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Tracking an idea

November 3, 2011
by seth godin

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I spent an hour today tracking the trajectory of an idea spreading, and there’s plenty to learn.

The New York Times is featuring an article by Christopher McDougall in Sunday’s magazine (keyed around the NY Marathon).

The article is a punchy piece about how to run better, without pain.

A few things to note already:

a. The Times still has the power to authenticate and launch an idea. Their permission base is large, and the people who read it, particularly those that read it online, are eager spreaders of ideas.

b. McDougall is a fabulous writer and his earlier book about barefoot running is as good (and as well received) as any non-fiction writer can dream of.

c. The promise of his article is a huge one, almost as big as the “lose weight without going hungry” promise. Virtually all runners want to learn to run without pain, and Christopher pulls no punches.

d. One of my favorite parts is his discovery of a secret a hundred years old, found in an out of print book. We should have known it all along! This is almost a good a promise as, “breathtaking new discovery.” Both of these promises absolve the reader of blame for not already knowing the answer.

As a result of these four factors, the story rocketed to #1 among the most emailed stories in the entire paper. This list is so important it has been parodied, and writers and editors at the Times are obsessed with it. It (not the paper) is what indicates that a story has broken and is making an impact.

Less publicized but fascinating to watch is Chris teaching the technique at the offices of the paper. The video captures a brilliant salesperson at work. Note the word “foolproof” used more than once. His enthusiasm, confidence and willingness to share (he’s got nothing to sell) is literally breathtaking. I’m sold.

And so I did a Google books search to find the ancient secret, to see it at its source. And now the story of stories spreading collides with copyright law. The book is out of print. You can’t buy it (I think I grabbed the last out of print copy at a reasonable price on AbeBooks, a sale for which the author (a mystery writer!) gets no royalties.) Update: my order just bounced… someone paid more than me, I guess. No book, alas.

Even though it’s not available for sale, it’s also not available to look at. The publisher has hidden the good pages, for a reason I don’t understand. Free the orphaned works!

Watching the idea go from notion to article to video to emailed to Google books to AbeBooks to wherever, is like seeing a perfectly skipped stone glide across a lake. Every time it will follow a different path, but there are commonalities–and the three big ones are a fabulous idea, a compelling salesperson and a media channel that enables that idea to spread.

The punchline of the story should be that Chris and Peter will collaborate to create a thirty page Kindle book that will be on sale in a week for $5. He’d sell a hundred thousand if he hurried.

BONUS! Here are two of the missing pages, out of copyright since they were published in 1908. Thanks to AB for sharing them.

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