Pat Greene Has a Marvelous Scheme to Conquer the World!
To make a long story short, PinkMonkey.com burst spontaneously to life last spring.
It was not the first company to make long stories short, but just the first to deliver them instantly. It happened one night in the town of Liberty, where a minor character known as Little Monkey realized he was about to meet a literary giant.
The mere prospect of facing Shakespeare so boggled and terrified Little Monkey that he called to his aid his parents, his cousins, his aunt and uncle. They went forth into the night to scour the stores of Liberty. And though there were Doan's Pills for rarely used muscles and Ex-Lax for pampered bowels, the stores, alas, were fresh out of Cliffs Notes for Shakespeare avoidance.
To Uncle Pat Greene, anyway, it seemed terribly old-fashioned to run around town searching for a book. He turned on his computer and scanned the World Wide Web. Voila! There was the web site for Cliffs ... but the UPS shipment would take a week.
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Poor Little Monkey was doomed. But as he trudged off to school to confront the tragedy of Macbeth, Uncle Pat hatched a marvelous scheme to conquer the world. Cliffs Notes didn't deliver over the Internet? This was wonderful news! Pat Greene quickly founded a publishing company whose stock would never be depleted, whose delivery was instantaneous, whose stores would never close and whose prices would never be inflated by wholesalers and retailers. From a small, barren office on Richmond, PinkMonkey.com went online on October 1, pioneering, as Greene claimed, "the first significant change in publishing since the invention of the printing press."
Well, after the pornographers, anyway. They were first to deliver their wares over the Internet, and then came Greene. And what was the first product he chose to publish with this new printing press? Why, nothing less than the best that the old printing press had ever produced -- the great old books, summarized and interpreted, remade for modern times.
It would be the first step in Pat Greene's plan to conquer the world of education. By late next year, the English canon should be largely converted into "Monkey Notes," and instantly available at one-third the price of Cliffs Notes. By 2012, if all goes well, Greene will have eliminated the ivy-covered buildings on college campuses and replaced them with computer screens.
"We want to take children," said Greene, "and we want them to learn shit."
The tale of Little Monkey is a "cute story," but if you want to understand PinkMonkey.com, Greene said, you have to hear the unabridged version.
At the bar in Bennigan's, he was the 50ish man with tinted glasses and tousled brown hair, drinking Miller Lite, smoking a cheap cigar and occasionally beckoning the bleached blond waitress, whom he called "Babe." He had a cellular phone, and every now and then it would ring. Once he told the caller to wake up that boy in Hong Kong. Another time, he spoke what sounded like Chinese. All of it was either too important or too trivial to explain.
"Nothing but business," Greene said in his basso profundo. "That's what the world is, son. Nothing but business."
His daughter Lisa, who does marketing for PinkMonkey, said that Pat Greene is "the ultimate entrepreneur." He said he was an investment banker, and he began the story of PinkMonkey.com at the beginning.
"My wife and I, we were in Luxor staying in a wonderful hotel, the Winter Palace. We keep a suite there -- it's right across from the Valley of the Kings and all that bullshit. So to make a long story short, the king of Nepal was there, who's an old friend of my wife's -- she's one of the largest collectors of Egyptian mummy masks in the world -- and one night, we were cruising the Nile, and he asked if I could help build a hotel in Nepal. So I said, 'Okay, no problem, but you want a hotel, you make my wife a fucking princess.' Well, they couldn't do it, so they made her some kind of councilor shit -- just means when you go through immigration, you don't have to fuck with the savages."
Greene chortled and took a swig of beer. When he went to Nepal, he said, they told him they needed a dam for electricity.
"They said, 'Please build us a dam,' and I said, 'Prime Minister, baby, the chance of you clowns getting a dam in this fucked-up country is nil and none, but I'll tell you what I can do: I'll make a few calls.' "
"It was a wonderful four days," Greene said. "Got them a dam going -- big deal."
He told other tales of an American abroad. When he was asked if anyone could vouch for these tales, or for him, Greene offered the name of a banker who made flattering statements about him but would not have his name associated. And businessmen are like that, said Greene. They know reporters are likely to misquote them and make them look silly.
Anyway, Greene kept talking until he came to PinkMonkey.com, which is bigger than anything he's ever done, he said, even the $11-billion dam. And strangely enough, of all the places Greene has traveled, the story of PinkMonkey.com really begins in the Liberty Wal-Mart.
As he does every morning, he was sitting there several years ago eating his breakfast. Long before the Internet became widely accessible, Greene had browsed its newsgroups, and in Wal-Mart that morning, he was musing on the potential of the Internet when the manager ("He's a good friend of mine") asked about Greene's software investments.
