Coping with Crises

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October 2015
by Linda Carlson

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Contingency plans and emergency procedures are never top priority when publishing companies are established, but preparing for disasters is important whether you’re a one-title self-publisher or a leader of an established press with dozens of new titles each season.

Among the crises that can strike businesses of all sizes today are:

  • sudden and relatively prolonged lack of access to the business locations, usually because of weather, fire, or other causes of property damage
  • incapacitation or death of key managers or company owners

This article examines these kinds of crises and explains how preparation—with plans, system backups, and remote access software—can allow work to continue, sometimes with only minor adjustments. A sequel will report on how publishers handle a related issue: authors unexpectedly failing to fulfill commitments for events including presentations at bookstores and conferences.

When members were asked what they’re doing about potential crises, some expressed concern about having no contingency plans and no colleagues to rely on for backup. Even some indie publishers with several staff members admitted that if a crisis occurred, “We’d be dead in the water, at least for a week or so.” By contrast, a few single-title publishers described detailed materials and processes they have created for coping with crises.

When Access and Equipment Are Affected

Publishers who kept businesses operating through last winter’s snowstorms and the recent tornadoes and hurricanes are among those with plans for dealing with natural disasters and other events that may block access to their offices.

The plans feature:

  • backup to external storage, either hard drives or disk drives
  • backup to the cloud
  • cloud-based services that allow remote access for employees, freelancers, and vendors

Some publishing companies are required by law to have regular audits of their financial information and systems, which can include reviews of such internal controls as disaster response and recovery plans. Although auditors may recommend plans that are extremely detailed, members such as Mountaineers Books also rely on having inventories of equipment that may need to be replaced, including computer and telephone equipment (with model numbers) and software (with version information) as well as lists of the vendors that provide their cloud-based backup, and complete contact information for other important vendors and all employees.

“We can’t anticipate every possible disaster,” says Art Freeman, chief financial officer of the Seattle-based nonprofit, “but our eight top managers have the key information—in print, to keep at home—that none of us can be expected to have in our heads, information we’ll need if we have to replace equipment, access files, and file insurance claims.”

Even if a formal disaster plan is not required, a brief outline can be a lifesaver. Publishers who must deal with frequent power outages recommend creating a list of public facilities that are likely to have WiFi available, and, especially if you work from home, having a generator and keeping adequate fuel on hand.

Mary Shafer of Word Forge Books in Ferndale, PA, offers three other suggestions. Having served more than 13 years on her local emergency management agency, she advises:

  • Keep a dedicated weather band radio at your workplace in standby mode. “There are very few places in the United States that aren’t subject to at least the occasional severe thunderstorm, and more places than ever are now also experiencing tornadoes, windstorms, ice storms, hurricanes, floods, wildfires, and earthquakes,” Shafer points out. And, she emphasizes, remember standby mode: “The radio is of no use if it’s not on.”
  • Sign up for your regional emergency information services. “Post- 9/11, many states developed emergency warning networks. Here in Pennsylvania, each county has the ReadyNotifyPA system, with free signup and setup online to receive alerts via e-mail or mobile device. During extreme emergencies, most areas now issue reverse 911 calls to all listed telephone numbers.”
  • “Learn the power outage patterns for your area, information that’s available from your electric utility supplier.” Some utilities provide online information on areas affected by temporary outages, so you can determine where power may be available. “If the outage is truly local,” Shafer says, “I can go to my town’s public library, which offers free WiFi and a place to plug in. However, it’s a small town, so the library is open only on Tuesdays and Thursdays. During the 13-day power outage from Superstorm Sandy, I sometimes had to drive half an hour to a county library, where my library card is valid and allows me use of WiFi, power outlets, and work tables.”

Trusted Backup Tools

Across the country from Shafer, Brenda Avadian has similar advice. At North Star Books in Pearblossom, CA, bordering the Mojave Desert, summer temperatures rise above 100 and, Avadian reports, “We lose power due to the intense heat or winds. Although buried power lines and wireless connections should not be affected, nodes along the grid do go down. Something 20 miles away can cause failure in our communications and access to power.” To ensure that she always has at least one mode of communication, Avadian maintains landlines as well as cell phone service and Internet access via microwave.

