if a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one around to like it, does it go viral?

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Coleridge was a drug addict. Poe was an alcoholic. Marlowe was killed by a man whom he was treacherously trying to stab. Pope took money to keep a woman’s name out of a satire, then wrote a piece so that she could still be recognized, anyhow. Chatterton killed himself. Byron was accused of incest. Do you still want to a writer -and if so, why?

—Bennett Cerf, Shake Well Before Using

I’m deeply grateful that Matthew Butterick, the subject of one of my posts on Boing Boing, not only noticed my affectionate critique but also took the time to clarify some points in an email to me (reprinted with his permission):

Mr. Moldawer

Please, Mr. Butterick: my friends call me “Dear Sir or Madam.”

He went on:

I already generate plenty of revenue from the project (via font sales).

People buy fonts? For money?!

mr. furley surprised

Thus the question is not “how do I make money?” but rather “can I do anything with the rest of the traffic?” Or is it just effluent?

The reason this question matters is because there’s no shortage of pundits and consultants who counsel authors to generate attention/traffic by any means necessary: with an email list, blog, Twitter presence, etc. Talk about old wine in new bottles.

Old wine in new bottles, yes, except wine typically gets better with age. Point: Butterick.

Email lists are what people did 20 years ago; blogging 15. And most Twitter “followers” are fake or abandoned accounts. It’s easy to waste a lot of time with these, confusing activity for results.

Now I feel sad. Are any of you actually reading this?

Authors are better served by doubling down on the one thing they control: namely, their writing. Write better. Write shorter. Get an editor. Invest in the design. Because that stuff reliably gets attention, and pays dividends forever.

I think Butterick threw in the “get an editor” bit to butterick me up. (Totally unnecessary. He had me at “Mr. Moldawer.”) But I’m in complete agreement on all of his points.

On a related note, if you haven’t read John McPhee’s wonderful piece on writing shorter yet, do so now.

Anyway, I wrote back:

I advocate quality, but I’m also intimately familiar with the actual experiences of the dozens and dozens (hundreds?) of authors I’ve worked with, and I’m just not comfortable offering quality-only advice. Tree falling in the forest sounds, etc.

I’ve seen time and again that the “cream rising to the top” analogy is mostly an illusion on the internet—when you see cream rise, there was an entire marketing team bubbling up below it. Straight cream mostly sinks straight to the bottom, with a few lucky exceptions, like your sites.

On the one hand, I abhor the cargo cult mentality as much (well, maybe almost as much) as you do, but I also see the need for some sort of self-promotion and monetization that is authentic, respectful, and honest. My newsletter is my way of noodling on the subject. It doesn’t really do anything to promote my business. Just a way to think out loud with an audience facing the same issues.

Butterick’s response:

I don’t believe as a rule that “cream rises”; I believe that one can only stand out through contrast & differentiation. What qualifies as differentiation changes over time and context.

If you, as a publishing-industry veteran, can identify any self-published e-books that have writing, editing, and design virtues that are comparable to a professionally published paperback, I’d be truly interested to see those. But my impression is they don’t exist, which is why readers have been overly impressed with Practical Typography. “Overly” = I don’t have any proprietary technology! Anybody could be doing what I’m doing. But for whatever reason, these virtues are a differentiator on today’s web.

  1. “Publishing-industry veteran”? Buttericking me up again, huh?

  2. What about the Bible? That was Self-published!

  3. No, most people could not do what you’re doing. The average person can’t distinguish an em dash from an en dash.

Appendix A

I received another interesting response to that Boing Boing post.

As is far too typical of me, I’d made a baseless accusation for a cheap laugh, in this case against one of the legendary lions of traditional publishing:

Allen Lane, founder of Penguin? Bennett Cerf, founder of Random House? Fuggedaboutit. These guys would be first in line for the most pernicious marketing techniques available.

Was this true? I certainly didn’t know! In the immortal words of Pandora, “Let me at that box!”

Then one of Boing Boing’s readers wrote back:

Funny you should mention Cerf. The man was a scammer and a fraud, which has been a matter of public record for forty-three years. Jessica Mitford’s article, should you need a refresher.

Impressive, pulling out a relevant article from 1970—Boing Boing’s readers don’t mess around. But the best part followed:

I’m certain you’re more ethical than Bennett Cerf, but under the circumstances you’ll forgive me for not requesting a subscription to your newsletter. (emphasis mine)

“Under the circumstances”? What circumstances? I didn’t say I liked the guy! And who requests a subscription to an email newsletter? This guy isn’t actually writing from 1970, is he? Wasn’t that the plot of The Lake House 2: Electric Boogaloo?

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