This morning I read a blog post on Thurott about his Windows 10 book, which is published on Leanpub. Since I used to be an attorney-editor in my state bar’s publishing division (where I spent perhaps too much time thinking about publishing problems instead of editing) I went to the Leanpub site and started digging.

What I found was Lean Publishing:

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.

I think this is a promising concept for legal publishers.

  • Legal guides need to be updated all the time as the law changes; they are always “in progress,” so a publishing workflow for in-progress books should work well for legal guides.
  • The biggest problem my state bar has is that its tools for publishing are decidedly not lightweight. It takes a team of two or three people months of work manually editing Word and XML files to publish even a modest update. If they could simply edit text files and publish to print and the web with the click of a button–which is what Leanpub promises–it would save dozens of hours and thousands of dollars on each book update.
  • The key to lean publishing is that it publishes revisions early and often (it can do this because it uses those lightweight tools). Being able to do that is a huge advantage in the legal world. Imagine legal guides being updated mere weeks–or even days–after the latest Supreme Court decision. Currently it takes several months at least (and most likely one to two years) to get a new update printed.
  • Lean publishing’s method of pivoting based on reader feedback could also benefit bar associations. Currently my bar has to commit many thousands of dollars in resources and take a leap of faith if it decides to publish an entirely new book. Since bar associations are by nature risk-averse, this makes creating anything new rather difficult. But what if the bar association could publish a first draft by an attorney author that only had to be a couple of chapters long; not a finished product, but enough to be useful? That would be easier to try, and would produce feedback that could guide the rest of the book if it gets enough traction–or cut the project without much loss if it doesn’t.

Of course, adopting lean publishing would mean changing the entire publishing workflow. That’s never easy for an organization like a state bar. But if it could be done, it promises huge cost and time savings.

One final thought: with a service like Leanpub, there’s nothing preventing an attorney from self-publishing rather than going through his or her state bar. In fact, it would be easy for a single attorney-author to adopt lean publishing and profit from their work, rather than giving it away for the bar’s profit. And what if a new, mean, and lean legal publisher popped up–could state bars compete?

If I were still in legal publishing at my state bar, these thoughts would worry me.

If lean publishing intrigues you, here’s a great introduction from the founder of Leanpub.

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