In the spring of 2020, the publish date of BIG ENOUGH was pushed to the fall and I suddenly had unexpected time on my hands. COVID-19 was declared a pandemic and over 1,000 Americans were dying per day. I felt the need to do something.
Being a producer of explainer videos, I put a lot of effort into explaining the issues I thought were most important. For these videos, I chose to use a format I call “Readable” videos. They have no voice-over and use words on the screen to tell a quick story. They work without sound are accessible to people with hearing impairments.
When we made the videos, I didn’t think they’d be needed for too long. It almost seemed that the messages were coming late in the evolution of the pandemic. Sadly, I was wrong. Today, four months later, they are needed more than ever. The videos we produced are below. They are also provided for free in the form of a COVID Communication Kit.
One of the first big challenges of marketing a book is getting endorsements or “blurbs” from influential people. It’s stressful because you are not only asking favors of people you admire, but you’re sharing the book for the first time. It’s easy to feel nervous about their perceptions.
I made a list of about 15 people and contacted them via email. To my surprise, nearly everyone responded. Some didn’t have time, but the majority agreed to read an early version of the book and provide an endorsement that’s used in at the beginning of the book and in marketing on bookseller websites, my website, and more.
I took on this project in February of 2020, expecting the book to come out in May. With the blurbs approved, I asked for each endorser’s mailing address and planned to send them a thank you card. Then, the pandemic hit, and the book’s release got pushed to September. I wanted to send them something as a thank you, but a card didn’t seem as safe as it once was.
So I made an animated gif for each person, using Common Craft artwork, and included it an email. Along with the gif, I included a photo of their blurb in the book. Here’s how it went:
I hope you are well. Normally, I’d send a card to say thanks for endorsing Big Enough, but I think we’re all better off using bits instead of atoms these days. So, I made this as a thank you:
Closing the loop on the endorsements is one more thing off a very long list. So, hooray for that and the people who took time to work with me on the blurbs.
A short story recently appeared in our local newspaper that provided an interesting look at how some Orcas Island residents are reacting to the coronavirus.
A small boat was seen approaching a dock near Eastsound, the island’s central village. A few locals watched as the boat approached and eventually docked. As the couple disembarked, a concerned citizen called the police and had them come out to make sure stay-at-home orders were not being violated and the island was not being invaded by mainlanders or others who could be carrying the virus. The police arrived, talked to the boaters, and discovered they were island residents living at a marina who had decided to visit the grocery store by boat.
In another case, a construction crew was working on a house (not ours) and a neighbor appeared and started to berate them. He assumed they had arrived from the mainland and accused them of potentially spreading the virus. He demanded the contractor’s contact information. It turned out the workers were island residents working safely and legally. The neighbor himself, however, had recently arrived from the mainland.
Needless to say, there are sensitivities. These cases are the outliers and don’t come as a surprise. Like anywhere, our little island has a variety of personalities. Most are reasonable, some are eccentric, a handful have a hard time minding their own business.
I can empathize. Living on an island feels like it’s possible to be hermetically sealed from the outside world. If we could stamp out the virus and live in a bubble for a while, we could feel normal again. We could have our own virus-free utopia. It’s been more than two weeks since a new case was reported on the island and the official count stands at eight positive test results and zero deaths. As much as I want this to be the final tally, I suspect it won’t.
As a state, Washington is still fighting the virus on all fronts. New cases and deaths are down significantly, but far from ending. The disease is still spreading. Our stay-at-home order has been extended until June 4. Most parks have reopened to a limited degree and outdoor jobs like landscaping and dog walking are now legal. You can now get large quantities of cocktails to-go or even delivered, which was a service I didn’t know I needed until now. It’s fascinating how constraints produce innovation.
Overall, I’ve been impressed with how the state has handled the pandemic so far and I believe that pacific northwest culture has played no small part. Citizens of Seattle, for example, are strangely conformist as a group. People wait at empty intersections for the crossing light to change. They create long lines for highway exits because no one wants to merge too late. I say “they” but it’s really “we”. I do these too.
