publish till you can’t publish no more

Iteration. Good for iPhones. Also, Terminators. The T-800 is a perfectly adequate time-traveling murder robot, but Skynet gave the T-1000 a crucial feature: laminate flooring mode. (Who needs to transform into a beat-up Chevy? Bumblebee’s got nothing on Robert Patrick.) Plus, the latter model dispenses with the odd Austrian accent option.

To iterate, you put something out there quickly, improve it based on feedback, and put it out there again. Rinse and repeat. If it works for Mission: Impossible movies, why not books? Sure, I’ve worked on the occasional second edition in traditional publishing, but those iterations arrives years or even decades apart. Digital changes the equation.

Todd Sattersten makes this case recursively in Every Book Is A Startup, a book he originally published on O’Reilly’s website in 2011. It’s an argument for rapidly iterating books in the form of a rapidly iterating book. Now, Todd has re-released the book on Leanpub, an elegant tool that allows you to publish and sell an e-book while it’s still in progress. Buying the book gives you access to all future updates. (Todd’s is the second book I’ve purchased on Leanpub. The first, Cognitive Productivity, is probably the geekiest book I’ve enjoyed next to, of course, Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing.)

We all need to get a heck of a lot less precious about what we publish and start cranking stuff out. How else are we going to get better at writing what people want to read? How else are we going to figure out what it is that we’re supposed to be writing?

Kent Beck makes this argument in a Facebook post: Publish Everything (Pretty Much). After a tweet went viral—one he never expected to resonatehe realized there’s simply no predicting what will become popular. (This goes back to the Dale Chihuly quote from a few weeks back. “You don’t know when you’re at your best.”) Ultimately, the responses you get from your audience will fall on a standard statistical distribution: a tiny percentage of your published work will get the vast majority of the attention. And you can never know which percentage. 

Of course, Beck includes the caveat that publishing tons of crap will change the curve. But, he adds, “if it’s not so bad as to actively damage your reputation, get it out there and pay attention to the feedback.” In other words, iterate.

Eat your own dog food, Dave. As an experiment and in solidarity with my pal Todd, I’ve just created an iterative book myself. I had a little chapter of something I’d put together and it seemed like it might be part of something larger. So, in the spirit of this week’s essay, what the heck? It took about an hour to get the file up on Leanpub. I’ve decided to call it Book Into Battle: How to Write What You Mean So It Matters. (“Book As Battle”? You tell me.)

If I can do it, so can you. Take something—even a fragment—and throw it up on Leanpub. Share it with me. Then iterate.