Don McNay Life Lessons
October 31, 2013
“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. I will remain a Huffington Post contributor, but my primary focus will be running an innovative book publishing company.
To celebrate, I have released a new book, Don McNay’s Greatest Hits: Ten Years an Award Winning Columnist.
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. On the other hand, I missed having that forum.
For the next 20 years, I silently wrote columns in my head. I had moved to Richmond, Ky., and 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. Not a piece on financial planning like they might have been expecting. 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 I had. Kentucky Hall of Fame journalist Byron Crawford, did a wonderful 2006 piece about me in the Louisville Courier-Journal and said that “I had a need to speak my mind.”
Byron’s piece ran in Gannett papers all over the country and played a big role in my being syndicated a few months later. He is one of the people I dedicated the new book to.
How I stayed a columnist for 10 years was a combination of divine providence and breaks that would put Forrest Gump to shame.
By accident, I happened to open two columns with a rock and roll lyric. I skipped the next week and received a tidal wave of people wondering where it was.
It’s been there ever since.
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, being strong-minded, kept inviting me back and I built up an audience.
When I made my final appearance on Comment on Kentucky on Sept. 13. I said that “I truly love Comment on Kentucky, and I truly love Al Smith.”
When I started at the Register, the editing and publishing positions were nonstop revolving doors. I knew it was a matter of time before a new editor would drop me in favor of someone less controversial.
Then Jim Todd was named Richmond’s editor.
Jim was a lifetime journalist who had come out of retirement to edit the Register. He fired me (and rehired me) four or five times, and my writing style forced him to keep famed first amendment attorney Jon Fleischaker on his speed dial. However, he never killed or “spiked” any of my columns, even if he did not personally agree with it. He was instrumental in my column getting syndicated.
Jim took a paper that was considered one of Kentucky’s worst daily newspapers and won a Kentucky Press Association award for excellence two years later.
I’ve ended the column at the end of the 10-year run, but the column came close to ending in 2007. My mother and sister died and my marriage ended during a nine-month run in 2006. At first, writing was my salvation, but making 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 columnists in the world at the New York Times, convinced me to hang on and keep writing.
I was still undecided, but in July 2008, I had gone to Washington DC 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 trained economic writers were in big demand.
I had the unusual niche of being a traditional Democrat totally opposed to the Wall Street bailouts. Huffington Post gave me a forum that decision makers had to take seriously.
The exposure was also a boost for my career. All my books are now Amazon bestsellers, even those unrelated to economics or politics. My expertise in what to do with your money when you win the lottery captured worldwide attention.
So why am I leaving?
I’m going into the book publishing business in a big manner, 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 plan on making that same transition between publishing and continuing to write books myself.
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 its first few weeks on the market and New England syndicated columnist Suzette Martinez Standring will have two books out in 2014. Clay Bigler has a book coming out on attorney fees and Clay Hamrick is working on a follow up to his Amazon bestseller, Life Lessons from the Golf Course. RRP International Editorial Director Adam Turner, who has edited several best-selling books before age 23, has his own project going.
An A list for sure. With more signing on each week.
RRP International is a cross between journalism, social media and the way books are currently published. 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 from a Main Street point of view.
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 and structured settlement business than anyone inside that the financial services world. The key to success is business is avoiding the “me too” syndrome of copying your direct competitors.
RRP International is not an imitation of anyone or anything. It is own unique operation.
I list Chicago columnist Mike Royko as a major influence during my growing years, but my inspiration for writing comes from song writers. Two of my favorites, Jimmy Webb and Janis Ian, have become email friends after I used their songs in columns.
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.