March 8, 2005
"Digby, if You’re Reading This, Send Me an E-mail." A Book Editor On Why He Loves Weblogs
Eric Nelson is a Senior Editor at John Wiley and Sons, specializing in
current affairs and history. Here he explains why he reads blogs obsessively, and why you don't do a book deal with the big name columnist to whom no one links.
Special to PressThink
“Digby, if you’re reading this, send me an email.”
by Eric Nelson
In the publishing industry, we often talk about the mythic “handsell” book. These are those very few books that find astonishing success without a six-figure marketing campaign, Daily Show appearance, established author following, or can’t-miss topic. If you look at any best-seller list, it’s typically occupied by people who have already written bestsellers, or celebrities of some other sort. Most bestsellers typically hit their sales peak the first week out. Think Jose Canseco, Jon Stewart, and Malcom Gladwell.
Some books, however, beat the odds and win readers over one at a time. Editors, marketing, sales, the chains, TV bookers, and review editors—the experts—all decide a book won’t find a huge audience, but that audience begs to differ. One enthusiastic reader after another recommends it to a friend until it climbs onto the bestseller list.
These few, benighted books often hit their sales peaks long after they’ve hit bookstore shelves. Reading Lolita in Tehran, for example, currently sells ten times as many copies each week as it did the first week. The odds are against this, but it does happen. And every editor harbors the dream that each new book they publish will suddenly become that handsell book.
The phenomenon can happen with movies, bands, and television shows. But before the internet, that simply couldn’t happen with a Paul Krugman column. If you didn’t get The New York Times that day, you were out of luck. If the buzz builds quickly, he might get to recap it that night in an interview on PBS, but that’s your best shot. If that amazing column ran in the Denver Post, you’re not even likely to hear about it second or third hand from a friend. And if you’re middle-aged college professor, who happens to have an expert insight, but no real access to major media, forget about it.
Blogs have changed that because they rarely miss out on anything good. With blog-tracking tools like Daypop, Blogdex, Technorati, and even The New York Times most-emailed rss feeds, I feel like I never miss what everyone else is talking about.
Every blog I read obsessively is a handsell. I started reading Kevin Drum, Digby, Jay Rosen, Daniel Radosh, Ruy Teixiera and others because so many other bloggers said they were good (and good every day) not because of the big, branded marketing apparatus connected to them.
There’s one story I like to tell people when they ask me why I’m so enthusiastic about blogs. A number of years ago, on a trip to DC, I met with the then Washington Editor of The American Prospect, Josh Marshall. It was a good gig, but not one that gave him much room to breathe. He was limited in what he could write about and how often. He was also writing for a smallish audience, and with ideological expectations placed on him as a staff member at an opinion magazine with semi-official positions on everything.
Over dinner, he told me that what he really wanted was a column. Everyone out there with the gene for wonkiness wants a column, I stupidly told him, but you have to earn it. He wanted a column soon, and he felt sure that if he had one, a lot of people would want to read it. I liked Josh’s writing and reporting, and I did believe some day he’d get there. But I knew no sane editor would take a chance on someone so early in his career to write a column.
Obviously, a few million pageviews later, we know he was right, and all those sane editors were wrong.
On the other hand, there are some major newspaper and magazine columnists, whom I won’t name, but I never see them linked to, ever. These people are all “famous,” but to me, if absolutely no one is blogging your stuff, no one’s reading it in the paper either.
For my job, it’s very important to know what and who everyone’s reading. That’s why I actually check Daypop before I read any specific blogs. I know what new stories are drawing interest, and for a major story, which article is possibly the best one. It also never fails to provide us with something quirky, but fascinating, like the story of the woman in Texas who killed her husband with a port wine enema.
In real estate, it’s location, location, location. In publishing, it’s insight, insight, insight. When a reader picks up a book, they don’t just want to know about a subject, they want to understand it. Even those hot new biographies you see advertised promising new information from uncovered archives or letters, only sell because of what that new information means. No one would want a whole book about Nixon’s newly uncovered dental records, unless they revealed something important about him. (Like he had microphones in his teeth.)
