I’m an author. I’m an entrepreneur. My company consists of me and my words. When, as a kid, I dreamed of writing, I didn’t envision creating a brand. I didn’t anticipate the need for a marketing strategy and a business plan. Even as I began to write my first novel and then shop it to agents, or even when I realized that indie publishing provided more options for me, it never fully dawned that I was starting a company.
I can’t look back at a single aha moment. Rather, it settled in layers. In bits and pieces, I discovered the world of startups. Admitting I run a startup company based on my writing eventually led me to Eric Ries’s book, The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses.
While I was asked to read the book due to my involvement in another startup company, I found the values and principles appropriate for indie authors. If you are an indie author and you can admit you’re an entrepreneur, I think the book will prove helpful for you as well. Several critical questions brought up in the book should be answered by any author trying to make money from their craft:
What is your guiding vision?
Another way to think of this is the big picture that won’t change even if your first efforts fail. For me, I deduced early on that my writing is about bringing vivid events and relationships to life. My first slogan was, “Enjoy the show.” I still like it. Since then I’ve added the idea that I write bad guys who do good things and good guys who do bad things. And the most common thread in all of my writing is that, “I explode things.” I believe in writing books that serve as an escape. Only when I convince the reader to let down his or her guard do I sneak tiny reflections of life into the story. In so doing, they glide seamlessly into the subconscious and impact life without even knowing it. I’m subversive like that.
What are your leap of faith assumptions?
We all make assumptions about our products (ie. stories). People will want to read them is the biggest and broadest. Beyond that, I have assumed that genre fiction readers like to read digitally. My readers like shorter, quicker and cheaper stories. They want to read about over the top moments that collide into each other in a continual and exhausting manner. They like to read in different genres as long as all the stories are fast paced and fun.
What is your customer archetype?
Without needlessly shrinking your audience, who is reading your stories? Who do you think will read them? How can you get to know those people to make sure you are right? (Maybe you know those people really well already?)
What is your value hypothesis (or value proposition)?
In other words, what do your readers really want? What do they value? Do they want to be entertained? Do they want to be challenged? Do they want to get away from the nagging responsibilities of life? Do they want to dream of being someone else? Now figure out how to deliver to your readers what they really want. For my part, my readers want a good time, an outrageous spectacle that is so tense at times that it’s laughable. I try to give them a good show page after page. If I do that, I believe they will keep coming back for more, because that’s what they value.
What is your growth hypothesis?
In other words, how do you plan on making money? Making more money? For most of us writers, we need some combination of sticky and viral engine growth. We need to generate core fans that keep coming back for everything we write. And we need those people to spread the word to everyone they know in order for us to add new core fans.
Strategies to accomplish this vary wildly. Social media, conferences, paid advertising and keywords, SEO and websites. Some people develop a strategy around one book. I have chosen to focus on a strategy of publishing as many products as possible. This has been part of the reason I’ve landed on episodic fiction–so that I can generate new products on a weekly basis.
What is your core assumption?
All of this will eventually lead you to your central strategic belief. What is going to make all the other pieces come together? For me, currently, my core assumption is that genre readers appreciate frequent serial content that saves them discovery and curation labor. It takes time to find new stuff to read. A new author with a new series is a risk. If the risk pans out, the reader wants to be rewarded with as much good reading content as possible before having to get off the couch and search for something else to read.
This assumption has lead me to create a shared universe (www.hiberverse.com) with three other writers in order to provide weekly episodes for the next two years. Will it work? The next step is creating an initial hypothesis and testing it.
What is your initial hypothesis? And how can you test it?
My friends and I are each generating 3 to 6 initial episodes within the Hiberverse before we go public. Using WordPress along with some nifty plugins, we will be able to sell the finished ebook episodes with very little upfront expense. Using services and websites such as NoiseTrade, Inkshares, Kickstarter, Smashwords, Leafless, Facebook, Aerbook, Wattpad, Pinterest, Goodreads and Jellybooks, we will endeavor to build our email list to sustainable numbers (somewhere north of 500) in the next few months.
My hypothesis is that genre readers will repeatedly pay $1 an episode for serial content written by multiple authors in the same storyworld if we provide the content on a regular, weekly schedule.
After gathering 500 users via email list by giving away for free the first episode in each of our five serials, I will test my hypothesis first by seeing how many of those people are willing to pay $1 for episode 2 in each serial. Then the final key metric will be the percentage of readers who return to buy episode three in each serial. If 25% of readers who receive the first episode come back to buy the second episode and then 75% of those readers return to buy the third episode that will provide me with enough raw data to crunch the numbers. With that percentage of fall off vs. return spending, how many readers will I have to sign up on my email list to make a sustainable living? You get the point.
What is a lean startup?
According to Eric Ries, the whole point of being lean is to avoid waste. Only build or create the bare minimum viable product (MVP) you need to test your initial hypothesis. This is what Ries would describe as “Build, measure, learn.” If you do this incrementally, you never have to tear everything up and start from scratch. If an assumption proves false, you can either choose to tweak and test again or to “pivot” by altering your product, target audience, etc.
What is your MVP?
What things are critical to you getting your stuff out there and seeing if people want to pay you for it? Figure that out and focus on those things and those things only. If you don’t need twitter to test your initial hypothesis, then don’t waste your time. If you don’t need an agent, then don’t look for one. If you don’t need a website, don’t make or pay for one.
You don’t have to create a finished career along with a dozen backlist titles, impeccable credentials and a slew of references to take the first step toward success. Your first hypothesis might be as simple as, “There are five people in this world, not related to me, who will pay for my stories.” If that is the case, then write and publish a story and come up with a plan and a test to see if you can or can’t find those five people. After you do that, celebrate the fact that you are now running a lean startup.