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Self-Publish and Be Damned? Not Always: I Brought Out My Own Book and Beat the Odds

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You can write an op-ed today that runs tomorrow, set up a Web site that sells toys in a day or two, get a million signatures and recall a governor in a couple of months. But for some reason, it takes two years to get a book published.

Last January, I wrote a book about my days as a Wall Street analyst–fun stories about working with the suddenly infamous Jack Grubman, Frank Quattrone, and Mary Meeker. After three weeks of flailing away, I sent an early draft to an agent (my second of many), who promised to make some calls.

“Feedback says it’s too topical,” she quickly let me know. “What?” I asked, my voice going up an octave. “Well, even with a rush, the earliest you can get this out is spring of ’04, more like fall ’04. You might want to consider a long magazine article.” This is agent-speak for go away.

What did I want from a publishing house? An advance against future slim royalties–i.e., lending me my own money. What a deal.

I had been warned against self-publishing. You can’t get reviews, you can’t get shelf space, and you can’t get respect. One hundred thousand books are published every year, so you need an imprint to stand out from the noise. Being naive, and used to being treated like Rodney Dangerfield, I decided to publish my book anyway.

Better Than Book Reviews

I finished writing Wall Street Meat: My Narrow Escape from the Stock Market Grinder on January 31, 2003. The Web helped me find everything else I needed. In February, I had it edited by two women in Texas, while a couple in Florida put together the cover, dropping in a Jeff Danziger illustration. ISBNs, bar codes, Bowker databases, and Library of Congress numbers–no sweat. I found a printer near Boston that could turn out thousands of copies in two weeks. A printer in Michigan took four weeks but, for two bucks each, produced tens of thousands of stitched-binding, store-quality copies. Ready or not, I was now in the publishing business. I opened an Advantage account on Amazon.com and had Wall Street Meat for sale on March 17. Not even spring of ’03. Ha!

I put together dozens of bound galleys and sent them to reviewers, the usual places–Publishers Weekly, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal. I sat back and waited for the glowing reviews to roll in, but was met with the sounds of silence. I checked through back channels. Sure enough, I got stiffed. They just don’t review self-published books. I was on my own.

So like Bill Clinton in his ’92 campaign, I went around the traditional gatekeepers. I sent out copies to friends and old contacts at newspapers, business magazines, and TV channels like CNBC. I didn’t get any classic book reviews, but probably something better–mentions in articles, short little “Hey, I liked this new book” mentions.

I also hit the Web. Nice pieces showed up in a bunch of daily e-mails sent to financial types. Author Michael Lewis said some nice things in a Bloomberg.com column, and the book shot up to no. 26 on Amazon. I did get one real review on Slashdot, whose moniker is “News for Nerds. Stuff That Matters,” and that morning my server got flooded with hits.

And a funny thing happened–the book sold well. I think it struck a nerve on Wall Street. Amazon was sending e-mails twice a day requesting more copies. I got to know the FedEx and UPS dudes by name. I finally signed up a distributor in Maryland to handle not only Amazon, but bookstores too. I was a one-man sales force (and PR firm and fulfillment shop) completely without a clue.

I sent some store-quality samples to Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Costco. Eliot Spitzer was nice enough to hit up Wall Street for a $1.4 billion settlement, and I followed him on a segment that night on CNBC’s Kudlow & Cramer. An e-mail the next morning from the business-book buyer at Barnes & Noble asked how many copies were in print and how fast he could get them. I told him there were 10,000 in a warehouse somewhere in Maryland and he could have them tomorrow.


Ripple Effects

Then came an article in the Sunday New York Times rather than a review, a snippet in The Washington Post, a summer reading-list selection at CNBC–these things were all fantastic. I had my own booth at the annual Book Expo, sandwiched between a bookmark-jewelry vendor and a pet-spirituality publisher. Well, maybe this self-publishing thing was limited. What worked best, of course, was word of mouth–there seemed to be these ripples through networks that I could sometimes track. One friend told me the good news was that he had read my book and liked it, but the bad news was that he had borrowed the copy. Great.

The publishing business is tough. One story I heard was that some fancy-shmancy consulting company, McKinsey perhaps, did an exhaustive study of one imprint and came to the conclusion that it could make more money if it published only bestsellers.

In the age of digital page layout and Web marketing, you can do it yourself. Quick-to-market will eventually change the big guys. I’d love to bash the publishing business on and on, for being slow, cheap, faddish, finicky, and out of touch. But over the summer, HarperCollins called and bought the paperback rights, which I didn’t even know you could sell. They also agreed to publish another book. I asked if they could get it out by March 2004. No way, give us until September, was the reply. Aaargh. But at least it’s a start.

Andy Kessler is the author of Wall Street Meat: My Narrow Escape from the Stock Market Grinder. For more information and/or to order the book, visit www.andykessler.com.

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