Does Anyone Die?

June 7th, 2007 · 2 Comments
by David Silverman

[BS: Yes, dears, your fondest wishes have come true! Instead of our regularly scheduled ramblings, today, we offer you a cautionary tale from David Silverman, author of Typo, the Last American Typesetter or How I Made and Lost $4 Million.]

“Does anyone die?” the literary agent on the stage asks me.

“Yes,” I say, hoping that will help. “Two people.”

The agent leans forward, “Did you kill them?”

“No,” I say, honestly, and the agents nods sagely.


Typo, book coverI leave the hall of aspiring writers who had come to pitch their stories for one minute each on this cold Saturday feeling that, apparently, I have not had enough go wrong in my life.

It’s not for lack of trying. I’ve been working on my memoir of personal ruin for three years. It’s the story of how I came to buy a typesetting company in the Midwest with my mentor and business partner. We had great plans to rebuild the company, which had gone into receivership, but had a stellar reputation of fifty years of composing pages for all the big New York textbook publishers. (How do you make an algebra book sensational?)

My business partner called our plan “benevolent capitalism,” which meant “Make money, and share it with the people who make it possible, the workers.” And initially, we did succeed. We doubled sales and added plants in Baltimore, Syracuse and even the Philippines, where we paid triple the going “offshore” rates.

We had two hundred employees in seven plants, and then it all went south, or rather East. The publishers bought each other—from 1999 to 2002, Reed Elsevier alone bought up ten of our customers—and then they shipped the work off to India.

As things got worse, I almost got out. I was on the verge of selling to one of those Indian competitors, and getting a check for $4 million. But it wasn’t to be. In the last year of my business, I had to fire every one of those 200 employees and as for my business partner, well, let’s just say I really wasn’t lying to the agent.

In the end, I did end up with millions. $2 million of debt. I was ruined. But I thought it would be useful to others to know what I had discovered in the school of hard knocks, punches, and we’re going take all of your lunch money from now until the next millennium.

I wanted to share what I thought was madness, like an employee turning away a customer’s project because “the scheduling system says we’re full,” when we are literally firing people for want of work. And therein is my problem. I had struggled to make the book honest.

But that’s not what the agent or the publishers want. Simple reality was too simple. “Only $4 million?” one publisher asked me. “That’s not that much compared to Enron or WorldCom.”

Is it any wonder that Steven Frey and his ilk turned their own lives of blandness— like a two-hour stint sobering up in a detention cell—into months of confinement with illiterate killers they taught to both read and to learn to love again?

Or, is it any surprise that each new book is therefore expected to top the last one in morbid excitement, “I was a teenage drunk.” “I was a teenage drunk abused by the church.” “I was an drunk infant beaten by Church trained chimpanzees in a thought experiment designed by the head of the New York Stock Exchange.”

And after all of these, is it still confusing why people aren’t buying books like they used to?

But I refused to do that and a month after being chided by the agent for not committing homicide to make my book more saleable, I met my publisher at a writing conference in Pittsburgh.

“What did you like the best?” I asked after he had accepted the manuscript.

“The honesty. I could imagine this really happening to you or to me, or anyone. But,” he added, looking down at the floor, “I can’t promise that will sell any books.”

[BS: But, wait, there’s more! Read David’s article at Salon (trust us, read it) and visit his website. Also, buy the book. You know you love buying books. Finally, we are not good with guessing games, but we suspect we have uncovered the identity of the mystery publisher mentioned at the end of the article. David’s book is published by Soft Skull Press.]

File Under: Wrapped Up In Books

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