These Dangerous Ideas From The World of Startups

O’Reilly announced they are shutting down the Tool of Change Conference and TOC Blog. I originally wrote this essay for their blog and now want to make sure it exists here in its entirety. Here is the start:

Dustin Kurtz, marketing manager at Melville House, wrote a piece last week about the incursion of startup vocabulary in the world of book publishing. He says:

[N]ow the models and the metaphors of the tech industry are, full-throatedly, without embarrassment, being used to talk about not just the methods of publishing books, but the books themselves, and this is a grand and wondrous idiocy, a diminishment of art, a gravity well of stupidity so deep that we cannot even talk about it properly, only study its effects.

As someone who has helped without embarrassment to bring those models and metaphors to the industry, my interest was piqued.

The chain started with a blog post on the New Yorker site. Writer Betsy Morais attended O’Reilly’s Tool of Change Conference and focused her reporting on the work of Peter Armstrong‘s Lean Publishing and Tim Sanders’ Net Minds. The piece is wonderfully accurate, but structured in that way that casually dismisses the West Coast technological carpetbaggers.

Prompted by the post, Kurtz’s discomfort seems to be the always present tension art between commerce. Whenever commerce suggests a different process for art, the literati cry foul. Suggesting a more open writing process, for example, automatically means that a book will end up written for the reader of the least-desirable denominator or as Kurtz describes, “tailoring a book to a focus group the way companies might test out an ad-spot for antacid.”

When Tom Wolfe started writing Bonfire of the Vanities, he was not holed up in a writer’s colony. He shared the manuscript he was writing on the pages of Rolling Stone, releasing 27 installments over the course of a year. Wolfe called the serialization “a very public draft.” He spent two more years revising the novel before Bonfire of the Vanities was released as a book in 1987, to critical acclaim and commercial success. Charles Dickens used the same process for every one of his novels and we know through reading correspondences he had with illustrators and colleagues that the development of those stories was impacted by their feedback and the feedback of the reading public. At SXSW Interactive 2013, I heard Steve Carpenter, the creator of the TV show Grimm, talk about how he changed the ending to his novel Killer after fans didn’t like the first one he wrote. “I wanted to make the readers happy,” he said.

The most important concept we can learn from what is happening in today’s startup movement is the art of exposing our ideas to the world and listening for their response. The mantra “Get out of the building” from startup patriarch Steve Blank tells entrepreneurs that the answers they are looking for are not going to be found in front of their computers or talking amongst themselves. Matt Mullenweg, the founder of Automattic, goes even further saying, “You can never anticipate how an audience will react to something you’ve created until it’s out there. That means every moment you’re working on something without it being in the public it’s actually dying, deprived of the oxygen of the real world.”

Kurtz writes, “Are we to the point where the act of being alone, writing to an imagined audience and not a real responsive audience is akin to hiding?”

Yes, that is precisely what we are saying.

Art for art’s sake is fine, but if we are going to introduce the notion of commerce and the idea that someone is going to pay for the artist’s work, then it is completely reasonable to suggest a different process to evaluate and commercialize the work.  In writing Every Book Is A Startup, we tested the notion of whether the book should even be developed. We published four iterative versions of the project and digitally distributed them with readers paying a gradually increasing price based on the amount of material included. I used feedback from readers to determine the next chapter. We ended up selling several hundred copies. By almost any measure, it is clear there is not a commercial market for the project and by taking small steps, neither my publisher and I regret the project by having over-invested in its creation.

I don’t understand Kurtz’s objections. These are not metaphors, they are business terms being used to describe the business of publishing. Publishers are venture capitalists who assemble a portfolio of projects to mitigate financial uncertainty of publishing books. Authors are entrepreneurs who bring an idea and, in the words of Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham, are “relentlessly resourceful” in their drive to succeed. And books themselves are startups in search of an audience, competing for attention in a very crowded marketplace of ideas.

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