Listen in as Melanie Parish talks to co-founder and principal at Page Two Books, Jesse Finkelstein, about adapting to disruptions in regards to the COVID-19 pandemic. Page Two Books is a publishing company aimed at helping authors of non-fiction books. Jesse discusses how the company focuses on getting the message across from authors to the readers despite the current pandemic. Aspects of physical distancing are also talked about in this episode. Specifically, on how her team works on bringing on years of expertise while maintaining safety during the current circumstances.
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Adapting To Disruptions Caused By COVID-19 With Jesse Finkelstein
I'm here with Jesse Finkelstein who's the Cofounder and Principal at Page Two Books. It's a company that helps non-fiction authors publish game-changing books to the highest level of professionalism. She has spent her entire career in publishing and prior to cofounding Page Two, she held several management roles at publishing houses including that of COO of D&M Publishers and associate publisher at Raincoast Books. She holds a Master's degree in publishing from Simon Fraser University, and she's an adjunct professor of publishing at that university. She serves on the board of Creative BC, an organization devoted to supporting the growth of cultural industries. I'm so excited to talk to Jesse about leadership, what she's trying, and publishing in these times.
Jesse, I am so excited to have you on my show.
I'm so excited to be here, Melanie. Thank you so much for the invitation.
I would love to dive in and know what's happening in your work and your business?
I’m in an interesting place on Page Two. Book publishing like every other industry feels constantly disrupted. There are particular disruptions happening as a result of the pandemic. In a strange way, we feel we've been riding this roller coaster for a long time whether it's digital disruption, big-box retailing disrupting, independent bookstore landscape, or all kinds of things that I've experienced over a couple of decades in the industry. This feels like another climb up on that roller coaster. It feels like a bit of a wild ride. Within my company, because we support authors of non-fiction, subject matter experts, and thought leaders, people who are by their nature and in their worlds trying to advance a conversation. Trying to spread and share a big idea, somehow, that's taken on even a new level of urgency during the pandemic, no matter what it is that they're talking about.
We also take that on and feel that sense of urgency. It sharpens everyone's focus on their subject area. As a company, we're trying to sharpen our own focus to make sure that we're helping them get their messages across in a heightened way whether they're launching their books, as in your case, or we're planning their books. Everyone is thinking, “No matter what my subject area is, how is it that I can make this relevant under the circumstances, in addition to bringing in my often decades of expertise in this area?" As a team, Page Two is trying to adapt to a new landscape in which we're used to working remotely with our authors because our authors live all over the world. We're also used as a team working very closely together, many of us in the same space. That's been the real shift for us that we're all working remotely.
Correct me if I'm wrong but I believe your space is a shared space. It's not like you're all in the same office building. You should have to share one big office, I think.
It's an open-concept space with a boardroom adjacent. We had to carve up the boardroom so that we could create a separate closed space because we've been on top of each other. We were crammed in there. In some ways, we’re a bit uncomfortable. In other ways that we’re fun and great. We enjoyed that level of closeness. When you're working on books, there's nothing like having the editor of a book over their shoulder at the cover that's being created after that editor has been working on it for months and the creative dialogue that can emerge incidentally and spontaneously when you're in the same space. We're missing that a lot.
It’s the good old days when we could sit next to each other and chat. It's such an interesting time. What are you experimenting with this remote work or in your family life? You're a leader but you're also a parent and all those things. Where are you experimenting with?
I'm going to take a personal approach in answering this question. I'm experimenting with a new level of selfishness. I'm not using that word lightly. I'm finding that in order to keep my energy levels up, I'm having to put some primal needs first that I tend back burner. Getting enough sleep, getting a lot of walks and fresh air. Those things that we all know we need anyways and we should be getting more of. I'm putting those things before everything. My family is incorporated into that as well. We're trying to get fresh air together. We are trying to connect together as a family but I'm realizing that I am no good to anybody these days if I can't put that stuff first.
As a leader, that means I’m making my deadlines and I'm doing my best to connect with the team. We're down to the key core elements every day. I have a razor-sharp focus on cashflow and the sustainability of the company. This is true for my business partner, Trena, Page Two’s Cofounder. The two of us are in constant dialogue around making sure that the company is sustainable and we're looking ahead to those foundational elements making sure we're running well. That is sometimes coming at the expense of other things that are still very much a priority.