That was when the bolt of lightning actually hit. Greene was suddenly aware that his video games could be distributed over the Internet. He left Wal-Mart and decided to fund a team of professional thinkers to consider what else could be sold this way. In 1995, he went to India to hire eight computer experts, because, he said, "People who are blessed do have a responsibility to people who aren't blessed." Also, Indians think inexpensively.
His thinkers thought for a year, and then they submitted a list of eight products that could be delivered via Internet. These were "things you couldn't even conceive of," Greene said, and he would divulge just one of them. "Static printed material," he called it. Books, in other words.
But the book business is in bad shape, except for those books that you have to buy, such as textbooks. Greene considered going into the textbook business, but selling the books involved the approval of educators, and getting that, according to Greene, involved paying larger bribes than the big New York publishers do.
He was chewing all this over when his nephew encountered Shakespeare. This was the second bolt of lightning. Greene realized that students had a need for books that didn't require teacher approval -- books, as he saw it, that didn't require expensive talent to produce. "Any idiot could write one of these," he said.
Partly after his nephew's nickname, partly because he liked the sound of the word "pink," and mostly because the combination was "something any idiot could spell," Greene named his company PinkMonkey. He hired his daughter away from Randalls to do the marketing. He hired "a big-time boy" named Miles McDonald to manage the technology. And he hired a friend of his sister's named Diane Sauder, because she's "extremely knowledgeable in classical literature." Finally, Pat Greene called up an old pal who's "one of Bombay's big hotel people."
"Sunit," he said, "we're going into the publishing business."
PinkMonkey's major competitor, Cliffs Notes, Inc., rules an international empire from the heart of the heartland, in Lincoln, Nebraska.
The company was founded in 1958 by a bookseller who realized he would never get rich selling conventional books. Cliff Hillegass retreated to his basement and began producing a kind of Reader's Digest, digested several times more. And when he had his new books to sell, Cliff sold them well. The company will celebrate its 40th anniversary next year with estimated gross receipts of at least $25 million. As sales of novels continue to decline, Cliffs Notes is still growing, with a virtual monopoly in the market for literary study guides.
"Just as Cliffs Notes is a supplement to aid in understanding literature," Hillegass wrote in company promotions, "literature is a supplement to aid in understanding the human condition."
The company still officially insists that Cliffs Notes is a supplement to the great books, and not a replacement. "Your Key to the Classics," the slogan goes, and Cliffs Notes are marketed as a user's manual to a complicated machine, for "reviewing and consulting when necessary." According to Cliff Hillegass, Cliffs Notes will help students "heighten perception, empathy and awareness of the human condition."
The implication of this marketing is that the world's greatest writers have not written well enough to communicate their meaning, or that Cliffs's customers are rather dumb. Cliffs "breaks down that barrier to understanding," marketing director Betty Jo Hinrichs explained. Her voice grew somber when she was asked about those customers who don't read the assigned book. They will probably fail their tests, she said. They will not be satisfied customers.
"Students who cheat," Hinrichs gravely pronounced, "are not good students."
This, at least, is what Cliffs tells reporters and grown-ups. The official line seems to shift somewhat on the web site, where Cliffs speaks directly to its customers. Here, it seems the customer is not stupid after all, but merely lazy. Cliffs, according to the ad copy, gives you "the information you need fast, which is important because you've got a bazillion other things to do.... Why not take a moment to reflect on some of the other things you could be doing? The list is staggering. For instance, you could be sleeping. That's our favorite other thing to be doing, just ahead of reclining. Or, you could be eating cereal. Or falling down a flight of steps on your in-line skates. Banging on a candy machine. Or shopping for slacks.... You get the idea. The fuller your existence, the more you need Cliffs."
Up in Lincoln, Nebraska, Betty Jo Hinrichs picked up the phone again. She explained that visitors to the web site would naturally infer that Cliffs was a shortcut to understanding, and not to reading. She was less composed when asked what portion of Cliffs's customers actually read the assigned book.
"Uh," said Ms. Hinrichs, "I think that's a proprietary study."
An aspect of the human condition, in other words, that Cliffs would not reveal.
The problem with India, said Greene, is that "it ain't the good old USA." "Americans are always attracted by that cheap labor, but nothing fucking works -- nothing!"
The hotelier hired 17 "smart-as-shit people," said Greene, and they bent to their tasks of summarizing the English canon. Before long, they began submitting their work, and Greene was dismayed to find that most of it had been composed with pen and pencil. These were scholars out of the University of Bombay, said Greene, and "first thing I find out is these fuckers ain't even got a computer!"
So they rented an office in Bombay and sent over eight computers. To ensure their arrival, Greene also sent 20 televisions to various bureaucrats as "educational gifts." A typist was taught a word-processing program and paid to transcribe the manuscripts -- and sometimes to translate them from Hindi. The Indian scholars continued digesting English literature for American scholars -- interrupted only by the frequent power outages. Greene bought a generator so they could work around the clock. His scholars worked steadily until monsoon season struck, and the streets were flooded, and they couldn't get to their computers.
