When you commit to "release early and often" you have to actually do it

"Every Book Is a Startup" author Todd Sattersten on agile methods and the importance of scope.

SatterstenBookCover.gifLast July, I talked with Todd Sattersten (@toddsattersten), founder of BizBookLab, about his book, “Every Book Is a Startup,” for which he’s applying agile development methods to his publishing model.

Sattersten is getting ready to release chapters five and six — “The Pitch” and “Minimum Viable Publishing,” respectively — and it seemed a good time to check in on how the model is working and get a sneak peek on the ideas and concepts from the upcoming release.

Our interview follows.

You’re applying tech startup techniques to publishing on this project. What has worked well thus far? What lessons have you learned?


Todd Sattersten: I like the “release often” mantra that we have followed with this project. You hear from software developers that just making new releases generates new interest and more sales. We have seen that with “Every Book Is a Startup.”

The “release often” strategy also has its limitations, though. For instance, we can only sell through oreilly.com because retailers don’t yet support sending updates to customers — and I completely understand the difficulties now. If our readers download a new version of the electronic file, they lose all of their notes and comments because it is a new file. Somehow, as the publishing industry has moved forward with the transition to digital, we didn’t think about add/change/delete functionality. So, that is a little frustrating and has forced us to cut back on the number of releases.

The big lesson is that when you commit to release early and often is that you have to do it. Readers expect to see new material frequently, and I could be doing a better job sticking to the writing.

How are book pitches like startup pitches?

Todd Sattersten: Customers need to know precisely what the value proposition is for any product they might buy. When you pitch them, they want to know if you can solve their problem and what is so great about your solution. I say there are three primary questions — What? So what? Now what? — and we want the information in that order. What are you selling? Why should I care? What do you want me to do now? All entrepreneurs, whether developers of books or developers of software, need to be crystal clear with their prospects.

What kinds of mistakes do authors make when framing a book? And why is framing so important?

Todd Sattersten: Framing is about getting into the mind of the customer and seeing the problem from his or her standpoint. I do most of my publishing work in the business book genre, and you can see varying approaches to the same topic all the time. Take the area of time management and consider these three titles:

  1. Getting Things Done
  2. Workarounds That Work
  3. The Procrastination Equation

The first is the well-known book by David Allen that advocated a religious devotion to identifying tasks and flexibly completing them. The title could not be clearer or more universal. Russell Bishop’s book on workarounds is selling to someone quite different, someone who believes that temporary fixes and bypasses are the best solution to what they are dealing with. The final book by Piers Steel requires the reader to believe that procrastination is their problem and that this book might finally provide the answer they have been looking for. All of these may provide viable solutions, but they each frame the problem differently and, in turn, attract a different audience.

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What is a “minimum viable product”? How does it apply to publishing?

Todd Sattersten: The minimum viable product (MVP) is a concept popularized by Eric Ries and built around the idea that products should be released with the minimum necessary set of features as soon as possible. Creating MVPs creates a way for entrepreneurs to quickly see whether there is interest or if there are changes that can be made to better match the needs of the customer. The benefit is keeping risk as low as possible when you start.

In most of book publishing, it is the exact opposite. We require dozens of months to create and release most books. But we do use some of these principles: Pre-orders from readers are, in essence, a proof of demand; many book projects start with minimum viable products such as magazine articles or short stories. Countless books similarly started as serializations — Charles Dickens is well-known for this original format.

What is “controlling scope”?

Todd Sattersten: Too often, we are faced with the famous trilemma of time-cost-quality, and someone enters the discussion saying that we are going to have to give up one to make the project work. On the first pass, this makes complete sense. If you want high quality and you are short on time, you know you are going to have to spend more to get the project done. If costs matter and you want that same high quality, the project is just going to take longer. Most often, though, you need fast and cheap, which means quality is going to suffer.

Ultimately, this is a false construct. What these discussions need is the introduction of a fourth variable: The programmers using agile methodology will tell you to consider scope. The amount of work we choose to undertake is flexible, and controlling scope allows us to maintain an acceptable standard in relation to time, cost, and quality. The unspoken truth is that creators and customers have only a vague sense of what is important early in a project, and by choosing scope as the variable to control, we don’t build a bunch of stuff people don’t want or won’t use.

The Domino Project used that to a certain extent by constraining the length of their books. Seth Godin would say that short books benefit the reader, but I would argue they also reduce the project’s risk by getting to market quickly and not having to wait 12 months for the author to write a book no one was interested in.

This interview was edited and condensed.


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