How Julio Vincent Gambuto joined Medium, went viral, and wound up with a book deal
An interview with the author of the recently released “Please Unsubscribe, Thanks! How to Take Back Our Time, Attention and Purpose in a World Designed to Bury Us in Bullshit”
Julio Vincent Gambuto is a filmmaker and author who began posting on Medium in 2016. In April of 2020, shortly after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, he wrote an essay called “Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting,” warning that businesses and government would try to deny the new realities of the pandemic and encourage us to go back to our “normal” lives as soon as possible, whether that was in our best interest or not. The piece immediately went viral, and has since been read by 21 million people in 98 countries.
Shortly after “Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting” was published, Gambuto was approached by a literary agent about turning the essay into a book. The result, “Please Unsubscribe, Thanks! How to Take Back Our Time, Attention, and Purpose in a World Designed to Bury Us In Bullshit,” was published earlier this month by Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster.
I talked to Gambuto about how he got started on Medium, what it’s like to go viral, and how he turned his post into a book. The result of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.
Jon Gluck: What were you doing before you got started on Medium?
Julio Vincent Gambuto: My background is in film, so I was working in television for a kids’ show on Nickelodeon, and then came back east to start a film company here in New York. Film is a long process. Although I was enjoying it, I was also frustrated by it because I had things I wanted to think about and talk about and sort of publicly interrogate. Medium became a great place to do that.
JG: When did you start on Medium?
JVG: I started during the 2016 election. I was writing about Hillary Clinton, I was writing about the Democrats, I was writing about the changes we were seeing in the political discourse and in society.
JG: Did you have any background in politics, or you were just writing as a civilian, so to speak?
JVG: I was writing as a citizen. To this day, that’s what I tell people. I’m a citizen with an opinion and a laptop. Medium has been a productive tool for me because it gave me the space to be thoughtful about that role. It let me jump from being a guy bitching on Facebook to someone crafting something that was more journalistic, closer to actual public commentary or an op-ed piece. So no, I’m not a political journalist. I’m a really opinionated citizen who wants things to be better.
JG: Why Medium?
JVG: The visual interface was clean and it wasn’t Twitter or Facebook. It wasn’t somewhere that wanted you to condense nuanced thought into 140 characters or into that sort of Facebook space before “the fold” where you only get three sentences before it cuts off. Medium to me was a place where I could be a writer in a more fleshed out and considered way.
JG: What was your first post?
JVG: I don’t remember exactly what my first post was, but the first one I knew friends were reading was about Hillary Clinton. It was about her enemies calling her a bitch and why that was something she could use in her campaign if the campaign would only allow her to tap into that and embody our collective anger. I felt if she did that perhaps we could’ve gotten a little further than we did. Obviously, that’s one opinion among 300-plus million, but that was my take.
JG: What kind of feedback did you get?
JVG: I’m from a pretty purple place. I live in Manhattan, but my hometown is Staten Island, which is split 50/50 between Democrats and Republicans. So half of the folks were like, “Hey, you’re nuts. She’s X, Y, and Z.” And the other half was split between folks who said, “Hey, I kind of agree with you,” and other folks who said, “She can’t ever be a bitch, she will be wiped off the map. That is not something that a woman could do.” I have great respect for that opinion, and it’s obviously a point of view I can never embody personally as a man. But the post started, I think, a healthy (albeit small) conversation.
JG: Let’s talk about “Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting,” which you posted on April 10, 2020. How did that post come about?
JVG: When the pandemic hit, I felt the urge to write. I felt the need to communicate with anybody outside of my 400-square-foot apartment. The week I wrote that post was difficult. I had lost a number of people in my closest circles — family friends. I was living in New York City, and it was bleak here. All you could hear were sirens. It was a dark, dark moment. The night before, I went to bed in the depths of that despair, and when I woke up the next morning I got an email from J. Crew.
