Book as process, book as byproduct, book as conversation

Nieman Lab’s Megan Garber wrote a brilliant post about the nature of books and conversation using as illustration a conversation about my book. It is, as Jay Rosen said, too good to summarize. So please do go read it.

I love Garber’s piece not just because she said that “90 percent of Morozov’s criticisms are wildly unfair,” referring to a so-called review of my book. I love it because Garber delivered the most serious criticism of my book to date:

The precise thing that makes idea-driven books so valuable to readers — their immersive qualities, the intimate, one-on-one relationship they facilitate between authors and readers — also make them pretty lousy as actual sharers of ideas. Books don’t go viral. And that’s largely because the thing that makes books lucrative to authors and publishers — their ability to restrain ideas, to wall them off from the non-book-buying world — is antithetical to virality. How can books be expected to share ideas when the very point of their existence is containment?

I wrote a book about sharing. But a book is a bad form for sharing.

The book, Garber said, is “designed to advance books within the marketplace, rather than the marketplace of ideas. It aims at publicity rather than publicness, at selling objects rather than propelling the arguments they contain.”

Garber is right. I’ve confessed my hypocrisy in writing both my books on other grounds: I didn’t make them digital, clickable, correctable, linkable…. I did it to get paid, edited, promoted, and distributed (though with the closing of Borders, that last function becomes less valuable). Garber points out as mitigation that I had shared my ideas about publicness on my blog before I wrote the book.

“The professor has been preaching publicness for years — at Buzzmachine, in his Guardian column, at conferences, on TV, on Twitter, on the radio, on his Tumblr. If you follow Jeff Jarvis, you follow Public Parts. You’ve seen his thoughts on publicness take shape over time. The book that resulted from that public process — the private artifact — is secondary. It is the commercial result of a communal endeavor.”

She’s being too easy on me. While I wrote the book, I did share and discuss many of the ideas in it on my blog. That can be a form of collaboration and peer review. But I didn’t do it nearly enough, as far as I’m concerned. I was so busy researching, writing, and editing the book that I neglected the blog.

As Garber notes, I say in Public Parts that I should try to make my next project — if I choose to undertake one — different.

At the end of Public Parts, Jarvis mentions that his next project may not be a book at all, but rather a book-without-a-book: a Godinesque series of public events held both in person and online. “The book,” Jarvis writes, “if there is one, would be a by-product and perhaps a marketing tool for more events.”

The book, if there is one. The book, a by-product. Imagine the possibilities.

I’m still working on what that could be. So let me begin the process and outline my early thinking here to hear what you think.

Start with Kevin Kelly’s 2006 essay in The New York Times Magazine arguing that authors would come to support themselves with performance — and John Updike’s appalled reaction to this “pretty grisly scenario.” I’m not suggesting that authors become merely actors after their books are done.

I’m suggesting, as Garber does, that talks, events, symposia, blogs, hangouts… — discussion with smart people in any form — should come before the book. The process becomes the product; the book (if there is one) is a byproduct.

To take an example: I’ve been wanting to explore the impact of one simple idea, that technology now leads to efficiency over growth. I wrote a post about one aspect of that here and here as well as here and here. The conversation was amazing in its intelligence, perspective, and generosity. It became even better when Y Combinator founder Paul Graham posted it to Hacker News with a challenge, asking what makes this revolution (digital v. industrial) different. Amazing replies ensued. It took me many hours to go through it all, taking many notes.

That made me decide to propose this topic as a talk to South by Southwest. If accepted, that will give me a deadline for research. But I want — no, need — more conversation in the meantime.

That leads me to an idea for a new business. I don’t really want to start it or run it; I just wish it existed so I could use it.

It is time to disrupt the conference and speaking businesses and give some measure of control back to speakers (also known as authors) and their publics (formerly known, as Jay Rosen would say, as audiences). I hope for a way to support the work of authors and thinkers — support it with conversation, attention, and collaboration as well as money.

