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Dangerous ideas from the world of startups

The art of exposing our ideas to the world and listening for their response

Dustin Kurtz, marketing manager at Melville House, wrote a piece last week about the incursion of startup vocabulary in the world of book publishing. He says:

[N]ow the models and the metaphors of the tech industry are, full-throatedly, without embarrassment, being used to talk about not just the methods of publishing books, but the books themselves, and this is a grand and wondrous idiocy, a diminishment of art, a gravity well of stupidity so deep that we cannot even talk about it properly, only study its effects.

As someone who has helped without embarrassment to bring those models and metaphors to the industry, my interest was piqued.

The chain started with a blog post on the New Yorker site. Writer Betsy Morais attended O’Reilly’s Tool of Change Conference and focused her reporting on the work of Peter Armstrong‘s Lean Publishing and Tim Sanders’ Net Minds. The piece is wonderfully accurate, but structured in that way that casually dismisses the West Coast technological carpetbaggers.

Prompted by the post, Kurtz’s discomfort seems to be the always present tension art between commerce. Whenever commerce suggests a different process for art, the literati cry foul. Suggesting a more open writing process, for example, automatically means that a book will end up written for the reader of the least-desirable denominator or as Kurtz describes, “tailoring a book to a focus group the way companies might test out an ad-spot for antacid.”

When Tom Wolfe started writing Bonfire of the Vanities, he was not holed up in a writer’s colony. He shared the manuscript he was writing on the pages of Rolling Stone, releasing 27 installments over the course of a year. Wolfe called the serialization “a very public draft.” He spent two more years revising the novel before Bonfire of the Vanities was released as a book in 1987, to critical acclaim and commercial success. Charles Dickens used the same process for every one of his novels and we know through reading correspondences he had with illustrators and colleagues that the development of those stories was impacted by their feedback and the feedback of the reading public. At SXSW Interactive 2013, I heard Steve Carpenter, the creator of the TV show Grimm, talk about how he changed the ending to his novel Killer after fans didn’t like the first one he wrote. “I wanted to make the readers happy,” he said.

The most important concept we can learn from what is happening in today’s startup movement is the art of exposing our ideas to the world and listening for their response. The mantra “Get out of the building” from startup patriarch Steve Blank tells entrepreneurs that the answers they are looking for are not going to be found in front of their computers or talking amongst themselves. Matt Mullenweg, the founder of Automattic, goes even further saying, “You can never anticipate how an audience will react to something you’ve created until it’s out there. That means every moment you’re working on something without it being in the public it’s actually dying, deprived of the oxygen of the real world.”

Kurtz writes, “Are we to the point where the act of being alone, writing to an imagined audience and not a real responsive audience is akin to hiding?”

Yes, that is precisely what we are saying.

Art for art’s sake is fine, but if we are going to introduce the notion of commerce and the idea that someone is going to pay for the artist’s work, then it is completely reasonable to suggest a different process to evaluate and commercialize the work.  In writing Every Book Is A Startup, we tested the notion of whether the book should even be developed. We published four iterative versions of the project and digitally distributed them with readers paying a gradually increasing price based on the amount of material included. I used feedback from readers to determine the next chapter. We ended up selling several hundred copies. By almost any measure, it is clear there is not a commercial market for the project and by taking small steps, neither my publisher and I regret the project by having over-invested in its creation.

I don’t understand Kurtz’s objections. These are not metaphors, they are business terms being used to describe the business of publishing. Publishers are venture capitalists who assemble a portfolio of projects to mitigate financial uncertainty of publishing books. Authors are entrepreneurs who bring an idea and, in the words of Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham, are “relentlessly resourceful” in their drive to succeed. And books themselves are startups in search of an audience, competing for attention in a very crowded marketplace of ideas.

Todd Sattersten is the author of Every Book Is A Startup: The New Business of Publishing. He is also the founder of BizBookLab, a company that helps experts create and publish books. Todd lives in Portland, Oregon.

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  • Stephanie Sun

    As an avid reader of literary fiction and classics and a self-published (digital only) author of literary fiction who has read and enjoyed both EVERY BOOK IS A STARTUP and LEAN STARTUP, let me offer my services here as peacemaker.

    It seems that a lot of pride and fear are obscuring a truth that has already been proven: that digital/POD serial narratives can work very, very well creatively and commercially. An ideal length for episodes seems to be the length of a novella or short novel: 25,000 to 60,000 words.

    Unfortunately for book-curious friends in tech, publishing digital/POD serial narratives is so simple even with minimal guidance from online book retailers that Hugh Howey, et al. stumbled upon it by accident.

    That being said, any writer worth her weight in cheese sandwiches (yes, that’s an Atwood shout-out) will tell you that writing well – whether your principal goal is to entertain or enlighten (hopefully both!) – involves an inhuman level of concentration that is only achieved through solitude and a certain amount of *hiding*. When to hide and when (and from whom) to seek feedback has always been a balancing act that each writer must work out on their own.

    THAT being said, I found this LEAN STARTUP takeaway fairly devastating as a writer:

    “The big question of our time is not Can it be built? but Should it be built?”

    Additionally, I don’t think that anyone who has done any kind of speculative creative work can not help but be moved by Eric Ries’s impassioned arguments in that book that the biggest tragedy of any entrepreneurial failure is the wasted time and efforts of talented people.

    Indeed, if technology has any role or mandate in literature, it should be to make it easier, cheaper, and less risky for quality books to get written and find their readers.

    Let me end by highlighting this great smell test that Hugh Howey helpfully tweeted yesterday:

    “Publishing in the modern age is fraught with decisions, all of which are made simple by placing the reader *first* and working from there.”

    To the extent that a publishing startup inserts unnecessary complexity between authors and readers with the intention of extracting value from authors and/or readers, it will “achieve failure” much faster than even “art for art’s sake.”

    • jwikert

      Great summary, Stephanie!

  • Mary Fifer

    Hmm… I’m very glad that Joe sent this to Linked In. I’d
    forgotten the way that Charles Dickens produced and promoted some of his books
    and am glad for the reminder. The feedback would certainly have been a help in
    his success and this is a great reminder to keep this in mind with any process
    of development.

    On another note, when I discovered that Mr. Dickens had been
    paid by the word, I was happy to tell my high school children why he used so
    many descriptive.

    Stephanie’s note: “if technology
    has any role or mandate in literature, it should be to make it easier, cheaper,
    and less risky for quality books to get written and find their readers.”
    This is so true. In the end it is the reader who makes the final decision on
    whether to read and promote a book. Technology makes this end of the bargain
    much easier, too.

    Thank you for posting.

    • http://www.facebook.com/pinky.penquino Pinky Penquino

      I think Mr. Kurtz needs a good editor. That quote by him was one, long, run-on sentence that needed work!