Attaining perfection; beyond moral panic; AI-free book contracts: Newsletter 22 May 2024

How to do your work perfectly and why that matters, plus why mobile phones aren’t destroying our youth’s mental health, why centrism isn’t really neopopulism, three people to follow, and three books to read.

Why perfection matters — to authors and all creative workers

Authors get maybe one chance every couple of years to put publish a book that will establish their reputation as an incisive and consequential thinker. Writers want people to be captivated by the power of their ideas, not distracted by the flaws in the way they implemented it.

That demands perfection. What does perfection look like?

  • The main idea is clearly and simply described, and carried through consistently in the whole book.
  • The thread of the book is a story that draws readers in from beginning to end.
  • If you read the table of contents, the chapter titles tell an obvious story. They’re written in parallel — for example, all sentences, all noun phrases, or all personal qualities of successful people.
  • The graphics are beautifully rendered, and the fonts match the text.
  • Where a multi-part concept is presented, it’s always presented in the same order. For example, if you describe a process that looks like Readers/Objective/Action/Impression, you always present Objective after Readers and before Action.
  • The rules for what is capitalized (for example, terms, or words in chapter titles) are consistent throughout the manuscript.
  • Key facts and quotes are footnoted, and all the links in the footnotes actually work.
  • There are no typos.
  • All the facts are correct. There are no lies.

This is, of course, an incomplete list. But failures of these kinds of things are just the sorts of problems that break the spell for readers. They cause people to stop thinking about your ideas, and start to question your commitment to the idea. If you can’t be bothered to create consistency and perfection in what you publish, why should we trust you to be honest about your idea?

This insight applies equally well to anything you create. It applies to apps you build, podcasts you post, videos you share, or announcements from your company. You cannot succeed on the big things and fail on the little things. You can only succeed on both big and little things together.

Here’s what this means.

You cannot achieve perfection if you hit every deadline at the last moment. You won’t have time to check things, and the fit and finish will be lacking — and people will notice.

You must complete the main part of your work — your “final” draft — weeks before it is due. Those weeks are where you enforce consistency and turn what you think is great into something both great and perfect.

If you haven’t allowed time to perfect it, you’re not really committed to it in the first place.

News for writers and others who think

In The Atlantic, Candice Odgers deconstructs the moral panic over youth, technology, depression, and anxiety (gift link).

The political center in Washington continues to actually get stuff done, like funding budgets and providing aid to Ukraine. We’re still polarized, but there appears to be hope. I’m just not ready to call it “neopopulism,” as David Leonhardt does in the New York Times (gift link).

The U.S. Census says bookstore sales are down a little. It might be more accurate to say that college bookstores are selling fewer textbooks. (Publisher’s Weekly subscriber link).

Three of the big five publishers — Penguin Random House, Hachette Book Group, and Macmillan — have begun to add language to their publishing contracts to assure authors that their works won’t be supplied to AI companies for training (Publisher’s Lunch subscriber link). The terms are based on language suggested by the Author’s Guild. If you’re about to sign a publishing contract, you might want to check if it includes AI training clauses.

Three people to follow

Marissa Eigenbrood , president of Smith Publicity and book marketing expert.

Reid Hoffman , growth guru and founder of LinkedIn.

Yusuf Mehdi , consumer chief marketing officer of Microsoft. He’s been on the fast track upward since the Web was a baby.

Three books to read

How to Walk Into a Room: The Art of Knowing When to Stay and When to Walk Away by Emily P. Freeman (HarperOne, 2024). How to know when you no longer fit the situation you’re stuck in.

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss (Random House, 2014). The science and business behind addictive food.

Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter by Liz Wiseman (Harper Business, 2017). How to lead in an uplifting way.

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