Advice for possible and wanna-bee book writers

Adam Ozimek asks me:

Bleg for , don’t think I asked this before but maybe I did…. advice for economists and other social scientists planning on writing a book (I’m not planning, just curious for the future)

Let me pull out those social scientists whose disciplines expect them to write books for tenure and promotion, because those are quite different cases.  I’ll start with a few simple questions:

1. Should you write a book?  You will always have something better to do, and thus IQ and conscientiousness are not necessarily your friends in this endeavor.  And you are used to having them as your friends in so much of what you do.

2. Should anyone, other than historians (broadly construed), write a book?

3. Will you make more money from an excellent email newsletter?

4. How about some YouTube lectures?  You don’t have to mention the lobster.

5. Consistently good columnists are hard to come by, and believe it or not blogs still exist.

6. Twitter is now up to 280 characters, photos too, maybe more to come.

7. Will your book idea still be fresh, given the long lags in the writing and publication cycle?  Won’t DT have done so much more between now and then?  Don’t his tweets obliterate interest in your book?

8. In advance, try to predict the price they will charge for your book.  Also try to predict the percentage of the reading public — and I mean those who bought your book — who will get past the first ten percent.

One good reason to write a book is when you have the feeling you cannot do anything else without getting the book out of your system.  In that sense, you can think of the lust to write books as a kind of disability.

Another good reason to write a book is so you can do the rounds on the podcast circuit.  It doesn’t matter if no one reads your book, provided you are invited to do the right podcasts.  Wouldn’t you rather talk to people anyway?

Yet another possible reason to write a book is the desire to get on “the speaker’s circuit,” noting that most book topics won’t help you with this at all.  You had better be good.

Bryan Caplan is perhaps the most natural “social science book writer” I have met, besides myself of course.  Not only does he want people to agree with him, he insists that they agree with him for the right reasons.

If you’re still game, start by writing every single day.  No exceptions.  Sooner or later, you will have something, and then you can write another one.


'Advice for possible and wanna-bee book writers'

Lots of buzz is important.

Yes, it's the buzz that's important and not the quality of the book. The increasing importance of marketing over substance is, alas, a sign of modern times. Notably absent in the list presented above is what constitutes a good book and how to write one. It's almost as if quality is no longer a factor and self-promotion is the only thing that matters. This is especially disappointing given the advice is to "economists" and other "social scientists".

(And, yes, I got the bee/buzz joke).

'It's almost as if quality is no longer a factor and self-promotion is the only thing that matters.'

If I had written that in terms of Prof. Cowen and his worldview, it would just be considered trolling.

It is glaring that for someone who professes to read so much, the quality of what one writes is not considered worth mentioning when talking about writing.

Of course, one can also see this is a well founded example of the quip that an economist knows the cost of everything, and the value of nothing.

That people are still reading Homer, Sophocles, or Thucydides is not because they are going to write a blog or appear on YouTube.

"If I had written that in terms of Prof. Cowen and his worldview, it would just be considered trolling."

It seems you have at least some level of self-awareness in that regard, but why do you suppose that it would be considered "trolling" in *your* case? Might it be the compulsion to comment on everything that is posted here (often multiple times)? And, those comments (quite often the first which indicates they were not preceded by much reflection) almost always have something negative to say about the authors of the posts here? Give it some thought...

I think I've reached my daily quota, and then some!

'It seems you have at least some level of self-awareness in that regard'

Well, sure - after all, it is the term used when somebody disagrees, though at this point, it is at times entering a surreal realm (writing that a company that follows the law deserves success in the marketplace is apparently an attempt to be outrageous, for example).

'Might it be the compulsion to comment on everything that is posted here'

Except that I don't comment on every post - what does happen, though is that my morning coffee time is well matched to how this site schedules posts (think SEO as the main reason).

'almost always have something negative to say about the authors of the posts here'

Not just the authors - it certainly includes the GMU econ dept. in general, the law and econ crowd there, etc. Effectively, there is not really much of a distinction.

I'm sure at some point in the future this web site will finally become able to better filter comments, and then, in that shiny new future, no one will need to worry about some commenter pointing out a fairy tale concerning a 4 dollar app, YouTube, and a couple of GMU profs is being presented as a plucky tale of gritty individualism, as compared to the reality of a well financed public policy institute operation.

I believe it is the press tour, the marketing, the interviews, the networking that builds the career. The book is the excuse to promote yourself.

