Our book launch was botched and it’s been crazy at work trying to fix it

18 November 2018

From Medium:

I’m trying to remember when it was last this crazy at work. Before we spent a month fighting poor planning and terrible execution on the publication of our new book It Doesn’t Have To Be Crazy At Work. Was it when we got DDoS’ed over two days and were fighting to keep Basecamp on the internet? Was it when we touched the third rail and spoke about customer data in public? Or do we have to go all the way back to the early days when Basecamp went down whenever I, as the only technical person at the time, would get on an airplane?

Whenever it was, it’s been so long that I had almost forgotten the cocktail of feelings that go with it. That mix of frustration, exhaustion, exasperation, and, perhaps for a fleeting moment, even disbelief. Why is this happening! How could we be this stupid?

But now it’s back. Oh it’s back. Publishing It Doesn’t Have To Be Crazy At Workhas been the most frustrated, exhausting, exasperated, and even unbelievable process. For the dumbest reasons too.

It started with the design. When we signed on with our new publisher, the shared intent was to publish a new book in the same format as REWORK and REMOTE. So we designed a powerful new cover to the same dimensions, and felt really proud about how clean and clear we managed to make it. We were so invested in the impact of the cover that we didn’t even put our names on it!

But when we saw the final book, our hearts sank. This wasn’t right. The book wasn’t the same format. It was taller, so the dimensions were off. And the translation of our design was a complete hack job. It wasn’t even centered on the page!

Yeah, nobody else is likely to notice. Nobody else knows what it was supposed to look like. But we did. We noticed. And when you pour your heart into a book like this, which we’ve been thinking about in some form or another for almost a decade, it hurts.

Okay. Mistakes happen. We were partly to blame. We could have triple checked. We fell for the illusion of agreement, because we weren’t looking at the final thing. Whatever. The second printing would get it right. Bygones.

Forgiving what happened next proved to be much harder.

Harper Business bought the rights to publish It Doesn’t Have To Be Crazy At Work with a mid six-figure offer. They outbid another publisher who were in the final running for the rights by a fair margin. Awesome, we thought. This means they’re really invested in blowing this out! This is going to be great.

It was not great.

Despite paying top dollar for the book, Harper Business decided to only print 14,000 copies in the first run. That 14,000 was based on the first orders from retailers. Barnes & Noble wanted 4,000 copies. Amazon wanted 3,300. The rest went largely to independents and wholesalers, and a few for overseas. Once everyone had gotten what they had ordered, Harper Business had no books left. The whole first run was spoken for.

This is where I kick myself. You think when you’re dealing with a major publisher like Harper that you’re safe to leave the details of the printing and the publishing in their hands. This isn’t some upstart publisher. They’ve been around forever. They publish so many books. They’re the professionals, right?

But if we had dared to question that premise — that they’re the professionals, they know what they’re doing — we’d have remembered that we printed 34,000 copies of REWORK. Our first book! The one that went on to sell more than half a million copies around the world. So why were we printing so few books this time around? We’d soon try to in vain to answer that question.

. . . .

But this book got off to a roaring start. We flew up the Amazon best seller list, making it to #24 one of the first days. Then we sold out their entire stock in less than 5 days. What joy! What celebration!

If only. Amazon selling out their stock right away was a disaster. Not because of the copies sold, but because Harper seemed to be taken completely by surprise. They had no books ready to restock, because they printed so few in the first place. The first reprint wasn’t even set to go, because they dillydallied fixing the busted cover design. And worse, the remaining 11,000 books that had gone to Barnes & Nobles and wholesalers and independents could barely be accounted for. We couldn’t get straight answers on who had the books, or whether any of them could be sent to Amazon, since that was clearly where people wanted to buy the book.

The bookscan numbers for the first week hammered this point home. While Amazon had sold 3,300 books, Barnes & Noble — who had ordered even more than Amazon for their first order! — had sold a pathetic 240 copies. And at least 10% of those sales were either us or friends or family excited to see the book in a physical bookstore.

Here’s what worse: Harper knew this would happen. They had told us that Amazon on some titles were 70–90% of sales! In our case, Amazon was over 90% of hardcover books sold the first week, despite the fact that we had gone out of our way to guide sales to B&N during the pre-order phase.

