Why I Don’t Use Leanpub

It seems not a week goes by without someone asking me, “Why don’t you publish on Leanpub?” or “Have you considered writing on Leanpub?” or some other variation of the same question.

I believe the question is wrong. It seems to imply that Leanpub is either the best choice for authors (it isn’t), or that it is the default/leading platform (it definitely isn’t). So why are people asking me the same question again and again? Am I the most stubborn or ignorant author on the web, persisting in my silly and pointless refusal to use any of Leanpub’s awesome services?

I believe the answer is: No, most people are just lazy.

Leading Tools and Platforms

As a serious and disciplined self-publishing author, I like doing a bit of research before any serious commitment in time, money, and effort. That’s why I’ve read at least 15 different books about writing, self-publishing, and book marketing. During my research I have come across dozens of tools and platforms for self-publishing authors, such as:

  • Smashwords
  • Draft2Digital
  • LightningSource
  • Kobo
  • Lulu
  • CreateSpace
  • Blurb
  • PressBooks
  • BookBaby
  • And many more…

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.

Leanpub 2

Now, don’t get me wrong. This doesn’t mean Leanpub is bad! It could be a hidden gem that most of the experts have yet to discover! However, it does mean that Leanpub is not a major player on the global market, and it’s certainly not a leading platform.

This is easy to validate for yourself. Just check out the “bestselling books” on Leanpub. What do you see? APIs, architecture, code, technologies, craftsmanship, development, testing, platforms, etc. There are no novels, no cookbooks, no photography books, no detectives, no biographies, no comics, no management books, nothing… Only technology topics. Leanpub has emerged as a platform for IT books. No bestselling authors outside of IT are using it! (Please, don’t tell me, “Actually, there are several novels somewhere in the Leanpub database.” I’m referring to the list of bestsellers on their platform.)


Obviously, this is no reason to dismiss Leanpub as a suitable tool for authoring and self-publishing! It all depends on your requirements as an author. So, let’s see. Considering that writing and publishing are important activities for me, I did a bit of soul-searching. What are my requirements?

Leanpub 4

1) I want a great authoring platform when I’m writing.

Despite all its flaws, Microsoft Word is still one of the most powerful editors on the planet. Sure, I’m willing to move to another platform, but only when it can offer features that Word doesn’t have. Scrivener is certainly one of those. (Sadly, I had terrible issues this week with its instability.) Can you ask Leanpub, “Give me a list of all text parts that I tagged as being a sidebar” and then edit those sidebars all directly together? Probably not. Can you ask Leanpub, “Generate an eBook for me of all the texts that have status draft but not the ones that are completed?” I don’t think you can. For advanced authoring features, you’ll have to go beyond Leanpub, because it’s not a professional authoring tool.

2) I want a publishing platform with great formatting.

As some of you have noticed, I use plenty of illustrations and photos in my books. I also use formatting features to convey meaning. For example, the stories in my new book are formatted in a different way than the sidebars. And takeouts (my own writing) have a different layout than quotes (other people’s writing). For me, this is important. Anyone who suggests that I have a look at Leanpub has either not seen the kind of books that I write, or is simply unaware that Leanpub is seriously lacking in the visual/graphical department. The question, “Why don’t you use Leanpub?” is, from my perspective, a ridiculous suggestion. However, the question, “Why don’t you use Blurb.com?” is a very good one! (I haven’t used it yet, but it looks awesome.)

3) I want the best possible tools for getting feedback.

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. Very few people I know want to read the same book more than once. Me neither! I want to read your book when it’s finished, not as long as you’re still working on it. Sure, iterating is crucial while you’re still seeking feedback from beta readers and proofreaders. But they are not the final audience! And frankly, I don’t need Leanpub for getting feedback. I’ve used a combination of my blog, PDF files, MailChimp, and SlideShare, and it worked fine. Plus, it didn’t require any proofreaders to register on yet another third-party platform.

Leanpub 5

4) I want distribution channels that are not focused on IT.

As many people have pointed out to me, there is nothing preventing me from writing for a wider audience than just the Agile and IT crowds. Great management is needed everywhere, not only in IT. Therefore, I made great effort to remove all unnecessary references to “agile” and “development” in my new book, so that the book can be appreciated by a bigger audience. Obviously, having my book distributed and sold on a platform with an almost exclusive focus on IT is the last thing that I want!

5) I want increased readership, not increased royalties.

Some people told me I should try Leanpub because they offer a high percentage of income as royalties (90%). Seriously? Is that what motivates you? I am motivated by having actual readers being inspired by my stories, games, and practices, and seeing more organizations adopt better management practices. Who cares about 90% royalties on very few books sold? I’d be happy with just 15% royalties if it means selling the book to a million readers and inspiring more people. I seriously doubt that I can find those numbers of readers on Leanpub.


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?”

As I said, the question conveys the idea that Leanpub is, by default, the first and best option to consider for every author. Well, it isn’t. It’s no surprise that only people in Agile and IT are asking me this question.

Most of them don’t look beyond their own needs and their own communities.

Most of them don’t take the time to research available tools and platforms.

