Publishing a Book is a Product Management Challenge

Although I’ve written poetry for decades, it is only recently that I decided to publish my first book. I suspected that publishing a high quality book would be complex and time-consuming – time measured in months and even years – and I was right. The pandemic provided both inspiration to write and the need for an all-consuming distraction outside of work. My day job is product management at a large tech company and I’ve found that everything I’ve learned to be an effective product manager applies to the challenge of publishing a book. Below are some of the ways product management and publishing a book are related challenges.

Understand Your User (Reader)

In my day job as a product manager I need to represent the user, be inside their head, through user research, running experiments and talking to as many users as possible. For a product manager it all starts with the user and the problem you are trying to help them solve.

That same approach is helpful when creating a book, even a book of poetry. I do think of the reader when writing each poem – what will keep them reading from one stanza to the next? What arc is compelling enough to get to the end, to keep them curious, and where should that end of a poem lead (a good poem ends in a way that opens the reader to thinking beyond the ending). Poetry needs to be beautifully crafted and intentional. I need to learn over time if I’m reaching my readers so I need to seek out feedback early and often.

In my case my goal is to create beautifully crafted poetry that everyone can appreciate, even those who might otherwise assume that poetry is “too hard” (or worse – “boring”). The former Poet Laureate of the United States, Billy Collins (NPR interview), is a role model for creating approachable poetry. Having this idea of the reader in mind keeps me from straying into the realm of pretentious and impenetrable poetry.

Iterate and Test Your MVP (Manuscript)

When building a product you want to start iterating and learning from your users as soon as possible, and continuously throughout the product development lifecycle. Marty Cagan’s excellent book Inspired: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love makes this point effectively.

A similar concept applies to iterating on your book’s manuscript. For my book I had a running start – decades of poetry to draw from – but that was still only a start. I still had to edit down that portfolio into a book, identifying gaps, understanding what I wanted the book to be and what would work with my readers. I used a variety of techniques (including storyboarding), and getting feedback from my awesome editorial team (my wife and my father). Seeing a draft manuscript led me to re-write earlier poems, and feedback from my copyeditor resulted in completely scrapping two poems, tearing them apart and creating a better poem in their place. For a book many steps require a final manuscript (the interior layout and cover design), so iterating often and early on the manuscript helps prevent expensive re-work later – just like prototyping a product to understand product / market fit early and avoid re-work later.

Build an Awesome Team

Product Managers are completely depend on the team that is inspired to work with them. In my day job as a product manager engineers are not required to follow my lead – I have to inspire them as we collaborate – along with UX, PgM, PMM, Legal, Policy, Support, Execs – all of the acronyms that it takes to make a product real. As a PM I’m looking for people comfortable giving (and receiving) actionable feedback. Feedback is a gift if you can actually do something with the feedback.

Publishing a book, like creating a product, is a team effort. Writing the manuscript is, of course, the critical element but it is far from the only element. Good writing requires good editing – both broad editorial feedback and very detailed copyediting feedback. Publishing a book requires a cover designer (which in turn likely requires an artist for cover art), and interior layout designer (which might be the same person). A professional photographer will likely be required for the “About the author” profile page. Legal might be involved for art licensing. If you are traditionally published you’ll have an agent. I hired a consultant to help me plan the launch, and had to review and select printing partners for physically creating and distributing the book. And then there are numerous other details to work through (Imprint name, ISBN, LOC, copyright registration, etc.)

Delighted Users (Readers) First – Revenue Second

New products need early adopters. The feedback and support of these users is critical, assuming they are representative of the base of users you need to grow.

The consultant I worked with on the book advised that as a first-time author I focus my energy on finding relevant readers before worrying about revenue. There are many compelling products that have focused on building a foundation of users before expending time figuring out how to monetize those users. Similarly there are many examples of products that failed because they put growing revenue ahead of really understanding their user.

As I write this, a couple of months before the June 2021 launch, I’ve built up a small army of advance readers who have the PDF of the fully designed book and galley proofs in hand. On launch day they will place honest and fair reviews about the book on key websites (disclosing that they received an advance copy). In addition, a small subset of targeted readers are providing “advance praise” statements. Advance praise statements are only helpful if they come from credible sources. To thank my advance readers for the time they are investing to read my book I’m delivering galley proofs with great care and a few surprises included. I make each advance reader feel special (because they are) and want to make it as easy as possible for each of them to help me. These advance readers are, in a way, my beta testers.

Don’t Rush Your Product (Book) Launch

By simply changing the status of my book from pre-order to available on Kindle Direct Publishing and IngramSpark I could be shipping my book tomorrow – but that would be the wrong thing to do. Planning the launch of a product and planning the launch of a book require sufficient lead-time to make the most of that starting point. Until the book is fully designed it’s hard to line-up reviews, to pitch the book to local book stores, to seek out interviews, to contact book bloggers. The army of advance readers need time to read the book. I’m mapping out all of the ways that I can amplify the launch of “canvas”, and build momentum after the initial launch day. Given the number of books published every year (every week), breaking through the noise requires planning. I’ll be writing more about what worked (and didn’t) in the coming months.

Landings are More Important than Launches

In my day job as a product manager I think about landings more than launches. Launches are a very important milestone but a launch is just that – a milestone. When a product first launches you’ll already have real-world feedback from iterative experiments, beta testing, UX research and early adopters but you won’t really know how well your product fits until it has launched and the iterating continues. Depending on the type of product, and ability to iterate, the launch may be more of a soft launch that builds up over time. In the case of a physical book (even if printed on demand like my book) iterating after launch on the book itself is challenging (and expensive). So the post launch iteration will be focused on how to build awareness of the book. A “landing” is a checkpoint weeks or more likely months after launch to review progress on key success metrics. I will measure success principally in the base of readers I build up (because I’m already working on a second book), and secondarily on the revenue generated (breaking even would be a win but is not the primary goal).

Stay tuned for more updates in the months ahead, and until then consider pre-ordering a copy of “canvas”.

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