Steal This Author

Several years ago, I was put in the window of a Midwestern bookstore next to a large sign announcing, "Robert Reich is here to sign his latest book." Some passers-by glanced curiously into the window; a few stopped to gawk. I lamely smiled and waved. The ordeal lasted only a half-hour, but the humiliation is still with me. Here I was, having written from conviction on an issue I felt deeply about, being forced to sell myself like one of those ladies on display in storefronts of Amsterdam's red-light district. (At least those ladies attracted eager customers. I don't recall anyone coming into the bookstore for my signature.)

That was the worst book-promoting experience I remember, but even the normal process of selling a book can feel demeaning. I have no trouble trying to market ideas or proposals I believe to be important; indeed, I've spent most of my adult life doing this in one way or another -- not for the money but in order to influence public policy.

In trying to sell a book, though, you're burdened with the ulterior motive of hawking a product, and that product isn't just your ideas. It's also, inevitably, yourself. The boundary between message and messenger blurs. Buyers are plunking down real money because they want to read what you have to say. Authors may not have to appear in bookstore windows, but they have to attract customers somehow. The resulting process is both crassly commercial and terribly personal. It's not just scary (I may be rejected!) but inconsistent with the goal of putting forward ideas that an author may not want judged by their commercial, let alone his personal, appeal.

Now, I'm back on the road flogging a new book. I've tried to reassure myself the book business is different these days. Amazon and e-books have taken over much of the market from the brick-and-mortar stores. Barnes & Noble and Borders are the only remaining big chains, along with a smattering of independents holding on for dear life. I'm appearing in some stores -- not in their windows -- but this time around the emphasis is on podcasts and videos, major blogs, and digital marketing. In those media, I don't have to ask anyone in particular to buy my book -- or, by implication, buy me.

The Internet has "disintermediated" books, to use biz-speak. Just as it's done elsewhere in the economy, the Internet is wiping away layers of retailers, wholesalers, and distributors -- and thereby making transactions less personal. (While many of my friends bemoan the loss of their local bookstores and personal relationships with owners who look out for books they may find appealing, my friends eagerly and happily order or download books they want to read. They seem blissfully unaware of the inconsistency.)

In a few years, I suppose, we'll be able to do without publishers, too. Readers will just download authors directly. I won't even have to write "books" as such in order to get ideas out. Maybe I'll be able to offer sequences of reports spread over time, or a series of interactive postings based on an unfolding public issue, or an indeterminate number of "chapters" containing hyperlinks to all sorts of information I'd like readers to have. In some ways, I already do this -- in this magazine, on its website and others, and at www.robert-reich.org.

Eventually, instead of selling books, I might be able to sell some of this in the form of subscriptions. Or maybe I could make it free and attract enough eyeballs to sell ads. To make the product more appealing, I could include short videos containing interviews or debates I've had on the issues. Hey, why not start a small video-production company to help me come up with examples and illustrations? We could do our own investigations, put the results into print and video, and upload the package. Come to think of it, my university is considering charging for courses and lectures over the Internet. So maybe I could throw in videos of my lectures and give the university a percentage of the take.

Of course, all this will require marketing. After all, I'll need to attract customers, and without any intermediaries between my potential customers and me, I'll be on my own. That means I'll have to sell myself like mad -- not my ideas but me. Figuratively speaking, I'll need to put myself into a national shopwindow with a big sign pointing in my direction: Robert Reich, Inc.

Get it? Disintermediation isn't the end of humiliation. It's just the beginning.

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