Elephants! Doing the Impossible
Margo Baldwin of Chelsea Green Publishing writes to me about George Lakoff's book
and how she turned it into a bestseller. Thought I'd share the riff:
“When I teach the study of framing at Berkeley, in Cognitive Science 101,
the first thing I do is I give my students an exercise. The exercise is:
Don’t think of an elephant! Whatever you do, do not think of an elephant.
I’ve never found a student who is able to do this. Every word, like
elephant, evokes a frame, which can be an image or other kinds of knowledge:
Elephants are large, have floppy ears and a trunk, are associated with
circuses, and so on. The word is defined relative to that frame. When we
negate a frame, we evoke the frame.”
—George Lakoff, from Don’t Think of an Elephant!
When told “Don’t think of an elephant,” not thinking of one is impossible.
It’s impossible because once invoked, the elephant image cannot be
unthought. That’s the short, sweet lesson about “framing” that George Lakoff
has taught us, a lesson that turns out to have enormous political
significance, not only for this past election season, but for ongoing
efforts to forge a new and more potent political message for the future. It
turns out that the Republicans have spent the last forty years or so making
sure they control the language of political debate so that their frames have
been adopted by all of us — especially by the mainstream media. Think tax
relief; think partial birth abortion; think war on terror. Among other
things, this control of language means they win elections.
In other words, it’s the framing, stupid!
The opportunity to publish Don’t Think of an Elephant! and get it out before
the election came at the last minute, in mid-July. I had never heard of
George Lakoff, but our roving editor-at-large, Jennifer Nix, through her
work with Don Hazen, the Executive Editor at AlterNet, put me in touch with
George, who sent us a proposal. You might say the rest is history, because
not only did we get the book out in record time, but we managed to do the
impossible: make the book a national bestseller (New York Times, Washington
Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, nearly every regional
independent bookseller list).
I say the impossible because we’re a small, independent book publisher, not
a corporate conglomerate media company; because we published the book in a
mere five weeks, from draft manuscript to finished book; because we did it
with no advertising budget or an outside promotional firm; and finally
because two weeks before the publication date, we had no advance sales!
We did it by partnering with key progressive organizations, including
AlterNet, MoveOn, the Sierra Club, Democracy for America, the Apollo
Alliance, the Institute for America’s Future, Green Festival, Hightower and
Associates, Anita Roddick.com and many others, who all helped launch the
book on the Internet. They sent out e-mail blasts and posted information on
all their Web sites, and we gave them free downloads of the first chapter.
Then, once the word started to spread, especially via the blogosphere and
other word-of-mouth venues, key independent booksellers across the country,
as well as the national chains, got behind it and made it the bestseller it
is. In short, the strategy worked for everyone and got a critically
important book out there at the right time and into the hands of people who
will put the ideas to work. In the end it’s about creating social change,
and the reason it worked so well is that we all worked together; together we
had an impact.
It also helped that we made the book short, readable, and cheap. There are
not many serious books you can buy for ten bucks. But ten bucks seemed like
the right price. It meant that many people bought multiple copies to give
away; it meant that many progressive organizations bought cases to sell or
give away to their members; it meant that we were able to get a copy into
the hands of every Democratic senator in the first days after the Republican
convention; it meant that the book was actually read (Garrison Keillor take
So, where to from here? Well, first, of course, we want to get the book into
more readers’ hands. When the first post-election pronouncements of the
media were that the results had to do with “moral values,” the importance of
this book for understanding what happened and what to do next became
immediately apparent. Demand skyrocketed and we ran out of books within a
few days. The New York Times ran an editorial about the book called “Why
Democrats Need to Stop Thinking about Elephants.” Several publishing stories
included it as one of a few that would continue to sell strongly in the
aftermath of the election. Columnists are continuing to write about its
lessons for Democrats and progressives in the years ahead, and George is
being deluged with media requests. So yes, it will continue to sell.
But second, and much more important, we’re helping to create a movement, a
movement to take our country back from the elephantine forces in political
control right now. Take it back and move us all forward into a saner, more
So remember, do the impossible: don’t think of an elephant!
or, find the book at Amazon: Link: Amazon.com: Books: Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate--The Essential Guide for Progressives.