Fraught suspense in The Economist’s plaza

I still have doubts about free trade

A primate without valid ID has been spotted loitering in the “plaza” in front of our London headquarters, the modernist tower that The Economist inhabits in the heart of the “clubland” of St James’s Street.

My colleague Tom Standage immediately snapped photos and shared them on Facebook. The individual was reading The Economist, then switched to CFO, also owned by The Economist Group.

My options are under water

Suggestions that the individual is in fact an American expatriate in London, formerly in the business of collateralized debt obligations, have not been corroborated.

After several days of his vigil, the writers passing by every day are now beginning to accept his presence. Our science correspondents consider him family, and believe that he fled a hostile environment in America to be among people who are sympathetic.

Will he go? Will he stay? Will he edit?

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Welcome to WordPress, Tom

Tom Standage

Tom Standage

Tom Standage, a friend and colleague at The Economist, has finally migrated to WordPress and started regular blogging. Check in on him regularly. His first five books are a great read and I can’t wait for his sixth, which is on food, but with a historical angle not unlike the one I’m using in my book.

Tom edits the Business Section AND the Tech Quarterly, so you’ll also enjoy his musings on topics such as whether Apple will come out with an eBook Reader this year that might kill Amazon’s Kindle. As it happens, I am testing a Kindle right now. I’ll tell you anon how I think it will affect the future of reading….

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The schizophrenic blogger

That’s me, at least for the time being. Which is to say, I’m in two minds about blogging about my book, depending on whom I’ve asked for advice last.

The “pros”:

On one side, there is an army of tech-savvy, media-savvy, modern, sophisticated, worldly people who say to me: Blog! Bloooog! For book authors, obscurity is the enemy, not piracy, theft or plagiarism. So blog, build a community, learn from that community, and then let the community help you when the time comes to launch.

One person whose example sticks out in my mind, as I’ve mentioned before, is Chris Anderson. His first book, The Long Tail, began as an article in Wired (of which Chris is the editor), then became a book-deal, then a blog, and then, well, the book.

I ran into Chris the other day and asked him if he had any regrets at all, and Chris said Nope, blogging about the book has been entirely for the better. He’s actually learned a lot from his blog’s audience (“crowdsourcing” is the fancy new term for that), and it built buzz for the book’s launch.

Intellectually, Chris has also thought about giving entire books away, free, on blogs or otherwise, and this is becoming something of a micro-trend.

The book, it should be said, did rather well. On the other hand, I should also say that I personally, having read the original article and the blog (and finding Chris’s idea profound and spot-on), did feel that I didn’t need to read the book when it came out. I was comfortable that I already knew the ideas behind it very well.

Chris has a lot of support. Tim Sullivan, who is not my editor but an editor of books, at Basic Books as of this week, told me that:

I’m all for divulging in blog-length entries. You can really work through some issues, and I think that it encourages sales rather than depressing them (in most cases). I also think you end up with a better book, in the end, if you can generate involvement from a group of interested outsiders

Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff (left) wrote their new book, Groundswell, using the blog to test and refine ideas and seem to have loved the process.

Jeff Howe (right) has been blogging his book Crowdsourcing, and using the blog in part, well, to crowdsource. (Meaning: to make “open calls” on the anonymous audience to contribute knowledge, in the hope that the best-qualified people may be hiding in the crowd.)

The “cons”:

My mom is a con. Now, it’s no fair poking fun at moms–they are the people whose intentions toward us are purest. So I won’t. I take her concerns seriously. And she has support: Virtually all of the, ahem, “older” people I know react with dread: Are you crazy? Somebody will steal your best ideas! You undermine the element of surprise! Don’t do it! If you must blog, don’t give anything good away.

Then, there is…

Everybody else:

That category, obviously, includes a lot of people. I’m in it myself. Among my colleagues at The Economist, for instance, there is Tom Standage, author of several books, the latest of which is A History of the World in Six Glasses (right). He is one of the most tech-savvy and media-savvy people in the world, and yet he resides slightly toward my mom’s end of the spectrum. He puts up a “teaser” about his book and some updates about the process–launch, book tour and such–but otherwise leaves it to the book itself to make the splash. I take his advice very seriously, especially since his genre of book and style of writing is much closer to mine than the tech-centered books above.

