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Your Book Should Be a "Minimally Viable Product"

Your Book Should Be a "Minimally Viable Product"

Need to start at Part 1? Find it here.

Hard to fathom it has already been five months since Part 2 to this series came out. In Part 1, I encouraged you to ponder your “why.” There’s a loose term out there—“passive income”—that gets tossed around out there. Whether fiction or non, you can’t just write a book and expect X number of dollars to roll in every month from them on. Not without work. Selling books is eighty or more percent of this job. Which is an oversimplification. I use the term selling to encompass the vast categories of tasks that are anything “not writing and proofing.”

In the last segment, I gave a lengthy (but not totally comprehensive) list of topics this series will go over in the next two to three years. Call it an overview. I don’t want to blog about all this too often, but I could realistically write on article on this monthly for years. My goal, here, isn’t to grow an audience under the banner of being self-publishing instructor. It is 98% selfish: I simply want to save my own time when people ask. And to keep it from feeling disingenuous, I figure I need to write it in my own words, not point friends toward the countless “influencers” out there. (Side note on that: It amazes me to see the number of YouTube and Instagram “big channels” in this sphere who have amazingly low review counts and averages on their own books. I’ll call it as I see it: they’ve gotten good at growing a social audience, but they don’t actually know how to apply their lessons to their own book sales.)

The point behind the long list of topics is to demonstrate just a smidgeon of the world I’ve been immersed in for almost six years at this point. But we have to start with the basics—writing. It doesn’t matter what genre you want to write in; you have to have something called a “minimally viable product” to sell.

This is probably the first of many dozens of times I’ll say this in this series, but even on this point there is dissension amongst authors about what that means. In the simplest and most logical breakdown, it is a product good enough to sell. Don’t read into that any of your own core values. It is simply… good enough… And those that promote its tenets do have a solid point at their foundation—don’t get lost in perfectionism.

But this is a day and age of “good enough”, and it’s this humble writer’s opinion that the term is too easy to be misapplied. And I suppose that it is its own subjectiveness that causes that. What is “minimally viable” to you? How many typos? Or other errors? Or plot holes? Does minimally imply that we’re allowed a certain amount of rookie mistakes? Well, kind of…

I have plenty of five-star reviews. I also have a decent number of one-thru-four-star reviews. And many of those claim they knocked down the rating simply because of errors. The 5-star-raters didn’t read a different book. They either didn’t notice or didn’t care about the errors.

“I won’t care about that…”

You darn well better. Reviews are critical. They’re called “social proof” and most people do consider reviews before buying any product, particularly one they weren’t specifically looking for before they went shopping. Here’s a neat little story about thinking you’ve finally gotten your product “good enough.”

In the last quarter of 2023, I finally produced audiobooks for Blades 2 and Blades 3. My new narrator—also an author himself—found roughly ten or twelve missed errors in Dragon Unleashed; and probably four or five in Blood Red Sky. Mind you, I have:

  • A paid editor (except BRS, long story about being broke at the time)
  • Pro Writing Aid, an AI attachment to my Word program for self editing
  • Several Beta readers
  • Two proofers
  • My own self-editing while reading along and listening to Word’s “read aloud” feature

It became a bit embarrassing. And though not the point here, I should say this: it is the perfect example of why you need to learn to do your own formatting. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve fixed stuff and re-uploaded the files to the various selling locations. If you hire out formatting, this will be unplanned rework that costs money. I’ll dig into this more thoroughly in a future article.

Back to “MinViProd”. While I agree that perfectionism is poison, you need to make your very best effort to put out the highest quality possible. Take several weeks from finishing draft one to get through all of those steps I’ve mentioned. If you grow your beta team big enough, split them and have the second half work on the draft that the first guided you on. Stephen King goes through his manuscript about a dozen times before giving it to his editor! His very first pass, the goal is to reduce the word count by 10%!

