[Plura-list] How a billionaire's mediocre pump-and-dump "book" became a "bestseller"

Cory Doctorow doctorow at craphound.com
Thu Feb 15 16:07:52 EST 2024

Read today's issue online at: https://pluralistic.net/2024/02/15/your-new-first-name/

Today's links

* How a billionaire's mediocre pump-and-dump "book" became a "bestseller": A convincer to prolong the bezzle.

* Hey look at this: Delights to delectate.

* This day in history: 2009, 2014, 2019, 2023

* Colophon: Recent publications, upcoming/recent appearances, current writing projects, current reading


🥋 How a billionaire's mediocre pump-and-dump "book" became a "bestseller"

I was on a book tour the day my editor called me and told me, "From now on, your middle name is 'Cory.'"

"That's weird. Why?"

"Because from now on, your first name is '*New York Times* Bestselling Author.'"

That was how I found out I'd hit the *NYT* list for the first time. It was a huge moment - just as it has been each subsequent time it's happened. First, because of how it warmed my little ego, but second, and more importantly, because of how it affected my book and all the books afterwards.

Once your book is a *Times* bestseller, every bookseller in America orders enough copies to fill a front-facing display on a new release shelf or a stack on a bestseller table. They order more copies of your backlist. Foreign rights buyers at Frankfurt crowd around your international agents to bid on your book. Movie studios come calling. It's a huge deal.

My books became *Times* bestsellers the old-fashioned way: people bought and read them and told their friends, who bought and read them. Booksellers who enjoyed them wrote "shelf-talkers" - short reviews - and displayed them alongside the book.

That "From now on your first name is '*New York Times* Bestselling Author' gag is a tradition. When Wil Wheaton's memoir *Still Just A Geek* hit the *Times* list, I texted the joke to him and he texted back to say John Scalzi had *already* sent him the same joke (and of course, Scalzi and I have the same editor, Patrick Nielsen Hayden):


But not everyone earns that first name the same way. Some people cheat.

Famously, the Church of Scientology was caught buying truckloads of L Ron Hubbard books (published by Scientology's own publishing arm) from booksellers, returning them to their warehouse, then shipping them back to the booksellers when they re-ordered the sold out titles. The tip-off came when booksellers opened cases of books and found that they already bore the store's own price-stickers:


The reason Scientology was willing to go to such great lengths wasn't merely that readers used "NYT Bestseller* to choose which books to buy. Far more important was the signal that this sent to the entire book trade, from reviewers to librarians to booksellers, who made important decisions about how many copies of the books to stock, whether to display them spine- or face out, and whether to return unsold stock or leave it on the shelf.

Publishers go to great lengths to send these messages to the trade: sending out fancy advance review copies in elaborate packaging, taking out ads in the trade magazines, featuring titles in their catalogs and sending their sales-force out to impress the publisher's enthusiasm on their accounts.

Even the advance can be a way to signal the trade: when a publisher announces that it just acquired a book for an eyebrow-raising sum, it's not trumpeting the size of its capital reserves - it's telling the trade that this book is a Big Deal that they should pay attention to.

(Of all the signals, this one may be the weakest, even if it's the most expensive for publishers to send. Take the $1.25m advance that Rupert Murdoch's Harpercollins paid to Sarah Palin for her unreadable memoir, *Going Rogue*. As with so many of the outsized sums Murdoch's press and papers pay to right wing politicians, the figure didn't represent a bet on the commercial prospects of the book - which tanked - but rather, a legal way to launder massive cash transfers from the far-right billionaire to a generation of politicians who now owe him some rather expensive favors.)

All of which brings me to the *New York Times* bestselling book *Read Write Own* by the billionaire VC *New York Times* Bestselling Author Chris Dixon. Dixon is a partner at A16Z, the venture capitalists who pumped billions into failed, scammy, cryptocurrency companies that tricked normies into converting their perfectly cromulent "fiat" money into shitcoins, allowing the investors to turn a massive profit and exit before the companies collapsed or imploded.

