I devoted the final half of 1995 to the negotiation of the sale of my company to Macmillan Computer Publishing (MCP).
This emerged as one of the principal mind-bending experiences of my life. What motivated me so much to make this sale? David Israel: the Macmillan VP of Marketing who engineered the deal. David related to me that the major reason Macmillan wanted to buy my company was to position Waite Group as an internal corporate “think tank” for innovative book concepts. He said they believed that we had built the most creative publishing program in the industry. Accordingly, MCP wanted to ensure that the sum body of such superior ideas ought to be wrapped in gold foil and conveyed direct to their own firm’s doorstep. In short, they wanted to engage me in a long-term employment contract.
All of this talk appealed to the “boy wonder” in me, the part of me that did things for fun rather than for money. The aggressive hawking of think tanks, big research budgets, and lab visits made my imagination spin. What could it signify if not the authentic confirmation that I was now indisputably valued for what I did best.
I remember communicating to my negotiating attorney how happy the offer had made me. But my counsel, speaking to me in a cautious tone, said: “Mitch you can’t count on any of the talk about ‘think tanks’ and ‘super idea mills’. MCP is in the business of making money. This purchase of your company may not be with the intent to capture your best ideas. Rather, they may well want to simply capture the shelf space you have denied them over the last 6 years.”
I protested, but he looked at me as if I was still learning how to tie my shoes.
Negotiations dragged on, and I became ever more convinced that MCP wanted me for my talent, not to recoup shelf space. As the deal closed, however, I witnessed bargaining moves that Simon and Schuster (the owners at the time of MCP) put into play, which worried me. A nebulous fog was wafting inland from just over the horizon. When we took receipt of our carefully worded contract, we noted that changes had been made without a redline. In other words, the new changes had been merged into the document in a clandestine manner. Here was cause for true paranoia. To assess the full extent of the changes, we were reduced to evaluating the contract word-by-word to compare it with the previous version. Did we find that the changes were in our favor? What do you think?
The “deal” went though. I was paid as expected. This was more money than I could have easily imagined prior to this juncture in life. It was off-putting, even frightening. Some directed karmic debts began to come to fruition. For example, during a down cycle in my previous business, I had sold some private stock to a good friend to keep the business running. The sale afforded me the cash reserves to steer through a bad year, even get back on track. Nevertheless, I had felt bad that the stock return my friend had coming was not a match for the performance of the rest of the stock market. When I finally sold the company, however, my friend’s investment was returned to him ten-fold. Clearly, he was pleased.
The deal congealed in 1996. Macmillan immediately went to work to “integrate” the redundant processes in my business with theirs. I was under the impression that this implied elimination of what are known as “back end processes”–functions such as accounting and ordering. But to MCP it meant a lot more.
Over the next few months, I watched as the Waite Group was slowly dismantled as a business, up-ended as a think tank, and turned into something akin to a soap factory for technical books.
The words of my attorney haunted me.
I knew that what was happening was not something I could complain about, after all it was no longer my company, I had to be a good corporate solider and obediently obey my new masters. I became particularly despondent the day we lost our desktop production division, since this segment had been key to ensuring that quality and uniqueness prevailed in our titles.
At the same time that we confronted the realities of the so-called integration, we endured seemingly endless meetings having to do with the design and content of books we planned to publish. MCP’s “Unleashed” titles were great market performers. Thus, the firm wanted me to focus on the large volumes that had brought them this degree of success.
They also desired that I back-fill technical areas I had not cultivated to date. I believed this to be a mistake, as the topic areas the firm desired published already boasted a good number of well-written books. I wanted to focus instead on new product ideas.
The result? We did both.
- Truespace 3D Modeling Construction Kit
- Certified Course in Visual Basic 4
- CGI How To
- CGI Primer Plus for Windows
- HTML 3 How To
- C++ Interactive Course
- HTML 3 Interactive Course
- Perl 5 Interactive Course
- Java Language API SuperBible
- Java How To
- Java Networking & AWT API SuperBible
- Java Primer Plus
- Open GL SuperBible
- Oracle How To
- Perl 5 How To
- Spells of Fury
- Visual C++ 4 How To
- Web Database Construction Kit
- Web Database Primer Plus
- Web Publisher’s Construction Kit
I worked on the more exciting initiatives, and my crew produced the back-fill titles. My own most exciting project during this juncture was known as the eZone Interactive Guides. This series represented an adaptation of the old Master C concept of transforming the PC into a personal instructor.
We infused the project with the conception that the Internet represented the new way for groups of people to collaborate. Thus, this emerged as a combined book/website that allowed anyone reading the book to step through online tests to confirm the results of their instruction. The approach also encouraged readers to meet with other users and to thus obtain free tutoring. Upon the completion of all tests, readers would be offered a diploma. We garnered our best authors, and then coupled them to the top programmer subjects, such as C, C++, and HTML.
While MCP supported the intrinsic concept of eZone, the firm was experiencing turmoil at the same time, conflicts that distracted them from growing and abetting new ideas. IDG Books and its “…for Dummies” series had captivated the marketplace. The once proud Que books series was displaced by IDG’s yellow-and-black covers poking from bookstore shelves. Now every conceivable topic could be learned by a dummy.
Ultimately, MCP was sold, and then sold again–finally finding a berth with the UK’s Pearson Group. With distractions such as these, little time remained to leverage the ‘technology kid’ in California to good effect. Waite Group Press diminished in size, then shrank still further.
After two years of witnessing these events at close range, my employment contract expired. I walked away financially more secure than ever before but at the same time psychologically disappointed as I had ever been to see what had happened to my once proud company.
And so it is that we arrive at the close of the narrative of my career as publisher and its adjoining tale of the evolution of the computer book.