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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, CEO explains why NYT spent $410 million to buy site. How 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 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, said he is “ecstatic we bought 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 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