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Every Book Is A Start-Up

On Thursday, I spoke at the FutureBook Innovation Workshop – which was mounted in association with The Literary Platform as part of The Bookseller’s always stimulating conference programming.

It was a gathering of leading thinkers and doers operating at the intersection of publishing and digital.  I shared my story of crafting a new, middle-grade (typically for ages 9-12, but the definition varies by reading level and geography) called ALIENATED about the only human boy in the high school for aliens at Area 51.

I included a discussion about reframing the writing and publishing process as a parallel to the Silicon Valley method of software development.  While my original inspiration was the Pixar process of iterative creative development, I spoke about the methodology that Eric Reis has evangelized and popularized in the Valley called the “Lean Start-Up” method.  In speaking to the group of digital savvy publishers, I realised the obvious: every book is a start-up.

A new book, in my case a children’s fiction novel, is like a tech start-up that needs to originated (the idea!), coded (the writing), and shipped (published) to the consumer.

Typically, this creative process occurs in a small, time-tested vacuum of the author-editor relationship whereby the author writes and the professional editor makes notes, nudges, and suggestions for rewrites.  It’s a process as old as publishing itself.  And for the record, I’m not knocking it.  A good editor is worth their weight in Wonka Golden Tickets!  A good editor helps the writer to get the very best onto the page.  But it’s a closed system, devoid of consumer feedback, and I asked myself when writing ALIENATED whether Pixar’s method of sharing work-in-progress animatics (i.e. draft prose) with their Brain Trust and employees could be applied to the writing of a book.

Since Pixar shares the “Minimal Viable Product” to these two test audiences up to seven times during development, I stumbled onto the fact that a book could be a Lean Start-Up.

In the course of crafting the manuscript (about 56, 000 words) my co-author Matt Knight and I opened up the work-in-progress to beta readers both online (sourced via a national colouring contest) and in the real world (classrooms).  We gave away the first three chapters for free, and then invited readers to become users, beta-testers for the further chapters as we wrote them.  We welcomed the feedback and incorporated much of it, and discarded some of it.  Matt & I used our authorial authority to be the arbitrators of what feedback gets acted on and what gets ignored.

One consistent feedback led to a plot “Pivot” (a phrase coined by Reis for companies who abandon a non-effective strategy in favour for a new path).  Our main character is a geeky boy called Sherman Capote who, along with his sister Jessica, and Air Force general father are unceremoniously shipping to Groom Lake, NV when Sherman launches a rocket (holding the ashes of his dead mother, who always wanted to be an astronaut) from a base in Germany.  Originally, for no other reason than I work in London and work closely with UK publishers, I created the family to be a British air force family who then are shipped off to America when the Russians get angry about a “missile” launching from a NATO base. They beta-readers called me on it.  Why would a British family be sent to America? Wouldn’t they be punished by being sent home to the UK?  The kids had spotted a plot hole that exists solely for my own convenience (to sell the book to one of my UK publishers) but was not in service of the story.

So I initiated a “pivot.”  I rewrote Sherman and his family to be American, with a backstory of having been away from home for many years as the Capote family moved around the globe following General Capote’s air force career.  Now the story made more sense: when Sherman causes trouble for the family, it’s the US military that drags the family back to the States to be hidden away at Area 51.  I would never have gotten there unless I allowed “users”, my beta-readers into the draft manuscript.

But I want to be clear that the process was not creativity by focus-group; rather an iterative creative journey where a small group of beta-testers could help stir the creative caldron: just like Pixar’s Brain Trust and staff voice their comments to a Pixar film’s director during the story development and animation process.

There are many authors who would understandably never share their early drafts (prototypes), but for me, treating a new novel like a lean start-up enabled me to cast off my creative arrogance (nothing cuts you down like an eleven year old saying “I don’t get it”) and serve an audience who are two and a half decades my junior.

I’m delighted to report that Matt and I (writing in the first person as Sherman Capote) have completed the full manuscript now, and have brought it to a well-regarded editor to polish using her professional editing skills, and the novel has been dramatically elevated in its prose, plot, and emotional engagement since applying the discipline of the Lean Star-Up: iterative creative development.  With a professional edit, on top of the iterations, it’ll be positively awesome!

Jeff Norton is the author of the upcoming high-tech thriller METAWARS: FIGHT FOR THE FUTURE (August 2, Orchard Books) and is the founder of Awesome, a creative incubator for exciting original fiction. @thejeffnorton

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