There are multiple ways to disseminate an idea. Like so many others, I’ve found the blog post to be my greatest vehicle. Over the past ten years I have published over 1,000 such posts, of which at least half set out to express an opinion, make some argument, or test out a hypothesis.
It’s not the only medium — and it’s certainly not the most compelling — but the blog post is the most frictionless channel to transmit complex arguments that build on the works of others. No, my writing doesn’t show up in magazines or academic journals that boost the perception of the writer’s authority, nor does it serendipitously find itself in the hands of bookstore customers exploring the jackets of the latest nonfiction; but it’s remarkable that every post I publish is somehow read by thousands of individuals without any intermediaries beyond search engines and social media. I have found it extremely satisfying to contribute ideas and arguments to the public discourse with little intervention from gatekeepers, profit motives, and power brokers.
At times, however, I’m tempted to explore other forms of narrative argument. I’ve long dreamed of producing a documentary film that tells the human stories behind the institutionalized corruption that underlies all aspects of the importation of Chinese products into Mexico. I want the film to be an empathetic look at our basic desire for cheaper goods, and the social, environmental and cultural consequences that desire brings about.
I would also like to write a book. Several, in fact. There are topics that refuse to be neatly encompassed in a single blog post, or even a series of many posts. A well-delivered argument that adds substantially to our understanding of how the world works can take at least 300 pages to articulate. As an avid consumer of ideas, I find myself spending more time reading books than blog posts. (Though admittedly, many of those books would have been better off as blog posts while others are, in fact, polished collections of an author’s blog.)
One of the books I’d like to write, Smart Cities, Dumb Democracies builds on Edward Glaeser’s argument that cities should strive to alleviate poverty while promoting social inclusion and personal freedoms. It argues that the current fixation on “smart cities” leads policy makers to focus on the creation of “consumer cities” that appeal to the tech-savvy “creative class” without taking into consideration social inclusion, education and civic participation.
I have an outline of chapters, each of which makes a specific argument backed up by data and anecdotes. In aggregate they will hopefully convince the reader to re-think how we approach the development of urban life in the 21st century. Sounds ambitious, I know, but a nonfiction book should be ambitious, or else I don’t see why one would take the time to write one.
Having spoken with various friends who have published nonfiction books with major publishing houses, I came to realize that I had a lot to learn about the publishing industry. I didn’t understand the pros and cons of an agent, the difference between publishing with an academic press or a trade press, nor that publishing houses actually pay bookstores to place books on particular shelves.
In hindsight, I was clueless. Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction–and Get It Published is an eye-opening look at the nonfiction publishing industry and what it takes to get a work of serious nonfiction published. Several of the book’s suggestions are counter-intuitive until they are explained in greater detail. Publishers don’t want groundbreaking ideas, we are told. Rather, they look for the authoritative version of an argument that has already provoked public interest. In other words, publish plenty of book reviews and Op-Eds to seed your arguments in public before you publish your book.
The first half of the book explains step-by-step how to prepare your submission package for an editor at a publishing house. The second half deals with the actual writing process. Most first-time writers, especially academics, the authors write, struggle to effectively encompass narrative into their non-fiction. Clearly some academics simply don’t have the natural ability or the learned experience to make arguments with compelling stories. But the authors mention another reason for the hesitation to use stories that illustrate arguments: the increasingly fuzzy line between fiction and nonfiction. The authors point us to the scandal around Edmund Morris’ almost-factual biography of Ronald Reagan, which was sold as non-fiction despite its use of fictional characters. A more contemporary example is Jonah Lehrer’s bizarre fabrication of Bob Dylan quotes, despite the fact that they hardly contributed to his book’s larger argument.
The authors mention George Chauncey’s Gay New York and Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point as prime examples of effectively mixing narrative with argument. They are also prime examples of why I began to feel uneasy as I read through the second half of this book, passing from one suggestion to the next about how to craft serious nonfiction. In aggregate, those suggestions don’t quite make up a formula, but they get pretty damned close. In parallel to reading this book I was also listening to the audiobook of Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography, and I became annoyed when I detected those same rules of thumb in the book’s structure.
The nonfiction book no longer felt like an exciting new medium to explore. Rather, the best practices of the nonfiction publishing industry began to feel like a formulaic corset that restricts the author’s creativity and voice. The publishing industry knows how their customers consume nonfiction, and they ensure that the authors don’t stray too far outside of the lines.
I am still left with three options: self-publishing, approaching an academic press, or working with an agent to pitch a trade press. Thanks to Thinking Like Your Editor, I’m much more informed about the pros and cons of each option.
There’s an interesting paper “The Fundamental Templates of Quality Ads” which seems to have some parallels here. The original paper is easily googleable, or there’s a good discussion of it in Chapter 1 of Chip & Dan Heath’s “Made To Stick”. The basic thesis is that the vast majority of successful advertising can be categorised into six basic templates, and a majority within that is simply a combination of the same two of those categories. After a single two-hour training session in the ‘rules’ of how to use these templates, non-professionals have been able — by deliberately wrapping themselves in that restrictive corset — to consistently create results that both professional and non-professional observers see as significantly more creative than by those who reject the straightjacket. I strongly suspect the same is true in writing as well: most of the time it’s more important to spread new ideas, not new rules.
Just found the paper here. Thanks for the link. In fact, the authors say as much in this book. Don’t worry about the writing, they suggest, what’s most important is that you have a recognizable public profile and that your argument comes across as authoritative. Personally I can’t stand Gladwellesque formulaic non-fiction (“everyone thought X, but then this little-known person discovered Y and turns out that the world is really Z”), even if the ideas that Gladwell presents are compelling. For me, writing does matter. I’d much rather sink into the cleverly crafted intellectual labyrinths of David Foster Wallace or Richard Sennett than follow the publishing houses’ color-inside-the-lines rules of “narrative tension.”