*Read Write Own* (subtitle: "Building the Next Era of the Internet") is a monumentally unconvincing hymn to the blockchain. As Molly White writes in her scathing review, the book is full of undisclosed conflicts of interest, with Dixon touting companies he has a direct personal stake in:


But this book's defects go beyond this kind of sleazy pump-and-dump behavior. It's also just *bad*. The arguments it makes for the blockchain as a way of escaping the problems of an enshittified, monopolized internet are bad arguments. White dissects each of these arguments very skillfully, and I urge you to read her review for a full list, but I'll reproduce one here to give you a taste:

> After three chapters in which Dixon provides a (rather revisionistd) history of the web to date, explains the mechanics of blockchains, and goes over the types of things one might theoretically be able to do with a blockchain, we are left with "Part Four: Here and Now", then the final "Part Five: What's Next". The name of Part Four suggests that he will perhaps lay out a list of blockchain projects that are currently successfully solving real problems.

> This may be why Part Four is precisely four and a half pages long. And rather than name any successful projects, Dixon instead spends his few pages excoriating the "casino" projects that he says have given crypto a bad rap,e prompting regulatory scrutiny that is making "ethical entrepreneurs ... afraid to build products" in the United States.f

As White says, this is just not a good book. It doesn't contain anything to excite people who are already blockchain-poisoned crypto cultists - and it *also* lacks anything that will convince normies who never let Matt Damon or Spike Lee convince them to trade dollars for magic beans. It's one of those books that manages to be both paper *and* a paperweight.

And yet...it's a *New York Times* Bestseller. How did this come to pass? Here's a hint: remember how the Scientologists got L Ron Hubbard 20 consecutive #1 Bestsellers?

As Jordan Pearson writes for *Motherboard*, *Read Write Own* earned its place on the *Times* list because of a series of massive bulk orders from firms linked to A16Z and Dixon, which ordered between dozens and thousands of copies and gave them away to employees or just randos on Twitter:


The *Times* recognizes this in a backhanded way, by marking *Read Write Own* on the list with a "dagger" (†) that indicates the shenanigans (the same dagger appeared alongside the listing for Donald Trump Jr's *Triggered* after the RNC spent a metric scientologyload of money - $100k - buying up cases of it):


There's a case for the *Times* not automatically ignoring bulk orders. Since 2020, I've run Kickstarters where I've pre-sold my books on behalf of my publisher, working with bookstores like Book Soup and wholesalers like Porchlight Books to backers when they go on sale. I signed and personalized 500+ books at Vroman's yesterday for backers who pre-ordered my next novel, *The Bezzle*:


But there's a world of difference between pre-orders that hundreds or thousands of readers place that are aggregated into a single bulk order, and books that are bought by CEOs to give away to people who may not have any interest in them. For the book trade - librarians, reviewers, booksellers - the former indicates broad interest that justifies their attention. The latter just tells you that a handful of deep-pocketed manipulators want you to *think* there's broad interest.

I'm certain that Dixon - like me - feels a bit of pride at having "earned" a new first name. But Dixon - like me - gets something far more tangible than a bit of egoboo out of making the *Times* list. For me, a place on the *Times* list is a way to get booksellers and librarians excited about sharing my book with readers.

For Dixon, the stakes are much higher. Remember that cryptocurrency is a faith-based initiative whose mechanism is: "convince normies that shitcoins will be worth more tomorrow than they are today, and then trade them the shitcoins that cost you nothing to create for dollars that they worked hard to earn."

In other words, crypto is a *bezzle*, defined by John Kenneth Galbraith as "The magic interval when a confidence trickster knows he has the money he has appropriated but the victim does not yet understand that he has lost it."

