This is a reprint of a post I made over on Kboards, but it was suggested I include it as a blog post as well. I don’t do a lot of posts aimed at indie publishers, but why the heck not?
I live in the land of Uber and Fitbit, where Apple is king and Google Glass is normal. Where Elon Musk holds court and billionaires seek the next Youtube. San Francisco is a fascinating culture with different rules, and a wholly different religion. It’s called 10x Thinking, the art of Dreaming Big. Those who embrace it risk everything playing the great game of business. They invite criticism, and they listen attentively when it is given. They make bold choices, and study failures closely.
This religion is not for everyone. For every successful startup there are dozens of flameouts. It is high risk, high reward. If you have a day job you hate, or need immediate income then you should give very serious consideration to the publish often methodology many successful authors espouse here.
Publishing often will help hone your craft, and give you invaluable experience. It can show you what works and doesn’t, because you are iterating very quickly. My religion refers to this as prototyping. Without it you are simply too slow. Too ungainly. We recognize the value in rapid releases, but not at the expense of quality.
Thou Shalt Be Agile
The startup world adheres to the Agile methodology. We have scrum masters and sprints, software suites and epic debates. All surrounding one simple principle. What was true yesterday may not be true today. It will definitely not be true tomorrow. We embrace Wayne Gretzky’s philosophy that good players go where the puck is. Great players go where the puck will be.
This often means a sharp pivot, a dramatic change to your business. For writers that can be identifying a potential hot new genre, or experimenting with shorter (or longer) works. You must be able to react quickly, which is the essence of any successful business.
This is why you hear the drum beat of publish quickly, but as you’ll see below this must be done very carefully.
Thou Shalt Breakout
There are hundreds of billions of dollars in funding available in San Francisco. CellScope (my company) has already raised 5.6 million dollars. We’re a tiny fish in a very large pond.
Every investor is looking for the same thing. They want to back The Next Big Thing. They don’t care if you can make a profit quickly. They care whether you can create or fundamentally redefine a market.
Nothing else matters. I understand the advocates of publishing quickly, because as some authors have pointed out that gives you more swings at the ball. More chances for a home run. But it risks sacrificing brand to do it. Mediocrity is dangerous, and excessive speed risks falling into that trap.
Thou Shalt Brand
Brand is everything. Your audience must not only know you exist, but eagerly await every product. They must become devotees of your religion, advocates in the quest for more converts.
Achieving this is the holy grail, the reason Apple succeeded and Blackberry face planted. It requires polish, consistency and patience. Your brand is like a garden, requiring constant care and attention if you want it to bloom.
You must not just create good products, but great ones. In our world that means amazing covers. Incredible blurbs. Stellar reviews, awarded to stellar products. Fail in any of these areas and readers will lose faith.
There can’t be any weak spots in your brand, any chinks in your armor. This is why investors give startups millions of dollars over several years before they expect them to show their work to anyone.
I’m guessing almost everyone here was an avid reader growing up. I devoured a fantasy novel every single day for years. I couldn’t tell you the names of the vast majority of books I read. I have no idea who the authors are.
But I remember Tad Williams. I remember Robert Jordan. I remember Michael Crichton. There was something different about their books, something that set them apart. My religion is all about identifying that something, then harnessing it.
If you want to break out you must master your craft, creating incredible stories readers absolutely love. The kind of books they will wait years for, just like they do for George R.R. Martin. Otherwise you are forgettable, and there is no worse fate.
Thou Shalt Beta Test
We all know how bad our first drafts are compared to a releasable product. Software works exactly the same way. You make a minimum viable product, then you show it to a handful of people.
You listen closely to their feedback and add or remove features accordingly. You show it to a larger group of people and see how they react, then iterate again. This process is repeated many times before you end up with a product worthy of The Almighty Brand.
Advocates of quick publishing iterate many times, often with disposable brand names. This allows them to learn while insulating them from the consequences of mistakes. I nearly took this approach for that very reason, but my time in software has taught me the value of user experience testing.
Releasing a product means immediate profit. It means seeing what things people will buy, but it doesn’t necessarily tell you why they bought it. To understand that you need to ask the right questions, and measure the trends in a limited subgroup of customers.
In our case that means finding your potential audience and having them beta read your book. Not just one or two people, but twenty or thirty. It means asking meaningful questions about what worked for them and what didn’t, then refining your product accordingly.
I re-wrote the first forty thousand words of No Such Thing As Werewolves almost from scratch after my first round of beta reading. My characters gained more definition, plot holes closed and my pace tightened.
Then I showed it to my writing coach, who tore apart my prose and pointed out the remaining flaws in the plot. I integrated her feedback, then showed the book to another crop of beta readers. They had a few last minute suggestions, but in general they loved it.
This process made me an immeasurably better writer, which made the first draft of the second book much stronger. I’m following the same process for that book now, and by the time I release it will be closer to mastery of my craft.
Thou Shalt Ship
There is a point of diminishing returns, and many writers never release a product because they are forever tinkering in a vain quest for perfection. I don’t think you should pump out unpolished products every month, but you DO need to put out products.
No Such Thing As Werewolves wasn’t perfect when I released it. There were over 20 typos, and several inaccuracies about the military hardware (*cringes*). But that didn’t matter. What did was reader reception.
Almost every beta reader and reviewer responded with one of two statements. Where is the next book, or I can’t wait to see the movie. This is gold in the 10x World. It means you have a chance to breakout.
Thou Shalt Iterate
I aimed for a small initial test market. 10s of copies a day, not hundreds or thousands. I listened to what my audience is saying, and am making changes based on that feedback.
I hired a proofreader to give the manuscript another pass. I tightened my blurb. Very soon I’ll be redoing my covers to be more uniform. The initial 2,000-3,000 people who bought my book will see a beta version of it.
The rest will see a polished uniformly branded product.
My Plan for 2015
In April when book 2 launches I will aim for my first Bookbub. I will market anywhere and everywhere to drive readers into my sales funnel, knowing that the product they are about to consume is the best one I could have produced.
I plan to stay agile, to adjust my strategy as often as necessary to make better products and to continue honing my craft until I am the type of writer that inspires fandom.
This means consistently releasing products. A novel every six months, something readers can depend on. If they like my novellas (The First Ark is doing well so far, but its too early to tell) then I will release one three months after every novel so something comes out every quarter.
Will that be enough to keep readers interested? If my stories are good enough, yes. If my user testing was accurate the books will spread, hopefully like wildfire.
I will help that along of course. As I’ve said elsewhere marketing is key. I need to get my books in front of people who will love them. That will be the topic of its own post, but many of the tools for doing this are things we’re already familiar with. Boxed sets is a great example.
With every book I’ll become a better writer and I will learn more about what my audience craves. In doing so I plan to redefine a currently underserved market.
Vampires have been huge for years. So have zombies. But there is a dearth of good werewolf books, and those that do exist take a completely different approach than I do. So I’m re-defining werewolves. Watch carefully what happens next Halloween. If I do my job right werewolves will be The Next Big Thing.
Am I both arrogant and ignorant for not releasing a short novella every month? Maybe. I’m gambling that my path leads to mastery of my craft and the existence of a strong brand marketed to a user tested audience.
It will be interesting looking back at this post in 6 or 12 months to see if I face plant like Blackberry or soar like Apple. In the mean time I’d love to answer questions and to hear about flaws in my plan.