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