Blockbusters, blockbusters everywhere

[Boston Globe]

In today’s Ideas section, in the Boston Globe, I’ve got a profile of Anita Elberse, a professor at Harvard Business school and the author of a smart new book called Blockbusters. Elberse demonstrates quite persuasively that blockbusters — whether in Hollywood or music or publishing — aren’t collapsing under their own weight. Indeed, they’re actually thriving. Read the story for more on that.

Elberse also debunks Chris Anderson’s seductive theory of the “long tail” — the idea, which Anderson advanced in a book of the same name, that the online economy would free us to move toward smaller and smaller customized niches. One thing I couldn’t fit into the story — and I’m surprised, given how much attention Anderson’s received, that very few people have pointed this out — is the degree to which The Long Tail was itself a blockbuster. That doesn’t just mean it sold well. To be a true blockbuster, a creative property must be designed with big sales in mind. To wit:

  • Anderson first publicized his theory in a magazine article in the pages of Wired — that kind of pre-publicity publicity is essential to a blockbuster.
  • Anderson and his idea also benefited from his position as the editor of Wired — that kind of platform helps, too.
  • Anderson’s book went through an intense bidding war. The war drove up his advance to $500,000 — and that advance itself became news, in addition to an incentive for his publisher to market and distribute his book. It’s no surprise that Anderson  gave a big talk at the 2006 BookExpo America.
  • Anderson’s book provided plenty of juicy “comp” titles. The Wall Street Journal called it “the new The Tipping Point” months before it came out.
  • And finally Anderson’s book — based on its intriguing premise, of course, but also on all the factors just mentioned — got tons of media coverage in radio, TV, and print.

None of this is to say Anderson’s book was good or bad, right or wrong. (Well, I can’t help but note that Elberse’s data add up to a pretty strong rebuke.) Instead, it’s only to say that to become a huge hit — to become a blockbuster — it’s almost always necessary to have these factors working in the creator’s favor, long before the creative product is due to come out. We live in an age of blockbusters. And strangely enough, it’s hard to find a better example of that fact than The Long Tail.

A review of David Finkel’s Thank You For Your Service

[Christian Science Monitor]

Today on the Christian Science Monitor’s website I’ve got a review of David Finkel’s staggering new book, Thank You For Your Service. It’s probably the best nonfiction title I’ve read this year — either it or George Packer’s The Unwinding. As it happens, I also reviewed Packer for the Monitor. Read that review here. And then go read both of these books.

Finding the biographer in the biography

[Wall Street Journal]

In this Sunday’s Wall Street Journal I’ve got a  long review of A. Scott Berg’s new biography Wilson. It’s also an essay on what exactly a biographer adds to any biography. Just four years ago, another excellent biography of Wilson  appeared — John Milton Cooper Jr.’s Woodrow Wilson — and that means we’ve got an excellent test case for just how two different biographers create two different versions of Wilson.

Anyway, read the review for more. One of my main points is that Berg tries too hard to fashion Wilson as a president who feels distinctly modern. Don’t just take my word for it, though. Here’s Berg talking to to Los Angeles magazine: “As I was writing,” he said, “there were literally days I would say, ‘I’m going to forget the name is Wilson. I’ll pretend it is Obama. And I will write it as though it is Obama.'”

Berg’s an excellent biographer. (Last month, in a separate review, I praised his decades-old book on Max Perkins.) But this method strikes me as problematic, to say the least. Cooper is also an excellent biographer, and I think his book is a better fit for anyone new to Wilson. But Berg’s scrupulous research — he spent a decade on Wilson — has unearthed lots of new supplementary detail, and for experts it’s worth checking out, as well.

One last thing: not many people know that Sigmund Freud cowrote a biography of Wilson with William Bullitt. It’s called Thomas Woodrow Wilson: Twenty-eighth President of the United States, —A Psychological Study, and it’s really, really awful. Freud’s estate worked very hard to separate Sigmund from it, and a lot of historians still seem dubious about his involvement. But in 2008 J. F. Campbell published a scholarly article based on his research in Bullitt’s papers. It turns out Freud more than earned his status as co-writer, and more scholars should check out Campbell’s work.

A review of Boris Kachka’s Hothouse

[San Francisco Chronicle]

In yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle I’ve got a review of Boris Kachka’s Hothouse, a fun new book on the history of FSG. Kachka’s uncovered a ton of good anecdotes, including this one about improbable FSG author Tom Friedman: once, when Friedman called the office and found out his editor was unavailable, he started screaming at the poor assistant who’d answered the phone. “Do you know who I am?” he said. “I’m Tom fucking Friedman, and I pay your fucking salary.”

Speaking of which: have you read Matt Taibbi’s seminal review of Friedman’s The World Is Flat? If not, go read it right now — forget my review. Taibbi’s is way better.