Finding Your Early Readers

This is the last post in this thread that uses The Lean Startup, by Eric Ries as the jump off point. If you haven’t already done so, I recommend that you buy a copy of the book or get it from the library. There are examples from Ries’ life as an entrepreneur, as well as other business owners he’s interviewed about getting their product or service into the hands of customers, that are invaluable.

By now you’ve written a short story in the world you’ve created or repurposed the first chapter of your book as a short story. Your next step is to find your early readers who are willing to give you feedback on what you’ve produced. Remember, this isn’t about changing everything, or even anything, about your book to fit the whims of your customers. This is to see how potential customers feel about your writing style, your world building, and your story-telling capability. If they point out things you agree with, you can decide whether it is worthwhile to incorporate the suggestions into your story or to leave the lessons learned for later books. This doesn’t mean you won’t be called out for a bad product. But if the suggestions significantly call for changes to your book, you must figure out if they are applicable to the current book you’ve created.

Finding your readers is a combination of making the product easily available for purchase and publicizing your product. That means before you make it available, you should spend some time thinking about what the best strategy will be. Since we’re talking about a short story, I think the best bet is for it to be available only by download. That cuts down on the amount of venues selling your story that you must keep track of. I’d recommend using a service like Smashwords since you need only upload your book once for it to be formatted for the major online distribution venues. There are other service companies like Smashwords out there too;  explore your options and ask other writers for recommendations.

After making your story available for download, next comes publicizing the early product. It’s a fine line you’re walking. Since this is an early version of your product (not the full book), you don’t need to launch a full-scale campaign to get word out. But in order to reach readers, you do need to spend some time developing your strategy. I recommend using social media at this stage. Keep in mind, though, your budget will have a direct impact on what type of social media campaign you want to launch.

There are two kinds of campaigns that I’ve found to be particularly effective: Facebook ads and Twitter themed tweets. Effective Facebook ads are ones that are well designed (remember, the picture is only thumbnail sized) and well-written. Facebook has plenty of advice on how to create an effective ad; I heartily recommend that you read about them here and here before you launch your campaign. Twitter has information on both promoted tweets and Twitter for Business. Decide on how much money you’re willing to budget for your campaign and what your time frame is. Look at who downloads your book, what feedback they can offer, and what, if any, can you use to improve your product.  Then decide if your product is worth launching or if you need to improve it before it hits the reading public. Be ready to write another short story or use the next chapter of your book to repeat the process if you’re not comfortable with launching the book as is.

Next week I’ll be looking at a new book: Imagine: How Creativity Works, by Jonah Lehrer. I first read about it in the WSJ and the premise is creativity can be learned. This is especially important for writers since I often hear about writer’s block and lamentations of a muse gone AWOL.

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.