Most of them don’t take the time to really understand requirements, matching them with available solutions.

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

I’m looking forward to getting it.

Leanpub 1

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  • Martin Burns

    Fair point on the LeanPub question – and you’re right, it’s entirely lack of effort on my part to go for the easy option.

    But I think the GitHub side is interesting, particularly when your stated problem was about losing content through authoring environment instability. Being able to iterate and version your content is really powerful, and I think even with different authoring front ends and publishing destinations, there’s an argument for GitHub (or something similar – again, I’m being lazy, and using one potential solution to stand in for potentially many) as a data storage and versioning engine, particularly if you’re writing in many short snippets, rather than one monolithic document.

    • jurgenappelo

      I never said I lost any content while writing and I never have. I use Dropbox plus two separate backup systems.

      I said I wasted my time on a tool that raises errors all the time. Nothing to do with Github.

  • Wim Heemskerk

    Thanks for the elaborate review. Enjoyed reading that.

    I can’t quite place your comment on iterating though (point 3). To me it’s not about reading a book more than once. Most authors publish chapters (of non-fiction) in good beta quality and I enjoy reading them and having access to them well ahead of the full book. That’s exactly what you did with your long running management workout series. And like you did with those, once finished I fully expect them to pick up their book and sell it from a more attractive platform. So, to me LeanPub seems to work just fine in this aspect.

    • jurgenappelo

      So, we are in agreement then. It’s a good feature to have. Leanpub offers it. But I don’t need it, because I use a combination of tools that does it even better. 🙂

  • http://thinkware.se Magnus Lyckå

    Being an avid programmer, I love that LeanPub uses a simple text based format like Markdown. I can easily hack together the little tools I might need. Jurgen’s examples above seems like things I’d hack together faster myself than I’d figure out how to find them in a complex, feature rich tool. No wonder it’s popular with software developers who also write books. (Not that I ever got around to actually publishing a book…)

    • http://www.remedylabs.co.uk/ Dan Woodward

      Which is possibly why (according to Jurgen’s post) it attracts so many Tech-related writers and books?

      I think the moral of the story is ‘each to their own’ but don’t judge someone’s choice when one hasn’t done the same research they have, nor has taken the time to understand their needs.

      @jurgenappelo:disqus You have touched on some of your needs in your article, could you condense them into, perhaps – your top 5 needs for writing a book, and what you use to fulfil those needs? That would be really helpful for me to introspect my own writing needs!

      EDIT – I just realised this is quite an old post – but my first reading!

      • jurgenappelo

        Sorry, I cannot afford to handle requests for additional writing. I wrote what I needed in this post.

  • Kent McDonald

    Thanks for the review- very helpful information. So I have a followup question, and I suppose it’s one with a little research I could find out for myself. But I thought I’d try asking first.

    Since Leanpub doesn’t do what you need – Which publishing platform do you use?


    • jurgenappelo

      I use MS Word, Scrivener, PDF, MailChimp, Dropbox, Google Drive, SlideShare, Scribd, WordPress, Amazon, iTunes, Kobo, Draft2Digital, Barnes & Noble and more…

      What do you mean with publishing platform?

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  • LVarayut

    Great article! I agree on your points. I’m finding a platform/website to do self-publishing. I’m curious “Which tools and platforms do you use, and why?”

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  • http://cogzest.com/ Luc Beaudoin

    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 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_ (eponymous concept of the book) in general. 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.

    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 % of IT-skilled people (http://cogzest.com/about/founder/ ) 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 documents 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 “great formatting.” In my first book, I didn’t need advanced formatting beyond markdown. But if I had, I would have preferred LaTeX over Word. I’ve used Scrivener too. But when you reach the upper end of flexibility offered by such tools (which I did when I wrote most of Cognitive Productivity in Scrivener), it is extremely frustrating. And your content gets packaged up in a proprietary format. Yerk. I would be surprised to find that more than 10% of people who have truly mastered markdown-style writing of books would go back by choice to GUI tools. But this is an empirical question and I may be wrong.

    In one of my current books , I would quite like better formatting. (Maybe Leanpub’s upcoming Markua will support those needs of mine, I don’t know.) However, the benefits of Leanpub so far outweigh this 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) in a Leanpub, for instance.

    “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 storefront allows you to gradually publish the chapters of your book. One argument 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 book for lean authors.

    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 me, but also for ethical reasons. (Amazon is is tough on the writing industry, tough on its employees, and its ebook reader is bad for readers: http://cogzest.com/2013/11/whats-wrong-with-the-kindle-app-a-knowledge-delvers-perspective/ ) But I also sell on Amazon. How much money an author makes has more to do with what she writes and how she markets her work. I’ve invested very little in marketing my book and have made much more 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 they’re asking you any variant of the question, it’s a good sign. It suggests they value your opinion. For some of them, it might also be shorthand (particularly if via microblogging) for what you think they should be asking.

    I’ve published my response on [CogZest.com](https://cogzest.com/2016/08/response-to-a-criticism-of-leanpub/).

  • Nikos

    Was just about to sign up to leanpub, and whoa, $99 just to get started.

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