The Lean Startup Method for the Writer

Last week I talked about the premise behind Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup. This week I’m interested in applying the lessons to writers. I’m curious how well the method holds up. Please feel free to jump in with questions and comments in the comment section.

The main idea of The Lean Startup is to not wait until you have the perfect idea or the perfect product. Rather, you start on a small scale launch to make sure you’re creating a product or service that consumers want to purchase. Once you identify your consumer base and provide them with an early version of your product, you improve on the various elements (design, content, strategy, etc) to tailor it to your vision and their needs. I like this idea applied to the writer because too many times I read in query letters that an author has spent years perfecting their story only to realize what they were writing was hot years ago (when they first began writing) and went out of style just as quickly. But can a writer attract early audiences with a beta (flawed, but available) version of their book when the current wisdom is to write the full book before querying agents?

My general answer is that a writer can produce a beta version of a book they are working on. This early version is going to be targeted to early adopters, readers who want to discover new writers before others do. They can be made up of agents and/or editors, but the rest of this group is going to be anyone interested in scouting out and finding good writing. The way I see a writer getting the beta versions of their writing into the hands of these early adopters is to: 1) self publish 2) post their work on a social media channel or on a blog.

As a tremendous amount of authors are doing, there is a way to self-publish short stories of your books through channels like Smashwords, Lulu, iUniverse, and Book Country (these are just the big ones that come to my mind, but there are many more companies out there offering self-publishing services). It is possible for an author to get their work out to the reading public to answer the simple question of, will people buy my books. Because you can tailor your price, cover, marketing strategy, and other elements before you go out with a longer product (ie a full length novel or nonfiction book), you can hone how you would like your brand to appear to your reader (keep in mind, though, that you need to have a strategy in place for how your books appear to readers. Consider this: publishers produce similar covers for books in a series or in the same genre by the same author to keep readers associating the books with the author. When they change covers, its probably because the first launch didn’t attract the volume of readership they thought it would. A publisher picking up an author’s self-published series or book will almost certainly rebrand the book with a new cover unless the current cover is extremely effective in attracting readers).

There is also the possibility of something as simple as tweeting a chapter of your work-in-progress (Lauren Oliver did this with the first chapter of Pandemonium) or posting it on a site like facebook. The point of this exercise is not to simply get the book out there. The point is to bring in early readers who want to discover the next new author. By you bringing in your audience, you build up a following even before you have a book out.

Here is my only criticism of The Learn Startup method. I do think that before anyone launches a business, whether it be writing books or opening a car wash, they do need to spend a fair amount of time researching and planning how they plan to execute their strategy. I think planning has to go hand-in-hand with an early product release and while Ries doesn’t dissuade his reader from planning, I feel he doesn’t emphasize it as much as he should.

Join me next week for case studies of The Lean Startup method applied to real authors. Also, if you feel your writing career has consciously or unconsciously followed the methods of The Lean Startup, please post your stories in the comment section. I’d love to look at this method in real-time.