I love this quote by Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbes, which I found through James Clear’s newsletter:
“…having an enviable career is one thing, and being a happy person is another. Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential-as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth. You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you’ll hear about them. To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.”Source: Some Thoughts on the Real World from One Who Glimpsed it and Fled
In the years leading up to writing Big Enough, this perspective became more real to me. I have always been ambitious and I continue to be. What has changed is the focus or desired outcome of that ambition. I came to see that I could be happy and satisfied by defining my own measures of success and pursuing what made me happy. For me, it meant thinking smaller and more home-based. It meant becoming more satisfiable.
We used to have in-person movie nights with popcorn and blankets on the floor. Now that our group of friends is choosing to stay home due to Coronavirus, we looked for ways to feel connected, with zero risk.
The outcome of our brainstorming led to a different kind of movie night that was full of fun and laughter, despite us being at different locations. It worked so well that I’m writing to share how you can do it with your friends or family.
The Big Idea:
A group of people, alone in their homes, watch the same (preferably bad) movie at the exact same time. As the movie plays, the group uses a group chat system to comment throughout the movie. I call it a “snark-a-thon” for obvious reasons.
How to Host a Snark-a-Thon Movie Night:
Organize a group. We had six people and it worked great. More could work, too. Each household needs an internet connection, access to movie websites, and a computer or device for chatting.
Choose a movie. We chose to focus on movies that fall into the “so bad it’s good” category for maximum snark. It’s important to pick a movie everyone can access. For us, Catwoman (2004) worked well and was $.99 on Amazon and available elsewhere. The Razzies website might be a good source for inspiration.
Start a group chat. We used a Slack channel, but that’s not required. You could use text messages, Facebook Messenger, Gchat, GroupMe, etc. Anything that allows a group to chat synchronously will work.
Plan the event. We agreed to start the chat at 8:30 and start the show at 8:45. This gave everyone a chance to get comfortable, arrange for snacks and coordinate the start of the movie. The designated host will need to pause the movie near the start and share a timestamp (and photo) with the group to get everyone to the same scene. We used the title screen.
Start the show, together. A challenge is getting each household to start the movie at the same time. Once everyone has paused the movie at the same timestamp, the host can post “now” in the chat as the signal to unpause it. Alternatively, everyone can start it when phone clocks turn to a specific minute, like 8:46. Once it’s playing, it’s important that no one pause or rewind the movie. Synchrony is essential to making it work.
Updated: Netflixparty is a Chrome browser extension that synchronizes video playback and provides for group chat.
Have fun. One of the reasons to use a bad movie is to not care too much about the plot. In our situation, the movie was secondary to the discussion. There were tangents, bad jokes, animated gifs and a LOT of laughing. The chat was continuous throughout the movie and became the real show. Being home-bound meant no one was driving, so we all partied as much as we wanted.
In the end, we were all amazed at how well it worked. It made us feel connected despite the isolation and added real fun to a night that might have otherwise felt lonely. And we all practiced social distancing.
You should host a snark-a-thon movie night! If you do, use #snarkathon when you talk about it online.
Just before Big Enough went to the printer, I learned there were a handful of blank pages at the end of the book. The book designer asked if I’d like to use them for promotion or a section for “notes”, etc. It seemed strange. Couldn’t we just remove the extra pages? I asked my editor and she followed up with this article about printing books.
From the article:
“Page count is typically a multiple of 16, because the printer prints sheets of 16 pages (called signatures) and folds them up to create book pages. If your page count is just one page over a multiple of 16, you’ll have 15 blank pages at the end of the book.”
So, I started wondering what I could add to the end of the book. I asked about a photo and the designer said there was a good place for a photo on the opposing page from my bio, but it wouldn’t use up any extra pages.
In The Art of Explanation, I added a promotion for Common Craft at the end and I think it worked well. But Big Enough is a different kind of book and I want it to be less promotional. Instead, I decided to add an author’s note that is meant to offer readers the next step and an invitation to connect.
