The Minimum Viable Product for self-publishing

by Suw on January 8, 2015

The concept of a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) is a common one in the tech world. Wikipedia defines it as a product with “just those core features that allow the product to be deployed, and no more”. Entrepreneur Eric Reis defines it as “that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.” And Ash Maurya defines it as “the smallest thing you can build that delivers customer value (and as a bonus captures some of that value back).”

Using a few more words, an MVP is the simplest version of your product that you can create which allows you to find out whether your idea is a good one, and whether your potential customers are going to be both interested in it and willing to pay for it. It is either the foundations upon which you build, or it is the least amount of brickwork to rip out when you decide you need to change your plans.

The MVP is a useful concept, and one that i think applies to the business of self-publishing as much as technology.

Back in 2010, I thought I had a pretty good idea about the MVP I needed in order to launch a publishing Kickstarter. I had a half-written novella, a bunch of followers on Twitter, and enthusiasm. That was my MVP. I assumed that with those foundations, I could build my writing career.

I was wrong. It’s taken me nearly five years to realise that I was wrong, and to start ripping out all that brickwork so that I can start again.

In tech, this moment of realising that your MVP is going in the wrong direction and that you need to correct your course is called a ‘pivot’. Some tech companies pivot slightly, changing their target customer group, perhaps. Others frankly do a pirouette, changing everything about their product so that it becomes something almost unrecognisable. My pivot has been pretty small, really, but that doesn’t diminish its importance.

So what is the self-publishing MVP? At what point do you flip from being a writer to being a writer-entrepreneur?

Before we go any further, I want to define ‘writer’ and ‘writer-entrepreneur’, because the term ‘self-publishing’ is these days too fuzzy to be useful. ’Self-publisher’ can mean different things to different people, from simply putting a book up online for anyone to download, to selling hand-crafted hardback books, and everything in between. So to make sure that we don’t stumble over our assumptions, I’m using these definitions:

Writer: Someone who writes fiction and/or non-fiction, who may or may not make that work available online, but who definitely does not charge for access to that work.

Writer-entrepreneur: Someone who writes fiction and/or non-fiction, and who sells that work in whatever format and through whatever channels they so choose with the intent of making money.

(There’s a third category of writer who sells their work but doesn’t care whether they make money, but I’m ignoring them for now as they aren’t really relevant to this post.)

Many writers want to become writer-entrepreneurs at the earliest possible opportunity. They think that their Minimum Viable Product is a book, with a cover, which may or may not have been professionally edited, typeset, and prepared for paper or ereader. That was pretty much what I thought my MVP was as I was writing  Argleton.

In my mind, I would finish Argleton, crowdfund a print run, write my next book, crowdfund that, and build up an audience and an income which would support my writing and my whole writing career would nicely snowball until I could write full time.

That seems really naïve now. Well, truth be told, it was really naïve, rather like my decision in 1998 to go freelance so that I would “have more time to write”. Excuse me whilst I catch my breath from laughing so hard.

Nothing destroys writing time like running your own business.

The Argleton Kickstarter was nearly a failure. The only reason it succeeded was because Kickstarter decided to begin a new weekly newsletter for all its users to highlight cool and interesting projects. For whatever reason, they decided that Argleton was cool and interesting, and within a few hours of their newsletter being sent out, Argleton was funded.

In a way, that was a shame. If Argleton had failed, I would have realised that there was more to a bookish MVP than just having a book. You need readers too. A lot of them. More than just your mates. More than just the ~4,000 Twitter followers that I had at the time. You need a group of readers who already like your work, who are willing to read it, and, more importantly, willing to buy it. You need to have those people collected in one spot, perhaps a mailing list, and you need enough of them that you don’t require every single one of them to support you to be successful.

It’s a hard truth to swallow that only a fraction of your supporters will pay up when you have a book on sale or a Kickstarter project going. In direct mail, it’s common for only 1%, or even less than 1%, of recipients to respond to an offer.

In social media, it’s common for that number to be much, much smaller, sometimes orders of magnitude smaller. Neil Gaiman once tweeted one of my projects, which I was very grateful for and also very excited about given that at the time he had about 1.5 million followers on Twitter. I got a grand total of three extra supporters. That wasn’t Neil’s fault, and it wasn’t his followers’ fault, it was entirely my fault for having a project that wasn’t compelling enough, wasn’t attractive enough. But it was a tough lesson to learn that having a big reach wasn’t any guarantee of success. It was humbling.

If you have a dedicated mailing list of people interested in what you write, then the percentage who pay up might be a bit higher, but not much higher. Maybe 5%. If you’re lucky. (And it’s worth noting here that a mailing list is better than, say, a Twitter account, because then you know for sure people are subscribed for your writing, not because they find your cat pictures cute or because they knew you at school.)