How do you get beta readers? The most common way is to ask your newsletter subscribers. [Yes, you need one. Another future article.] Make sure they know they’re getting an unpolished version. Many people love this. They get early access to what is most likely 90+% of the story anyhow. A word of caution: you don’t have to take every piece of feedback as a “must do.” Sometimes they aren’t as “correct” as they think they are. That is the exception, though. By far, they will help you tremendously, especially those with experience. They tend to understand things like “you wrote it grammatically incorrect because that’s how the country-bumpkin character speaks” without needing it explained.

And how do you find experienced beta readers? Two fast answers: genre specific Facebook reader groups; and other authors in the genre.

Who not to use as beta readers? Your family and friends. (I will give Mr. King a hat-tip to one family member. His wife Tabitha is always his first reader; and she’s not afraid to tell him the truth when it hurts. If you have one of those… by all means, use them.) (Also, you really should read his book “On Writing”—a few times.)

You need strangers who really don’t care about your thin skin. Trust me, the best beta readers are the most brutal. Most of your inner circle will tell you how good it is while crossing their fingers. For good reason. It’s a “crucial conversation,” and how many of us really like hearing that our pride and joy sucked. (Or telling that to others.) And that’s another point: your first draft will suck.

“Not mine!”

Yes, yours.

Some of those betas will stick with you and prove themselves. Bam. You just found your proofers. You can hire that out, too, just like editing. But you probably don’t need to. For the proofers, that is. Absolutely hire an editor. Make sure you and they know what you need. If you need help with the story and characters, you’ll want developmental or content editor. If it is more about the grammar and punctuation, then you want a copy editor. I recommend the website Reedsy for a lot of learning in the author and publishing world. But for editing, not only do they have articles reviewing all of this in-depth, they provide a service to connect you with editors (that they have vetted) looking for clients.

I’m sure I should’ve opened with this, but this is absolutely a minimum checklist for a minimum viable product:

  • A professional cover that aligns with what the genre readers expect
    • Don’t try to Canva or photoshop it, unless you already have tons of experience; Hire it out!
  • A high quality back cover copy (“blurb”)
    • Hiring this is reasonable. Many authors let pride get in the way. They try writing a story summary. I know—it’s what I did, based on one established plot teacher’s advice.
    • There is a cheap way out to this, but you must commit time: time to learn it, and time to do it correctly with each book. I recommend the book “Fiction Blurbs: The Best Page Forward Way” by Phoebe J. Ravencraft and Bryan Cohen. I have tabs and coffee stains all over my copy. Writing a good blurb is something that happens over a couple of writing sessions, or more. It is about selling the emotional journey of the main character, not telling the plot. You will follow their formula; you will write multiple versions of each and every specifically purposed sentence in the blurb; you will put together the best of it all; you will walk away from it for a couple of days; then you will finalize it. And then, your blurb will actually make readers NEED this book in their lives…
    • “But I have five plots and ten awesome characters.”
    • Alright. You do you. Then buy and read that book two years from now when nobody is converting the sale AFTER your awesome cover had landed them on your sales page.
  • A polished and edited manuscript, formatted neatly
  • And though not truly part of the product:
    • Dialed-in and professional front matter and back matter (the other pages in the book)
    • And high quality product page, whether on Amazon or your own website

“What about ISBNs? And copyrights?”

A future segment—this article has filled the bill. There are some other things to consider, but everything above is what you truly need to start doing before you worry about the nit-picky details, let alone setting up your shops.

Like this series? Be sure to follow my socials and get on my newsletter so you don’t miss an article. Thanks.

Some links in this article are article are Amazon affiliate links. Shopping through them may earn me a small commission at no additional expense to you.


[Editorial Note: I do love discussing this stuff. But in defense of my time (& the fact that I don't want to grow an audience of purely new authors), I will be suspending the series. This is a test, of sorts. I'll refer anyone who wants me to counsel them on how to get into self-publishing to read these three blog posts. If they read them, they can email me the keywords 'Time Defender' then I will then give them an hour in person or on the phone to mentor them in their next steps.]


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