Yesterday I followed this mellifluously titled article on why the author hadn’t been able to write a best selling ‘ideas book’.
This is what I had to do. First, I needed to have a platform. A platform is something you stand on. It makes you taller than you are. In trade publishing, a platform is the same, but it’s a prestigious brand. I had two: from a trade editor’s point of view, I had been a “professor” at the big university and a “writer” at the big magazine. Second, I needed a big idea. A big idea is an enthusiastically stated thesis, usually taking the form of “This changes everything and will make you rich, happy, and beautiful.” A big idea must be counterintuitive: the this that changes everything must be something everyone thinks is trivial, but in fact matters a great deal. In my case, the this had to be Wikipedia, so my big idea was “Wikipedia changes everything.” I had done no research to substantiate such a claim. Third, I needed a catchphrase title like The Wisdom of Crowds, The Tipping Point, or The Long Tail. The title had to be the kind of thing that becomes a cliché. Trade editors would demand this. And in fact a trade editor suggested a good title—WikiWorld. . . .
I started doing research. . . . It forced me to scotch the idea that “Wikipedia changes everything,” because it obviously didn’t. The truth about Wikipedia was messy. I couldn’t boil it down to catchphrases and anecdotes. So I did my best to reduce the inherent complexity of the subject, and submitted the manuscript. Was it good? Well, the book did the job as I understood it. Was it done? Yes, and that was important. But I was worried. I had strayed from the big-idea template. My book was a convoluted story involving evolution, human nature, media technologies, and their effects on human society and thought. Surprisingly, my editor liked it a lot. He compared me to Jared Diamond. I didn’t know whether that was a compliment or not. I had some serious questions about Diamond’s work, as did many other historians. My agent, however, assured me that this was the best possible news: Diamond’s books sold like hotcakes.
Then my editor fell ominously silent. E-mails went unanswered, phone calls unreturned. What had happened? My agent explained that my big idea—which in fact was no longer my big idea—had a short shelf life. That’s why my editor had wanted the book in six months. Other Wikipedia books were in the pipeline. Some of their authors had higher platforms, bigger ideas, and pithier titles than mine. The clock was ticking. After six months, my editor finally wrote me. Not surprisingly, he no longer liked my book. Too complicated for the average trade reader. He advised me to speculate. “Unleash your inner Marshall McLuhan,” he said, and rewrite the book.
This was excellent advice from a smart man with decades of experience in trade publishing. But I realized that I had no inner Marshall McLuhan. Even more important was my realization that I had no inner James Surowiecki, Malcolm Gladwell, or Chris Anderson. From my editor’s perspective, these were models, and rightly so. They made trade publishers a fortune. From my perspective, however, they were good writers who had spun big ideas into gold. I couldn’t write a big-idea book, because, as it turned out, I didn’t believe in big ideas. By my lights, they almost had to be wrong.
Anyway, at the bottom of the article was a link to another project of the author’s – the new book network where there are podcasts of interviews with the authors of new books. Seems like a good idea to me. Apart from anything else I like the guy’s sense of humour – which is evident in the site’s video and in lots of his write ups. and, as I snuffled through a cold in bed last night, managed to listen to a bunch of interesting interviews, the highlight being the one with Elizabeth Anderson on her recent book The Imperative of Integration (Princeton University Press, 2010).