So long as shitcoins haven't fallen to zero, the bag-holders who've traded their "fiat" for funny money can live in the bezzle, convinced that their "investments" will recover and turn a profit. More importantly, keeping the bezzle alive preserves the possibility of luring in more normies who can infuse the system with fresh dollars to use as convincers that keep the bag-holders to keep holding that bag, rather than bailing and precipitating the zeroing out of the whole scam.

The relatively small sums that Dixon and his affiliated plutocrats spent to flood your podcasts with ads for this pointless 300-page Ponzi ad are a *bargain*, as are the sums they spent buying up cases of the book to give away or just stash in a storeroom. If only a few hundred retirees are convinced to convert their savings to crypto, the resulting flush of cash will make the line go up, allowing whales like Dixon and A16Z to cash out, or make more leveraged bets, or both. Crypto is a system with very few good trades, but spending chump change to earn a spot on the *Times* list (dagger or no) is a no-brainer.

After all, the kinds of people who buy crypto are, famously, the kinds of people who think books are stupid ("I would never read a book" -S Bankman-Fried):


There's precious little likelihood that anyone will be convinced to go long on crypto thanks to the *words* in this book. But the *Times* list has enough prestige to lure more suckers into the casino: "*I'm* not going to read this thing, but if it's on the list, that means *other* people *must* have read it and think it's convincing."

We are living through a golden age of scams, and crypto, which has elevated caveat emptor to a moral virtue ("not your wallet, not your coins"), is a scammer's paradise. Stein's Law tells us that "anything that can't go on forever will eventually stop," but the purpose of a bezzle isn't to keep the scam going forever - just until the scammer can cash out and blow town. The longer the bezzle goes on for, the richer the scammer gets.

Not for nothing, my next novel - which comes out on Feb 20 - is called *The Bezzle.* It stars Marty Hench, my hard-driving, two-fisted, high-tech forensic accountant, who finds himself unwinding a whole menagerie of scams, from a hamburger-based Ponzi scheme to rampant music royalty theft to a vast prison-tech scam that uses prisoners as the ultimate captive audience:


Patrick Nielsen Hayden - the same editor who gave me my new first name - once told me that "publishing is the act of connecting a text with an audience." Everything a publisher does - editing, printing, warehousing, distributing - can be separated from publishing. The thing a publisher does that makes them a publisher - not a printer or a warehouser or an editing shop - is *connecting books and audiences*.

Seen in this light, publishing is a subset of the hard problem of advertising, religion, politics and every other endeavor that consists in part of convincing people to try out a new idea:


This may be the golden age of scams, but it's the dark age of publishing. Consolidation in distribution has gutted the power of the sales force to convince booksellers to stock books that the publisher believes in. Consolidation in publishing - especially Amazon, which is both a publisher and the largest retailer in the country - has stacked the deck against books looking for readers and vice-versa (Goodreads, a service founded for that purpose, is now just another tentacle on the Amazon shoggoth). The rapid enshittification of social media has clobbered the one semi-reliable channel publicists and authors had to reach readers directly.

I wrote nine books during lockdown (I write as displacement activity for anxiety) which has given me a chance to see publishing in the way that few authors can: through a sequence of rapid engagements with the system as a whole, as I publish between one and three books per year for multiple, consecutive years. From that vantagepoint, I can tell you that it's grim and getting grimmer. The slots that books that connected with readers once occupied are now increasingly occupied by the equivalent of the botshit that fills the first eight screens of your Google search results: book-shaped objects that have gamed their way to the top of the list.


I don't know what to do about this, but I have one piece of advice: if you read a book you love, *tell other people* about it. Tell them face-to-face. In your groupchat. On social media. Even on Goodreads. Every book is a lottery ticket, but the bezzlers are buying their tickets by the case: every time you tell someone about a book you loved (and even better, *why* you loved it), you buy a writer another ticket.

