I recently interviewed Chris Anderson, the editor-in-chief of Wired and a former colleague of mine at The Economist, about his theory of The Long Tail, and its impact on the economics of e-commerce. (Gosh, it feels so 1999 to write something like that. Anyway, here is his original essay, and my summary of it in The Economist.) After the success of his original article on the subject, Chris is now turning it into a book, and he is blogging his thoughts as he goes along.
All of which got me to thinking about whether that’s a good way to put a book together or not. I suspect that it’s probably quite a good approach if you are advancing an argument, as Chris is, about the internet itself. There are lots of helpful and knowledgeable people who are reading his blog and stress-testing his ideas (though he is also doing a lot of behind-the-scenes research and econometrics). “I believe I will have a better book, but I fear it may be later,” said Chris when I asked him how it was going. “The notion of beta-testing your ideas, giving to get something more, is the right way to make a good book.”
I have a feeling, though, that this approach might not be so effective for the kinds of books that I write, since I tend to dig up obscure bits of history. I also worry that even considering a book-blog is merely a form of displacement activity. Whenever I start on a new book, I always consider using some new piece of software or something to organise my notes, do the bibliography, and so on. I always decide against it. It’s the same with outliners — I never use them, because I worry that I will end up fiddling with the tools rather than using them to do any work. (Instead, I always end up with a pile of plain text files, which are future-proof and easy to search.) I think that for me, a book-blog would pose a similar temptation. I hope it works out for Chris, but even he admits that it’s too soon to say if it will. “I can’t tell yet what my conversion rate will be for words-on-blog to words-in-book,” he told me. “But if it’s not better than 20%, I’m in trouble.” His book is due next year.