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Tom Clancy: Unexpected Entrepreneur

Like many entrepreneurs who don't know any better, in the beginning he did everything wrong. In the process, Tom Clancy did a number of things spectacularly right.
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When you think of some people, you may not think of them entrepreneurs--but they are.

In the 80s (yes, I'm old) I was a machine operator at an R.R. Donnelley book manufacturing plant. A fringe benefit of the job was getting to read books before they hit bookstores.

We weren't allowed to take books home, but a good operator could get a lot of reading done: On long runs the job mostly involved periodic quality checks, so if you cut the backbone off a kill book and discreetly placed a few pages at a time in a strategic spot, you could read under the Universal Theory of Flexible Supervision, which states that, "If you're getting your job done and don't make it obvious to everyone else we'll both just pretend that's not happening."

(Tell me you don't sometimes follow the Universal Theory of Flexible Supervision.)

A few of us liked to try to predict which books would become bestsellers, especially those by previously unknown authors. Sometimes we missed, but--and this will date me, too--we did guess right on The Firm, Presumed Innocent, The Name of the Rose, and Rules of Prey.

Our plant also ran textbooks and non-fiction titles. Books from some publishers I could automatically ignore: Springer-Verlag published titles that to people like me, who were not on speaking terms with math and science, were totally impenetrable. Another, the Naval Institute Press, published really dry non-fiction nautical titles.

One day we were setting up to run a Naval Institute job and I thought the forklift driver had staged the wrong jackets. Hunt for Red October didn't sound like a Naval Institute title.  But it was. Assuming any novel published by the same folks that published books like Battles of the Malta Fighting Forces (surely a real page-turner) I sarcastically thought, "Yeah, that one will do really well," and didn't add it to my to-read pile.

As memory serves, the first print run was 2,500 or 5,000. Not many at all.

A couple weeks later we ran another 5,000. Then a week later we ran 10,000 more. Then another 10,000. Then the book took off, partly because of great reviews but also because President Regan named it his favorite recent book. Somewhere along the way I read it, loved it, and read the author's next four or five books as soon as they hit our plant. (I even borrowed the "blues" for Red Storm Rising and read it before it even went to press.)

Hunt for Red October was an unlikely bestseller by an unlikely author. Tom Clancy had never published a book and the Naval Institute Press had never published fiction. (Clancy wrote a query letter to a Naval Institute Press editor and asked to deliver the letter in person; the editor, finding out Clancy was an insurance agent, the editor assumed he wanted a face-to-face meeting so he could try to sell him insurance.)

Since Clancy had never served in the military or an intelligence agency or held any government position, fact-checkers spent eight months going through the manuscript. (To their likely surprise, he got everything right.)

Tom Clancy was just a guy--but a guy who loved all things military and over time developed a comprehensive knowledge of weapons systems and technical minutiae. So like most people without advanced degrees or experienced mentors or serial failures to learn from, he did everything wrong: He spent nights and weekends, totally on spec, writing a tech-heavy military thriller when no one was reading techno-thrillers. He pitched a specialty press that had never published fiction.

And in the process he created a new genre, wrote or co-wrote over 50 books that sold approximately 100 million books, saw actors like Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, and Ben Affleck star in movies based on his books, and licensed his name to a series of popular video games.

Like many entrepreneurs who don't know better, he did everything wrong--and in the process did many a number of things spectacularly right.

Tom Clancy passed away last week. He was one of the most successful authors of the last few decades, but at his core he just a guy: A guy with a passion, and a dream, and the willingness to bet on himself and try the unexpected.

Just like you.

IMAGE: Wikia
Last updated: Oct 7, 2013

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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