Sales & Marketing

Amazon: firing blanks

5 min read

12 April 2011

Getting my blank book, What Every Man Thinks About Apart From Sex, to number 44 on the Amazon chart wasn’t an easy task. Surprisingly, the feat was made harder by Amazon itself.

Setting up the seller account for my new book, What Every Man Thinks About Apart From Sex (read how I came up with the idea here) was fraught with challenges and bureaucracy. And then, frustratingly, when the book was reported on widely on the net, I wasn’t quite ready for the demand – and that’s because I encountered a brilliant (and wonderfully tragic-comic) example of corporate inflexibility. 

When articles about the book appeared from TIME Magazine and AOL, I didn’t have any books for sale on the USA Amazon site (Amazon.com) and I know, from the huge amount of emails I then received, that I could have shifted thousands and thousands more books if I had. 

One of the reasons why I didn’t have any books for sale in America at that point was because I was finding it astonishingly hard to find an American printer who could print the books correctly. Now, I realise this sounds rather farcical, because we’re talking about a blank book here, and any right-thinking human being would believe that printing a blank book would be pretty straightforward. Quite the contrary. 

I tried three different printers across the States and they all sent me samples that were simply not up to standard. And the most remarkable sample had me pulling my hair out, but also laughing out loud at the same time, and you’ll soon see why.

I approached a publishing company called CreateSpace (part of the Amazon empire) and asked them to print me a sample copy of the book, with the long-term aim that they’d become my US partner. After a lot of aggravation submitting the files, the sample copy of my book finally popped into my letterbox. I eagerly ripped open the cardboard casing and examined their version of the book, hoping it would be the high quality needed for my customers. Unfortunately, it was a case of “Oh America!”, and an experience that neatly shows the need for careful attention to detail when making any product or delivering a service. 

Not only was the cover way too flimsy on this latest sample, it was cream coloured (and not “pure white” as specified), the spine was bound badly and didn’t have a crease down it. The combined effect of all these details made the book look floppy, cheap and amateurish, which detracted from the effectiveness of the core joke: a professional looking self-help book, that was, in fact, totally empty. 

But the best surprise from this sample was yet to come. And boy, was it a treat! As I opened the book to check the pages inside, I noticed something that, quite simply, blew me away. And that I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. There, at the top of every page, sat two words, printed in capital letters. They read, simply, beautifully, tragically: “INTENTIONALLY BLANK”.

Not so blank, after all

Read more on page two

Now, these words, “INTENTIONALLY BLANK” were printed on every single page though the book. This was both hugely frustrating and enormously amusing at the same time. 

As I stared at the book, it reminded me of Magritte’s famous painting of an apple, entitled “Ceci n’est pas une pomme”, which translates as “This is not an apple”. 

Magritte 1956 Pas Un Pomme

By printing “INTENTIONALLY BLANK” on each page, clearly the page wasn’t, in fact, blank. Was I holding the first surrealist novelty book? 

I called CreateSpace in disbelief and they informed me that their automated factory line couldn’t cope with a blank page, so they’d added the text to ensure it got through the production line. I swiftly looked for the nearest brick wall to slam my head into. It was a classic (and rather depressing) case of corporate rigidity. The computer had said “no”, and who were we humans to argue if that decision completely ruined the whole purpose of the finished item? 

You just couldn’t make it up. 

 I’m still looking for a great US publisher to team up with me and blow the book big Stateside. Companies with a factory that that can cope with a blank page only need apply, please…

Find out more about Shed here and follow him on Twitter.