Secrecy in Book Publishing

Between the issues dated January 8 and November 12, nothing by Malcom Gladwell

appeared in the New Yorker, and nothing appeared on his blog,

either. Gladwell finally broke

his silence on Monday:

I took a little break from blogging, to work on my new book. But now it’s

almost finished, and I’m

back in the New Yorker this week.

Gladwell gives no hint as to what his new book will be about; instead, Kottke

has the scoop.

What interests me about all this is the secrecy and the lack of transparency

involved. Not only was the subject of Gladwell’s book a secret; even the very

fact that he was writing one was kept well under wraps. The whole thing smells

as either though Gladwell or his publisher was in fully-fledged I’ve-got-a-great-idea-and-I-don’t-want-anybody-to-steal-it


This is actually rather common. A friend of mine recently quit her job, for

instance, to start a new venture; when I asked what it was, she replied via


I can’t tell you because I think it is too good an idea!

Similarly, when someone like Gawker Media’s Nick Denton decides to launch a

new blog, he works on it in utmost secrecy until the day it goes live.

The opposite tack is much less common, but last month very succesful venture

capitalist Fred Wilson wrote a blog entry headlined "Playing

Your Hand With Your Cards Turned Up":

I do not believe we’ve made an investment in our fund without me talking

about it, using it, and thinking out loud about it on this blog…

Blogging about things we are looking at is all part of the transparent firm

that we are trying to create. We want people to know what we are up to…

We try to be very open about what we are looking for, what we are looking

at, and when we invest we like to be open about the reasons we did so. We

formed our firm four years ago, raised our first fund three years ago, and

in that short time we have been able to establish a significant presence in

our sector. We’d never have been able to do that if we had been playing with

our cards turned upside down.

What would have happened if Gladwell had announced that he was taking book

leave, if he had told everybody what the subject of his book was going to be,

and if he had blogged about that subject continually while writing the book?

For one thing, he would have got some interesting ideas from visitors to his

blog. For another thing, he would essentially have injected the ideas behind

the book virally into the public’s subconsciousness, quite possibly making the

public more receptive to the book when it finally came out.

The possible downsides? Well, someone else might have tried to write a book

on the same subject more quickly, and get it out before Gladwell’s book appeared.

Which seems improbable to me, given that (a) no author wants to be seen as treading

on Gladwell’s publicly-announced turf; (b) no publisher wants to be seen as

treading on Gladwell’s publicly-announced turf; and (c) in any case trying to

turn a book around so quickly would be extremely difficult. More to the point,

even if that did happen, there’s no reason that it wouldn’t merely whet the

public’s appetite for Gladwell’s book, rather than cannibalize its sales.

The other possible downside is that the public might get bored with Gladwell’s

idea by the time the book came out, and figure that they already understood

most of what he wanted to say, and if they didn’t then they could always read

his blog entries for free rather than pay good money for the book. But you can’t

copyright ideas, and the ideas behind Gladwell’s book are all going to enter

the public domain the minute that the first reviews start coming out.

In general, when it comes to blogs or books or most things along those lines,

the idea is the easy part: it’s the execution which is hard. The reason that

Gladwell is so successful is that he’s extremely good at communicating the ideas

of others to a mass audience: which specific ideas he decides to communicate

is really much less important. Similarly, there’s no shortage of gadget blogs

out there, but it takes a lot of work and a lot of writers to create something

as important and influential as Gizmodo.

I suspect that the secrecy surrounding such projects serves more to make their

principals feel important than it does to serve any real purpose. Books are

not particularly interactive things, but as the examples of Freakonomics

and Steven Johnson and Chris

Anderson show, there’s a lot of upside to transparency and two-way conversation.

Sooner rather than later, I suspect, the secrecy surrounding book projects like

Gladwell’s be a thing of the past.

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