People in and around the city seem hyper-aware of what is acceptable or not in a given situation. There is palpable social pressure to watch out for one another and do the right thing. People pay attention to the rules, facts, and evidence, and often behave accordingly. While it sometimes bleeds into sanctimony and self-righteousness that can feel oppressive, the do-good element of pacific northwest culture is part of what has kept me here for so long.
I think about Seattle or any large city’s approach to the pandemic being macro. A single case or death is part of a much bigger trend. For our little island, the pandemic is micro. One case can send shockwaves around the island and change behavior. And like Seattleites, we trust the facts, follow the rules, and have faith the local government is working to do the right thing. Islands are not often places for conformists, but we have our share.
Our county of islands, San Juan County, has tried to limit the flow of people to and from the mainland, but it’s mostly a social pressure campaign. Stern warnings were sent to residents forbidding them from traveling to the mainland for all but essential healthcare. People who have vacation homes on the island are being told to remain at their primary residence. With all lodging and Airbnbs closed by decree, there are few options available for people visiting the island overnight.
Being sealed is a nice idea, but it’s not at all realistic. Four ferries service the island every day. They are technically a state highway and are essential for bringing supplies and dollars to the island. There isn’t a practical way to prevent people from boarding the ferries, so people will continue to come, even for day trips.
Some have proposed ideas like testing every person who arrives or giving tourists some sort of badge or marker that indicates they are visiting from the mainland. These are brainstorm ideas that don’t survive serious scrutiny. A tourist badge. They’ll love that! Maybe it’s the residents who should wear them instead.
Orcas Island is a microcosm of the same debate that is raging nationally. Those tourists and visitors from the mainland are the bedrock of our local economy, virus and all. Our island is not a self-sustaining ecosystem. It requires a constant flow of people and supplies from other places. The hermetically sealed utopia could quickly become wasteland without the flow. I think most agree that safety is the priority and what will eventually allow the island to recover. We have the same questions as everyone else: when will it feel safe again?
Overall, Sachi and I have been fine and thankful. We’ve easily adjusted to a very limited social calendar, and honestly, that could endure once it’s all over. I’m sure the introvert in Sachi would appreciate it. Every meal we’ve had since March has been homemade and that, too, has been a feature we both enjoy. I have not had a haircut since February and that too will soon be homemade.
Our business is web-based and more impacted by the overall economy than quarantines and virus fears. We recently published a free COVID Communication Kit as a way to help organizations get back to work safely.
While my book Big Enough won’t be officially published until September, much of the work has already been done. Thankfully, the book’s message is appropriate for a post-pandemic market. I wonder how it would feel to have worked for a year on a book called Handshakes with Strangers or The Power of Group Hugs and then see the pandemic hit? Not good, I’m sure.
As the weather has improved, we’ve met occasionally with friends in outdoor and socially distant settings. Bonfires and construction sites are good for that. Non-work Zoom meetings fill the social gaps better than I would have guessed. We may have even grown closer to some folks as a result.
Overall, we remind ourselves that we have a lot to be thankful for. Our families in Hawaii and North Carolina have not been impacted and we try not to lose sight of that in the midst of so much chaos and misery. While we might not live in an island-sized bubble, we can create one around ourselves and make conscious choices about when to break the seal.
Over the last week, a roof appeared over the entirety of our house and this was reason for celebration. After eight months of construction, it is finally protected from the elements. For now, the house sits ready for the next phase, which may or not come for weeks. In our state, the quarantine has been extended until May 4th and construction projects are mostly on hold. It is what it is.
In the background, we’ve been working on the details of the windows and doors so they can be ordered. Now that the framing is finished, the house has a wide variety of “rough openings” where windows and doors will someday protect us from wind and weather. The rough openings, framed in wood, are built according to the plan, but don’t always match the exact measurements provided by our architect. The framers do their best to build what’s in the plan but there are always adjustments, and sometimes, improvements.
