if a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one around to like it, does it go viral?

Coleridge was a drug addict. Poe was an alcoholic. Marlowe was killed by a man whom he was treacherously trying to stab. Pope took money to keep a woman’s name out of a satire, then wrote a piece so that she could still be recognized, anyhow. Chatterton killed himself. Byron was accused of incest. Do you still want to a writer -and if so, why?

—Bennett Cerf, Shake Well Before Using

I’m deeply grateful that Matthew Butterick, the subject of one of my posts on Boing Boing, not only noticed my affectionate critique but also took the time to clarify some points in an email to me (reprinted with his permission):

Mr. Moldawer

Please, Mr. Butterick: my friends call me “Dear Sir or Madam.”

He went on:

I already generate plenty of revenue from the project (via font sales).

People buy fonts? For money?!

mr. furley surprised

Thus the question is not “how do I make money?” but rather “can I do anything with the rest of the traffic?” Or is it just effluent?

The reason this question matters is because there’s no shortage of pundits and consultants who counsel authors to generate attention/traffic by any means necessary: with an email list, blog, Twitter presence, etc. Talk about old wine in new bottles.

Old wine in new bottles, yes, except wine typically gets better with age. Point: Butterick.

Email lists are what people did 20 years ago; blogging 15. And most Twitter “followers” are fake or abandoned accounts. It’s easy to waste a lot of time with these, confusing activity for results.

Now I feel sad. Are any of you actually reading this?

Authors are better served by doubling down on the one thing they control: namely, their writing. Write better. Write shorter. Get an editor. Invest in the design. Because that stuff reliably gets attention, and pays dividends forever.

I think Butterick threw in the “get an editor” bit to butterick me up. (Totally unnecessary. He had me at “Mr. Moldawer.”) But I’m in complete agreement on all of his points.

On a related note, if you haven’t read John McPhee’s wonderful piece on writing shorter yet, do so now.

Anyway, I wrote back:

I advocate quality, but I’m also intimately familiar with the actual experiences of the dozens and dozens (hundreds?) of authors I’ve worked with, and I’m just not comfortable offering quality-only advice. Tree falling in the forest sounds, etc.

I’ve seen time and again that the “cream rising to the top” analogy is mostly an illusion on the internet—when you see cream rise, there was an entire marketing team bubbling up below it. Straight cream mostly sinks straight to the bottom, with a few lucky exceptions, like your sites.

On the one hand, I abhor the cargo cult mentality as much (well, maybe almost as much) as you do, but I also see the need for some sort of self-promotion and monetization that is authentic, respectful, and honest. My newsletter is my way of noodling on the subject. It doesn’t really do anything to promote my business. Just a way to think out loud with an audience facing the same issues.

Butterick’s response:

I don’t believe as a rule that “cream rises”; I believe that one can only stand out through contrast & differentiation. What qualifies as differentiation changes over time and context.

If you, as a publishing-industry veteran, can identify any self-published e-books that have writing, editing, and design virtues that are comparable to a professionally published paperback, I’d be truly interested to see those. But my impression is they don’t exist, which is why readers have been overly impressed with Practical Typography. “Overly” = I don’t have any proprietary technology! Anybody could be doing what I’m doing. But for whatever reason, these virtues are a differentiator on today’s web.

  1. “Publishing-industry veteran”? Buttericking me up again, huh?
  2. What about the Bible? That was Self-published!
  3. No, most people could not do what you’re doing. The average person can’t distinguish an em dash from an en dash.

Appendix A

I received another interesting response to that Boing Boing post.

As is far too typical of me, I’d made a baseless accusation for a cheap laugh, in this case against one of the legendary lions of traditional publishing:

Allen Lane, founder of Penguin? Bennett Cerf, founder of Random House? Fuggedaboutit. These guys would be first in line for the most pernicious marketing techniques available.

Was this true? I certainly didn’t know! In the immortal words of Pandora, “Let me at that box!”

Then one of Boing Boing’s readers wrote back:

Funny you should mention Cerf. The man was a scammer and a fraud, which has been a matter of public record for forty-three years. Jessica Mitford’s article, should you need a refresher.

Impressive, pulling out a relevant article from 1970—Boing Boing’s readers don’t mess around. But the best part followed:

I’m certain you’re more ethical than Bennett Cerf, but under the circumstances you’ll forgive me for not requesting a subscription to your newsletter.(emphasis mine)

“Under the circumstances”? What circumstances? I didn’t say I liked the guy! And who requests a subscription to an email newsletter? This guy isn’t actually writing from 1970, is he? Wasn’t that the plot of The Lake House 2: Electric Boogaloo?

i take it back–new media isn’t a cargo cult. click here to find out why!

“Like the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own.”—Herman Melville,


You may have read my previous article, on escaping the New Media cargo cult. Well, I take it back. To find out why, keep reading

If you have knowledge and experience to share, your heart’s desire is simply to find a decent audience and make a modest living at talking to it; meanwhile some schmuck who drinks Soylent 2.0 racks up a MASSIVE LIST HELL YEAH with slickly baited copy and bulleted tips he found on the first page of Google results.

One obvious response to this conundrum is to learn how to bait better.

Way down on the other end of this particular spectrum, you’ve got Matthew Butterick.

Polymathically—it’s a word!—Butterick is an attorney, a typographer, and a programmer, among other things. I first discovered his work when he shared Typography for Lawyers, a fascinating primer on how to design stand-out legal documents. (While ostensibly for lawyers, it clearly applies to non-legal documents too.)