Greene hired Diane Sauder as editor when he realized he also needed literary expertise stateside. At "20,000 words a minute," he said he reads "an unbelievable amount of books." Sauder said, "Pat really has no knowledge of literature whatsoever." She, on the other hand, long before she became an office manager for an environmental consulting firm in Houston, had worked for years as a high school English teacher. People used to tell her that math was her strength, but Sauder always preferred literature because it was a reflection of life, "and life doesn't have easy answers."
Nonetheless, she accepted the part-time job providing literature's easy answers. She worked closely with seven writers she gathered through the University of Houston and the University of Texas. She briefed them thoroughly on what was desired, and "because we want a good job, not a quick job," the Americans were paid $10 to $15 an hour for roughly a week's worth of work. Indians were paid by the job. Greene would not specify the rate, but was sure it was the highest in India.
Despite everything he had done, Sauder was still appalled by the raw "product" from India. The Indians used formal language and British spellings. They wrote without any common format at all, "as though they had never seen a Cliffs Note." Their work more closely resembled a doctoral dissertation. It was far over the heads of American high school students, and Sauder sent it all back to India, with instructions to hire an Indian editor to standardize the product.
She spends ten to 20 hours now editing a Monkey Note. "I can spot an error a mile away," she said. Greene had wanted 120 Notes online by last August, but by the first of this month, there were only 25. The plan now is to have 150 of them available by the start of the next school year, along with several test-preparation and course guides. Sauder knows she's the one slowing down Pat Greene's system. It's just that she's too much of a perfectionist, she said. She tries to ensure there are good transitions in the writing and perfect grammar, "and that's really not necessary."
Monkey Notes, as it seems from this sample, is very much like Cliffs Notes, only slightly rearranged, even shorter and sometimes more explicit. Where in Cliffs Notes the author's background precedes the discussion of the book, Monkey Notes places it in the middle. Cliffs Notes discusses several themes at length, but Monkey Notes offers the heading "Major Theme" with a few short sentences beneath it. In the same way, Cliffs Notes offers a list of characters, while PinkMonkey points out, for those who can't see it, which is the protagonist.
In her revision of the Indian summary of 1984, Sauder changed spelling and shortened sentences. She added drama ("From the moment of their capture, their fate is doomed") and inserted an emphasis on freedom ("There is truly no personal freedom left"). Sauder removed the Indian woman's speculation that the female character probably suffered the most. She erased digressions on Mussolini and communist China, but she left unchanged the reference to "the 19th-century dictator Hitler."
1984, the Indian writer concludes, is "more relevant to our times than ever." Just as in the novel, there are giant nations now, though they operate more out of economic concerns than political ones. Thanks to technology, people are certainly alienated.
"Since most of our days are spent around machines," the Indian writes, "we are slowly finding it difficult to handle our interpersonal relationships."
Receiving all this over the Internet, Sauder cut references to the threat of economic mergers. She rewrote the sentence above to read:
"The heavily automated society of today has stripped people of human contact."
Automation doesn't scare Pat Greene. Among his many other ventures, he claims to endow a Shakespearean acting troupe in India. Greene intends to film their performances and to incorporate these images into Monkey Notes. This will create what he calls a "digitally enhanced book" -- a movie, in other words.
In his vision of the future, conventional bookstores and conventional books will disappear, and so too will traditional schools. The massive brick buildings and well-tended acres of campuses -- they should all be abandoned, Greene said, and the tenure of all those unproductive professors withdrawn. The educational system is corrupt and inefficient, he said. College is predicted to cost $50,000 a year by 2012. By the same date, if Greene can round up $200 million, PinkMonkey.com will offer a better education for one-fiftieth the cost.
The University of Phoenix has already embarked on something similar, and it's possible that what Greene foresees will come to pass. Whether he will be in charge, though, may depend on the success of Monkey Notes.
From Nebraska, Betty Jo Hinrichs said Cliffs has been keeping a close eye on PinkMonkey.com. Within a month, she said, the company will also be distributing over the Web, and PinkMonkey's advantage will be lost. Greene doubted this. Before Cliffs is able to react, he believes PinkMonkey will control the Internet market for study guides. As he sees it, Cliffs has millions invested in its bookstore monopoly, all of which would be in jeopardy if Cliffs suddenly began selling on the Internet at a third of the usual price. Hinrichs, sure enough, said she was not ready to release the pricing strategy.
In the business of art, Pat Greene thinks he can make some money. Cliffs made studying literature fast, and Greene has made it faster. "Is Mozart less of a work of art on a CD than on an old scratchy 78?" he said. "In my opinion, the technology made it better.
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