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Board Member’s Memo: How to Go Lean to Improve Output

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by Ian Lamont, Founder, i30 Media –

Ian Lamont

What do Stephen King, Arianna Huffington, Scott Adams, and Tim Ferriss have in common? All of them have used lean methods in the course of writing books or building their publishing businesses. You may have heard of the lean startup framework used by high-tech companies in Silicon Valley, or the lean methods used in heavy industry. But authors and publishers can take a lean approach, too.

In the business world, “lean” has long been associated with the Toyota Production System, which emphasizes the complete elimination of waste. For instance, instead of maintaining warehouses full of components and spare parts, the company aims to keep inventories to a minimum as part of its just-in-time manufacturing goals. Internal feedback cycles are critical to regulating parts procurement and other processes.

In the past five years, lean has become associated with software startups, thanks in large part to Eric Ries, an entrepreneur who experienced an epiphany in the mid-2000s in the course of building a consumer software company. He and his team practically locked themselves in an office for six months to build an instant messaging product that they assumed people would want. When it launched, it was an utter flop. No one was interested. It was only after talking with customers that they were better able to understand users’ needs and preferences. Through the measurement of feedback and steady iteration, the team was able to create a widely-used software platform based on virtual goods. Ries went on to articulate a framework for product development in a 2011 book titled The Lean Startup. The book advocates for the scientific measurement of feedback and fast iteration to achieve “product-market fit”—and a profitable company. Thousands of high-tech companies now use the lean startup framework to drive product development.

Where does lean fit in the world of books? As publishers, we’re not making automobiles or software widgets. We produce books that contain stories, characters and ideas that readers can feel passionate about. In addition, while many of us turn to metrics to understand markets and publishing trends, there are also intangibles and creative forces that defy the sort of precise measurement described in The Lean Startup.

However, there is a role in the publishing process for lean methods, especially when it comes to leveraging feedback to better understand readers. Authors and publishers can do so prior to the official launch, and iterate based on the insights gleaned from early readers and test audiences. The feedback may be qualitative or quantitative, and it may come as early as the ideation stage when an author or publisher is kicking around an idea or considering an outline.

Many authors and publishers already use lean methods, although they may not call it that. Consider cartoonist and author Scott Adams. Prior to Dilbert getting syndicated, Adams would sketch out characters and cartoons on whiteboards for his office colleagues to comment on. In fact, the name of the main character comes from a whiteboard “Name the Nerd” contest (his ex-boss came up with “Dilbert”). In the 1990s, after the strip started to get traction, he decided to add his email address between two of the panes in the newspaper comic strip. Immediately readers began to write in, offering all kinds of praise, comments, and suggestions. Adams noticed that many fans said they liked Dilbert better when it was set in the office, as opposed to scenes that took place at Dilbert’s home or outside. Adams responded by concentrating storylines in the office and fleshing out Dilbert’s coworkers.

Stephen King is another author who uses feedback to develop his art. As recounted in On Writing and elsewhere, he turns to a small group of beta readers (including his wife, the novelist Tabitha King) and listens very carefully to what they have to say. If more than one of them brings up something that doesn’t quite work, such as a plot twist or a piece of dialogue, he is apt to change or even remove it in the next revision.

Author and speaker Tim Ferriss famously used a Google AdWords campaign to determine the title of his New York Times bestseller. It was a simple $200 experiment that displayed potential book titles to people searching for specific lifestyle or money-related terms. The title that received the most clicks? The 4-Hour Workweek. Ferriss now uses his widely followed Twitter account and other social media to poll his audience about future writing and podcast ideas.

Arianna Huffington is not a book publisher. But The Huffington Post has relentlessly leveraged metrics to identify what sorts of stories, headlines, and design elements get people to stay on the site longer or share articles with friends. The site, which started out as a link list focused on politics and Huffington’s celebrity blogger friends, rapidly transformed into a dynamic news and opinion site that covers a number of verticals and local markets. Millions of people read Huffington Post sites every day.

For the new cover designs of In 30 Minutes guides, potential readers gave feedback to the publisher after viewing these comps.

For the new cover designs of In 30 Minutes guides, potential readers gave feedback to the publisher after viewing these comps.

For my own publishing business, I have used a lean approach to make important content, design, and business decisions. To hone the designs of my In 30 Minutes series of how-to guides, I took the comps created by TLC Design (see image) and showed them to two groups of people—professional peers and potential readers. That’s not all. Existing readers give valuable feedback about the content of the guides, which often finds its way into follow-up editions. I have also used A/B tests to vet new titles and determine price points.

Some authors and publishers may balk at the thought of sharing drafts before they are “ready,” or considering reader input before making important creative decisions. Others may insist on maintaining strict control over what gets out prior to launch, as part of a marketing plan based on secrecy and anticipation.

On the first point, the creative processes that drive your writing and publishing activities don’t have be thrown out the window. The trick is finding points in the writing, editing, or production processes where feedback can be gathered and evaluated. Furthermore, you don’t have to accept every piece of feedback that crosses the transom. I’ve nixed suggestions to publish In 30 Minutes titles that don’t fit the brand, or would not have a sufficient readership. Many successful authors receive suggestions from readers about characters and stories that are unrealistic or clash with the authors’ ideals.

When it comes to marketing, gathering feedback from test readers should not be regarded as a threat to the launch. Sharing early drafts or designs with beta readers, fans, or a focus group can provide valuable insights that can make a huge difference when the hard launch does take place. If there is a concern about leaks or piracy, it’s possible to limit distribution or carefully choose test audiences.

Have you thought about using a lean approach to publishing? I am in the process of developing a framework for Lean Media (see sidebar) and would love to hear your stories and your feedback. Check out the Lean Media website at leanmedia.org to learn more.

The World of Lean Media

Lean methods can be applied to other types of media, including music, websites, broadcasting, film, and more. Lean elements include everything from keeping creative/production teams small to relying on early feedback and quick production cycles.

One of my favorite examples is The Simpsons. The cartoon began in 1987 as a series of 90-second animated “bumpers” shown before commercial breaks of a sketch comedy show on the upstart Fox television network. The creators and producers validated the idea of a half-hour Simpsons program after seeing studio audiences reacting with laughter to 20-minute show reels of stitched-together Simpsons bumpers. The Simpsons launched as its own prime-time program in December 1989, and is still going strong more than 25 years later.

A lean example from the music world is the hard-rock band Led Zeppelin. The band’s first album was self-funded and recorded in just a few weeks in the fall of 1968. Instead of turning to record company executives to determine what the market wanted, the band paid close attention to how audiences reacted to specific songs or musical segments during its first dozen or so live concerts. The resulting album, Led Zeppelin, was a certified multiplatinum album and helped make Led Zeppelin one of the most successful bands of the 1970s.

Another example from the music world is Chuck D. from the seminal rap band Public Enemy. One creative application of lean methods involved playing early studio tracks to his girlfriend—and discarding any that she liked, reasoning that they were too soft for his target audience!

While the examples cited above went on to enjoy great success, Lean Media is not just the domain of superstar creators. These methods can be applied to media designed for niche or local audiences. If you visit leanmedia.org, you can see some more examples as well as a Lean Media project planner that can help creators and producers (including authors, designers, and publishing partners) create lean teams and incorporate feedback-based iteration into their work.

Ian Lamont is founder of i30 Media and publisher of the In 30 Minutes book and video series.

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