This is the inaugural issue of my newsletter, Futureproof.tips
. And you’re here, reading it! What a trip.
For context: Like every other writer in America, I am trying to figure out how best to get my ideas out into the world in the year 2021.
There’s my Times column, of course, which despite being a 170-year-old technology is still among the loudest and sturdiest megaphones a guy could ask for.
But there are so many other vectors for ideas: Podcasts, newsletters (hello!), Twitter threads, Instagram stories, Twitch streams, YouTube shows, LinkedIn posts, TikTok duets, Zoom webinars, and more.
I have a book coming out soon (more on that in a bit). And as I’ve been trying to figure out how to promote it, I’ve realized that for the first time in a long time, I have no idea how to game the attention economy.
When my first book came out in 2011, the path to getting people’s attention and selling lots of books was clear: Go on big TV shows (Oprah and The Daily Show were the book publicist’s holy grails), do a few NPR interviews, score a positive review in the Times, and you were set.
By the time my second book came out in 2014, social media was overtaking the traditional book-selling channels, and getting attention required a new, internet-focused strategy. So along with doing a lot of TV and radio, I spent months hawking on social media, and writing posts for outlets that had big distribution on Facebook, like BuzzFeed and Business Insider, in an attempt to siphon off some of their algorithmic juice. (Strangely enough, the thing that landed that book on the bestseller list was something I hadn’t planned for: a New York magazine excerpt that got posted on Reddit and went to the top of r/all.)
I didn’t publish a book during the Trump years, but some friends of mine did, and they told me that the strategy for selling nonfiction books was more or less “crowbar yourself into the Trump story somehow.” The media’s obsessive, wall-to-wall coverage of the Trump administration was great for the Michael Wolffs and Bob Woodwards of the world, but pity the poor writer whose book on, I don’t know, the history of Nintendo had to pray for a gap in the news cycle or attempt an awkward bank shot. (Did you know that Steve Bannon once owned a gaming company?)
Now, a decade after my first book came out, I’m gearing up for Book #3
, and I don’t think anyone really knows what works any more. I’m doing a bunch of traditional press, and a bunch of podcasts, and even experimenting with buying some social media ads. I gave a TED talk, and I’m writing a piece for the Times
and hopefully some of these things will move the needle. But who knows?
I used to feel like I had a sixth sense for internet virality – probably the result of running a news desk at a media outlet that was dependent on Facebook for the vast majority of its traffic – but I honestly can’t tell what’s going to get people’s attention now. The internet has fractured the attention economy into a million micro-markets, all of which mobilize in response to different stimuli. For one book, a popular Clubhouse chat might start the snowball rolling. For another, it might be a Joe Rogan appearance, a viral TikTok, or a NFT sale
. (Side note: should I tokenize my book?)
In a way, the mystery of today’s attention economy is a blessing. I get nervous about self-promotion, and it’s freeing to know that no one TV or radio appearance is likely to make or break the book’s prospects.
At the same time, it means that much of what I’m doing amounts to throwing spaghetti at the wall, and seeing what sticks.
That’s a fun mode for me, personally, but I understand how it might make other people – including the marketers whose jobs are to sell books and movie tickets and laundry detergent for a living – a little seasick. People used to know how to create buzz. Now? Buzz just materializes somehow, somewhere, and finds us, if we’re lucky.