The Elephant in the Brain

One of the most frustrating things about writing physical books is the long time delays. It has been 17 months since I mentioned my upcoming book here, and now, 8.5 months after we submitted the full book for review, & over 4 months after 7 out of 7 referees said “great book, as it is”, I can finally announce that The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life, coauthored with Kevin Simler, will officially be published January 1, 2018. Sigh. See summary & detailed outline at the book’s website.

A related sad fact is that the usual book publicity equilibrium adds to intellectual inequality. Since most readers want to read books about which they’ve heard much publicity lately from multiple sources, publishers try to concentrate publicity into a narrow time period around the official publication date. Which makes sense.

But to create that burst of publicity, one must circulate the book well in advance privately among “thought leaders”, who might blurb or review it, invite the authors to talk on it, or recommend it to others who might do these things. So people who plausibly fit these descriptions get to read such books long before others. This lets early readers seem to be wise judges of future popular talk directions. Not because they actually have better judgement, but because they get inside info.

Alas, I’m stuck in this same equilibrium. I have a full copy of my final book, except for minor copy-editing changes, and I can share it privately with possible publicity helpers. And when the relative cost to send an email is small relative to possible gains, a small chance may be enough. I’ll also give in to some requests based on friendship or prior help given me (as on my last book), especially when combined with promises to buy the book when it comes out.

But just as grading is the worst part of teaching, I hate being put in the role of bouncer, deciding who is cool enough to be let into my book club, or who has enough favors to trade. At least when teaching I’m expert in whatever topic I’m grading. But here I’m much less expert on deciding who can help book publicity. I’d really prefer the intellectual world to be more of an open competition without favoritism for those with inside connections. But here I am, forced to play favorites.

These are a few of the prices one pays today to publish books. But still, books remain an unparalleled way to call attention to ideas that need more space to explain than an article can offer. And for a relatively unknown author, established publishers still offer more attention than you could generate on your own. But maybe, just maybe, I can do something different with my third book, whatever that may be on.

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  • Joe

    But maybe, just maybe, I can do something different with my third book, whatever that may be on.

    Hmm, I thought we, and you, know what your third book will be on? Or is the “what if AI via gradually accumulating more & better software” project off now?

    • The project continues. And a book is a likely outcome. But I’m less sure if that would be my next book.

      • Michael Milburn

        Robin, with Amazon’s createspace you can self-publish and have hard copies of a book ready to go for order easily within a week of final edits. The economics may not be favorable, I don’t know what type of margins and other benefits you get with your publisher (margins differ on Amazon’s site vs. createspace or selling via your own link), but it sounds like you’re generating much of your own promotion and buzz. I have no particular expertise and have learned to put my wife’s books, both cover and interior, together. Amazon I think has a service to help, but there are freelancers who do this type of thing for authors inexpensively.

  • I don’t expect you to agree since I don’t have any favors to trade, but I would certainly like to read the book already.

    Anyway I’ll certainly buy the book when it comes out.

  • Vítor Margato

    Not to be nitpicky, but would you consider a more aesthetically pleasing website? Yes, having the attention of “thought leaders”, as you call them, is probably much more important, but a nice-looking website won’t hurt. Black text and blue links in Times New Roman over a white background is certainly not ideal. Perhaps that’s intended as countersignalling, but even if that’s the case I don’t think it works. That said, I’ll definitely buy the book!

    • I’m not a website professional. I’m open to proposals from professionals offering their services, but I’m surely not going to try to do it myself.

      • it works for me

        I find your basic html websites charming and easily accessible.

  • Does this really have anything to do with physical books or would you be in the same position with respect to passing out early versions that don’t have the final copyediting and other polish?

    If it really is just about the delay for the physical book why wouldn’t a publisher allow eager readers to purchase pre-publication electronic access? If doing so required emailing the publisher directly or otherwise was more complex than purchasing on amazon one would expect only those most interested in the books contents (and thus most likely to help drive good publicity) would buy access.

  • Silent Cal

    This is a tall order indeed by your own theories. Isn’t affiliation with impressive thought leaders one of the primary functions a book like yours performs?

  • Congrats on completing most of the long road, Robin! Highly looking forward to reading this, and recommending it to others.

  • Sid

    Some tentative book titles for you:

    (1) A manual for Serious Futurism
    (2) The Great Filter and what to do about it
    (3) Dreams of Futarchy
    (4) Abstract Everything: A guide to rigorous contrarianism
    (5) Prediction Markets
    (6) The Everettian Economist: A straightforward argument for why the Many Worlds interpretation must be true
    (7) Institution Design: A guide for building better institutions

  • I totally understand the frustration… this is why I decided only to self publish my books…

    Btw… Would love to read the book already and host you on my podcast to talk about it and help promote the book when it’s ready to be birthed..

  • Matthew

    Extremely skeptical that non-fiction books as a medium of intellectual expression actually have much to offer in 2017. The best “book-length treatments” are a series of blog posts and/or articles through which ideas can be developed, challenged, and elaborated on either directly through comments or indirectly through peer blogs and fora.

    • Tyrrell_McAllister

      Blogs do make a good gestation chamber for new ideas.

      But suppose that a theory has survived that trial by fire, has been shaped and honed by all that criticism and elaboration. Now what? How is the theory to spread? Is a new person, interested in the theory, going to go through that entire sprawling mass of blog posts and try to extract the underlying logic of the theory?

      No. But a book can take that theory, perfected by the give-and-take of blogging, and present it in a more concise and logically structured way. The original articles presented the theory across a vast collection of texts with a lot of rehashing and digressions over the years. The book can distill and synthesize all this into something that a new intellectual can digest and critique. Without that kind of periodic distillation, you don’t get another round of critique and elaboration. And without that, the theory is dead.

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