For example, we had to tell our team very early, once the pandemic hit that we had come to rely previously on certain things when it came to how the company operates, runs, and some patterns of cashflow that gave us a great deal of security and how things were going to go month-to-month. When this hit, we said, “We can't be there for you as a team in the same way that you would normally expect. We may be less accessible to you because our first priority has to be keeping us sustainable.” That was quite something to realize and have to say to everyone. This is the experimentation part as leaders of a team.
For reference for your audience, our team is sixteen people. It's very small in light of the range of companies out there. To us, it's still a lot of people to be connecting with and thinking about. We put in place two people within the company who we designated as ombuds persons. We don't have a hierarchical leadership structure but we said, “These are two people who the whole team can go to. They have our ear. They can funnel everything to us if need be, or they agreed kindly to take those conversations confidentially if need be. If people needed to talk about things that the company leaders to discuss or to know.” That was a real experiment, suddenly thrusting these two key team members into a leadership role that they hadn't previously had. Trena and I admitting that we had to step back from that very centered hands-on caring for this individual approach. That came naturally to us before but we realized this is what we have to do to survive.
The experimental leader in me, I'm curious about how you know whether or not the ombudsmen are working. How do you check-in and see what you learned?
With humility, I'll say I don't know. We feel we have an instinct about things. Here's some anecdotal information that we've collected so far. There were some conversations that the team members gave consent to those ombuds persons to pass along to us. In some cases, it was in a named way where they were able to say so-and-so has this concern. In other cases, it wasn't. I know it's working in the sense that the fact that we suggested the option of confidentiality meant that those people then got to express some real concerns that they otherwise might not have if we hadn't even suggested that. They might've held onto that stuff. That's a good sign that there were people who had topics that they needed to bring up that had to be brought up confidentially.
That's a great measurement. What’s it used is a good measure of whether or not confidentiality works?
I think so, that's my feeling. The second thing I would say about that process is that these two leaders decided, together with the team, to hold a team meeting without Trena and me. We've been having regular check-ins. Initially, it was every day at 9:00 but now it's twice a week at 9:00. Those are informal, but they're check-ins for everybody if they want to. Now, we have these once a month more formal meetings where Trena and I can pass along some information about where things are or at to the whole team, and then they can air their concerns or questions. This special meeting happened without us. It sounds like, from what we understand, it was a great meeting. There were a lot of things that were brought up and discussed. Apparently, there was a suggestion of having another one and we learned that the team members said, “We don't need it,” which is a good sign in the sense that people have found their rhythm. That was the feedback we got. There aren't any big concerns that they feel that they need to share in that format anyway.
A new status quo has gotten established.
When it first happened in my conversations with lots of leaders, people were so afraid for their jobs like against the evidence. People at Netflix were afraid for their jobs. That's like people at Zoom being afraid for their jobs. That's not the people that are getting laid off, but people have this fear. There were layoffs and there have been lots of layoffs and people aren't working, but there are also people who have security and business hasn't changed, who are also afraid. It's been interesting to see that work through a world.
I keep thinking it's like an all bets are off moment. I'm realizing that truly everything is experimental, as you suggested, this is with the central to the work you've been doing for many years. I found myself saying to one of our staff members, “I wish that you could take what I'm saying at face value.” As a leader, I want to instill as much confidence as I can but we had also agreed in the same conversation that whatever I might be saying now may not hold up weeks or months because we don't know where the market is going. We don't know what is happening in our business is going to hold through. We don't have those patterns to rely on. I feel optimistic about our company and what we're doing. There's no reason to believe that we won't continue to thrive and flourish but no one could have predicted this level of instability and uncertainty before. We can't be rational and we can't extrapolate very much from what's happened before. I realized it wasn't fair for me to say to that team member, “We're okay for now. Believe me,” when no one knows. That's a hard balance to strike.
It's not like anybody can write the best practices for COVID-19 article. We're in this world where there are no best practices. You're absolutely right. What I've talked about with some of my clients is to say, “You have a job, therefore you need to deliver value to the company. I can't tell you what the future will hold. Although if you deliver more value, your future is more certain.” It's such a difficult time. Uncertainty is so hard to grapple with. I do think the longer it goes on where business continues as normal. I find this to be so fascinating because cash is still flowing. Not for everyone, not for every industry but there's still flow. Looking at the stock market in the US, people are not scared in the way they were in 2008 and 2009. It's such an odd time. It's so hard to sense to me.