So how do you find these readers? How do you build up a mailing list that has 20 to 100 times the number of subscribers than the number of people you need to buy your book or support your Kickstarter?

Well, this is why one novella is not enough, it’s not an MVP. One novel is not enough. You need to have written, edited, and perfected enough books that you can slowly and consistently build up a loyal following that’s big enough to make the move to author-entrepreneur viable.

Because being an author-entrepreneur is a lot of work. You will spend a lot of time dealing with covers, with promotion, with metadata and understanding book marketing. You will waste even more time poring over web traffics statistics and sales statistics and dealing with different retail channels and maybe even direct sales and testing your marketing assumptions and doing special offers. And every moment spent doing that is time spent not writing. And if you’re like most of the rest of the world, you have a job to do and maybe even a family to raise whilst you’re doing all this other stuff too.

You have to ask the question: Is it worth spending all that time doing all that extra work when you could just give your stuff away, focus on your writing, build up your readership and then shift to selling when you have a big enough constituency? How many more books could you write if you weren’t doing all the admin required by selling? Is jumping into author-entrepreneurship with just one book not putting the cart a few miles before the horse?

Of course, we all want feedback. We all want people to read our books and be blown away, to become fans. We all believe that what we do is good enough to sell right now, and that we can build up our fanbase whilst coining it in. We all want to believe that. And some people achieve that. But for every success you see lauded about in the blogs there are hundreds, thousands of people for whom that didn’t work, but you never hear a cheep out of them or about them. Because firstly, no one wants to talk about failure, and secondly, no one wants to listen.

It’s hard to be honest with ourselves when our egos are involved, and self-publishing is ultimately an act of ego (no matter how fragile that ego is). It’s taken me five years to learn to be honest with myself about my writing and the damage that trying to force it into the shape of a business did to my enthusiasm for creating. It’s not that writing couldn’t eventually be a business, or that I don’t have the stomach for all the work surrounding it, it’s that that my MVP wasn’t ready. I was premature. I was impatient. Worse, I ignored my gut feelings.

Back in 2005, I started the Open Rights Group with a bunch of like-minded digital rights activists. I believed in the power of free. I narrated a chapter of Larry Lessig’s Free Culture, and wrote a report on the power of free as a business model. But when it came to releasing my own work, I baulked. Although my gut told me to just give my words away free, I didn’t. I betrayed my own values, and maybe what followed was karmic retribution for my own hypocrisy.

When you are starting as a writer, free has more power than you can ever imagine. Free means people can experiment with your work without risk. Free means that you can experiment with your work without risk. Free means you can find readers without loads of admin overheads. Free means you can focus on what matters: Your writing. Free means goodwill. Free means freedom.

These days, there’s this idea that there’s easy money to be made self-publishing. Maybe for some that’s true. But if you love your craft, if you want to be good, then you owe it to yourself and to your readers to think more deeply about what you’re doing and why. It makes more sense to refine your craft and build your audience than it does to jump in at the deep end and get caught up in activities that are a distraction.

Your have to have a solid MVP, you have to launch your writing business at the right time, with the right products and the right audience.

With the benefit of hindsight and a decent amount of failure under my belt, this is what I think makes for a good author-entrepreneurial MVP:

1. Have lots of stories. Shorts, novellas, novelettes, novels, epics, flash fiction, whatever length or format you want. But just have lots of it, preferably in a variety of lengths. Have enough that you can throw away the weakest works and still have lots left.

2. Have lots of works in progress, lots of ideas. Keep a note book. Keep writing down your ideas, because ideas beget more ideas and if you nurture them you will never run out.

3. Have a newsletter. Release free stories, novels, novellas regularly and encourage your readers to subscribe to your newsletter, which you will write every month.

4. Have a fanbase. Resist the urge to turn your writing into a business, and that includes running crowdfunding projects, until you have a decent-sized readership. How do you know how big is decent-sized? Figure out how much money would cover your editorial, production, and promotion costs for a book, and add a bit on for wages. Divide by the price of the book to find out how many sales you need to make to break even. Multiply that number by 100. Choke. Pick a number that’s slightly smaller and that feels more manageable. It won’t be realistic, but it’ll be a start.

5. Have patience. This is the hardest thing. Writing is not easy. Business is not easy. And if you have limited time to spend, spend it writing, because without having written, you have no business. Don’t get swept off your feet with fairy stories of overnight success. Like Pulp, most of them took 15 years to get where they are now, they just don’t admit it.

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