Books Without Wall Street

“There’s just too much to see
Waiting in front of me
And I know that I just can’t go wrong”
– Jimmy Buffett 

Next week will be the last of my syndicated columns. My primary focus will be running an innovative book publishing company.

Column writing has been one heck of a run.

When I came out of graduate school at Vanderbilt in 1982, I spent three years writing a monthly column for the Lexington Herald. One day, editor John Carroll said they were dropping all the community columnists.

John went on to win a boatload of Pulitzer Prizes, so it is hard to argue about his editorial judgment.  For the next 20 years, I silently wrote columns in my head. In November 2003, I mentioned to Jodi Whitaker, the news editor at my local paper, the Richmond Register, that I had written for the Lexington Herald. She asked if I would write a piece for their business section.

I wrote about why I hate Yoko Ono. Yoko was a hit, and I got a weekly, unpaid gig as a columnist for the Richmond Register.

When I got the column, I felt exactly like the protagonist in the Bruce Springsteen song, “Thunder Road.” “We got one chance to make it real, trade in these wings on some wheels.”

This was my one chance to make it as a writer. I gave it everything. Kentucky Hall of Fame journalist Byron Crawford, did a piece about me in the Louisville Courier-Journal and said that “I had a need to speak my mind.”

I did.

How I stayed a columnist for 10 years was a combination of divine providence and breaks that would put Forrest Gump to shame.

Al Smith hosted an influential television show called Comment on Kentucky on Kentucky public television. He had booked me on the show during my first run as a columnist in 1984 and booked me again in 2004.

Al took a lot of flak from establishment journalists for booking a part-time columnist from one of the state’s smallest daily papers, but Al kept inviting me back and I built up an audience.

When I made my final appearance on Comment on Kentucky on September 13, 2013. I said that “I truly love Comment on Kentucky, and I truly love Al Smith.”

I do.

I’ve ended the column at the end of the 10-year run, but it came close to dying in 2007. My mother and sister died and my marriage ended during a nine-month run in 2006. The weekly deadlines started to be a burden. I sent in a letter of resignation, but Joe Nocera, who is now one of the top opinion columnists in the world at the New York Times, convinced me to hang on and keep writing.

In July 2008, I had gone to Washington D.C. to see a client for my structured settlement business. I found that Joe Nocera would be in town the next day. I stayed around an extra day to have breakfast with him and on a day when the temperature hit 104 degrees, I dropped into the Newseum, primarily because it had air conditioning.

I happened to see Arianna Huffington in the Newseum and that chance meeting led to my writing for The Huffington Post two months later. With The Huffington Post, I suddenly had a large international audience just as the world economy was collapsing and when trained economic writers were in big demand.

So why am I leaving?

Although the logical answer is that after 10 years this was a chance to go out on top, it is actually a little more complicated. I’m going into the book publishing business, the way you see actors go into producing and directing.

Clint Eastwood is an example. The things he has done as a director far outshine his acting career, but he is able to go back and forth from one to the other.

I have a clear vision where RRP International Publishing, my book publishing business, is headed. The goal is not just to create books, but create stars. I want my authors to be recognized as experts and the goal is to help them draw a large audience. Life Lessons from Cancer, by Keen Babbage and Laura Babbage, has been a huge hit in it’s first few weeks on the market and New England syndicated columnist Suzette Martinez Standring will have two books out in 2014.

RRP is a cross between journalism, social media and the way books are currently published and distributed. My goal is to be The Huffington Post of book publishing or as my wife calls it, “books without Wall Street.” Or at least without the traditional, New York-based publishing model. We are operating out of Kentucky and Greater New Orleans and looking at the world in an entirely different way.

I’ve always looked outside my universe for role models. Warren Buffett, Steve Jobs and Ted Turner had far more influence on how I set up my settlement planning business than anyone inside that the financial services world. The key to success in business is avoiding the “me too” syndrome of copying your direct competitors.

When I write, I see myself as Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen or Adele baring my soul to the world. Since I look like an attorney or an accountant, and many of my friends are actually attorneys and accountants, I surprised a lot of people with the edgy boldness of my deepest thoughts.

Writing a column has been a great privilege. I did it passion and enthusiasm for 10 years.

The same passion and enthusiasm that will now go into book publishing.