Mike Stopforth and I go way back. Despite being on opposite sides of the world, we have stayed connected since the early days of Common Craft. It was a joy to speak with him and hear his thoughts on BIG ENOUGH from a South African perspective.
Big Enough, my forthcoming book, arrives on September 15th. 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. When 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 relationships 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.
How I created a beautiful video with a phone, drone, tripod, and two large dogs tied to my waist.
Since 2007, I’ve been a very specific kind of video producer. Namely, an indoor one. Common Craft videos are animated and mostly created on a computer. Despite making my living with videos, I have relatively little experience with live-action video.
Leading up to the launch of BIG ENOUGH, I decided I would try making a live-action book trailer and do it 100% by myself. That’s part of the Common Craft way. I love learning by doing. The idea was to go on a hike at a nearby preserve with a tripod and drone and capture footage of me walking our two dogs, Maybe and Piper.
That probably sounds fairly simple, but it was far from it. Despite being a sweet cuddler who always seems to appear on your lap indoors, Piper is a hunter outdoors. If she gets off the leash, she will disappear into the woods. So, in order to keep both dogs safe, I tied their leashes to my leather belt. This meant that everything I did that day happened with over one hundred pounds of canine at my feet.
This would be a challenge without photography, in part because of the place where I hiked. Turtleback Mountain, is, well… a mountain. The loop I hiked is three miles and about 850 feet in elevation. This is where being alone became a challenge.
I wanted a few shots that featured me and the dogs walking through the frame from left to right. To get this footage, I had to hike up a hill, set up the tripod, then hike down the hill, and walk up it again as the camera rolled, then come back down to stop the recording and then up to the next stop. All with two large dogs tied to my waist. The three-mile hike surely went to five miles.
Then, of course, I was carrying a drone with batteries and a remote. Operating the drone is always stressful because I’m worried that it will crash or fly away. I’ve had it abruptly lose control and fly into a tree in the past. What if that happened on a mountain?
I have two drone batteries that each last for about 10 minutes of flight time and it goes quickly. I had a number of locations where I wanted to get footage and this created anxiety about using up the batteries before I could get to the next location. So, I was very cautious about wasting the precious energy and tried to keep the drone in a recoverable range, should something go off the rails.
Turtleback is a popular hiking trail and I was self conscious about other hikers noticing me behaving in a strange way. I imagined them wondering why I kept walking back and forth at the same spot on the trail with my dogs. Why does he have all that equipment? And maybe, why does he look so stressed out?
At the summit of Turtleback, there is a large rock outcropping called Ship Peak and I had been saving batteries for that location. Just before reaching the summit, I dropped my backpack on the side of the trail, something I never do. I think I was overheated and just wanted it gone. I grabbed the drone and made my way to the peak.
Soon after, an older couple appeared with a worried look on their faces. That’s when it hit me. A couple of years ago, someone found a pack on the trail with homemade explosives in it. Nothing ever came of it, but all the locals heard about it and everyone was warned – do not approach random backpacks on Turtleback. I, of course, had just dropped a suspicious-looking backpack, which the couple had found.
The first thing they said was, “Is that your backpack down there?”
I replied, “Yes, I’m sorry…” and before I could get more words out, the woman said, “You know there was a problem with a backpack here?”
“Yes, I know. I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking.”
They moved on, but got comfortable on another part of the summit, which left me with a dilemma. They already seemed annoyed, but I was there to fly the drone around and take videos. How long would they stay? Eventually, I just told them, “Hey, I’m just going to fly this around for a couple of minutes.” They nodded and that’s what I did.
On the way out, I looked over at them with a quick wave of acknowledgement. With a smile, the woman said, “Don’t forget your backpack!” I could only laugh and feel a bit embarrassed. I was that guy.
Thankfully, it all worked out beautifully. The weather was perfect, the drone stayed in my control and the dogs… they had no choice. Despite the effort, stress, and awkwardness, I loved every minute of making that video and I’m really proud of how it turned out.
Big Enough is officially published on September 15th. It’s hard to believe it’s coming so fast, but I feel good about where we are in the process.
Here’s what I’m doing right now:
In the midst of all the book-specific activities, our normal work must go on. My personal newsletter goes out every Tuesday and this morning I finalized it and scheduled it to send. My subscribers have followed the entire book process, so it’s fun to give them a behind these scenes look at where we are. Tomorrow we will publish a new Common Craft video, our 113th. This means sending a different newsletter to over 12,000 subscribers and posting to social media, etc. This issue will have a big promotion for pre-ordering the book. The show must go on!
