By James Kwak
For those waiting, the paperback edition of 13 Bankers went on sale on Tuesday to little fanfare. That’s not surprising; all of the crisis books have been dribbling out in paperback, about 8-10 months after the hardcover editions, to little fanfare. It’s a commentary on how quickly times have changed, and also on the fickle nature of the publishing market. While there is still a lot of residual anger and bitterness over the financial crisis — specifically, over the fact that the big banks played a central role in triggering the crisis, then got massive amounts of bailout money, and now have returned to “health” more quickly than the economy as a whole or the typical household — most people seem resigned to a continuation of the pre-crisis status quo, and what energy remains has perversely gone into railing against the national debt.
The whole story also highlights the importance of timing in publishing. Looking back, we couldn’t have gotten any luckier, with the book going on sale during the Senate debate over financial reform and just two weeks before the SEC sued Goldman, which also happened the day that our Bill Moyers appearance aired, which drove our Amazon ranking up to #6. Today we’d be lucky to crack #600.
Back at my law school, there has been much debate about Amy Chua’s new book and, more to the point, the excerpt published by the Wall Street Journal entitled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” Amy Chua, that is, being a Yale Law School professor, and a very popular one at that. As the son of Asian parents (I studied cello at Juilliard prep, by the way) and the father of a half-Asian daughter myself, there’s a lot I could say on that topic . . . but I won’t.
“I was very surprised. The Journal basically strung together the most controversial sections of the book. And I had no idea they’d put that kind of a title on it. But the worst thing was, they didn’t even hint that the book is about a journey, and that the person at beginning of the book is different from the person at the end — that I get my comeuppance and retreat from this very strict Chinese parenting model.”
Publishing is a business, and if the WSJ “essay” wasn’t what Chua wanted, it was what the Journal wanted, and absolutely what her publisher wanted. What I learned is that when you wade into the world of popular books, you have to understand it’s a business, and you have to take the bad with the good (the Chronicle says that Chua’s book reached #7 on Amazon, and it may be higher by now). You can’t control what people think about your book, or about you for that matter.
13 Bankers, for example, was widely received (by people who only read reviews or heard about it from others) as a diatribe against big banks devoted to a single issue: breaking them up. Yet the whole “break up the banks” thing was just half of one chapter. The Economist panned it as a “conspiracy theory” without pointing out what the conspiracy was supposed to be; people who have read the book know that there’s no conspiracy anywhere in there. I think 13 Bankers is a serious history book about one of the more important developments in American history in the past half century. But I’m resigned to the fact that most people will think of it (if at all) as a single-issue polemic. At least some people read it. The alternative, when it comes to publishing, is that no one reads it.
Update: Two clarifications. First, in the last sentence, by “no one reads it,” I wasn’t feeling sorry for myself about the paperback. Lots of people read 13 Bankers, and I’m grateful for that. What I meant is that to get that level of success, you have to accept the misunderstandings that come with it.
Second, I didn’t want to sound like I had anything to hide about my upbringing, so I’ll just say this. I got very little pressure from my parents, and I turned out fine. And my daughter has the most “Western” upbringing you can imagine, and she is extraordinarily happy.