Publishing October 2011

Meme Weaver

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

Presented by

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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