Sometimes It's Crazy At Workwith Jason Fried, David Heinemeier Hansson, and Adam Stoddard
In October, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson released their new book, It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work. The book featured their writing, as well as cover art and interior illustrations from a couple designers at Basecamp. The launch initially seemed like a great success—but then things went awry. In this episode, we look at the work that went into the book and the problems with the release, and attempt to find some lessons in the aftermath.
- Books by Basecamp - 00:18
- Harper Business - 3:52
- Adam Stoddard, Basecamp's marketing designer and the designer of the new book's cover - 4:01
- Jason Zimdars, Basecamp designer and book illustrator - 5:26
- Mike Rohde, the illustrator for Rework and Remote - 5:45
- Charles Darwin on Daily Routines, a blog that became the book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, edited by Mason Currey. The book was an important reference for the illustrations. - 7:05
- Jason Zimdars' Signal v. Noise post on how he illustrated the new book - 18:20
- You can watch the entire pilot of Small Wonder on YouTube, or you can be like Shaun and staunchly refuse because you find the entire thing creepy, which is also fair. - 10:20
- The Economist review of the book (you might hit a paywall) - 13:49
- Blade Runner 2049 baseline test - 25:55
- You can read David's write-up of the book launch debacle on Signal v. Noise.
The Full Transcript:
[00:00:00] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.
Shaun: [00:00:01] Welcome to Rework, a podcast by Basecamp about the better way to work and run your business. I’m Shaun Hildner.
Wailin: [00:00:06] And I’m Wailin Wong. And as you know, because we’ve been talking about it constantly on this show, Basecamp cofounders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson have a new book out. It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work. It’s their third book after Rework and Remote and we were always planning to do a behind the scenes look at the book’s design because the cover and the interior illustrations where are done by designers right here at Basecamp. And then some stuff happened that took us by surprise. Even Jason and David were surprised and you might say it got a little crazy at work.
Shaun: [00:00:41] On today’s episode. We go into what it took to make the book and how it all fell apart. Let’s start with David.
Wailin: [00:00:52] Why go to a big publisher at all? Why don’t you just self-publish? There are lots of ways to do it now very professionally. You already have a very large following and a lot of marketing muscle.
David: [00:01:04] I think for us it was a lot about who going to do the work. If you’re going to print tens of thousands of copies, you just, there’s a bunch of work to do that and that’s not what we do. This is not a publishing company. We could probably teach ourselves how to do it, but is that a good use of our time? It really isn’t. I mean, to be honest, even writing the book is to some extent a questionable use of time. It’s more we do it because we really like to write and we really want to share this message. I don’t think it’s necessarily a smart business move. But I know for a fact that it’s not a smart business move for us to become as good as a publisher at publishing books.
Wailin: [00:01:43] Knowing that they wanted to work with a major publisher like they’d done with their last two books. Jason and David shopped the book around. A lot of authors have agents, but Jason and David had enough of a profile to get their manuscript read at the big houses and they felt comfortable negotiating contracts themselves.
David: [00:02:00] At the broad level what we really wanted was skin in the game. We wanted buy-in. We wanted this to be an important book for them so that they would bring their A game. In everything. In how we approached putting the book together, and the editing, and the promotion and we thought the best way to do that was to make sure that they put in enough of an advance that it would really sting if this thing did not pan out. So, we really went into this thinking if we can just get someone to really pony up enough that it’s going to be a material line item in their budget, they’re going to be forced to do this. That there’s not another way. You can’t pay a bunch of money for a book and then do nothing or sit on your hands. At least that was the assumption.
Wailin: [00:02:45] It came down to two big publishers. At one of the companies, they were talking to a whole bunch of people. At the other one, they were dealing with just one editor who had the authority to make them a generous offer. They liked that style better and the advance from that publisher was bigger. This seemed like more skin in the game, as David mentioned earlier.
David: [00:03:03] Both Jason and I are biased towards action. Towards someone who just comes in and makes a gut judgment call because that’s what we do a lot of times and we go like, oh, here’s someone who sounds like us in that regard and comes in, jumps on a call and is ready to make an offer right away, very material offer. And thus again, we went on those indicators saying like, Hey, if someone has the authority to sign a mid-six figure check, I mean they must really have some pull. You don’t give the checkbook to someone like that to make a determination on their own without them having some serious heft in the organization.
