Peter Armstrong

Cofounder of Leanpub & Author of Lean Publishing

The Problem with The Anna Karenina Problem

So, there’s apparently a problem called The Anna Karenina Problem, in which the internet has made it more difficult for people to focus for long periods of time, and because of this, are not able to read Anna Karenina the way that it was intended to be read. Presumably this way is in a matter of days or a few weeks, in long sittings — the way that it could be read by pre-internet readers with superior attention spans.

The problem with The Anna Karenina Problem is the following:

Anna Karenina was published in serial in The Russian Messenger, from 1873 to 1877.

The way that Anna Karenina was first read was not in one supreme feat of human attention, but instead, in short instalments—like blog posts. You could not read Anna Karenina in less than four years when it was first published.

I hereby dub this The “The Anna Karenina Problem” Problem.

The “The Anna Karenina Problem” Problem is that people today assume that the way that books were produced and read when they were growing up, say in the 1970s, is both inevitable and superior to all ways in the past and present.

However, it is neither. It’s not true about how books were produced and read in the 1870s—see Charles Dickens, Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Wilkie Collins for examples. Similarly, it’s not necessarily true about how books should be produced and read in 2013.

Ironically, I only know what I know about Anna Karenina's publication thanks to the internet, and specifically Wikipedia. Now, admittedly, Wikipedia has its own set of problems.

Human attention spans in today’s internet age are the same as they always have been: nasty, brutish and short. But at least today the concern is about being distracted by LOLcats instead of being eaten by jungle ones.

If you still have attention span, I discussed this and more in my talk about Lean Publishing at TOC 2013. Now, if you have been damaged by the internet, the discussion of serial fiction starts at about the 14 minute mark, and Mary Elizabeth Braddon starts at about the 21 minute mark. Or if you have a really long attention span, you can read the full discussion in Lean Publishing — the book’s minimum price is free, so all you need is an attention span.

Lean Publishing as a Generic Term!?

As Leanpub grows and the Lean Publishing ideas spread, one of the things I’m going to have to get used to is lean publishing being used as a generic term (lowercase, and referring to a category) as opposed to just my ideas and the name of my book Lean Publishing and the basis of my startup Leanpub.

This is a really good thing.

There was a very well-written article by Betsy Morais in The New Yorker blog recently titled “A Book is a Start-up”.

The article was written after the Tools of Change conference, where I did a presentation entitled Lean Publishing: The Future of Publishing, for Authors and Publishers.

I talked with Betsy after my presentation, and she had some very insightful questions about my Lean Publishing ideas. Her article discussed Lean Publishing and Leanpub as well as Tim Sanders and Net Minds, another ebook startup.

Now, one issue which has arisen, because of the 140 character nature of Twitter, is that some people who discuss the article discuss a quote attributed to Tim Sanders (“a writer is not necessarily a writer … they are content containers”) and attribute this to the idea of lean publishing.

Now, since I both coined the term Lean Publishing (back in 2009) and named Leanpub after the idea, the notion that Lean Publishing (or lean publishing) is somehow associated with a lack of respect for authors is troubling.

Lean Publishing is all about respect for authors. It is about respect for them as writers, not “content containers” or “content creators” or whatever. As the author of three books, I hate the word “content”.

Now, in the article, all quotes from me are correct and correctly attributed. So this is just about the Twitter followup.

Anyway, as any idea spreads it will get misinterpreted. So, I guess I should be happy, since it means the idea is spreading. But, since I value ideas, I want to ensure that they are presented as clearly as possible. So, here’s the definition of Lean Publishing as defined in my book and as I discussed at length in my talk:

"Lean Publishing is the act of publishing an in-progress ebook using lightweight tools and many iterations to get reader feedback, pivot until you have the right book and build traction once you do."

Now that I’ve said that, it’s time to be happy about the idea spreading.

The thing to be most happy about was this tweet from J.E. Luebering in the followup discussion where I was objecting to the mischaracterization:

"@peterarmstrong @lukobe Yes, I had intended a generic sense. Probably should have used agile publishing. Or googled—er, used Google first."

If lean publishing gets “verbed” in popular culture the way that Google got verbed into googled, then Leanpub will be very successful indeed!

I’ve seen another instance of someone verbing Leanpub into something they will do with their book; something like “I’m going to leanpub it”.

Things like that make me incredibly happy. I expect that will continue to be true long after anyone remembers how the term got out there, if it does…

Lean Publishing in The New Yorker blog!

I am so humbled and flattered that Betsy Morais of The New Yorker blog wrote a really good article about Leanpub and Lean Publishing based on my TOC 2013 talk!

This is a video of me talking at TOC 2013 (#toccon) about the definition, origins and practice of Lean Publishing.

Drinking game:

Take a sip every time my shirt makes me look pregnant.

Take a drink every time I cough.

Finish your drink every time I take a loud gulp of water.

My sit-stand treadmill desk has gotten one update: I missed my SteelSeries 7G keyboard too much, so made a stand for it out of a couple copies of The Lean Startup and a piece of MDF. I’ve used this setup enough to know it works well (it’s preferable to typing on a laptop keyboard all day). Now I’m going to make a thinner keyboard stand out of either metal or some thinner MDF. Right now the height is about 1/2” too high.

