Last week's excerpt of a chapter from my new book "Running To The Mountain" was a Net experiment, a chance to practice what I preach, and to test the boundaries of the much-invoked idea that the Net "empowers" people in new ways.
It succeeded beyond anybody's wildest dreams, especially those of my stunned publisher. And it might have made a bit of publishing history.
The idea to publish an excerpt from this particular book on this site was always both a stretch and a gamble. Although I'd talked to several magazines last year, including Wired and Outside, about excerpting it, I decided in January to offer the first serial rights to Rob and Jeff, who founded and run Slashdot.
This site has become my spiritual and literal Web home, and I've come to see the open source and free software movements as the most significant - and appealing -- movements in media.
My publisher was wary of the idea, since the rights were being offered for free. And since mainstream books are almost never launched on the Net or the Web, at least not successfully. And even though the chapter that was being excerpted related to technology and spirituality, it wasn't exactly the daily fare of Slashdot's technologically sophisticated editorial menu.
But I argued that the Net is inherently spiritual, and that technology can sometimes fit into that impulse. And that I'd rather see any money go to Slashdot (as an Amazon associate, they get a tiny slice of every book sold from the site, a long-standing and publicly disclosed arrangement) than to some magazine or publisher. I wanted to sell books, but also to demonstrate the potential of the Net for increasingly embattled writers as well as people wanting to buy stocks and talk about sex. An open source site - my open source site - seemed the right place to do that.
Everybody has to understand that this impulse flies in the face of every conventional wisdom in publishing: Media there means "Slate" or The New York Times or NPR, the thinking goes. It does not mean a website founded by some kids from Holland, Mi., with a Penguin for a symbol and names like Cmdr Taco and Hemos.
You can't sell books on the Net, is a publishing mantra. People are so used to getting things free that they won't pay for anything. People online not only don't read, but the very existence of the Net and the Web are destroying reading.
But Rob and Jeff generously agreed to excerpt the book, a personal account of a Mid-life trek to a mountaintop partly inspired by the late (and technology-hating writer - monk) Thomas Merton. Mostly I think, Rob and Jeff published the chapter because I'm an author on the site and they wanted to help.
They didn't know that I am what's called a "mid-list" author - this means I don't sell a lot of books, Grisham or McCourt style. Those kinds of writers make a lot of money. And those at the bottom of the list are usually academic or literary writers who don't write for money. People outsideof publishing often don't know what somebody like me will never make it to Oprah, and that as a "mid-list" author, I'm something of an endangered literary species.
Given the rise of giant publishing conglomerates (like my own publisher Random House) and chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble, it increasingly isn't really worth much of anybody's time to publish writers like me. We just don't move enough books.
So for some years now, me and hundreds of writers like me, have been trapped in mid-list Hell, struggling for a way to reach readers beyond the conventional gatekeepers - publicists, marketers, reviewers, talk-show hosts and producers. Writing for some years about the Net and Web, I knew I was staring at just such an alternative possibility, but had never had the chance to put it to the test.
Fortunately for me, a number of different things converged. I started writing for Slashdot, which has, along with interest in OSS, taken off. My Random House publicist loves and understands the Net (the first publicist I've ever met at a publishing house who does). I've been experimenting for weeks now with the effects of linking my book subject to various Websites whose readers and members might be interested - Merton sites, geek sites, Boomer sites, even Yellow Lab sites, since the book prominently features my two dogs.
So last Thursday, the day the book excerpt ran on Slashdot, and I caught another break. USA Today wrote a long, enthusiastic review (www.usatoday.com/life/) .. Things really cranked into high gear. I e-mailed Jeff Bates (Hemos here) who inserted the review into the body of the excerpt. My publicist quickly e-mailed the review and the Slashdot URL to other Websites, reporters and reviewers.
Few at Random House thought this experiment had much of a chance of working, I could tell. The notion that books couldn't be sold via the Web has become an article of faith, even as the recognition that the Web is important is growing.
A week ago, my Amazon ranking was 1.2 million. (There are about three million titles offered on Amazon. The morning Slashdot excerpted my book, my ranking was 9,000. The book hadn't yet shipped to bookstores but a few hundred copies were in the Amazon warehouse. Some perspective here: Amazon is one of many thousands of booksellers in America. It takes hundreds, not tens of thousands of books to shoot up on their list. But few writers like me ever sell hundreds of books in a two or three day period, let alone a few hours.
Within two hours of the Slashdot excerpt, I had shot up to the Amazon top-selling 100 books list. The people at Random House were flabbergasted. My book had their full attention.
