I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to set the stage for the release of a book I am writing, an 80s memoir about houses. The bulk of my proposal for this book is finished, but I find myself digging into the section about author platform and thinking (and over-thinking) the many ways I can convince a committee of strangers that I know how to get a book out in the world.
Platform is, quite simply, the strategy you have for getting products in front of eyes. If you’re famous already, congratulations, you have a platform. But if you’ve been Emily Dickinsoning your whole life, in your long white dresses, clutching your notebooks and speaking to an admiring crowd of bud vases and Victorian lamps, then you don’t have a platform and are going to have a hard time selling a book.
If I’m completely honest with myself, I’m kind of in the middle of those two poles. I’m a relatively successful travel writer who has written for a roster of national publications but no one sees my byline and thinks: Yes! I know her! I have the requisite media contacts one might need to get placement for a book, and I speak regularly to groups, which is always a positive in this business.
But is it enough?
Enter the MVP, or the Minimum Viable Product. In business parlance, when you’re launching a product into the world, you need to create something that is minimally viable, a prototype you can create quickly for the sole purpose of gauging how it is being received by the marketplace. That way, you can gather feedback, tweak the product as necessary based on that feedback, and, eventually, offer the product back to the public when it is in its best shape possible.
But isn’t the book proposal the Minimal Viable Product? After all, you are presenting your book to a marketplace of publishers and editors who sit waiting to give the thumb’s up or give you the gong.
Yes, it is. When you put out a book proposal, you are showing publishers the larger picture around the book you are proposing. You are providing them with a business plan of sorts — the product, the way you are going to market it, and you are telling them the story of who you are as the creator.
But that doesn’t really do anything to get your work, or the idea behind it, into the hearts and minds of readers.
How will you do that? How will you connect with readers BEFORE the book is a thing?
This is the challenge of book creation, whether you are writing memoir, nonfiction, YA, short stories, or a coffee table tome about Norwegian fjords. If you want to be successful, you have to lay the groundwork for putting the book and the ideas around it out into the world before you even sell it.
Is this an easy step?
Next to actually writing the thing, it is probably the most difficult part of giving birth to a book.
Most of us get into this work because we are storytellers and we are called to make meaning from the themes of our lives. We don’t wake up in the morning, driven by a need to market ourselves. We’re not out there looking at our art as a business and strategizing about how best to sell the art to the world.
But in order to be successful, to reach the most people, to engage the right audience, it is an absolutely necessary step.
Just how do you put a Minimal Viable Product out there in the world? What does that even look like?
I’ve compiled these examples to show you how it can be done well and to get you thinking about the creative ways people use to launch a book.
Case studies for the writer MVP
The Modern Love Column
For memoir writers, getting an essay placed in the Modern Love column in the New York Times is the Holy Grail of MVP’s. Many a publishing contract was signed on the basis of an author telling a smaller part of a story in this space, edited by Daniel Jones. Unfortunately, the chances of getting chosen are slim-to-none. Hundreds of essays flood Jones’ inbox every week, and he only gets to pick one.
To really understand what a Modern Love essay is all about, you need to go back into the archives and read as many examples from the column as you can. Jones also has a Modern Love podcast where celebrity voices read the essays. Here is a good Q&A with Jones about the column. One recent Modern Love author who has taken her story to publishers successfully is Mandy Len Catron’s “To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This.” Catron now has a book out, a memoir in essays, called How to Fall in Love with Anyone: A Memoir in Essays.
A podcast is a platform unto itself, and it can be a big one. I listen to several, most of them of the inspirational storytelling variety, and one that I’ve got in my feed is Lewis Howes’ The School of Greatness. I don’t always feel spoken to by its content, but I follow it enough to know that Lewis has been exploring ideas around modern masculinity and has a new book out, The Mask of Masculinity: How Men Can Embrace Vulnerability, Create Strong Relationships, and Live Their Fullest Lives.
While I’m not the audience for this particular book, I’m seeing it everywhere, because in the run-up to his book launch, Lewis has been on half a dozen of my other favorite podcasts! In fact, I have half a mind to buy the thing just to understand what he’s been blabbing about everywhere. That’s the beauty of podcasting. In interviewing people, you make so many connections and have an established relationship with other media creators when you go to launch your own book.
The Book Excerpt
Publishing an excerpt for a book ahead of a book release functions to work as an amuse bouche for readers, but it can also backfire. Think about it: If the juiciest details get worked into an excerpt, one so satisfying it leaves readers feeling like they read the book, why should they ever buy it to read the whole story? The New York Times did a great story on this problem about a decade ago when Tina Brown’s book on Princess Diana came out.
