Douglas Rushkoff

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Authorship on 1 March 2000

Many would say that Douglas Rushkoff is living the author’s dream. His books have been national bestsellers, he is a professor of Virtual Culture at New York University, an NPR commentator and more.

One morning in November 1996, Douglas awoke to a New York Times article that described him as “a Gen-X guru who sold youth culture to media companies for upward of $7,500 an hour.” While that wasn’t exactly a true figure, his book Media Virus had gotten him the work referred to in the Times. Work where he had told major corporations like Sony that they should develop a game console that would allow children to design their own video games. He had told cable provider, TCI, to make television more interactive and less mind numbing. However, his loyal supporters hadn’t seen the true brilliance of his work. Instead they labeled him a sellout and traitor of freedom of thought. Yet his books sold by the thousands and speaking requests poured in.

Never passive, Rushkoff obviously didn’t listen to anyone who ever told him you may only use ten percent of your brain. His light wit and open demeanor creates an aura that welcomes the curious. His most recent nonfiction work, Coercion, reflects this, and also should be a part of every higher education communications curriculum. It is an amazing and scary look at the effects of media and commercialism on our society.

Recently Douglas was kind enough to answer a few questions for me about writing, including how he went from unpublished to getting a deal for a novel with every nonfiction deal.

AM: What was it like to get your first book deal? Did you have to go through a process or, did it come through making personal contacts?

DR: It was a bit of a fluke, really. I don’t even know which to call my first book. The first book of them all was called Free Rides. It was someone else’s idea – a Hollywood producer who liked my writing. He asked if I’d write the book; he gave me ten grand, and said we could split the proceeds 50/50 or 60/40. I didn’t think he would get a deal for it, but he had a book agent connected to his film agent who sold the book to Dell.

AM: What type of promotion did you find yourself having to do? Was the publisher good about helping promote the book?

DR: at the time, Dell did nothing for the book. They sent out a few for review, but that was about it. They asked me to give them some pictures. There was no press. My first real book, though was Cyberia. I just wrote a 12-page proposal, the agent sold it in a couple of weeks–to Bantam. They cancelled it in 1992 (fearing that the Internet and rave music were passing fads) but then HarperSanFrancisco published it in 1994, with a huge tour and great publicity. The secret–if you want to know–is trying to get the publisher to use freelance publicists instead of staff.

AM: What drove you to begin writing? What keeps you going? Do you think there is a future in it for you? Do you have anything coming up?

DR: What “drove” me to writing sounds so passive. I drove myself to writing. There’s stuff I wanted to say, things I wanted to describe in writing that hadn’t been described before. I think all writing is travel writing of one kind or another. I travel in head spaces, emotional places, and cultural places instead of exotic travel spots. But the basic job is the same: describe something. Tell a story. Of course there is more future in it for me. I have written seven books so far, and I have another novel in the works.

AM: I know you are an advocate of the potential freedom that new media like the internet brings people. Do you think writers can potentially capitalize on the exposure it can bring? And aside from research, do you think it has helped you as a writer?

DR: I guess you’re interested in the business of writing, here. I think the Internet has helped me, but less in selling books or getting exposure than it has helped me answer my readers’ questions, set up forums for them to discuss ideas, give students a way to do research, and give journalists the ability to inteview me. The problem, of course, is that since I “do” the Internet on the same machine where I write, it’s as if all those questions and queries are there in my face all the time. It’s a constant struggle. I just want to write, but the Internet makes me feel like I owe something to everyone who happens to read my stuff.

AM: A number of writers often ask me how they can get their fiction published. Many have published nonfiction, and feel trapped doing it. Correct me if I am wrong, but you published the novel Ecstasy Club after you had done several nonfiction books, correct?

DR: Usually, the way to get fiction published is to write it, and then hope an editor likes it. I was lucky, I suppose, in that I had a number of sucessful nonfiction books come out already. It gave me bargaining room. When a number of publishers were bidding against each other for one of my nonfiction books, I ended up going with the publisher who agreed to publish my as-yet-to-be-written novel, as well. Now, in the U.S. anyway, I make whoever gets my next nonfiction book also agree to publish a novel. In the UK, on the other hand, everyone wants to publish my novels. The nonfiction is harder to sell there. I use two different publishers now.

AM: Miramax optioned your novel; think we’ll see thousands of young people flocking to the box office to see Ecstasy Club as a movie?

DR: Why young people? I’d hope everyone runs to see it – but not in flocks. Again, it sounds too sheeplike, and too passive. It takes human will out of the equation. That’s the real crime of passive voice.

Since this interview Miramax has released the book from option. However, several interesed film producers have almost begun waging war to get their hands on this hot property.