The book that sells the best on a hot new topic, like terrorism, is usually the one with the clearest insights. And now, the article or blog post with the clearest insights is often the most widely read one as well.
One idea I’m always pitching to Jay, and anyone else who will listen, is that we’ve moved from the “Information Age” to the “Age of Insight.” When Bush announced his budget, for instance, you could get that information from any one of thousands of sources. But a handful of people presented the best explanations (left and right) of what his budget really means. Because of blogs, it’s easy to figure out who those people are, and sometimes they’re even bloggers.
Beyond that, I read them for the same reasons everyone else does. Blogs catch the stories that fall through cracks. They don’t fall into press release journalism, or at least not the blogs we all actually read. That great turn of phrase, picture, slogan, or cocktail party argument you couldn’t have found somewhere else, you find in blogs.
I’m sure any bloggers reading this were hoping that I’d end with all the contracts I’ve offered, or plan to offer, to bloggers. I have made offers to writers with blogs, but never someone who’s blog was his only, or even main, qualification. The fact remains that most of the top bloggers, the people I’d want as authors, have or had a day job as a pundit.
If Andrew Sullivan and Jeff Jarvis, two former major magazine editors, aren’t the mainstream media, then I don’t know what that term means. The truth is most bloggers are editors, picking the best bits of the web to show their readers; they are not reporters or architects of elegant policy arguments. The ones that are reporters and architects, usually have a pretty good non-digital resume to back it up.
That said, Digby, if you’re reading this, send me an e-mail.
Eric Nelson is a Senior Editor at John Wiley and Sons, specializing in current affairs and history.
After Matter: Notes, reactions and links…
Ken Smith, at Weblogs in Higher Education, responds to this post.
G as in Good H as in Happy (“reflecting an Austin, TX lawyer’s interest in ethics, personal coaching, the flow experience, NLP, communication, and particularly and generally, happiness”) responds to Nelson:
We are part of the private, recent, non-geek, non-old-boy bloggers, with insignificant stats, who think aloud in public, becoming a part of varied conversations, adding a nano-gram to consensus or controversy on certain subjects, and occasionally achieving a mini-scoop by virtue of observation or privileged access in our own circle.
When in retrospect blogs are evaluated, we believe it will be this kind of ordinary educated citizens’ distributed intelligence with its impact on the market and the polity, including the expressive content of millions who also read the expression of others, that will have rumbled the tectonic foundation of our common life.
Mark Glaser, columnist for Online Journalism Review, About.com CEO explains why NYT spent $410 million to buy site. How About.com trains and uses its “guides,” why the guides invest in building their page views, competition from Wikipedia, and many other subjects. Extremely informative, if you are interested in the Times deal for About.
PressThink was interested on Feb. 20: A Little Detail in the Sale of About.com to the New York Times.
Jeff Jarvis gave this report about a conference we were both at with Len Apcar, Editor of the New York Times site:
Len Apcar, editor in chief of NYTimes.com, said he is “ecstatic we bought About.com because it says the New York Times is not a newspaper company.” That’s provocative and it’s right. The New York Times is a news company, an advertising company, an audience company, a company in need of diversifying its ad base and in need of new sources of growth; it is and must be more than paper…
More than one person in this room saw the About.com and the Dow Jones/Marketplace deals as very important for the future of old media (though Len also said that Marketplace was necessary to Dow Jones because its pay model is a “failed model”).
What Apcar also said—I thought it was a juicy piece of news—is that the Times Company had the chance to purchase a major metropolitan newspaper (which he did not name) that suddenly came on the market. The Company declined in favor of the About deal.
Posted by Jay Rosen at March 8, 2005 12:04 AM
Nelson's comments are interesting, but are questionable in a number of instances....