Wailin: [00:03:51] Jason and David went with Harper Business, an imprint of Harper Collins. Then it was time to finish writing the book and figure out what the look of it would be.
Adam: [00:03:59] I’m Adam Stoddard. I am the marketing designer here at Basecamp.
Wailin: [00:04:02] Adam is also the one who designed the cover of the book, which is pretty distinctive. It’s a black background and there’s a list in text that says things like “80-hour weeks” and “unrealistic deadlines.” Then there’s a big red X over the entire list and some red hand lettering at the bottom that says the title, It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work. Jason and David’s names don’t appear anywhere on the cover and this design came out of an open call that Jason posted to the entire company asking for ideas.
Adam: [00:04:31] We had 30 to 40 probably in total.
Shaun: [00:04:34] Yeah, there was a bunch.
Adam: [00:04:34] There was a bunch. I ended up doing 10 to 15 myself. So, Jason had an idea that was kind of an early version of the final cover that didn’t have the big X on it. It was just, it just was like “NO” at the end. And then one of the concepts I presented was kind of a riff on that. It was basically the same, the same words, handwritten with a big X through all of them and at that point they presented a few of the final directions to the publisher. And you know, that was the one that they were, I mean that was the one that Jason and David liked. Anyway, that was the one that the publishers liked. So, from there it was all about taking that kind of rough concept and executing on that.
Wailin: [00:05:21] Meanwhile, another designer at Basecamp had an idea of his own for the book.
Jason: [00:05:26] I’m Jason Zimdars. I’m a product designer here at Basecamp and I’m also the illustrator of It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work. We’d used another illustrator for the two previous books. And I didn’t know if their intent was to continue to use him. And, I mean, he did great work and they were, they were kind of these iconic illustrations that were intrinsic to those books. So, I didn’t want to step on his toes, but, I kind of just floated to Jason that if they were about doing anything different that, I’d like at least to take a stab at it. So, the previous books, the illustrations were one per essay and it was sort of a graphic representation of the concept of that essay. And I thought we could do something different where instead of being like supplemental content, which is just visually depicting the content, it could be a separate narrative.
[00:06:20] So, I kind of played around with a bunch of ideas, like maybe it could be like a comic strip that’s all the way through with a cast of characters. And I even looked at like, you know, New Yorker style where it’s sort of non sequitur to the content, but it’s in the same theme. What I landed on first is I’d read this article several months ago that talked about the work habits of famous people. And the whole point of the article is that all these famous people had these really kind of relaxed work habits. They spent time with their family. They took long walks in the woods. They took naps and still managed to do these great things. Really important things.
[00:07:00] And the story of Charles Darwin stuck out to me in particular because he basically worked two 90-minute stretches during the day and the rest of the time was like just leisure or walking, napping, thinking. And yet he wrote this incredibly important scientific work, The Origin of Species. I drew this quick kind of rough portrait of Darwin and just paired it with a little blurb just two sentences that said, you know, he—I don’t remember how I phrased it, but basically that he spent three hours a day and wrote this important thing. And the whole idea was that you may be working 80, 90 hours a week and really busting it, but you’re doing that in service of what? Are you doing something that important? Of course not. So we’re killing ourselves for work, not getting more results and certainly not working at the level of some of these other folks that took it very leisurely, calmly.
Wailin: [00:08:00] There are 18 black-and-white illustrations of famous figures in the book. Charles Darwin is in there as is our queen, Oprah Winfrey. The playwright Tony Kushner and the founder of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard. I worked on this project, too. I compiled a list of candidates and wrote up blurbs for each one. And the illustrations are pretty neat. They’re a little cartoonish, like an affectionate caricature. The content of the book is irreverent and it’s, it’s countercultural. So, everything we see on the Internet is often these very clean vector illustrations and, and even from like startup to startup, they’re kind of all the same. So I wanted to do something completely different and do something very hand drawn, handmade. You know, the cover of the book has a big, hand drawn X crossed out over some pretty type, and I thought these could be the same sort of, you know… The artist is just quickly made this mark on a page kind of kind of style
Wailin: [00:08:56] As Jason Zimdars was finishing the illustrations. Adam was hand lettering each of the blurbs, keeping in mind the aesthetic and overall tone of the book. The result is this casual yet legible scrawl in all capital letters.
