Continuing my trend—starting with The Smartest Guys in the Room—of reading books about grand business failures, I recently finished the just-published Typo: The Last American Typesetter or How I Made and Lost 4 Million Dollars by David Silverman. It’s about how he and his mentor bought Clarinda, a large typesetting company, in the late ‘90s that they—slowly at first and then quickly—drove into the ground. I’ve wanted to write about this book for a while but have been mulling over exactly what to say because, overall, I mixed feelings about it.
I really like the way that the book—as what I would consider creative nonfiction—related both the anecdotal side of the typesetting industry along with specific business and technical details. (In particular, I liked the informal financial statements that came at the end of each chapter/section.) This combination is something I’ve been looking for in a book more specifically devoted to book publishing but have yet to find. That is, you get memoirs like Jason Epstein’s Book Business: Publishing Past, Present, and Future or straight nuts-and-bolts publishing information like Dan Poynter’s The Self-Publishing Manual: How to Write, Print, and Sell Your Own Book, 15th Edition but I haven’t come across anything that has really effectively married those two approaches in one book nearly as well as Silverman does.
On the downside, whether intentional or not, Silverman never comes across as particularly likeable or sympathetic. Part of this is certainly because of the situation he found himself in: He went from IT geek to president of a company without ever having supervised or managed anyone in his life. In addition, his primary motivation seemed to be almost exclusively money: to turn Clarinda around, go public, and then cash out. Consequently, he never really demonstrates much affinity for his employees (at all!), his customers, books in general or typesetting in particular. One final thing that really struck me was that—I would guess—at least 4-6 times in the book he talks about how fat the women are that he finds himself around. I mean, that may well have been true but, given the fact this was a characterization that didn’t register with me as occurring with men (or, even more importantly, relevant to the subject at hand), all it ultimately did was make him look even more
like a jackass unsympathetic. At the very least, some judicious editing of about six or so sentences in the book would have put him in a more positive light.
I think the best lesson that the book shows budding entrepreneurs is that you must do the necessary financial due diligence for both the specific company you want to start/buy as well as the industry in general. Very late—too late for Clarinda—in the book Silverman finally breaks down which of Clarinda’s offices are making money and, not too surprisingly, it turns out that the company was effectively dead on arrival from the point he and his partner Dan Coyne had bought it, mainly due to industry outsourcing of typesetting to India. (Not all of this is Silverman’s fault by any means; there is a whole subplot concerning the way Coyne bamboozled everyone involved from the top to the bottom.)
Certainly, for anyone interested in the big issues of globalization and outsourcing as well as entrepreneurship and typesetting or even just how (not) to manage your employees, this is a book with a wealth of information in it despite, in my opinion, not coming from a particular likeable narrative voice.