Setting The Stage
Books often bring new traffic to the author’s website(s) and it’s always a good idea to prepare. I feel like I’ve been setting the stage for months and it’s close to being ready. For me, this means looking at the websites I run and doing everything I can to ensure they’re converting, working properly, and look great. The goal is to turn book traffic into longer term relationships, whether that means subscribers, members, connections, or friends. I expect the book to bring attention to my personal website, Common Craft, my newsletter, and social media accounts.
Recently I decided on a new profile photo that will become my new standard. Sachi took this off the coast of Orcas Island, where we live. I should note that Sachi has become my barber, because, you know… pandemic. She’s pretty good!
In the process of writing Big Enough, I decided to publish it on leelefever.com and make my personal website the home of my writing. Starting in January, I designed and developed the site from scratch and it’s now my central platform as an author and home for all future books.
Today, I’m seeing that I have two brands or personas online. Common Craft is the oldest and most powerful. The brand is focused on our videos, with lots of traffic and followers. Our YouTube account, for example, has nearly 50k subscribers and over 16m views. The Common Craft Facebook page has over 4000 followers.
I share those numbers for context. Right now, I’m at the very beginning of promoting the brand of Lee LeFever, Author. Like Common Craft, I have a YouTube channel, but it has 14 subscribers and nearly 1000 views, total. My new Facebook “Author” page has 152 followers. And honestly, I’m excited about it all. I will mention the book on Common Craft, but I feel it’s important to build a new platform for what I expect to be the long term direction of my career.
Emailing 300+ People, Individually
My biggest project lately has been the pre-order campaign. As the author, it’s up to me to reach out to my network and encourage them to pre-order the book. If they do, it can help the book get more attention when it arrives.
In the past I might have written a general email, added everyone I know to the BCC line, hit send, and hoped for the best. And it might have worked. I’d expect moderate success from moderate effort.
Because of COVID and the turbulent environment, an email blast didn’t feel right. After a lot of consideration, I decided to take on the task of emailing virtually everyone I know with a personal message. In the past two weeks, I’ve sent over 300 emails, all with a message exclusively for that person. Here’s how I did it:
Created a spreadsheet to organize everything with headings for name, email, Contacted Responded, Pre-ordered.
I searched for all the email addresses using my Gmail contacts, LinkedIn, web searches, and a few guesses.
I drafted a few versions of the email, all with placeholders for their name, etc. I had three basic audiences with slightly different messages: friends, influencers, family. All messages had calls to action to pre-order the book, help spread the word, or make connections.
I saved those emails as templates in Gmail. This made creating a new, auto-filled draft a cinch.
For each person on the list, I tried to think of a memory we shared, or a story, like the first time we met. I wanted to show them the message was exclusive to them. This process, while time consuming, was delightful. I learned about everyone on the list and it made me feel like relationships were being rekindled.
People responded and I was heartened by the reaction. Some didn’t respond and that’s expected and okay. But many more did and pre-ordered the book. They were so supportive which made me feel more confident. The book reached the top 35k on Amazon’s best seller list during this campaign.
I kept track of everyone who pre-ordered and will be following up later to humbly ask for a review.
Podcasts are the number one way I’m promoting the book. So far I’ve recorded six and have a few more scheduled. I’m excited to be interviewed by Andrew Warner at Mixergy this week. I recently started working with Interview Valet, who helps with podcast placement and promotion.
If you know a podcast host who might be interested in having me as a guest, please send them to this page.
The conventional wisdom is that you shouldn’t spend a lot of ad dollars on something that people can’t buy. For example, we’ll be advertising on Amazon, but that won’t start until after launch. Today, we’re testing a few ads and trying to get a feel for what people might respond to. We’ll probably be doing it for months.
I’m working a lot, pretty much all my waking hours. I’m not used to this kind of work schedule, but I know it’s temporary. It helps that I’m motivated and excited to get to the next task. I’ve been looking forward to writing this post for days. 15 days and the book will be out in the world, hopefully selling itself to some degree. Between now and then, I’m doing what I can to make sure it starts on the right foot.
So, it’s a lot. And I love it. It will be tiring, but I’m excited to push through the next two weeks and finally see the book arrive!