Same in show business. When Will Smith makes the movie, it is the European and Asian press tour that makes him a movie star.

Or doing talk shows can be stressful and tiring and only a few people are really good at them.

Tyler's first and third books in his trilogy weren't serious to anyone paying attention in tech. Economic stagnation out to 2040 - yeah, right. Notice that no economist even commented on these pop books. Still, he is correct to say you need a book to run the podcast circuit. No, "you had better be good" is obviously false by Tyler's pop books that no economist has taken seriously.

Which economist have reviewed his books? Links please.

It's interesting how TV talk shows these days expect the guests to have something to promote like a book or a movie. When I was a kid, in contrast, the regulars on TV talk shows tended to be people who seldom actually got their big projects finished, like Truman Capote and Orson Welles, or who were too cattily disagreeable to get hired for anything, like Zsa-Zsa Gabor.

Maybe that's a result of media consolidation.

Disney puts its Marvel Studios superhero actors on its ABC late night talk show to promote the latest blockbuster.

Paramount puts its Simon & Schuster authors on its CBS late night talk show to promote their latest book.

In the 70s Orson Bean showed up on Carson's Tonight Show an awful lot for a guy who I only remembered from one mediocre "Twilight Zone" episode. But he always had interesting stories to tell.

Back then, guys named Orson seemed to have standing invitations to come on talk shows and tell anecdotes.

"6. Twitter is now up to 280 characters, photos too, maybe more to come."

Why does Tyler continually champion this cause? There are few things less readable than somebody making an argument by replying to his own tweet twenty times (e.g. the Californian politician's screed that TC linked to a couple of days ago). If you want to write a 4000 word essay there are far better places to publish it than twitter.

The medium is the message?

Oh, wow.

Taken down, so it was a mistake rather than a joke or criticism.

Screenshot here:

Don't worry; nobody actually visited those links, anyway.

I'm sure many tens of thousands of people saw those first two. Your choice not to see what they saw is yours alone.

(TheStalwart? At least a few thousand as well.)

“No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money”: Sam. Johnson, who wrote for not much money, nevertheless. Also, writing books may shorten your life (and also deepen it... probably).

You should write a book only to present and explain a large amount unique information or research that is amenable to the book form, not to promote or illustrate your opinions.

#9 - Drink Heavily.

When you think about it, posting Anonymous comments on the internet is really the best.

(This was a joke I told myself, and then I laughed. I try to do that no more than once a week.)

Writing a book is an opportunity to improve your own views through self-criticism, since you will discover that your theories and opinions do not, after all, constitute a coherent whole.

This! And nicely put.

Jason Brennan writes books at a monstrous pace and he has the "write every day" rule. He also always has several books at different parts of the process. While one is published and being promoted, another one is being written, and at the same time a new one is percolating in his subconscious.

I think most of us have trouble regularly coming up with creative takes that make for interesting books and those who are creative enough often have trouble following the structure needed to publish a new book every year or two.

I wrote a book once. Writing the first draft was pretty good fun. Then I thought "diminishing returns" - all the tiny improvements and corrections will bring virtually no joy at all. So sod it; into the filing cabinet went the first draft.

What the hell? The publishers hadn't paid me an advance - presumably they thought the honour of being published by such a renowned press would be incentive enough. Wrong, boys!

One of the reasons people write books is to achieve immortality. I'm with Woody Allen on this one, "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying. "

Tyler and several of his Mason colleagues have successfully written intelligent books that have gotten a lot of public attention, with them hitting the speaking and podcast circuits and all that, as well as making some money. More power to them and any others who can do that.

Let me note two other reasons why especially academics might be motivated to write books. One is textbooks, which can make money if one hits the particular market right. One can even influence how some people view a topic with a successful and innovative textbook, although that can be hard to pull off (Tyler himself has written textbooks, or at least more than one edition of one).

The other is arguably more obscure, but for academics whose articles are to some extent all over the place, but yet may have some sort of common theme that is not really obvious in any of the individual articles or even reading several of them, a monograph book pulling it all together can be intellectually satisfying, professionally respectable, and even have some intellectual influence, although even when successful in these categories these books rarely make much money or lead to talk show circuits, although sometimes even they can.

Good authors re-use old research and old writings. They package it in more attractive ways. A new book is more attractive than an anthology.

I'm about 70 percent done a book manuscript. I fall in the "need to write it for promotion" category. It's agonizing. Every last word. Only self-delusion ("this is worth the effort") keeps me going.

here are some misquotes - I could look them up but I won't.

