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Whatever Happened to Johnny?

This is a story about the beginning, middle, and end of Johnny’s time at Sterling & Stone, some mistakes we’ve made along the way, and the next step in our always evolving story.

But much like Dave on the way home from anywhere, we need to make a stop at McDonalds first. Despite being raised to hate the establishment, my mom is a Harvest Festival of contradictions and still got all stomach growly for their delicious fries, so as long as we promised to lie when Pop got home, she occasionally gifted us with a trip through the drive-through, while telling us how hard Ronald McDonald sucked (true story).

Fuck McDonalds for creating one of my core memories, but that’s what happened on this Once Upon a Happy Meal occasion, when the toy inside was a book. I can still so clearly remember the cover that I laughed out loud after googling it. Extra hilarious that, according to the window of time when McDonald’s was dropping copies of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer into Happy Meals, I couldn’t have been older than three. Just so we’re clear on how much this memory apparently meant to me.

The cover showed Tom’s fence half-painted, midway through him getting another kid to want to do the rest of his work for him. After reading the story, I knew I wanted to be the kid who could get other kids to want to do his work for them when he grew up.

That’s a primordial version of what has eventually become the driving force in my creative and professional life. Not getting others to do my work for me, but getting people so excited about painting that metaphorical fence with me that there’s a line out the door.

I’m a born collaborator, but I didn’t really know that about myself until Sterling & Stone was several years old. In retrospect, I can clearly see the pattern of choosing collaborative situations, but I was simply taking what felt like the most natural next step. From side-hustle partnerships during my time in the flower business to leaving Rainbows so I could start the preschool with my wife Cindy, then going online only to partner up with Dave two weeks later.

Even Lori Taylor, the first person to ever over-appreciate my brain with her wallet, was someone I collaborated with more than worked for, which is what made my role in her business and life so powerful. I was with Lori on the day when Johnny entered my story, still living in Cincinnati, midway through my third year since founding Sterling & Stone.

“What do you think of that ‘Johnny B. Truant’?” Lori asked me, just minutes after we met him, her tone suggesting that wasn’t even his real name.

I already knew Johnny as a fellow contributor to Copyblogger. It wasn’t much, but more than Lori had. So I filled in the blanks.

“I think he’s an arrogant cock.”

Johnny was arrogant. Still is. But he isn’t a cock, and as I saw later that day, and have seen ever since, Johnny’s arrogance is a superpower that shouldn’t be squelched.

He leaned all the way forward over cheeseburgers at lunch, wanting to know more about this email marketer I was super duper into named André Chaperon. André used small lists, strong storytelling, and earned relationships to build tiny little businesses. I loved his thinking and approach. Johnny was more eager to hear what I had to say about André than anyone else had been so far, which blew my mind, because some people I was telling about this guy could have made a fortune by using his methods, assuming they did the work.

Storyselling? Johnny wanted to know all about it.

A few months later, I stopped by his blog while on a press tour for Yesterday’s Gone (Dave was taking a nap). Shortly after that, Johnny sent this email:

Hey Sean!

Two things… first of all, I am diligently figuring out how to get us a podcast, get us promoted, etc. It’s all very exciting. I’ll give you (and Dave, who I’ve still never met and hence suspect might just be a figment of your imagination) an update a bit later, but right now my head is spinning a bit.

It’s spinning because of the second thing, which is that I just launched my book.

I’m progressing slowly but steadily, currently hanging in the 400s for free downloads. I don’t suppose I could persuade you to shout it out to the world a bit to help nudge me up?

Take care, and we’ll talk more soon… exciting stuff all around!

Nine months after we were talking André and eating cheeseburgers, the Self-Publishing Podcast was a reality.

I loved the show from day one. Dave and I are grateful that Johnny initiated the endeavor and gave us grounded execution to anchor my flightier tendencies and Dave’s preference for living in his basement. The audience grew fast, and every minute was the kind of fun where it felt like we were getting away with something.

I couldn’t get enough and we were only just starting.

But shit got magical and a half for me after I started making word soup with Johnny and our writing relationship began. The episode of our podcast where Unicorn Western was born might be my favorite of all time, for obvious reasons. Writing that first volume in our nine-novella series is a highlight in my creative life, and the other eight entries gave me months’ worth of permanent high.

Johnny has a magical way of making the absurd feel believable, and after our talking unicorn was not only plausible but compelling, I couldn’t wait to see what else we could create together. The Beam came next and blew my mind even harder.

