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Lessons learned — how to make writing a book easier than you think

The reception Maryam and I have had in response to Lean Experimentation in Action has been overwhelming. The most common thing we hear is something along the lines of: “Wow, you wrote a book! That is such an impressive feat.” And I get it, it DOES sound impressive. #humblebrag. But I used to say the very same things to authors I met. Like three months ago. I was in awe at their confidence. Their tenacity. Their sheer willpower to finish something like a book. 

I won’t lie. It’s not easy, and it does take a lot of effort, patience, and stick-to-it-iveness as we say where I’m from. But I was also amazed at how un-hard it has to be if the conditions are right. So here, upon request, is a short list of lessons learned from writing a bite-sized book in under 3 months.

  1. Get a partner.
    Seriously. As a serial procrastinator, I’ve started so many things in the past. For example, I fancied myself watercolor-painting my way through London these last 6 months. 2 sheets of watercolor paper later, I’m not convinced it stuck. But there’s a reason our company is a big fan of pair programming. When you’re accountable to someone else, when you have the same goal and can keep each other honest, it’s a powerful thing. Maryam has been a fantastic partner for this book. When I wanted to set the project aside or push back an internal deadline, I thought about her and pressed on. When I rat-holed on an insignificant area for too long or debated what was the perfect way to address a concept, she called me out on it and encouraged us to call it good enough for now and move on. And I did the same for her. If you’ve been stuck in the past and have gone it alone, we recommend you get thee a work spouse and go forth and conquer!
     
  2. Get feedback early and often.
    Lean Experimentation in Action started as a Google doc that we shared with friends and colleagues so they could add comments and offer feedback. Not only did that improve the quality of our thinking and writing, but knowing others were reading it meant we put a little extra pressure on ourselves to keep going… and 10 heads are better than two.And though it could use some user experience tweaks (it’s a lean platform, after all), Leanpub has been amazing. It lets you update your book anytime you like, and will automatically notify your readers of any updates. They have a feature where you can say what percent complete your book is to give readers a heads up about its current state, and they can send feedback directly to you. It even has a way to compose your book from its site so there’s no need to upload anything (we didn’t take advantage of this capability but I hear it’s easy).
     
  3. Start with something other than a blank page.
    In our case, we had run workshops on this topic in the past so already had a deck of slides as an outline. We copied and pasted that text into a Google Doc, and filled in a paragraph or chapter for each section. The content grew over time, but it never seemed like a daunting task, because we didn’t have a blank page starting accusingly at us from the screen. We hypothesize that a bulleted list on the back of a napkin or a transcribed voice memo of the gist you want to get across could similarly fit the bill as ways to start from something as opposed to nothing.
     
  4. Make consistent, small steps.
    Most of Lean Experimentation in Action was written in the tiny moments between our projects, in coffeeshops before work started and in the quiet moments after others had left the office. And I’m not trying to make us out as martyrs; it was actually fun. Granted, neither of us has kids at this point. We don’t have huge responsibilities at home. We can afford to come in 1/2 an hour early and leave 1/2 an hour late. For now I’m incredibly grateful for that. But it seems to me that it wasn’t the amount of time per day we put in that led up to actually publishing the book; it was the consistency. It could have been 15 minutes a day, and as long as we had an outline to work from to make context switching easier (see lesson #3), it would have helped keep the energy up.
     
  5. Keep it lighthearted and fun.
    One week when when Maryam was full time on a project and I was bearing the brunt of the writing, I started putting a lot of pressure on myself to finish by our agreed-upon launch date. I stressed myself out and felt like our to-do list was a mile long and like I had to go it alone and like this was a second or third job instead of a fun project. Maryam noticed my change of attitude and told me flat out [I’m paraphrasing]: “This is supposed to be fun, Kylie. I forbid you to do anything more than what is fun for you…. Our deadlines can wait; they were just something to keep us moving forward. Please tell me you’ll slow down and enjoy the ride!” See lesson #1 above. From then on I loosened up and enjoyed the experience. And our written words kept flowing. Thank you for the reminder, Maryam!

What other tips do folks have for finishing longer-term projects like books? Let’s grab a coffee and swap stories.

