the tourist trap

First of all, yes, I wrote “your” instead of “you’re” in last week’s essay. (I’ve since corrected it on the site, of course.) Sue me, nitpicker.

Second of all, I’m back to using Grammarly, which now offers “tone detection.” As I type this, it’s displaying a happy face to indicate that this text is “friendly” and “joyful,” even though I just called you a nitpicker and dared you to sue me. So Grammarly detects tone as well as it distinguishes “your” from “you’re.”

Third of all, an author friend texted me in response to last week’s essay about “saving it for the stage.” (No, he didn’t mention “your” versus “you’re.” We’re moving on.):

Enjoyed your latest post—first one I’ve disagreed with in a while.

My friend is a contrarian, so this makes sense, sort of. (It also implies that he hasn’t enjoyed one in a while, but that’s OK, I have to be willing to get as hard as I give.) He continued:

I chose a deliberate front-loading strategy for [my last book.] All of the research/best bits in the first three chapters, with the later chapters reinforcing and showing application of those insights.

Receiving this, I sat back contentedly, waiting for yet another confirmation from the universe that I’m universally right. Alas:

Based on reader feedback, I wouldn’t do it again. A common perception was that the remaining chapters were “fluff,” since the research/insight was concentrated in the early chapters. The case studies were intended to (1) show the principles in practice; (2) demonstrate efficacy; (3) establish trust in the method. That was the case for some readers, but not for others. For many, it was “no new ideas after Chapter 3” unless they were interested in the specific skill I was using to demonstrate. If I wrote it again, I’d tie 1-2 specific principles to each skill. (Or scrap the case study approach entirely.)

Opinions among professionals vary. Execution matters. More important, however, reader feedback? That’s cheating. This is the Maven Game, not the Maven Research Academy of Science.

My friend’s response got me thinking about hot dogs. Manhattan is peppered with basic, yellow-umbrella food carts selling boiled hot dogs, stale giant pretzels, and the occasional roasted chestnut or knish. As food goes, this stuff is not. There are larger food carts, and they can be pretty good—the King of Falafel and Shawarma cart on 53rd and Park is spectacular—but the small hot dog carts are pure dreck, relics of the bad old days of NYC. They tend to congregate in touristy areas, which makes sense because what they offer isn’t designed around repeat business. You come out of the zoo or museum or concert, you buy a hot dog, you eat it, you regret it, and then you catch the next flight back to Boise.

The good food carts cater to locals. King of Falafel and Shawarma draws a line of midtown professionals halfway down the block during lunch hour. But the incentives are all wrong for the basic carts. They don’t even have the accountability of Yelp reviews like the larger and more stationary carts do. For them, it’s only about appearances. Hence the pretzels and chestnuts, which look and smell great but nearly always disappoint. (The hot dogs already look and smell terrible so there’s nothing disappointing about them at all. In a way.) The locals avoid these stands (aside from the occasional nostalgia visit, immediately lamented). The tourists, on the other hand, don’t know better and aren’t coming back whether they like what they eat or not.

Perverse incentives lead to tourist traps. I suspect this is why business and self-help books tend to operate by a different set of rules than books in other categories. Most of the readers are tourists who don’t read many other books in the category. You’re writing for people who have no idea what’s been done before, which ideas are fresh and which are played out. Nor do they read the book in its entirety even if they find your advice valuable—they tend to read as little as they can get away with. Once they’ve caught on to the main ideas, they’re usually gone. Personal branding also plays a role—it can be useful to publicly claim you liked a certain book, even if you thought it was lousy. In the face of all of this, there isn’t much incentive for authors to dig deep and set the bar higher, as my author friend always does. It can turn even well-intentioned experts into the thought leadership equivalent of Guy Fieri.

Fiction readers are mostly honest. They reward quality and consistency. If they like a book, they read it all the way through. If they don’t, they complain—unless it’s a classic—and they certainly don’t come back for the next one. Everyone’s incentives are aligned. As a consequence, we have many King-of-Falafel-and-Shawarma-quality novels to enjoy.

Things are tougher on the practical nonfiction side. If your book is going to be excellent, you’re going to have to hold yourself to a standard no one else will.

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