David Silverman: An Industry Dies of Outsourcing

David Silverman is the author of Typo: The Last American Typesetter, or How I Made and Lost 4 Million Dollars (An Entrepreneur's Education), published by Soft Skull Press. I interviewed him at Book Expo America 2007.

We bought a Clarinda Typesetting, a 50 year old typesetting company in Iowa in 1999, with my father's life savings as down payment. My partner was an old hand; he'd run Waverly Press when they were a printer and a publisher, and as President of the company helped them go public. He'd also run Penta and taken it public. I met him at a company that did typesetting and keyboarding overseas and in the US; he helped them go public as well. He was my boss and my mentor, and we bought this company.

Printers had combined, publishers had combined, we were going to roll up all the mom-and-pop typesetting shops, and make a fortune. It seemed like a good idea, and it was: companies have done it since our collapse, but they're all in India. Our plan was to be benevolent capitalists. We were going to do work overseas but focus on the American economy as well.

Publishers combining want typesetting cheaper and cheaper, forcing us overseas.

I had employees who were so resistant to technology that to repeatedly press the same button they put a stapler in the keyboard. And on top of it, my father figure mentor turned out to be a drunk. We did very well in the beginning, two years, and then it tanked.

I went from having $4 million to $2 million in the hole. Once you're drowning, it doesn't mater how many feet of water. And then my father became a drunk; he'd been the most responsible person in the world. So I went to Prague and started drinking.

I came back for a friend's wedding. I couldn't keep drinking, I stopped, tried standup comedy, and enjoyed that. And then I went to Citigroup, and now I do freelance corporate strategy consulting and what I call business therapy. In business therapy, I work with executives and entrepreneurs to help them think through work related issues by talking them out.

My publisher, Soft Skull, was forced to sell because of the bankruptcy of PGW (Publishers Group West, a major distributor). They sold to a new company, run by Charlie Winton, who started PGW in the first place.

My partner oversaw the transfer from hot lead at Penta. Clarinda had always been photocomposition, never lead

Why write the book? I had all these great stories about the company, the employees who didn't understand change, I had a lot of anger toward my boss and my father. I wanted to get the word out what I'd learned in business: how to succeed by failing, and I wanted other people not to make the naive mistakes I did.

After about 12 drafts in four years, I found a way to explain the lessons without writing a 12 lessons of business book. So I wrote it as a memoir, as if it were fiction.

I got two publishers interested, from conferences: Random House and Soft Skull—Richard Nash. I knew that at Soft Skull I'd be a very important book, I'd be a big fish. A publisher makes a wonderful editor. He's honest and loyal, and all those things I wanted in my business. It was Richard the person, and Soft Skull second. I knew that at Random if it didn't succeed immediately, it would be tossed out and be done.

By taking lesser paying jobs, taking a year and half out of work, I spent a quarter of a million of real cash and opportunity cost. It was absolutely worth it. As a life experience, being here, running out of books at the signing—it's incomparable. And people were lining up for my book [during his signing at Book Expo], all the people who used to work for US companies. The high from drugs or alcohol cannot compare with the high from dong this book.

My father loved the ethics of IBM, he worked for them for 35 years [and these ethics rubbed off on David]. I told kids when we were playing war, you're not out, we'll put you on probation until your performance improves.

Please see these related stories from the 2007 Book Expo America:
BEA 2007: The Year of the Thinking Reader
Social Entrepreneurship: Make a Difference AND a Profit
Big Authors at Small Presses, #1: Ralph Baruch: First, Cable—And Then?
Big Authors at Small Presses, #2: David Silverman: An Industry Dies of Outsourcing
Big Authors at Small Presses, #3: Naomi Wolf: The End of America
Confessions of a Part-Time Sorceress
Remote Signing Technology: The Coolest Thing at BEA

Shel Horowitz is the award-winning author of Principled Profit: Marketing That Puts People First, Grassroots Marketing for Authors and Publishers, and five other books, and the editor of Down to Business Magazine.


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