June 20, 2005

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All I have to do now is write the mofo. Times Books is publishing Everything is Miscellaneous. Here's what a book auction is like...
No, I'm not keeping up with your blog. It's time to drop the expectation that I've read yours and you've read mine.

dividing line
All I have to do now is write the mofo

Times Books has agreed to publish my book Everything is Miscellaneous. I have one year to write it. Assuming that the writing goes all right — and I am contractually obligated to make sure it does — it will be published in winter/early spring of 2007.

Seems like forever, doesn't it? I can promise that it won't feel that way to me as I watch the deadline rushing toward me like an angry bull.

I've told you too many times what the book is about, but I guess I should tell you again. This time, though, I'll also tell you how books get sold and give you the way this particular one spills out into chapters.

Auctioning a book

I worked on my book proposal for almost a year and a half, under the constant tutelage of my agent, David Miller. David isn't the gum-chewing money-grubber that the word "agent" may conjure up. He is my first reader: I trust his judgment not only on whether a book works but also on whether the content is making sense. Without David, I'd be pitching a book on metadata.

When the proposal was done — we chopped it down from a psychotic 30,000 words to a merely outlandish 17,000 — David shipped it off to 17 publishers he thought would like to see it. In fact, he had been talking with many of them about the book during the past few months, so he wasn't sending it to publishers so much as sending it to particular editors.

Because there was no one obvious publisher to go to, we put it up for auction. Book auctions are surprisingly inefficient. You give the editors a couple of weeks to read the proposal, to discuss it with their bosses, and then to discuss it with their real bosses: the sales and marketing people. During that time, I visited many of the publishers who expressed initial interest. That was fun since you're spending an hour with people who like what you've done.

In my case, just about all of them had questions about how my topic applied in concrete ways to issues that people care about, which is always my stumbling block since I am more excited by the ideas themselves. But with this book, it's not hard to show some real applications.

Then David announced that the first round of bids had to be in by 10 AM on the Thursday before Memorial Day weekend. The participating publishers communicated their bids via email or telephone. David then went back to the low bidder - none of the participants know who the other participants are - who then has the option to out-bid the high bid by at least some agreed-upon increment. David then called the second-lowest bidder and tells her what the current price is, and so forth.

Sounds sensible except that the editors have to go back to their boss and get permission to raise the bid, and if the editor is out doing tequila shots at the local topless bar gentlemen's club, David may not hear back for several hours. This can be nerve wracking."Don't they know what their ceiling is?" I would ask David over the sounds of the crack house where I was hanging out, relaxing. And, in truth, sometimes the bids would come quickly, and in a few cases, they were significantly above the minimum increment. Those were my favorite bids.

The process was actually more complicated than that because we started out offering only the North American rights, but the publishers ganged up on us and insisted on bidding for world rights. While this may make an author feel especially wanted because, obviously, it makes the book more expensive for the publisher to purchase, buying world rights actually reduces the publisher's risk because she gets to sell rights to individual countries, recouping a part of the advance the publisher paid the author.

My auction was interrupted by a very long Memorial Day weekend and closed pretty quickly on the following Tuesday. As publishers dropped out, the remaining two turned out to be owned by the same house. Their corporate rulebook says that they can't bid against another, so the auction ended and it was up to me to decide which publisher I prefer.

It was a hard decision because either would have been excellent for the book, but ultimately I went with Times Books (a Holt imprint) for a variety of reasons. As a result, I have a company behind this book that has considerable clout with the booksellers and an editor, Robin Dennis, who totally understands what the book is talking about and is going to help me tell the story in a way that (I hope) lots of people will want to read. (Robin is also Jay Rosen's editor.)

Yes, I don't just want to get the ideas right. I want to write a book that sells a whole bunch of copies. I feel so tawdry!

The book

As we digitize information, we escape the limitations of the physical that have silently shaped knowledge. Everything is Miscellaneous is
about these basic changes in how we organize knowledge, institutions and our lives.

Something like that.

The current plan of the book has it open with a few chapters that make it clear how important categorization is to our lives, and expose the history of what looks like common sense principles of organization.

Then I introduce the idea of the three ages of order (arranging the physical objects, arranging metadata separated from the objects, arranging digital objects) and the new importance of the miscellaneous.

In the second half of the book, I go through what I think are the four major principles that change, one per chapter, something along the lines of: Everyone's an expert, knowledge is social, the implicit is more important than the explicit, and messiness is a virtue.

Then a big finale. I'll let you know when I know.

Why I'm not writing this book online

As far as I know, I was one of the first people to write a book entirely in public on line. Every day while I was writing Small Pieces Loosely Joined I would post my latest draft. Then the next day I'd re-write it. It was not a good way to encourage comments and conversation.

Dan Gillmor learned from my experience and approached it far more sensibly with his excellent We the Media, posting relatively finished chapters for commentary.

But I'm not going to do that with this book. I'm hard-pressed to tell you why. When I started Small Pieces, I didn't know where it was going. My ideas weren't formed. I was thinking it through, and conversation is a great way to think. But with EIM, I feel more (but not perfectly) confident about the ideas in the book. Oh, I have a lot to learn and I'm 100% sure my ideas are going to evolve (if throwing ideas out counts as evolving them); I will blog ideas and ask for your help. But after a year and a half of thinking about this book, my main challenge isn't knowing what to say. It's figuring out how to say it. And that's a writerly challenge that I want to do in a locked room.

Yes, I understand that if I posted drafts, y'all could help me with the writing also. But I'm looking for my book's voice. I have to do that alone.

Maybe I'll change my mind. I'll let you know.

Not the logo

Everything is Miscellaneous logo

This is what I did up for a presentation. It is why we have design professionals.

I visited the Linnean Society's headquarters in London last week and blogged about the effect of paper on the way Linnaeus classified animals. Plus, there are photos!

dividing line No, I'm not keeping up with your blog.

I would like to. I really would. I like it and I like you.

But we're now well past the point where we can keep up with all the blogs worth reading from the people worth keeping up with.

I just can't do it any more.

I've been faking it for a while. Months. Maybe a year. If we've met and I look confused about something you told me, and if you said, "I blogged it," as if that should be explanation enough, I've made some excuse as if I read every one of your posts except that one.

The truth is, I probably haven't read your blog in weeks. Months maybe.

And I don't expect you to have read mine.

I don't want to lie any more. I don't want to feel guilty any more. So let me tell you flat out: There are too many blogs I like and too many people I like to making "keeping up" a reasonable expectation, any more than you should expect me to keep up with Pokemon characters or Bollywood movies. You shouldn't expect me to and I'm not going to feel guilty any longer about my failure.

I will read your blog on occasion, either because I've been thinking of you or because something reminded me of you. Maybe it'll be because you sent me an email pointing a post you think I'll enjoy. Go ahead! I'd love to hear from you.

But I hereby release you from thinking I expect you to keep up with my blog, and I preemptively release myself from your expectations.

Otherwise reading each other's blogs will become a joyless duty. And we're too good friends to do that to each other.


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