What MVP really means for authors

Posted by: Kevin Tumlinson 6 months, 1 week ago

One of the biggest influences on the self-publishing industry, as it exists today, was internet marketing.

In a sense, self-publishing owes its current growth and maybe even its existence to the entrepreneurial pioneers of internet marketing. It was a high-energy, profit-fueled, exploratory form of marketing that was part Mad Men, part guerrilla warfare, and all about using data and creative drive in tandem to build marketing strategies. Thanks to internet marking, indie authors were introduced to concepts such as email lists, marketing funnels, targeting metrics, demographics, and much, much more.

One of the concepts popularized by the internet marketing world (though it didn’t originate there … it owes its origins more to the software industry than anything) was MVP—minimum viable product.

There are those who shudder at the very mention of MVP, crinkling their noses and shaking their heads. Or worse, becoming infuriated by the very idea of applying this concept to books—sacred objects wrought from the ether by toil, dedication, and round after round of edits! MVP, to some, is a dirty word.

But it really shouldn’t be.

In simplest terms, creating a minimum viable product means building something that has just enough features to satisfy customer need, and made with as high a quality as time and resources can allow. In other words, it's something you built to the best of your capabilities, in as short a time as possible, using whatever resources and tools you have.

For writers, this would mean writing and publishing a book as quickly as possible.

Before any among us get their hackles up, protesting the decline of quality in books thanks to self-publishers, let’s qualify what we mean a bit.

Fast doesn’t mean sloppy

We're just going to get this part out there right off: There's a significant advantage for authors who write fast and publish often, especially if those authors are writing a series.

Exceptions do apply, but for the most part, and in most genres, an author can build momentum for their career and increase their revenue a lot faster if they are heads-down and publishing as often as possible.

There's a misconception still held by a lot of people that writing a book is necessarily a long and drawn out process. Or, that any book written in less than [insert arbitrary timeframe here] "can't possibly be any good." At this point, however, there's more than enough evidence to prove that statement false. There are authors hitting major lists (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today) who wrote their books in under 30 days. Still more authors regularly top the charts on Amazon and Apple with books they wrote in weeks, maybe even just days, not months or years.

Writing fast doesn’t mean the work will be terrible.

And related to that, writing fast doesn’t mean cutting corners and producing work that isn’t ready for prime time.

One of the biggest reasons a self-published author can turn out several books per year rather than one every couple of years is because they have fewer cooks trying to run the kitchen. There are generally not agents or editors to contend with, and thus fewer sensibilities, pet peeves and quirks to work around. The result is a huge savings of time.

Of course, in the end, it matters less that you're churning out books by the week than you are churning out good books in that time. To that end, sometimes it's better to take a bit more studious and contemplative pace — at least a little.

Quality still counts

There’s fast, and then there’s good. The two can overlap, in the Venn diagram of self-publishing, but to get there takes some strategic thinking on your part. This is where the advice to write fast and publish often meets the necessity to slow down enough to make sure you’re doing this right.

That is to say: Don’t just rush through a manuscript and throw it online like tossing spaghetti against a wall.

One of the chief complaints we hear from the traditional publishing world is that indie authors are "destroying literature" by "publishing garbage." Or something similar. Sometimes the trad pub pundit is a bit more generous and elegant, but often they're using far worse language.

The truth is, there is some justification in this attitude toward self-publishing.

Though it may be unfair to paint the entire indie publishing industry with the same brush, the fact is that there is an inordinate number of bad books on the market, flying the Indie flag high and proud. Books with terrible covers, awful editing, ill-conceived book descriptions, and maybe even a genuinely horrific title. It's probably not far off the mark to estimate that these terrible books outpace the outstanding books by miles. And miles. And miles.

It’s a sad fact, for sure. However, I’m usually pretty quick to point out that there are a fair number of awful traditionally published titles out there as well. There are books from the Big Five publishers that have covers that make me cringe, book descriptions riddled with typos, and manuscripts that read like Freshman term papers.

High school freshman.

