How to Prove Your Book Will Sell with This 20-Minute Exercise

    lean canvas for books

    How to Prove Your Book Will Sell with This 20-Minute Exercise

    Two decades ago, writers were a rare breed. Now you can’t throw a pencil in a Walmart without hitting a writer square between the eyes (hopefully with the eraser end). As authors, we are confronted with a lot more competition, many more ways to publish, and the dopamine-fueled way our readers consume content in this digital age.

    What that means for you, Walmart shopper, is when you write and sell your books, you need to apply all the best practices that you would have included in your Stanford Business School thesis, had you chosen to do your graduate studies at that prestigious university.

    The good news (unless you actually are an MBA, then it’s not so good) is graduate business programs are becoming as obsolete as every other brick-and-mortar institution. Everything you can possibly wish to learn about business (and the business of writing) is available online and for a lot less money than tuition at Stanford. For this, we can thank the Bay Area tech wiz kids who came out of, well, Stanford.

    Beyond the mechanics of writing, what you need to learn and implement is business planning.


    If you have read this far, I assume that books are or will be your business. For your next book idea, I suggest you test its viability with a business-type plan. Like the old practice of sending out hard-copy, double-spaced, typewritten manuscripts, formal business plans are outdated. Those multi-paged bastards took weeks to write! Good riddance.

    Rapid business prototyping, using models like lean canvases, gives you the speed and flexibility to try out many book overviews and to shift course as needed. A lean-canvas model, which applies brilliantly to nonfiction books, takes about 20 minutes to create (instead of weeks). I like to use a poster board, a pad of Post-its, and a Sharpie to try out my ideas.

    How to Apply a Lean-Canvas Model to Creating and Marketing a Book
    Draw the grid below on a poster board. Title your canvas with the working title of a book idea and throw in the best log line you can come up with on the fly. On the lean-canvas board, I suggest tacking up your ideas with Post-its. Post-its work better than writing directly on the board, because the brilliance of this type of modeling is that it is so fluid. With stickies, you can move things around and even reuse the board if you prove that your first idea is crap.

    lean canvas for books

    Customer Segment

    Start at the far right; yeah, I know that’s counterintuitive. Anyway, start with the customer segment. For our purposes, this will be your readers. Who are they? I mean, really, who are they? What drives them? What are their secret dreams? Is it fame, money, or a happy group marriage? Figure out who they are, write down their defining characteristics in this canvas block, then keep in mind how you are going to reach them, which we will explore in the Channels section.


    Now that you know who your target readers are, fill out the block on the far left of the page, like a normal English-speaking person would have done in the first place. (Hey, I didn’t invent the model, but it works, so…) Here, you will define the problem that your book will solve for your audience. For example, the reader (who is representative of a larger audience) who wants a happy group marriage might have a wife who is monogamous. Another problem this reader might have is he lives in a conservative town where people frown on the practice of having multiple life partners. Write down at least three problems that your book will solve for your readers.


    Now, offer your readers some solutions. Again, write down at least three. In our example, we might suggest divorce, swingers clubs, or moving to Utah. These solutions will become the main themes of your book.

    Unique Value Proposition

    This is where you explain why this book needs to be written and why it needs to be written by you! Tell us why you are the ultimate authority on the subject matter of your choice and how you got to be that way. In the modeling phase, this will be brief, a few bullet points. In your proposal, this section will grow to be extensive like a resume.

    Unfair Advantage

    This section is a fun one. Here, you describe the credentials you have that are hard to duplicate. This could be your life experiences that are unusual; writing skills, like comedy writing, that are hard to execute well; or, to return to our analogy, the ownership of a polygamists and polyamorists dating website.


    That dating website would be one channel, right? So are Facebook pages, blogs, magazines, TV, radio, lecture circuits, celebrity friends, your publicists, and anything you can think of. This, again, will be explored in depth in your proposal. The lean canvas is simply a way to test if the idea for your book is sound and if you should green-light it.

    Well, you can still write the book if it fails to test well. The lean-canvas model is not the be-all and end-all if you are still intensely passionate about the subject. However, you will go into writing your book knowing if you have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting a publisher interested. As they teach in Scouts, be prepared!


    As a writer, you need to think about how to measure your success. Sure, good ol’ Google analytics works for everyone and everything. So does your number of followers across social networks. Before you begin your book, though, you should measure how connected you are to people who can promote the book and who can verify your expertise on your book’s topic.

    Another thing you’ll want to test is how well you write. Testing your voice, style, and quality is more intangible, as it is a mixture of how readers respond and how your own work makes you feel. One unconventional way I test my writing is by posting to Medium. My motivational and uplifting style is always a winner. My comedy is getting better. What do you think? Practice, practice, practice.


    Costs can be boring to artist types, but they are important all the same. You may not have considered the cost of writing and promoting a book before. The first thing you need to decide is if you are shooting for legacy publishing or if you are going to self-publish. The cost associated with these two paths are outside of the scope of this short blog, but I want you to think about the price of acquisition for each reader for both types of publishing. Think about things like the cost of a publicist, your travel to Book Expo, how much a book tour costs, advertising on Facebook, and so on.

    You can be very loose here, but before you start to write is the time to start thinking about these things. Think not only about the monetary cost but the time and energy cost. Are you willing to spend four hours a day writing the chapters of your book and months speaking at business conferences and colleges?

    Revenue Streams

    book revenueNow that we’ve thought about money, time, and energy going out, let’s think about money coming in. You opt for traditional publishing and get your advance. Congratulations! However, when you look closely at this, the $15,000 that seemed like a bonanza will probably be the equivalent to cover your time to produce the book. How do you multiply this? With revenue streams. Think about audiobooks, video subscriptions, paid magazine articles, online courses, podcasts, and live events.

    Lest we forget our example, our poly-friend (and his happy group of life partners) has parlayed his idea into a bestselling book, a booming retreat center, and an award-winning lecture series. Hey, don’t knock it!

    Really, once you get the hang of it, lean-canvas modeling goes quickly. As I mentioned, each book ideas takes about twenty minutes to chart. If you’re still feeling gung-ho about your book idea after you’ve modeled it then, good news! This lean canvas is an excellent outline for your book proposal… which, of course, is an outline in itself. I know, when do you actually get to write your book? Soon, I promise.

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