The Last Lecture sign

On September 18, 2007 Randy Pausch entered a Carnegie Mellon University lecture hall and gave his ‘last lecture’. Pausch’s lecture was one of a series hosted by the university where varying academics spoke about “what mattered.”

What made Pausch’s lecture so moving was that weeks before he learned his pancreatic cancer had gotten worse. Pausch passed away ten months later.

Pausch’s story is beautiful and someone can join the twenty-million views on YouTube. But we want to think about something different, Pausch’s book, The Last Lecture.

“It’s not the bestseller that interests me,” said John Thompson, “it’s the world that makes bestsellers possible.”

There’s a lot of good stories every year, why was TLL a New York Times bestseller for 112 weeks and not some other book? Part of the reason is the business model.

“How do you value this book? You have fifteen pages of an outline by an author who has never written a book before, how much are you going to pay for it? It went for 6.7 million dollars. I thought that was crazy, who would pay 6.7 million for a book by an author who had never written a book and may not even live long enough to write it.” – John Thompson, Oxford Bookes University, November 2010

Thinking like an anthropologist, Thompson’s first order of businesses was to figure out the business landscape. Every industry has competitors and collaborators. There are explicit and implicit incentives.

A few landscape changes took place through the 1980s. Small independent bookstores yielded to chains. Scale meant changes in bargaining power. In that decade literary agents grew in stature, slightly empowering writers. Publishers meanwhile consolidated in number and power.

By the late 90s and early 00s the book selling economics was like venture capital or film: around 30% of books, estimated Thompson, generated the bulk of the revenue. Along with the need to grow, the incentive was to find Big Books like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2003).

Finding a “Dan Brown” was a dream, quite literally. Instead, publishers looked for new authors with good ideas. Lacking that they tried something we are more familiar with in 2021: platform.

Walk into a 2010 bookstore said John Thompson, and each of those books at the front table were paying $1 in rent to be there. Books had to sell quickly or they were returned to the publisher. Without a “Dan Brown” the next best route was someone with a platform and so in 2004 Paris Hilton became a NYT bestseller.

Randy Pausch had never written a book, but Randy Pausch had been written about. Two days after the lecture, Jeffrey Zaslow featured Pausch’s pronunciations in the WSJ. Following that Oprah and ABC got in touch. After that Hyperion publishing.

This era feels like a shift in celebrity, as least through the lens of book sales. While Pausch’s talk wasn’t the most popular it was on the growing site YouTube. In 2005 Ronaldinho’s Touch of Gold was the video people shared. In 2006 it was Evolution of Dance. EOD became the most viewed YouTube video with ten million views. It had the most viewed crown, lost it, got it back, loses it (this time to Avril Lavigne), gets it back and loses it for the last time to ‘Charlie Bit My Finger’.

Evolution of Dance was number one for about as many days as Baby (Bieber) and Despacito (Fonsi) and half as long as Gangnam Style (Psy). It was the first viral video.

I remembered TLL as a dual feel good story. Both the message and that the message shined through. It does, but TLL succeeded because of the business model. Publishers wanted hits and lacking a “Dan Brown” looked for people with a platform.

Pausch’s story is beautiful and as a teacher I hope he would appreciate this post. In Internet time 2007 feels like a long time, but the things we did then we do now and we did before. There’s lots of change in actions but much less in reasons. Looking back at this moment is a nice (dual) reminder about how we live.

A couple other tent pole moments: 2010 – Old Spice, the man your man could smell like. 2012 “Hi I’m Mike founder of Dollar Shave Club dot com…” and 2012s Gangnam Style is first video with one-billion views.