It’s easy to think that the architect specifies a window size, the framers build it, and the window fits perfectly. If only. What really happens is, after the framers have done their best, the contractor measures the rough opening in order to define the exact size of each window for the order. Then, the windows are manufactured to fit. In this process, the plans matter less than what is actually built and can be observed.
I’ve been thinking about the idea of rough openings and how we’re all suddenly forced to give up our plans and react to conditions on the ground. Like building plans, what we do this spring and summer is based less on executing a detailed plan and more on reactions to what we see at the moment. We are living in an age of rough openings that guide us more than best-laid plans.
This is certainly the case for our other big project: the publishing of my book, Big Enough. In the fall of 2019, we decided that the publish date would be May 5th of this year and created a detailed plan that led up to making a splash on that date. We had no idea what was coming.
By the end of February, it was becoming clear that the U.S. was heading into a crisis, but May 5th still seemed far away. After so much planning, it was hard to fathom not pushing through. Multiple processes, like having the book printed, were focused on that date. But it was still just a plan. What mattered was conditions on the ground. Our carefully crafted design for the book’s release was fading and being replaced by a rough opening.
In March, I started paying more attention to models that predicted the spread of COVID-19 and the potential death tolls. What I saw alarmed me as a person, but also as the author of a forthcoming book. May was projected to be a time of national tragedy, with hundreds if not thousands of deaths per day. Was I really going to promote and publish a new book during a global pandemic? I couldn’t imagine it.
I sent a note to my publishing partners at Page Two and asked about the lead time that was needed to change a publication date and they said a decision needed to be made about a month in advance. This created a deadline. I needed to decide the book’s publication date by April 5th. If I did nothing, Big Enough would be on a one-way street to arriving in stores and online according to our plan.
Part of me wanted to stick to the schedule. Big Enough is about designing a business to be small and resilient. It’s about being able to weather a storm. In my mind, there was some chance that it could land at just the right time and inspire people who were thinking differently about their careers. But was that time May 5th?
We had a call with Page Two and talked through the options. Going into the call, I was open to ideas but was increasingly convinced that the publish date had to move. Being the author and central promoter, I couldn’t get past the idea of marketing a book during a pandemic.
The plans were set, but our rough opening, the conditions on the ground, were telling us a different story. Page Two recommended moving the publish date to the fall of 2020 and that’s what we did. It felt like we’d found an escape hatch that meant our plan could still be executed, but at a different time.
My hope is that by September, people will be feeling more hopeful than today and Big Enough will land at just the right time. We’ll surely have windows and doors, by then, too. My hope is that, for everyone’s sake, 2020 ends better than it began.
Based on the way events are unfolding today, it’s impossible to know where we’ll be next month, much less five months from now. It almost seems fruitless to have a solid plan. The best we can do is stay safe, focus on what we can control and be ready to act when conditions on the ground change.
There will be a time to take measurements and focus on the details. For now, it’s all rough openings.
In publishing a book, timing matters. You’ve spent a year or more writing it and developing the final product. You have a system set up for pre-orders and help with promotions. All the arrows point to a single date on the calendar: your publishing date. If all goes well, the book creates a splash on that day and the ripples reach further than you ever could.
That’s the dream.
For the past six months, I’ve worked to arrange all the arrows to point to the day that Big Enough would be published. For me, that date was May 5th, 2020.
Living in Washington State, home of the first COVID-19 diagnosis and death in the U.S., I was well aware of the virus’ potential impact on public health and the economy. I didn’t worry about the book at first. As the virus swept across the country and states issued stay-at-home orders, I saw a renewed interest in reading. People asked for book recommendations on Twitter. Maybe being home could actually be good for book sales?
I also saw that the themes of Big Enough were well-suited for the current situation. It’s about designing a business that can weather a storm and be resilient. I discuss a kind of entrepreneurship that aspires to be small, home-based and diversified. A full chapter is devoted to a mode of living we call “The Monetorium” that’s focused on reducing expenses to help accomplish a goal or get through a crisis.