"No single writer adds much to the writing that is real literature, the world is too big, even the Western states, even the ordinary ones like Nevada and Idaho, are too big, and there is too much to say, but every real way of saying things is important, and all writers have something - maybe not much, maybe a lot, but in any event something - to add " Wallace Stegner

"maybe a born playwright is born in an age when nobody cares about plays, well then she does something else, the basic truth of art is not tethered to some requirement where one is faithful to the art that came before but the artist chooses among the ways of communicating that are available at the time when she is young and full of things to say, or not so young and even more full of things to say" (Harold Bloom describing another comparative literature professor's view of why some forms of literature come and go in popularity - epics one year, long poems another year, long novels another year, short novels another year another generation, all varying in 'communicative' usefulness and even simply basic possibility -over the generations) ...

"we are too kind to books - we will read all of a long badly written book for just a few wonderful expressions that are gracefully put, or for just a few metaphors that equal, or only almost equal, the great metaphors with which nature is so abundant" - a 20th century writer of the third rank (if first rank is Shakespeare and second rank is Pushkin)

thanks for reading. in 2019 you might be so kind as to give my kindle novel (99 cents , or cheaper if I can wrangle that), "My Name is Life", a few moments of your attention

a tribute to Catherine Cookson and that novel where the younger daughter of the slain infantry major is courted by a tailor and the heir to the local factory owner's fortune but only truly loves the sailor whom she has not seen for years? (not likely, alas) --- a "historical novel' version mocking HG Wells and his optimism, of what the 22 last days before WWI and the first 22 days of WWI would have been like if more people had, at the time, understood what was going on? (maybe, but probably not) ---
the story that someone told to someone who thought great poetry was like popular poetry except, like, better and funnier, long ago on that island with those winds and those rains and that gentle camp-fire light and those trees and those long nights of heart-to-heart conversation? --- not 'the' story, just a story, of course (just a story - what a nice phrase)----Or maybe "The Wrong Box", a great plot now safely out of copyright, retold without a single hint of that awful "hey I am retelling some things that happened to me at college" vibe which one so often finds in so many retellings of ancient myths or even of not so ancient beloved old fantasy novels, and maybe even without the Jungian or Freudian or even Girardian plot twists that, in a loser-Gnostic way, the Edna Ferbers or Hergescheimers of our day would, lacking enough energy and compassion to, well, be a lot funnier and less immature than they were (Akron? Why Akron?), would employ as their reserve infantry of meaning, at least in those long stretches of the novels where they did not say what they wanted to say - not to say that Edna Ferber and Hergescheimer did not, more than once, have lines of dialogue that would set your heart as still as a far Northern lake on a windless autumn afternoon if you knew exactly what Edna Ferner and Hergescheimer were trying to say. Heart speaks to heart.... (in case you are wondering what Akron why Akron was doing there - that was the place that the professor in the movie Harvey wanted to be .... one hundred years of great movies in a great country and that was maybe one of the best lines in all those years, Akron, why Akron)

"I could talk for quite a while about my version of Akron, while you talked about your version of Akron: I remember so much, and so many people I have cared about have told me that, and I guess almost all of them remembered a lot too: but the funny thing is, that the better gift - better than my gift - or our gift - of so much memory - is understanding how much everyone else remembers, which becomes evident when someone helps them see that truth. Did I say that right? You lose the wrong kind of pride when you listen to other people remembering ---- kindly, and with the conviction that they will do the right thing in the future --- when you listen to other people remembering how they dealt with problems in the past and how they cared." (Peguy, a year or two before 1914, liberally quoted: Hans urs von Balthasar, in case you care about the rather parochial subject of "comparative literature", noted that, whatever Proust intended as his project, with respect to memory and redemption, Peguy completed, in a satisfying way, most prominently in his long narrative poem Eve, the philosophical journey that Proust began, not that such an accomplishment does not leave, of course, for other people, infinitely undiminished by the best of art, the task of reality and compassion, beyond aesthetics).

(another hour I could have been working on my AI investment e-mail newsletter!)

all of that simply because I wanted to say, in the most natural context possible, "in a loser-Gnostic way". (Wiesnansksy wrote on this just yesterday afternoon, didn't he? Last year winter was long and too many of my friends (and one is too many) were thinking sad long Gnostic thoughts. Well it is summer now ....

Weinandy not Wiesnansky

and free I hope not 99 cents

Free live free (Proverbs 8)

Comments for this post are closed