I’ve modified my sit-stand treadmill desk slightly: I missed my SteelSeries 7G keyboard too much.  So, I’ve moved the laptop to the side as an occasional extra display, and have my keyboard back. It and the mouse are sitting on MDF to raise them slightly to be the best ergonomic height. On top of the MDF I have the same thin rubbery material that I have between the MDF and my chair. This is not necessary, but it means that the built-in wrist wrest with the 7G plus the mouse pad do not slide, ever.

I’ve modified my sit-stand treadmill desk slightly: I missed my SteelSeries 7G keyboard too much. So, I’ve moved the laptop to the side as an occasional extra display, and have my keyboard back. It and the mouse are sitting on MDF to raise them slightly to be the best ergonomic height. On top of the MDF I have the same thin rubbery material that I have between the MDF and my chair. This is not necessary, but it means that the built-in wrist wrest with the 7G plus the mouse pad do not slide, ever.

At a startup it is important to figure out whether you are playing Zerg, Protoss or Terran

(I think this is the modern equivalent of the “Are you playing chess or go?” question. And I prefer go, even though I’m pretty bad: it’s nice to pick your battles and grab parts of the board that are uncontested.)

Just as with the chess vs. go question, you can draw lots of pithy conclusions from the zerg / protoss / terran question, but the basic one is:

It’s fun to get focused on micro, and you can get some wins using it, but if you don’t fundamentally focus on macro you never progress and you die.

(This is why I like playing Zerg: it’s the most macro way to play. And it’s why Zerg is considered imba now.)

…and it has been a very Zerg-esque week for Leanpub. More on that later.

Local / Global vs. Important / Unimportant

Derek Sivers wrote an interesting post about local vs. global. Go read it.

Now, the thing is, I largely agree with it, as it mirrors my own experience. But I have another take on it: the more interesting distinction might be important / unimportant, not local / global.

When you start out, you are essentially unimportant from a global perspective. I still am. So it’s easy to think globally, and do things which address as large a problem as you can imagine. This is why it’s easy to visualize taking over the world (for some defined subset of the world you care about) as, say, an employee. You have a lot of time.

Then, say you do something which some small number of people (but a lot, from your perspective) consider important. Then, all of a sudden, there are all kinds of opportunities that open up. For me, this was writing Flexible Rails.

This one thing led to a bunch of exposure in my part of the world, led to my quitting my job, the formation of Ruboss (named this way because of Ruby + JBoss, which was an ambitious formulation of the idea of productizing some of the things that grew out of Flexible Rails). Also, the way that I did Flexible Rails (self-published, in-progress ebook) led to the Lean Publishing ideas that inspired Leanpub. Hell, Flexible Rails even led to Ruboss’s 3 largest clients to date.

So, it all goes back to Flexible Rails, which I wrote over an about 2 year span, starting about 6 years ago. My son was 2 when I started. I was spectacularly unimportant: I was working remotely in Parksville, BC. I had no friends in the same province, and my wife took care of our son, so I could take as much time as I needed. It worked out to be about 1000 hours.

Now, on the other hand, I have Ruboss, Leanpub, a bunch of demands on my time, etc, etc. All these things mean that the amount of time I have to write is less. I couldn’t do another Flexible Rails right now; that would be spectacularly unfair to Leanpub. And I don’t even want to: I am happy right now rewriting Lean Publishing, to incorporate the last couple years worth of experience etc that Leanpub has given me, which has helped me understand my own ideas about publishing better. So, essentially, Lean Publishing is going to be a book which is driven by my upcoming TOC 2013 talk.

So, what’s the point of all this? Is there any general lesson to learn?

It turns out there are a few. These are extremely important, so I’m going to state them as simply as I can, in a list.

  1. When you are relatively unimportant, it is extremely important to do the most ambitious things you possibly can. That way, if any of them take off to any extent, you have set yourself up to follow through on them in an interesting way. This is similar to Paul Graham’s notion of being upwind.

  2. The catch with #1 is that you don’t even necessarily really know what the important part of what you are doing is. When I was writing Flexible Rails, I thought that the combination of Flex and Rails was what was interesting. This belief is why Ruboss is called Ruboss and not Leanpub. It didn’t work out that way, primarily because of what happened with Flex. But the way that I wrote and published Flexible Rails was the really interesting thing: worldwide community, 23 versions over about 2 years, etc. And at the time I kind of realized it, writing posts like “Books as a Service” etc, but I didn’t really realize it to its full extent. Or maybe it’s that everything I was doing seemed completely obvious to me, so I didn’t think it was a startup. If I had, the company would have been called Leanpub, not Ruboss, and we would have been where we are now a couple years ago!

  3. Once you get slightly less unimportant than you once were, don’t let this take over your life. I remember some post on either HN or reddit about some author saying it was a full time job being themself, answering mail, etc, and they didn’t create anything great afterward. Obviously that’s not me, but I haven’t written as much as I should have. I’m going to make a concerted effort to fix that, for real this time…

…but first, I’m going to get some sleep. Regardless of local or global, important or unimportant, sleep deprivation is never good.

This is me walking and working using the Sort-of-DIY, Sit-Stand Treadmill Desk. The basic point here is to show that I can type an mouse reasonably well while walking at a comfortable pace.

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