The people at Amazon were surprised too. One editor there sent me an e-mail in the morning that read: "What the hell is going on? Your book is taking off!" By 2 p.m, the book was in the top 50. By that night, it was at 22.
Everyone's first impulse was to cite the USA Today review. But that didn't make sense. It was obvious to me that it was Slashdot that was driving the books. For one thing, USA Today is linked to Barnes & Noble's website, not Amazon. For another, newspaper reviews, even great ones like that, rarely move that many books so quickly.
By 7 p.m. Thursday, Amazon was out of books (they've gotten more), and the order time went from 1-2 days to two weeks. They remained out of books all weekend. The book began to show up in bookstores Sunday night and Monday.
It's hard to describe just how astonishing this was. For a book about spirituality and personal experience to be launched on an open source Website and then jump to the top of the Amazon list, ahead of some of the best-selling authors in the country, was shocking. The USA Today review helped, for sure. But since the book wasn't even on bookstore shelves, the overwhelming bulk of the sales had to come off of Slashdot.
This has a lot of significance for writers and publishing. And for websites like Slashdot as well. Writers can connect directly with their own audiences and free themselves of the marketing process. Smaller and more idiosyncratic writers can escape the mass-marketing pressure of modern publishing and reach smaller, niche audiences. More people - including people familiar with how the Web works - can become writers. And those Web audiences will buy books. The fact that so many /. readers would step outside of their own specialized interests and experiences suggest an audience that will make specialized and individual decisions about what it wants to buy, see or read.
Publishers can perhaps begin to grasp that their phobic, reactionary and profoundly uncreative response to the Internet is wrong. The Net won't harm literature or books. It could very well be the salvation of both.
By Saturday, the word that something unusual had happened was buzzing around publishers and media types - fitting enough, via e-mail. I'd gotten numerous e-mails and calls from publishing executives, reporters and writers asking what had happened, and how it had happened.
I told them that I was practicing what I'd been preaching. The Net is, in fact, empowering, and wherever it goes, people like me can take more responsibility for their own work and lives, bypass the very many greedy and spiritless people who only look at numbers and stats, and create my own history.
These days, writers are viewed in much the same way welfare recipients are - a dependent culture nobody wants to subsidize any longer. To some extent, it's a brutal new reality. But to some extent, it's also fair. How many of the people reading this are subsidized and supported in their work?
The very coolest part of all this is that I hacked the Net to sell a book that wasn't a cyber-book and became a best-seller, even if it turns out to have been for just a few glorious days. I've learned on Slashdot, and especially while struggling to use my Linux operating system, that hacking isn't just about breaking into phone companies. It's about taking control, learning how to master and use the system. Very heady stuff.
The Amazon editor e-mailed me on Friday to say that if the excerpt had stayed up on Slashdot (it is still up in the book section), I would have gone to Number One, almost certainly.
This is a great launch, and it was done on the Net and Slashdot. The book is just coming out. I have the book tour, more publicity and reviews, and plenty of Net and Web mischief to make. No matter what happens with here, I'm pleased with myself, with the Net, and with Slashdot. I spent the weekend linking the excerpt and the review to more than 100 different websites, and throughout the weekend, the book stayed in the Amazon Top 100 lists.
It was definitely one of the high points of my writing life, and an affirmation of my faith in the Net and the Web as a generous, profoundly liberating place.
Mail-to: jonkatz@Slashdot.org *********
On a less happy, more personal note. The successful launch of "Running To The Mountain" was marred by some especially ugly public postings the day the excerpt ran. For the first time since I've been writing on Slashdot - more than three months - I've had an experience with public posts and flaming that I felt crossed the line of civility, decency and fairness. Perhaps it's a simple-minded fantasy, but I see places like Slashdot not as collections of strangers, but as new kinds of communities within which we often - always even - violently disagree, but yet still understand that we all belong here.
My transition here has been tough and rewarding. I've had copy transmission and bug problems, had to struggle with a whole new technical language, grasp a new kind of media movement, and taken on what is for me a fundamental challenge - mastering Linux. As many of you know, while I've been welcomed here by the vast majority of Slashdotters, some have argued that I hadn't proven my techno-manhood on a kick-ass site like this and shouldn't be allowed to write here.
This is something I've encountered in one form or another for much of my life, so it really hasn't bugged me. It happens on all Websites, including Hotwired, where I wrote for three years. Writing online, one can't hide behind secretaries, voice-mail or security guards. The people who are unhappy with you are sitting right there next to what you right, and that's fine with me. If you can't take it, you won't last long online.
