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'Book of Questions': When Musings Turn Into Money

September 20, 1987|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Question: In your wildest dreams, Gregory Stock, did you think a palm-sized book filled with nothing but questions would shoot to the top of the best-seller lists?

Question: Back when you were doing research on bacterial motility, did it ever occur to you that half a million people would spend $3.95 each to have their ethical temperatures taken in a tiny tome that offers not one single solution but raises 267 moral dilemmas?

Question: Does it seem, Gregory Stock, that Ollie North, Gary Hart and Bess Myerson have sharpened our national sensibilities?

Sipping white wine on the patio in front of his office here, Stock, 37, smiled broadly.

He is surprised, "yeah, very," that the 45-page pamphlet he self-published with buddy David Breznau two years ago has metamorphosed into Workman Publishing's fastest-selling title ever, eclipsing the pace of Workman's earlier publishing legend, "The Official Preppie Handbook."

He is amazed that at least 12 foreign publishers have snapped up rights to "The Book of Questions," deluging Europeans and Latin Americans with such conundrums as, "Would you be willing to have horrible nightmares every night for a year if you would be rewarded with extraordinary wealth?" Or, "If you were to discover that your closest friend is a heroin dealer, what would you do?"

But he is not confounded at all by the numbers of people apparently eager to subject themselves to these often-sticky questions.

"I think people want to talk about themselves," Stock said. "I mean, why do people pay psychiatrists a dollar a minute?" He laughed. "And that's for a cheap one.

"I think that people are ready to talk about things that are really important to them," he said. Armed with a prepackaged parcel of otherwise touchy topics, he contends, they are willing to address issues like, "If the person you were engaged to marry had an accident and became a paraplegic, would you go through with the marriage or back out of it?" Or, "If you knew there would be a nuclear war in one week, what would you do?" Or even, "Have you ever hated someone? If so, why, and for how long?"

"Suddenly," Stock said, "people are getting into discussions about values, issues that are important."

In New York, Michael Cader, Stock's editor at Workman, concurred.

"I think people have forgotten how to ask questions on their own," Cader said. "We're so used to being passive receptors. The book gives you an excuse to go out and ask questions. Otherwise, it's too hard. We're too lazy." Stock, small, wiry and seemingly possessed of boundless energy, is anything but lazy. Soon after earning his Ph.D. in biophysics in 1977 at Johns Hopkins, he set about to study "why bacteria do what they do--why they swim, for instance." Next he began doing research on amphibian limb regeneration, then laser light-scattering and three-dimensional computer reconstruction.

He developed electronic banking software and shifted into the world of nonprofit foundations. Then he began delving into the sphere of specialty magazine publication. Two years ago, he headed back to school to pick up an MBA.

"I decided a long time ago I was not going to get a normal job," Stock said. "At the business school, I think I was the only person who didn't interview with any companies."

Like all overgrown children of the '60s, Stock did time in California. He took est, twice, got so resoundingly in touch with his feelings that in a cafe in Oregon three years ago, sitting with a woman whose name he swears he can't remember, he heard himself asking questions about integrity, money, sex.

Spouting Hypotheticals

"Would you rather be happy, yet slow-witted and unimaginative, or unhappy yet bright and creative?" "Do you enjoy physical contact with your lover?" "Would $50,000 be enough to induce you to take a loyal, healthy pet to the vet to be put to sleep?" "When was the last time you cried in front of a stranger?" They talked and they talked, spouting hypotheticals that uncorked emotion after emotion.

Stock never saw the woman again, but later, describing the encounter to a friend, he wondered, "Why doesn't this happen more often?" And the "pop philosophy" seeds of "The Book of Questions" began to take root.

Back in Cambridge, fledgling entrepreneur Stock and his friend Breznau sunk $10,000 into printing the slender 45-question pamphlet that became "The Book of Questions." Self-distributed and marketed largely in the Boston area two years ago, the booklet sold about 12,000 copies.

But Harvard business student Stock was studying marketing and saw the potential for big sales hovering on his personal horizon. He hastened to New York, hooked up with Workman and after a scant three months of adding new questions and rearranging old ones, fashioned the book from which he expects to earn "oh, a couple of hundred thousand."

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