The Buy Read Paradox

I’m intrigued by the disconnect between the prestige and legitimacy afforded by being a “published author” and all the friction inherent in trying to spread your ideas by writing a book.

Think about the dropoff from:

The number of people who hear about a book → The number that buy the book → The number that read the book they’ve bought → The number that spread the word about that book

If you aren’t a known name or you don’t have an existing tribe whose permission you’ve earned (often over a number of years), simply getting the word out about your book is a herculean task.  And so, most books sell only a few thousand copies.

Nevertheless, being a “published author” still carries a real caché.  Especially if you write nonfiction, “published author” is a chalice of purported legitimacy and expertise (e.g. it’s a lot easier for a journalist or a TV producer to justify interviewing a published author).  What that means in reality is that the book gives you permission to talk about the ideas in the book, not the other way around.  It’s a pretty roundabout, lumpy way to spread an idea.

Which gets me thinking:

  1. 25 years from now, will the notion of being a “published author” be anachronistic, and, if that happens, what will replace it?
  2. Or, will the notion live on, because as a society we will always need a way to separate out “legitimate” idea merchants from the chaff.

If anything, it seems like we are going to see a proliferation of pathways to legitimacy, which gives people who want to spread ideas (but who don’t have access to the gatekeepers) more options.  That seems like a good thing, as the volume of ideas that will spread will likely go up.

The open question is whether, overall, more of the best ideas will get out.  My bet is: Yes.

What do you think?

5 thoughts on “The Buy Read Paradox

  1. Well, with the proper algorithms good ideas do seem to rise above the rest.
    Google is obviously the perfect example but, who knows how many good ideas we’re still missing because they are not popular for some reason.
    My favorite example is J.S.Bach who was mocked as passé in his own life time (although he was still considered the 2nd best living composer and wildly celebrated as an outstanding performer) and had managed to build his reputation as a composer only 80 years after his death. (Now, pretty much considered as the biggest genius who ever lived. It takes more than a lifetime to get in depth with all his compositions and many still try.)
    So, if dead J.S Bach didn’t have such influential friends he could have never made it to immortality.
    Therefore I would rephrase your original question as follows:

    “Could the internet have helped dead Bach to gain his rightfully owned eternal fame?”

    On one hand we have a lot more information in which he could have got lost in but on the other hand we have a lot more people going through it and sorting the good from the mediocre.
    I guess it’s an equation of content creation and content consumption and sorting.
    If we create more than what we can sort and consume we will lose content.
    I would therefore postulate that as long as people consume and sort ideas faster than they conjure them we are capable of knowing which ones are good.

    The only thing we still need to agree on is that it’s easier to get to non mainstream ideas with the internet thus ensuring a better “support net” for unpopular thoughts.
    I would say it’s not perfect but it’s a lot better than anything we had before.

    Bottom line:
    I agree.

  2. I mull over this exact question every time I listen to colleagues lament the challenges of publishing and marketing their books. I’ve asked many, “Why do you do it?” and their reply is always a variation of: “Because that’s what you do.” Most of them have successful blogs so the answer seems to still be about access, but whom and what authors are attempt to access is changing. Reinforces the point that perception is reality, on many levels.

    Thanks for your blog and for inspiring generosity, Sasha!

  3. First, I think you raise good points on the validity of being an author in our information rich society. Second, I think that being an author will only be as relevant as the quality of the work completed. Basically, I think that the mere completion of a high quality tome even if it isn’t read by everyone, is leverage in a conversation. The problem is, how do you measure a good book from a bad book as opposed to whether or not someone has a tribe?

    My answer to that is Jon Bischke’s reputation graph. Which is basically what people think about the people they know in an online context. He rifts on it on his blog:

  4. The number of people who have access to write a book (education, experiences, time) –> The number of people who write a book –>The number of people whose books are published –> The number of books sold (Audience) –> Ability of author’s ideas to transform into a norm/conventional wisdom

    I do agree with you that someone whose name does not possess social/economic/political clout will have a much harder time trying to get published. Even those who’ve managed to publish a book face a difficult time marketing. I’ve often wondered why J.K.Rowling was the official pen name of the famous Harry Potter series. Get this, the publishers feared that since the book’s target audience were young boys, said young boys may not want to read a book written by a woman!!! So often do we consciously and unconsciously already attribute value to a book based on the author’s identity, statusm popularity that when it comes to the substantive ideas in the book – it can get lost by the wayside.

    I think the bigger issue is addressing how we can encourage those who are marginalized to speak up and share their ideas. It doesn’t necessarily have to come in the form of a book but could be through a blog, newspaper article, online social media, etc. However, not everyone has access to the internet nor the education to express their ideas in socially approved channels. How do we get the single mother who’s working two jobs to write or blog about the efficiencies of government social services? How do we provide entrepreneurs in developing countries a platform to share their best practices to corporations? And lastly, how do move society to actually listen to those without the status, clout, brand name? Essentially, how do we democratize communication? I certainly don’t have the answer but I am hoping that through education, technology, and the embedded notion of “all men [and women] are created equal” will be key ingredients.

    Your second question about society’s need to separate out “legitimate” idea merchants from the chaff reminds me of Edward Said’s book “Orientalism”. Writing is power. This is not my idea. This is Foucault’s. The ability to affect scholarly and popular thinking through writing is powerful because it can shape a society’s perception, opinions, and values. Social constructs can be teased out of any books and oftentimes, support a Western worldview.

    I think that with time, we will have more great ideas from people from all walks of life be made public. The only caveat to this is that it also brings a greater potential for social to dismiss these great ideas because of information overload. I fully agree with Itamar Caspi that we should create a better support net and more mainstream platforms for less popular ideas. I just believe that getting those who have innovative ideas to speak up is the initial and primary challenge.

  5. I’d have to go with the second question, or rather I believe that the notion will go on. Its as you said in order to legitimize something it needs to published. Agreed there have been a few cases where authors have been able to gain widespread success even without being published but the fact remains that the world would rather have something that is legit as opposed to something that may or may not be good. And the growing number of online retailers with new sellers coming into the market everyday like makes it even more difficult for authors to market their product.

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