What is a Writer’s MVP?

by Joel Friedlander on September 27, 2011 · 18 comments

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I first ran across the idea of a minimum viable product while listening to a podcast with blogger Chris Garrett. Chris tries to help people who have a problem getting a project finished and out the door, and he was explaining how people can try to find a minimum viable product (MVP).

I believe this idea comes originally from project management language, but I found the concept interesting. Here’s the way Wikipedia frames it:

A Minimum Viable Product has just those features that allow the product to be deployed, and no more.

Although an MVP can be used for marketing purposes, it’s also incredibly useful to think about if you are trying to create any kind of product of your own. Just by thinking about how small and cohesive you can make your product instead of thinking about how big you can make it—the usual way of thinking—you are liberated from having to create some impossibly big project you’ll likely never finish.

In other words, searching for an MVP that you can make is going to put you on the road to successful product launch much faster than otherwise. And that’s the part of the idea that really appealed to me.

Because I’m Always Thinking about e-Books

Where the idea of MVP is going to become really powerful for writers who understand its implications in the world of e-books.

But here, more from Wikipedia:

The product is typically deployed to a subset of possible customers, such as early adopters that are thought to be more forgiving, more likely to give feedback, and able to grasp a product vision from an early prototype or marketing information.

e-Books, of course, have no fixed length. They don’t need 60,000 – 100,000 words, like a standard trade book. They don’t need 40 pages, like the smallest book you can usually get through a book bindery.

They don’t actually need anything at all except a cover image and some text.

So what exactly in the world of the e-book is the minimum viable product?

I don’t think we know yet.

We’ve often spoken here about the flexibility of e-books to give authors tools for experimenting that we’ve never had before. If I have some text, and suddenly flash on a great way to present it, I can upload a file today and be on sale tomorrow in the Kindle store.

For some time there have been creative authors and entrepreneurs selling articles, papers, and other short-form text in the Kindle store.

Writers as Marketers

But what can writers do to take advantage of this publishing flexibility? Back to Wikipedia one more time:

It is a strategy targeted at avoiding building products that customers do not want, that seeks to maximize the information learned about the customer per dollar spent.

Now this makes a lot of sense. The ability to do real-world market research is new to most writers. And the first rule of market research is listening—listening to your readers, listening to what people are talking about in your area of specialty, listening to complaints as well as accolades.

We know that indie publishing becomes more profitable as you issue more books. But what if you could publish one part of a book as an MVP? How about one chapter? With a low price point of $.99 it’s hard to see why you couldn’t do this.

As long as the information truly is viable—it has all the information you need to make use of it in some way—you now have a product. As long as buyers understand exactly what it is you’re selling, there’s no reason to not try this.

The enterprising e-book author/entrepreneur can produce an MVP to go out and test the market without having to experiment with an entire book that may have taken months or years to write. I think we’re going to see a lot of this experimentation and I’m fascinated with how it will evolve.

Can you see a way to use the idea of a minimum viable product in your own book marketing?

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    { 17 comments… read them below or add one }

    Theresa April 22, 2014 at 10:36 pm

    PS. The popular book “Poison Princess” has a free version that only includes the first 15 chapters or so. It states very clearly in the description that it is only the first 15 chapters of the book and to read the entire thing, the person must purchase the whole novel (at about $7.99) The reviews on the “free sample” are all very high, 4 and 5 stars, because readers know upfront they are only getting a segment of the book, and they’re also getting it for free. Also, 15 chapters feels like a big chunk of the book (approx. 1/3 of the novel) so customers feel like they get a solid read out of it.

    So I think, when trying the method you’ve proposed, it should be very clear what the reader is purchasing so customers do not feel deceived when they discover the story abruptly stopping mid-sequence.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander April 23, 2014 at 12:02 pm

    This is an excellent example, and I love the idea of giving away the beginning of the book, it’s a great way to get readers “hooked” on your story and characters. Thanks!

    Reply

    Theresa April 22, 2014 at 10:31 pm

    What pops to mind is what I’ve seen some authors doing: they’ll break 1 novel up into 3 short chunks (maybe 100 pages each) and sell it in serial format. The story might be good, but in every one of these instances I’ve come across, the reviews are horrendous! Readers get ticked off by having to buy multiple products just to finish 1 story (even if that “chunk” is only $0.99-$1.99.) (For instance, reviews would say “Good story but it’s only the first 6 chapters of the book and no conclusion! 1-star.”)

    What I glean from this: whatever an MVP turns out to be for ebooks, it should contain a complete story with a conclusion, even if it’s part of an ongoing series. I don’t think length is as important as the customer walking away feeling like they bought “the whole thing.”

