Mitch Waite

Computer book author, publisher, web designer, and entrepreneur

1990 – Master C (Waite Group Press)

Amidst the hustle and bustle of the late ’80s, The Waite Group found itself at a juncture where abundant success didn’t hit the jackpot regarding cash flow to push our expansion dreams. As a seasoned book “packager” since the early ’70s, Waite Group had churned out over 70 titles, becoming an absolute beast in computer literature.

Yet, despite the illustrious track record, our coffers weren’t overflowing as one might expect. Royalties were a sweet deal—a steady income stream without the pesky hassle of stocking inventory. But let’s be honest here—royalties were like appetizers at a fancy dinner party, tantalizing but ultimately leaving you hungry for more.

Because book sales were where the real income came from. And we’re talking major coinage, not just scraps from royalties. Computer books sold for $25 – $30, and sales could rake in the dough by truckload, but they came with a catch. A warehouse full of unsold inventory was like a hangover after a wild night out—expensive and headache-inducing.

What do I mean? Printing 5,000 copies of a 300-page masterpiece could set you back a cool $25k to $50k. That’s a gamble I wasn’t exactly eager to take. So there I was, caught in the web of uncertainty, torn between the allure of potential profit and the fear of drowning in a sea of unsold books.

Dropping Some Truth Bombs

Yet at this point in history, in 1990, the technology publishing scene was taking off, and while it came with twists and turns, it was still serious money. Standing there, banging my head on the edge of risk and reward, one thing hit me hard: in this cutthroat publishing game, you must be bold, ready to take risks, and bet big to secure that income. I needed to kick myself in the pants and stop being afraid to take a risk. We could lose $25,000 in unsold inventory, but if the product was good, we could sell all 10,000 books and pull in $500,000. 

Then the phone rang, and just like that, the game flipped.

Straight out of Hogwarts

The phone call was from Rex Woollard, a Canadian professor, who had an invention he wanted to show me. My first reaction was, “Go away, we do books, not inventions,” but our Editorial Director, Scott, intervened. “Mitch, talk to this guy; he has some next-level sorcery that might be a game-changer in our financial situation. Rex was teaching programming to his students. He had put together a program that employed a home computer (PC) to teach anyone how to program in C. Then the other shoe dropped: his entire course was based on our best-selling book, C Primer Plus!  Say, what?

Commence Discourse with the Man

Rex showed me an exciting concept, so I immediately presented it to my publisher, Sams, who had put one of my prior Sams Editors, Richard Swadley, in the Acquisition Editor’s chair. Immediately, Rich and I got into a little scuffle. “This is software, not a book!” he balked. I countered: “We will offer the package with an integral reference to C, so it will be both software and a book–a new way to learn and perfect for the bookstore.” “Not happening,” Richard said, “we tried selling floppy disks with games in the bookstore. People stole them.” No matter how I presented the idea, Swadley wasn’t buying it, and I was shook; in in 15 years, nobody from Sam’s had shut me down like this. I understood Richard was on the rise; he was once a very meek editor. He must be feeling his oats. Later, I discovered that Sams thought I was becoming too demanding and wanted to take back some of that power. Richard was tasked with reigning in the hippy from the West Coast, putting him in his place. 

Stairway to Heaven

After that, I visited Barry Richmond, the CEO at McGraw-Hill in Berkeley. Barry had become a mentor, his 20 years of knowledge about the book publishing business always offering insights. I told him about my idea for a book that taught you how to program in C by turning your computer into an instructor. He loved it. When Barry heard the story about Richard’s rejection, he just shrugged and said, “shirt sleeve farmers in Indiana, no imagination, what are you going to do?” He also felt the reaction of most publishers would be “too much risk.” 

“What about PGW?” he asked. Who? “It’s a Publisher’s Representative; they represent small presses who can’t afford a sales team, have a catalog with several publishers, and sell your titles to bookstores and the chains. They store and ship the books. You just have to get your book designed, printed, and shipped to PGW’s warehouse.” Barry said they collect about 60% of the book’s cover price from the bookstore and take out 20%. So you get 80% of 60% of the cover price. 

Math time. Say a typical book cost $10. PGW sells it to the bookstore for 60% off or $6. PWG takes 20% of that $6 or $1.20, leaving you with $4.80. That is your gross, $4.80 for every $10 the book cost. You then have to subtract the cost of the book from that. Your 100-page book might cost $2.80. to print, leaving you with about $3 for the $10 book. But the magic happens when your book retails for more than $10. “What do you want to see your Master C book for?” I said, “$50.” Barry said, “Okay if you can keep the book short, your cost might be $2.80. But check your profit; PGW collects $30 per book, giving you 80% of that, or $24. Subtract your book cost; let’s call it $4 to be safe; floppy disks may be expensive. You still get $20 for every book sold. That’s your net income. Sell 10,000 books, and you will get $200,000! Sell 20,000, and you net $400,000. See how fast that swamps out royalty income?”

Shading the Hand that Feeds You

These numbers swirled in my head for many days. I was both excited and fearful; one day, this massive outlay of dough was brilliant, but the next day, I was afraid I would lose tens of thousands of dollars and go out of business. One day, I thought, “What is the worst that can happen? I try one book, but it fails; I must burn all the inventory and eat $25,000. Okay, it’s not the world’s end; our business can sustain that loss. Still, I wanted to cover my bases, so I gave Richard another shot at publishing Master C. He laughed and said, “Come back when it’s failed, and we’ll talk.” Asshole.

