Can the concept of the Minimal Viable Product work for books?

Can the concept of the Minimal Viable Product work for books?

You may have noticed that the startup world is somewhat obsessed with the concept of the MVP. Defined by Wikipedia "as a product with just enough features to satisfy early customers, and to provide feedback for future product development," the Minimal Viable Product is a crucial part of the entrepreneurial drive to create, ship, iterate and improve as fast as possible.

It's supposed to help companies ditch unneccesary process, de-risk innovation, rapidly build communities and get a steal on the competition. All of which sounds highly desirable to an industry that is notoriously slow, risk-averse and prone to pander to the same old audience.

As The Lean Startup author and MVP champion Eric Reis writes: "The only way to win is to learn faster than anyone else [...] we must learn what customers really want, not what they say they want or what we think they should want.”

Except, like other elements of startup culture, the dream of the MVP can't be simply shoehorned to fit books.

For one thing, in book terms, the MVP is basically the equivalent of a first draft. Ship a first draft out to the public? Are you joking? People don't want to read a less-than-brilliant story, and it's hard enough getting them to commit to long form reading in the first place. Hoping that they'll provide feedback and buy further, better versions of that beta book seems distinctly mad.

And as much as some readers enjoy seeing behind the scenes in the writer's workshop, others yearn to keep their favourite authors on a pedestal. They only want to see their heroes at their best. They don't want to tell them what they want from a book, they want to be surprised and delighted and disconcerted. They want to feel they're being led, not pandered to.

It's also true that publishers and authors rise and fall on the quality of their output, never more so than in a world crowded with half-baked opinions and sloppy content. Professional editing is absolutely intrinsic to the success of the industry (if you haven't yet read the obituary of Spanish editor Claudio López de Lamadrid, which captures exactly why what he did is so important, you should) - and it can be a lengthy process. The learning happens between the author and the editor, as much as the publisher and their public. As I've pointed out before, the entrepreneur's fetishisation of speed cannot and should not lead book people to compromise on their USP: outstanding content. Delivered first time.

However, simply discarding the practice as something unsuited to the highfalutin world of literature is also a big mistake.

Some writers and publishers are indeed using MVP-derived elements to produce work in a fast, smart and commercially savvy way. Publishers that scan self-publishing platforms, hoping to skim off the best and turn them into bestsellers (hello, Fifty Shades) are essentially using those spaces as traction testing grounds. Entrepreneur and author Bec Evans is using public reader testing to make sure her new business book matches the needs and desires of her target readership. Authors who compose on sites such as Wattpad often actively seek out live suggestions for their work and offer their readers options for where to take the story next. Bloggers who compile their short pieces into longer publications select the gold from the dross by examining their stats and scanning the comments for useful feedback. 

So it's important to remember that books are special. But it's also important to remember they aren't special at all. The book industry must get better at swiftly analysing and appropriating new, leaner, more collaborative and data-driven business practices - but only where they fit. It must break out of the assumption that there is one production, editing and distribution model that fits all and instead see each book as an opportunity to cherrypick from the whole spectrum of methods and tools now on offer - old and new - to best suit its style, author and readership.

In other words: mix it up, experiment and treat every book as an individual. There's nothing more viable than that.