS Word: many of us need the power, flexibility and stability of such tools. In my companies, for instance, we do almost all our internal and external writing in markdown. I’ve used Scrivener too. But when you reach the upper end of flexibility of a tool, it is very frustrating. When you’ve mastered something like VED , e-macs or the like, tools like Word and Scrivener pale in comparison. Having said that, I think many non-technical people would save a lot of time and pain by using plain text editors (such as BBEdit) rather than Word or Scrivener.

What many Scrivener types moving to markdown need are some good training materials, perhaps including videos, on writing books using markdown. This would not just be about markdown itself, but would include all kinds of book writing tricks, including tips for organizing files so that they can get the benefits of Scrivener without its drawbacks. I don’t know if such resources exist. Having said that, there are certain limitations in the current version of Leanpub markdown where Scrivener has an edge; e.g., comments. However, Leanpub is also creating Markua which deals with those issues, and others.

2. Re the “great formatting” criterion. In my first book, I didn’t need advanced formatting beyond markdown. But if I had, I would have preferred LaTeX over Word. In addition to the problems mentioned above, with these tools, your content is packaged in a proprietary format. Yerk! (In the 1990s, over several years I wrote content in FrameMaker on a Mac. The company was purchased by Adobe Corp. (maker of this type of software) Adobe discontinued the Mac version and kept the Windows version. Just one of many risks to consider: Who will buy Scrivener and what will they do to it?) I would be surprised to find that more than 10% of people who have truly mastered writing books in a markup language would prefer to return to WYSIWYG writing. But this is an empirical question left unanswered in Appelo’s post and mine.

In one of my upcoming books, I would like more formatting options. (Maybe Leanpub’s upcoming Markua will support those needs of mine, I don’t know.) However, the benefits of Leanpub so far outweigh this criterion for me. Tool selection is optimization (trade-offs).

Having said this, I think Scrivener is a great tool for many purposes.

3. Regarding “I want the best possible tools for getting feedback”: I haven’t gotten much feedback through Leanpub, which is partly because I moved to it late in the process of writing my first book — after having completed all but the last couple of chapters in Scrivener. However, it is important to note that using Leanpub is not incompatible with getting feedback from other sources. You can blog as much of your content as you want, and package it (very easily) with Leanpub.

Leanpub is often promoted as a great tool for iterating a book and deploying it repeatedly to actual readers. To be honest, this doesn’t make any sense to me. Continuous deployment of unfinished products is great for software, but not for movies, books, and music.

This is not personally how I see Leanpub. The e-storefront allows you to gradually publish chapters of your book. One argument in favor of this is: if you are a knowledge worker who needs to quickly get up to speed in an area for which there is not currently a complete book, you might (depending on the circumstances) gladly pay for a fraction of a book in progress. There is an empirical question here: has this worked? I don’t know. Another question is: can this work, and if so how can it work? I can think of ways in which that can work very well with marketing. Serial literature outside tech definitely can sell, that is proven. Leanpub provides a platform where this is all explained to the reader. The author doesn’t have to explain the model to the reader. That is a significant advantage to anyone going serial.

Also, Leanpub makes it very easy to update your books when you find typos or need to make more or less minor modifications. I have frequently updated my book. No complaints so far from readers about the pace of my updates. You can update books on Amazon too. But publishing half a book on Amazon wouldn’t fly.

As a reader, however, you want to know that most of your annotations will still remain anchored properly. Cognitive Productivity strongly encourages people to annotate, and gives them tips on doing so. No PDF reader to my knowledge is sufficiently robust in syncing PDF annotations. (Amazon and Apple have solutions for their formats, which Leanpub readers can benefit from.)

4. Regarding “distribution channels that are not focused on IT”: I don’t think of Leanpub as my distribution channel, but one of my distribution channels. With Leanpub, with one click I can generate versions of my book for Amazon, iBookstore , etc.

5. “I want increased readership, not increased royalties.” I’ve not made a fortune with my book. However, I do like a platform where Amazon does not take such a huge cut. This is partly for my own benefit, but it is also for ethical reasons. (Amazon is tough on the writing industry, tough on its own employees, and its ebook reader is awful for readers). But I also sell on Amazon.

How much money an author makes from her books has more to do with what she writes and how she markets her work than the tools she uses. I’ve invested very little in marketing my book and have gained more readers and made more money with Leanpub than on Amazon. I do want to reach more readers. Time will tell whether I will. But if I don’t, it’s not an argument against Leanpub.

I am currently writing two books that are both e-pub books with lots of video. Writing in something like iBooks Author would be extremely painful. Leanpub does not fully support this yet either. So the jury can’t really even deliberate about this yet. However, if Leanpub is successful on this front, authors will be able to use the same writing toolkit for most books using Leanpub. (I don’t know whether Markua will support better formatting than its current markdown flavor — not a priority for me.)

A better and more neutral question would be, “Which tools do you use, and why?”

Agreed. And if your readers are asking you any variant of the question: It suggests they value your opinion. That’s a good sign. For some of them, it might also be shorthand (particularly if via microblogging) for what you think they should be asking. People aren’t necessarily as dumb as tweeting can make them look. Many people who use, prefer and discuss Leanpub have selected it precisely because they have thought rationally about their requirements and done their research.

Leanpub’s Response

Check out Leanpub’s response to Appelo, two years earlier than mine!

Published by

Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest. Author of Cognitive Productivity books. Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp. Adjunct Professor of Education, Simon Fraser University. Why, Where, and What I Write. See About Me for more information.

3 thoughts on “IT Workers Are Not as Inept as Jurgen Appelo Makes Them Out to Be: Response to His Criticism of Leanpub”

  1. I had to look through my emails to find an answer to a question I posed back in July 2014 about why Leanpub didn’t have a lot of fiction books on their site. I had discovered them by accident and really liked the way the site was set up, the landing page, etc. but only wrote using Word and Scrivener then. It was through that brief exchange with one of the co-founders that they suggested I learn Markdown to help with my workflow if I were to use Leanpub and I haven’t looked back since(writing in Markdown, that is. I do use Leanpub as one of my distribution channels). I like your responses to Appelo’s post and I’m glad you posted it.

  2. As both a fiction writer, a 4-time published tech author, and a full time SW engineer, I have experience with multiple tool chains in the arena of writing.

    It’s why, on my previous title (Learning Spring Boot), I used asciidoctor to generate a LibreOffice manuscript for my publisher. And I’m doing the same thing again (Learning Spring Boot 2nd Edition). The tooling is awesome and lets me pull in the source code from my IDE, ensuring the highest fidelity.

    By when I write fiction, I use Scrivener. It’s non-linear editing combined with ability to generate PDF and MOBI files, tailored for the target platform, is impossible to beat.

    Scrivener works for gobs of text broken up into chapters and scenes. Asciidoctor works for bits of text, bits of admonitions, and bits of code, stirred together.

    My interest in Leanpub is what to do for my NEXT tech book. Checking the royalty rates for a tech book that would probably sell for $20-$30, Amazon takes WAY too much of a cut (65%) while Leanpub only wants a sliver (10% + $99 one time fee).

    That, to me, is the real differentiator. Marketing has always been up to me, and it pays to write about a technology that sells itself. 😉

    1. Sounds like you’ll like Leanpub then.

      I used Scrivener too. I liked the side comments and research management features. But I prefer doing it in plaintext now. Leanpub’s new (optional) markdown flavor, Markua, supports inline XML style comments.

      Leanpub also generates to PDF and MOBI. I don’t know about any specific tailoring beyond that.

      And Leanpub’s customer support is excellent.

      Amazon’s cut is crazy, to put it mildly.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.