What authors can learn from tech startups

I spent several years in tech startups working toward becoming a product manager. Product managers are the ones who decide what gets included in a product and what gets left out. Hate that the default timer on the iPhone doesn’t let you choose a song from your iTunes library? Blame the product manager. Has Google docs revision history helped you track your writing time? Thank the product manager.

Product managers balance what the engineering team can actually build, with what the marketing and sales team can actually sell, with what makes customers happy, with the budget and parameters set by the CEO or Exec team. Authors sometimes skip steps that product mangers consider essential to creating a great product. Here’s what authors can learn from tech product managers about creating and selling books that readers want to buy.

How tech startups create and sell products customers love

Let’s start off with some basics about how product managers (PMs) work. PMs are ultimately responsible for what product gets built. They have responsibilities to the product and engineering team who make the product. And they have responsibilities to the marketing and sales teams who promote and sell the product. 

Here’s an idealized overview of the stages of creating a product that customers love from the point of view of a PM.

 In reality, nothing lines up this neatly. There are unexpected technical limitations, competitors release new products and send you scrambling back to prototyping, and CEOs ask for drastic design changes months after they signed off on proceeding to beta testing. But this is a reasonable approximation of how products are built and marketed at small startups or mid-sized startups targeting a new market.  

What each Product stage is for

  • Design & Prototyping - Figuring out what must be in the product and what is nice to have, but not necessary.
  • Build the Product - When engineers write the code, designers create the interfaces, and the infrastructure team sets up all the hardware necessary to deliver your product.
  • Beta Test - Helps you identify and fix unexpected problems before the public starts using your product. A nearly complete version of the software is given to a small number of customers for the purpose of getting feedback.
  • Release the Product - The day when you make your product available to anyone to purchase.

What each Marketing stage is for

  • Market Research - Goes along with Design & Prototyping. Market research is about finding persuasive language that makes customers want your product. To get the persuasive language we ask: 1) How do customers describe what’s so painful that a potential customer will pay us money to fix it? 2) How can we describe what our product does in a way that resonates with customers? 3) What do we need to say to persuade our target customers that our product is different from (and better than) every other similar product available?
  • Steadily Grow a Following - Months of working day-in, day-out to build name recognition and solid reputation for your brand and get potential customers onto your email list and in conversations with salespeople.
  • Launch & Sell - This is a day or a few weeks when you coordinate all your marketing efforts so that you drive a lot of traffic to your website, make your leaders available for media interviews, and give your sales teams special incentives to close deals. 

Now, let’s look at the typical stages of writing and selling a book, from the author’s perspective.

How a typical author creates and markets a book 


Notice anything different? There are two book creation and two marketing stages that authors often skip. Let’s look at a model where those four stages aren’t skipped and go through what authors are missing when they skip those steps.

How an overachieving author creates a stellar book and sells a lot of copies


 What each Book Stage includes 

  • Genre Research - deciding what genres your book is in reading books that are similar to what you want to write and researching what drives readers crazy so you know what readers expect and can write a book they will love.
  • Write the Book - outlining the book to writing the first draft to working with an editor and copyeditor.
  • Beta Readers - giving a nearly complete version of your book to readers who are similar to your target customers for the purpose of getting feedback. This stage also includes making the changes based on that feedback.
  • Publish the Book - everything from designing the cover to figuring out distribution channels (Note: this starts months before the launch).

What each Book Marketing Stage includes

  • Market Research - Writing a book description and author bio, creating or revising your website, as well as talking about your book with a small number of potential readers with the purpose of finding the right language to generate interest in your book.
  • Steadily Grow a Following - Connecting with potential readers with the purpose of getting as many as possible onto your email list and building a relationship with your email list subscribers.
  • Launch & Sell - When you devote 100% of your work time to selling your book to the readers that you met in the Steadily Growing a Following stage as well as new readers. Every activity is about letting more people know about your book and inspiring them to buy it.

The two Book Creation stages a typical author skips

The two stages missing from the typical author’s writing process are Genre research and Beta Readers which correspond to Design & Prototyping and Beta Testing in a product manager’s process. Let’s look at what would happen if you were a product manager who skipped those stages as well as what happens to authors who skip the corresponding stages.

How Design & Prototyping helps you create the right product

Imagine that you are a product manager building online writing software that will compete with Google Docs. The central question that you would ask yourself in the Design & Prototyping stage is this: How can I make a writing program that’s so much better than Google Docs that customers will choose my product over Google’s? 

The Design & Prototyping stage is your chance to get answers to big questions about what is important to include in your product to make it a success. Is it more important to create an easier, more intuitive way to share work with collaborators? Or to add the ability to capture e-signatures for contracts? Skip Design & Prototyping and you’re betting your whole company on your guesses about what customers want. Is that a company you would invest in? 

How Genre Research helps you to write the right book

Similarly, when you do Genre Research, you’re finding answers to big, sweeping questions about your book: Are you writing a love story with a coming of age subplot or a coming of age story with a love subplot? Given your genre, what expectations will readers have about your book? Are there key scenes that you need to include? For example, if you’re writing a love story, there are six scenes that must be included, such as when the lovers meet, when they first kiss, and when they breakup.

When you skip this stage, you rely on your assumptions about what readers want and what they’ll see as cliché versus what they’ll see as innovative. If you’re a well-read, experienced writer, or a writer working with a well-read, experienced editor that can work out. Or it could mean that you spend a year writing a book that readers and publishers instantly reject. Genre Research isn’t a guarantee that you’ll write a great book. It helps you understand the major scenes and key elements that a great book in your genres would include.  

