Home What’s Old is New Again: O’Reilly Publishes Time-Release eBook Experiment

What’s Old is New Again: O’Reilly Publishes Time-Release eBook Experiment

If “lean startups” these days are supposed to release a minimum viable product, get reactions from initial customers, and then rapidly iterate – might not a book about startups work the same way? Every Book is a Startup is Todd Sattersten’s new book, published by O’Reilly, about the changing publishing industry. You can buy the first two chapters of the eBook today for $4.99 and get subsequent chapters as free updates as they are written. But if you wait for the full book to be completed and published in paper, the price will be $25.

It’s a fascinating experiment in eating your own dog food but it’s not without historical precedent. Many novels throughout time were sold by subscription (Dickens, for example) and Samuel Johnson once took nine years to write the Western world’s first authoritative printed dictionary. It was supported by subscription along the way and the end product weighed 20 pounds. That project was initiated by the publishing industry in response to massive disruption caused by the proliferation of printed materials and a need for a reference book defining common words. Perhaps this period of technological disruption will be well suited for another experiment in a similar format.

Another Way to Do It

When lean startup guru Eric Ries went to market this month with his new book The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses, he decided to use a traditional print publishing strategy (with Crown Business as publisher), in order to gain maximum promotional support and distribution.

Ries used his widely-read blog and social media presence to build a community of supporters before any part of the book was available – then asked that the members of that community pre-order the book as soon as that was possible on Amazon. The book itself won’t be available for two more months – but it’s hot on the Amazon charts already. It hit #7 in the best-seller ranks just hours after the pre-order call to action was issued on Ries’s blog.

Is that a case of straddling the future and the past? Which kind of strategy do you think will work best in the future, Ries’s or Sattersten’s?

“This project is much more than just a typical ebook,”


O’Reilly’s Joe Wikert. “It’s actually a collection of publishing experiments packaged as an ebook.”

“The primary case I am making is that we need to bring entrepreneurship back to book publishing,” Sattersten the author explains. “We need more experiments. We need to learn from the world of startups.”

Sattersen was interviewed yesterday by Jenn Webb on O’Reilly Radar. “Your personal definition for a ‘book’ can limit your opportunities as well,” he said. “If you limit that definition to, say, 224 pages of paper in a 6-inch-by-9-inch trim size, you just made your world a pretty small one.”

The experiment speaks to the future but clearly to the past as well, in several ways. “This was the dream of every would-be writer/publisher in the 80s and 90s,” says Curt Hopkins, ReadWriteWeb’s most experienced and diverse writer on staff, “but the tech for it didn’t exist.”

The 18th century’s Samuel Johnson was well-known and patronized by a handful of that time’s most powerful media interests. “Now, a would-be publisher could run a Kickstarter campaign and lay funnels out to a dozen social media properties,” says Hopkins. “It still probably wouldn’t work, but there is a chance it would, and the whole thing would take an afternoon to completely set up.”

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