There is also Edward Lucas, who had a blog for many years before he sold his idea for a book on Russia, the New Cold War (left).

Ed says that yes, he did crowdsource. Exactly once, in fact. He had to fact-check a detail during pre-launch production, and put it out there. Within an hour, several people got back to him with the answer.

But beyond that, he says he did not give away much from the book on the blog, which he uses mainly as a personalized and running anthology of The Economist’s Russia coverage. When he tried to have discussion boards on individual chapters, the results were disappointing–“mostly Russians posting obscenities.” He thought about putting the introduction online, and maybe a few chapters, but then decided against it. “The book must promise that it gives you something you can get nowhere else,” he said to me.

And on and on. Everybody has a different view. Basically, nobody knows.

And that leaves me… schizophrenic. Which is not a good thing for a blogger. It’s like blogging with one arm tied behind your back–possible, but tedious.

Within the coming weeks, I will sort out my thoughts on this and decide one way or the other. You’ll know when that happens, because the blog will show it.


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The treacherous First Person

I’ve been meaning to share a tidbit of a conversation I recently had with my colleague at The Economist, Tom Standage, while we were having lunch at Zuni in San Francisco. Both of us are writing books, both of which are not traditional “histories” but have a strong element of history, and indeed assume a reader intellectually curious about history and open to seeing its timeless legacies in the world around us today. Tom’s is about food throughout history and to our own day. Mine is about life, specifically success and failure, throughout history and to our own day.

The interesting tidbit for writers, however, was our spontaneous and passionate agreement on a matter of literary fashion: the First Person. We were not entirely against it, but extremely skeptical.

American publishers tend to push writers into “personalizing” their non-fiction stories. Journalists, especially columnists, are increasingly doing the same thing. Personalizing can indeed be a good thing, in the sense that good stories need characters, and writers need to present them colorfully. The problem is that “I” tends to be the wrong character to put into the story.

If you are writing a book about an earth-shattering event, conspiracy, cover-up, war, disease or what have you, and you were genuinely a protagonist in that story, by all means, personalize away. Tell us what happened to you. That is the story.

But if you’re just telling a good story, and then looking for ways to use the word I, please stop. Why do we have entire paragraphs in The Atlantic (otherwise one of my favorite magazines) whose sole purpose is to say that so-and-so “told me” such-and-such, which was probably utterly banal? Well, because the writer wants to prove to us that he was there, you see. At The Economist, we believe that readers already assume that we were there and, besides, don’t much care either way, because they just want a cracking good story or analysis. So by I-ing and me-ing, you’re really just getting in the way of the story. You’re turning sophisticated readers off.

Once you try writing without the First Person, you may find it surprisingly difficult. Which is why it is such excellent discipline! Without the I, you can’t fake it. You can’t give us the three-paragraph “color” opening about how “I was walking into his office on a sunny March day” and so forth. You actually have to deliver a detail or observation that is telling. Much harder to do!

So I kept telling my students at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism to try leaving the First Person out. They kept ignoring me. Through blogs and email and all those columns, it has seeped into our writing culture. It’s just so much easier.

The result is reams and reams of writing that is narcissistic. I could highlight one or two high-profile books and articles, but I know better. (Also, I admit that some of them do become best-sellers, which may be why publishers push the First Person so hard.) But next time you’re reading an I piece, try stripping out the First Person and seeing what content or substance is left. If a lot, good article. If not a lot, it was a narcissist.

But I did say that neither Tom nor I was* completely against the First Person. I’m using it in this blog, obviously. (Then again, a blog is by definition an ultra-personal medium.) And I’ve also, after agonizing about it, decided to use it in my book, which I am–yes–“personalizing.”

The challenge I see is to do this without being narcissistic and interrupting a cracking good story for the heck of it. In short, it is about finding an authentic voice or tone. That, of course, is true whether you’re using the First Person or not.

(*Bonus: did the was surprise you? Did you think it should be were? Nope, was is correct. More to come in future posts.)
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