How many communication methods you maintain depends on your tolerance level for power outages, says Shafer. But she is adamant on one point: “Create a plan for emergency backup power and stick to it.” This means acquiring the correct batteries and keeping them charged or having dedicated charging devices for each of what she calls “mission-critical tools.”

Shafer also recommends that iPhone and iPad users select portable and affordable backup chargers. “The key to keeping these items ready is a dedicated charging station somewhere on site, a place that’s visible on a daily basis as a reminder.”

For Shafer, uninterruptible power supply (UPS) devices are basic equipment. “There are UPS units that can keep you powered up just long enough to do a safe shutdown, and units that provide up to 24 hours per workstation,” she notes. “After that, solutions become rather unaffordable for the small business.”

Larger firms, such as Mountaineers Books, run UPS devices on their servers rather than on individual computers. If a server fails when the office is closed and backups are running, some data would be lost, but that’s why data should also be backed up to tape drives or hard drives, says Freeman, with the backups overwritten only after several days. Using several backup drives so that overwriting does not occur within a day or two has another benefit—more protection from ransomware malware that is not immediately detected and can encrypt or destroy data.

Mountaineers is among the many independent publishing companies that store backup disks and drives offsite, usually at the home of an employee. That’s not a risk-free practice, especially if sensitive data is involved, says Donna Childs, the author of Prepare for the Worst, Plan for the Best: Disaster Preparedness and Recovery for Small Businesses. “These devices can be lost, stolen, or damaged,” she points out. Instead, she recommends storage on the cloud. “And automate everything to the extent possible.”

When evaluating which cloud-based service to use, Childs cautions against the options designed for personal use. “Everyone is familiar with Google Drive, and there are a number of other attractive choices,” she says, but “the low-cost options for such consumer uses as storing family photos do not offer the same level of security and encryption as an online service developed specifically for business use.” Although the latter may be more expensive, “the extra protection is usually well worth the additional cost.”

Mary Shafer seconds Childs’s warning about physical backups. “Having lost significant data in two hard-disk crashes and having learned that optical media such as CDs and DVDs can’t be counted on for long-term storage integrity, I am now paranoid about backing up. I’m on the Mac platform, so I religiously use the Time Machine auto-backup, set to back up hourly to a 1-terabyte partitioned external drive onsite.”

For offsite redundancy, Shafer upgraded her iCloud storage account to 20 gigabytes early last year. “It’s enough to cover all my working files plus some extra for personal stuff for less than a buck a month,” she declares. “Really a no-brainer.”

For onsite redundancy, she uses another partitioned 1-terabyte external drive as a mirror of her onboard drive, updating it early every Saturday morning using “the Auto-Update feature of the very affordable and easy-to-use SuperDuper! software.”

Yes, she admits, “I’m obsessive. Yes, it came to some expense, but less than $300 for the whole setup, and I sleep well at night.”

Publishers with continuing relationships with book manufacturers have another source of redundancy: the printers’ files. These may be only comprehensives and negatives in the case of titles that have not been revised since electronic prepress became common, but if no other files exist, they could be scanned for use in revisions. Vendors that handle book, catalog, and website design usually also archive publishers’ material.

Access from Elsewhere

Online services and remote access to servers are among the tools that permit staff to work remotely during emergencies (as well as regularly in some publishing companies).

At Judson Press, marketing director Linda Johnson-LeBlanc describes a system that has worked well, especially for people on staff who had family medical crises that required extended or frequent periods away from the office. Along with laptop workstations and remote access to the server, Judson staff members can use Microsoft’s Yammer, an internal application for both desktop and mobile devices that lets users talk with each other (see products.office.com/en-us/yammer/yammer-overview). “We also have Skype, GotoMeeting, and GotoWebinar that can be accessed remotely for meetings and teleconferences,” Johnson-LeBlanc reports. “And we maintain a list of cellphone numbers to contact people by phone and text message.”

