Books still matter; the lump of labor; audiobooks on Spotify: Newsletter 7 February 2024

Photo: D. Billy

Newsletter week 30. Why bother writing a book? Also, Paul Krugman on why AI and immigrants won’t kill the job market, the EU regulates AI, Indigo on the block, plus three people to follow and three books to read.

In praise of books

Everyone who has ever written a book has, at some point, asked themselves “Why the hell am I doing this?”

Most people who read books have, at some point, asked themselves, “Why am I bothering to read this — are books worth it?”

There are more books published now than ever before, about 3 million per year. The number of books sold is declining, and on an inflation-adjusted basis, so are the book industry’s revenues.

So why bother?

The true answer is not economic, but philosophical.

An idea may be simple, but if it’s worth anything, then the execution and consequences of that idea are complex.

Here’s a simple idea: you need a systematic approach to change the habits in your life that matter.

Why even read Atomic Habits? After all, I just told you the idea behind it. You’re all set.

Not quite.

Why do habits matter? Which ones are worth changing? How can you make those changes stick, even though most people trying to change habits can’t? What can you do to build on those improvements? Those are complicated questions. You need a whole book to answer them.

To write a (nonfiction) book is to commit to an idea. And like all commitments that matter, it’s a long-term and complicated process.

You need to refine the idea so it takes hold in people’s minds.

The idea must be novel, big, and provable.

You need to dissect the justification for the idea into elements, and write a chapter or two about them. That means assembling stories, research, and persuasive prose.

You need to project the consequences of the idea in more chapters. More stories, more research, more persuasive prose.

You need to amaze, entertain, delight, move, and improve your reader. That doesn’t happen by accident. It takes work and editing. But if the idea is worth committing to, that’s worth doing.

If you do your job, the reader will find the book, like the book, believe the book, and act on the book. (And, if you’re lucky, share the book.) Your idea will spread.

There are other ways to spread ideas. You can write a song. You can make a documentary. You can give a speech.

But if the idea is big enough and interesting enough, you’re not really going to be able to justify it in blog posts, SubStacks, TikToks, podcasts, or LinkedIn newsletters. They’re too shallow and fleeting. You’re going to have write a book.

That, for the most part, is a solitary activity, but it is still the best way to make the glowing idea in your brain fully expand, and become the glowing idea in somebody else’s brain, probably somebody you never met.

Books are worth writing because ideas are worth developing. Books are worth reading because ideas are worth embracing.

These are some of the things that make it worthwhile to be human. So if you have an idea, persevere. Authors are the most amazing people in the world, and you should be one.

News for authors and others who think

The European Union is creating a legal framework to address risk and promises of artificial intelligence. European publishers endorsed the idea that AI must be transparent about its training data and respect the copyrights of publishers.

Paul Krugman wrote a fascinating column (gift link) about the “Lump of Labor Fallacy” — the persistent but false idea that there is only so much work to do, and if machines or immigrants do some of it, then there is less for people to do.

Spotify listeners have consumed 90,000 different audiobooks (gift link). Bookstat estimates that Spotify has an 11% market share, ahead of Apple but behind Audible, an astounding rate of growth. The top title was Britney Spears’ memoir.

Investment firms have offered to buy Indigo, Canada’s largest bookstore chain (Publisher’s Weekly subscriber link). The leader of one firm is the husband of Indigo’s founder.

Three people to follow

Laura Moran, whose meteoric rise as a marketer and publicity expert reflects incredible talent. After killing it at HubSpot, she’s now marketing for an investment company. (Years ago, she did publicity for my first book as PR intern!)

Ken Sterling, who manages talent at BigSpeak. A major player with a fascinating history.

Ethan Mollick, Wharton professor with provocative and well-researched views on AI.

Three books to read

Marketing the Moon: The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program by David Meerman Scott and Richard Jurek (MIT Press, 2014). How NASA sold America on the moon shot.

How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking by Jordan Ellenberg (Penguin, 2015). Think like a mathematician and you won’t get duped.

Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language by Gretchen McCulloch (Riverhead, 2019). Texting and social media are changing English forever.

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