An Unlikely Vindication

 

I finished my first book in the first few days of 1984.  The experience had been a nightmare.  Not really knowing the process or the pace, I had spent months of near-all-nighters writing a book on the history of Silicon Valley that was 300,000 words long — three times the contracted amount.  I had slept on the office floor many nights, and once I got drunk after having accidentally/ erased 10,000 words.

I sent the manuscript to Doubleday in one of the first attempts to do so over the Internet — on a 3K modem (it took about 12 hours)  I had $12 in the world. So my soon-to-be-wife and I celebrated with a half-dozen sliders and a bottle of Bushmill’s my parents had brought back for me from Europe.  The next day, I collapsed and got violently sick. . . completely missed my 30th birthday.

Then, to add insult to injury I had to edit  (i.e., take a meat ax to) the bloated manuscript — on our honeymoon.  We ate our meals on a camp stove we had sneaked into our hotel room.

The Big Score was published in early 1985.  By then, everyone I’d ever worked with at Doubleday had quit.  Thus, the book was born an orphan with all but no marketing support.  It got a few good reviews and a few less-enthusiastic ones.  To make matters worse, Doubleday was so broke that the finished product had both a cheesy cover and the binding started falling apart on the day the first copies arrived at my house.

Sales were so tiny that they barely covered the equally tiny advance Doubleday had given me.  I computed that I would have made more money during those months putting on a paper hat and working the drive-thru window at McDonald’s.  So I had no time to celebrate but had to get back to looking for freelance work.

Still, I believed in my first book.  During all of those long months of writing, I had kept going by telling myself that I was creating something important and enduring.  And now, six months after the book had been published, as I began to see it on remainder shelves in Silicon Valley bookstores, I began to have doubts.  Worse, a few books showed up on eBay bearing a dedication I had written to someone to whom I had given a free copy.

I went on to write other books over the years that followed — I’m now up to two dozen books I’ve authored, co-authored, or are collections of my magazine and TV work.  Several have been best-sellers, and a couple have even won Best Business Book of the Year awards.  A magazine even called one of my books “the best business biography ever written.”

But none have ever had the importance to me of that first book.  I suppose that’s true for most authors.  After all, it’s your baby; the one that you filled with all of your naive hopes and youthful dreams.

About the time Doubleday took The Big Score out of print and sent me a couple of boxes of moldering leftover inventory, something odd happened.  My forgotten out-of-print little book began to be called, to my amazement (and frustration) a “classic” history.  The price of used copies in good condition briefly climbed into the hundreds of dollars.  I told my wife that if those prices kept climbing we could sell all our of old copies to pay for the kids’ education.

Then, last November, I received an email from Stripe Press, a specialty publishing program set up by the founders of the multi-billion dollar Internet infrastructure company, Stripe Inc.  It seemed that Stripe Press had been creating a library of business and economic books by reprinting acknowledged classics in those field, taking out-of-print works from the last half-century or more and republishing them in beautiful bindings and quality paper — and then made them available to the discerning public.

Needless to say, I was stunned.  All that Stripe asked was that I write a new introduction (apparently a rare thing, as most of the previous authors of their books were deceased) explaining my experience in writing the book, and what I got right and wrong.  Writing that intro proved to be one of my favorite writing experiences ever — even though I had to admit publicly that I gotten the potential of the Internet completely wrong.

The new edition of The Big Score came out a couple of weeks ago.  Sometimes I open my copy and, ignoring the messy prose, just feel the creamy white pages and feel a sense of vindication.  I’ve been doing interviews and global Zoom talks in the day’s sense.  And, incredibly, the new edition even made number one in three categories on amazon.com.

After forty years, against all odds, it looks that my little book was everything I thought it was way back then.  I can now say, at last, that it was worth it.

Published in Literature
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  1. Jimmy Carter Member
    Jimmy Carter
    @JimmyCarter

    Great story.

    • #1
  2. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Jimmy Carter (View Comment):

    Great story.

    Mega-Dittos.

    I hope @jameslileks sees this post.

    • #2
  3. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    P.S.  I just re-watched the 6 episodes of “Police Squad” (“In Color!”) and “An Unlikely Vindication” would have made a fine episode title.

    • #3
  4. Dr. Bastiat Member
    Dr. Bastiat
    @drbastiat

    Outstanding!  I can only imagine how satisfying this must be.  

    • #4
  5. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Dr. Bastiat (View Comment):

    Outstanding! I can only imagine how satisfying this must be.

    Even better if they reprinted the original 300,000 word version.  :-)

    • #5
  6. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    I’ve been writing for a lot fewer years than you. I agree about the thrill you get when you get the first copy from your publisher of the first book your wrote. (I was lucky in that my first editor walked me through the process on my first book.) I’d feel the same thrill as you do if someone came to me and asked to republish it. But 300,000 words when they asked for 100,000? Dude! That’s masochistic.