If you want to learn more about choosing your genres and satisfying reader’s expectations from the source, go check out the The Story Grid blog.

How Beta Testers Help You Create a *Better* Book

Now let’s look at what happens in Beta Testing, which corresponds to another stage authors often skip: Beta Readers.

For a product manager, Design & Prototyping stage is about answering broad, generic questions about what your product or book should include. When you get to Beta Testing stage, you’re answering specific questions about whether your product works and trying to make it the best possible product it could be. Where do customers get confused and how can you make their options more clear?  What do customers love about your product and are there ways to make it even more delightful? Skip Beta Testing and if anything goes wrong when you release your product, you will have to fix those mistakes in public.

How Beta Readers Help You Write a *Better* Book

Likewise, for an author working with Beta Readers, you’re trying to get feedback to help you create the best possible book. What’s unclear and how can you make it more clear? What plot twists were expected and how can you make them more surprising? Where does the plot seem to drag on and how can you keep the momentum going?

For authors, Beta Readers serve two purposes. They help you turn a good book into a great one and provide a second insurance policy against writing a book that readers hate. If you’ve done your Genre research but skipped Beta Readers, you will have missed some opportunities to improve your book and turn it into a classic. If you skip Genre Research and skip Beta Readers, you’re placing a high-risk bet on the quality of your book.

The Two Marketing stages a typical author skips

The two stages missing from the typical author’s marketing process are Market Research and Steadily Growing a Following which correspond to the same stages in marketing a tech product. You do pretty much the same activities whether you're marketing a tech product or a book. Let’s take a deeper look at what happens in each of those marketing stages what the consequences are of skipping each stage for an author.  

How Market Research helps you woo more readers

The purpose of Market Research with respect to marketing is to get the information you need to write persuasive copy. So, what is persuasive copy? Persuasive copy is the book description that makes potential readers want to buy your book. It’s the author bio that makes them want to learn more and check out your website. When they land on your website, persuasive copy is what inspires them to sign up for your email list.  

The way you get persuasive copy is by learning the basics of copywriting and testing out your language in conversations with readers. Writing better copy is one of the biggest opportunities I see for authors to greatly improve their marketing. We’ll be talking a lot about copywriting in posts over the coming weeks.

Let's say you skip Market Research for your book. When you go to write an ad to your promote your book few potential readers click on it. If you want to write a better-performing ad, you need to know why readers aren't clicking. Did they hate the image you used? Are you using the wrong words? Is your ad being displayed to the right kinds of people (i.e. your potential readers)? When you do Market Research you know that you have words that work and it's easier to see what steps you need to take to improve.


Why skipping the Steadily Growing a Following stage is a mistake

Steadily Growing a Following is about growing your email list. This is important, because if you want to build a career as a writer, your email list is the single most important part of your author platform. Successful authors are succeeding because of the money that they make from selling books, products, or services to their email list. When it comes to acquiring new customers, email is 40X more effective than Facebook or Twitter. Learning how to get people onto your email list and build a relationships with them is essential to your future sales.

Ok, so if you're committed to building an email list, where do you start? When you’re relatively unknown, there are only a handful of promotion strategies that are effective at letting people know who you are. They are: 1) networking - in person or online, 2) creating unbelievably good content combined with networking, 3) talking to many people at once through interviews, guest blogging, or public speaking, and 4) advertising.  

That’s it. And if you’re thinking, “Lori, where is social media?” Social media is a tool that you use to support one of those four strategies. Posting updates to Facebook and Twitter alone is not going to build your name recognition and dramatically increase your potential book sales. Period. But send dozens (or hundreds) of personal messages to the people your readers look up to and ask them to share a Facebook post on your behalf? Now you’re getting somewhere.

Or maybe you’re thinking, “Lori, why can’t I just use one of those four strategies during Launch & Sell Stage? Why do I have to do them over months of time?” Here’s why: Each of those four strategies works on a different time scale and requires skill that takes time to learn.  

Advertising is the fastest-working strategy. Theoretically, you can create an ad and have new subscribers in hours. But here is the kicker. Most people that get loads of new subscribers in hours have invested time and money into getting skilled at advertising.  

Let’s say that people do click on your ad. What page on your website are you directing those people to? A pre-order page? Have you tested that strategy against directing traffic straight to a landing page that offers a free excerpt and then sending the pre-order page in a follow-up email? Have you tested out different copy on your ad as well as on the page you’re directing people to? And do you even know if your ad is being shown to the right potential readers? Setting up experiments to answer these kinds of questions and tweaking your approach is a huge part of crafting a successful ad campaign.

Each of the other three promotion strategies takes longer to work and also has a learning curve. What you miss when you skip the Steadily Growing a Following Stage isn't just the obvious  - you have fewer subscribers to sell your book to in the Launch & Sell stage. Promoting yourself is a skill. It takes time and practice to master all the nuances of creating a community of subscribers who will follow you beyond your current book and help you grow your career. You want to do this writing thing for a living, right?


What have we learned in comparing books to tech products?

Authors have a few big opportunities to write better books and be more successful marketing and selling them. Today, we looked at two stages that a typical author could add to their book creation process - Genre Research and Beta Readers.  And two marketing stages and the skills that each of them builds.

In the coming weeks we’ll be digging deeper into Market Research and Steadily Growing a Following. We'll look at how to write more persuasive copy and all the ways to use your new persuasion skills to build an email list of readers who love your work.