We don't want to take anything for granted. In book publishing like other cultural industries, we've always had to be scrappy as long as I've been in the industry. We don't have any sense of entitlement at all. Trena and I specifically, and some other people on our team have been through all kinds of chaos with respect to layoffs, company mergers, and bankruptcies as the industry has shifted. We built a different model and I feel the confidence in the way we've built and the way we run the business. We also have a great deal of humility about how no one is immune. That might cross over sometimes into our leadership style, that level of relative conservatism. It has its benefits but we've never had the three-martini lunches so I don't feel entitled to them. We also tend to be a little bit gun shy sometimes.
You and Trena are the ones in the company that plan your future and that have a strategy in place. What's the timeline that you look at? What do you think about?
In publishing, we are always looking way ahead. We look at our publishing in groups that we call lists. We have a list of books that we're launching in each season. Typically books get launched in publishing in winter, spring, and fall. There are certain months in which certain types of books tend to launch. We work in a cyclical way. We're finalizing our spring 2021 list but we also have projects booked that we'll be publishing a year from them. We're launching books in spring and working on those media campaigns or whatever marketing efforts are going on. We're very actively involved in fall with confirming print runs, for example, for all of our fall books. We are simultaneously developing projects early on and working with our authors on developing manuscripts for books that are going to be published many months and years ahead. We're always a bit out of time at Page Two. We're thinking about our projects in many different timeframes at once.
When it comes to the business itself, I'd say Trena and I had to go back to a month-by-month approach in the way that we did when we were building the company where we haven't done that. Not because that's how it's playing out in terms of the business coming in. Surprisingly, we've had a lot of new business that couldn't have happened if COVID hadn't happened. We've been hearing for instance, from some authors who didn't have the time before to publish their books and who might've reached out years ago, who've come back and said, “I now have this time so let's get going.” That's been a joyful surprise. It's not that we're in a dire position financially or from a business development point of view, but because of that level of cautiousness that I described before, you want to make sure that we are being thoughtful and sustainable. We're managing our expenses carefully as well as the income.
We've taken a very short-term look, at the same time as we're looking longer-term but there were some longer-term things that we had on-the-go. We had our leadership retreat which involves Trena and me going away together to a hotel, meeting, talking, eating dinner together, and spending time thinking big picture. There were a number of ideas and initiatives that we were so excited and ready to put in place. We feel confident they will still happen but we’ve had to move those timelines out. With respect to some of those bigger picture initiatives that we were thinking through on our retreat, we have had to postpone and move certain things back. I would say overall, we've had to slow down that level of development while we focused on as a matter of priority, maintaining the high level of service to our existing authors as we can. Making sure that we are bringing in business at the right rate. We feel confident we'll get there but we took a deep breath and we thought, there are things we were ready to set in motion that now we have to postpone or delay and it’s okay.
What keeps you awake at night?
First and foremost, mental health, my own and everyone's. I’m grateful that our business is good. We have a lot of work. I love my work and my authors, team, and partner. That's all excellent. I'm lucky to have that but I am not immune to the pressures of trying to not just operate a company in this chaos but also being a person in the world in this chaos. My sister is in the States and she has a baby. I thought I was going to see her and her family three more times. I'm desperate to spend time together and I'm in Canada. I don't know when I'm going to see her next.
I find that painful. I'm not hugging my parents or my mother-in-law and staying away from them in ways that are heartbreaking even though they live in the same city. Those things I know are echoed by everyone. This is widespread and everybody has their pain points. Some days, I feel that that's all manageable, and other days I feel the weight of it in a way that is almost unfamiliar to me in terms of my mental health. My biggest challenge is trying to maintain my mental health, also support my loved ones in maintaining theirs. Thinking about my team and Trena knowing that we are all going through stuff. In many cases, there's not a whole lot that I can do to support people.
I'm with you on that. I can echo so many things that you said. My mental health and not having deep worry about it but noticing the edge is fraying at times. My inability to make the world okay for my children, husband, and my clients. Watching suffering and usually, I can do something to attempt to alleviate it and I got nothing a lot of the time other than a good ear and a caring heart. I know you have that as well.