Highly creative, articulate, and fast, Johnny made for a dream-come-true collaboration. Working together was pure creative glee. The Beam was only our second project, but the story already felt like us. Seeing a long future of working together, we started referring to our collaborative stories as “Realm & Sands,” after the world of Unicorn Western that started it all.

After just two projects, we had a simple, repeatable process: I would give Johnny a rough outline of what to write, then he would draft the fuck out of that outline, bringing our characters to vibrant life and filling their world with texture and subtext and reasons for the reader to keep reading before handing the story back to me.

I would go through the draft twice, once as a deeper edit to sharpen the narrative and feel invested in the characters, then a second pass as more of a polish before sending it off to a copyeditor.

Johnny was painting the fence with me.

The model I had been dreaming about was finding its feet, and he had been the one to help me prove it. Despite the complexity of our Beam world, production had barely slowed. The process was simple, scalable, and a creative dream come true.

Write. Publish. Repeat.

For those first few years, Johnny was my creative savior, bringing everything to the relationship that I had been missing with Dave. I loved writing with Dave, and still do, but my ideas exhaust him, and experimentation gives him the sweats (though, really, that could be the McDonald’s).

After a tremendous start with Johnny, I made a series of escalating assumptions, without ever stopping to pause and ask different questions, as our storytelling and business endeavors overlapped into a single thing.

My childhood may have been lacking in Big Macs, but it was pickled in collaborative music made by rock and roll royalty. I started going to concerts young (maybe why I love the smell of weed so much) and had seen Crosby, Stills, and Nash three times, once with Young in the band, before I got my first zit. I could feel their synergy onstage, even though I couldn’t understand that creative alchemy yet.

Much like that music from my childhood, Johnny and I enhanced each other’s rhythm and resonance to create a harmony greater than the sum of its parts. But like so many great bands in rock and roll history, boosting the business side of our art led to parts of our collaboration becoming like an overdriven amplifier — distorting a pure sound we started with to ultimately muddy our melody.

Our first generation was pure creative glee, starting with Unicorn Western and its prequel to UW, the first two seasons of The Beam, our original run of “pilots” for three dramas and another three comedies (all of which got carried out to a full season or seasons), plus a lot of erotica, and the series Adult Video, which was supposed to be erotica, but really the sex scenes in that series were all just shoehorned in among the jokes, and to this day it’s still the hardest I’ve ever consistently laughed while working.

Write. Publish. Repeat. was the literary power ballad that took our band in a different direction. Our creativity and business started playing the same song.

WPR our breakout hit, turning us from garage band dreamers into chart toppers in the world of writing and publishing. We wrote that book for fans of the podcast, so it made sense to add Dave’s name on the cover, even though to this day I’m pretty sure he’s only read his chapter.

That was a golden era for us all. We were all being fed. Our fans were getting on-the-ground information when that was so much rarer, with honest language around our hard won results, good and bad. Dave could see how much of a difference we were making in the community; Johnny was getting the attention that’s like fuel to his fire; I was getting the validation of seeing so many of my ideas getting executed and working.

Even Dave was down for our first Kickstarter. Johnny and I are smart marketers, so we were naturally baking hooks into our stories from the start, but that wasn’t the same thing as building a business together. The podcast was a baby step, opening the door to a sponsorship that none of us could ever take seriously. WPR was a straightforward proposition; nonfiction instead of fiction, but still just writing and publishing like we had already been doing.

Fiction Unboxed was a micro business, with a month of prep, then launch, followed by an aftermath of hard execution. Not to mention all the haters that came out to hate.

But it was fun. And we fully funded in 19 hours. When that day ended, we didn’t celebrate the successful campaign so much as the proof of community.

That’s when everything changed.

Johnny had been playing some motherfucking ball for a few years. He had a significant role in all of my creative and commercial successes outside of Dave ever since the podcast started. But unlike with Dave, I wasn’t dragging Johnny along. He wanted to do crazy shit and build the business with me.

Or so I thought.

Fiction Unboxed led to our first in-person event, then our second, both of them intimate, followed by our third event: The Smarter Artist Summit.

In between that first and second event, Johnny became a partner in Sterling & Stone.

It was my second year living in Austin. Johnny was in town and we were walking from my apartment overlooking Capital of Texas Highway to Matthew McConaughey’s house (just walking by, we weren’t invited in), down to the river and back up again while discussing what our immediate and long-term futures might look like, now that the three of us were all coming together for the first time under a single umbrella.

