Publishing's Rule-Breakers and Risk-Takers

08/12/2010 05:43 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • BJ Gallagher Best-selling author, speaker, and human relations expert.

More and more, we see evidence that "conventional wisdom" isn't always so wise. Creative individualists flaunt "the rules" ... and win! I don't know about you, but I'm always rooting for the long shot, the risk-taker, the oddball, the misfit.

Someone wise once said, "For those who can't hear the music, the dancer appears mad." So I applaud the dancer ... twirling, leaping, pirouetting, dipping and swaying to their own music.

J.K. Rowling didn't buy into the conventional wisdom that "kids can't or won't sit still long enough to read a whole book." She wrote her Harry Potter series the way she wanted to -- and conventional wisdom was proven wrong. Kids can and will read books ... but only if the books are imaginative, magical, engaging and not condescending to young readers.

Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen violated conventional wisdom with their book of feel-good stories, Chicken Soup for the Soul®. Every publisher in New York (Chicago and San Francisco, too) told them that "nobody buys anthologies anymore" and "no one wants to read a bunch of happy stories." Readers are too sophisticated for such drivel, dontyaknow? A hundred million copies later, the Chicken Soup® series is a landmark in publishing history -- because the authors didn't buy into business-as-usual.

Conventional wisdom isn't found only in book publishing -- it's in newspaper publishing, too. Almost three decades ago, Al Neuharth broke all the rules when he founded USA Today, loaded with graphics and color, featuring short stories, and a user-friendly format. Critics dubbed it "News McNuggets" and "McPaper" -- editors and journalists laughed derisively at Neuharth's folly. But today, the "Grey Old Lady" (New York Times) and lesser papers across the country are emulating the very newspaper they had relentlessly ridiculed.

Fast forward to more recent publishing history: Mainstream journalists and political pundits alike laughed at Arianna Huffington when she launched her Huffington Post five years ago. But who's laughing now? Many of those scoffers are now bleeding red ink all the way to bankruptcy court ... while Arianna is raking in rave reviews, as well as revenue.

Publishing history is replete with examples of visionaries, entrepreneurs, risk-takers and rule-breakers who listened to their own intuitive hearts -- and became successful in spite of what "the experts" warned. As the world changes, those who pretend to have all the answers are often left in the dust by those who don't realize what's impossible. As author James Baldwin pointed out: "Those who say 'it can't be done' are usually interrupted by others doing it."

So what do we make of Stephen Markley's new book, Publish This Book: The Unbelievable True Story of How I Wrote, Sold, and Published This Very Book?When a friend gave me a copy recently, my first thought was: OMG, what was this guy thinking? At 469 pages, this book is much too long. People are busy .. doesn't the author know that? Why didn't someone make him cut this book in half?

But my friend kept raving about the book, so I opened the cover and began to read. I'm always eager to learn more about publishing and, after all, this young author had scored a major coup in getting his "premature memoir" published. This twenty-something kid must have done a few things right to land a publishing deal with Sourcebooks. How did he finesse this? I wondered.

The book is brimming with youthful idealism, ambition, adventure, laughter and lessons learned along the way. Markley's locker room humor and conversations peppered with the F-word made me feel like I was hanging out with my son and his friends. I kept muttering, "Sh*t My Son Says." And I wondered: Doesn't Markley know that women buy 80% of all books? Are women going to buy a book with all this swearing and penis humor? Why didn't someone tell him to tone it down?

In short, the author chose to break several rules of book publishing. Will he be successful in spite of it? We shall see. The marketplace will render its verdict in due time.

As for me, I'm rooting for Markley. I love rule-breakers and risk-takers -- I'd love to see this premature memoir be successful. I can identify with Markley -- his dreams of success, the emotional rollercoaster of getting his first book published, and above all, his determination to write his book the way he wanted to -- conventional wisdom be damned.