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How we made the agile comms handbook
printing stuff is hard

The agile comms handbook was years in the making, but most of the work happened between March and October 2021.

That was roughly when I contacted Sonia and Amy and asked for their professional help. To my relief, they both said yes.

Then it was time to knuckle down to some serious writing and editing. That started in March-ish, and by mid-May I had a draft that seemed worth printing out. So I did that:

Print out on the printer

Printing always helps with editing, so of course there were a lot of things to fix after that. Amy and I moved the work back to Google Docs, and continued edits there.

Meanwhile, Sonia was thinking about design. I loved their approach for this, the way they explored my personal tastes and preferences and found ways to sort, arrange and categorise them. It was eye-opening.

Talking through design ideas using Figma

Soon afterwards, Sonia narrowed down options and presented me with three directions we could explore further. I had a favourite option almost immediately, but forced myself to pause and think about it for a bit before making a final decision.

Slowly, things came together. There were whole weeks when progress was halted by my work commitments, or by plain laziness on my part. But eventually, we were ready to try printing. I headed over to Nielsen to buy a block of ISBN numbers. A friend had recommended an online global print-and-distribution company; the idea being that you upload a PDF of your book (for a fee), and by filling in various forms at the print company end and the Nielsen end, your book appears by magic everywhere.

Crucially, that includes Amazon. The theory is that someone can order your book online at Amazon, or any other retailer, then a copy gets printed and sent to them. Wonderful. This was exactly the process I’d hoped for.

But there was a but.

Not all printers are the same

A little more time passed, and my hoped-for deadline of early July publishing flew past. There’s no point publishing in the summer, too many people take too many holidays, so I thought - that’s fine, I’ll postpone to September.

In the meantime, I can order some test copies to see what the quality is like.

This was the point where things went wrong.

I ordered two test copies directly from the print company first, and both of them came with basic production errors, as if the paper had slipped in the printing machine while being printed on:

Book pages with visible cut marks

I was baffled, and so was Sonia. Those visible cut marks simply weren’t present in the PDFs they had created and I had uploaded, so the print company was clearly doing something to our uploaded files before printing them.

Over the next few weeks, I made several more orders, either directly from the print company or from Amazon. To my horror, the print quality simply wasn’t reliable. Out of 10 test copies I ordered, half of them had errors of some kind.

More production errors

Even the good copies weren’t consistently good. The colours varied, the text was sometimes blurred and fuzzy. The binding sometimes looked clean, sometimes it looked shoddy.

Books with variable cover colours

What a mess.

There was a long dark evening of the soul where I toyed with the thought of ploughing on regardless. Amy and Sonia put me right and made me see sense: there was no point doing all this work for an end result that may or may not be a decent printed product.

This was the moment where I realised I couldn’t go ahead with the process I’d planned. I couldn’t rely on these printers to print good books. All that work to get the book magically connected to the book distribution industry had been wasted time. It was time to think of a new plan.

I picked up the phone to an old acquaintance, Rik Penny at Ripe Digital, a few miles up the road from me. Explaining the hole I found myself, I asked Rik: “Can you print it for me?” He said: “Let’s give it a go shall we?”

A better book

A few days later, I picked up the first batch of books from Rik, and the difference was night and day:

Ripe's print compared with the other one

Every book in this print run looked the same. The pale green covers were identical. The interior colours were richer. The text was crisper. I was over the moon.

I’d fixed the print problem: now I had to worry about the distribution problem. I spent weeks mulling various ideas and options, culminating in a weekend where I got myself all stressed and twisted in a knot, trying to work out what to do.

Kate rescued me. She pointed out that the initial print run wasn’t that big, and even if I sold them all (which neither of us expected to happen), it wouldn’t take that much work to do the distribution myself. A few hours. And I could always get Barney to help me. It would take some time, but not that much time.

So, that’s what we did. We went for the exact option I’d always planned to avoid.

Internet shopping

With that change of plan came a new problem: if I was going to be doing the printing, the selling and the distributing, I needed to have a way to sell things. I needed a shop.

I spent more time - many hours - researching options and getting in a bit of a flap. I’m not a commercially-minded person, nor very confident with numbers and spreadsheets and finances. Increasingly, I was faced with having to quickly get confident with all of them.

I procrastinated by faffing about with terrible ideas for a web page:

Bog standard website options

Eventually, I did what comes naturally to people of a certain age, when it comes to making websites: I looked at the source code of other websites to get ideas. Poking around in the HTML of Content Design London’s website, made by Mark Hurrell, I noticed how they’d used Stripe payment links to set up different price points for different delivery zones around the world. Bingo. This was something I could grasp in my feeble brain, and something I could make using my feeble grasp of HTML and CSS.

It took many long evenings, but I ended up with a website I was happy with, and Stripe links that did the job. I got my brother to make the first order, just so I could be sure it all worked as planned. It did.

Stamps and envelopes

The first print run sold out in less than 2 days. I phoned Rik and ordered some more. They lasted to the end of the week.

It’s fair to say that there was a lot more demand than I expected, and that initial sales spike was quite hard work. I did get help from Barney, but even with that it was tricky, mainly because I had to synchronise supplies of stamps, envelopes, international postage customs declarations forms, and actual books. It took me a few weeks of juggling to get that right.

But as the initial spike settled into a slower, gentler long tail, things got easier. Over the past few weeks I’ve settled into a weekly routine, sending out batches of books on Fridays. There have been a few issues - one book sent to Hong Kong never arrived, and one sent to Germany spent a couple of weeks in a postal service warehouse before being unceremoniously and automatically returned to me, festooned with stickers in German.

But mostly, it’s worked. Mostly, people have been happy.

I’d rather do it differently

I’ve learned that publishing and distributing books is hard and complicated, and not something to dabble with lightly. The technology that the publishing industry runs on is antiquated and barely usable; there’s some serious transformation or disruption to be done there. Not by me. But I’ll welcome it when it comes.

If and when I write another book, I’d rather not do it all myself. I’d rather just write lots of words, and rely on publishing professionals to worry about all the extra stuff for me.

That’s for another day, though: I’m not done with The agile comms handbook yet. The long tail of sales continues at a reasonable pace, and lots of people have asked about an e-book version. I need to look into that.


Filed under: work
(1 December 2021)