Newsletter 26 July 2023: Bullshit author dies; McGraw ditches bizbooks; felon turns ghost; ex-Twits

Last week I started a LinkedIn newsletter for authors. From now on I’ll be posting it every Wednesday here as well. The format is: short essay, snarky news takes, people to follow, books to read, and an obligatory but lovable plug.

This week I cover bullshit, McGraw-Hill’s exit from the business book market, a thief turned ghostwriter, three women to follow and three books worth your time.

Harry G. Frankfurt called bullshit, but couldn’t stem the tide

The philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt died this month at age 94. Doubtless some would prefer that I say he “passed on,” but given what Professor Frankfurt was best known for — a little book called On Bullshit — let’s skip the euphemism.

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That BS title helped Frankfurt’s book to sell 175,000 copies. Even at 67 diminutive pages, it’s dense and somewhat dull.

But there is wisdom here. Frankfurt defined the essential difference between a liar and a bullshitter. A liar says things he knows not to be true. A bullshitter, on the other other hand, says whatever benefits him without caring whether what he says is true or not. Remind you of anyone? Or perhaps your favorite AI chatbot?

The essay from which the book is drawn was first published in 1986, and proved prescient. Here’s what Frankfurt said about why we are all drowning in bullshit:

Why is there so much bullshit? . . . There is more communication of all kinds in our time than ever before . . . Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic.

This every politician bullshits. So do analysts. So do authors. They bullshit because the alternative is to say “I don’t know,” and people in a position of authority — or coveting one — avoid saying that.

Once you cease to be curious — once you feel that saying “I don’t know” damages your reputation — you cease to contribute to advancing the state of knowledge. Bullshitters care only about looking smart. Actual smart people care about discovering the truth. Looking ignorant is curable. But failing to be curious ensures you will remain ignorant, which is tragic.

News for authors and others who think

McGraw-Hill Professional has laid off editors and stopped acquiring business books. It will continue to support books that are already published or due to be. Other traditional publishers are still buying, but this will put downward pressure on advances.

Bookstat launched bestseller lists on LinkedIn. Authors don’t care about sales. We just refresh our Amazon rank hourly. The lists show leaders in sales tracked by BookScan.

UPS may have avoided a strike. Once authors are sure we can ship books again, we can go back offering moral support to striking Hollywood screenwriters.

For young people in Mississippi, access to online book apps Hoopla and Overdrive is under threat. If these library apps don’t vet every item for the legislature’s definition of obscenity, they are at legal risk when serving young people.

The New York Times Magazine tells the story of an identity thief turned ghostwriterApparently impersonating other people pays more if you get their permission.

It’s not just Apple’s latest iPhone that people covet. There’s a healthy market in Apple’s pristine white device boxes. They’re perfect for burying dreams you’ve given up on.

Twitter is now Brand X. As Shelly Palmer points out, a brand that’s been verbed (“tweet”) is priceless — but Elon Musk apparently thinks it’s valueless.

3 people to follow

Bobbie Carlton, the hardest-working small agency head in Boston, who also leads Mass Innovation Nights and the women’s speaker hub Innovation Women.

Nancy Harhut, author of Using Behavioral Science in Marketing, knows exactly what works in digital marketing, down the best words to use in subject lines.

Molly Jong-Fast, daughter of two spectacular fiction talents, publishes the snarkiest, wittiest, leftiest takes on politics in Vanity Fair.

3 books to read

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High-value mini-book

The Time to Win: How to Exceed Your Customers’ Need for Speed, by Jay Baer (Ursus 10, 2023). Proof that the fastest response wins the customer, in a zippy 72-page book you can read on a lunch break and hold in the palm of your hand.

STFU: The Power of Keeping Your Mouth Shut in an Endlessly Noisy World by Dan Lyons. (Henry Holt, 2023). The value of learning to Shut The Fuck Up on social media, at work, in love, and wherever noise destroys.

The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters by Tom Nichols (Oxford University Press, 2017). In the age of “do your own research,” revere the value of people who actually know stuff.


Are you an author whose idea won’t come into focus? I can help. Email me.

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