Roy asked me to tell you about my book, and I’m happy to do that, because without Roy, my new book might never have happened.
In July of 2009, after reporting on the Bank of America/Merrill Lynch deal for almost a year, Random House bought my pitch about a book explaining the deal and the CEOs involved—John Thain and Ken Lewis.
When I first told my wife about the book deal, we were both elated. I would get an advance, which would relieve the financial pressure that we had been feeling. Then the elation turned to concern as I tried to figure out how to make this whole thing work. I was still relatively new to the Financial Times, so I had not yet qualified for a leave of absence to write a book.
I was concerned about whether my material really constituted a great book. It was an interesting set of facts, but I had no idea how to turn the whole thing into a story, or even how to tell that story.
And then I remembered a fact which helped me believe, as an article of faith, that I could pull this whole thing off. I had already written a book. It was called America Robbed Blind, and it was published by the Wizard Academy Press in 2004.
The book was a Roy Williams production. When I was at USA Today, covering the corporate fraud cases at Enron, HealthSouth and the whole furor about whether Martha Stewart was selling her ImClone stock on the basis of insider information, Roy suggested that I come up with a theme that unified all these corporate fraud cases and put everything into a book.
If I wrote some 40,000 words explaining how all these corporate frauds were the fault of one or several individuals or series of events, he would publish the book, and give me a few hundred to pass around as I saw fit. Even if NO ONE bought the book, he explained, it would enhance my stature as a journalist and help me in my career.
I had always thought it would be a good idea to write a book, but I never had a proper story idea, or the drive to pitch an idea to a publisher. Roy made it all easy: he came up with the idea, it would involve very little additional reporting beyond what I was doing in my day job for USA Today, and he’d publish it.
But when I started writing, I sometimes thought the magnitude of the task would be overwhelming. Occasionally I wrote stories that were 1,500 words in length, but 40,000 words? That seemed like a bridge too far.
Here’s where Roy’s promotional genius came into play. As part of his book idea for me, Roy had come up with the title (America Robbed Blind) and a catchy graphic (a picture of the Statue of Liberty, blindfolded, holding out a bag of cash, as if she were being robbed). He created a digital image of the book’s cover, and the cover contained the magic words:
“By Greg Farrell.”
As simple as it seems, the sight of that book jacket, with my name on it, triumphed over all the concerns and doubts I had about whether I could write 40,000 words. I willed myself to write the chapters, bit by bit, according to Roy’s suggestion, because I could envision what the whole thing would look like at the end of the process.
Roy had promised me that during the process of writing the book, certain things would come together in my mind to clarify or organize the story. Sure enough, when I took a one month leave of absence from my job to get through a critical juncture in the book, thoughts and insights about the best way to organize my material started occurring to me.
By May of 2004 I had turned in my first draft, and a month later I celebrated by attending one of Roy’s wizard workshops in Buda. Later that summer, when Roy had time to read the manuscript more closely, he discovered a fatal flaw in the enterprise: My book was a series of chapters, each focusing on a different accounting scandal. That was all very well, but what was needed, Roy said, was a central character.
Was there someone from the Securities and Exchange Commission or an FBI agent who was involved in all these different cases? Roy asked. No, I replied. There wasn’t any common character whom I could weave into the story at various points.
Roy asked if I wanted to take the time to rework the book, to take it in a different direction. My gut instinct was to say no. I had written my 40,000 words, I had my book, complete with my name on the cover. I just wanted it published. Roy readily agreed. It was probably the only time during the on-again/off-again relationship I’ve had with Roy that I disregarded one of his suggestions and chose to go my way.
It was as much laziness as wisdom. But also, as a newspaper reporter, I knew that the perfect could be the enemy of the good. I had spent more than two years of my life—mostly nights and weekends—working on this project. I was now at the finish line and I calculated (correctly, I think) that the value of getting the book published in its imperfect form would be worth more than reworking it and trying to make it better. I had reached the end of my tether with the whole project: I wanted to be done with it and move on.
America Robbed Blind was published in late 2004 (I got my first copies in April 2005). A few months later, at Roy’s suggestion, I found an established publisher (Prometheus) willing to pick it up and publish a “new, improved” version. That edition, Corporate Crooks, came out in September 2006, and made it into bookstores.
One of the benefits of being a published author, Roy explained to me, was the chance to go around the country and give speeches on my topic. Sure enough, Roy was right: the re-publication of my book led to speaking engagements at universities and accounting conferences. Those trips, in turn, enabled me to do good stories for USA Today, and helped me work on my skills as a public speaker.
As for actual sales, let’s just say that they were in the hundreds rather than thousands, but no matter. I realized early on that the point of the exercise was not to become a best-selling author, but simply to establish myself as someone who could write his next book.
Fast forward to the summer of 2009. Through a friend I get hooked up with a book agent in Manhattan, Scott Hoffman, not a big name player in the business, but someone who’s good at what he does.
Scott brings me around to an editor at St. Martin’s Press for a pitch. It doesn’t go that well, so he gives me some advice about how I should handle the next presentation, at Random House. That day arrives, and I’m on, the chemistry in the room is good, and they make me an offer. Done.
So, in October of 2009 I actually start taking time off from the office to work on my book at home. As I said, I didn’t know where to begin with the story, but my editor had asked for a chapter to be delivered by November 16th, just so he could get a sense of what I could do.
I figured I’d start out at the beginning of my story: the firing of Stan O’Neal as CEO of Merrill Lynch and his replacement by John Thain.
My editor liked the chapter that I submitted, with its hyperbolic, emphatic descriptions of O’Neal’s rise to power and the shock he felt when he learned, just prior to the board meeting, about Merrill’s impending losses.
The only problem, which I discovered as I continued to interview people for the next segment of my story, was that what I had written wasn’t accurate. The truth about what happened to Stan O’Neal, and the truth about other elements of the story was far more interesting. I gladly returned to material I had already finished and re-wrote it in wholesale fashion.
That iterative process became the building block for every element of the book. I took a preconceived set of notions, presented those notions to people I interviewed and learned that the truth was more interesting, more colorful than the first impression that I had of key events.
As I repeated this approach to my material over and over, I soon noticed some strong story lines emerging from the disparate collection of facts I had amassed.
Here’s where my experience with Roy paid off. The pitch that I had made to Random House focused on two CEOs—John Thain and Bank of America’s Ken Lewis. But the story that
interested me was the interaction between Thain and his top lieutenant at Merrill Lynch, Greg Fleming.
If this had been my first book, I would have doggedly stuck to the premise I sent in to Random House, much like a student who follows an assignment to the letter. But because I had seen how the lack of common characters wea
kened the structure of my first book, I made a unilateral decision to follow the story between Thain and his lieutenant, at the expense of writing more about Lewis, a figure who was supposed to be 50% of the story.
Since you’re all among the faithful, you’ll understand me when I say that
I had to let my beagle off his leash and follow him wherever HE chose to go, not where my story pitch dictated I should go.
If you want to find out where the beagle took me, please buy my book, Crash of the Titans: Greed, Hubris, the Fall of Merrill Lynch and the Near Collapse of Bank of America. Publication date is November 2nd (election day), and it tells the story of how one of the great names of US finance—one of the most cherished American companies of the 20th century—came apart in a matter of 12 months, between the summer of 2006 and the spring of 2007. The book will show that Merrill Lynch was not only done in by bad personnel decisions by its CEO, but by questionable activity within the organization.