Friday, May 18, 2012

Lean Startup And Writing

There's a concept going around called "Lean Startup." Maybe you've got this idea for a better mousetrap: You invent the thing. You tool up a factory and produce a bunch. You open a storefront to sell them. And what's missing? Customers. You will have to make people aware of your solution. Not just any people, but those who can afford your mousetrap.

Lean Startup turns this line of thinking inside out. Start with the people you can most easily reach, offer them goods on a web page, and THEN invent, tool, and produce. The premise is that we make guesses about what folks want and we offer the goods as an experiment to confirm that guess.

If nobody responds, we're only out the cost of producing the "landing" web page. However, if tons of people hit that web page to get the goods, we know we've got customers. And if you've their email addresses, you can get back with them. It's revolutionary.

What has it to do with writing?

When some ink-stained wretch starts scribbling, s/he has to decide what to write. The answer may be "what I want" or "what my publisher wants," but a better answer is "what your readers want." How will I know that? Guess?

Suppose you take your N coolest story ideas. Compose the blurb you'd use to sell each story. Then drop that blurb into a web page. Put it up and try to drive traffic to it. If nobody ever visits, stop. You can't reach that story's audience even if the story is awesome and the audience is massive.

Conversely, if you get a few hundred visits, you know you can attract eyeballs to your story--a necessary first step. And if you get them to click on your response key, you know you have some real demand for that story.

I don't know about you, but I get 100x more story ideas than I have time to write up. I could use such a scheme to prioritize pending writing projects. This is reader pull, not writer (or publisher) push.

It's not that much different from setting up a Kickstarter project to score a fat advance for your non-fiction book on meat, or something--but I digress. I think this is how to proactively engage fears of the conveyor-belt and furnace. Instead of listening to some soon-to-be-downsized editor tell you what you should be writing, you'll hear readers expressing their preferences.

Sounds great, right?

I forget who wrote this: I suspect it was Jerry Pournelle who wrote that an an author is like a storefront. After I found out that I liked Exiles to Glory, I backtracked to find High Justice, Birth of Fire, West of Honor, The Mercenary, then I haunted booksellers for each subsequent book with his name on it. (I'd say the same about Clive Cussler and Tom Clancy, except it's complicated and distracting. I'll explore that distraction another day.)

That's how I read when I discover someone whose prose I adore. I drink up everything they've written and watch for new releases. The writer must protect his or her reputation and respect his reading public.

I ran this idea past someone who knows a lot more about writing than I do. She didn't like it because it is a bad idea to tease readers with something they want, but can't have. It creates resentment. She said it's like waving a candy bar in front of a two-year-old and going, "You can't have it."

This is a pitfall of what I'll call "Lean Writing" (until someone comes up with a better name). If you put up a landing page promising Ailurophages From Space" then you'll need to manage expectations of those who tell you they want to read about aliens eating kittens.

"No, it hasn't been written yet." "Yes, I'm waiting for N emails from folks promising to buy it." "Or yes, I'm X% complete with the I'th draft (where N, X, and I are numbers that'll vary)."

In the software world we have a term "vaporware" that we apply to cool software that someone promised, but never delivers.

Do you remember when I wrote about Heinlein's Five Commandments? Commandment #2 says, "You must finish what you write." Suppose you break it:
  • If nobody knows, then nobody gripes. 
  • If you're a traditional writer with a traditional agent and editor, they'll gripe. 
  • But if you put up a "Lean Writing" landing page, then everyone who clicks the "I want it" button will come after you with torches and pitchforks. And your writing brand will be likened unto the purveyors of "vaporware." 
Don't be that guy.

So, what do you think? Will "Lean Writing" work? Why or why not?

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