As a book publisher, it is the best phone call you can make to an author: “Hi, there. Just wanted to let you know that your book has hit the New York Times bestseller list!” I made that call to Glenn Greenwald, author of How Would a Patriot Act?, on June 1, after getting the best call a publisher can receive.
From the perspective of an independent, progressive publisher, this victory also illustrates a new model for creating chartable vehicles to package progressive ideas. This three-week ride on the bestseller list is a success story that should be replicated–early and often.
How Would a Patriot Act? was developed, written, edited, published, distributed and ushered onto the bestseller list in exactly three months. I met Greenwald during a fellowship offered by Working Assets, the progressive, 20-year-old telecommunications and credit card company. Working Assets president Michael Kieschnick had charged me in January with studying the progressive blogosphere to identify emerging talent and ideas.
I’d known a little about blogs after seeing DailyKos take George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant to the bestseller list in November 2004. I later helped to acquire Jerome Armstrong’s and Markos Moulitsas Zunigas’ Crashing the Gate. But with the total number of blogs doubling every six months, according to a New Politics Institute report, and with Technorati.com now tracking 43 million blogs, it’s safe to say there was a whole lot more to learn. I had some catching up to do, but was immediately swept away by the talent, knowledge, patriotism, passion, anger and humor I came upon. As a sometimes journalist, I admired, too, the freedom from editorial constraints in the disparate writing styles, the immediacy, the urgency. I coveted the subjectivity. I fell in love with the conversation.
Greenwald’s blog, Unclaimed Territory, piqued my editorial interest because he seemed to have found the elusive formula for attracting both liberals and conservatives and in the commentns section, these folks were–gasp!–talking to each other in civil fashion.
A constitutional law attorney, Greenwald wound down his practice in 2005 and started blogging about the Bush administration’s radical theories and seizure of unchecked power. His blog became a must-read for journalists and politicians about issues ranging from the NSA domestic spying program to the limits of presidential power. Senator Russ Feingold even read from Greenwald’s blog at the hearing on his resolution to censure the President.
On February 15, I asked Greenwald if he’d like to do a book. Working Assets stepped up to fund the project and launch Working Assets Publishing. By March 1, we had a contract and Greenwald sat down to write. There was a printer to find, a distributor to lure, an editorial team to assemble, and all of it managed by a quickly-formed publishing division at the San Francisco headquarters of Working Assets. After some very long days, we delivered the book to the printer on April 24. The day before, I sent digital manuscripts to seven bloggers I’d been working with and asked them to post about the book, if they found it worthy. Within days How Would a Patriot Act? rose from obscurity to number one on Amazon largely because those initial blogs ignited a wildfire of mentions and purchase links throughout the blogosphere. The book stayed there for nearly four days. This sent a shock wave through progressive publishing circles and got stores around the country interested in making Patriot buys. The book’s publication date was May 15 and since then has hit the Washington Post and New York Times bestseller list.
This book rose to best-sellerdom primarily because of the pre-launch push from progressive blogs. Later came a front-page San Francisco Chronicle piece, some trade coverage and small mentions in New York Times and New York Observer, but this book has received very little mainstream coverage. No TV, a little radio–mostly Air America. Working Assets did send an e-mail blast about the book, and we got some help from a few organizations, like Drinking Liberally, American Constitution Society, Independent Press Association, and NDN/ New Politics Institute. But the book has not received help from the big membership groups.
This is a success story and a tipping point for the blogosphere. Greenwald went from first-time blogger to best-selling author in a little over six months on the strength of his ideas, which were formulated online, and the distribution power made possible by the Internet. And Greenwald’s success was fueled by the passion of the blog communities.
This story is also a lesson for progressives. At a time when the right is insisting that the left has no ideas and mainstream media seem unwilling or unable to cover progressive ideas intelligently, we must create our own vehicles to carry our ideas to the American public. And we must build upon what we know is possible when the blogs work together. Progressive membership groups should join in, and help to lift up new voices and ideas. It’s not about just selling books. It’s about making our ideas successful in the marketplace, so that more Americans can hear about them. Successful ideas spread, as we’ve seen with the collaborative promotion of documentaries from Robert Greenwald (no relation to Glenn) and Al Gore.
There are plenty of other important books progressives should get behind, like Eric Boehlert’s Lapdogs, David Sirota’s Hostile Takeover and J.R. Norton’s Saving General Washington With the savvy leveraging of our assets in the blogosphere and the success of Glenn Greenwald’s book, perhaps the time has come for progressive ideas to get fair hearing in the national debate.