Adam: [00:09:08] There was some work to both develop that look and then also develop a process in which I could reliably produce that look again and again and again with you know, lines that are of equal weight. And, especially once you’re doing like paragraphs of text, like with the illustration. Keeping the lettering the same by the time you reach the end of the paragraph from the start of the paragraph. There’s just this… you drift. So I set up a lot of kind of structure. Set up a lettering template with lines and grids. I was really proud of where I had started with because I ended up like redoing everything multiple times and it was just tighter each time. So, I was really proud of the progression there until I saw Wailin’s handwriting, which is just like freakishly perfect.
Shaun: [00:10:00] It’s immaculate, isn’t it?
Adam: [00:10:00] And I’m convinced she is a robot now. It is like too perfect. Like, I’m on to you, robot. You were too well made like it’s… it’s shocking.
Wailin: [00:10:12] You heard it here first. I am a robot. If you were watching TV in the ‘80s you may remember a documentary series about my early existence called Small Wonder. It ran on ABC for four seasons. Look it up.
[00:10:23] Anyway, the illustrations with the hand lettering looked great and so did the cover and then there was the first sign of trouble. Here’s David.
David: [00:10:30] The publisher had taken an iPhone shot of the book as they had unpacked the first run from the printer and we were like, this doesn’t look right. It’s that just the angle of the camera, like why is it making it long? And then they were like, no, no, no, it looks great. And we’re like, oh, okay, well maybe it’s just a bad iPhone shot. Then when we received the book we’re like, no, it wasn’t a bad iPhone shot. It was a bad design job. It was a bad print job. When we originally kicked off the design process, we said, oh, we’re going to design a book that’s like the same shape and dimensions as Rework. We thought that meant exactly at the same shape and dimensions and they just meant, well, it’s going to be roughly the same thing, but we’re going to fit it on our standard dimensions because what we ended up with was a standard size for our publisher.
Adam: [00:11:16] It was always expressed to me that it was the size of Rework, so I laid it out to the exact size of Rework and delivered artwork that was the exact size of Rework and they put it on a book that wasn’t the exact size of Rework and so there ended up being this large gutter across the top and edges.
David: [00:11:37] We were like, how is this even possible? Like how does that even happen? We spend all this time getting the design just right. To see it then thrown up what appeared to be sort of just randomly on the page, not centered, not doing something. You just go like, oh, how does a thing that happen?
Adam: [00:11:55] That you just kind of like took the Illustrator file and just placed it into their InDesign file—
Shaun: [00:12:00] Without resizing.
Adam: [00:12:02] Without doing anything. Which, you know, maybe not the best thing.
David: [00:12:09] And what took us back a bit was that we didn’t know or realize that it was on us to double-check everything. To verify everything. Like, isn’t this why we work with the professionals? This is why we’re not doing this ourselves. You don’t notice if you don’t know. But we knew.
Adam: [00:12:28] I don’t think a single person in the public has…
Shaun: [00:12:31] No one would ever notice it.
Adam: [00:12:33] But yeah, but…
Shaun: [00:12:33] But you will.
Adam: [00:12:33] Forever to my grave.
David: [00:12:36] And this was a book that we had put a lot of heart and effort into, so to see it wrong was still just such a bummer.
[00:12:44] But okay, fair enough. Maybe it was partly our doing there. We, we kind of fell under that illusion of agreement that we thought we had all agreed on the same thing and we really hadn’t. We got on it pretty quickly. We were like, this is not right. We got to make it right. And at that point we had printed the first run of the book, the 14,000 copies of whatever it was like, Hey, we’ll just sell those, and then the next print run we’ll be right. So, it’s not the end of the world. It’s annoying. Um, but most people won’t know. And hey, we hope to sell hundreds of thousands of copies of this book. So, in the grand scheme of things, the fact that the first 14,000 had a cover that wasn’t right. Okay, annoying. But a glitch, we should accept, uh, some proportion of the blame. Let’s roll with it.
Wailin: [00:13:31] So then you launch it to great fanfare. You get some wonderful reviews, you shoot up the Amazon bestseller lists. So you must have been feeling great.