The problem with printing these sorts of invitations in the book is the timelessness factor. What you print must stand the test of time. For example, I chose not to mention a specific social media platform. Further, I was advised not to mention specific platforms, like Amazon, as it’s friendlier to booksellers to remain neutral.
Here’s the note:
I hope you enjoyed Big Enough. Like so much of what we do, this book was an experiment and an expression of the independence we’ve sought for so long. It was self-published, which means we’re personally invested in its success.
I hope you’ll consider reviewing it online or simply telling a friend. By sharing a few words on book review websites or where you purchased it, you can help more people discover the book and feel the satisfaction of knowing you’ve helped an independent publisher.
Again, thanks so much for reading Big Enough!
The thought of doing something like this crossed my mind early on, but I didn’t push it. Now that the note will appear in the book, it feels good. I like having a quick sign-off that thanks the reader and points them to a next step.
A new issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain, went out to subscribers recently. It’s a short, scary story about our dog Piper disappearing into the woods on a windy afternoon.
It was about 3:45 when Piper disappeared and as we searched, I started to do mental calculations. It gets dark at about 6pm, so we have a little over two hours to find her. She is used to having dinner at 5, so maybe that will bring her home. I looked at the weather and saw low temperatures in the upper thirties. These little calculations led to a series of questions I didn’t want to have to face. What if she’s not home when it gets dark? What if she’s not home when it’s time to go to bed? What about two days from now? A week? Is it too cold? Are we going to have to make signs? I imagined Sachi spending the night by the front door, waiting.Read this issue.
Ready for Rain goes to a small group of dedicated readers and about 60% of them open each issue, which I find encouraging. I’d love to have you as a subscriber.
Big Enough, my forthcoming book, is arriving in May. It’s being published via a partnership between me and publishing industry pros. Below, I’ll explain why I made this choice, how it differs from traditional publishing and why this option might become more popular in the future.
In 2012, I worked with Wiley, a major book publisher, to publish The Art of Explanation. I enjoyed working with Wiley and I’m proud of what we produced. Our relationship represented how publishers have worked with authors for generations.
My goal with Big Enough, though, is to self-publish a book that’s indistinguishable from one produced by a major publisher. It will appear on the same bookshelves and be of similar quality. Before getting into that, I think it’s important to understand the variety of expertise that goes into publishing nearly any book destined for bookstores.
Books, of course, must be written. Authors are responsible for putting ideas on a page, which takes time and produces no direct income. Writing a book comes with opportunity costs and possibly debt.
Authors need editors. Books meant for the mass market must be edited. Working with a professional editor can transform a book and increase its potential to be successful. In addition to content editing, copy editors and proofreaders ensure the book’s grammar, spelling and punctuation are correct. This work ensures quality, takes time and talented editors don’t work for free.
Books need design. Professional book designers create cover art and select layouts, fonts, headings, and more. A nicely designed book relates to the content and stands out on the shelf. Designers also deserve to be paid for their work.
A physical book must be printed and distributed. Like any other product, books travel through a supply chain. Getting a book into this supply chain requires business relationships with both printers and distributors. Project managers are essential in this process.
Purchases require awareness. Marketing, advertising and sometimes, public relations campaigns can help a book be discovered. These activities require time, expertise, and can come with significant advertising costs.
The bottom line is this: high-quality books require significant investment and acceptance of risk. I think about it in terms of a break-even point. Will the book sell enough to pay for the cost of publishing it?
Now, let’s talk traditional publishing. In working with Wiley, I wrote the book and they handled most of the work I described above. I was not required to invest in editing, design, printing, distribution, etc. In fact, they gave me an advance payment while writing the book, which I paid back through book sales. This relationship insulated me, the author, from financial risk.
In this scenario, the publisher is betting that they can produce a book that, at least, breaks even. Because of their size and volume, they dominate the supply chains and can negotiate the best deals. They have in-house talent and decades of experience that reduce the risk. This is why “getting a book deal” is sometimes a struggle. Publishers must bet on the future work of authors.