The first is his assumption that by reading the most popular blogs (Drum, Marshall), the best "expert" blogs (like Jay's here), and using sites like DayPop and Technorati, he feels like he has access to "the best" stuff.
This is a myth, and a rather insidious one at that. The recent dust-up concerning Kevin Drum and women bloggers demonstrated that there is already an "old (white) boys network" in the blogosphere. The currency of the web is the link, and this "network" circulates most of that currency within a relatively small (considering the number of bloggers out there) group of "popular" and "expert" bloggers.
And the fact is that this network does not represent the best of the web; it is a representation of the "best" bloggers that got in on the ground floor. Jay's blog is very good, but there are probably others blogging on the same subject that are equally good if not better that don't get the links, the readership, and the invites to all the big blog conferences and The Daily Show. It was relatively easy for Jay to develop the reputation as 'the best' in his particular field, because there was far less competition when he started blogging. Its much harder to establish that kind of reputation now, not just because of the sheer number of blogs means more competition, but because the people who control the currency of the link are used to relying on those with "established" reputations.
One of the biggest problems that results from this ossification at the top of the blogosphere is that the vast majority of the "popular" and "expert" bloggers are either professional or amateur techno-geeks. I personally question the wisdom of the blogosphere's reliance on "early adopters" of new technologies to decide what news is important, and whose insights are worth reading.
There is a profound pro "individual empowerment through technology" bias within this group --- and (as can be seen at every blogging conference) relatively little consideration is given to the downside of the potential of the technology (the loss of a common frame of reference) or the ways that the technology can be used to empower communities of people, rather than individuals.
[The "press vs bloggers" controvery can be seen as an extension of this --- the most influence bloggers come to the table with a "pro-individual empowerment" bias built in, while "the press" sees its role in terms of collective empowerment ("the press" serves communities.)
[The "individual empowerment" bias may also help explain why the far-right is disproportionately represented on the web among the blogging elite.)
Because of the way the blogosphere has grown and "matured", the voices of those who are not "early adopters" generally go unheard, regardless of the quality of their insight. The gatekeepers of the blogosphere elite tend to ignore their very existence (see any list of invitees to any "invitation only" blogging conference.) And as a result, the nature and quality of the debate of public policy is being skewed.
Uh, elmo, perhaps you could try to wrap your superior "critical thought" capabilities around the questions that were asked one more time (since you didn't quite get the gist of them)..
Once more, for the record (and I promise to go very slowly):
1) Since when does bias have to be a conspiracy, and
2)where in Cal-boy's posts has he posited a conspiracy assertion?
Of course, if it was your intention to be utterly non-responsive to the questions I posted (which is certainly your right), you could at least say so.
Whether or not Cal-boy actually defends Halliburton or not (and who knows what that means anyway), utilizes "the Great Explainer" device, or even is a wingnut or not is not actually germaine to the question of whether or not he (Cal-boy) is pressing forward with a liberal bias "conspiracy" charge.
The larger point which Cal-boy makes (as it appears to me) is that no individual journalist/blogger/pundit/human is capable of approaching a story (or selection of story to write about) without some specific framework or prism through which he/she, the writer, filters the world.
Further, that an understanding on the part of the general readership of that writer of what prism or framework the writer uses enables them (the readers) to more fully place stories in context.
To that end, the more transparent reporters/commentators are with regards to their own beliefs, the more credibility they will have.
For instance, I know that if I were to read that Andrew Sullivan, Charles Krauthammer and Josh Marshall were all to be in agreement on some issue, that would certainly mean something!
elmo, you're direct, but non-responsive as usual.
1)Since when does bias have to be a conspiracy?
elmos answer " when claims of bias are refuted by the facts."
Look, try question 1) this way: can bias, if it exists or could exist, have to be result of a conspiracy? If not, then just stick with your original argument that Cal-boy's assertion of bias is false.
2)where in Cal-boy's posts has he posited a conspiracy assertion?
Elmos response/nonresponse: "2)"Maybe a better question: Has there ever been a time when the press was unbiased?" cal-boy to anna."
