My next book won't be the non-fiction Silicon Valley exposé we desperately need (but here's what it will be)
I'm probably asked a half dozen times a month when I'm going to write another book.
It's a perfectly reasonable question. It's been five years since Sober Is My New Drunk (still getting royalty checks) and seven since The Upgrade (no more checks no idea what's happening with the movie). About damn time I got back to work.
In fact, I decided more than a year ago what my next book would be about.
Even before Peter Thiel slithered into the White House and the tech industry had its Come To Satan Moment, I knew I wanted to write about the Evil-ization of Silicon Valley. Specifically about how rapidly the Valley has transformed from an idealistic nerds' paradise into America’s new center of power. A place, and an industry, drunk on cash and now cutting a destructive and belligerent swath through international politics, the military, business, media and culture.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly when the transformation happened. Certainly it took me longer to recognize than it should have. Perhaps because the Valley is defined by constant change and it's hard to identify permanent shifts, except in the rear view mirror. Or perhaps because I'm a shitty reporter.
When Sarah had her family threatened by Uber it still felt like a one-off: A rogue company, founded by an obnoxious frat bro, and staffed (for some reason) by a growing a team of former intelligence officials and Washington lobbyists who didn’t understand how things worked in the Valley.
Similarly, when Mark Ames showed me a document proving that eBay founder Pierre Omidyar had funded opposition groups in Ukraine right before the Maidan revolution, I assumed Omidyar – the Pez dispenser guy! – must have been duped by his friends in the State Department. Tech founders simply didn’t go around instigating military coups.
Perhaps I saw the first glimmer of the real story when I dug out the White House visitor logs and saw how many times Omidyar’s name appeared, and who he met. Or when I noticed the growing line of tech billionaires leading to the Oval Office, the Kremlin and various Saudi royal palaces.
Or maybe when I saw the leaked emails showing how Google was working with the State Department to track dissidents inside the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Or when Amazon cut a $600m contract with the CIA and then announced their Echo system which puts an always-on microphone in every home.
Or when Airbnb hired Chris Lehane, a former Clinton staffer who Karl Rove described as “one of the Democratic Party’s best opposition researchers.” Or when Uber recruited former CIA director, Robert Gates, or when the company was suddenly spending more on lobbyists in Nevada than the entire gaming industry combined. Or when Google became the biggest corporate lobbyist in America. Or when Oracle's CEO publicly pledged to do whatever she could to help President Trump turn even his most draconian policy proposals into reality.
Or maybe it was when the stories about tech founders leapt from the cover of Wired to the front pages of the tabloids: Or when a prominent Sand Hill Road venture capitalist was accused of keeping a woman as a secret sex slave for over a decade. Or when RadiumOne CEO Gurbaksh Chahal secretly taped himself violently assaulting his girlfriend, was charged with 45 felonies, but still kept his job. Or when my old boss at TechCrunch was accused of rape and violent assault...
Or, or, or…
Here’s what I know: By the time it was revealed that Facebook board member Peter Thiel was secretly funding lawsuits to destroy critical media outlets (...right before he donated over a million dollars to Donald Trump and was given the job of setting the Trump administration's tech policy and Mark Zuckerberg reportedly agreed to build censorship tools on behalf of the Chinese government...) Silicon Valley’s transformation was complete, and completely undeniable.
While the rest of us had been busy downloading Instagram and swiping right on Tinder, a handful of tech founders had quietly evolved into the most powerful, and ruthless, oligarchs on the planet.
Wouldn't that be a "fun" subject for a book? Particularly if one had spent over a decade watching Silicon Valley from up close, had good access to the major culprits and victims, had been tangentially involved in at least a couple of the above scandals, and knew where several of the bodies were buried?
For at least an hour, I thought so.
Then I mentioned the idea to a well-placed publishing friend in London. Yes, he agreed, it would be a hell of a book. But of course no one would publish it. Specifically, said my friend, any major publisher will "shit their pants" at the thought of how many lawsuits a book like that would attract.
Of course I knew he was right. But still I had to know for sure. So, late last year, with help from my US agent - the wonderful Jim Levine at Levine, Greenburg, Rostan - I had several (very brief) conversations with major publishers about writing a big non-fiction Valley exposé. The publishers were all very generous with their time and feedback but the rejections came swiftly and almost all of them freely acknowledged their fear of costly lawsuits.
Now, again, I'm fully prepared to accept the possibility that I'm a shitty writer, or that I'd put together a crappy proposal. But a quick glance at the shelves of your local bookstore at least suggests that there might be something else at play here.
I'm certainly not the only journalist who is paying attention to Silicon Valley horribleness right now. I've had countless conversations with fellow Valley reporters about the horrific things we've all seen and heard. Most of those reporters are just as capable as I am of turning out 80k+ words of readable, well-sourced prose (although I would humbly suggest their books would have fewer hilarious jokes.) We can't all be submitting crappy proposals.