I think this strategy works best with essay collections, where the essays are loosely tied by theme but different in scope. Give away the entire story and readers will have had their fill. Samantha Irby is a great example of how this can work. Her new book We Are Never Meeting in Real Life: Essays has everything a reader can connect to because it is her voice throughout; she is someone we’d like to spend time with. Reading one essay in a magazine doesn’t give me enough Samantha Irby.
The Twitter Feed
Having an awesome Twitter feed works best if you’re hilarious and know how to stay on topic. The strategy worked well for Helen Ellis, a NY-based writer whose book American Housewife was the inspiration for the ABC sitcom of the same name and the book American Housewife. Is this a great strategy? Well, as a platform, Twitter works for certain kinds of content, but not all. The medium is always the message. So if you’ve got it in you to write short, pithy bursts of brilliance that make someone else’s day better by making them laugh or think, your book idea might work well as a Twitter feed. But remember that Twitter is also an audience unto itself — so study the format, study what has worked, and craft your message in 140 characters, to be released as a slow drip.
About five years ago the answer was always: Start a blog. Do your book project as a blog and then you’ll get peoples’ attention! Well, blogs are only the beginning these days, and I no longer recommend trying to write a blog-to-book project. Here’s why: If you make a blog that is about the project alone you will be shaping the stories and the blog itself around a particular book idea.
That isn’t a problem unto itself. The problem is that people online are no longer commenting on blogs. They are having private conversations in Facebook Groups. So with a blog you run the risk of having a somewhat successful blog that looks like it is not because it has no comments. Also, what happens when this book doesn’t sell? Do you abandon the blog entirely? That’s a lot of time wasted. Unless you want to build a massive following a la Glennon Doyle and Momastery and her book Carry On, Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life. It works if your overall goal is to be a prophet in these difficult times, with the giant media empire that goes with it. If that isn’t your goal, skip the blog.
My friend Kelly Williams Brown does well on Tumblr, which is a micro-blogging site where you can post poster-style images around a specific idea. Her book Adulting: How to Become a Grown-up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps was released about six years ago and has done very well with Millennials. To see how this works, head on over to her website.
Kelly has a way of distilling an idea to its essence and finding the right image to go with it. I really like this approach because it doesn’t require you to give away all the goods, takes less time, and connect with people where they are, understanding all the while that people online don’t have time, and often don’t want to, engage with a longer piece of text. Think of it as appetizers. You give a little taste, and if they love it maybe, when it’s ready, they will buy the book for more.
The Instagram Feed
Instagram works best as a platform when you are visually inclined, but it can also work for writers, especially writers who illustrate their own books. Here’s a story on the world’s first Instagram novel. The resulting book was Hey Harry, Hey Matilda: A Novel.
As a showcase for the MVP, Instagram works best when it combines a striking visual with a narrative or pithy story. The most successful posts on Instagram have magazine-quality photographs, personal illustrations, or anything else that catches the eye to keep the reader from scrolling. It’s not the easiest platform for writers to work with, but it isn’t being used much this way, so if you have a book idea that has a clear visual tie-in — you make comics, you are a hobby photographer — this might be a good place to explore ideas from your book.
The Speaking Gig
Do you speak to groups? Warren Buffett once said that his #1 skill for being successful was being able to speak in front of a crowd. No wonder we are all so afraid of this! When you are a public speaker — when you engage with the public like this — you are able to test your material in a way that is highly immediate. You start to know what works and what doesn’t work. You can feel the energy in the room change when you alight on certain ideas, you can feel it fall when other material falls flat. This is a great opportunity to see what works, tweak your message, and really hone what it is you are trying to say before putting a book out. Becoming a public speaker might be the best way to sell books. First, you get to test your material, then you get to sell your book back to the people who helped you! It’s brilliant. My friend Kelli Jaecks, who speaks to women’s groups about health, is pursuing this strategy right now and has a book coming out next year.
These are by all means not all the ways you can reach an audience for your project. I’ll be looking at more examples in the coming weeks. Suffice to say that this is a topic on my mind and I am brainstorming ways to engage readers with the subjects of my new book in a MVP, and I am looking to the best practices before I create my own.
What will you choose? What is the best MVP to work with your current project? How are you getting your big, beautiful project out there in the world?
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