So let’s do the math here: You print 14,000 books for the first printing. You know that Amazon is going to be up to 90% of sales. Wouldn’t you then reserve a good 10,000+ books for Amazon? Harper’s excuse? Amazon’s buyer just said they wanted 3,300 copies, so that’s all we gave them, and we held nothing back for a restock…

And that’s even accepting the premise that 14,000 copies is a good number of books to print for a title you’ve paid mid six figures to acquire. It costs less than $2 to print a book. So Harper spent less than $30,000 to print books, because their planning department didn’t want to risk sitting with $10,000 worth of unsold inventory if the book should bomb.

That’s what the team at Harper literally told us.

. . . .

All of this would just have been a funny anecdote about how dysfunctional large bureaucracies can be, if it wasn’t for what happened next. Taken aback that the book was selling(?!), Harper then had to scramble to get the second printing together. That took a month. Today is the first day that Amazon actually have books in stock ready for delivery tomorrow. They sold out on October 6th.

In that month, all our sales momentum for the hardcover book died out. We had all this publicity lined up. An incredible review by The Economist. Wonderful write-ups in WSJ and The Times UK. Podcast appearances coming out the wazoo. All the built-up excitement for a book that’s hitting right in an industry-wide discussion about toxic work environments and the cost of burning people out. It’s hard to have timed all this better, or, I suppose worse.

Because what good is having a wonderful launch campaign, if you have no books to sell? After Amazon sold out, our book page would scare away potential readers away with a 2–4 week delivery time notice. One time it even said it might be 2 months before the book was back in stock!

. . . .

So why did it take Harper Business a month to get our newly released book back in stock? Because of Trump. Because of tariffs. Because of paper shortages. Because there were a lot of other big books being published at the same time. Because of consolidation in the book printing business. I kid you not, these were all excuses pitched by Harper as to why there were no books.

. . . .

But no one else at our scale had their launch quite this spectacularly botched by the publisher not doing the due diligence to account for these challenges. Out of all the other new releases that broke into the top 50 on Amazon, we were the only title out of stock for a long time.

We’d get these long serenades about how they too were really frustrated. How these things just happen! How it was going to get fixed any day now, but they just weren’t exactly sure when. How mad they were and what loud noises they were making when talking to the departments in charge.

Every possible excuse except for “the dog ate my homework”. Which, really, would have been a more compelling excuse than “tariffs”. Because that’s really what it comes down to. We botched our launch because someone didn’t do the homework. They didn’t print an appropriate amount of books to the scale of the book, they had no solid plans for a second printing when the first one ran out, and they had no capacity for anticipating that all the factors that had been in play for months (like paper shortages or tariffs or, ffs, Trump) would impact the process.

They were unprepared for and proved incapable of doing the one job you absolutely must do as a book publisher: Print. The. Books.

. . . .

Anyway. It’s been crazy at work. Needlessly so. Painfully so. Frustratingly so. But, like all moments of crazy, it also held a buffet of lessons for us to take. Like, never work with Harper Business on another book again… kidding… sorta… maybe… 😂

No really. We went for the publisher who bid the highest, and we assumed this meant they had real skin in the game. We went with a major publisher, so we assumed they all knew what they were doing, and we didn’t have to double check every publishing decision. We made a deal with a single acquiring editor without meeting the rest of the team, because that played to our bias that someone entrusted to write a mid six-figure check on their own would have the authority to call the shots that mattered, but we still ended up haggling over $10,000 in costs to print books.

Link to the rest at Medium and thanks to Morgan for the tip.

PG will note that the book has 43 reviews on Amazon with an average of 4.6 stars.

Barnes & Noble drops new ads doubling down on brick and mortar

11 November 2018

From Campaign US:

Barnes & Noble has launched its first major campaign in years after Havas North America won a competitive pitch to own creative and media duties.

The work, entitled “Nobody Knows Books Like We Do,” is the brand’s reminder of the joy and discovery bookstores can bring us in a world dominated by digital.

“Our biggest challenge is that people are busy and don’t have the same amount of time they once had to read,” Tim Mantel, Barnes & Noble’s chief merchandising officer told Campaign US. “We’re competing with how busy people are in their own lives, as well as all the entertainment and information they can get right in the palm of their hand.”

He explained: “Barnes & Noble has always been an incredible place of discovery, whether it’s for people shopping for themselves, or looking for a thoughtful gift for someone they care about. This campaign gives us the chance to remind our customers around the country of what a special place our stores are, and how amazing it is to come into a Barnes & Noble to find just the right book or gift during the holidays.”

. . . .