So imagine this: Authors decide to hold their own event. If you have the brand and popularity of, say, Seth Godin (or, in the sales arena, Jeffrey Gitomer), you can gather a large roomful of fans without effort; each does. But folks like me don’t have their brand or promotional power. So let’s say I get together with another one or two authors and we propose an event in which we discuss what we’re working on.

Kickstarter would seem to be an ideal platform to find out whether there is sufficient demand to support such a gathering, at least to get started. If enough folks sign up, the authors can rent a venue: no risk. The startup I wish for would handle logistics for a fee. It could also be a platform for groups to get together, organizing conferences without conference organizers.

The event, in my view, isn’t speeches to audiences so much as conversations. The author needs to bring value: a presentation, a talk, a set of ideas or challenges. But it’s the conversation I crave, to develop and further challenge ideas and gather perspectives. The event could be streamed for a larger public. It could be videoed and shared online for continued exchange via blogs, Google+, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, et al.

Note that this isn’t about containing ideas but sharing them. That’s what Garber and I both want.

Is there a book? Why should there be? Because a book can memorialize the ideas and research that comes out of this process. It can bring the discipline that the form — and a good editor, like mine — can demand. It can spread the ideas yet farther — to the many more people who couldn’t be bothered joining in the process and the conversation. It can make the ideas last longer. (In Public Parts, I quote Gutenberg scholar Elizabeth Eisenstein pointing out that Gutenberg’s Bible turns out to be a much longer lasting repository of data than a floppy disk.)

If there’s a book, is it printed? The likelihood of that decreases by the day. So if it is just electronic, then it can change form, including video from the process; photos and graphics to illustrate points; and permalinks to any part of the book to support conversation on the net.

So now we arrive back that the book I apologized for not writing in WWGD? — digital, clickable, linkable, correctable, updateable, part of a conversation. There are issues: Conversations can be invaded by trolls. There’s no economic certainty. We’ll make missteps.

But can we get closer to Garber’s ideal? Well, we’ll know it when we see it. But if we try this route, we now have a standard to judge it against: the one Garber sets in her great post.

Our assumptions about information itself are shifting, reshaping “the news” from a commodity to a community, from a product to a process. The same changes that have disrupted the news industry will, inevitably, disrupt the book industry; Public Parts hints at what might come of the disruption. Books as community. Books as conversation. Books as ideas that evolve over time — ideas that shift and shape and inspire — and that, as such, have the potential of viral impact.

Can books go viral? Garber asks. Maybe, if they’re allowed to be more than books.

  • Daniel Bentley

    I like what Dan Gillmor did with Mediactive. The book exists as a book, an ebook with hyperlinks and as a blog. It has a Creative Commons licence so that people can repurpose the text at length into their own blogs and books to continue the conversation.

    I like that as a place to start.

  • Rob Johnston

    The new form conversation/book you describe is a worthy aspiration, but the book continues to hold value as a singular collection of research, ideas, and rumination. While going viral may be a challenge for a book, propagating ideas is a common result. Richard Dawkins introduced the “meme” itself in a book. Peter Drucker introduced “management by objectives,” and Malcolm Gladwell gave us the “tipping point.”

    Books offer a remarkable opportunity for one person to sit alone with the organized thinking of another. Yes, they are not a clickable, built with community form, but their value is essential nonetheless.

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  • Adrian Segar

    Jeff, two years ago I published a book, Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love, about the participant-driven and participation-rich conferences I’ve been running for twenty years. So, as you describe, my book was a byproduct of my process.

    During the writing process I came to realize what a lousy form the physical book is for conveying what I do, with its constraints of linearity and clumsy updatability. Jerry Weinberg’s Law of Raspberry Jam—”The wider you spread it, the thinner it gets”—comes to mind. And yet…I don’t know of a better alternative for, literally, getting the word out.

