Of all the book publishers out there, one of the most experimental and interesting is O’Reilly. They do many smart and audacious things.
Recently, in an experiment that was inherently appealing to me, Todd Sattersten began writing a book entitled, “Every Book Is a Startup.” The book is being published in small chunks, with each available via e-reading (ePub, Mobi, or PDF) at a low price. The premise and promise is that feedback from early readers will shape subsequent and more complete editions, until a “finished” book is achieved and printed.
It’s an interesting approach, one that Sattersten compares in an interview to the agile approach to product development startups prefer, in contrast to the waterfall approach of traditional publishers:
For a startup, the first iteration of the agile process is the minimum viable product. What is the absolute smallest feature set that can be introduced to the market so that the company can gather feedback from real customers? The initial release emphasizes learning and iterating, adding what is needed as the customer base grows.
Sattersten also notes that book publishers “launch more products than any industry on the planet and somehow we can’t seem to learn anything from that.”
However, as befits a 0.1 version, Sattersten has internal conflicts to his arguments, some of which are glaring. Fundamentally, the mistake he’s making is to believe that a form will easily yield to a process.
Sattersten notes that authors often use the agile approach to writing. This is their process. Authors us an agile process, and have done this for decades, by first publishing short stories, serializing chapters, or blogging their content, taking the feedback and ideas from those activities, and using them iteratively to create a final work. Other forms are used to accomplish the agile process.
It’s not an insignificant fact that most authors work this way. The only ones who typically don’t are those who write on spec. But most writers typically publish early drafts in one way or another, and use feedback to hone future elaborations, revisions, combinations, and extensions.
Books don’t work this way. Books are a form of finished content. Authors can be agile, and historically are. They have had many ways of being agile, and blogs have added one more. Books are expected to be fairly polished and final expressions of an author’s work, whether that’s an e-book, a paperback, or a hardcover.
Returning to the notion of the “minimum viable product,” we again encounter Sattersten’s assumption that a short PDF or e-book is a minimum viable book product worthy of purchase. The problem with this is that the book is a finished form. When you call something a book, a complete book is the minimum viable product in the market of books. A few blog posts or short essays strung tentatively together is not.
Authors and publishers have some time-honored and some new ways to be agile. Agile is a process choice. Conflating the notion of agility with the book form is not something that seems likely to succeed. Write a few blog posts. Publish one of the chapters as an essay in an online magazine like Slate. But don’t try to sell me your incomplete book.
That’s not agile. That’s clumsy.