Jane Friedman

What Authors Can Learn From Startups

Today’s guest post is by Ricardo Fayet (@ricardofayet), the Chief Operating Officer of Reedsy.


Bestselling indie author Nick Stephenson posted a brilliant article on his blog last month on the “cost” of self-publishing, highlighting how authors shouldn’t view the money they spend on editing, design and marketing as a cost, but as an investment, i.e., an asset that creates value.

This is especially important to understand in the current competitive market, in which authors are forced to behave more and more like business people and less like “artists.” If you think of an author as a company, the only “asset” the company has is the content and the rights attached to it. Investing in optimization of that content increases its value. Investing in marketing and promotion increases the company’s ability to monetize its asset(s), and therefore brings a higher and/or steadier cash flow. Authors need to calculate their return on investment, and base decision-making on that figure rather than the upfront cost of an investment.

In this sense, independent authors function similarly to startup—though they rarely approach the challenges with the same dynamism or creativity that startups have come to rely on.

First, you need more creative outbound marketing.

I must have read over 100 posts on book marketing, and to be honest they all more or less highlight the same things “you need to do” in order to sell books: build your author platform (website, blog, social networks, etc.), have an email list, run discounts and promotions (via Bookbub, for example), contact bloggers/reviewers, optimize your metadata, etc.

In the startup world, we talk about “traction channels.” For authors, traction basically means gaining new readers, while channels are the different ways in which you can attract readers.

Andrew Chen, a famous startup advisor on growth, proposed an interesting concept a few years ago that he calls “the Law of Shitty Click-Throughs.” Chen explains that, over time, all marketing strategies lose their effectiveness and end up resulting in poor click-through rates.

We can apply the Law of Shitty Click-Throughs to explain why many authors now get the feeling that popular strategies like “perma-free” (creating work that is permanently free) are no longer an effective marketing strategy: there are just too many free books on Amazon. Plus, Amazon adapted to the perma-free strategy by separating paid and free books on their bestseller lists.

What does this mean? You need to be more creative. Sure, you can find inspiration in what others have done, but also know that the less advertised “strategies” out there might actually be the ones worth pursuing (or at least testing).

All of the successful authors we’ve interviewed at Reedsy so far have done things that few other authors are doing, whether that’s replying to all reviewers on Amazon and Goodreads to announce a new book, inviting the local mayor to a book launch, building websites/newsletters for characters, or sending additional hard copies with every order.

So how do you get better, more creative ideas?

Startups have an incessant need to find new, creative ways to reach users. They are pushed to it by their lack of resources, limited time, and the need to demonstrate “traction” to investors.

If you read tech marketing blogs, I guarantee you’ll find ideas for your books that few other authors out there are considering:

All these provide inspiration applicable to not just startups, but everyone who has to learn about digital marketing, as the last “Startup Marketing Blog” post points out: “Growth hacking is for smart marketers—not just startups.”

My No. 1 recommendation, though, is actually a book: Traction: A Startup Guide to Getting Customers. Written by two startup founders, Traction reviews every single “traction channel” (i.e., marketing strategy) startups can use to find, engage, and retain customers. Surprisingly and crucially, almost every one of these channels is available to authors. I especially recommend the chapter on “Unconventional PR,” which offers great examples of out-of-the-box thinking from technology startups looking to generate a PR stunt.

Successful stunts include Uber delivering cupcakes and kittens to employees who wanted a break from work, or Blendtec, a blender manufacturer, starting the “Will It Blend?” videos, and testing their blades against golf balls or iPhones. Or DuckDuckGo, a competitor of Google, hiring a billboard in Google’s backyard in California to advertise.

Marketing expert Seth Godin says we’re operating in a “connection economy,” where mass marketing doesn’t cut it anymore. Gaining traction is about creating the extraordinary; these examples show how a little subversive thinking can help you achieve that.

Learning best practices from a startup

As Kristine Kathryn Rusch wrote in her slightly depressing round-up post on “things indie writers learned in 2014,” authors who want to survive in the new competitive landscape need to learn business, and place themselves in the same conditions and mindset as an actual entrepreneur.

What does this mean? Do what startups do: plan for your launch, set tangible goals and deadlines, and make yourself accountable. Create books that are easily sharable and recommendable by readers. Put links to your newsletter and website in the book. Offer a real incentive for readers to subscribe to your newsletter and/or to leave a review. And just to be clear, writing something like “reviews are very important for us independent authors, so please leave one” doesn’t constitute an incentive.

More importantly, decide what you want to do and do it well. This is the main point made in Traction: There are lots of “traction channels,” but you cannot make them work for you unless you focus on two to three at a time, after having carefully tested their effectiveness.

Creating a great book is vital, but everything else is optional. You don’t need to blog. You don’t need to tweet. You don’t need to offer giveaways. If you do all of these, chances are you’re going to be inefficient, or worse, obsequious. So focus on a couple of strategies and roll them out as thoroughly as you can. If you’re going for strategies that yield results in the long term (like blogging or building a following on social networks), start working on those long before the launch of your book. If you’re going for short-term strategies (like Bookbub promotions or Goodreads giveaways), make sure you have a product and platform ready to capture the sudden wave of readers you’re expecting.

Keep looking outside your “world” for creative ideas. If you are reading the same material as every other indie author, you’ll probably end up using the same strategies. If you look wider, you’ll find brilliant new possibilities!