The message was like, “Hey, buy a cashmere sweater, 300 bucks, but shipping’s free.” And I was incensed, primarily because most of those retail brands had emailed a week or two prior to say, “We’re in a state of emergency. Wash your hands. Here’s how you wash your hands.” And so on. One minute they were engaging in the conversation about how to keep us all healthy, then suddenly a week or two later, they went right back to “Hey, 40 percent off.” So I was enraged.
I posted the piece a few hours later. The thesis was, “Let’s be forewarned that there will be a really big, powerful, expensive effort to get us all to go back to normal. Whenever this moment is over, whether that’s a week from now, a month from now, a year or two from now, this return to normal will be a very coordinated effort to get the economy running the same way that it was before, to get us to go back to the same things that we did on a day in and day out basis. And that effort will come from government and from business, the big brands.
My post was also a call for all of us to learn what we could from that moment about our lives and what we wanted them to be filled with, what we wanted them to be about. At that moment, a lot of us were thinking about that, and I think the piece hit that chord.
JG: Then it took off.
JVG: It was like watching a slot machine go, only without the coins coming out. The numbers just kept growing and growing. It was a bizarre, surreal experience to know that it was being shared and shared and shared. By Easter Sunday, just a few days later, it had reached 15 million readers around the world. I was getting emails from South America, France, Japan. Everyone wanted to engage in some way.
JG: What were people saying?
JVG: On one hand, I had priests and rabbis saying, “Hey, can I read this at Passover? Can I read this on Easter Sunday? Because it speaks to a kind of collective renewal and to our deciding what we want in our lives. At the other end of the spectrum, I had people who just said, “Fuck you,” and that was it. That was the entire email.
JG: Did you do anything to promote the story?
JVG: At the time, I only promoted my Medium work on Facebook. I would write posts on Medium, then share them on Facebook. After that post went viral, I did send it out to my email mailing list to say, “Hey, this has happened online, and I thought you might enjoy reading it.” Funny enough, somebody had sent me the piece and said, “Hey, you really have to read this.”
JG: Did the post change your work going forward?
JVG: I certainly leaned into commenting on what was happening around us. That was a really hard time — this was the spring of 2020 leading into the summer of 2020. And I saw the George Floyd protests and that particular moment as an extension of this effort by some people to say, “Hey, this is totally normal. It’s normal that we kill people on the side of the street in America. Don’t worry about it.” The gaslighting was kind of a lens that you could see a few things through, and I tried to do that in a respectful way.
I also tried posting about a whole bunch of other things. I was still committed to putting a movie out. I had done this kids trivia show for my nieces and nephews during the pandemic to stay connected to them. So I think if you were following me on Medium at the time, you were like, What is this guy doing? Because there’s all sorts of stuff happening. And I certainly pride myself on that because it’s kind of who I think I am as an artist. But I do realize it may have been confusing.
JG: Let’s talk about the book that grew out of “Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting.” How did that come about?
JVG: The essay did what it did, and a few weeks later I got an email from a literary agent asking me if I had ever thought about writing a book. I was an English major. I grew up with a book in my hands. So writing a book was never something that wasn’t in my brain, but I certainly didn’t think I would be writing a book about this period in the world. I thought it might be some sort of memoir about being a gay kid in an Italian community.
My agent and I started batting ideas back and forth, until we had a finished proposal. It was about a 150-page document: sample chapters, a full outline, what I would do to market and promote it as the author. It was an extensive process, but I was game for it because I wasn’t making movies. My primary industry was shut down and would remain shut down for the next year and a half.
It took a little over a year to get the proposal finished, in part because it kept changing. It originally started out as “Ten Lessons We Can Learn from the Pandemic,” but that quickly jumped the shark. Fareed Zakaria came out with a book “Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World,” and I was like, “Okay, well, nobody wants to hear about this from me if Fareed Zakaria just wrote about it.”
