Softcover Is A New Self-Publishing Platform Aimed At Technical Authors

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Softcover is a startup offering what it calls a “frictionless” platform for self-publishing e-books.

Co-founder Michael Hartl is an author himself, having written the Ruby on Rails Tutorial. (He’s also a repeat entrepreneur, having founded Y Combinator-backed social-networking startup Insoshi.) Hartl told me via email that between a publishing deal with Addison-Wesley and direct sales from the tutorial website, the book has made $750,000 — and Softcover is based on that experience:

Originally, Softcover came from scratching my own itch: I wanted to make follow-on products to the Ruby on Rails Tutorial, a book and screencast series that has become one of the leading introductions to web development. I knew from experience what a pain it is to make a new website, install a sales system, and upload the files to make them available, and I didn’t want to have to do that for every new product. I also wanted to use my custom-built Rails Tutorial production system (or something comparably powerful) to output multi-format ebooks from common source files. Finally, I wanted the same level of control with additional products as I had with the Rails Tutorial, including full access to my customer list and support for custom domains. I couldn’t find such a service, so a couple of friends and I built Softcover.

And that’s basically what Softcover offers with an e-book self-publishing system that recently left private beta. It allows authors to view an HTML version of their book as they write, publish HTML, EPUB, MOBI, and PDF e-books on the Softcover website, and bundle those e-books with screencast and other media to create premium packages. (Hartl said the e-books can include “syntax-highlighted code listings, numbered tables and figures, mathematical equations, and linked cross-references.”) In exchange, the startup takes 10 percent of the sales revenue.

Hartl emphasized that the startup will still give authors a lot of control. For one thing, they can offer a free version if they want (something that he credits for the Ruby on Rails Tutorial’s success). In addition, the system is open source, writers will have access to their sales lists, and they can use custom web domains, so there’s nothing to stop them from moving away from Softcover if they choose.

With features like the code and screencast support, Softcover seems to be a particularly good fit for technical authors, but Hartl said it can also produce “less heavily formatted documents such as nonfiction books and novels.” He added that he wants to lower the technical barriers to using Softcover’s production system (right now it’s “best-suited to writers who are comfortable using a text editor and a terminal window”), and to introduce a marketing guide to help new authors build an audience.

Softcover has been funded by profits from the Ruby on Rails Tutorial. Hartl said he’s open to taking outside investment “on the right terms.”

Introducing from Softcover on Vimeo.