In some ways, the planned timing of Big Enough’s May release seemed quite good. It is perhaps more relevant than ever before and part of me felt that publishing it was a risk worth taking. It could help business-oriented people adjust to the new, post-COVID environment.
In a normal situation, April would have been a busy month. I’d be lining up podcast appearances, writing articles, and publishing videos. My goal would have been to introduce as many people as possible to the book and help them see why it matters. Momentum in April would go toward making a splash in May.
I soon realized, along with the rest of the world, that April and May were not shaping up to be normal months. In fact, they were looking increasingly like months of when COVID-19 would be at its peak. I had to ask myself: do I feel comfortable marketing a book during a pandemic? This led to a practical consideration: Could the publishing date change?
The clock was ticking. I asked my publishing partners at Page Two about the potential to move the date and they said it was possible and making the decision a month in advance would give the supply chain time to adjust. That created a deadline. I needed to decide by April 5th.
The potential to move the date felt like an escape hatch. As the news grew grimmer by the day, I became more pessimistic. Marketing and publishing a book during a tragedy didn’t seem right to me on a personal level. This feeling was bolstered by a number of practical considerations.
One concern was logistics. With so many businesses closed, the supply chains that reliably deliver books to stores and warehouses could be disrupted and become unpredictable. There’s a real possibility my publishing date could arrive without books on shelves.
Further, coronavirus news is dominating and will continue to dominate everyone’s attention. The potential to build awareness for a new book seemed like an overwhelming challenge, even with a pertinent message.
Lastly, there is the economy. The Federal Reserve recently said that unemployment could reach 32%. On the same day, the IMF announced that we were officially in a global recession. These are not good signs for selling anything in the short term.
My overall feeling was that the publish date had to change. There are too many unknowns and risks. The only certainty was that the coronavirus will still be with us in May. On a personal level, I worried about appearing tone-deaf.
In a recent meeting with Page Two, we decided to refocus our efforts on publishing Big Enough in the fall, probably in early September. I’m happy with this decision and hopeful that, by then, we’ll be recovering from the pandemic and starting to feel more positively about the future. If we’re right, the book will hit shelves at a time when it can help people who are reassessing their careers and lifestyles. If we’re right, it could make an even bigger splash.
Today this decision feels like a relief. In the rush to publish a book, it’s sometimes difficult to take a step back and reassess messaging and marketing. Deadlines must be met. With this change of date, I now have the luxury to look at Big Enough with fresh eyes and think long and hard about how it will land in what is hopefully a post-COVID environment.
If you would like to be notified about the release of Big Enough and download a sample chapter, you can do so at bigenough.life.
In writing this issue, I wondered to myself what I could say at a moment with so much uncertainty and anxiety.
The warnings are stark. The US government said all Americans should avoid crowds of over ten people just as the Dow closed down over 13% in a single day. That day, Canada closed its borders. We are living through an event, right now, that future students will learn about in history books.
It’s startling. But at the same time, this has been such a high-intensity event that I’ve grown accustomed to the daily shock. Perhaps the best that I can do is record what’s on my mind as we live through a historic event. Maybe in five or ten years, I’ll look back with a sense of wonder.
Sachi and I consider ourselves quarantined for the next few weeks and I admit to finding some comfort in that. We will go to the store when needed, but we won’t be socializing in person, traveling or, by state mandate, eating out. Our day-to-day work, which has been home-based since 2007, continues with a strange sense of normalcy. Our plan is to live affordably and indulge in home-based activities for the next few weeks, at least.
I find myself thinking about all the people whose lives and livelihoods are thrown into disarray. We have friends and neighbors who own businesses that are closed for the foreseeable future. We’re close to people in the service industry who don’t have a backup for the income they’re losing every day that restaurants and bars are closed. We work with people who are trying to juggle work and childcare. It’s a huge, frustrating, and sad reality that I hope will come and go quickly. It’s a small gesture, but today I bought a growler of beer from our local brewery, who can’t legally sell anything else.