I keep thinking about those two things and I think that's well put, the ear and the heart because those are the two things and the only things we have, no matter what else we can do. Everything else is like gravy. In other words, given that we have phones, Zoom, and ways of connecting and conversing with people. In many cases, those are the only things we can do. I thought about this with respect to my sister, I thought, “What would happen if she needed me?” I would be ready to hop on a plane, go work from there for a while, and help with the baby. I could help with some practical things, but it's moral support, emotional support that she needs most if she needs it and vice versa.
I can do a lot of that on the phone. I'm trying to not get too hung up on the trimmings of everything and realize that there are still things that I can do. Sometimes little things mean a lot. I'm going to get direct and personal if you don't mind and say something specifically about you, your book, and launching your book. You bravely launched your book in a pandemic. We'll look back, we don't know what the height is but now that we've seen it. We're talking about 1st wave and 2nd wave where in most cases, we live confident that we've seen through the worst at the first wave from a health point of view, at least. You launched your book officially at the height of the first wave.
We looked at that together in the lead up to your launch with clear eyes and we, as your publishing team, gave you our best possible advice at that time. I know I felt full of angst because I thought I can give you the information I have up to the minute and it could change next week, next month, or next year. That was hard to say if you can swing it, you should go for it because I didn't think it was worth you waiting until fall to see how that would look or waiting another year, given the fact that you were ready to go now. Yet, there was a lot of uncertainty about the retail market, could the book even be delivered to people? Are book stores open or closed?
Looking at Amazon where they weren't selling my book during the first two weeks of the launch was bizarre.
When we made the call, Amazon was up and running and we were able to say, “Amazon's running as usual.” As we got closer, we saw, “Amazon's talking about essential items only,” and now the messaging is changing on the site. We have up to the minute information to the extent that we can, but Amazon is making decisions about how they're managing things minute-by-minute too. That was a brave thing for you to do. That was a hard thing that we wore as a team trying to help make sure that we had the right information for you and that we could help you make that decision.
To come back to the ear and the heart, I thought there was so much more I wanted to do. As you know, I had planned to come to your launch in-person, to be there physically to raise a glass to you, meet your family, friends, and networks. I thought that that's the gesture I’d love to make. I selfishly love to spend that time with my authors but I can't show my heart or give my ear in that way. I felt quite deflated by that and a bit defeated. I thought, “What am I going to do? Send flowers? I don't know.” It didn't feel the same.
Was the florist open? I don’t think the florist was open.
Probably not. I had all of these extra thoughts. I'll try to send some little gift or something. At that time, I even felt uncomfortable about the idea of making you and any of our other authors uncomfortable by sending packages of any kind because you don't know. I have friends who are concerned about mail and courier packages. I don't want to presume. It's a scary moment. I felt paralyzed. We can't do anything other than offer this guidance that we're having to do in a vacuum as well. I remember having a conversation with you and saying, “Melanie, I hope you're going to raise a glass at least on your launch day. Let's raise the glass together.”
I remember you said, “You might be up for Zoom so we could do that.” I called out to the team that day, it was a bit last minute and spontaneous, and then we did it. On your actual launch day, you saw the Page Two faces peering and smiling at you. We got to briefly meet your family and it was through a screen but if I had come in person, it would have been me. In the end, the whole Page Two teams. All those team members who could show up got to share that moment with you. It's not the same. It didn't replace the experience you had wanted to have and you were planning for. I thought, “Let's not diminish what we can do in this moment.” I'll never forget that moment either of being able to share that moment with you.
The pandemic launch on Zoom.
I heard friends, colleagues, and family members who were tuning in from all across North America saying, “I'm so glad you did it this way because I wouldn't have been able to come otherwise.” There are some ways we can show up for people in this moment and not to undervalue our small gestures.
When you said, “Make sure you raise a glass,” I was like, “Do I care?” That night, Mel walked in and he was like, “Are we drinking champagne?” I was like, “I'll reach out to Jesse and tell her we're drinking champagne.” I have to say that both you and Mel saying, “Let's drink champagne. There is something to celebrate.” I worked on this book for seven years. Of course, I should drink champagne but it was such an odd time. You guys were such fantastic partners throughout the whole process. I never doubted for a minute my choice to go with Page Two as my publisher. I'd love to know, how would someone else know they should be thinking about you as their publisher?
