Gladwell reviews a book: what happens to it?

My wife and I were talking about Malcolm Gladwell’s review of Chris Anderson’s new book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price. We were trying to decide whether the review was merely lukewarm or devastating. Here is Gladwell’s last sentence:

The only iron law here is the one too obvious to write a book about, which is that the digital age has so transformed the ways in which things are made and sold that there are no iron laws.

Ouch. That seems to be Gladwell’s way of saying that the book should not have been written, because to be correct it would have had to be too obvious, and to be non-obvious it ended up being non-correct.

(And this in an industry with a preponderance of  inappropriately positive reviews.)

This is of interest to me for two reasons:

  1. My own book will soon come out (no, I don’t yet know exactly when), and I hope to have reviews, and above all good reviews, and simultaneously wonder how I would deal with bad reviews.
  2. Chris is a former colleague of mine at The Economist (he is now editor of Wired), and we are friends. Gladwell, on the other hand, is as close as you get in the writing world to a celebrity.

Chris has already responded to the review, in a remarkably measured tone. I couldn’t help but notice the parenthetical phrase

… Gladwell (who, by the way, I both like and admire, so let’s call this an intellectual debate between corporate cousins)…

The “corporate cousins” reference is to the relationship between the New Yorker and Wired, both of which are owned by Condé Nast. But I couldn’t help but wonder whether the “both like and admire” bit, which is indubitably true, was put there with the subtext “please don’t hurt me even more”.

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A generalist among generalists, I move on

A few of you have already noticed an unusual and almost personal rubric above my piece in the new issue of The Economist (the accompanying audio chat with Tim O’Reilly is here):

Our correspondent in Silicon Valley looks back before moving on to a new beat

So indulge me, please, as I say a few philosophical words about this idea of “moving on to a new beat”.

In a couple of weeks, I will indeed start writing about America’s West Coast generally–governance, economy, water and prisons, climate and immigration, Mexifornia and the Central Valley…. whatever strikes me as interesting. This will be my fourth beat in my twelve years at The Economist, for an average of three years in each beat. (And I do find it amusing that we journalists share the term beat with cops, hookers and drug dealers. There you go.)

As it happens, three years in a beat, give or take, is the unspoken and unwritten norm at The Economist. And isn’t that interesting? With a few notable exceptions that really prove the rule, we all move on every so often. I will go one step further: For over 160 years, our culture has been built upon moving on, thanks to an ingrained faith in generalism over specialization.

My former colleague Chris Anderson recently meditated on this tradition here. (I took over from Chris as Hong Kong correspondent in 2000, and Chris became editor of Wired Magazine soon after that.) Here, in Chris’s words, is roughly what happens to a journalist during a three-year period:

The first year after arriving to your new assignment was terrifying and exhilarating. It was a vertiginous learning curve, but you could ask dumb questions without fear and note that the emperor has no clothes.

In the second year, after the emperor had invited you in a few times to explain the subtle political dynamics that require him to go garbless for the ultimate good of the nation (but surely there were more important things to write about, such as his new elevated rail project), you would find yourself writing sophisticated analyses, traveling easily through the region, admiring your bulging rolodex and otherwise feeling very productive.

In the third year, you’d find yourself returning to stories with a certain cynicism and worldweary accounting of endless process. The elevated rail project has been delayed once again because of infighting within the opposition party. The emperor has no fiscal discipline. You understand everything all too well. It’s time to move on.

So let me offer a few stanzas in my own eulogy to generalism.

1) The avoidance of “capture”

What Chris described above is the subtle mechanism by which all sorts of professionals get “captured” by the wrong constituency.

To take a topical example, banking and insurance regulators get captured over time by the very bankers and insurers they are supposed to regulate, because they are going to fancy dinners with those types and their glamorous spouses, and not with the unglamorous account and policy holders who need regulators for protection.

I have never, personally, seen any journalist being unethical; instead, I see those journalists who consider themselves specialists being simply human. We all try to get close to our sources (politicians, CEOs, etc). And when we do get close to them, we tend to think of it as a scoop. We are flattered. Other journalists are jealous.

And lo, another specialist has been captured. Whom is such a journalist now visualizing as his audience when he or she sits down to write a piece? A reader who was not at the dinner/on the yacht/at the party? Nope. Although the specialist will deny it, he is now, ever so subtly, writing for the people he is supposed to be covering. After all, he needs to get invited back to more dinners/yachts/parties. He should have moved on long ago.

2) The freshness of fear

The wrong kind of fear leads to bad writing, as I have argued before, but the right kind of fear is a tonic for creativity. And believe me, a generalist knows fear. Taking a new beat is a terrifying experience. Each time I have done it, I felt as though I were stepping into a bee hive naked.

So you work extra-hard and you are always on edge (because, after all, you don’t know anything yet about the people you’re interviewing and the things you’re talking about).

And this is fantastic. You ask questions that make your interviewees gape. Bizarre questions, off-beat questions–questions that are either so illogical or so logical (as in obvious) that no specialist would ever dare ask them, even if he could conceive them to begin with. Now you know you’re in a good place!

3) New and unexpected associations

The generalist, if he is doing his job well, now makes unexpected lateral associations. As the specialists around him (still intimidatingly knowledgeable) stare at whatever fine print they’re staring at that week, the generalist connects things in other areas of life and the world and something new arises.

(This, by the way, is the definition of an idea or a thought: The brain does not create a new neuron; it hooks up existing neurons in a new synaptic pattern.)

4) Ability to “translate”

Specialists sooner or later start speaking the language of their specialization, to the point that they can no longer even tell that this language is foreign and must be translated.