“I don’t want to be Woz,” Johnny said.

I had strongly disagreed with Johnny’s arguments in the conversation up to that point but I also heard what he was trying to say, and that last comment finally helped his sentiment to land. Steve Wozniak, or “Woz,” was the second Steve and the wizard behind the curtain in Apple’s early days, a tech maestro whose keyboard was a soldering iron and whose symphony was the foundational circuitry for Apple’s empire, playing the unsung hero to a charismatic Jobs.

Johnny was asking to be my equal partner in leading the company.

Johnny was instrumental in the velocity we had achieved over the last few years, so despite having built the company solo thus far it seemed like an easy yes. In his “I don’t want to be Woz” comment, I heard an implicit promise that was never actually made.

I believed Johnny was an entrepreneur. Same as me. In reality, I had misdiagnosed us both.

An entrepreneur is a collaborative conductor, orchestrating teams, fostering partnerships, and navigating the complexities of business with a vision that thrives on collective effort and shared success.

A solopreneur is a lone wolf, fiercely independent and self-reliant, often preferring to chart their course single-handedly, turning their individual vision into reality with no ensemble.

There is not a contest of virtues between the two; diverse entrepreneurial spirits are necessary. But beware, misreading your own entrepreneurial DNA, or that of your partner, can make the instruments clang.

Johnny was a frontman, but I just wanted to be in the band. And while I’ve spent most of my life defining myself as an entrepreneur, I now understand that I am a builder with ample entrepreneurial tendencies.

I play one hell of an extrovert, but left to my own devices, I’m introverted as shit. So it always made me more comfortable to have Johnny taking center stage and telling our story.

Niamh, who you’ll hear more about later, recently told me she actually thought Johnny ran things before joining Sterling & Stone. And I’m sure that’s true for most of our audience.

Everything in the early days occurred in the spirit of experimentation and fun. We needed to pay our bills with fiction. Everything else was gravy. Overhead was low, so momentum came fast. I am absurdly proud of my output with Johnny, and the literary jazz we could play and sustain has yet to be matched in this studio; that first generation still marks some of my all-time favorite work.

Johnny was visiting Austin when we conceived the idea for Fiction Unboxed and resolved to make our next book “literary as fuck.” Axis of Aaron stands as one of mine and Johnny’s most intriguing compositions, its melody written before the crescendo of transformation, yet orchestrated to life only after the rhythm of our world had shifted. We had two more projects like that ahead of us, Devil May Care and Pretty Killer, but everything else we created together for the next several years served more than one master.

Invasion was a bonkers hit for the studio, but it paired an old pitch that Dave and I had flash-developed for 47North with a simple SEO strategy from my copywriting days. The Tomorrow Gene was written during our Apprentice project, which unexpectedly made the writing feel more like homework than either of us expected. Add a nonfiction book each year, always fun — The One With all the Writing Advice is still a favorite — but never more fun than fiction, and nothing we wrote ever had the impact of Write. Publish. Repeat. again. The market had changed, for good and for bad.

A lot of indie authors were getting their voices out there, and that was rad as fuck, but the market was also now pay to play and that was definitely not the jazz that Johnny and I were used to playing.

Shit was getting real. Johnny and I had opened too many creative boxes. We needed to close those boxes before telling brand-new stories. Suddenly, even fiction was feeling like work.

I had thought when Johnny said that he didn’t want to be Woz that it meant he wanted to build the business with me. And yet, four years after making that agreement, I felt lonelier than ever on the business side of things. And stuck, seeing as I couldn’t move forward with our existing partnership in place. I kept looking for better ways to make things easier for Johnny, so that he would want to do more.

I am not an operations guy, and we couldn’t afford an operations guy (or gal) with Johnny occupying the seat.

Our once-effortless harmony was out of tune, hinting at a discordant future if we didn’t make some smart decisions soon. Ninety percent of our expenses were going to nonfiction, while fiction generated a greater percentage of revenue. Through the crisis some tough conversations were born, and that’s when I discovered that Johnny wasn’t excited about education, and never really had been.

Johnny had finally admitted that what he really had never wanted to run this kind of business, but our last strong prospect for the COO role had left the company due to struggle and discord that existed prior to us making these tough decisions. We didn’t know where our COO would come from, but we knew it was time to close our eduction wing. Clocking Out was our perfectly timed exit.

