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 Work has 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.
Now it’s fair to note that REMOTE didn’t sell as well as REWORK. But if you’re going to place your bets cautiously based off that, the time to do so is in your offer worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Not trying to hedge a few tens of thousands in printing costs.
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.
And who can blame them? Because the book was selling so fast on Amazon, it was listed with a 40% discount! A $27 book selling for less than twenty bucks. Of course you want that, and of course you want it on a 2-day free prime shipping.
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. That, yeah, that was perhaps a small number to print, but they couldn’t convince the planning department to print more, because this was the number of orders they got from retailers. And the planning department is judged not on having enough books, but only if they print too many, and end up with unsold inventory 😮
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!
This of course also meant we blew any chance of making the prestigious bestseller lists. Whether the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal or any of the other lists we made with REWORK. Yes, they’re vanity lists to a large extent, but if you’re not going to make the lists, let it be for a good reason like, not enough people buy your book, not that you don’t have books for all the people who want to buy.
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.
And there’s some truth to all of these. It has been difficult to estimate when you could get to the printer. Other books have been affected too. 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.
Because it’s not like we overloaded Harper with responsibilities on this launch. Jason and I did all the material editing ourselves, we had the whole book designed in-house, we had it illustrated in-house, and we even had our own PR agency do a lot of the footwork for publicity.
This is that joke: You had one job, Harper. One job. Print the books, get them to book stores.
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.
That’s a lot of bad assumptions. Assumptions built up over two past and good experiences printing books with the professionals at Crown publishing. When you work with people who know what they’re doing, it’s so easy to assume that this is totally normal. That everyone is going to be at this level, because that’s the baseline you see. But it’s not normal. Whether constrained by a dysfunctional organization or whatever, plenty of people end up being incapable of rising to that baseline. And then you really start appreciating what you never even knew you had to worry about.
Now I’ve ended up writing a long tirade, and I completely accept that some people might gag with summary like: “So they gave you a bunch of money, fucked up a few things, but now the books are back in stock, so why do you care?”. Because I do care. Because we didn’t write this book primarily to make money, but because we had something urgent to say, and wanted as many people as could benefit from that message to hear it. But yes, I’m writing this to process my own frustration, if not outright rage, as well.
It shouldn’t have to be this crazy at work, especially when work is publishing a book called It Doesn’t Have To Be Crazy At Work.