What Did Axios Do?

Don’t read the new book by the outlet’s co-founders. Experience it. Then buy six copies.

A collage of Axios's logo and some of its founders
Sharaf Maksumov; Shutterstock; Lauren Justice / Bloomberg / Getty; Leigh Vogel / Getty; The Atlantic

The men who summarized the news at the bullet-point-loving start-up Axios—Mike Allen, Roy Schwartz, and Jim VandeHei—may now be driving it. They may have tried to tamper with their book’s position on the New York Times best-seller list, Defector reports.

  • The three men recently published Smart Brevity, a book that champions the direct, abrupt style of the Virginia-based centrist tabloid. But the men have now adopted a new and innovative practice that has media insiders raising their eyebrows.

The intrigue: An internal Axios memo encouraged each employee to buy six copies of the trio’s new book. Workers could then get those purchases expensed by the company—a practice that could cost Axios more than $70,000, according to Defector.

  • 📈 If employees followed through, such a practice could send Smart Brevity soaring up the New York Times best-seller list. But it’s not entirely fair play, publishing insiders say.

Why it matters: Becoming a New York Times best seller can bring fame and notoriety—not to mention five-figure speaking gigs at big companies and conferences. It’s no wonder that Axios’s co-founders are chasing that kind of clout.

But: The Times is wise to these kinds of ploys. The paper has long attached a typographical mark called a dagger (†) to titles that may have been bought in bulk by authors hoping to worm their way onto the list.

  • 🔪 The paper also reserves the right to kick anyone off its list—for any reason.

  • 📚 “Institutional, special interest, group or bulk purchases, if and when they are included, are at the discretion of The New York Times Best-Seller List Desk editors,” says the paper’s website.

But, but: A few best-selling-book insiders told me that they thought Axios’s method was deliberately designed to evade these controls. “It sounds to me like they’re trying to dodge the dagger,” one deeply connected columnist said.

  • Axios has more than 500 employees. If each employee buys six copies of the book, that may not show up as a single bulk purchase, evading the Times’ filters, algorithm experts told me.

The numbers: Every Axios employee could buy six books.

  • Count it up: One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. That’s six books.

  • No matter how you look at it, that’s more than five—but less than seven.

Driving the news: This is a weighty time for Allen, Schwartz, and VandeHei.

  • Axios was recently acquired by Cox Enterprises for $525 million, one of the largest media start-up acquisitions of the past few years. Only the Times’s own acquisition of sports-news giant The Athletic—and Axel Springer’s recent purchase of Politico—were bigger.

  • But online-media insiders say that the company’s most promising product remains the software that it uses to send its emails—and the distinctive style that it uses to write them. Axios hoped to license that product—and its trademark approach—to companies communicating with their own employees.

But, but, but, but—but: That core technology wasn’t actually included in the sale to Cox. It was spun off as a separate B2B company, dubbed Axios HQ.

  • 💸 Axios HQ plans to raise its Series A next year. Axios’s board—on which Allen, Schwartz, and VandeHei all have seats—controls the board of Axios HQ, according to the company.

  • Corporate-governance and bullet-point insiders told me that Axios HQ’s success is riding on HR departments wanting to use the company’s distinctive style. If Smart Brevity looks like a best seller, that may make Axios HQ’s sales pitch easier.

Go deeper: Even if Allen, Schwartz, and VandeHei did try to shortcut their way onto the list, they wouldn’t be the first. They may have learned from one of Washington’s most famous recent residents: President Donald Trump.

  • President Trump’s 1987 The Art of the Deal only climbed the list because his company bought “tens of thousands of copies,” according to a later tell-all.

  • That didn’t stop the future president. The cover of every subsequent edition of the book has said No. 1 Best-Seller at the top.

Go deeper-er: “Smart brevity” is a literary tradition of its own. William Strunk and E. B. White’s classic book about writing, The Elements of Style, commands writers to “Omit needless words.”

  • Maybe that’s just what Allen, Schwartz, and VandeHei are doing. After all, Strunk and White didn’t say anything about skipping needless book orders.

Be smart: Six may seem like a lot—it’s more fingers than most people have on one hand—but it’s not the biggest number, according to numerological insiders.

  • Eighty-four, 3 bajillion, and seven are all bigger numbers than six, The Atlantic has confirmed.

  • But be careful. If a number has a negative sign in front of it, then it’s not bigger than six. “-9” is smaller than six, insiders cautioned. Let’s hope Axios employees kept that in mind.