Meanwhile, I've got to go get ready for my book tour. I'm coming to LA, San Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver, Calgary, Phoenix, Portland, Providence, Boston, New York City, Toronto, San Diego, Salt Lake City, Tucson, Chicago, Buffalo, as well as Torino and Tartu (details soon!).

If you want to get a taste of *The Bezzle*, here's an excerpt:


And here's the audiobook, read by *New York Times* Bestselling Author Wil Wheaton:



🥋 Hey look at this

* Coming Soon to Disneyland: Union Representation for 1,700 Disneyland Characters and Parades Cast Members https://www.actorsequity.org/news/PR/MagicUnited/

* Hip Hip Hooray For Hipster Antitrust https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2024/02/hip-hip-hooray-hipster-antitrust

* Georgia Senate Passes Bill Criminalizing Bail Funds https://www.democracynow.org/2024/2/2/headlines/georgia_senate_passes_bill_criminalizing_bail_funds (h/t Priscilla Grim)


🥋 This day in history

#15yrsago Best practices for economic collapse: Long Now talk https://cluborlov.blogspot.com/2009/02/social-collapse-best-practices.html

#10yrsago San Francisco police beat up and detain Good Samaritans who call 911 and perform first aid on accident victim https://medium.com/indian-thoughts/good-samaritan-backfire-9f53ef6a1c10

#10yrsago Dems appoints RIAA’s man in Congress to House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property and the Internet https://www.techdirt.com/2014/02/12/another-friend-recording-industry-joins-house-subcommittee-courts-intellectual-property-internet/

#10yrsago Senator Rand Paul sues US government over NSA spying https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2014/02/us-senator-sues-president-obama-to-stop-nsa-metadata-dragnet/

#5yrsago Who can forget those scenes in Count Zero where they all stand around eating soup? https://memex.craphound.com/2019/02/14/who-can-forget-those-scenes-in-count-zero-where-they-all-stand-around-eating-soup/

#5yrsago Bossfight: Allstate Insurance enters the Right to Repair fight, loans its lobbyists to fight Apple https://www.vice.com/en/article/nex3dz/insurance-giant-allstate-buys-icracked-phone-repair-company-joins-right-to-repair-movement

#5yrsago Installing a root certificate should be MUCH scarier https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2019/02/powerful-permissions-wimpy-warnings

#5yrsago Ex-NSA whistleblower says she and other US ex-spooks targeted Americans on behalf of UAE https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa-spying-raven/

#5yrsago LA Times demands that reporters sign away rights to books, movies and other works they create while working at the paper https://latguild.com/news/2019/2/12/press-release-los-angeles-times-guild-pushes-back-against-managements-proposed-intellectual-property-policy

#5yrsago Even without explicit collusion, pricing algorithms converge on price-fixing strategies https://cepr.org/voxeu/columns/artificial-intelligence-algorithmic-pricing-and-collusion

#5yrsago Most adults are incapable of understanding most online terms of service https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3313837

#5yrsago How Epson’s patent trolling is killing the EU market for replacement ink https://www.openrightsgroup.org/blog/patently-unfair-epson-takedowns-continue/

#5yrsago The Final Version of the EU’s Copyright Directive Is the Worst One Yet https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2019/02/final-version-eus-copyright-directive-worst-one-yet

#5yrsago Beyond GIGO: how “predictive policing” launders racism, corruption and bias to make them seem empirical https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3333423

#1yrago Nathan J. Robinson's "Responding to the Right: Brief Replies to 25 Conservative Arguments" https://pluralistic.net/2023/02/14/nathan-robinson/#arguendo


🥋 Colophon

Today's top sources:

Currently writing:

* A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING

* Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. FORTHCOMING TOR BOOKS JAN 2025

* The Bezzle, a Martin Hench noir thriller novel about the prison-tech industry. FORTHCOMING TOR BOOKS FEB 2024

* Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. FORTHCOMING ON TOR.COM

* Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. FORTHCOMING ON TOR.COM

Latest podcast: What kind of bubble is AI? https://craphound.com/news/2024/01/21/what-kind-of-bubble-is-ai/

