The Age of Lean Publishing
Posted on April 19, 2013
One evening in 2011 my two young sons suggested that we start a publishing company and produce fantasy and mystery stories for kids, all set in Asia. What they really meant was that they’d supply me with awesome ideas and I would slave away and make it all work. I didn’t have the heart to tell them no.
That was the start of our micro-publishing studio, Super Cool Books. We didn’t have easy access to the usual industry resources. But around the same time I came across some interesting ideas about a new approach to publishing.
In 2010, a former Silicon Valley software developer named Peter Armstrong popularised the phrase “lean publishing”. He came up with a manifesto for this and co-founded the Leanpub publishing platform. He has distilled his idea into one quotable nugget:
“Lean Publishing is the act of publishing an in-progress book using lightweight tools and many iterations to get reader feedback, pivot until you have the right book and build traction once you do.”
It sounded revolutionary, empowering, and also very practical. So we spent our first year exploring this approach. Thanks to some supportive collaborators, we managed to produce the Time Talisman series of e-books with Singapore publisher Select Books, and also launched the first Sherlock Hong e-book with the creative writing school, Monsters Under The Bed. Then, in May last year we started the Ghostly series in a way that really helped us appreciate the possibilities of lean publishing.
MINIMUM VIABLE PRODUCT
Back in May 2012 our first Sherlock Hong story, The Case of the Immortal Nightingale, was only available as an e-book. But we received so many requests for printed copies that I seriously started looking into cost-effective ways to print and distribute stories. I remembered an origami-style minibook format that I had come across, made popular by the illustrator Keri Smith. I figured that if I could write a short story and package it in this handy booklet, we could then print it ourselves at home. How awesome!
That was the start of our Ghostly series. With some inspiration from my kids, I wrote the story, assembled the pages and branded the package as “a Foldable Fantasy collectible”. The first batch was printed on our Canon laser printer and the next day my sons rushed to school to give out Ghostly #1 to their friends and a few teachers.
Their schoolmates took Ghostly very seriously. Not long after, my older son came home looking anxious. “When can you finish Ghostly #2?” he wanted to know. “Everyone’s asking for it. If you don’t write it soon, I’ll have to do it myself.”
This modest Foldable Fantasy minibook, with its grungy fanzine attitude, created opportunities for us to engage readers and potential partners. Almost everyone seemed intrigued by the product experience. Was it a real book? A worksheet? An art and craft project? A marketing gimmick?
Some friends in the publishing industry tried to help figure out a viable business model. Should it come in a complete set? Could we offer it via subscription? How would we get the minibooks cut and folded in a cost-effective way? Should it come with a toy?
One of our marketing partners, Monsters Under the Bed, had a counter at the Asian Festival of Children’s Content 2012 and was looking for relevant materials to give away. We offered a stack of Ghostly #1 and, thanks to them, we had a small presence at the industry event.
In July 2012, I was also invited to speak to a group of English teachers and department heads at a conference about reading and literacy. I heard about the challenges they faced in trying to engage this current generation of reluctant readers.
Their insights really helped us define our mission. There was more at stake than just writing stories and publishing books. Instead, we had to entertain reluctant readers with fresh, exciting and affordable story experiences.
GIVE TO GROW
After we put out Ghostly #2, I noticed that there were many social entrepreneurs focussed on promoting literacy and education. In September 2012, we created a set of new stories and learning materials around the Foldable Fantasy brand and made this available as free downloads at BukuGuru.com.
We’ve sought feedback from parents, teachers and reading advocates in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Nepal, Australia, USA and so on. We also made the stories available on Worldreader‘s biNu mobile reading app, which delivers free e-books to basic mobile phones in developing countries. We even tried working on a Bahasa Indonesia version of the Ghostly minibooks.
Thanks to all this, we made many new connections all over the world. It was exciting trying to reach new readers through all these creative channels. But at the same time it also felt like we were losing our focus. The process was snowballing out of control.
PROTOTYPE TO PRODUCT
By December 2012 I had enough feedback to go ahead and create the full Ghostly novel. The cover artwork and character illustrations were done by my two sons. This became another angle to get people interested in the book. “Your son drew this? So cute! Does he work freelance?” Also, book editors and designers sometimes choke when I tell them I did the page layouts with an old version of Microsoft Word. Lean publishing is about using lightweight tools, this is as lightweight as I can get for now.
My Sherlock Hong paperbacks had pages that were enhanced with Layar content, and this feature proved quite popular. I did this for the Ghostly paperback too. It’s like having an open mobile channel that allows me to send new content and digital promotions to readers anytime in the future. I use the free version of Layar, and it’s incredibly easy to set up.
I applied for my ISBNs via the free service by the National Library Board, one ISBN for the paperback and one more for the ebook. Then I used a print-on-demand service to make a prototype of the book so I could check it before sending the full order to my printer.
This DIY process allowed me to price Ghostly at an affordable SGD 7.40 for retail. And by the time the printer delivered the Ghostly paperbacks, the e-book version was already on sale on iTunes, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and other digital bookstores.
DISCOVER AND INVENT
We learnt so much from this experience. For one thing, many readers get great satisfaction from handling a printed book, especially for fiction. I’ve learnt not to argue with this. They’d prefer to pay for a Sherlock Hong paperback, rather than download the ebook for free. In order to serve them as a publisher, I have to respect their preference.
Pricing is another issue that needs figuring out. I’m keen to offer the lowest prices possible, to make it easier for kids around the world to follow our series on a regular basis. But friends in publishing have suggested that I raise my prices, for a variety of reasons.
Some people seemed worried when they found out that I wrote the book, designed it, handled production, made deliveries and did almost everything else. “You need to focus,” they said. “It’s impossible to do everything yourself. You’ll burn out.”
So far I’ve managed to stay on top of things by keeping it simple and relying on some basic tools. My project management platform is just a bunch of .txt files that contain my lists of outstanding tasks, all marked up with my own GTD-style tags. These files are stored on a cloud drive and can be quickly edited and synced across my different working machines: an iMac, a Macbook Air, a Samsung Galaxy Note and a low end LG phone. I also have templates and checklists that I stick to. If you use whatever you’re comfortable with, it doesn’t feel overwhelming.
For a long time the publishing process had been a “decide and impose” affair. Editors and writers decide on an editorial calendar or publishing schedule and then push out the content to their readers. In making Ghostly, though, it’s been a case of “discover and invent”. First, I had to discover what our early adopters might like, and then I tried to invent something that would delight them. Because all this is done openly, my whole creative process has been quite transparent. There’s a sense of vulnerability, which takes getting used to.
So maybe you have an idea for a story, or a business manifesto, or even a comic book. I hope this has helped you think a bit more about how you can package your work and use it to create value in your community. Happy publishing, everyone.∗