Newsletter 16 August 2023: Leave a crater; newsless Canadians; purloined permissions

Week 5: Why books are worth doing, Canadian social media sites eschew news, the revenge of copyright, plus 3 people to follow, 3 great reads, and how to ghostwrite a business book.

Work on a project with heft: a book, for example

Some people dream of singing on stage or teaching in a classroom — I have always wanted to write. From the time I could read — actually, from the time I could sit still and be read to — I recognized that books had magical powers. I figured out that there were writers who created those books. I wanted that to be me.

My mathematical colleagues and mentors were appalled when I left the math Ph.D. program at MIT to become a technical writer. It went without saying that if you had mathematical talent, you were supposed to do mathematics. But I loved words, and I loved the idea of an audience bigger than a handful of other mathematicians. I was happier writing a software manual than doing math. And a software manual was sort of a book.

I wrote manuals fast and fluidly. My favorite compliment ever came when I was at a mathematical software startup, filling in one day doing technical support. A customer on the phone asked if I knew who wrote the manual. “Yes,” I said. “Tell them I stayed up reading that manual last night, it was terrific,” they responded. Of course, the manual writer was me. I had reached somebody.

After a stint at a textbook company — where I mostly turned text into books, rather than writing or editing them — I went to work for Forrester, writing research reports. After 10 years there, I was nearing 50. I knew if I didn’t write a book by the time I was 50, I was kidding myself. So I tried to tell the CEO, George Colony, that I had to quit to go write books. George asked if I could write books for Forrester instead. So I did. And I published one before I was 50, too.

I thought what I loved about books was writing them and having people read them. But what I learned was that there was more to it than that. A book requires concentration. It requires planning. It requires working with other people — coauthors, editors, publishers, and publicists — on a project with heft. Books demand not just a big idea, but an idea that’s worth exploring for a few hundred pages. To write a good one takes at least six months. And then you have to put in the time to get people to hear about it.

Even if you are not a writer, you deserve to work on a project that size. Launch a product. Make a video series. Build a company. Architect a house.

These are projects that require a big dream. They require planning, extended effort, and teamwork. They require concentration for hours and weeks and months. Building something where nothing existed before is the most worthwhile thing I can imagine — especially if you what you build reaches people.

Work on something that has heft and impact and requires extended effort. It will remind you that you are alive. If it’s a book, that’s great. But don’t just make little dents here and there. Leave a crater. Because that’s worth doing.

News for authors and others who think

Canada passed a law that requires online sites to pay for content they link to. Meta, and soon, Google, will stop linking to news sites. Regrettably, Canadians are more likely to give up news than social media. It reminds me of the writers’ strike: neither the old way of work nor the new is viable, but figuring out a balancing point is likely to break media, tech, and users along the way.

judge has blocked the Internet Archive from sharing copyrighted books. And Prosecraft, a writing analysis tool that was trained on stolen content is shutting down. Writers need a way to easily license content to these tools; neither blocking access nor allowing theft are acceptable future paths.

Penguin Random House created a site for banned books. Hey kids, now you can read what they don’t want you to read.

Author and publishing expert Jane Friedman persuaded Amazon to take down AI crap books published under her name. The challenge is, there’s no simple automated way to identify future crap books, and Amazon has not committed to do anything about them. As usual, authors who suffer will find Amazon hard to connect with. The deluge of AI crap will continue.

Three people to follow

Robert Tercek publishes provocative analyses of the past and future of copyright on his Substack.

Jenn Donahue, PhD, PE is an ex-Navy Commodore who built bridges under fire in Iraq. And she also built a company that analyzes seismic vulnerability. Now she building a brand as a thought leader. She’s already has three times as many careers as you, and she’s just getting started.

Rishad Tobaccowala rose to the top of the advertising industry and is now mapping the future for anyone who will listen.

Three books to read

Be Better Than Your BS: How Radical Acceptance Empowers Authenticity and Creates a Workplace Culture of Inclusion by Risha Grant (Hay House, 2023, just released). Straight talk on everyone’s inherent bias and how Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion offers a solution.

The Writer’s Voice: Techniques for Tuning Your Tone and Style by Anne Janzer (Cuesta Park Consulting, 2023). Tips for improving the writer’s most important tool: the way your words connect with readers.

The Creativity Leap: Unleash Curiosity, Improvisation, and Intuition at Work by Natalie Nixon (Berrett-Koehler, 2020). Weaving together wonder and rigor to reach your creative pinnacle.


Aspiring ghostwriters can catch me at lunchtime (noon Eastern) today, Wednesday 16 August, on Gotham Ghostwriters’ Brown Bag Lunch. Join here at 12 ET.

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  1. Josh you need to dig into the Internet Archive. They are not stealing operating as a library is only criminal in the eyes of greedy publishers and trade associations. The RIAA and Hachete are the bad guys here and I’ve donated to support them because the alternative is a world where only publishers decide at what price if you can you can access anything including works that are in a library for loan or in the public domain. They enforce all manner of restrictions to prevent theft of copyrighted works and I believe are operating in good faith. Sites like zz library are not those are just free for all dumps of pirated copyrighted works but the Internet Archive is not the same. I encourage you to carefully read the posts by Brewster Kale and others trying to keep the Internet Archive going.

  2. “Regrettably, Canadians are more likely to give up news than social media.”

    I’m afraid that this an accurate conclusion: but it is not restricted to Canadians. Just like everywhere except in countries where democracy has been stifled, we, in Quebec and Canada, have access to numerous sources of independent information. But this requires looking at multiple websites, or beyond websites. It may require opening books, newspapers or magazines. It may require paying for subscriptions. Since so many have adopted the “convenience” of pre-digested bits of information from a single source, without questioning their reliability, social media have gained tremendous influence.

    Forget Facebook. I still have access to other sources.