David: [00:13:41] Oh, totally. The launch was as good as it was going to get. We had a nice stack of preorders and then we’ve got that Economist review almost right away, which was just, it was just a dream review. He really couldn’t have written it better. It couldn’t have come from a sort of a more prestigious publication. It was so quotable. Everything was just perfect in that regard. And then it was selling really well on Amazon. We kept seeing a climb, oh man. And now it’s a 115, now it’s at 105. Oh, it broke into the top 100 and then it ended up topping out, I think at the 24th position on the top 100 lists of books sold on Amazon.
[00:14:21] So we’re super happy. And then when we saw on I think five days after publication, I think it was Saturday, we published on a Tuesday and then on Saturday, let me see, oh, Amazon is out of stock and you’re like, bam. Nailed it. Right. Amazon sells out in five days. This is amazing. Then on Monday they’ll have a new stack and they’ll be ready to go.
[00:14:42] This was when things started to fall apart. We had done that first run, which was clearly insufficient. I mean Amazon, it sold out right away. The rest of the books were spread to the wind, so we couldn’t even send more of the initial run to Amazon even though Amazon ended up selling the vast majority of books. Even though they got a minority slice of the first print run.
Wailin: [00:15:05] Which you didn’t find out until later. Right. This is all in the like recriminations phase of the process.
David: [00:15:08] Well, we get on a call and we’re like, wait a minute, I don’t understand. We’ve printed first of all, 14,000 books and then we started even questioning that. And we hadn’t even questioned the 14,000 because we just assumed, hey, this is a publisher, they know what we’ve sold in the past. They know that for Rework, we printed 34,000 copies—
Wailin: [00:15:28] For the first run?
David: [00:15:28] For the first run for Rework. So we were like, we’re just assuming they know their shit. This is why they’re publishers. This is why we hired them.
Wailin: [00:15:38] Maybe it’s a just-in-time kind of thing? They print fewer at the beginning.
David: [00:15:41] Yeah, right? Yeah, and then, like, we’re going to get more books right away. And then, the answers just started. They were just off, which just right away you could just tell, wait a minute, you don’t, you don’t know. What do you mean you don’t know?
Wailin: [00:15:54] Like they didn’t know when they could print more?
David: [00:15:56] They didn’t know really how many we’d printed. They barely knew where the books sort of had gone. It was all very fuzzy. All very vague and then the question of like when can we print again was vague. They were like, well we’ve got to finish this and we don’t know that. And we’re like, how can you not have the basic answers ready to the most fundamental questions of publishing a book? How many did you publish? Where did you send them to and when are you going to publish next? Now that you’re out of books? Keeping the book in stock and with the retailers who needed it, that seemed like absolute base, base, base level of the publishing responsibilities.
[00:16:38] It was weeks before we even had a clarification of what was going to happen. And we kept getting more and more exasperated, like this idea that we had printed so few books in part because the department responsible for doing the printing, their main sort of goal was to not sit on unsold books.
[00:17:01] And I get that, right? There’s definitely something to that. You don’t want to print 100,000 books and then sell 5,000. But when you had signed a chick that large, to print only 14,000 books, it’s about a buck and a half, $2 a book. So let’s call it 20 grand, 25 grand. And in publishing costs, that’s a very small proportion of the overall budget that has been expended on this book. It wasn’t that our acquiring editor had the power to say, hey, print another 20,000 books. That was just not how their organization worked. They could ask, “Hey, can you please print some more books?” Then that department would sit down and they would crunch their numbers. And then at one point they got back to us and they were like, “Oh, good news. The department has decided to print another 7,000 books.” Like, why are we begging people to print the book?
[00:17:53] We even then proposed like, let’s just pay for it. Basecamp will just pay, where do we send to check?
Wailin: [00:17:59] Really? And then, like they would pay you back?
David: [00:18:01] I don’t even care. I just wanted the books out there. We just like, if we have to pay for the printing costs, if… Are you guys low on funds? What’s going on here? And of course it wasn’t about that. It’s not that the publisher didn’t have $10,000, $20,000, $30,000 to print books.
Wailin: [00:18:16] Were they, like, terribly insulted when you said that?
