(This is chapter 17 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)
A box of Coffeehouse: Writings From The Web arrived in Forest Hills, and, yeah, I felt that famous thrill of holding my book in my hand.
I liked the way it looked. I liked the layout and the cover, I liked most of the content, and I was glad it was a paperback original. But Christian and I were both angry about the outrageous price, $24.95 (an indication, we both felt, that our publisher Marjan Bace didn’t believe in the book’s potential and aimed instead to recoup his costs).
But Marjan did buy us an excellent publicist, Barbara Archer. I’ve since had the opportunity to meet many delightful book publicists and marketing directors, and I now have a good understanding of what they do. At this earlier point in my life, I didn’t know that there was such a creature as a book publicist, and I was baffled by Barbara’s cheerful demeanor and cool confidence. She did a great job, getting our book reviewed in many newspapers and magazines including the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. We didn’t make the New York Times Book Review. Many of the reviews were short and polite, respectful but not quite enthusiastic.
Barbara arranged an hour for me on Chris Lydon’s alt-culture radio show Open Source in Boston. Three years earlier, I had completely fallen apart in my living room while waiting for Josh Harris to phone-interview me for Pseudo Online Radio. Then, my entire interview consisted of a thirty-second stuttering panic attack.
I had gotten my act together since then, and was now intent on not only getting through this interview but also enjoying it and rocking the house. I arrived at the Manhattan studio early in the morning, signed a guest book that had Kevin Kline’s name in the prior spot, and put on big headphones to practice talking into the mike with Chris Lydon and his co-host, who were in a similar studio in Boston. The show began and I managed to keep my cool. Chris asked me questions about the web writing scene, about how the Internet was changing literature, and I came up with some good answers and read some samples of excellent new web writing, including a piece from a new site I liked called AfterDinner.com by Alex Massie. I think the interview went well, and one of the technicians told me afterward she was going to rush out and buy the book (though she might say that to everybody).
Christian and I then did another hour-long radio show together, this time on California’s KPFA/Pacifica network. They called me at my office at work, and I managed to stay relaxed again for this one (I was starting to get good at this, and was now considering a second career as a DJ). In fact, I had reason to be nervous, because I was at work and anybody could have barged into my office with a tech emergency. I had posted my friend Mike Coble to try to watch the door for me, but I knew a sentry wouldn’t help if, say, the ad servers crashed in the middle of the show. We made it through the hour without a problem.
I then returned to the source of my earliest radio disaster, Pseudo.com’s crazy studio space in Soho, for a special feature with Galinsky, Martha Conway, Xander Mellish and Greg Severance. With my posse in tow, I now felt perfectly relaxed in the Pseudo studio. The show went very well and got covered in the New York Times online and in Wired News.
The book was far from a runaway success, and it barely made a splash in terms of sales. Christian and I found it on the shelves of only about half the stores we checked (I was proud to see it, though, in all of my favorite bookstores: St. Marks Bookshop, Tower Books and the Gotham Book Mart). I felt okay about the way Coffeehouse had been received, and I was looking forward to our first New York event to celebrate the book, a reading hosted by our contributor Xander Mellish on December 2 1997.
Just a couple of days before this event, the new issue of Silicon Alley Reporter came out with a piece about the book titled “Bad Coffee”.
I was devastated. I’d love to say I laughed our first (and only) bad review off, but I didn’t. I felt physically assaulted, stunned, dizzy, ashamed. This feeling was amplified because Silicon Alley Reporter was very much our “hometown rag” at Pathfinder and everywhere else in the New York web industry, and I knew everybody I worked with would read it. Suddenly I felt malevolent eyes upon me. Looking back, I think it’s silly that I let myself get so upset by this bad review, but I can’t deny that I did. The funny thing is that I expected some big newspaper to trash our book, but none of them did. I’d always thought of Silicon Alley Reporter as a sure thing for our side.
I sent editor Jason Calacanis an angry email declaring that his flunky Steve Wilson wouldn’t recognize a great book if it hit him on the head, and urging him to attend the Xander Mellish reading so he could see how wrong his publication was. Jason quickly wrote back a strange email:
I didn’t write that article. I would like to come, but I have karate class that night.
I wonder if he was telling me he knew karate because he thought I would try to do him physical harm. At that moment, I wanted to.
Christian wasn’t upset at all by this bad review, mainly because nobody read Silicon Alley Reporter in the San Francisco Bay Area (they read Red Herring and the San Jose Mercury News). His indifference helped me come to terms with this latest crisis, and life went on. Christian and I were both onto different things now; I was experimenting with digital video and thinking about creating a digital movie based on Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground, and Christian soon began a new website which he called “Breathing Room”. This site presented short personal updates in a rolling format with the latest dated entries on top. “Breathing Room” was the first true blog I ever saw, and it was from Christian that I first heard the word “blog” (a word I would go on to ignore for several years).
In late 1997 Time Inc. New Media finally began regrouping after the disaster of Personal Edition and Pathfinder. After a long period without a chief I was pleased when Linda McCutcheon, the head of ad sales, was promoted to the top position, previously held by Paul Sagan and Walter Isaacson. Linda and I had worked very closely together for the last couple of years, and I knew her to be friendly, practical, cheerful and results-oriented (in other words, everything our previous management hadn’t been).
They also brought in a new editor-in-chief, announcing his expected arrival with much advance hype. His name was Daniel Okrent, and he was most recently the editor of Life magazine. The buzz about Dan Okrent was that he’d once lost a public battle to run Sports Illustrated, that he was a swell guy, and that he and a small group of friends had actually invented Rotisserie Baseball, the forerunner of today’s fantasy baseball.
So I was curious enough to stick around Time Warner, and I absorbed myself with digital video experiments and Dostoevsky to help me keep my balance after the rollicking events of my work and creative life. We took the kids down to Florida for Christmas vacation to visit Meg’s parents and spent three days in Walt Disney World. It was a wonderful break, though I have memories of sitting there thinking “why can’t I stop thinking about work?” and “why can’t I stop thinking about the book?”
I think it’s really funny that Coffeehouse: Writings From The Web got nice treatment in countless newspapers and websites. And yet the one review I remember most of all is the one bad review from Silicon Alley Reporter.
The reason it bothered me, I think, is that I suspect Steve Wilson was the only reviewer who told the truth about the book.