    My book has contributed to many opportunities to run the conferences and workshops that I love and that are the core of what is important to me. I don’t regret the four (part-time) years I spent writing it. But I am still torn about the issue of my book’s limited effectiveness versus its reach.

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  • Troy McConaghy

    Jonathan Coulton, the musician, used to do something like what you suggest, and maybe he still does. He’d tell his fans that if they wanted a concert somewhere, all they had to do was prove they had enough people there (willing to buy a ticket), and he’d come. He used to web to gather and collate all those bids. (I’m not sure how he plans concert dates now. I only know about Coulton through my friends.)

    The idea of having a discussion, rather than a formal speaker+audience reminds me of things like BarCamps and so-called unconferences in the tech world. In academic science and engineering, conferences often have scheduled “workshops” where people gather to have long discussions, typically on a pre-chosen topic area. Even at normal conferences, there are lots of productive discussions going on in the halls and mealtimes outside the formal events. I know you know this; I’m just noting how your idea is connected to similar ones.

    There’s something interesting going on in the sciences, where scientists are using the web to work together (and with the public) on problems in new ways. Two concrete examples are the Polymath Project and the Galaxy Zoo project. (Google them.) Michael Nielsen’s new book Reinventing Discovery goes into detail about these projects, and more.

  • Chris Coldewey

    Check out RedRovr (my site) – gauging fan demand for speakers and bands, inspired by Seth Godin and Jonathan Coulton’s fan-driven tours.

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  • Cheyanne

    ” Because Books Make the Idea Last Longer” is the best quote from you that is worth repeating over and over because it’s true.

    The materialization of one’s thoughts on paper, on a harddrive, whereever they may appear now in this Era of publishing words and thoughts that are transformed into “the cloud” can still be talked about because someone, anyone can do it.

    From my simple blog I can put my thoughts down and see them go up to the cloud for the “rest of the world” to see. If I had one quote from my blog like yours “Because Books Make The Idea Last Longer” I’d be happy camper.

    Thank You Jeff Jarvis for sharing. You’ve done more good by sharing your thoughts, your books, and your ideas than you’ll ever know.

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  • Robert Shaver

    Congratulations on the publishing of your book.

    I heard you on TWiG and came here to air my opinions about books-as-idea-sharing-medium, sharing in general and Leo’s contention that podcasts are not permanent or searchable.

    Giving away and selling books, e-books and all other forms of publication ARE sharing, in my opinion. Over the years I’ve subscribed to many free, advertising-supported trade publications … and often learned a great deal from the ads themselves … still do.

    Why aren’t you giving your books away for free? Fifteen years ago Tim O’Reilly said, “Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy”

    If you follow Cory Doctorow’s lead, you and your publisher will sell more books and make more money if you give your books away for free too. (He writes about why to give your books away here: and Neil Gaiman talk about it here:

    As far as Leo contending that podcasts are ephemeral and unsearchable, he has only to consider his “Security Now” podcast. It has full transcripts of each one making them imminently searchable and discoverable.

    What’s ephemeral about most of his shows, but not all, is that they are topical. I think it would still be quite valuable to have a full transcript of each. And it’s not all that expensive. I’ve found transcription services for as low as $1/minute. (

    Having transcripts of podcasts would pull in new listeners when they search for some topic, are brought to the web site and stay for the other content they find.



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  • Druckerpatronen

    While Books 3.0 maybe interesting feature-wise (interactive, video, audio enhanced applications with tracking capabilities), I think that a real book beats any eBook in the customers view (at least in Europe). An eBook or better, any digital information can be copied all over the place, gets available as torrent, is shared and distributed, so in the end I have a 3000,-$ video course on my harddisk, that though the information might be valuable feels like just any other download. A printed book has more weight (pun intended), allthough it demands more time (sitting down and focusing on the book is more difficult than to just open a window on your always on computer, fly it over and read your emails).

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