Later on, Butterick created an online book for a general audience: Practical Typography. I love it; it’s the first resource on typography that I’ve actually enjoyed reading. Hundreds of thousands of people have visited the site—hand-crafted by Butterick—to learn the difference between kerning and leading.

Nowadays, people creating content for mass consumption devote most of their attention to the marketing and monetization. After months of crafting the perfect newsletter drip campaign, it often seems like experts spend ten, maybe fifteen minutes tops whipping up the content people are supposed to buy at the end of the funnel.

Not Butterick. From the site, I couldn’t blame you for assuming that getting paid for his work is the last thing on Butterick’s mind.

If it actually does occur to you to give Butterick money for Practical Typography, you can click on the second subhead beneath the fifth menu item, “how to pay for this book,” and read a somewhat cranky essay that starts off by complaining about how almost no one pays, followed by a request to purchase his fonts or, failing that, to just send money. He doesn’t even offer a bonus download for shelling out. Just “send cash, you typographically inadequate crash dummy.”

After the first year, Butterick wrote a recap on this approach:

I estimate that about one in 650 readers has supported the book with a payment or purchase. The other 649 have not. Maybe they will later. Maybe they don’t know they can or should. Or maybe they just think information on the Internet should be free. Independent of my interests as an author, I continue to find this view corrosive and dangerous. Last year I gave a talk suggesting that we’d traded good government for banner ads. But the ripple effects are wider still.

A guy whose entire message is that typography is a powerful tool for directing a reader’s attention can’t seem to get any of his visitors to click a link.

In terms of sheer feist, Butterick’s report for year one pales next to his report for year two:

How did I change the book to encourage more direct payments? Not as much as I could have, I concede. In how to pay for this book, I reduced the number of suggested options. I made it easier to make a direct payment with a credit card. But I didn’t do the thing I knew would be most effective: namely, loading up the rest of the book with links to the payment page, along with incessant nagging and wheedling. Have you paid yet? No you haven’t. Here’s how you pay. Click here. Hey, you’re not clicking. Please click. Please please please. PLEEEEEEEEAAAAA—

Is Butterick’s tone coming across? This is some of the raging resentment simmering among tradition-oriented artists of all stripes in 2015 (and which spurred me to write my Boing Boing post on the New Media cargo cult). For the musician in a basement with a copy of Reason who writes ballads about supporting characters in classic NES games (“Luigi’s Lament,” etc.) the ability to fund a first album via Kickstarter is a miracle. To Madonna, it’s a reason to stock up on sleeping pills.

Butterick at his hrumph-hrumphiest sounds pretty much like most professional authors I meet. (That’s right. I know professional authors. The kind with fancy pens. Deal with it.) It’s understandable to feel this way, but is it productive to yell at your readers about it?

You don’t have to embrace the Dark Side to monetize your work, but you do have to change the way you work as the way we consume changes. If you want to go back to illuminating manuscripts by candlelight, toss the iPhone 6S and start carrying large leather tomes on the subway. The medieval kind with chains on them.

The peculiar thing about Butterick is that he’s no Luddite. He developed his own online publishing system for his book, Pollen, and unlike most of the self-proclaimed artists complaining about the pernicious effects of BuzzFeed and Medium, he actually makes things and shares them online regularly. This isn’t a case of blaming the demise of print for not having finished your first novel. This is a creator authentically grappling with a very real problem.

In his report, Butterick trashes readers of “viral news” sites like Hacker News (which I read regularly) for being the worst when it comes to throwing a little scratch his way, despite the fact that many of its readers visited his site. The moochers! Naturally, this drew some attention on HN. Nathan Barry responded on that site to Butterick’s first annual recap:

Whenever someone creates something this valuable I like to see that they get paid for their work. Based on my experience Practical Typography could, without too much effort, make $100,000 per year… My blog actually averages a similar amount of traffic. I wrote three books and each one of them made $100,000 within the first year. That tells me with the same amount of traffic—which is probably better targeted than mine—it’s reasonable that Matthew could make $100,000 off of one book.

Nathan goes on to recommend crafty and manipulative monetization strategies such as “have a price” and “build an email list.”

Here’s the thing: The more things change, the more they stay the same. Look back at pretty much every publishing phenomenon since Gutenberg’s Bible, you’ll find sleazy copy and manipulative marketing shenanigans.

Allen Lane, founder of Penguin? Bennett Cerf, founder of Random House? Fuggedaboutit. These guys would be first in line for the most pernicious marketing techniques available. Yes, even the ones that hurt puppies. (Good thing I know folks in the legal department at Penguin Random House.) Once you’re top dog and you have a monopoly on prestige (and distribution), you can afford to sit back on your haunches and expect the customers to come to you and only you.

It’s only when you can’t figure out the new tools of selling faster than the upstarts can that morals make their appearance.

“What ever happened to the quality?!”

Let’s remember, Butterick’s an attorney. He can afford morals when it suits him. He can afford to keep his hands clean and turn up his nose at the eyeball-grubbing content-hustlers who beg for PayPal donations like common boardwalk buskers.

I respect Butterick’s unwillingness to bend the knee to the New Media Gods, and he can get away with it, but if you find yourself similarly raging into the social media void about the plight of authors who just want to write without worrying about the commerce side, this resentment at having to sing for your supper is your own worst enemy. With humility, you can find a middle path, an ethically acceptable way to get and monetize attention on the Internet with quality content.

(Soon as you find it, let me know what it is. And thrown in a PayPal donation while you’re at it.)