At Poisoned Pen Press in Scottsdale, AZ, publisher Robert Rosenwald and his crew use Teamviewer, which, like the GotoMeeting products, is software that provides remote access to desktops and to colleagues. OpenVPN Access Server (openvpn.net) is another option, says Max Nomad of Bohemian Griot Publishing in Virginia Beach, VA. Nomad, the author of Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse: Safer Computing Tips for Small Business Managers and Everyday People, notes that it allows team members to use remote desktop software to access their workstations.

Programs such as Dropbox are worth considering too. Mary Shafer used the free Dropbox service for five years and now has switched to the fee-based service level because her contractors so often need to share files with her. “It’s affordable, and it’s familiar, having been part of the Mac OS for years,” she says. “Updates are nearly real-time, and I can share files with anyone with a quick link-making function.”

Still another resource is recommended by Elizabeth Gorcey, the Los Angeles–based author/publisher at Bowie Books. Gorcey says the free We Transfer (wetransfer.com) helps her communicate with a printer in Italy and a designer in Canada.

Filling in for Missing People

Publishers and their staff members are not immortal. Like everybody else, they get hit by cars, diagnosed with terminal diseases, and felled by heart attacks. Some indie presses are large enough to have several employees in similar roles who can substitute for one another, but many do not.

Mountaineers Books, with several long-time staff members, is among the independent publishers that have what Art Freeman calls expertise redundancy. Because so many of its employees have worked in different roles through their tenures, and because “our management team stays involved in each project,” Freeman feels “confident that we understand what’s in progress.”

At Judson Press, backups are always available thanks to cross-training. “Staff members are required to be cross-trained in at least two other functional areas,” Johnson-LeBlanc explains. “This gives us better control over both emergency situations and routine situations such as vacations and staff travel.”

To ensure that all employees can easily access information about current publications, Judson maintains production schedules and book-marketing project plans with timelines. “This helps us all understand when things are happening, who is responsible, and where to find the plans. We also maintain a password table on a secure server for individuals to share websites, subscriptions, and applications passwords,“ Johnson-LeBlanc notes.

Cross-training is also required at Bucket Fillers in Brighton, MI, at least for what business manager Caryn Butzke calls “mission-critical” tasks. And “the owner has her business affairs in a trust so everything can continue should something happen.”

As Rudy Shur points out, “key man” insurance provides funds for replacing an owner or key manager who dies or is incapacitated without warning. Shur, the publisher at Square One Publishing in Garden City Park, NY, adds that some large indies have such insurance.

In companies where many projects are handled directly by the owner, Shur recommends outlining all the owner’s responsibilities so that someone else can handle them in a coherent manner during an emergency.

Shur also encourages discretion on the part of employees. “There is no reason to let people outside the company know that there is a problem,” he says. What’s important is that the principals or management staff review projects underway that required the owner’s input and put them on hold until they can create a plan of action.

Ralph J. Tuzzo of Bayshore, NY, who self-published a single title, Murder in My Corner, has prepared for his possible sudden absence from the business with very simply documented information he believes his survivors will need. “I have most everything on a flash drive, and my son has a copy of it. I’ve written an outline of my book business for my kids in case I get hit by a truck. And there’s a file with my will and a list of who to call and who I owe.”

Tuzzo doesn’t receive a lot of bills via e-mail, but solo entrepreneurs who do, especially when payments are made automatically, should make information about each vendor readily available, including website host, Internet service provider, social media advertising services, fulfillment company and distributor, with passwords, user names, and URLs for payment changes.

Regardless of your company size, creating such simple records and ensuring even basic electronic backups can mean the difference between having your business continue through a crisis in at least a limited way and having it undergo significant losses or even be forced to close without warning. And, as both small and large publishers have pointed out, all that contingency plans and backup systems really require is commitment and a little time.


About the Author:

Photo of Linda CarlsonLinda Carlson (lindacarlson.com) writes for the Independent from Seattle, where she is inadequately prepared for either physical incapacitation or natural disasters. She is better prepared for small business promotion, and her most recent podcast is available at fourgrainer.com/2015/08/03/linda-carlson-author-of-advertising-with-small-budgets-for-big-results.

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