Writers as evangelists?

June 2000

Date: Sun, 04 Jun 2000 09:38:52 -0700
From: "Tim O'Reilly" <tim@oreilly.com>
Organization: O'Reilly & Associates, Inc.
To: Computer Book Publishing <cbp@ls.datareturn.com>
Subject: Re: Writers as evangelists?
Simon St. Laurent wrote:

So is there a line between writing and technology evangelism?
Should there be?

Evangelism is a word that has many connotations. Depending on which of them your reader hears, the decision can go either way. There is the cynical evangelism of the preacher who urges on his flock only to fatten his own pockets, the practiced evangelism of the door-to-door apocryphal pamphlet pusher, and the unpracticed, sincere evangelism of the true believer who wants to share something wonderful with anyone who will listen.

That latter kind of evangelism should never be frowned upon, but it can be misguided, if it buttresses its enthusiasm with arguments that are not based in truth. For this reason, you must be most sharp-eyed about the things you are most excited about, and season your excitement with realism.

That sounds awfully highfalutin, but it's very much the philosophy I've operated by. From fairly early on, we became evangelists for the technologies we believed in at O'Reilly. We learned this from Brian Erwin, now our VP of Business Development, who came to us in 1992 from the Sierra Club, where he was its director of activism. He urged us not to promote our products, but the big issues behind them. I've followed his advice ever since. (For a more detailed discussion of this philosophy, see my summary of the Beyond the Book talk I gave at Waterside: http://www.oreilly.com/news/beyondbook_0400.html.)

We did this first with the Internet, which we found so exciting that we sent out thousands of copies of The Whole Internet User's Guide to journalists (not just people who normally reviewed computer books), members of congress, etc. We thought this was an important subject to know about.

We did it again with Perl in 1997, when evidence showed us that there was something really important going on that the computer industry was ignoring. This led us ultimately to the realization that there were a whole lot of important technologies that were being ignored. We brought their leaders together in what came to be called the Open Source Summit, and a new meme was born.

Note however that the gong I've consistently sounded with regard to open source has not been about the superiority of Linux over Windows (both have strengths and weaknesses), but about the importance of technologies that are being overlooked by the mainstream. We've tried to bring to public awareness key technologies that matter to them in ways they don't suspect.

Much is made of journalistic objectivity, and objectivity is key to any kind of factual writing. But consider the dry recitation of daily facts versus the passion of the investigative journalist who pursues an unpopular story to its end. Were Woodward and Bernstein evangelists? I think so.

Do we always agree with evangelists? Of course not. But to the extent that they wake us up, even make us argue with them, they serve us far better than those who avoid taking a stand.

In looking for authors, I always look for people who are passionate about a technology. I'd rather have a knowledgeable amateur writer who loves truly than an experienced gigolo who pretends to passion but never really feels it.

All of that being said, there is a certain kind of polemicism that I try to nip in the bud whenever I find it in one of our books. When someone sings the praises of a technology too loudly in a book that is supposed to be instructional, it can ring false. This is particularly true in intros and cover copy, where any hint of parroting a vendor's self-promotional hype rings every alarm bell. There's a ring of truth that you want to hear in the enthusiast's voice. If you hear shallow promotion at all costs, all is cast into doubt.

Similarly, you must be willing to criticize what you love, and help people learn what they need to know.

Ultimately, people buy computer books for substance, not enthusiasm. So regardless of whether you are an true believer and evangelist or simply a hired professional, it's your ability to figure out what the reader needs to know, your ability to walk ahead of him on the path he's treading, find the muddy spots and the tigers, as well as the vista points off the main trail, that is going to make the reader come back for more. A good book is a good book. No amount of passion will turn a piece of fluff into a useful book, but your enthusiasm, and yes, your evangelism for a technology you believe in, can turn a good book into a great one.

And as for evangelism of the technology outside of the book, that is by far the most effective marketing you can do. If you become involved in your technology and promoting it, rather than promoting yourself and your product in a narrow way, you will end up doing more good for both your "personal brand" and your books than any amount of product-based flogging.

Tim O'Reilly @ O'Reilly & Associates, Inc.
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