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A Book is a Start-up

15 March 2013

From The New Yorker:

“A book is a startup,” declared Peter Armstrong in a speech about his serialized book company, Leanpub. “I said it in 2010, and I’ll say it again.”

. . . .

Tim Sanders, a former Yahoo executive who is now the C.E.O. of Net Minds, a service for crowd-sourcing book production, said that it’s “the allure of the book” that entices people to work on one.

Sanders founded Net Minds about a year ago. “The biggest problem with authors today is that they overestimate their writing and editing skills,” he said, adding that, without editing, “It would have been ‘The Meh Gatsby.’” Then he told me his solution: “Run your book like a start-up.”

Armstrong suggests that a book and a start-up are each “a risky, highly creative endeavor undertaken by a small team, with low probability of success.” In either case, he says, you can go into “stealth mode”—which, he contends, will easily result in creating something that nobody wants. “To say you’re going to go off in a room and write the perfect thing without getting feedback from anybody is—I don’t want to say ‘arrogant’—but I couldn’t do it.” Editors, he adds, “function as a good proxy for readers”—but are not as effective as readers themselves.

And so, it follows that the solution is to begin a project—in this case, a book—and let the people have at it. He calls this Lean Publishing, or “the act of publishing an in-progress book using lightweight tools and many iterations to get reader feedback, pivot until you have the right book and build traction once you do.”

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

The Business of Writing

15 Comments to “A Book is a Start-up”

  1. I got about half way through before I started shaking my head NO. Books by committee are something I personally just can’t do.

    “And so, it follows that the solution is to begin a project—in this case, a book—and let the people have at it.”

    I’m thinking they could just rename this “How to be James Patterson.”

    If anybody needs me I’ll be in my room writing. I’ll come out when the book is finished.

    Content container? Really?

  2. This is really the difference between book as entertainment and book as art. I wonder if there is a happy medium. I want my books to be seen as entertainment but I want to create them as art. :D

  3. Wow, the business folks are seeing gold in the hills, and they are starting to enter the fray.

    Writing a book purely as a way to make money is fine. It’s not my way, and it most likely will not produce great art. But I think there is room for highly commercial works as well as a more personal art form.

    Fortunately, there is no shelf space limitation, so all books can be represented. And any good books bring more readers into the field, so books, rather than competing with one another, actually support one another.

    All that said, I think he has a very good point when he talks about getting feedback on your work. Whether someone is writing for business or for art, slowing down and getting expert feedback is essential.

  4. A book isn’t a startup, an author (or pen name) is a start up.

    Iterating on a single book is a sure fire way to make a subpar product. Iterating with each book (ie. trying to make each book better) makes sense.

    This isn’t a question of art vs. entertainment. They just flat out don’t understand (fiction) publishing. Faster speed to market means a lower quality, period. Almost no book can be profitable if you’re paying for developmental, line and copy edits over and over again, not to mention formatting and cover art. Which means these authors are skipping them. In contrast, even moderately successful software can support a product tester for every two weeks (and most other release tasks can be automated.

  5. “The Meh Gatsby”

    I think that’s the one I read in college….

    My opinion of Gatsby aside — if he considers The Great Gatsby an example of what should be published, it was not written by committee.

  6. Writing by committee steals the uniqueness of an author’s voice. It’s one of the reasons I quit using crit sites long ago. Everyone thinks there are “rules” to writing. Really, there are no rules except those we worship when starting out. A writer who finds their unique voice and applies it to their own vision of what they enjoy is going to connect better with readers than a bunch of writers all with their own ideas trying to shove them into this little box of a story.

    I’ve always told people, write what *you* love first. Don’t try to please others. I find that in focusing on my own vision, my stories come out far better than they could than if I listened to the dozens of others out there all giving their input. Or at least, I’m happier.

  7. Didn’t Isaac Asimov write his work without any input from anybody? Doesn’t Harlan Ellison?

    There are a lot of published authors out there who go it alone.

    I want my work copy edited for consistency, but unless you can find me an editor like the ones that worked with the greats, I’ll stick to my vision of the novel, thank you.

    That said, I notice whenever I get stuck, I talk to a friend who says “Yes” and “Uh-huh” in all the right places, and figure out where I need to go. Talking out loud seems to fix the problem.

  8. He really wants to sell, doesn’t he. Too bad he’s insulting both readers and writers trying to do it.

  9. Anyone remember Naked Came The Stranger? That was a committee of about twenty people, and it worked.

    • It is true that groups can produce amazing things:

      Casablanca was written by committee. (For that matter, most movies, even those written and directed by auteurs, are created by committee.)

      However, Casablanca wasn’t a case of “letting the people have at it” — it was a lucky team of incredibly talented people working at a time that put them seriously in sync in terms of message. They all did their job, rather than meddling in the jobs of others.

      But the point is that, usually, meddling by producers (and editors) and the like results in a tackier work, not a better one.

      Here’s what I think about feedback (from editors, from audience, from anyone):

      For beginners, feedback is best used as post mortem. The beginner doesn’t have enough self-assurance to know what he or she wants, so it might be a lesson learned, but the work is not helped. (The exception would be basic things like, oh, spelling.) The beginner is better off using that feedback to improve on the next work of art.

      Only the experienced and self-assured writer can really benefit from feedback the way this guy is recommending. That that’s because he or she can resist all the tone-deaf advice that is embedded even in the best feedback, and find gold in the rest.

  10. What’s with all these people trying to make reading and writing into group activities? Must not be introverts.

  11. I am of the opinion that writing a novel is writing your vision of the story you want to tell in the way that you believe the story needs to be told. Other people can be useful sounding boards for plot points, if you are debating between two paths and ask a friend if one seems contrived or deus ex machina or whatever the fear is. Critiques can be good for pointing out the places where you failed to actually do what you were attempting to do or what you thought you were doing. But for me, those are just having the reader point to the places that didn’t work–if I choose to fix them, I am fixing them my way, according to my vision, not letting someone else decide how the story goes.

    Some types of collaboration work, though. I have seen a letter from PKD praising Bladerunner as a world enriched by many people’s expertise and creativity into a place he himself could never have imagined on his own. Still, I tihnk that works better for art that *can’t* be created by one person, such as film or theater or mulit-player music, rather than for art that is essentially one person’s vision. Does anyone think van gogh could have used some painting partners? Thought not.

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