The brand’s 23,000 booksellers live at the heart of this campaign. It is these people who are the key point of differentiation between Barnes & Noble and digital giants like Amazon, “because they can help customers find the perfect book in a way that can’t happen online.”

Mantel said the bookseller is leveraging its brick and mortar status as community centers, whether its attending a book club, bringing a child to a Storytime, or dropping by for a cup of coffee.

“As the campaign shows, going to your local Barnes & Noble is not just about discovering life-changing books and gifts, but interacting with people and communities in a way that can’t happen in front of a computer,” he added.

Link to the rest at Campaign US and thanks to Dave for the tip.


Pretentious, impenetrable, hard work … better? Why we need difficult books

10 November 2018

From The Guardian:

This year’s Booker-winner Milkman has been criticised for being challenging. But are we confusing readability with literary value?

The fascination of what’s difficult,” wrote WB Yeats, “has dried the sap out of my veins … ” In the press coverage of this year’s Man Booker prize winner, Anna Burns’s Milkman, we’ve read a good many commentators presenting with sapless veins – but a dismaying lack of any sense that what’s difficult might be fascinating.

“Odd”, “impenetrable”, “hard work”, “challenging” and “brain-kneading” have been some of the epithets chosen. They have not been meant, I think, as compliments. The chair of the judges, Kwame Anthony Appiah, perhaps unhelpfully, humblebragged that: “I spend my time reading articles in the Journal of Philosophy, so by my standards this is not too hard.” But he added that Milkman is “challenging […] the way a walk up Snowdon is challenging. It is definitely worth it because the view is terrific when you get to the top.”

. . . .

Attacking a literary prize for rewarding a book that doesn’t accord with a critic’s ideas about “readability” is simply philistinism. The question is not where the book sits on some notional sliding scale between “challenging” and “page-turner”: it’s how successfully it answers whatever challenge it sets itself. The question isn’t how difficult a book is, but why it’s difficult. What is it doing with its difficulty? What is it asking of the reader? Does that difficulty reward the reader’s investment of time? You’re entitled, as James Marriott did in the Times, to conclude that in this case the view from the top of Snowdon wasn’t worth the hike. But complaining about the hike per se is to give up on the idea that there might be any case for art that rewards an investment of energy and attention from its consumer.

And the way Burns talks about Milkman makes clear that, whether we like it or not, she is doing something with the “difficulty” of the novel. One of the things that has most vexed its critics is the fact that none of the characters has a name. That wasn’t an arbitrary decision. “The book didn’t work with names,” she has said. “It lost power and atmosphere and turned into a lesser – or perhaps just a different – book. In the early days I tried out names a few times, but the book wouldn’t stand for it. The narrative would become heavy and lifeless and refuse to move on until I took them out again.” In other words, it is like it is because it has to be that way.

. . . .

Nicola Barker, a novelist who is herself from time to time accused of being difficult, says: “I see fiction as being divided into two categories. Work that confirms and celebrates and panders and work that confounds and perplexes and challenges. My work challenges – as I’m sure Anna Burns’s does – but this is because we are trying to understand and engage with ideas, emotions and a world that aren’t straightforward or coherent or manageable. Sometimes the form or style of a book needs to mirror the complexity of life. Sometimes we need to try and describe the indescribable. Life is hard and paradoxical. It isn’t always easy. Nor should all fiction be.”

She adds that, since experimental writers don’t make much money and don’t attract much glamour, “it’s doubly strange that we get so much stick for trying to innovate and challenge and experiment. Experimental fiction is something you write for the love of it. It is rarefied. But it is important because it often forms the foundation of our creative ecosystem. Other artists (musicians, painters, architects etc) higher up the food chain read us and engage with our ideas and translate what we do.”

This year, as every year, there have been versions of the old op-ed standby that the Man Booker is succumbing to pretension or political correctness or snobbery or irrelevance. These all make for pleasingly attitudinal headlines but they ignore the glaring point that every single year you get a whole new panel of judges who make a whole new determination from a whole new batch of books. And the complaint that a particular winner “won’t sell” – another gripe levelled at Burns, as it was at last year’s winner, George Saunders – is also beside the point. Boosting book sales is the happy outcome and, in a way, the purpose of these prizes: but to imply that it’s therefore the judges’ job to choose the book most likely to get the biggest sales uplift from the prize is to let the tail wag the dog.