    • #6
  7. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Congratulations, Michael. That is great.

    • #7
  8. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    What a great story! Congratulations.

    • #8
  9. navyjag Coolidge
    navyjag
    @navyjag

    Will check it out.  Hope it’s as good as Lewis’ stuff about Silicon Valley. I like to write but only for friends and Navy comrades.  Max reading my Viet Nam story but no feedback yet.  

    • #9
  10. Michael S. Malone Contributor
    Michael S. Malone
    @MichaelSMalone

    navyjag (View Comment):

    Will check it out. Hope it’s as good as Lewis’ stuff about Silicon Valley. I like to write but only for friends and Navy comrades. Max reading my Viet Nam story but no feedback yet.

    Fifteen years before Michael Lewis’ The New New Thing.  BTW:  when I was running Forbes ASAP he wrote for me occasionally.  Brilliant writer with a perfect eye for the telling detail.

    • #10
  11. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Michael S. Malone (View Comment):

    navyjag (View Comment):

    Will check it out. Hope it’s as good as Lewis’ stuff about Silicon Valley. I like to write but only for friends and Navy comrades. Max reading my Viet Nam story but no feedback yet.

    Fifteen years before Michael Lewis’ The New New Thing. BTW: when I was running Forbes ASAP he wrote for me occasionally. Brilliant writer with a perfect eye for the telling detail.

    So, you were Michael Lewis fifteen years before Michael Lewis was Michael Lewis?  Cool!  :-)

    • #11
  12. Steve C. Member
    Steve C.
    @user_531302

    Michael S. Malone (View Comment):

    navyjag (View Comment):

    Will check it out. Hope it’s as good as Lewis’ stuff about Silicon Valley. I like to write but only for friends and Navy comrades. Max reading my Viet Nam story but no feedback yet.

    Fifteen years before Michael Lewis’ The New New Thing. BTW: when I was running Forbes ASAP he wrote for me occasionally. Brilliant writer with a perfect eye for the telling detail.

    ASAP was the highlight of my Forbes subscription. 

    • #12
  13. philo Member
    philo
    @philo

    Steve C. (View Comment):

    Michael S. Malone (View Comment):

    navyjag (View Comment):

    Will check it out. Hope it’s as good as Lewis’ stuff about Silicon Valley. I like to write but only for friends and Navy comrades. Max reading my Viet Nam story but no feedback yet.

    Fifteen years before Michael Lewis’ The New New Thing. BTW: when I was running Forbes ASAP he wrote for me occasionally. Brilliant writer with a perfect eye for the telling detail.

    ASAP was the highlight of my Forbes subscription.

    Still a favorite after all these years:

    God, Stephen Wolfram, and Everything Else

     

    • #13
  14. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    That’s wonderful, Michael! Congratulations!

    • #14
  15. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Here is an amazon link that goes directly to the book.

    I’m trying to decide between Kindle and Audible.  Audible is of course not so good if I want to look things up later and refer to them in internet conversations.

    1985, eh?  It was in December 1985 that I attended the DECUS meeting in Anaheim while VAX/VMS systems were still near the top of the world, although the glory days were already gone. I was probably a bit older than the average VAX/VMS system manager, having had other careers before getting into the computer business. So that’s maybe why a couple of gray-haired PDP guys picked my table to stop by in order to marvel (and ask) about this virtual memory stuff.  They were growing old with PDP and a  younger computer world was passing them by. It was fine talking to them, but I vowed not to become those guys. It got to be a near thing, some times.

    Anyhow I’ll be glad to go back and get your broader broader perspective on 1985.  

     

    • #15
  16. Michael S. Malone Contributor
    Michael S. Malone
    @MichaelSMalone

    philo (View Comment):

    Steve C. (View Comment):

    Michael S. Malone (View Comment):

    navyjag (View Comment):

    Will check it out. Hope it’s as good as Lewis’ stuff about Silicon Valley. I like to write but only for friends and Navy comrades. Max reading my Viet Nam story but no feedback yet.

    Fifteen years before Michael Lewis’ The New New Thing. BTW: when I was running Forbes ASAP he wrote for me occasionally. Brilliant writer with a perfect eye for the telling detail.

    ASAP was the highlight of my Forbes subscription.

    Still a favorite after all these years:

    God, Stephen Wolfram, and Everything Else

     

    Therein lies a tale I’ll tell sometime . . .

    • #16
  17. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Here is an amazon link that goes directly to the book.

    I’m trying to decide between Kindle and Audible. Audible is of course not so good if I want to look things up later and refer to them in internet conversations.