We hosted a couple of last hurrah in-person events for members of our Stone Table mastermind. That’s when I got to know Niamh.

Niamh is not and never will be a replacement for Johnny. Her role in this story is as a godsend to us both. Not that we knew it then.

But even if I were to be blinded of my eye for talent, I still would have marveled at the wattage of her brainpower during the two days of our final mastermind. A quiet presence in our Stone Table community, running her own business and only dreaming of getting into fiction, I didn’t know what to expect from Niamh. But she knew more about genre and audience expectations than anyone in the room, including me, Johnny, and Dave put together. She subscribed to K-lytics and read that shit for fun. My brain has zero idea what to do with data like that.

In the orchestra of market analysis, Niamh plays first chair, harmonizing complex data into a melody that makes sense, while I can barely manage a few tentative notes.

Even after only seeing the surface of what she could do, I knew in my gut that her future-forward approach could speed up our studio efforts. Niamh lived in Ireland, and I couldn’t stand the thought of her taking that amazing brain back across the Atlantic without joining the S&S family.

Johnny and I were each able to continue drifting closer to our ultimate forms because Niamh kept making it possible — especially once he stepped away from the business side of the studio entirely and Niamh assumed the copilot’s seat. We arrived at this glorious decision a month before COVID, at the StoryShop event, just before StoryShop imploded. Johnny and I took several long walks in the parking lot. We would have been smoking weed during those walks in this version of the story if doing such a thing were legal in Texas.

Our relationship was pure again, reduced down to the magic of stories where it belonged.

And here’s the irony. It was only when we closed the education business that I realized it was something neither of us had really wanted to do. I agreed to do the podcast with Johnny because it sounded fun, and he’s clearly someone who loves having an audience.

We grew the business in that direction because I could tell that Johnny enjoyed it, so I let him take center stage and made it the best education business I could.

I wanted to build a story studio dedicated to fiction, and got sidetracked by an education endeavor while trying to grow something with a business partner who didn’t want to start it in the first place.

Johnny thought we grew that side of the business because it was what I wanted, so he took care to stifle his lack of enthusiasm. Although the signs were clear if I’d stopped to examine them.

In short, we did it for each other. But I didn’t know any of this back in 2020 when we took that walk, still under the impression that the business was something Johnny wanted that stopped being fun.

Now, we can all agree the year was nucking futs. Niamh and I spent it working to rebuild a fiction business that had been waning for too long. She was the first person in our marketing department who actually cared enough about S&S book sales to take results personally, despite not having any titles in our catalog yet.

We dug into the data and spent a shit ton of money on ads to revitalize our backlist and rinse out our also-boughts from all that nonfiction crossover. I listened to 100+ episodes of Mark Dawson’s podcast so I could feel caught up and connected to the industry again. We scheduled calls and got back in touch with old friends. Recorded our State of the Industry podcast series. Spent even more money on testing and ads. Wrote a lot of “book zeroes,” increasing the number of creatively paved roads into established funnels, and created fresh content to bridge the gap between what our storytellers wanted to write and what we might make money on.

That’s when we decided it was time to make the leap and bring our content to Hollywood.

The pandemic had changed everything. Streamers blew up, and meetings could now happen on Zoom, without us having to move or travel or sacrifice entire days to Los Angeles traffic. Regardless of the sacrifice (consulting, ghostwriting, etc.), we were a hundred percent agreed: turning our five-year plan into our one-year plan by getting enough cash into the coffers for us to transition the studio was our next best move.

This was a massive decision, but Niamh and I were in perfect alignment as we made the fateful decision one Friday in March, not knowing that news would come in just a few days later, validating and smoothing the way for our decision to reach fruition.

Just three days later, I got a call from Johnny with BIG news.

“Fat Vampire just sold.”

“You mean the option got renewed?”

“No. I mean it sold. Like, it’s going into production this fall.”

“How for sure is this?” It was a collision with too many emotions at once.

“You know Hollywood, anything can be bullshit until the paperwork is signed, but from what Jeremiah and Harley are telling me, this is as green as the lights ever get.”

“FUCKING FUCK YEAH!” I took a deep breath. “You have no idea how amazing this timing is, dude. Niamh and I were seriously just talking about how to majorly transition into film and television on Friday.”

“It fucking happened.”