While I was stationed in London, long ago, I was once sent off to Brussels to cover the European Union for three weeks. I showed up terrified and ignorant and wrote two good pieces in consecutive weeks. In the third week (week!) I felt excited because I thought that I now had a clue, and wrote a pompous article that mentioned a tension between the intergovernmental and supranational approaches to something or other. Everybody in Brussels uses those terms, and so I did too. My editor cut the piece to shreds, called me up and said ‘Thank God your three weeks are over. You’re coming home!”

Most specialists cannot talk intelligibly about their area of expertise. When they try to communicate with the rest of the world, it is a disaster. (The exceptions are rare, thus proving the rule, and easy to list: Paul Krugman in economics, Brian Greene in physics, Richard Dawkins in biology, etc.)

Coda: My three last beats and my book

In my own case, I now think I know why I did my past three beats (insurance, Asian business, technology) relatively well.

It was because I more than lacked expertise in each of these areas when I started: I was woefully, hopelessly and utterly unqualified! In 1997, I thought that insurance was unspeakably boring (which forced me to make it interesting.) In 2000, I thought that Asia was impossibly alien (which forced me to make it familiar). In 2003, I thought that technology was a curse on technophobes like me (which forced me to demystify and humanize it).

Put differently, all this was fantastic preparation for the book I’m now writing.

The idea is the result of a generalist’s lateral connections: A story about the ups and downs in all of our lives, told through historical characters.

Almost all of the characters in the book have their scholars and experts and specialists producing reams of expert biographies and histories at this very moment. My own qualification to write about any one of them amounts to zero.

A few of the publishers to whom I pitched the book idea noted this and asked, sensibly, ‘Why you, Andreas?’

I felt this was a very promising start.

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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 end of book publishing? Part II

I return to one of my threads, which is: What on earth were you smoking, Andreas, when you decided to write … a book?!?

So this is the second in what promises to become a series of occasional musings about the book industry, the first being here. As you can tell, there is an ongoing tug-of-war in my mind between pessimism and optimism.

Most writers, publishers, agents and even readers froze in shock this January when Steve Jobs, never one to mince words, seemed to sum it up perfectly: “People don’t read anymore.” (He was simultaneously dismissing Amazon’s new Kindle, an electronic book reader, and explaining why Apple does not have anything similar–an iPod for readers, say.) If you need academic gravitas, the National Endowment for the Arts gives the same verdict. (Thanks to Steven Harris, librarian at Utah State University, for the link.) So here I am, writing a book, just as people have stopped reading books. Great.

Now, the irony is that there seem to be more books published every year. I forget the numbers (anybody have a link?), but they are daunting. So we have: Fewer people reading books + more books than ever published. Greeeeat!

Now, I’ve always thought that the picture must be more nuanced. And there are several issues intertwined.

One is the issue of how we read, meaning what format we use. Many of us read more than ever before if you count screens (email etc), but less on paper, especially when it happens to be bound between two hardcovers. For example: More Wikipedia, less dead-tree Encyclopedia Britannica. So some categories and genres of books will disappear, others may disappear, and others yet will simply change, as I argued in The Economist last year; but some categories and genres of book may never change, and may even thrive in this new era. So the trick is to write a book that falls into these genres. Great. Easier said than done.

Another issue is how we read, meaning how our brains process the words. Whether reading online makes us lose the ability to read offline is an intellectually fascinating question. But will or should posterity care?  I doubt it. How many of us today still share the depression of that Renaissance monk who committed suicide because a new technology (Gutenberg’s printing press) had flooded the market–his market!–with a new text medium, leading to a drop in appreciation for monks transcribing Aristotle by hand (as in manuscript) in their monasteries, in between getting sloshed in the brewery vault downstairs?

As a book writer I commiserate with that monk, but I’d rather find a different solution than he did. So, besides writing my book, I’ve decided also to blog, as you may have noticed. The monastery and the printing press, as it were. (With this Californian Cabernet instead of the beer.) I’m hoping that between these two poles–a bound book and an unbound blog about it–some energy will flow. A good book blog can, over time, become something that a physical book can never be: a community, in which the author maintains a conversation with readers and everybody learns from everybody (ideally). My hope is–especially given the book’s topic of life, success, failure, reversal–that all of you will share your stories (by email, comment, whatever). In turn, the physical book, when it comes out, can provide something that a blog is not good for: an immersive and gripping story.

My thoughts about this blog-book alchemy owe a lot to people such as Chris Anderson, a former colleague of mine at The Economist, currently editor of Wired Magazine, and author of The Long Tail–both the book and the blog. He has long been saying that “blogging a book” and even giving much of it away free is enlightened. In part, that’s because, as Tim O’Reilly, a publisher, likes to say, “obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy.” And also because, well, why wouldn’t an author seek input from as many people as possible?

But back to the basic conundrum, and to my search for possible solutions. So far we can summarize:

Fewer readers + more books in fewer genres = friggin’ big challenge

What about those genres, though? It’s not about fiction versus non-fiction. But non-fiction books do tend to contain a fifty-page idea that the author must stretch out to 300 pages just to please the publisher, leaving lots of books with 250 unread pages on most people’s shelves, as Seth Godin, an author and blogger, told me in my article on the subject. Good fiction does not face that problem, because it tells stories, and human beings love good stories. So the challenge is really a timeless and old one: to write great stories, whether fiction or non-fiction. Or:

Fewer (but engaged and appreciative) readers + great story with satisfying idea = happy readers + happy author

As Seth Godin said to me in that same interview, right at the end of the article: We are increasingly discovering that books are not artefacts, nor necessarily good vehicles for ideas, but rather “souvenirs of the way we felt” when we read something. A good author has to make you feel something, and then you’ll want the book to remind you of it. I’m giving it a shot.

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