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Testing prices for the ebook

In the business world, value can be defined many ways. But let’s face it, it usually includes money. And while Maryam and I had many reasons to write this book, we wanted to run an experiment to better understand our pricing strategy. Price a book too low and you risk undervaluing its content. But price it too high, and you risk affecting too small a market.

It’s an art and a science, and there are people that are experts in pricing books. But we’re not those experts, and didn’t want to let our lack of expertise hold us up in our quest to write and release a book in just two months. So we started learning the lean way. From what we read, there are many dimensions that affect book pricing, with two main ones being the format (paper copies tend to be priced higher than ebooks) and the length  (longer books tend to be priced higher than shorter books).

Uh oh. By design, our book is mainly in the ebook format and quite short at just 68 pages. So would this mean our book would need to be priced very cheaply in order to sell?

It was time to craft a quick lean experiment plan.

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Experiment plan | Pricing test 1 for Lean Experimentation in Action

Assumption:

If we introduce our 68-page ebook to our target audience,
Then they will assume its price will be around $15.

Method:

  1. Print the draft cover and abstract of the book (with page number) and take it into a software delivery consultancy.
  2. Identify a professional experience designer, product strategist, developer, project manager, or business analyst as a participant (we had an easy time doing this because we used our own office — more on caveats later).
  3. Tell the participant that we’d like to show them some information about a new book, and will ask them a couple of questions afterwards. Allow them a moment to look over the cover and read the abstract.
  4. Ask the participant 2 questions and note their responses: 1) Let’s say you saw this book in the Kindle or another online bookstore. How much do you assume it would be listed as as a digital book? 2) How much would you assume it would be listed for as a physical book?
  5. Repeat with about 10 participants.

Metric you’ll use to determine results:

  • Median assumed price for digital and physical copies to be evaluated and potentially used as minimum and suggested prices. We’re interested int he median and not mean prices because we don’t want the results to be swayed too much by outliers.

How you’ll know it’s validated:

  • If the median price is above $15, we’ll feel really good with that price. Anything lower and we’ll consider lowering our price.

How you’ll know it’s invalidated:

  • If the median price is on the low end, at around $5, we’ll know that we were likely too aggressive with our $15 price.

How you’ll know you still need to learn more:

  • If prices are so varied that there is no consensus, or if no one has a clear idea how much they would be priced for.

Note: Our participants for this experiment were colleagues at our company. Many readers will say, “But that means your sample was biased! Your colleagues know the authors and that likely that influenced their answers!”. And they’d be right. But we weren’t looking for exact numbers; we were looking to see if our $15 hypothesis was in the right ballpark or not. That’s what lean experimentation is all about, especially in the early days of a product. Additionally, past experiences with our colleagues told us that they are NOT the type to sugarcoat the truth. And we had no reason to believe that their bias would change their answers factorially. That is, we assumed they might pad their answers by a dollar or two, but we did not believe that they would double or triple their assumed price to make us happy. As you’ll see from the results, their answers were lower than we anticipated.

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What did we find? Well, the median price for digital came in at $7.75 (we counted dollars as equivalent to pounds for ease of analysis — As with anything in lean experimentation, the goal is not to get an exact answer, but to validate that it’s not factorially off). The median hard copy price came in at $12.99. We were disappointed (but not surprised) that the ebook and hardcopy prices both came in below $15. But that’s alright; it’s all about learning, and nothing is permanent. What’s important is using signals from the real world to temper your expectations.

Leanpub lets authors choose both a minimum and a suggested price, so we took our experiment results as our lower and upper bounds: For now we’ve chosen $7.99 as the minimum and $12.99 as the suggested price. Luckily since Leanpub also lets people pay more if they’d like, we can continue learning in these first few months as we observe what people are willing and able to pay.

So there you have it. A 20 minute test short-circuited what could have been an agonizing decision that might have taken days or even weeks. We took our pricing answer and ran with it!

To see our prices in action, check out the book.

PriceTest.jpg

Announcing the book on LeanPub!

In true lean form, we conceived, wrote and published our first book in less than two months — getting feedback all along the way. Doesn’t get much leaner than that! Take it from us: you can spend almost zero money and time validating the value of your product ideas. We’ll show you how. Available on LeanPub later today!