And yet, outside of the fiction aisles, you'll struggle to find any book that aggressively, journalistically takes on the litany of wrongdoing or bad behavior by Valley disruptors. The closest thing you'll find at Barnes and Noble are titles like "Disrupted" and "Chaos Monkeys,*" snarky memoirs which give vent to the frustrations of disgruntled tech workers but remain largely silent on the really bad stuff that tech moguls get up to. Like, y'know, assault, rape, and the quiet takeover of democracy.
A search of the comprehensive deals database at PublishersMarketplace tells the same story (or, rather, doesn't tell it): Of all the book deals reported for last year, only one non-fiction title purports to tell the real story of how rotten Silicon Valley has become: Emily Chang's "The Valley of Opportunity"
Bloomberg TV anchor and technology reporter Emily Chang's THE VALLEY OF OPPORTUNITY: SEX AND TECH IN THE RICHEST PLACE ON EARTH, exploring the culture in Silicon Valley to discover why women have been left on the sidelines of the tech revolution and out of the largest wealth creation of their generation; from toxic frat-boy offices to brutal online and real-life harassment, the author explains how we got here and what the tech industry needs to do to make meaningful change.
Kudos, Emily. (I'll update this post when there's a pre-order link.)
But for every - literally - one book like Emily's there are a dozen like this:
Technology writer Steven Levy's book about Facebook, one of the world's most transformative and powerful companies, this is an account of the social media giant's massive growth, cultural impact and future ambitions, with *Facebook cooperating with the project*.
Fortune editor Leigh Gallagher's THE AIRBNB STORY, an in-depth, behind-the-scenes look, including previously unreported details, into the unexpected rise of the world's largest provider of "hotel" accommodations, which has disrupted the $500 billion hotel industry; its $30 billion valuation makes it larger than Hilton and Marriott,
Or this (actually from 2015):
Bloomberg journalist Brad Stone's THE GREAT WAVE, the account of the revival of Silicon Valley, exploring the entrepreneurs—Travis Kalanick, Brian Chesky, and others—and new multi-billion dollar companies like Uber, Airbnb, and Lyft, who broke all the old rules and are changing the way cities work, again
Yay Silicon Valley! Huzzah disruption!
I have to believe there are at least some non-fiction books critical of the Valley being commissioned: I know, for example, that Yasha Levine's Surveillance Valley is due out soon. (Update: Tom Prieto points me to Aimee Groth's upcoming "The Kingdom of Happiness" about her time in Tony Hsieh's Downtown Project.) But the fact that, if others exist, none of them made it onto the PublishersMarketplace radar speaks volumes about how few and far between they are (and how comparatively little money is being paid for them.)
The New York Times' David Streitfeld also identified the phenomenon, and offered his own explanation, in his review of Chaos Monkeys:
The literature of Silicon Valley is exceedingly thin. The tech overlords keep clear of writers who are not on their payrolls or at least in their thrall. Many in the valley feel that bringing the digital future to the masses is God’s work. Question this, and they tend to get touchy. Anger them, and they might seek revenge. The billionaire investor Peter Thiel, outed by the local arm of the Gawker media empire, secretly financed a lawsuit to destroy it. Silicon Valley did not rise en masse and say this was seriously beyond the pale. No surprise, then, that there are so few books investigating what it really takes to succeed in tech (duplicity often trumps innovation) or that critically examine such omnipresent, comforting fables as “We’re not in it for the money...”
Ah, yes, Peter Thiel again. With Thiel and/or his pet lawyer Charles Harder raring to sue anyone who dares upset a tech mogul, who the hell can blame publishers for steering clear of critical books about Silicon Valley? It's far safer to publish billets-doux to Tech Bros or, let's just say, an attention-grabbing book attacking feminists, minorities, or anyone else without the financial or legal power to fight back.
Also in defense of wary publishers: Even if they were to take a chance on a serious Valley tell-all, it's not clear that readers would buy it, and certainly not in numbers large enough to justify the legal risk. Any reporter who has reported on Facebook's abuses of user privacy or Uber's appalling safety record has seen this phenomenon play out: Users are all so addicted to social media and the sharing economy that they'd rather remain willfully ignorant to the risks than be forced to consider changing our behavior. Similarly, there's a reason feelgood books about the brilliance of disruptive tech geniuses fly off the shelves. We want to believe the hype -- any counter-narrative is a major bummer.
Speaking of bummers. One last possible reason why no one seems to want to write or publish a big Valley exposé...
Writing investigative non-fiction has never been so fucking depressing.
As I was drafting this post, climate journalist Eric Holthaus was busy posting an intense Tweetstorm about his struggles to continue covering the destruction of the planet: "What the hell am I supposed to do. "Write another blog post? Our secretary of state is the fucking Exxon CEO."
There are days where I literally can't work. I'll read a story & shut down for rest of the day. Not much helps besides exercise & time. 3/
— Eric Holthaus (@EricHolthaus) January 6, 2017
I feel Eric's pain. When Peter Thiel and Steve Bannon are in the White House and Charles Harder continues his sometimes-Thiel-funded quest to crush critical tech reporting, how the hell can any of us muster the strength and courage to write 100 words, let alone 100,000?
So what's my solution to all this? And, if not that big non-fiction Valley exposé that no one wants to publish, what's my next book going to be?