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander April 23, 2014 at 12:01 pm

    Great point, Theresa, thanks for that.

    Reply

    Roger C. Parker October 1, 2011 at 1:38 am

    Dear Joel:
    Once again, you’ve shed light and sparked dialogue on a concept of great relevance.

    Too many subject area professionals writing books to build their brands and their mailing lists bite off more than they can chew, overlooking the advantages of short, focused, and practical books that can be brought to market much faster.
    Roger

    Reply

    Rachel Morgan September 30, 2011 at 8:02 am

    I can absolutely see a way of using this minimum viable product. It’s something I’ve been planning for the past few months, I just didn’t know I could apply a project management label to it! I’m glad you think it’s an idea that’s… well, viable :-)

    Reply

    Cameron Dockery September 29, 2011 at 6:47 pm

    Awesome thought! I am up loading my second ebook to Kindle in a few days. This model works perfect for self-pubed authors. Clean, concise and easy to do.

    Reply

    Jennie Coughlin September 28, 2011 at 5:45 am

    I actually did that earlier this month. I’d been writing some weekly exercises with my characters using Rory’s Story Cubes just to dig around in their backstories and my editor liked them enough that we put together a short-story collection that, effectively, introduces most of the key characters in my series of novels. That’s out now while I work on the first book in the series. It was interesting being able to tell some of the stories that don’t fit into the books, so I suspect I’ll publish more short-story collections in the same universe along the way.

    Reply

    Hope September 27, 2011 at 1:09 pm

    Joel, You’ve given me something new to think about as I figure out how to turn my passion project on success into a book.

    Reply

    Belinda Pollard September 27, 2011 at 4:31 am

    Fifteen years ago I remember reviewing a MS of short stories for the publisher I was working for, and they were great stories, but we had to say no, purely because there was no way to make money out of short story collections. They were just slightly ahead of poetry on the Commercial Poison list.

    But now, all those rules are changing. Short story collections, individual short stories, poetry, novellas, essays… this is the time when people who love to write those forms actually have a decent chance of getting some financial return on their time investment, even if it might be small.

    What about a short story based on one or more of the characters in your novel? Give it away or sell it for 99c via your website or Amazon, create interest in the characters, and use the feedback to improve the novel.

    Reply

    Victoria Mixon September 27, 2011 at 8:43 am

    This is a fascinating idea, Belinda. Virginia Woolf wrote a whole series of stories about the characters in Mrs. Dalloway, which were published together many years after her death in the collection Mrs. Dalloway’s Party. It’s a wonderful insight into the world of the novel as it was alive in Woolf’s mind.

    I always tell writers to write piles of material around their novels—scenes and episodes, whole stories if they can. And this would be the perfect use for them.

    As it happens, Roz Morris of Nail Your Novel has just done something similar: she published her newest novel on Kindle in four parts, one part a week throughout September. The full novel is live now, but you can still buy any one of the four parts if you’d prefer to dip into it a bit at a time.

    Reply

    Linda Sands (@lindasands) September 28, 2011 at 5:38 am

    I have uploaded some short stories on Smashwords and Amazon, selling for 99 cents. They are truly hard to market. Even with facebook and websites and writer’s groups.

    Reply

    Belinda Pollard October 2, 2011 at 7:25 pm

    So hard to know why some things sell and some don’t. It’s like the whole of publishing is one big experiment right now.

    I hope serendipity strikes soon for Linda! Maybe as your backlist grows, those short stories will start to pique people’s interest????

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander September 27, 2011 at 10:38 am

    I really appreciate the suggestions from both Belinda and Victoria because fiction writers sometimes have difficulty understanding how marketing works together with publishing. I can think of so many books and series whose characters became fascinating. I’m sure that lots of readers would love to read some of the “backstory” development that many writers do when developing characters.

    Really, this whole subject just opens up so many possibilities it makes the mind spin. Thanks for expanding the discussion.

    Reply

    Dabry September 27, 2011 at 10:46 am

    Great comments and I have been thinking of this myself lately. My next project is going to be my collected short stories, and I am going to include a short story based on characters in my novel. Mostly because it’s going to be forever before the next novel, but the reasons up here as well. Worlds and forms open up dramatically in this digital era. I’m very excited to see what comes.

    Reply

    John P. Schulz September 27, 2011 at 4:18 am

    I think that you should bring in the term “perceived value.”
    It seems to me that the mvp must give the customer a perceived value that matches or exceeds the cost.
    The mvp must also give the customer a feeling of satisfaction with the read and leave her with a good feeling.
    That way she will come back for more.
    I love your blog
    john

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander September 27, 2011 at 10:35 am

    Good point, John, thanks for adding that.

    Reply

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