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Clint Greenleaf changed self, then publishing world

Michael Barnes, Out & About

Staff Writer
Austin 360

When Clint Greenleaf was a sophomore in high school, he looked in the mirror. He didn't like what he saw.

"I had been short, fat and lazy," the founder and CEO of Austin's Greenleaf Book Group recalls. "This is not who I wanted to be. I realized I had to make some wholesale changes really fast. I started applying myself at school, working out more and actually becoming who I wanted to be."

Twenty years later, the Cleveland native runs a publishing house that is reinventing the field. A hybrid between a traditional press and a self-publisher, Greenleaf Book Group puts out 125 titles a year and has produced 13 New York Times and Wall Street Journal best-sellers. Specializing in business and self-help books, but also offering biographies, novels and cookbooks, the Book Group made Inc. 500's list of the country's fastest growing companies.

Austin is packed with skyrocketing entrepreneurs, but the story of how Greenleaf, 36, stumbled on the publishing business comes with some peculiar twists and turns.

The son of an investment adviser and a volunteer leader, Greenleaf inherited his father's weakness for bad jokes and his mother's gregariousness. He graduated from a small prep school before attending College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. It was the early 90s and patriotism was in the air. Coming from a military family, he joined the Marine Corps option in the Navy ROTC.

"If you are going to go, go big," Greenleaf says with an open-eyed look that lands somewhere between comic Adam Sandler and intense actor Barry Pepper. He trained for three years while studying accounting, but didn't serve in the Marines because of a ripped shoulder.

"I feel like I was shortchanged," he says. "It's kind of like going to college without finishing."

He did graduate Holy Cross with a 3.0 grade point average in economics/accounting, so it looked like Greenleaf would not be heading to one of those cushy internships — wining, dining, golf, big-league sports tickets — with (what were then) the Big 6 accounting firms.

Yet, to the astonishment of his teachers and friends, he received offers from all six. Greenleaf was as flummoxed as his higher-achieving competitors.

Then he noticed that the students with 4.0s were interviewing for jobs in flannel shirts and jeans, then not getting jobs.

"I had shined my shoes, chosen the correct tie, the suit fit well, and I said ‘yes sir, no sir.' " Greenleaf says. "I was well put together."

In 1997, he put together a tongue-in-cheek booklet about how to prepare for a job interview: "Attention to Detail: A Gentleman's Guide to Professional Appearance and Conduct." He lifted most of the ideas from military training and photocopied it on eight sheets of paper, folded down the middle and stapled. He priced it at $5.95, but let the booklet go for $5 plus free shipping. He put out the word.

"I figured I might sell 20 of these things," he says. "That would cover the cost of the printing. First day, I went to the P.O. Box and pulled out two orders. I thought: ‘Wow, that's kinda cool.' So I set up a bank account. Found out I had seven orders on Day 2. The next day, 13. Then it accelerated to 50-100 a day. That lasted for several months."

Pretty soon, he was being called a "business etiquette expert" by the Wall Street Journal. Meanwhile, he was working 12-13 hours a day at the Deloitte accounting firm.

"All the fun was gone," Greenleaf says. "Reality hit. I didn't enjoy the work. I lost interest in accounting."

So he "retired" at age 22 — Deloitte called it a leave of absence — to work on the book thing. Living in his parents' garage, he read up on self-publishing, but found little that was helpful.

The light-bulb moment came when an aspiring author asked him to explain publishing. Greenleaf couldn't do it, so he just published "501 Excuses for a Bad Golf Shot" himself.

"The business was born at that point," Greenleaf says. At first, he didn't discriminate about the titles he published. "Content wasn't a driver. Generally speaking, I was wide open."

This was essentially a vanity press. For every "A World of Hurt: Between Innocence and Arrogance in Vietnam," the vivid story of a military nurse, there were hundreds of titles that nobody else really wanted, even as he wooed book wholesalers like Ingram Book Co. and Amazon, as well and printers and vendors.

By 2001, the business was going gangbusters, but Greenleaf was fed up with the dating game. As soon as he decided dating was a waste of his time, he met his future wife, Kate Laughlin, now a lawyer and mother of their three young children who live in the Westlake area.

Greenleaf opened an Austin office in 2003 and finally settled on headquarters at Ben White Boulevard and Banister Lane. In 2005, with 650 titles on his list, Greenleaf hit a wall.

"Barnes & Noble said ‘Don't bother sending us anything because you just publish everything,'" he says. "Their advice: ‘Get rid of all the (bad stuff) you publish.' "

The book world is relatively chummy, so Greenleaf couldn't just drop hundreds of authors. He made them an offer: "They had to sell 500 of their own books by the end of the year. Of the 500 or so people we asked, five made the cut. Maybe 10 tried really hard. We kept 15."

It was almost like starting from scratch. But playing hard-to-get worked.

"Turning away business grew our business," he says. "Now we put out a very, very tight list and accept 3 percent of what comes in."

Greenleaf Book Group provides editing and ghostwriting in-house; it also brokers the printing and handles the warehousing and distributing. They don't do publicity. By being highly selective, they now compete with the big boys.

"Self publishing used to be the refuge of terrible writers," he says. "Now, those we don't publish are going to Random House, Simon & Schuster, Penguin. And we are stealing from them."

Digital publishing is part of the process — sometimes 50 percent of sales — but Greenleaf is betting that paper and ink will stick around, too.

"Physical books are not dead yet," he says. "I don't think they'll die."

mbarnes@statesman.com