Beta Testing A Book

When I decided to ship Achieving Zen With Auto Layout, I knew I didn’t want to wait until the book was completely done before unveiling it to the public. The old way of publishing involved writing a book in a vacuum, throwing it through a bit of tech editing and then putting it on the shelves at Barnes and Noble.

I have a graveyard of books that are out of date or have a few technical inaccuracies, because they were printed to paper and unable to be updated without checking an Errata page on a publisher’s web site somewhere.

Tech publishers have started doing an “early access” program with their digitally published books as soon as a few chapters are available, which allows early readers to provide feedback to the author along the way of writing.

That seems like a much better way to write a tech book to me, so I shamelessly copied it.

Of course, I don’t have a publisher, so I’m doing all of this on my own. Here’s a few of the tools I’m using and how they all piece together for running.

Gumroad

I am using Gumroad to handle selling and distributing my book. There’s a few different vendors you can work with to do this sort of work, but I found the Gumroad interface to be incredibly easy to work with, and their analytics data is just enough to keep me interested, but not overwhelmed.

It also doesn’t hurt that their fees aren’t too high, especially coming from an Apple world where they want 30% of everything.

Gumroad collects the payments and then distributes a PDF of the current state of the book to people as soon as they purchase. They also support Webhooks, however, which I am taking advantage of. Each time a purchase is made, their WebHook fires an API I’ve set up on Azure.

Azure Mobile Services

Azure Mobile Services is the Backend-as-a-Service offering that Microsoft has for developers to easily integrate a server-side component into their iOS, Android, or Windows app. If you’ve ever messed with something like Parse or Stackmob, it’s similar vein to that complexity. You don’t need to provision servers or deal with a bunch of configuration. It handles most of the heavy lifting for you and provides an API for anything you want to get dirty with.

I’m using Azure Mobile Services to host a small API with a single endpoint. To do this, I have a small Javascript…script…that takes the receipt data I get from Gumroad, validates it, and then fetches the purchaser’s GitHub username.

Once I have the GitHub username, I make a call to their API to add that username to my private repository that contains the Markdown files of the manuscript as well as all the source code for any sample projects.

In all, it’s maybe 15 lines of code tops. It’s likely not the traditional use case for Azure Mobile Services, but it was way easier to do this than provision a complete WebAPI or Node application and deploy it to a cloud service or virtual machine.

GitHub

Now that I have a GitHub repository with all my beta purchasers on board, they are able to do a few different things:

  1. They can see my progress as I write on the book. I try to only submit chapters that are completed first drafts.
  2. They can file Issues with either requests for topics to cover, or any technical issues they may find in the book.
  3. They can fix my typos (I admittedly never expected anyone to do this, but a few have taken the time. Thanks!)

The second one is the most useful to me. I’m now able to run this book like a semi-open source project and get instant, trackable feedback from the people who are invested in the project. There’s no middle man in between. It’s just me and the readers working together to make Achieving Zen With Auto Layout the best book it can be.

About Justin

Justin Williams is the Crew Chief of Second Gear, makers of Glassboard. He writes about consumer technology, running a bootstrapped software business, and more from Denver, Colorado.

Follow @justin on Twitter or get new articles via @carpeaqua.