The political situation was also changing and the COVID situation was changing, and the book comments on both of those things. It was important to me that the book was as timely as possible, but books also have to be evergreen to some extent. So I had to do this dance to write something that would resonate in the moment but also still be relevant when it came out a year later.
JG: What did you settle on and how is it like, and not like, the original post?
JVG: Once I had an editor, she and I went through a bunch of different ideas. The book we wound up with is called “Please Unsubscribe, Thanks! How to Take Back Our Time, Attention, and Purpose in a World Designed to Bury Us In Bullshit.” It’s about where the economy is right now, where the society is right now, and the idea is that maybe it’s best for us to stay off the treadmill — to step back from being inundated constantly with messaging and advertising and constant pinging and dinging and ringing, and be intentional about how we go forward.
It’s a mix of social commentary, social science, and memoir. It’s self-help meets the system. It describes what I went through during the pandemic. What I did for the year and a half that I was basically alone and the six months I couldn’t leave the apartment. What it was like to pull back from basically everything — friends, family, everything that was hitting me up online (I went on a social media detox). The book outlines how you can do that if you want to do that, all in the effort to make sure that what’s in our lives is what we want there.
JG: What’s your writing process? Do you have rituals or routines?
JVG: I’m really nerdy, so I basically just reverse the timeline from my next deadline. It’s funny. I would say to my editor, “How many words do you need by this day?” And she would be like, “It doesn’t need to be that exact. Let me know where you’re at in a few….” And I was like, “No, no, no. I need a day and I need a number!” Once I had that, then I could work backwards to build a schedule. I work in three waves — a wave of writing, a wave of editing, and a wave of polishing (all before it went to the editor as “rough”). I would build in enough time for each of those stages based on how many words or chapters were due at a given time.
I’m also a creature of habit. I went to Kona Roasters on Seventh Avenue every morning for six months straight, and worked from seven or eight in the morning till about one or two in the afternoon. I was used to a work rhythm, when you’re producing a movie, of working around the clock. You’re not just making the movie. You’re sending emails, doing phone calls, and trying to figure out how to keep the lights on. But with the book, I realized pretty quickly I could only write for about four hours at a time, max. Once I hit four hours, I was like, my brain couldn’t continue. I had to put a pin in it.
JG: Do you have any advice for other writers, for writing on Medium or elsewhere?
JVG: Look, these are just my thoughts, so take them with a grain of salt. What I have found has gotten the most response, whether it’s from readers or agents or editors, is the specific and unique personal vantage point that you bring to the work. We all struggle on Medium sometimes with how long a post should be, how it should sound tonally, how extreme it should be, but I think at the end of the day, what really matters is the actual writing style, the voice.
For me, I think I came to a point where I just decided to take the varnish away — to stop writing to please people — and that was incredibly freeing. “Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting” was unvarnished, and if people were responding to that, then there was no sense in putting the varnish back on. So I decided I would go ahead and use words like bullshit, which appears in the subtitle of the book now. I didn’t do it to be intentionally foul-mouthed. I did it because that’s how I felt, and that was the word that seemed appropriate at that moment. And I didn’t go back and edit it 14 times because that was what I should do.
We can all read 150 posts a day that sound the same because their authors are trying to write like the most popular people on the platform. But if there’s any advice I have to give, it’s to be you, and keep being you, and keep pushing your youness. Write something NO ONE else could ever write.
Also in this series:
- How Enrique Dans uses Medium to share his ideas and build his professional profile in the business and academic worlds
- How ADEOLA SHEEHY-ADEKALE is leveling-up her Medium publication to help women’s stories get heard
- How Google data scientist Cassie Kozyrkov found success (and a fulfilling creative outlet) on Medium
- How Kaki Okumura’s Medium essays led to a book on health and human psychology
- How Thomas Smith successfully launched a new AI publication on Medium
- How Devon Price redefined ‘lazy’ and turned his Medium essay into a book
Who should we interview next? Let us know in the comments. And, if you’re inspired to write on Medium, get started.