Upcoming appearances:

* The Bezzle at Weller Book Works (Salt Lake City), Feb 21

* The Bezzle at Third Place Books (Seattle), Feb 26

* Tucson Festival of Books, Mar 9/10

* Enshittification: How the Internet Went Bad and How to Get it Back (virtual), Mar 26

* The Bezzle at Anderson's Books (Chicago), Apr 17

* Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (Winnipeg), May 2

* Media Ecology Association keynote, Jun 6-9 (Amherst, NY)

* American Association of Law Libraries keynote, Jul 21 (Chicago)

Recent appearances:

* Big Story Podcast

* Why Taylor Left Tiktok (Today, Explained)

* Online Platform Decay (Tim Ventura)

Latest books:

* "The Lost Cause:" a solarpunk novel of hope in the climate emergency, Tor Books (US), Head of Zeus (UK), November 2023 (http://lost-cause.org). Signed, personalized copies at Dark Delicacies (https://www.darkdel.com/store/p3007/Pre-Order_Signed_Copies%3A_The_Lost_Cause_HB.html#/)

* "The Internet Con": A nonfiction book about interoperability and Big Tech (Verso) September 2023 (http://seizethemeansofcomputation.org). Signed copies at Book Soup (https://www.booksoup.com/book/9781804291245).

* "Red Team Blues": "A grabby, compulsive thriller that will leave you knowing more about how the world works than you did before." Tor Books http://redteamblues.com. Signed copies at Dark Delicacies (US): and Forbidden Planet (UK): https://forbiddenplanet.com/385004-red-team-blues-signed-edition-hardcover/.

* "Chokepoint Capitalism: How to Beat Big Tech, Tame Big Content, and Get Artists Paid, with Rebecca Giblin", on how to unrig the markets for creative labor, Beacon Press/Scribe 2022 https://chokepointcapitalism.com

* "Attack Surface": The third Little Brother novel, a standalone technothriller for adults. The *Washington Post* called it "a political cyberthriller, vigorous, bold and savvy about the limits of revolution and resistance." Order signed, personalized copies from Dark Delicacies https://www.darkdel.com/store/p1840/Available_Now%3A_Attack_Surface.html

* "How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism": an anti-monopoly pamphlet analyzing the true harms of surveillance capitalism and proposing a solution. https://onezero.medium.com/how-to-destroy-surveillance-capitalism-8135e6744d59?sk=f6cd10e54e20a07d4c6d0f3ac011af6b) (signed copies: https://www.darkdel.com/store/p2024/Available_Now%3A__How_to_Destroy_Surveillance_Capitalism.html)

* "Little Brother/Homeland": A reissue omnibus edition with a new introduction by Edward Snowden: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250774583; personalized/signed copies here: https://www.darkdel.com/store/p1750/July%3A__Little_Brother_%26_Homeland.html

* "Poesy the Monster Slayer" a picture book about monsters, bedtime, gender, and kicking ass. Order here: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781626723627. Get a personalized, signed copy here: https://www.darkdel.com/store/p2682/Corey_Doctorow%3A_Poesy_the_Monster_Slayer_HB.html#/.

Upcoming books:

* The Bezzle: a sequel to "Red Team Blues," about prison-tech and other grifts, Tor Books, February 2024

* Picks and Shovels: a sequel to "Red Team Blues," about the heroic era of the PC, Tor Books, February 2025

* Unauthorized Bread: a graphic novel adapted from my novella about refugees, toasters and DRM, FirstSecond, 2025

This work - excluding any serialized fiction - is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. That means you can use it any way you like, including commercially, provided that you attribute it to me, Cory Doctorow, and include a link to pluralistic.net.


Quotations and images are not included in this license; they are included either under a limitation or exception to copyright, or on the basis of a separate license. Please exercise caution.


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"*When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla*" -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla
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