“You want the book to go round the world,” says Gaby Wood, the Man Booker’s literary director. “You want it to reach people. But you can’t work with a patronising idea that normal people won’t be able to understand this. I put the question to a previous panel: ‘Are you trying to reward the book that pushes literature forward the most; or are you wanting to select the book that you most want to push into the hands of people all round the world?’ The difficulty comes when, for a panel, the answers to those questions are different books. That has happened, and it can be agonising. This year though, Anna Burns was felt to be the answer to both.”

. . . .

Like it or not, literary fiction is a category that we use. And if it is just another genre and needs to get over itself, fine. Let’s work with that. We can identify features of other genres. Aliens and nanobots? SF, more often than not. Guns and hats and dead bodies? Crime. Dossiers and dead drops? Spy novels. So we ought to be able to make some, if necessarily vague, stabs at identifying what the features of “literary fiction” are. Let’s leave aside cultural value judgments about “importance” or “seriousness”. Literary fiction can, like most fiction, be unimportant. It can also be unserious: some of the best of it is. I’d call Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller literary fiction, but it doesn’t strike me as either important or serious. It’s a glorious game.

It’s sometimes fuzzily said that literary fiction gives you more on rereading, or that it stays with you, or that it’s “more profound”. That may be true, some of the time – but these things are more likely to be symptoms than necessary features. I’d suggest that the main identifying feature – and in this respect literary writing can and does compass and mingle with any number of other genres – is to do with complexity and depth of attention. That can be moral or psychological complexity – crudely, the goodies and baddies are less clearly delineated – but it can also be, and tends to be in the best work, allied to a greater attention to the form and to the sentence-by-sentence language itself. And where I say that it mingles with other genres, the point I mean to make is that (just like hats, or nanobots) its features can be found in any genre. You could make the case that Iain M Banks’s Culture novels are literary SF, that Sarah Waters has written literary historical thrillers, that Joseph Kanon or John le Carré write literary spy novels, that the metafictional quality of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a literary quality, and so on. The examples are numberless.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Having spent his life in the United States (albeit with some lovely vacations in Great Britain), PG is not anything close to an expert on The Man Booker Prizes.

Over several years, he has, however, observed a pattern in the way British newspapers report the prizewinners.

In chronological order:

  1. The Booker Prizes have been announced!!! We know who won!!
  2. The Booker judges panel did a terrible job! Look at how many people are upset about the Prizewinners! Once again, the judges picked some obscure nonentities and overlooked all the really good books this year/Once again, the judges picked only popular books and overlooked the underappreciated masterpieces.

Perhaps because he’s a Yank, but PG knows in advance how he will feel about almost any literary prize.

He’s always happy to see an author get some money.


The Farm

4 November 2018

One more book trailer, then we’re done for awhile.

This one is for The Farm by Tom Rob Smith


3 November 2018

Another book trailer

Leviathan by Scott Westerfield.

From Bad to Cursed

3 November 2018

Continuing well-produced book videos

From Bad to Cursed by Katie Alexander


Lily Alone

3 November 2018

PG decided to check out some book trailers that were well-produced.

Lily Alone by Jacqueline Wilson


Publishing Trends: Tropes Readers Adore Across 15 Fiction Genres

1 November 2018

From BookBub:

Whether you’re looking to write to market or are scouring manuscript submissions for your next acquisition, knowing what tropes appeal to readers can help inform your decision. We see different trends in different categories. And studying these trends, especially those that have been selling well recently, will help you learn what content can best engage your audience.

To help you get a sense of what’s currently engaging BookBub members, we’re showcasing two trending tropes across each of 15 different categories, along with examples of books that performed well for each trope.

. . . .

Historical Romance Trends

Marriages of convenience

In historical romances, readers love when heroines must wed the hero for reasons beyond their control, or marry for anything but love — only to find themselves falling head over heels!

. . . .

Heroes with titles

Dukes might have been few and far between in actual 19th century England, but in historical romance they’re thick on the ground, and our readers have been loving them as heroes lately — along with earls and marquesses.

. . . .

Action & Adventure Trends

Military fiction

In military fiction, protagonists will likely have a degree of experience in the combat and survival departments, so the book’s action sequences will reflect that expertise.

. . . .

Ancient secrets, codes, and hidden treasure

Given the gargantuan popularity of stories like National Treasure and The Da Vinci Code, it’s no surprise that our action and adventure readers are big fans of books featuring historical clues, hidden treasures, and puzzle elements.

Link to the rest at BookBub

Duke PG is fighting to survive by consuming Diet Coke until he can find the lost file on his computer.

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