I'll answer both of those questions in a second, I promise.
First, I should say that, in a right and proper world, this would be the point where I urge my fellow non-fiction writers to stay strong. To ignore the cowardice of big publishers and... I dunno... crowdfund or self-publish that big Silicon Valley investigative book. Who cares if no one reads it and it has no impact? Your reward will be in heaven! Or Kickstarter! Or something!
Sure, I hope someone does that.
But that's not what my next book will be. Even before my conversations with non-fiction publishers, but especially afterwards, it was clear that the resistance level is too high. That even if my agent were able to find a home for the book, and even with every source locked down and every fact triple-checked, the looming threat of a nuisance suit would still have its chilling effect. There would be a slim-to-no chance of the book surviving the lawyering process with everything I wanted to include.
And so, I decided: my next book won't be non-fiction at all.
Yup. I'm writing a fucking novel.
A fucking novel!
Specifically, a 100% fictional, in no way based on real people doing real horrible things that I've witnessed with my own real eyes, novel about Silicon Valley.
Like a lot of people in the age of Trump I was already fatigued as a reader of non-fiction and news reporting. I've steadily boiled my news diet down to the New York Times, The Washington Post, a few magazines and the bare minimum research sources I need to write my Pando columns. I've stopped obsessing on Twitter over every lie told by the President Elect, and every awful thing done or said by a tech billionaire. In the language of addiction recovery, I have admitted I'm powerless to do a damn thing about any of it. I can, however, choose to lower my blood pressure and stop giving myself heart palpitations.
I've replaced much of my non-fiction reading diet with fiction. I'm reading a LOT of it -- from trendy literary stuff that we San Francisco liberals are supposed to enjoy, to indulging my addiction to golden age detective stories.
It wasn't a huge leap, then, to deciding that the best way to tell the true story of Silicon Valley's shift towards evil in a way that a) readers would want to engage with and b) publishers would be happy to publish is as fiction.
Almost a year ago, I started work on the first draft of a story I've been mulling for a while, starring characters I've known even longer. I didn't tell anyone except close friends what I was working on, partly because I had no idea if I could actually do it (journalism is a summer breeze compared to publishable fiction and don't believe anyone who says otherwise) and partly because telling people you're working on a novel is just begging to be compared to Brian the Dog in Family Guy. Even now I'm burying the admission at the bottom of a 3000 word post.
But today my manuscript-in-progress has grown to 60,000 words, and the process of finding a publisher is already underway. Those few publishing people who have already seen the partial manuscript tell me they've laughed more with it than at it, which is a good sign.
I don't want to share too many more specifics before the first draft is done, except that (hopefully) it's funny and hopefully it'll be make some readers look at Silicon Valley differently. Also, there's a cow in it.
But, even absent those specifics, there are several reasons I'm keen to finally "announce" my move from non-fiction book writing to fiction.
For one thing, writing a novel is a lot of fun. I want to be able to talk more about the process.
Also, while laboring on the manuscript I've benefited hugely from other journalism-to-fiction writers who have been kind enough to share their experiences and advice. Almost a year into my own first draft, I finally have some experience of my own to share. Pay it forward and all that. Consider this the first of many posts where I'll talk about lessons learned and mistakes made. I'd also love to hear from any other non-fiction writers who have either already made the leap to fiction, or are seriously considering it. With your permission, I'll update this post to include any lessons or advice you're willing to share.
More than all that: It needs to be more widely understood just how nervous publishers - book publishers, but also other news publishers - are about printing anything seriously critical of tech power.
I suspect in a few years - maybe even sooner - some stories are going to start to leak through lawsuits and whistleblowers about just how bad things have already got inside the major tech giants and how deeply entwined they continue to get with government power. When that happens, there'll be lots of handwringing and clamoring to understand why nobody was on top of this story sooner. They were. Plenty of people were. You just didn't hear about it because everyone crapped their pants at even a whisper of the name Peter Thiel or Charles Harder.
Which brings me neatly to the rallying cry: I have no idea if anyone will publish my fledgling novel, or if the finished manuscript will even be readable. I'm lucky to have an agent and an existing audience but, when it comes to fiction, I'm still a first timer in an already hugely competitive market.
More importantly, even if I succeed beyond my wildest dreams, I'll still be just one voice. There are just so many tales to be told, so many books to be written about this madness. If you're an established novelist looking for an idea (or just an antagonist) for your next book, this would be a really good time to hop on a plane to SFO. In fact, I beg you to do that.
Similarly, if you're a non-fiction writer who does manage to snag a book deal for that big Valley exposé, kudos! Now please give me a call. I have some fucking amazing stories to tell you.
[* Update: Antonio Garcia Martinez tweets to (quite reasonably) object to my comparing his Chaos Monkeys with Disrupted. "The only thing 'Chaos Monkeys' has in common with 'Disrupted' is a publication year.... I don't know what part of SV ugliness I didn't cover: lawsuits, dirty deals, office trysts, monopolistic tactics, fraud... The book is necessarily limited by my limited personal experience. It couldn't be sweeping, as a journo's would... But the tradeoff is the personal experience of the narrative, that a journalist never has."]