David: [00:18:16] I don’t know. I mean at that point I think I’d slung worse insults across the, uh, the sort of the call we were on. Some of the excuses—and we got so many that… They were real, there was something to all of them. There was something to the fact that there were some tariffs going on. They were making it harder to get paper and there were some big books getting printed at the same time. But none of these things were like factors that all hit together at the same time, just the week that we ran out of books and then it ended up taking a whole month before Amazon had the book in stock again.
Wailin: [00:18:51] So, a lot of angry phone calls.
David: [00:18:53] It did get actually kind of angry. Yeah. And that’s probably not a good thing. I mean, this was certainly the most worked up I’d been at work in… There’s a reasonable chance in forever. I’m trying to remember like the last time I was that worked up on a phone call, but here it just, it seems so egregious and it seems so avoidable and it seemed just so frustrating. Perhaps in part because we didn’t really have any control and we’ve set Basecamp up in such a way that Jason and I have an enormous amount of control over the parts that affect our daily life. And all of a sudden here we have this thing we had spent so much time on and this utter train wreck of a failure was kind of out of our hands. Like, we couldn’t really do anything so we could just stand exasperated and yell about it. Which was a good lesson in the sympathy of trying to sort of realize like, oh, a lot of people probably feel a lot of time that there’s all sorts of things that they care about deeply that go badly wrong and they can’t do anything to fix it and that feels really shitty.
Wailin: [00:20:08] Do you have any advice in that regard? Like what would you tell someone who is trying not to be crazy at work but it’s feeling that way because of stuff they can’t control or because of another actor?
David: [00:20:20] It’s funny because I’ve been pitching the stoic philosophies for a long time and one of the cornerstones of that is to separate the things that you can control and the things you can’t control and not worry so much about the things you can’t control. The problem here was that this was just on the border. We had some control, right? Like we were in some way part of this and we could exert some pressure and we had all sorts of levers in the relationship, including all sorts of nuclear options of blowing the whole thing up. The fact that like you had your hand on some remedies but you really didn’t want to pull on those levers. You really didn’t want to. I mean the last thing we’d be interested in starting some sort of legal battle over this.
[00:21:05] In some ways it would have perhaps been better if we had had even less control. If we could just like, well there’s nothing we can do. There was something we could do and we had some options and we just really didn’t want to do it. So that led to this middle ground where, a lot of it just came out, like kind of kicking and screaming. And in the end, what does that actually do? Or what does that actually accomplish perhaps, other than channel your frustration to the point that your own head doesn’t just explode. It’s not a healthy place. It’s not a happy place. It’s certainly not a calm place, which was just the utter irony of this thing that like the title of the book is literally fucking, It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work.
[00:21:46] And this was the craziest, it’s been at work in living memory.
Wailin: [00:21:50] Did anyone on these conference calls make that joke or as everyone too afraid?
David: [00:21:53] I made that joke, although maybe it wasn’t so much as a joke, as it was an accusation. So…
Wailin: [00:21:58] Because you’re yelling it?
David: [00:21:59] Yeah, I mean I was just, I wasn’t really yelling. But I was definitely worked up and I wasn’t filtering. I mean, when do I ever do that? But in this case in particular what was coming through the lack of the filter was just sort of unreserved appraisal of the competence and diligence involved and that appraisal was low.
Wailin: [00:22:24] [crosstalk] you found them wanting.
David: [00:22:25] That was a filter. Yes, exactly. That was a very filtered version. That was not what was said on the call.
Wailin: [00:22:30] So, where do you go from here?
David: [00:22:33] Well, now that book is back in stock, which is great. We botched the launch, but, in the long, grand scheme of things, hopefully this is just going to be a—you can’t call it a hiccup because hiccups are kind of fun. Like this wasn’t fun. This was a stumble and hopefully just, it won’t hurt that bad. There’s no chance it didn’t hurt. I mean, tons of people would go to Amazon to buy the book because they heard about it in the initial push and then when they saw it might take four weeks, they probably just went like, eh, maybe I’ll get later. And we’re never going to reach those people. And that’s… just got to accept that, that hey, you can’t make that up. At least for all the people who did get the book, the reception has just been wonderful. So, that’s something else to focus on that it could’ve been worse.