But bad from one side of the line doesn’t justify bad from both sides. And as authors, we have an obligation—some might even say a sacred duty—to produce the very best work we can, for our readers, for ourselves, and for history.

Quality is a make or break metric for a lot of readers. If a reader picks up a book that has a fantastic cover and a great premise, but there are typos on every page, they’re going to put that book down and never buy another thing from that author. If the cover looks like it was built by a grade school kid using finger paints, it probably won’t be bought at all. If the book description sounds like the author just phoned it in, and put no effort into it at all, readers are going to click right on past.

Quality means you’re committed. Quality means you’re putting in your best effort. You should be committed to creating the highest quality book that you can.

Will there be typos? Probably. I, for one, have spent thousands (and thousands) of dollars on editors and editing software, in a futile attempt to excise all errors from my work. I’ve been writing and publishing for more than thirty years, and there’s probably at least one typo in this very blog post. They happen.

Will you always nail your book description? Probably not. Writing a book description falls under a special category of writing called "copywriting," and it isn't as easy as it may seem. I worked as a professional copywriter for a couple of decades, both before and after I started publishing books regularly, and even I sometimes flub it. I write book descriptions for some of the most well-known authors on the NYT and USA Today lists, and sometimes I goof. It happens.

Will your cover always be on point, appealing to the perfect demographic, and perfectly aligning your book with other books in the genre? Unlikely. You can hire the most highly recommended cover designer on the planet, and sometimes they just don’t get it right. Sadly, you may not realize that until the book has been out for some time, and it hits you that you don’t look enough like the other books in your genre to make readers feel comfortable taking a chance on you. That definitely happens.

But that’s ok! It’s going to be alright! Because for self-published authors, unlike traditionally published authors, publishing your book is not necessarily the end.

So what’s the MVP?

When we talk about making your book an MVP, we're mainly talking about using every resource you have to get to book to the very best shape it can be. In most cases, that comes down to money.

If you have the money, you can hire someone to edit your book, someone to design your cover, someone to write your book description, even someone to market for you. If you’re working on a tight budget, however, you might have to improvise. And that’s where MVP thinking comes in.

An advantage to writing fast that we haven't yet discussed is that once you have a completed manuscript, you can take a bit more time getting it polished and ready for release. This becomes doubly important if you can't afford to pay someone to edit.

It's a given that you should be going through your manuscript to give it an edit pass yourself, even if you plan to hand it off to someone else. Putting in as much effort as possible to get your prose clean will save you money with some editors, who may charge for time rather than by the word or page or other metrics. But it also helps to improve your odds of being error free. If your paid editor has to fix typos on every page, they may be exhausted by the time they hit the middle of the book, which means they may start missing things. By giving them a manuscript in as clean a condition as you can manage, you’re saving yourself some headaches and giving your book a better shot.

Putting in your own editing time also allows you to hand your book to others—friends, family, beta readers—and get it back faster and cleaner than you might otherwise.

But in a pinch, if you can’t afford an editor and can’t find anyone willing to edit for free (or the occasional beer or sandwich), then you’ll at least know that your commitment to the quality of your book has gotten it to the best possible condition with the resources you have.

That's our definition of a minimum viable product, and it's the ruler by which we should measure each book's production.

The same holds true with cover design. Hiring a designer can be expensive, but you are served best by hiring the best designer you can find for the money you can afford to spend. Sometimes that means skipping lunch out with co-workers for a couple of weeks so you can afford to pay a designer from Deviant Art. Sometimes it means finding the best and most trustworthy artist on Fiverr. And sometimes it means using Canva’s free eBook cover template and doing the best you can do all on your own.

For book descriptions and other market copy, you might have to visit Amazon and read descriptions for the top 100 books in your genre, just to get a feel for how these things go so you can type one up yourself. If you have the cash, you could visit a site like Upwork.com to find a copywriter within your budget. There are ways to do this, and sometimes all they take is a little imagination and a lot of asking around.

The point is, creating an MVP means putting in an effort. Many people think that it means precisely the opposite—that it means throwing whatever junk you've cobbled together online and leaving it there. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Creating an MVP is about producing the very best book of which you are capable of producing, given the tools, talent, time, and other resources you have access to. That concept applies to the seasoned and successful authors as much as to both the will-be and new authors just starting out.

