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Aug. 11, 2011, 11:30 a.m.

Matthew Yglesias dives into ebooks with “The Rent Is Too Damn High”

Longer than a magazine article, shorter than a hardcover, it’s another exercise in ebook flexibility.

Matthew Yglesias says the idea of a book on U.S. housing policy kept “sprawling out of control” for him. That either says something about the dense nature of land-use regulation and home ownership on a legislative and policy level, or it’s a statement on the traditional forms of the publishing industry, where a “book” connotes a certain length and structure.

Fortunately, ebooks have brought a fantastic new middle-ground for writers aiming at something not quite a magazine feature, not entirely a non-fiction opus. The liberal political blogger is joining the ranks of short-form ebooks authors with The Rent Is Too Damn High. (Note: The catchy and zeitgeist-inspired title is a working title.) The book, which will be published digitally by Simon & Schuster, will be somewhere in the 15,000-20,000-word range and, as Yglesias wrote on his blog at Think Progress, the book will cover:

The basic idea is to make the case that pathological elements of our housing policy that increase the cost of living in desirable neighborhoods of key metropolitan areas are an underrated of America’s economic and social problems. Longtime readers will be familiar with the general shape of my thinking on this issue, but the ideas are going to be laid out in a more systematic way with a much more comprehensive look at how it all fits together and what levers might exist to make the rent less damn high.

While he’s writing, Yglesias will be refraining (as much as possible) from writing about housing and urban planning on Think Progress. While that will help build a little anticipation for the book, it’ll also help keep the project focused. A portion of the book is already written, and Yglesias told me he’s pushing to have the rest of the project wrapped up by month’s end. There’s no firm release date or price point yet, but Yglesias said he expects it will be out this fall and relatively inexpensive.

“I wanted to capture that same spirit: Make things as long as they need to be.”

Yglesias has already published a traditional book on foreign policy. (That one wasn’t a big commercial success.) He said he’d been considering a book-length project around the ideas of gentrification, housing affordability, and land planning — topics that, while timely, don’t exactly jibe with the mortgage lending crisis and the broader state of the economy. At the same time, he kept struggling with the project’s structure. And that’s when it hit him: “The solution to the problem — I have an idea that is 20,000 words long — is to publish something at that length,” he told me.

One inspiration, Yglesias said, was his work writing online, where he has been one of the most influential liberal bloggers for the better part of a decade. No one pads out blog posts for measure; they make their case and cut the tape. “It’s something I like about the blogging medium: Posts go as long as they ought to, and then they end rather than meeting a certain length,” he said. “I wanted to capture that same spirit: Make things as long as they need to be.”

Another inspiration came in the form of Tyler Cowen’s ebook, The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better. There are obvious parallels between the two, notably the desire to write something in a longer-than-an-article-format, but without the long lag time of traditional publishing and with a built-in audience. As Cowen put it so succinctly in an interview with the Lab: “No ebook format, no book. At least in this case.”

Yglesias thinks the ebook format, by killing off the lag time and being length-agnostic, is perfect for the world of policy journalism: “I think it’s an opportunity to publish current-affairs books that have less padding in them.” And it can also easily plug into a writer’s existing online persona. With a popular blog and 27,000-plus Twitter followers, Yglesias has a ready-made platform familiar with his work that he can sell the book to. And it might be easier to get that online audience to make an impulse buy of an ebook than to have them head to a bricks-and-mortar bookstore. But no matter how this experiment turns out financially, Yglesias comes from the world of D.C. opinion journalism, where influence has always been a higher aim than total book sales. “As with everything else, there’s no substitute for the first group of people who read it actually liking it,” he said.

POSTED     Aug. 11, 2011, 11:30 a.m.
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