“Authors must blog” and other truisms displaced by an evening with Pynchon

I’m about halfway through Inherent Vice, which I’ve been waiting for like a sinner waits for confession, because a good novel cleans the soul. I am thinking about why great writers’ works are important, even when some of their books are treated as toss-offs compared to more momentous efforts. In this case, a mystery novel, a private dick story with a psychedelic twist may not seem as big an effort as Mason & Dixon or Against The Day to some, but for the aficionado of a particular author’s work these “second-tier” efforts are the zest and riff that make a jazzman not just cool for the college crowd but skull-ringingly great regardless of who is listening, square or not.

I got to thinking, between hits of Doc Sportello and The Golden Fang, about the meme of the moment, that “publishers are on the lookout for authors who blog” and how that is interpreted by many to mean that all it takes to win a publishing deal is a blog—the story or non-fiction pitch will just fall into place once the contract is signed. Shortened to the quick, the same logic makes all bloggers writers, which conflates the genre with accomplishment.

No, publishers don’t think that every writer needs a blog (even though some may think its easier to source book material from blogs), but it’s convenient to sell the idea to the masses that would like to have published a book and think that authorship is like being an executive on teevee, just one sexy tryst and then another cut-throat meeting before cashing the daily paycheck and leaving for a night on the town, the kids stowed with the nanny and plenty of time for sleep and a visit to the gym between 6 AM and Eight-in-the-morning when the dry cleaned suit appears and it’s back for another romp at the office. If we are all going to live that life, sooner or later the con is going to end. No, writing and instant success because of a new technology, as though Shakespeare would have fallen flat if the words had been scratched on stones, are antithetical realities.

Thomas Pynchon never blogged a word in his life, that we know of. He may have written the Wanda Tinasky letters in an age before everyone could be a wit with a keyboard ,though not necessarily a wit, but so, too, Benjamin Franklin enjoyed pseudonymous letter writing, and Ol’ Ben certainly agreed with Dr. Johnson that only a blockhead writes for free. Authorship is a kind of work that is different than writing, it involves intent and rigid self-criticism, or a very good editor. If you have a blog, the route to publication is certainly shorter today, but that doesn’t mean the work is “writing,” except in the sense that we indulge ourselves in writing a journal or to a friend.

The point is, dear reader, that the story of e-publishing is all glitz and revolution designed to justify readers’ investment in hardware that, to date, does nothing to transform reading beyond addressing a certain breed of convenience. The story is embellished with how-to books that proclaim “you too can be a best-selling author, your buttocks massaged by nymphs and sensually inspired favors of the Muses pumped into your bloodstream in only two hours a week” and e-reader product horse races that, while they signify capital investments and marketing with a furious vengeance, do not represent the innovation that will transform the market for reading. In the end, it will take an author to transform reading using new tools that we haven’t encountered, yet.

This is a market increasingly fed with truisms that, when you read someone like Pynchon, whether you like his work or not, makes the e-reading promotional tactics sour in the mouth and anyone can taste the treacle they are. Then, we can see that how-to articles and product reviews of devices are marketing of feel-good drugs instead of the story of hard won accomplishment.

Using Twitter and blogs to drive book sales

Charlotte Abbott writes about the increasingly perennial question, does blogging and Twitter marketing help drive book sales. She points to several anecdotal examples of sales increases, and raises some interesting questions.

As co-founder of, and the author of the influence algorithm used by, BuzzLogic, I do believe it is possible to measure influence within networks. However, it takes a tremendous amount of information and an expensive infrastructure to do it right. In the case of Edelweiss, one of Charlotte Abbott’s examples, they have sought to correlate blog and Twitter mentions of books to sales, which is a blunt cause-and-effect measure that can be fruitful, if you want to believe there is a linear relationship between “buzz” and sales. The problem is, a bad buzz produces the inverse result in many cases.

If we believe a survey Abbott points out, 56 percent of respondents (self-selected) buy books based on their readings of blogs, it implies that positive buzz has a positive correlation to sales, so there must also be a negative correlation or, at minimum, a smaller positive correlation between negative buzz and sales. I am certain blogs have influence, but measuring that influence remains difficult.

The case of Hugh MacLeod, whose excellent new book, Ignore Everybody, is in the Amazon Top 25 in its first weeks on the market, is, I think, a special case of a blogger and artist with a strong following who is benefitting from his intimate relationship with his audience. It would be very hard to replicate his accomplishment without having laid the foundation with a multi-year relationship, as Hugh has.

It will be a long while before anecdotal evidence leads to an inspiration that reduces answering this complex question to a science. In the meantime, we can all be certain that blogs and Twitter, as well as other social channels, are tools we must begin to use and understand as we sell books.