Flaming is part of the free spirit of the Web, and nobody should feel under the least bit of pressure to like me or agree with what I write. I agree with the sentiments of many of the flamers, mostly young males, that one of their functions is to keep people like me in check.
But the ugliness and venality of some of the public postings about the excerpt descended to a new level, even though many hundreds of you expressed support in the most direct and powerful possible way - you bought my book.
Some posters argued this was Katz-worship, a bizarre suggestion given the criticism I've gotten here, and how many books are mentioned, reviewed, and referred to on this site. From the first, the people e-mailing me on Slashdot have always been intensely and very diversely literate, bombarding me daily with book recommendations and ideas, from novels to computer books.
But the public posters - a small group which dominates public discussions -- function in a different, if parallel universe. One even suggested this was some sort of a corrupt "kick-back" arrangement by which a book unrelated to OSS content was excerpted, so that the owners of the site -- and me -- could make lots of money. Others said the content of the excerpted was unrelated to a technology site and shouldn't have been published.
This was pretty tough to read, not only because it's hurtful but because it's false. First off, it's absurd. If anyone at Slashdot makes a total of $50 from the excerpting of my book I'd be stunned. We're talking about hundreds of books here, not thousands, and royalties and percentages are tiny all around. Writers like me make so little money from the books we write, can't do them full time. In fact, my book advances and royalties are almost embarrassingly small. I couldn't possibly live off them.
And that's not a complaint. I love writing, and choose freely to do it. But there's no way my book can make a lot of money, even if it sells thousands of copies. That's not how publishing works. And there's sure no way the people running Slashdot are going to get anything more than a good dinner off of publishing my excerpt, and then if they go to Taco Bell. Publishers make money off huge, Oprah-driven best-sellers and specialty books about cooking, sex, religion or the Millenium. So writers like me write for different places - magazines, Websites, plus books - in order to make a living.
Whether people like the book or not, I'm also puzzled and surprised that anybody could argue that the subject matter of the chapter - the conflict between technology and spirituality - wasn't appropriate for Slashdot (truthfully, hardly anybody did make that argument except for the posters. Almost none of my e-mail did). Wired magazine thought it was appropriate enough for them. And hundreds of people on the site bought the book, the clearest refutation of that idea. Rob and Jeff would publish excerpts from the book of any Slashdot author, and be supportive of any book in any way they could. Thanks to them for that.
I can't complain because people disagree with me or my writing. It's also perfectly appropriate to jeer at my presence and my opinions. But when posters cross the line into vicious unfounded accusations, they've entered a different place. They've just become a brutal, ignorant mob.
Anybody who sincerely had questions about this, and wanted answers, as opposed to the joy of public preening, could have simply e-mailed me, and still can. I answer all of it: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The fact is, there was a generous intent all around here. I write for Slashdot for free, and gave the rights to Slashdot for free, hoping that might draw some attention to the site, which it did, and if it helped them pay the rent and acknowledge the vast amounts of work they do to make this site for very little money, that was great. If it sold some books, even better.
To take this impulse and try and translate into some venal, mean-spirited enterprise seemed to me to go over the boundary of civilized disagreement, to betray the spirit of any community. It was ugly and disturbing, and not at all representative of the many people who e-mailed me their support and encouragement and who bought the book. If the excerpt and the response were a high point of my writing and Net life, this small but angry and hostile group of people embodied one of the lows.
You can pick up the book at Amazon.
CT : I'd like to post a tiny addendum to Katz's bit here. As usual, the postings on the original review got flamey. This time it was really bad. I often am offended by Comments posted on Slashdot, but I'm rarely sad that I work so many hours running the site. Hate filled comments are the one thing that sucks about running Slashdot. It breaks my heart to see people use something that so many people work so hard (for so little) on, as a weapon for them to scream about anything that they disagree with. It's all right to disagree, but try to be civil about it. Katz is an important part of Slashdot. You can disagree, but I'm glad to have him here, and when it is all said and done, it is my decision. And it was the correct one. The postive mail about Jon always outweighs the negative, and more importantly, I usually enjoy reading Jon's articles. That's always my first goal- posting stories I want to read. I think thats why you guys are here- what you like is similiar enough to what I like that it's all worth it.
This whole hoopla really made my day- finally Katz got a little payback for the dozens of columns he wrote for free for a rinky dink little website. We probably got a few bucks to. But hopefully- and most importantly- a few of you got a book that you'll enjoy reading. Not a bad days work for anyone. If we can ignore the flames.