I barked laughter. “I can’t believe this — it’s like we told the universe we were ready, and it said, _Then it’s time to play ball, fuckers!_”

That’s a loose transcription, but there were a lot of jubilant f-words in that call.

Niamh and I were all ready to run down a long and hard road fraught with peril in pursuit of an unlimited storytelling future. Fat Vampire dramatically reduced that risk before we even sat down to make a plan. Landing that first project in Hollywood is the hardest, but now thanks to Johnny, doors would open for all of us.

We found a fantastic manager who had a physical copy of Fat Vampire on his bookshelf. Our people for sure. We’ve met with him an average of at least once a week ever since.

Niamh and I spent the next year learning Hollywood, meeting with more than a hundred production companies, refining our new business model, and then carefully curating and adding new storytellers to our team. Johnny kept telling stories.

And as our band of storytellers got bigger, it finally became impossible to argue with the fact that Johnny B. Truant is a solo artist. Not a collaborator, so much as a collaborator with me.

“You never would have accepted me into the studio if I’d applied,” he said a few weeks ago, right around the time we only had a few chips left in the basket. “I’m only here because I was here in the beginning.”

Johnny was right. Sterling & Stone systems were impeding my mojo with Johnny, while trying to recapture my mojo with Johnny was cock-blocking studio momentum. And our collaboration had turned half-assed, anyway. We only met once a week to discuss our projects, and we often used that time to catch up on studio happenings because Johnny would otherwise not really know what was going on. And clearly caring about those happenings less and less.

The studio hosts Umbrella calls (where we give updates) and story meetings, and we use Slack to facilitate points of connection.

None of that stuff was for Johnny. And it made no sense to repeat history. Because Johnny’s objection wasn’t about fiction versus nonfiction; it was about collaboration versus non collaboration. Johnny’s remarkable talent as a solo artist shone brightest when unencumbered by the structural necessities of a studio full of storytellers.

For the last few years, we worked to support his individualistic creativity while continuing to grow the collaborative ethos at the beating heart of Sterling & Stone. Early this summer, Johnny and I finally decided it was time for him to play his overdue solo, releasing him from the ensemble to pursue his own rhythm and melody that I’m sure will blow us all away.

Mine and Johnny’s is a love story, with both a happily ever after and a to be continued, but before wrapping up, we must pause for emphasis. Both because I hope that if there’s one thing you can take from this story into your own life, it’s this right here, and because it reinforces our word of the year.

Old school Stoners know we select a word to serve as our compass each year. My personal and company words usually overlap, and 2023 was no exception.

I excel at collaboration because I’m a strong communicator, but in the past I have fallen short when communicating with some people closest to me, because that level of honesty is the hardest to initiate and maintain. But I believe that the right combination of candor and manners can accomplish most things, and after that story I told you about Pop last time I feel more strongly about that than ever. Our word for this year was communication.

I love Johnny with all my heart and have sacrificed more for him professionally than anyone in my life, ever. And I know Johnny loves me, but there should not have been any reason for us to reach the crescendo of our song only to find that the lead and rhythm were playing different compositions.

I have zero resentment over any of this, and neither does Johnny. The first ten years of Sterling & Stone were fucking amazing, and without those detours into the education space, this studio would not have the talent or the scaffolding to scale like we are right now. I am also absurdly fortunate to have benefited from some amazing mentors, but I might have learned more from Johnny than anyone.

Do you remember Silas from Heroes? That dude who could absorb the powers from other heroes? Working with hundreds of writers has filled my bag with a ton of tricks, but Johnny has the lion’s share. All those stories we told? Shit.

And the business we built. Because despite the challenges, we had some incredible accomplishments together while Dave complained from the backseat. I seriously wouldn’t trade any of it.

There is a long list of storytellers that I hope I’m lucky enough to work with. But there’s not a single one of them on that list I would choose to collaborate with over another book with Johnny. Who else is going to write Unicorn Apocalypse with me? Or Clint and Edward’s side quest with Unicorn Heathens? (It’s already in outline.)

Johnny’s exit is from Sterling & Stone, not from his creative partnership with me.

I’m sure that Johnny and I will write together in some capacity for as long as we’re both telling stories. That is a creative duet I never want to stop singing.

But the most important thing in creation is creating what’s true to yourself. And communicating what matters to the core so that your fundamentals never get lost.

The sheet music may have changed, but the melody of our partnership remains. The stories that Johnny and I told together, both in and out of business, will always be foundational to what this studio was and what it will become.