[00:23:22] We could’ve written a book that nobody wanted to read. Here we had a book that a lot of people wanted to read. We just didn’t have any books to sell them so they could read it. I mean that’s kind of tragic, but it’s better than the alternative. And, that’s at least something. So we keep getting the feedback that people liked the book and it’s making an impact, and it’s making them think and maybe they’re even changing their actions based on it. And that’s really wonderful. So, we’ll focus on that.
Wailin: [00:23:49] You can probably imagine that the relationship between David and the publisher is not so great. And I did reach out to his editor to see if she wanted to give her perspective on what happened, but she very politely declined. She said she wanted to focus on marketing and publicity for the book now that it’s back in stock. And that’s what David and Jason want to, although it was also important for them to get all of their feelings about the debacle on the record first.
David: [00:24:13] That’s the relationship we have with our audience. It’s not one where we sort of hide what happens or we paint over it glossily or we spin it like, oh, the books sold out. That’s so wonderful. And then it was just so popular that it took a month to get back and like isn’t that great? No, it was not great. It was a mistake. And let’s own up to that mistake and let’s take our blame for the parts of it, that’s our blame, and especially around the design we could have done more. Maybe we could even have done more about the printing. We could have asserted that we wanted a minimum run. There are things we could do and we should take some of that blame and we should also just explain the whole situation. Even if it casts our existing publisher and perhaps less than a flattering light. That’s just the reality. That’s just the truth.
[00:25:03] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.
Wailin: [00:25:03] Rework is produced by Shaun Hildner, and me, Wailin Wong. Our theme music is Broken By Design by Clip Art.
Shaun: [00:25:09] You can find show notes for this and every episode of Rework at our website, rework.fm and you can find us on Twitter @reworkpodcast. Or if you’re old fashioned and want to make a phone call, you can leave a voicemail at (708) 628-7850.
Wailin: [00:25:27] Oh, and the book is back in stock on Amazon. So, if you want to go buy the book—
Shaun: [00:25:31] Go buy books.
Wailin: [00:25:31] —you can find it there. Or just support your local indie.
Shaun: [00:25:36] Yeah, definitely go to your bookstore.
Shaun: [00:25:52] All right, Wailin. Let’s begin. Are you ready? Recite your baseline.
Wailin: [00:25:56] And blood black nothingness began to spin. A system of cells interlinked within cells, interlinked within cells, interlinked within one stem. And dreadfully distinct against the dark. A tall white fountain played.
Shaun: [00:26:07] Cells.
Wailin: [00:26:08] Cells.
Shaun: [00:26:08] Have you ever been in an institution? Cells.
Wailin: [00:26:10] Cells.
Shaun: [00:26:11] Do they keep you in a cell? Cells.
Wailin: [00:26:12] Cells.
Shaun: [00:26:13] When you’re not performing your duties, do they keep you in a little box? Cells.
Wailin: [00:26:16] Cells.
Shaun: [00:26:16] Interlinked.
Wailin: [00:26:17] Interlinked.
Shaun: [00:26:17] What’s it like to hold the hand of someone you love? Interlinked.
Wailin: [00:26:20] Interlinked.
Shaun: [00:26:21] Did they teach you how to feel finger to finger? Interlinked.
Wailin: [00:26:23] Interlinked.
Shaun: [00:26:23] Do you long for having your heart interlinked? Interlinked.
Wailin: [00:26:25] Interlinked.
Shaun: [00:26:26] Do you dream about being interlinked?
Wailin: [00:26:28] Interlinked
Shaun: [00:26:28] What’s it like to hold your child in your arms? Interlinked.
Wailin: [00:26:30] Interlinked.
Shaun: [00:26:31] Do you feel that there’s a part of you missing? Interlinked.
Wailin: [00:26:33] Interlinked.
Shaun: [00:26:34] Within cells. Interlinked.
Wailin: [00:26:35] Within cells, interlinked.
Shaun: [00:26:38] Why don’t you say that three times? Within cells, interlinked.
Wailin: [00:26:39] Within cells, interlinked. Within cells, interlinked. Within cells, interlinked.
Shaun: [00:26:44] All right, we’re done. You may pick up your bonus.
[00:26:47] [Clip of soundtrack from Blade Runner 2049]