Why I'm Serializing a Book on Substack
To begin with – how else would we publish it?
Even the book’s original title, How to Deal Drugs and Not Get Caught, nearly sent my lawyer into anaphylaxis. It’s a book that, in the pre-Internet age, would almost certainly have been censored. I frankly can’t find a publisher who isn’t afraid of it.
Vaguely in the tradition of books like The Anarchist’s Cookbook, this is material whose mere publication is subversive, and just reading it feels illegal.
The Business Secrets of Drug Dealing: Adventures of the Unidentified Black Male tells the story of Huey Carmichael, a hyper-observant, politically-minded, but humorously pragmatic dealer who spends a lifetime compiling rules for how a person like him successfully a) makes money and b) avoids prison in modern America.
It is fiction, based on truth. A collaboration, I wrote it in conjunction with a real-life ex-drug dealer whose byline will be, “Anonymous.”
I can’t delve too deeply into that history, except to say that someone I’d known for years turned out to have a double life. I had no idea. This person has a unique voice and manner of storytelling, and a lot of really interesting things to say about a lot of things.
We tried, but there was just no way to tell this tale as traditional journalism. I wouldn’t have even known what headline to write. There’s no scoop here, just a mountain of pointed observations about life on the other side of the law in modern America, wrapped around a series of episodes “Anonymous” and I invented to synthesize the drama and tension of that life.
Even told that way, the publication carries risks for myself and for “Anonymous.”
In the preface of The Business Secrets of Drug-Dealing, the fictional Huey points out that most drug dealers learn their trade from movies.
Scarface, Paid in Full, Blow, American Gangster, and so on: these films were entertainment for the American leisure class, but apparently also textbooks for real lawbreakers.
Anonymous is a younger man. Older street dealers I’ve met over the years grew up learning their trades from cool fiction writers like Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines. One even loaned me a copy of Dopefiend, still one of my favorite books.
Different generations get their information from different sources. That’s because different communications genres fall in and out of style, often depending on more or less random historical factors.
For instance, in the mid-2000s, as the so-called “mainstream media” lost the confidence of many Americans, outlets like The Daily Show gained steam.
If the news media couldn’t be trusted to tell the truth about something as simple as whether or not Iraq had Weapons of Mass Destruction, maybe it was safer and easier to trust a comedy show. Audiences could at least easily decide for themselves whether Jon Stewart was funny or not on a given night.
What comedy did in the age of Bush and the WMD fiasco, storytelling is likely to achieve in the age of “fake news.”
As news reporting becomes more politicized, more negativistic, less trustworthy, and generally more of a headache to digest, people increasingly are going to turn to narrative as a source of information.
They’ve been doing it already for years.
Whether it was Serial helping jump-start the age of the podcast, or docu-series like Making a Murderer or serialized dramas like OJ: Made in America captivating the country during their runs, we’ve seen audiences flock to narrative treatments of real-world phenomena as sources of information.
Audiences seem to want the immediacy of periodical media, mixed with the storytelling techniques of Hollywood.
These changes, combined with the fact that a weird and fascinating story I couldn’t figure out how to tell except as fiction fell in my lap, were what prompted me to revive an old idea, the serialized novel – only repurposed for the Internet, via Substack.
The serialized book has existed for centuries and is a bit of a high-wire act for writers. You have to be able to write fast, in huge volumes, and not type yourself into plot contradictions or corners – after all, there’s no going back and fixing.
A surprising number of great books were written this way, on a clock. Vanity Fair, published under William Thackeray’s bizarre pseudonym Michael Angelo Titmarsh, is one of the better known.
Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed is another funny one: perpetually hammered and in financial trouble, the great Russian writer cranked out his huge ingenious farce about violent revolutionaries in installments, probably neither caring nor noticing that the book seems to switch between the first person and third person voices throughout.
More relevantly (I hope), there’s a great tradition of serialized tales here in America, particularly in crime/detective fiction. I grew up reading a lot of these stories, from writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, who made the genre legendary in magazines like Black Mask. The Maltese Falcon was one of my favorites.
Those pulp novels became popular at a time similar to this one, when powerful new mass-communications technologies (film, radio, and eventually TV) were speeding up the brains of audiences.
In the 1930s, if you wrote a book in the style of Henry James, you were going to have a hard time competing with radio hits like The Shadow. Books had to become faster, grittier, and more immediate if they were going to survive.
The Business Secrets of Drug Dealing is designed to be narrative fiction for the social media age. “Anonymous” and I tried basically to create the most suspense in the fewest possible words.
It’s supposed to be a story that is informative and captures “Huey’s” acidly trenchant observations, but reads as quickly and painlessly as a Tweet or a text.
Part of the suspense is that the “Huey” story is literally an outlaw tale. Most criminal memoirs are either written from jail (like The Belly of the Beast), or long after capture (like The Brink’s Job or Papillion). In this case the co-author remains at large.
One final note about Substack, the new site created to empower independent writing.
Few writers have been as lucky as me. I’ve had great support and editorial freedom throughout my time at Rolling Stone, and have additionally had great backers in the book publishing world at Spiegel & Grau.
But writing in America is very genre-specific. Most professionals pick one or two formats and stick with them. Some write political articles and books. Others write novels and screenplays.
But for most writers, there’s extra material that falls between the cracks of traditional formats. This is too bad, because a lot of the most interesting stuff ever written has come from writers who were just sort of screwing around.
I always think of The Devil’s Dictionary, a brilliant and vicious glossary of terms that Ambrose Bierce put together over three inspired decades, while he slogged through another career as a traditional magazine essayist and short story writer.
Another example would be Don Novello, best known as the Saturday Night Live comedian Father Guido Sarducci. For a while, he made a vocation – if not a career – writing weird letters to people like Gerald Ford (“I’ve been Vice President of a lot of organizations myself, so I know how you feel”). It would be many years before he would be paid for this activity.
Even for people like me, who have wide support of news organizations and other publishers, there will always be material, like this Huey story, that just doesn’t fit easily in the usual slots. The Huey tale feels like something you want to publish as fast as journalism, but tell in the format of fiction. Where does that go?
In my case, when Huey and I are finished, I’ll be moving directly to other serialized narratives, essays, perhaps the occasional podcast, and some other material.
Having readers directly subsidize writers isn’t a new idea, but Substack will help writers young and old be more experimental. You’re investing in the writer personally, not in a format. Which hopefully results in more honest, independent, and interesting work in the long run.
Anonymous and I are having fun writing this. We hope you enjoy reading it.
Subscribe to The Taibbi Report by April 23, 2018, to receive a special rate of $30 a year. On April 23, the annual price increases to $40. The preface of The Business Secrets of Drug Dealing will be published on April 17, with the first chapter to follow on April 24.