It was in long-ago 1973 that the economist E.F. Schumacher first published “Small Is Beautiful,” a seminal (and, to the surprise of some, best-selling) collection of essays critiquing Western economics. Mr. Schumacher was among the first to champion sustainability, localization, small-scale industry and “a humane employment of machinery” to yield a more benevolent form of capitalism, one that utilized human effort and ingenuity for the common good.
“Enoughness,” was a Schumacher coinage. Plenty of abuse was heaped on him at the time — mainly he was attacked as an unprogressive Luddite — yet these days his ideas seem prophetic. Maybe it took a worldwide pandemic to remind us that the antidote to too-muchness may be enoughness. Small may be beautiful, indeed.
This, of course, is music to my ears. Big Enough is an ode to “enoughness” and the belief that it’s time for people to think differently about success and how to achieve it according to their values.
In Big Enough, I tell the story of reaching a breaking point in 2008. Sachi and I were burned out and tired of ambiguity about where Common Craft was headed.
It was time to make a decision and start putting a plan into action. The path we chose that day was to focus all our efforts on building Common Craft around our original videos and phase out custom videos. Starting then, we placed a long- term bet that we could make Common Craft a company of our own design. We would be in the product business and earn a living based on our intellectual property.
Big Enough Chapter 6 – Designing for the Future
At the same time, I was writing a series of blog posts called “Being Lightweight” where I explained how we were thinking about Common Craft. In a post called Being Lightweight – Business Design, I shared 13 points related to a business that I would now call Big Enough. Here are a handful of those points:
Two People – We are dedicated to being a two-person company without employees. This is a fundamental constraint that guides nearly every decision. By making our size the priority, we have been forced to think hard about what is possible for two people and be prepared to focus on opportunities that work within this constraint.
Balance – We don’t believe in working 80 hours a week, 51 weeks a year so that you can vacation when you’re old. We work more hours than most, but we’re not bashful about making sure that we live a fun, interesting, and balanced life. Lightweight businesses make this easier.
Limited Layers – Each person who handles a product on the way to the consumer adds weight and removes reward. We look for the best ways to get our product from an idea to the customer as directly as possible. Outside of us, Common Craft doesn’t have salespeople, distributors, marketers, or support reps. We do it all, A-to-Z.
Supporting Two People – At the end of the day, we remember that we are two people. Sure, our model may not enable us to dominate markets or become a Fortune 500 company, but that’s not our goal. We need our business to support us and the life we want to live.
I provide these points as evidence that Big Enough isn’t a brainstorm, or a trend that we recently noticed. We’ve been at it for over 12 years and have stuck to the same constraints we agreed upon back then. Being lightweight and Big Enough is who we are.
Maybe I’m alone in this perception, but reading business books sometimes feels like homework. I read them to learn and don’t usually expect to be entertained. When I began writing Big Enough, I took a different approach. My goal was to write a book about a business that felt more like a captivating story. I wanted it to be engaging and personal. I also designed it to be a quick read, something that could be read on a flight or a lazy afternoon.
At 144 pages, I’m excited about the size of the book. My hope is that readers will see it and think “I can knock that out in a few hours.” I hope you’ll give it a try.
I never planned to do a book tour. Unless you’re a very well-known author, they seem like a cumbersome activity with low ROI; a vestige from a time before the internet. Now, in the COVID era, they are an impossibility. I hope to do 100% of promotions for Big Enough from the comfort and safety of home. For me, podcasts are the perfect medium.
When The Art of Explanation came out in 2012, podcasts were popular, but a shadow of what they are today. I was invited to be on dozens and came to truly enjoy the process. I’m a social person at heart and love having a good conversation. When I thought about how to promote Big Enough, podcasts were always front and center. The question became: how does an author promote themselves as a podcast guest?
The first option was personal and network connections and I am now reaching out to people I know. The introductions are relatively easy. What I needed was a simple way to let them know I’m an interesting, knowledgeable, and fun podcast guest. I wanted podcasters to visit a page on my leelefever.com site and think “I MUST have this guy on my podcast!”
So I created that page. It’s called “Lee LeFever Podcast Guest” and it’s my best shot at giving podcasters a clear picture of my experience, expertise, and more. Now, when I ask someone in my network if they can introduce me to a podcaster, I can send them this link for more information. My hope is that you, dear reader, will use it too.
If you know a podcast or podcast host who might be interested in having me on to discuss Big Enough, please let me know.