We are well suited to professionals who are carving out a unique space for themselves in the world. Because we can create a book in terms of high standards of professionalism, quality, and high standards of integrity across the board, we can meet or even surpass some of those standards on our author's behalf. What I mean by that is our authors are doing other things like you. They're creating podcasts, designing workshops, and doing speaking engagements. They're doing all of these other things in their lives to the highest degree of professionalism. They want their books to reflect that as well. We were well designed to support authors with that type of mindset.
The other pieces of the equation are our model is different where we're true service providers. We look, feel, and act like a publisher the way someone thinks of a publisher, except our model is set up on a fee per service basis. This sounds jargonistic, but it's foundational and it's important in terms of how it plays out philosophically and the approach we take to the work that we do. In a traditional publishing landscape, the publisher pays to produce the work, and then the publisher licenses the rights to the book so the publisher is then in the driver's seat. They take ownership that sometimes works out well and sometimes welcome. For authors of a certain mindset who liked to be involved in key decision making around, not just the manuscript development but design, production, the timing of publication, and many different aspects that the whole project. The traditional publishing model puts the publisher in the driver's seat.
Effectively, it doesn't always involve a lot of consultation with the author. Over the years, in our previous publishing roles, Trena and I had learned enough from authors who are also professionals and subject matter experts that that didn't suit them and there were too many points of friction in that process. The author is saying, “I don't understand. I'm working at the top of my game in all of these ways and I have this book. The cover of which I don't even like,” or “I don't even like where the title doesn't reflect my brand.” People spend a long time working on books. If you're putting in that amount of time, love, sweat, and sleepless nights, we want you to love it inside and out. The way we've set it up in a service-based way means that we strike a balance between trying to create the best possible book that the readers and the market will want but also that one that's truly built around what the author's needs and goals are.
I have to say I love my cover. I couldn't love it anymore. I couldn’t have come up with it and envision it. It's magic. I couldn't have produced the quality of the book without Kendra, who was my editor. She was brilliant and made me so much better. One of my biggest concerns was I wanted the quality to be there. I want the concepts to be clear, and people to get value from the book. It wasn't about ego for me, it was about helping people. There are things in that book that I didn't know when I started writing that because the questions were so hard. Working through it on an editorial basis, the pathways of thought became so much clearer in the process. It was an astounding process to go through to bring that book into the world. If someone wanted to talk to you more about it, where would they find you, Jesse?
Thank you for asking. We are at PageTwo.com. If anyone emails us from the website, it goes straight to the person who manages business development and it will come to me or Trena.
I want to say a huge thank you for being on my show. It's been fascinating to talk with you. I could talk to you all day. One of my big disappointments was I didn't get you to myself for half a day when you were coming for the launch, but we're going to find that day another time.
It's my great pleasure. Thank you so much. I'm honored to be invited and we were honored to produce your book, Melanie. We are so happy to be your publisher.
I've been talking to Jesse Finkelstein at Page Two. I love how she talked about appointing an ombudsman in her business so she could step back. When she vacated that role, she placed somebody else there as someone to care for her team, to listen to their concerns, and to work to address them. It's a great experiment and I love how the data is that people did want some confidentiality in their questions and what they were sharing. That helps her know that that role is working.
It's interesting to think that caring about people and worrying about their mental health is what keeps her up at night. She has incredible emotional intelligence and she is looking at so many timeframes at the same time. I noticed the difference between strategic intent, an operational intent, and a tactical intent with the various timelines in her business. It's quite interesting to think about how the shorter the timeline, the more tactical those intense become. It's been a pleasure being with Jesse. Go experiment.
Jesse Finkelstein is co-founder and principal at Page Two Books, a company that helps non-fiction authors publish game-changing books to the highest level of professionalism. Jesse has spent her entire career in publishing. Prior to co-founding Page Two, Jesse held several management roles at publishing houses, including that of COO of D&M Publishers and associate publisher at Raincoast Books. She holds a master’s degree in publishing from Simon Fraser University and is adjunct professor in publishing at the university. She serves on the board of Creative BC, an organization devoted to supporting the growth of cultural industries.
A public speaker, consultant, workshop leader, author, and Master Certified Coach through the International Coach Federation, from whom she received the Prism Award, Melanie is an expert in problem-solving, constraints management, operations, strategic hiring, and brand development.