The real key to success with an MVP, however, is to keep one fact always in mind: Publishing for a self-published author is not the end of the process.

Iterate and Optimize

Authors and Podcasters Sean Platt, Johnny B. Truant, and David Wright have to be credited for popularizing the phrase "iterate and optimize" within the self-publishing community. They even have a book by that title. And though they didn't invent the idea, they understand it pretty well and share it with their audience regularly.

The root of this idea is creating an MVP from your book. From the beginning of the outlining and planning of your book, through writing and editing and revising, and on into cover design, book descriptions, and even marketing plans and strategies, your goal remains the same: Produce the best possible book with the resources you have.

But then there’s the next step …

The idea behind iterate and optimize is that once you have your book out in the world, it isn’t the end, it’s just the start of your relationship with readers. You’ve put your best into it, you’ve made it as ready for prime time as possible, and now it’s in the reader’s hands.

Some readers love to point out typos and other problems with a book. They aren’t (usually) trying to be mean. Usually, they have a genuine interest in helping an author make their book better. In fact, some readers look at this as a great excuse to reach out to an author they like, with something they can chat about.

When you get this kind of feedback (whether in an email, in social media, or in a review), make a note of it. If someone says there's a typo on page 7, find that typo, fix it, and re-upload your book. If someone says a chapter heading is missing for chapter 9, fix it. If someone says your cover is upside down … well, c'mon. You really should have caught that one.

I mean, I didn’t … but you should. Long story. Let’s move on.

The point here is that your book is out there for the world to see, and sometimes they’re going to find fault with it. So, knowing that, you should make it a race. You should compete with readers to find the problems with your book before they do, and to fix them before anyone else notices.

That’s the power of self-publishing. Unlike traditional publishing, when we find errors or problems in a book, we can fix them immediately. We may not be able to do anything about the books that have already sold, but we can fix the problems for future readers.

But iterate and optimize goes beyond fixing and editing after the fact.

Remember our definition? Creating an MVP means making your book the best it can be, given the resources you have. That might feel a little limiting, particularly if you don't have many resources to begin with. But here's the good news:

You can always get more resources.

As books sell, you can use the money to shore up anything that was lacking the first time around. Pay for better editing. Pay for a better cover. Pay for a copywriter. Pay for some marketing.

But don’t just wait for your books to start paying the bills. Resources are something you gain by going out and looking for them, and by being creative.

Maybe you take a graphic design course, so you can both learn to make your own covers and meet other designers who may need portfolio pieces, and might be willing to design your cover for free.

Maybe you start reading your book out, recording it so you can create an audiobook, and discover that this is helping you spot typos and errors easier.

Maybe you join an author group, and the lot of you can crowdsource refining book descriptions and learning marketing strategies.

That’s a start. And a good start, at that.

And it just keeps growing. As you do this work, as you study and learn and grow, you'll gain new resources. Your goal should always be to come back to your books and make them better and better, with every new resource you gain. You reset the bar on what your MVP can be, and eventually, you're releasing books at a level of quality that matches and maybe even surpasses traditional publishers.

That’s your goal. As an indie author, not only do you own all the rights to your work, you also own all the responsibility of it. Making it the very best it can be means being dedicated and working at it, never quite walking away from it. The book is never quite “finished,” because over time you’re gaining more and more resources you can use to improve on it.

In other words, you’re iterating a new version of the book with each pass, and optimizing it using the newest and latest resources at your disposal.

That’s how you gradually grow from “starting out” to “bestselling success.”

Take a moment to jot down all the tools and resources you currently have—from apps and software to friends and family to personal skills and expertise—and think strategically about how you can apply those resources to your book, to make it your minimal viable product. Get your book as ready as you’re able, and then launch.

“Real artists ship,” Steve Jobs famously said. He knew, as you now know, that the secret to success is launching, building momentum, and improving as you go.

Ready, fire, aim.

You’ll make it better next time.

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