    1985, eh? It was in December 1985 that I attended the DECUS meeting in Anaheim while VAX/VMS systems were still near the top of the world, although the glory days were already gone. I was probably a bit older than the average VAX/VMS system manager, having had other careers before getting into the computer business. So that’s maybe why a couple of gray-haired PDP guys picked my table to stop by in order to marvel (and ask) about this virtual memory stuff. They were growing old with PDP and a younger computer world was passing them by. It was fine talking to them, but I vowed not to become those guys. It got to be a near thing, some times.

    Anyhow I’ll be glad to go back and get your broader broader perspective on 1985.

     

    Lots of places still use Open VMS on modern hardware.

    • #17
  18. philo Member
    philo
    @philo

    Michael S. Malone (View Comment):

    philo (View Comment):

    Steve C. (View Comment):

    Michael S. Malone (View Comment):

    navyjag (View Comment):

    Will check it out. Hope it’s as good as Lewis’ stuff about Silicon Valley. I like to write but only for friends and Navy comrades. Max reading my Viet Nam story but no feedback yet.

    Fifteen years before Michael Lewis’ The New New Thing. BTW: when I was running Forbes ASAP he wrote for me occasionally. Brilliant writer with a perfect eye for the telling detail.

    ASAP was the highlight of my Forbes subscription.

    Still a favorite after all these years:

    God, Stephen Wolfram, and Everything Else

     

    Therein lies a tale I’ll tell sometime . . .

    Please don’t put it off too long.

    • #18
  19. Roderic Reagan
    Roderic
    @rhfabian

    Michael S. Malone: After forty years, against all odds, it looks that my little book was everything I thought it was way back then.  I can now say, at last, that it was worth it.

    That kind of resurrection of a non-fiction work has got to be pretty rare.  Congratulations!

    • #19
  20. WhaleheadKing Inactive
    WhaleheadKing
    @WhaleheadKing

    The dream of many, experienced by only a few.  Thank you for the inspiration.  If it could happen to you it can happen to me if I have stick-to-it-iveness.

    • #20
  21. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    WhaleheadKing (View Comment):

    The dream of many, experienced by only a few. Thank you for the inspiration. If it could happen to you it can happen to me if I have stick-to-it-iveness.

    Not until you have a book that you wrote ~40 years ago, waiting to be revived.  :-)

    • #21
  22. Michael S. Malone Contributor
    Michael S. Malone
    @MichaelSMalone

    WhaleheadKing (View Comment):

    The dream of many, experienced by only a few. Thank you for the inspiration. If it could happen to you it can happen to me if I have stick-to-it-iveness.

    I tell my students,  college seniors, that this is the best time in history to get your writing — fiction and non-fiction — published.  When I started there were only about a dozen or so publishers in NYC, and maybe twice that many more university presses that you could pitch your manuscript  to — assuming you already had survived the even more difficult search for an agent.  Otherwise your only choice was a vanity press — and the stigma that attached to that.

    Today, thanks to new printing technology and the Web, there are hundreds and hundreds of publishers, large and small.  Some are specialized (i.e., romance, sci-fi), some are horizontal (i.e., pre-teen), and some are vertical (American history-Civil War) and some are regional (Oklahoma history).  There also are now scores of university presses.  You still need an agent for the Big Boys, but not for most of the rest.

    Finally, self-publishing these days is legitimate.  Even famous authors do so on Kindle, etc.

    So, the bottom line bvbis that if you want to be a published author you will be one.  But only if you have the desire and the discipline.  Everyone thinks the hardest part of writing a book is coming up with a good subject.  Actually, that comes in third.  Number one is not giving up on your project.  America’s closets are filled with unfinished manuscripts. You’ve got to be prepared to write every day for six months or so.  Take a break and y9u’ll like never go back. Doubt what you are doing and you will stop.  You need to soldier on and finish, no matter what. 

     Number two is editing yourself.  Nobody writes a good book on their first draft.  You have to be ruthless with yourself — don’t fall in love with your words; you may have to excise a lot of them later.

    Finally, what I tell my students is that in this new world of book authorship, the most important part isn’t writing, but marketing.  There is so much noise out there that even great books are likely to get overlooked.  You’ve got to rise above that with promotion, publicity and marketing.  That means web pages, by-lined articles, etc.  If you aren’t willing to do that, you will still have your book, but it will never be a success — and you certainly won’t make a living as a writer.  

    That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write a book.  In the current environment everyone who is willing to put in the time should — if only for the experience, your pride in the result, your professional resume, and most of all, as a memento and heirloom to your descendants. 

    • #22
  23. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Amen, amen, and amen, especially about the marketing.

    • #23