The issue is not which question is "better", the question is where in his posting does Cal-boy assert a conspiracy?
I've read each post by Cal-boy and it's just not there. It's just not there.
Bottom line: Cal-boy doesn't assert conspiracy, just a general like-mindedness on the part of many/most in the establishment media today and a more general premise that people have always had biases and these are reflected in their work.
Again, just admit Cal-boy doesn't assert a conspiracy and stick with your disagreement with him on the issue of current liberal bias in the establishment media.
As for Krauthammer working for the so-called liberal media and how I account for it, my answer is simple: I don't consider "media" to be liberal or conservative, I consider Liberals to be liberal, and Conservatives to be conservative.
See that makes it easy. For example, CNBC isn't liberal, Chris Mathews and Keith Olberman are. CNBC isn't conservative, but Joe Scarborough is.
Further, pundits from all sides are present on cable networks (ever see Begala and Carville, or Hannity and Colmes?) Maybe that's because the cable nets have lots of time to fill, an argument to foment, and it's hard to have a one-sided argument. (I'm not claiming that the "discussions" are often illuminating.)
Unfortunately, it's very easy to have a one-sided presentation on the Broadcast nets when you only have a minute or two per issue and around 22 minutes total in the nightly news, even before you begin debating the merits of bias or no-bias. And yes, I do believe that Jennings/Brokaw/Rather-Schieffer are, at the least, social Liberals across most issues.
You would have to identify specific broadcasts/topics for me to question whether or not I thought their social bias was evident in a story at all and even if so, to what extent.
Hope that helps.
Jay, at this point I will apologize to you for getting so off the beaten path with some of these back and forths (wow, it's easy to get sucked in, isn't it?)
I will endeavor to bring more scintillating contributions to this forum from here on out (I know, I know, that's mighty big talk from a one-eyed fat-man....)
elmo: "Out of power?"
Yes elmo, out of power, as in the Dems running the show in Washington, as in the House and Senate Majorities and a Democrat Administration....too tough??
However, I do congratulate you on inadvertantly lurching into a conversational area where I can agree with you:
"You see invading countries having a civil war is tough to get get approval for when self-preservation........isn't present such as in Darfur right now."
I couldn't agree more.
Still, what should Clinton have done? (pay close attention to see if elmo actually addresses this)
elmo: "Were the neocons hammering away on him to do something? I doubt it."
No the Neo-cons were generally not supportive of action, since most "Neo-cons" are generally supportive of the premise that US power only be used when clear national interests are stake.
But here's another question: Were Democrats hammering away on him to do something? (I seem to recall the Congressional Black Caucus being all over this, and yet Clinton still didn't act. Would the addition of some "Neo-con" yelling have forced him to act?)
elmo: "Of course the root causes escape you, and that's why 9-11 came out of the blue for people like you."
Actually, you never asked about the root causes, this is just the next step in your avoiding addressing any questions that flummox you.
As for the root causes however, some were specific to Rwanda, others more general and similar to other difficulties in Africa at large (see Biafra in the 60's, Ethiopa in the mid-80's and Somalia in 91.) As for how poverty, disease, war, post-colonial (that's getting a bit dated, isnt it?) destruction can be ameliorated in Africa, that is another thread altogether.
I was supportive of Clinton's efforts in Bosnia, (as were most of my fellow Naval Aviators--can't speak for the Air Force fellas because, well, we just didn't hang out together in the bars), I just wished he would have allowed the pilots to get closer to the mud to be more effective (might have avoided that whole "bomb the crap out of the Chinese embassy" incident as well)
Check the records elmo, Republicans were in general support of that effort in Bosnia, they just wished the Europeans could handle things a little more effectively in their own back yard. Oh, BTW, we'll need to revisit Bosnia again in future, hope you'll be supportive when we do.
As for being a coward, please please please don't listen to what those Air Force pukes are saying...they never land on carriers and besides, their uniforms are Robins-egg blue..ugh..