When a Project Doesn’t Work


We made a really hard business decision this week. I’m still sad about it. Short version: Although I tried hard for more than six months, we can’t make the version of the Seventy Maxims books with handwritten annotations look anything but cluttered. The maxims get lost in the multi color handwriting and that is a problem because the maxims are the heart of the book.
Full backer announcement can be seen here:
Kickstarter Project Update #36

I’m sad because I fell in love with the stories and jokes created by those notes. I’m sad because I know that this decision disappoints some people. Yet I know that the clutter of notes would have frustrated and disappointed other people. I like the idea of creating clean, crisp books so that fans can add their own notes and experiences. I’d love nothing more than to see books that had been lovingly aged, scribbled in, and turned into expansive lists of additional notes and corollaries. Perhaps we’ll even set up a gallery so people can share images of what they have done. I’d kind of love that. There may be a time out there in the future where I’m able to be nothing but happy about the decision, but today I am sad.

Disappointing people is very hard for me. It punches huge anxiety buttons, or maybe very small buttons that are hooked up to giant, churning anxiety generators. I’ve spent a lot of energy in the past couple of days just trying to quell anxiety so that I can function. I’m also trying to figure out what I actually think and feel over the cacophony of “you have completely failed, you always fail, everything in your life is now permanently doomed.”

When I was talking with my daughter Kiki about this during one of her college check-in calls, she asked “Are you okay? I know how much time you spent on this.” And she is right. I spent more than a hundred hours getting all the handwriting, putting it into place, re configuring it so that I could hand it to our book designer (“re configuring” involved scissors, tiny pieces of paper, and double sided tape), then taking it back from the book designer when I realized the quantity of back and forth that Howard and I would need to do. There were the hours I spent prepping pages and sitting with my handwriters so that they would know what to write and where. I had each note written multiple times in different ways so that I had options for editing. After scanning the handwriting, I spent hours tweaking images for readability. I increased spaces between words, or decreased them. I replaced letters (or entire words) that were illegible with another version of that word written by the same person. I then went back to some handwriters and had had them re-write words, draw arrows, or write additional notes. Repeat all the editing steps. There are 320 images for those handwritten notes, each edited and placed individually.

So much work. Maybe I’m a little sad about those hours, but the thing that eats at me is we could have sent the book to print months ago if only we’d been able to see the solution before this week.

Ultimately the requirements of the project weren’t compatible with each other. We needed real handwriting because handwriting fonts are more sterile and far more difficult to tell apart. Unfortunately real handwriting always has readability issues. We needed multiple colors of pen so that readers could tell which character wrote what. But the multiple colors make the pages look jumbled up so that readers don’t know where to start. No matter what we did, we couldn’t make it so that the maxims drew the eye first. Which meant that people would read the handwriting before they’d read the text that the handwriting was responding to. Even while editing I had to train myself to read maxim first, then commentary, then notes. Some of the pages worked beautifully. Some were a mess no matter what we tried. Yet we couldn’t just eliminate the messy pages because some of them were key elements in a story through-line or a set up for a joke later.

Fortunately, all of the hard work is not lost. We’ll release a PDF version to our backers so that they can see what might have been, if only we could have made the different elements of the concept work with each other instead of against each other. And some of them will say “yeah, I can see why you chose not to print this.” Others will say “I’m so sad you didn’t print this, it is exactly what I wanted.” Both of those people will be right. This decision we’ve made is simultaneously exactly what needs to happen and also a disappointing creative choice. My brain keeps telling me that it is so close, surely if I just worked at it for another hundred hours I could make it brilliant. I don’t have those hours. I don’t have that energy. And the backers have already waited far past the delivery date we originally announced. I have a huge responsibility to deliver to them. I can’t let them down. Which means we’ve chosen the best path forward. I’m just sad that I couldn’t force there to be a better path.

6 thoughts on “When a Project Doesn’t Work”

  1. As a backer, I’d like first to thank you (and Howard) for being so forthcoming about the status, and the design decisions that go into the projects you create.

    If you both think that the annotations don’t work in the printed volume, I’m 100% convinced that they don’t. I’m ecstatic that the annotated PDF will be a thing, don’t get me wrong, but every product you’ve put out has been top-notch in content, materials, and production values.

    I may only be one backer, but I’m one who’s excited for both versions!

  2. minnmass isn’t the only one, and I’m excited for both as well.
    The ‘paper’ technology just isn’t where there that would allow for readers to just see the Maxims, and then fade in the annotations.
    I think you’ve found the best way forward given the limitations of our reality, and I’m still eagerly awaiting to see the results.

  3. It is very sad.

    The only solution would have been to print both books. Ultimately the maxims outweigh the artifact of the fiction.

    Please assure me that we can have a release to have the pdf printed high resolution locally and bound to sit beside The Book as The Artifact.

    If not, I’ll print and bind it as best I can so they can sit together.

    The only comparable decision I’ve ever made was to pull a book entirely for a re write.

    This was harder.


  4. So glad as backers that we’ll get a PDF of all your hard work!

    I’m also sure the printed book will be awesome. Why? Because as minnmass puts it, “top-notch in content, materials, and production values.” I’ve never been disappointed. 🙂

  5. I agree with Minnmass and the others, I will treasure (and use) both versions. Thank you both for all the hard work.

  6. Sandra,

    Just got the pdf’s and started going through them.

    THANK YOU – and the rest of the team – for making the annotated version available. I understand the challenges of making this into a print book. Your time building this was not wasted.

    It isn’t a fast read. It is a savor, enjoy, puzzle over, think about, and take your time read. And there is a place for that!

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