Publishing October 2011

Meme Weaver

The author tries—and fails—to cash in on a big idea.
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John Ashcroft

When I was young I wanted to write a challenging book of ideas. I had in mind the kind of “deep” book that public intellectuals of the 1950s and ’60s wrote: The Lonely Crowd, The One-Dimensional Man, The End of Ideology. Intellectuals talked seriously about them in magical places like New York and San Francisco, places I—being in Kansas—knew nothing about. Unfortunately, I didn’t really have anything deep to say. So I did what most intellectually ambitious young Americans do. I went to graduate school. I found nothing deep to say there. Instead, I learned to do research and write clearly. In the years that followed, I wrote books, but not deep books of ideas. My books were focused, well-documented demonstrations of some minor fact about the world. They added to what we know. That’s something.

Yet I still hungered to write a book of ideas. I knew I wouldn’t ever do so in academia. So after about a decade of teaching at a big university you’ve probably heard of, I left to work in a staff position at a big magazine you’ve probably heard of. In my mind, this magazine stood at the pinnacle of American intellectual life. I didn’t think working at the big magazine would make me a public intellectual. I wasn’t hired as a writer; I was hired as a researcher. I cannot say, however, that I didn’t want to see my name in the big magazine.

In 2005, Wikipedia was taking off. I thought its history might be interesting. So I wrote a piece on spec about the founding of Wikipedia. The editors at the big magazine liked it, and they published it in the summer of 2006. Around the time my Wikipedia article appeared in the big magazine, another Wikipedia piece appeared in another big magazine. Wikipedia was suddenly, as Tina Brown says, “v. hot.” This was my chance to write a book of ideas—not that I had any good ideas to write about. I sent an e-mail to a literary agent picked at random, asking whether I could write a book about Wikipedia-style collaboration on the Internet. I got a call within minutes. The nice fellow at the other end of the line (who, incidentally, is still my agent) said he’d read my article. I could get a book deal with a big New York trade publisher.

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.

My agent is not a cynical man. He never suggested that I misrepresent myself or commit to anything I couldn’t accomplish. He was simply doing his job, explaining to me how this particular game is played. He is also very good at what he does. So when the bidding ended, a New York trade publisher showed us a large number. I should point out that in actuality I had no book. All I had was a shaky platform, a supposedly big idea, and a catchy title. Yet there it was, the big number.

My editor at the New York publisher said lots of flattering things and proclaimed that my book would be important. This was Wikipedia’s moment. My book would capture it. But what was the book going to be about? We weren’t sure. Something to do with mass collaboration and how it changes everything. I’d work it out. There was only one sticking point, a sticking point that almost tipped me over: he wanted the book in six months. I said that was impossible. He told me to do the best I could. I thought of that large number and agreed to try.

I started doing research. This was revealing, as research should be. 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. Years of academic research taught me two things. First, reality is as complicated as it is, not as complicated as we want it to be. Some phenomena have an irreducible complexity that will defeat any big-idea effort at simplification. Detailed research has, not surprisingly, cast doubt on the reality of wise crowds, tipping points, and long tails. Second, most of the easy big questions about the way the world works have been answered. The questions that remain are really hard. Big ideas, then, can only reinvent the wheel or make magical claims.

So I forgot about big ideas and did what I was trained to do. I conducted research. I let the facts be my guide. My book contained no down-from-the-mountain revelations. Its conclusions would not make anyone rich, happy, and beautiful. Its rewards were unashamedly intellectual, and moreover not that easily achieved. It was a difficult book. I submitted it to my editor, hoping that he would accept it.

Of course he couldn’t. Wikipedia’s moment had passed, and my big idea had vanished. He killed the book, and the big number disappeared. I don’t blame him. He was just doing his job. I was the one, after all, who had not followed through on a promise. I said I would write a big-idea book, but I had instead written a book of ideas.

Marshall Poe is the founder and editor of the New Books Network a consortium of author-interview podcasts devoted to new books
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 Marshall Poe is a writer and historian. He is the editor in chief of the New Books Network.

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