Vibe Check at PGW’s HQ

Driving to Publishers Group West, where the blend of old and new creates the perfect storm of creativity, I felt far from being a polished entrepreneur. My nerves were jangling as I entered their building, a sprawling brick edifice in Emeryville, a stone’s throw from the UC Berkeley campus. Emeryville was a curious blend, a modern-day melting pot buzzing with students, academics, workers, and a vibrant African American community. 

Bank account, Meet Plot Twist

The pitch session with PGW was an eye-opener, spotlighting the untapped potential for the Waite Group within their burgeoning computer book sector. They already had a publisher in their roster, yet none held the clout that Waite Group boasted. They were sold on Master C but threw a curveball our way: a single title wouldn’t suffice. This was the kickoff of a grander publishing scheme for PGW, hinting at a future filled with titles. This revelation was a gut punch—my financial stakes could potentially double.

Rubber Say Hello to Road

The conversation pivoted to the meat of our editorial vision, and that’s where paths diverged. PGW eyed the lucrative business software guide market, spotlighting 1989’s heavy hitters like WordPerfect, Lotus 123, and AutoCAD. My heart sank; my passions lay with the avant-garde, the imaginative rebels of the tech world, not the dry world of business software.

The dynamics of our relationship were murky. As a seasoned writer, I’d traditionally been at the helm of negotiations. Yet, in this dance with PGW, the lines blurred—were we partners, or was this a different beast? PGW’s insistence on a business-focused title was mismatched with my vision.

Charley’s argument was hard to dismiss—he pointed to the mammoth sales figures of the thick business manuals Que was churning out. “Mitch, with sales in the hundreds of thousands, how can we ignore this arena?” The debate raged, and our contract discussions became a prolonged negotiation battleground.

It became clear PGW was keen to influence our title selections. My inner rebel recoiled at the thought. What did they know about the pulse of technology? I pondered, only to concede they had a point. As a fledgling publisher, we were untested in the market. Grudgingly, I gave in, and we settled on the WordPerfect Bible, a decision I’d rue.

The intuition that we were stepping into an overcrowded “cage fight” haunted me. Despite pouring our hearts into the book, its performance was lackluster—a stark reminder that my initial instincts had merit.

Let the Games Begin

Every soul should be summoned to the grand endeavor of publishing a book. This venture serves as the ultimate trial, a crucible to test one’s mettle across various domains: the finesse of skill, the depths of patience, the endurance of stamina, the elegance of design sensibility, and the unwavering perseverance to shepherd an embryonic idea through to its fruition—a tome eagerly sought after, a work that commands the currency of interest and investment from its readers.

Gentlemen, Start Your Printers

After enjoying the fruits of our first victory, the subsequent challenge arose, ready to test our resolve. The year was 1990, and the zenith of book production technology was unfurling its sails to the wind. Our small two-employee production department led by Lynn Cordell was the heart of a venture in collaboration with New York’s esteemed NAL for the venerable IBM series of books. Our arsenal? Quark and Aldus PageMaker are responsible for the art of desktop publishing, complemented by Photoshop for the meticulous craft of image processing, all powered by the stalwart Apple Macintosh. Yet, the volumes we had previously brought to life were under the financial aegis of the publisher. This time, however, the financial burden was ours to bear alone. Again, The Waite Group found itself at a crossroads; I had omitted the calculation of print costs from our profit-and-loss equations, fueling a growing paranoia within me. The Master C book must sell well to cover these production costs.

Turning the Page to a New Chapter

The journey of bringing Master C to life unfolded with unexpected swiftness. Rex’s collaboration was seamless, rendering the distance to Canada inconsequential. Given that the crux of the book was essentially a guide on maneuvering through the program, with references to C peppered throughout, the project picked up speed faster than anticipated. The WordPerfect Bible, however, presented a stark contrast. It seemed I stood alone in my skepticism, viewing this project not as a showcase of our publishing prowess but as a venture likely to be lost amidst the cacophony of existing WordPerfect manuals. Despite the myriad discussions that ensued, I eventually suggested we proceed without the fanfare of trying to outshine. Lynn concurred, and my attention shifted towards envisioning the cover for Master C. I was captivated by the idea of featuring a wizard, yet the licensed art options Lynn unearthed felt lackluster. “What about commissioning an original piece?” I proposed. Lynn cautioned against the hefty price tag of bespoke artwork. Undeterred, I embarked on a quest for an artist, which culminated successfully within weeks. The artist’s unique request involved me donning a black cape, embodying the wizard himself for a series of photographs to inspire his creation. It was a project that spanned months, yet synchronicity was on our side, as our early start aligned perfectly with production timelines. Indeed, that wizard you see on the cover? It’s none other than myself.

Beyond the Finish Line: New Insights Unfold

The adage goes that it’s the journey, not the destination, that counts. However, in my saga, it was the chapters that unfolded after our initial triumph that truly augmented my existence. The whirlwind of producing new works in the wake of our first publication meant little room for basking in our achievements. Yet, it was during this maelstrom that I stumbled upon a profound realization: the expertise I had amassed, once merely tools for reaching goals, morphed into the prism through which I beheld the world—a realm now infinitely more vibrant and layered. Amidst the tempest, I unearthed a deeper sense of my calling and the ripple effects of my endeavors.

The unveiling of both our titles to the book chains was PGW’s strategy to potentially amplify the initial print run based on their enthusiasm. The call from Randy left us astounded—Master C had shattered all previous records for advance order revenues in PGW’s ledger. Borders, captivated by Master C’s concept, placed an order for 10,000 copies straight off the bat, translating to a staggering $300,000 in pre-sales. This revelation was nothing short of an epiphany, bolstering my belief in the project’s success beyond my wildest dreams.

Keep reading