Being an author in a traditional publishing relationship can be stressful because there is a sense of obligation. Because the publisher’s money is on the line, they call the shots. Many have a structured process designed for maximum output. Because the publisher’s money goes into production, they also keep much of the income from book sales. In this scenario, authors sometimes feel a loss of control.
Now, let’s switch to Big Enough.
I love the idea of self-publishing and have spent over a decade self-publishing Common Craft videos. One of the messages of Big Enough is that technology has made it possible for anyone to be a publisher and earn a living from their intellectual property. My approach to book publishing is an expression of this focus on independence.
Self-publishing, though, has some baggage. Once it became technologically possible, authors could publish e-books with a minimum investment and without the help of experts who ensure quality, like editors and designers. Without these gatekeepers, quality sometimes suffered and self-publishing became known as inferior.
This is where things have changed. Self-publishing isn’t defined by technology, gatekeepers, or quality. There is no reason a self-published book can’t compete with a major publisher’s book. The key difference can be boiled down to a simple question: who is taking the risk?
In the case of Big Enough, it’s me. I am investing in the expertise and relationship that I believe will make the book a success. I am putting my money on the line and betting that I can make Big Enough successful enough to break even. As such, I remain in control and earn a greater percentage of the income.
My partner in this adventure is a company called Page Two, which is owned and operated by industry veterans Trena White and Jesse Finkelstein. Page Two specializes in working with non-fiction authors to self-publish high-quality books. Their team of professionals does the work of a major publisher but on a mostly fee-for-service basis. Further, they have key relationships with printers and distributors that would be difficult for me to form. Page Two is my secret weapon in making Big Enough a major publisher-style book.
One of the things I love about this relationship is that Page Two, in publishing industry terms, is a start-up. It’s refreshing to work on a book with a young company successfully being disruptive. They encourage ideas, like direct sales from my website, that major publishers might not condone. Importantly, they reflect the values I believe are important, like independence and a sense of creative control.
I consider this model of self-publishing the best option for me and the message of Big Enough. It represents a personal risk, but it’s one I’m willing to take.
Big Enough arrives May 2020. Download a sample chapter.
Over the last six months, I’ve been mentally preparing to publish my second book. During that time, most of the writing was completed and the process was on track. It felt good to see it take shape. But lingering in the back of my mind was always a voice reminding me that publishing a book means more than just writing it. One of the real challenges, especially for a less established author like myself, is introducing the book to the world. For Big Enough, my next book, marketing the book is the hill I must soon climb.
For longtime authors like Stephen King or Seth Godin, book marketing is less of a challenge because they’ve spent many years establishing their brand of writing and honing their marketing. Their names are attached to a genre, style, and perspective. Their fans will reliably buy any book they publish because they know what to expect.
I don’t have that luxury. Big Enough is a book about our business and fans aren’t currently beating down my door to hear what I have to say about the subject. In that context, I’m relatively unknown. This means I have to give them a reason to be interested and that’s more difficult than it sounds.
I’ve been through this once before. When I published The Art of Explanation in 2012, it needed to be introduced to the world, too. It was my first book, so no one had any expectations regarding my writing. But I had a secret weapon. Starting in 2007, the “explainer” style videos Sachi and I produced at Common Craft became very well-known, with tens of millions of views. We were, to a small degree, internet famous. A book about explanation skills was very much on-brand and expected. It was obvious why I was the person to write it.
Given this history of video production, my name is most often connected to creativity, communication, and education. And that’s the challenge. In publishing Big Enough, I am re-introducing myself as not only a video producer but an entrepreneur who has a business-focused story to tell.
The question becomes: how? How, over the next four months, will I change that perception and position myself as the right person for writing this book?
This is, at heart, a marketing challenge and one that’s not absolutely required. I could write and publish the book without marketing it at all. In this case, the book would suddenly appear on Amazon and bookshelves without anyone expecting it. And it could work. Sometimes a book can do well by simply existing, but I am not willing to take that risk.
For Big Enough, I plan to throw myself at the marketing beast. My challenge is to learn how to market a book successfully. If I can develop a marketing strategy that fits with my style, I will have a head start for future books.
