Treat Your Book Like a Startup If You Want It to Succeed

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As the lines continue to blur between writing skills and business skills, so to do the pretexts of creating a book. The classic pretext for creating a book was, of course, to express a novel idea or story. In contrast, the classic pretext of starting a business was to harness an economic advantage to generate a livable profit. In past centuries and decades, the two weren’t necessarily interwoven, let alone be construed as the same.

Yes, there has always been money in books. And yes, businesses have always turned to some type of media to evangelize their products or services. But the relationships between the two—books to business, and business to books—were, to borrow from my software friends, “parent-child” in nature, which is to say that one side reigned superior to the other. These days, given the freedom of access to publishing channels, the popularism of broadcasting your point-of-view, and the economic incentives to do so, the imbalance of the relationship appears neutralized to the point of nonexistence. Books are no longer “slaves” to business just as much as they aren’t “masters” to it. They are, quite possibly, equals for the first time in human history.

This newfound equality between books and business summons as much new responsibility as it does new advantages. For the author seeking a career in books, creative decisions are inescapably business decisions too. “Product-market” fit—the symmetry between the book’s (e.g. product) message and the readership (e.g. market)—is the new gold standard and predictor of success. Consequently, books are no longer creative luxuries to be commercialized after the fact. And businesses are no longer sterile entities void of stories. Today, books are businesses. The best way to succeed is to treat yours as one.

More acutely, books are startup businesses—infant enterprises that are forged in the crucible of creativity. Economic realities, such as financing the book production process as well as marketing its existence, are just as common and important as writing realities, such as deciding on the book’s structure as well as ensuring it expresses a complete idea. For the book to prosper, the author must deftly handle startup opportunities and pressures precisely like a tech entrepreneur or manufacturing innovator.

Financing is arguably the most devilish detail to contend with. Traditional publishers solved this problem in yesteryear. However, access to traditional funding is becoming more difficult as their size, and consequently their capital reserves, shrink in the face of mounting competition from alternative channels. What is an enterprising author to do?

Crowd-funding is one option that many progressively minded authors have turned to. From mega platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo to niche platforms like Publishizer and Pubslush, crowd-funding opportunities exist to help. A crowd-funding campaign may not cover all of the costs involved (including a “salary” that would cover the author’s time), but it may be enough to cover the production costs (e.g. professional editing, cover design, formatting, conversion, etc.).

Bootstrapping is always an option too. A tried and true method of any startup, bootstrapping means being savvy about tapping into personal financing reserves as well as borrowing from friends and family. Entrepreneurs and freelancers bootstrap all the time. The “author entrepreneur” can also take advantage of bootstrapping, either as a primary funding source or as a supplemental one to crowd-funding.

Micro/vanity publishers may be a worthwhile possibility too. They likely won’t have a ton of cash (if any) to be able to offer as an advance, but in exchange for a lesser amount of funding authors are in a stronger position to keep more of their book rights as well as negotiate for greater royalty rates on sales once the book is published.

On the revenue-side of the ledger, smart authors recognize that their “book business” will benefit from a variety of revenue streams. Book sales alone likely won’t cut it, especially if you’re such an author who is going it solo. Diverse book revenue models built to succeed should include book sales, of course, that are complemented with extended content experiences that cost a premium as well as personal engagements with you where the book’s ideas are applied in real life. Such productizing and consulting of themes related to a book are becoming quite the norm for non-fiction authors. For fiction writers, extended content experiences by way of character backstories, merchandising, “extended universe” sagas, games, and fan communities are revolutionizing how fiction authors can build a thriving business around their book(s).

To maximize these expanded revenue opportunities, authors are building their marketing into their books. Ryan Holiday advocates such an approach in his epic article—The Right (and Wrong) Way to Market a Book. As he says, “The most important marketing phase of a book actually comes while you’re writing it. If you don’t realize that now, it’s a big missed opportunity.” By anchoring valuable concepts expressed in new ways within a book, those concepts become “branded” in a fashion that allows the author capitalize on them in a very intentional, business-development sort of way.

Seeking funding sources. Managing the production process. Developing revenue streams. Preparing for some kind of promotional campaign. And oh yeah, writing. It’s a lot for one author to do by herself. That’s why more and more authors are choosing to align themselves with a pre-existing book team or build their own, one freelancer at a time. Startups never succeed one the back of just one person. While every team may have an all-star, success is almost always attributed to “a team win.” Authors are discovering that the same economies of scale at play launching successful tech/product startups are just as important to their work crafting, launching, marketing, and profiting from books. Their books are startups, come what may.

What comes in the way of acclaim, authority, profits, and adjacent business opportunities circles back to the initial pretext. Why write and publish a book? Is it to satisfy the itch of expressing an idea? Is it to “write the next great American novel?” Is it to build a new career path with sustainable incomes? Or, based on the tendrils of modern publishing, is it all of the above—creative passion infused with business prerogatives so intimately that they become inseparable from each other? These lines have blurred, and thankfully so, because with the conventional boundaries gone, the modern author is liberated to pursue a book-based career that harmonizes purpose and profits. A startup world is the new world of books. Your book is a startup. Treat it like one and you’ll go far.