Looking outward, I now consider everyone I meet to be a potential virus carrier. Everyone. Today we met with our building contractor and we all tried to keep about six feet between us. Tomorrow our architect arrives and we will do the same with him. No one has symptoms that we can see, but it’s just not worth the risk, especially because Sachi has asthma, which puts her squarely in a higher risk group. We may be overreacting and that’s fine. There is no risk in it.
There is risk, however, for my Dad in North Carolina who is in his mid-80s and has respiratory issues. I’ve been working with my brothers and my Aunt Pat to make sure they understand the risk and how to stay safe. I worry that too many people are assuming it won’t impact them and are not taking precautions. I hope you, dear reader, will overreact like us and consider every person you encounter to be a potential carrier.
When the virus first hit the news, I was fascinated but didn’t worry at a personal level. Then, Washington became the location of the first case of coronavirus and the first death. That was a wake-up call. As we converted to a quarantined lifestyle, we started to take stock of how the virus could impact the economy along with our business and projects.
On the day the first death was reported, we were visiting Seattle and looking at tile for the bathrooms of the new house. One of the tile reps said, referencing a design we liked, “We don’t have a lot of this one and it’s not clear how much we’ll be able to get from overseas if the virus gets worse.”
That got our attention. What if supply chains break down and we couldn’t finish the house? It wouldn’t be a disaster, but it did cause us to think ahead. Starting then, we made final decisions on materials and put in orders to reserve what we need to finish.
We also came to see that, despite other disruptions, our house project would likely serve as reliable employment for multiple people on the island throughout the pandemic.
My book, Big Enough, is scheduled to hit the shelves in May and represents one of the biggest projects in my professional life. Initially, the book release was scheduled for spring because business book sales traditionally decline in summer. Now it’s timed to go right along with a global pandemic. Super.
This forced me to ask some worrying questions: What if the virus puts everyone on a limited budget and no one buys books? What if everyone is so consumed with the news that it’s impossible to break through the noise? What if I look tone-deaf trying to market a book in the middle of a catastrophe?
My first book was published by Wiley & Sons, which is a major publisher and we had a traditional relationship. I wrote the book and they invested in editing, design, printing, distribution, etc. Their money was on the line and they were betting the book could sell enough for them to break even. In this case, I was insulated from financial risk.
Big Enough is different. I choose to self-publish it with the help of industry pros at a company called Page Two who specializes in helping authors self-publish books that are done professionally. In this situation, I invested in all the phases of production and publishing. My money is on the line and in return, I get more creative freedom and earn a greater percentage of the returns. In this situation, the financial risk is all mine.
It quickly became clear that my investment in the book, in both the time it took to write it and the money we’ve invested to publish and market it, could be seriously threatened by the coronavirus or the changes in perspective that come from it. Super-duper.
But then, we both started to take another look. As people became more home-bound, they started to read more. Twitter became filled with people sharing book recommendations and requests for books to read. Could it be that the book industry could thrive in the midst of a pandemic? It’s too early to say, but the idea buoyed my spirits.
I imagined all those people at home reading fantasy books or romance novels. Where would Big Enough fit? The more we looked at it, the more we saw that the timing could actually be on our side.
Big Enough is, to some degree, about the beauty and efficiency of being an intentionally small, home-based business. That sense of normalcy we’re feeling in the midst of the quarantine is by design and the book is a guide to building a business that can weather a storm like this one.
So, all things considered, we’re hopeful the book may not be a casualty. Of course, things are moving quickly and no one knows what to expect in two days, much less two months. As long as we both stay healthy and can help others, that’s all that matters.
For now, we have a good internet connection, plenty of food in the freezer, a growler in the fridge and plans to take many dog walks down empty gravel roads.
I hope that you and yours are staying home and staying safe!
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.