Here’s the ideal scenario… Over the next few months, I publish multiple articles, blog posts and videos that focus on the ideas in the book and point people to the book web page. I appear on podcasts and do interviews that promote it. I share links on social media that are retweeted and shared on Facebook. Popular blogs and newsletters write about the book and point people to the book’s web page and sign up to receive a free chapter and be notified when it drops. Slowly but surely, demand builds and people become interested. They tell friends. Readers have been primed for action and on the day it’s released, it makes a splash that puts it in front of even more people and momentum builds from there. That’s the ideal scenario.
For me, that day is May 5th, 2020. My focus between now and then will be on that splash, how high it can go, and how far the ripples will travel.
Making this happen, even to a small degree, is a challenge that I’m not taking lightly. I’m cautious about turning people away or making a bad impression by selling too hard. To get through it, I am summoning my gumption. It’s up to me, the author, to put myself out there and say, “Order my book. Read my articles. Post a review. Sign up for my emails. Share my posts, please?”
I don’t take naturally to self-promotion or promotion at all, really. But I also feel that my book is something people in my market will enjoy and want to know exists. It would be a mistake to put so much effort into it and just hope for the best. Instead, my plan is to promote it in a style that fits with me and I’m ready for the challenge. I’m ready to experiment and push myself. Most of all, I’m ready to learn.
This post originally appeared in my newsletter, Ready for Rain.
As a kid, I spent time reading skateboarding magazines. At the time, ads often included a line at the bottom that said, essentially, “Send us a dollar and we’ll send you stickers.” I can clearly remember how much I anticipated those stickers in the mail. Stickers have an appeal that goes beyond graphics, paper, and glue.
Today, I’m planning to send people my own sticker and this is the story of how that sticker was designed and how I’m planning to use it.
Why a Create Sticker?
Before my book, Big Enough, hits the shelves, I will encourage people to pre-order it, which means purchasing it before it is officially released. This way, when the book finally arrives, all those sales transactions happen in the same week and the book will hopefully make a bigger splash than it would otherwise. In this scenario, it helps to offer people an incentive for pre-ordering the book. If they (you?) preorder the book and send me the purchase receipt, I will send them stickers, and maybe more, in the mail.
Designing the Sticker
I am not a graphic designer, but I love working with designers and thinking through design projects. Once the idea of designing a sticker arose, I was pumped to work on it. The French bulldog on the cover of the book was my starting point. He’s symbolic of the Big Enough attitude: small and tough. I’ve come to call him “Big-E” and loved the idea of people having a fun, illustrated version of Big-E on their laptop or water bottle.
Instead of using the live-action image, I imagined a stylized cartoon version of Big-E and asked my publisher for the photo from the cover to use as a starting point. Then, I searched for dog illustrations in a style I liked. I found one that was close to what I wanted. It used flat colors and bold shapes that felt cool and modern.
Then I went to Upwork, which is a service I’ve used for years to find freelancers for small projects. I created a new job called “Digital Illustration of a Dog Based on Photo”. I included a description of what I wanted, attached the photo of Big-E and the example photo. I also said the illustration had to include the book website: bigenough.life
Next, I reviewed 15-20 profiles and invited a handful of people from around the world to apply. I’ve had good experiences working with international talent at affordable rates. I connected with a guy named Vadym from Ukraine and hired him. He got started quickly and provided a promising start.
But then, out of nowhere, he said something had come up and that he couldn’t complete the project. Such is life in the freelance market. Disappointed, I went back to finding designers and stumbled upon a profile of a woman named Brooke Braddy who had an affordable hourly rate and illustrations that looked promising. This image from her portfolio gave me confidence that she had worked in the style I wanted:
Brooke agreed to start the next day and estimated it would cost under $100 to complete the project. I was hopeful.
The project turned out to be incredibly satisfying. Over two weeks and about 40 messages back and forth, we tweaked the colors, fonts, padding, size, and more. Brooke was a good listener and had great skills. I enjoy working with people like Brooke who are independent and putting their skills to work from home.