While it’s probably true that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, most people do. Covers can have a big impact on sales and getting the cover right is a big priority. Here’s the final front cover for my book Big Enough:
I had the help of Page Two Books and designer Peter Cocking. We worked together over a few weeks to give it the feel we thought was appropriate. While it’s a business book, I really see Big Enough as a book about a business. It reads more like a memoir or autobiography and we wanted the cover to feel personal and engaging. I wanted it to send the message “this is a business book that doesn’t seem like homework”.
The dog helps. It’s hard to look too serious with a cute dog on the cover. I thought the French bulldog was an iconic symbol for Big Enough: small in size, big in attitude. We call the dog “Big-E” and he has become part of the book’s marketing. Here’s a sticker I had designed for pre-orders that uses Big-E as inspiration:
I’m so thankful to those who provided endorsements, which are quotes about the book by influential people. There is one on the front from Auston Kleon, three on the back cover, and eleven endorsements in the first few pages of the book. It meant so much to me that they would take the time to read an early version of the book and provide a quote.
The Back Cover
The back cover is meant to help people get a quick feel for the content of the book. Along with endorsements from Seth Godin, Tara Hunt, and Jason Kottke, the back has a finely-crafted description of the book. Jessica Werb was a big help in getting it right.
It makes my day when I receive an email from someone who says something like, “I’ve been a fan since the first video!” It’s hard to believe that was in 2007, over 13 years ago.
At the time, we were new and different. Our style of videos attracted attention just as YouTube was becoming a major player and people were becoming curious about social media. The viral success of those first videos, RSS in Plain English and Wikis in Plain English, took us by surprise and changed our trajectory. Starting then, we became known as video producers and explainers, despite having no prior experience.
While Common Craft has covered a lot of ground over the years, our story is really about what hasn’t changed. In many ways, Common Craft is the same company it was in 2007. We are still a husband and wife team who works from home and produces explainer videos. We’ve never had employees and don’t plan to. We’ve never had formal office space or investors or a board of directors. Those are things we chose not to have.
You might assume that being in the creative business means we are focused on our craft and our business is an afterthought. This perception looks even more convincing knowing that we don’t have employees and work from home. To a business-minded person, we probably don’t appear serious about our business because we haven’t grown. I get it. That’s how success is supposed to be measured in the business world.
The reality, our reality, is that we are entrepreneurial, but playing a new and different game with different goals. Over the last decade, we’ve experimented with a number of business models, including creative services, licensing, a marketplace, distribution partnerships, online courses, and a subscription service. That’s the game. We are small, agile, and entrepreneurial enough to test what’s possible and discover ways to do business that reflect who we are. We serve a relatively small audience that supports us.
The question becomes: Who are we?
Sachi and I are very different people who share a similar view of the world and our place in it. That view is based, in part, on the idea that we can decide who we are and want to become. We can choose to live unconventionally and run our business in whatever form we want, as long as we can support ourselves and keep our customers smiling. We have choices and that’s the revelation. We all have more choices than we realize.
At the heart of this perspective is a belief that too many people live their lives according to the expectations of others, whether it’s family, peers, or society at large. These expectations, which can be helpful and productive, also serve as blinders that prevent new ideas from seeming reasonable and possible. They keep us focused on what’s normal and proven.
Early on, we decided to ditch the blinders and devote ourselves to living the lives and running the business that reflected our values and what we alone thought was possible.
That’s why we’ve remained small. We wanted a business that could be a laboratory. We believed, because of the internet, that two people could design a business that solves a problem for a global audience without sacrificing our happiness, health, and autonomy. That has been our goal for a decade and we’re closer than ever to reaching it.
Today, Common Craft operates according to our own design. The company is a membership service for educators who teach technology and digital responsibility. Educators and organizations become members of Common Craft to use our library of videos and downloadable visuals, which are digital products that scale easily. This model means that we own and manage every part of the business; our website, our videos, our members, our income, our time, from our home. I personally feel this is the future of business. Small, agile, and scalable.
I hope that our story can serve as inspiration. We don’t have to do what business culture says we’re supposed to do. All the expectations and obligations you feel may be blinding you and putting you in the same box with everyone else. If that’s where you’re comfortable, that’s great. But if you’re ready to take off the blinders and test what’s possible, then we’re here to be a model.
I write books and run a company called Common Craft. I recently moved from Seattle to a rural island. Here, I write about online business, book publishing, modern home construction, and occasionally, dumb jokes.