Here are examples of how the sticker evolved over two weeks:
What I appreciated most was the iterative process of making the sticker exactly what I wanted. Every time Brooke sent a comp, another part of the design would grab my attention and kick off more changes. She took my feedback and made it work. For me, that’s how design happens. It’s a process of always asking “what sucks the most now?”
A couple of days ago, I deemed the sticker design complete. Brooke’s initial estimate didn’t anticipate the scale of my feedback, so I gave her a bonus for the extra hours. We were both happy.
A couple of days later, I thought back to those days of getting stickers in the mail and how I loved getting multiple stickers. Sure, I could send pre-order customers three of the same sticker, or I could create a set with different colors. Collect all three!
I went back to Brooke and she quickly whipped up a couple of color options. With just a bit of design time, I now have a set of three stickers for the kind souls who pre-order a copy of Big Enough. Here’s the set:
If you’d like to be notified about the pre-order campaign, you can sign up here.
The lastest Ready for Rain newsletter was meant to fill in essential gaps regarding what events led us to today. Up to now, the readers have seen my life in real-time, with only brief references to the past. I wrote:
Over the past year, you’ve had a front-row seat to my life. You’ve seen Sachi and I start and complete projects. You’ve read about my motivations and decisions and, by now, have a pretty good sense of who I am. As our story has developed in real-time, you’ve been there.
Now that I’m shifting the newsletter to talk about the Big Enough book project, I’m feeling the need to build context and give readers a sense of what events shaped my career. There is probably no more consequential event than publishing the first Common Craft video. Our careers relate directly back to that event in 2007.
I had no idea at the time, but the moment I clicked “Publish” was the moment our lives changed in fundamental ways. From that point on, we started operating in uncharted territory.
Within minutes of RSS in Plain English hitting the web, it started to receive views and comments that flowed faster than we could read them. Bloggers around the world embedded the video on their blogs. Emails poured in. The video went viral and it felt like striking gold. We both lived in a state of shock for a few days. Despite it being poorly produced, the video was popular because it explained RSS in a way that everyone could understand.
Here’s the video that started it all:
Ready for Rain is where I tell stories about the projects in my life. You can subscribe here.
One of the side-effects of being known as an explainer is the tendency for people to pay close attention to how I explain ideas large and small. I can imagine them asking a question and then waiting to see what amazing analogy I can pull out of my hat. Of course, like asking a comedian to be funny, it doesn’t typically work that way. The explanations that support my livelihood take many hours to craft.
Now that I have a book coming out, I’m facing another kind of explanation challenge in the form of explaining Big Enough. It seems like every time I write about it, I take a slightly different path and I’m constantly wondering if I’ve stumbled upon the one explanation that works best.
Yesterday, we published a new Common Craft video that explains the difference between “online” and “local” documents. With each new video, we send an email newsletter and yesterday was the first time I mentioned the book. Here’s what I said:
Common Craft Co-founder Lee LeFever has a new book arriving in May 2020. The book is called Big Enough and it tells the story of building Common Craft to be an intentionally small company over the last decade. If you’re curious about the company behind the videos and saner, healthier approaches to entrepreneurship, you’ll love it
Like so many before it, this little promotion will come and go. And that’s the problem. I could craft the best, more productive summary and never know if it hit the mark. Further, because it’s for a specific audience, there’s no guarantee it will work in other contexts. Such is life as an explainer. I find solace in the fact that each time I write about the book, I’m practicing and hopefully, getting better each time.
Over the weekend a friend introduced me to the video below called Das Rad, which is a German term that means “The Wheel” in English. The film is known by the bland-but-accurate title “Rocks” in English versions.
The artistry and the overall concept made a big impression on me and I’ve thought about it multiple times since seeing it. As one YouTube commenter put it, “…our life cycle is to the rocks as a Mayfly’s life cycle is to us.”
The film was made in Germany and was nominated in 2003 for an Academy Award for Best Animated Short. Watch: