Ebooks suck for learning

On Twitter earlier I said this here thing:

There’s an implicit assumption in publishing commentary that the trajectory of media evolution (books, ebooks, websites, apps) is a known. That the long-term effects, drawbacks, & benefits of each medium will follow a predetermined path towards its manifest destiny. That ebook apps are as good as they'll ever be and will never integrate what research is discovering about learning and memory. That apps will always play the roles they play today. That websites will never reach beyond their current niche, except maybe into apps.

These assumptions are all unsafe. Ebook apps are a young and unformed species. The future of web and app dev is dynamic and changing.

What's more, the publishing industry isn't in charge of this evolution except insofar as it can sabotage ebooks with its misconceptions.

Yes, I know. I’m way too verbose for Twitter. But, despite my verbiage, I got a question about the research bit from @eoinnoble:

point me to this research of which you speak!

This wouldn’t fit in a tweet so here goes (pretty much all of the following references were originally via Kathy Sierra).

In terms of learning and expertise The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance provides a decent coverage of current research. Or, if you want a more high-level overview The Talent Code does a decent job once you get past its Gladwellisms.

Also related is The Oxford Handbook of Human Motivation (motivation is a huge factor in how we learn and develop skills). Or, again, if you want a more high-level overview, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us does a decent job, again, provided you get past its Gladwellisms.

More important is the entire field of UX and Information Architecture (seriously, just pick any one of the major texts) because an ebook is nothing more than a bundled website that doesn’t control its own navigation or the visual representation of its structure. It is the ebook reading app’s responsibility to expose the book’s marked up information architecture in the UI in a way that helps readers build a cognitive map of the book’s structure, which is essential for memory.

None of our current ebook reading apps do this. iBooks presents us with the title and page numbers as running headers and footers, which is useless. In terms of helping the reader orient themselves in the book’s structure it’s exactly like browsing a website that offers no navigation.

Ebook formats expose landmarks, detailed outlines of the book’s structure, and more through the navigation HTML file and basic metadata. And yet, the makers of ebook reading apps think that hiding all of this information behind pop-up windows or in mystery meat menus in the name of ‘minimalism’ and being ‘distraction-free’ somehow serves the reader.

It doesn’t. A print book embodies a host of structural cues that help people build a cognitive map of its structure. It often complements that by having informative running headers that change depending on which chapter (or even sub-chapter) you are in. Ebook reading apps today respond to the removal of those physical structural cues by actually stripping out the few cues they can still offer (like useful running headers).



…helps exactly nobody. The UI for eink Kindles is even worse as they don’t even have a running header for the title. On iPhones the running header devolves into a couple of words from the title and an ellipsis. This is crap. There is no way for the reader to orient themselves in the ebook’s structure from these UIs. Wayfinding is non-existent. This inhibits learning and navigation, and this is even before we get onto the subject of possibly integrating ideas from research on skills development or motivation.

Unless current ebook reading apps get their act together and fix these issues, all they will be good for is reading novels.

Related: Ebooks and cognitive mapping and Great text transcends nothing

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The Poisoning of Social Media: A Reading List

(Also on tumblr here.)

From What Is Privacy? by danah boyd:

When powerful actors, be they companies or governmental agencies, use the excuse of something being “public” to defend their right to look, they systematically assert control over people in a way that fundamentally disenfranchises them.

From What Is Public? by Anil Dash:

Public is not simply defined. Public is not just what can be viewed by others, but a fragile set of social conventions about what behaviors are acceptable and appropriate. There are people determined to profit from expanding and redefining what’s public, working to treat nearly everything we say or do as a public work they can exploit.

From the post From the Porch to the Street by Frank Chimero:

My feed (full of people I admire) is mostly just a loud, stupid, sad place. Basically: a mirror to the world we made that I don’t want to look into. The common way to refute my complaint is to say that I’m following the wrong people. I think I’m following the right people, I’m just seeing the worst side of them while they’re stuck in an inhospitable environment.


I think for many of us Twitter started as the porch—our space, our friends, with the occasional neighborhood passer-by. As the service grew and we gained followers, we slid across the spectrum of privacy into the street.

From The Evaporative Cooling Effect by Hang:

It occurs when the most high value contributors to a community realize that the community is no longer serving their needs any more and so therefore, leave. When that happens, it drops the general quality of the community down such that the next most high value contributors now find the community underwhelming. Each layer of disappearances slowly reduces the average quality of the group until such a point that you reach the people who are so unskilled-and-unaware of it that they’re unable to tell that they’re part of a mediocre group.

From the end of Big Twitter by Alan Jacobs:

So I’m doing what, it seems to me, many people are doing: I’m getting out of the street. I’ll keep my public account for public uses: it’ll be a place where I can link to posts like this one, or announce any event that’s of general interest. But what I’ve come to call Big Twitter is simply not a place for conversation any more.

From Worked things out with The Wirecutter by Marco Arment:

We allow people access to us 24/7. We’re always in public, constantly checking an anonymous comment box, trying to explain ourselves to everyone, and trying to win unwinnable arguments with strangers who don’t matter in our lives at all.

From On Taking Breaks:

Even though I follow people I like and respect, there’s no way around seeing some of the crap that happens on Twitter. Even if you don’t use Twitter at all, you will have seen articles about people being harrassed and threatened. You will have noticed the pure toxic sludge that pours through the service. (A hypothetical “Dawn of the Idiocracy” prequel would feature Twitter prominently.)

And it’s worse than any blog comments system, because if you use it, anybody can put something in front of your face whether you want it or not.

Social media—communities—are the native form of expression on the net. The first thing people tried to do when they wired a couple of computers together was talk. Our inability to carve out non-commercial semi-public social spaces online is a tragedy that will haunt us for a long while.

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Wobbly Amazon

Breaking my blog silence for a thought

I remember two or three years ago at Frankfurt (I think it was three years ago, but not quite sure) trying to convince people that Amazon’s position wasn’t as strong as the industry thinks.

Of course, everybody disagreed with me back then but I wonder if people would today? There are a lot more people these days who are questioning Amazon from a non-partisan perspective. (Publishing industry folks love to criticise Amazon, but they are also very invested in the idea of Amazon The Invincible Giant.)

My line of reasoning back then was as follows:

Amazon can’t rely on the good graces of the stock market forever. They’ll eventually need to show profit or at least more focused growth. (Focused growth meaning expanding the share of ecommerce over regular commerce instead of trying to compete head on with device companies or publishers, which are sideshows to their core business. Ecommerce has a lot of potential still that Amazon hasn’t tapped.)

When that time comes Amazon will find it difficult to increase their margins because a lot of the factors necessary to do so are out of their control:

  1. They can’t raise prices without inviting competitors. Amazon Web Services was then facing brutal competition and tech companies were and are eyeing ebooks. (On a related note: I had a conversation with a tech company CEO a couple of years ago where he said that switching to AWS from his current “own the servers, run your own data-centre” setup would double his company’s server costs. Which should give you a hint to just how brutal the price was between AWS and its competitors is going to get.)

  2. Lowering the cost of acquiring digital content is hard. Movie and TV studios aren’t afraid of Amazon and have no reason whatsoever to give in to their demands. And, despite what people think, Amazon really needs the big pubs as much as they need it. Titles from big publishers are still responsible for a very substantial chunk of Amazon’s publishing revenue and losing those titles would sink its Kindle business.

  3. Fulfilment, the core cost of AMZ’s non-digital business is fundamentally expensive. It’s hard—and costly—to fully automate. Lowering the costs there requires either legalising slavery (Amazon’s existing labour practices can’t become more hardcore and ruthless while still remaining legal in the western world) or inventing completely new things with the uncertainty and risk that entails.

  4. They don’t own the platforms (iOS and Android) which will hurt them a lot in the long run as Apple’s moves had clearly demonstrated by then.

  5. They can’t fight that with their own platform because no matter what they do, Android and Apple will always have substantial marketshare. They will always remain vulnerable to bullying by platform owners.

  6. The first show of weakness, a demand for a demo of ROI from the market and a failure to deliver, could easily turn into a downward spiral.

Everybody I pitched this line of reasoning to at Frankfurt back then (3 years ago) was utterly unconvinced by this argument. I wonder if the response will be different this time?

I think Amazon is generally a very well run company staffed by very smart people but so are the other major tech companies. They all want to own digital content.

I think the Fire devices, both tablets and the phone, are Hail Mary passes because Amazon can’t see any other way of getting around the hold Google and Apple have over Android and iOS respectively.

The sad fact is that big publishers and Amazon are natural allies. They are both heavily invested in the English language trade publishing industry which is, in my view, a slowly sinking ship: a relic that is facing disintermediation by the web and apps and the communities and connections they enable. Both of their interests would be better served by collaborating on expanding book reading and books in general than by their current incessant adversarial wrestling.

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This week’s must-read post

Clare Reddington has written this here post (based on a talk she did) on some of the things she has learned from leading the Pervasive Media Studio and working at the Watershed.

I could have quoted almost every paragraph but this particular one describes my personal experience with the publishing industry, in a nutshell:

Apart from the ‘can you digital this for me’ requests. Which are many – and often hard to spot. When people ask us to digital things, they mean, can you take our well rounded and existing idea and sprinkle some digital fairydust on it please. They often also mean, I would like change, as long as change looks and feels a lot like what we have done before.

If you work in publishing you really owe it to yourself to read the post and take what she says on board.

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Friends don’t let their friends become authors

Being an Author is a Shit Job

Even if you don’t believe any of the pessimistic reports and anecdotes about author income and even if you do believe all of the overly optimistic ones (hi Hugh ::waves::) being a book author is one of the shittiest jobs in the media industry. And that’s saying something, since sleaze and exploitation is the rule rather than the exception in media.

It’s certainly one of the shittiest professions you can have working on a computer. Even administrative assistants have better career prospects.

The problem isn’t with the tasks that make up the job. As is common with media industry professions, the tasks themselves are kind of awesome and rewarding. But, as a career, becoming an author is about as sensible as spending your life sitting outside an off-license begging people to buy you a lottery ticket.

Sure, if enough people do it, one of the beggars is bound to win the lottery, but the rest will only become masters at managing their humiliation with cheap hootch.

What’s worse, the ones that win the lottery go around telling everybody that anybody can do it if they work hard and are patient enough. That song and dance is a complete and utter deception—it’s manifestly untrue—and the other beggars know it, but that knowledge somehow never manages to remove their nagging self-doubt, does it?

“What am I doing wrong?”

“What is wrong with me?”

“Am I begging the wrong people?”

Being an author is being a freelancer who doesn’t charge based on the work involved; a freelancer who accepts payments based on rules and schedules defined solely by the buyer, rules that are based on their accounting and which the freelancer has little recourse to double-check; a freelancer who subsists on a fraction of minimum wage and a host of day jobs; and it’s being a freelancer who is bound by contracts that last their lifetime plus the lifetime of their children (or until a specific set of requirements have been met that, requirements that are set and monitored exclusively by the employer).

If the author is from the States, they probably have health insurance problems and no realistic retirement plans beyond “keep on working until my fingers fall off”.

It is a manifestly horrible career path.

Adding self-publishing into the mix improves the picture somewhat, but it also removes the support system. It replaces publisher whims and demands with Amazon whims and demands.

And, unless they’re writing for a professional audience who will pay good money for information on how to solve problems, achieving success remains largely a lottery. Only this time you have the added humiliation of a chorus of self-publishing punditry saying in no uncertain terms that anybody with half a brain can make a living self-publishing and only a moron or a lazy person would fail.

“I must be so stupid.”

Getting self-publishing right is hard—much harder than just being a freelancer. To survive at freelancing you can get away with either a lot of expertise and a little hustle, or a little expertise and a lot of hustle.

Self-publishing requires skills in management (all that freelance help you need to hire), product development, and marketing.

That’s in addition to the usual amount of expertise and hustle a freelancer needs.

It’s a shit job that’s only getting more intimidating and a lot of people who would have otherwise become good authors are going to opt out.

—Good riddance! There’s an over-supply of authors anyway.

Actually, no. There’s a shortage of authors who work and behave professionally. (Whether they actually are professional authors is irrelevant at this point given how few of them actually make a living writing.)

And there’s a massive shortage of authors who work and behave professionally, write well, tell good stories, deliver on time, and are marketable.

My point is that the people most likely to become that—become competent, professional, and successful new authors—are also the people most likely to drop the idea of authorship as a career or even a sideline. If they have the mindset required to pursue a creative career in a professional manner then they have alternatives that are, at the very least, less shitty. Even if that fails, they are likely to become good at whatever they have chosen to do instead and find it rewarding enough as far as jobs go. And they always have the option of just posting their stuff for free on the web if they want to pursue writing as a passion.

The professionally-minded authors who do succeed are either the insanely stubborn or those who lucked out before they gave up.

And my guess is that, increasingly, good storytellers are not going to even try.

The consequences of this dynamic are already obvious within the publishing industry.

What happens when publishers have convinced the world that being an author is an identity and not a profession—that it isn’t something you should expect to make a living doing?

What happens when the only real benefit to being traditionally published is transitory exposure and a momentary surge in attention? (Unless you are one of the lucky few, of course.)

What happens when the most important attribute of authorship is being an author, not telling good stories or serving the reader?

Narcissists happen, that’s what.

And the thing about narcissists is, as anybody who has ever been in a relationship with one can attest to, if they have decided that you are vital to their self-identity, nothing will get rid of them. The word ‘stubborn’ is inadequate to describe narcissists caught up in their identity performance. The phrase “crazy-arse stalker” is closer to the mark.

That oversupply of authors? An army of narcissists performing the one act play “I’m An Important Author” in a hellish Sisyphean loop.

Granted, some of them have chosen the play “I’m Big-Time Self-Published Author, Here’s How You Can Be One Too—Unless You’re A Moron” instead. It’s a little bit more shouty and foamy at the mouth but it belongs to the same exciting genre of “Me, Me, Me, All the Time” as the other one.

These are the people that dominate the discourse, flood the slush piles, and fill Amazon’s Kindle section. They have no regard for the reader (but, oh, don’t they like to talk and perform as if they do, they love reader attention and think they deserve it) all that matters is the performance.

They don’t care about anybody, not even themselves, because if they had any true self-respect, they wouldn’t be narcissists.

Being an Author is an Incredibly Rewarding Vocation

People don’t stop writing just because they don’t make it as professional authors. They never have stopped. They just stop playing your game. People who like writing but aren’t interested in turning it into a career don’t need an industry at all. They don’t need publishers. They don’t need editors. They don’t need cover designers. They don’t need Amazon, Kobo, or Nook. They don’t need your self-publishing startup. They don’t need to sell or buy publishing services or tools. All they need is a community.

And community is the thing that the web offers in spades.

It worries me that the idea that authorship should be a viable career is a controversial one. More than once I’ve heard people in publishing refer to the idea of paying authors more as ‘charity’. It worries me how difficult things are for many established authors.

It’s hard for me to see how the longterm result of de-professionalising authorship can be anything other than an industry in terminal decline.

Maybe it’ll stay the course and just stagnate. Maybe it’ll do just fine. Working in publishing will be a lot less fun, though, unless you enjoy tackling narcissists and prima donnas on a semi-daily basis.

Writing and storytelling will do just fine. There might well be less of the good stuff around. Or, there might not. I have no idea what the future holds. I just know that I’m tired of the narcissistic bloviations that dominate publishing industry discourse.

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Both at the same time

I shouldn’t have to say this before but it obviously needs saying.

Everybody speaks as if only one thing—the thing they want to be true—can be true at a time.

Fucking morons.

Large publishers can be giant evil amoral multinationals. And they can be ankle-biting fucking lapdogs compared to Amazon at the same time.

Self-publishing can sometimes be a great, empowering thing for authors. And it can sometimes be a huge, crippling mistake that dead-ends their career. Both at the same time.

Big publishers can be vital in building the careers of writers who never would have had a chance otherwise. And big publishers can be exploitative and ruthless. Both at the same time.

Publishers can be incredibly useful to an author. And they can be cheating evil bastards who ruin authors. Both at the same time.

Agents can be an institution vital to the survival of many existing authors. And they can be an institution that habitually fucks authors over. Both at the same time.

Amazon can be a company that has done incredible things in terms of access, reach, and distribution for authors, readers, and publishing. And they can be a greedy, self-centred, amoral, ruthless, bullying, and dangerous multinational with so much power that it redefines the very concept of moral hazard.

Both at the same time.

Almost every time you are asked to pick a side, where seemingly the fate of the world resides on which out of two opposing utterly unlikeable bastards you choose, it turns out you can choose both or neither.

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So I had to make an ebook cover…

Making ebook covers is a relatively new task for designers and there haven’t exactly been many lengthy discussions on the topic. If there were any lengthy discussions I completely missed them which is entirely unsurprising. (I was probably too busy watching videos on Youtube of dogs running into walls and cats falling off furniture.)

I didn’t think of googling “how to make an ebook cover” until last week and my first advice is don’t buy a book about designing ebook covers if the book in question has an ugly cover. It’s just good sense. Otherwise googling ebook covers is good fun and I highly recommend it.

The first thing to keep in mind when making an ebook cover is that it has to look good both when it’s big and when it’s small. It seems quite obvious but you’d be surprised.

Cowardly Lion

Small cover

Hungry Tiger

Big cover

So to me simplicity is the key which is great since simplicity is kinda what I like anyway. It’s easy to lose yourself in minute details when putting something together in Photoshop with it’s handy zoom tool. It often seems like the designer tried to squeeze as many textures, frames, layers and squiggly bits as possible on the cover. A lot of the time it seems too much detail for a little paperback let alone an ebook. So what I like to do is look at book covers made before the age of Photoshop and the zoom tool. Like way before…

Now I went through a lot of effort finding this book, “The Art of American Book Covers”, in my book shelves to get some nice examples for you guys (which is no easy feat since I got the brilliant idea of arranging my books by colour. My book shelves look like a rainbow now but finding stuff is a pain in the butt.)

boat poems doggy      lighthouse    daybreak

These covers (which are dated 1904, 1903, 1904, 1886, 1915) are much more minimalistic and often better suited for ebooks than many of the modern style covers. Sometimes less is more and so on. Bold colours grab attention. Simple and eye catching is a good theme for an ebook cover so you can also try looking at some vintage advertisements for inspiration. Now I might just be using this as an excuse to post some pictures from my postcard collection (I collect postcards with vintage advertising just so you know) but I digress. I think the often stylised composition and limited colour palette is very suitable for ebook covers.

nylon2 mossbross2 hudson2 lincolnchrysler2

Now the fun thing about doing covers for a series of books is that you can give them a common aesthetic. One suggestion, and my favourite, is taking a picture and cutting it into little pieces for each cover. I think it’s the animator in me. Anything remotely sequential is very exciting.


Look! Sequential drawings. Very exciting.

To me it has endless possibilities. You can take a picture and cut it into two, three, four pieces any which way you like and they can look so lovely sitting next to each other on your screen or shelf or whatever (unless your shelves are colour coded like mine. It can make it a bit difficult.) The downside is you have to actually know how many books will be in the series beforehand. So there’s that.


One picture, four books.


One picture, one book.

So in conclusion: Simplicity! Minimalism!  Yes to late 19. century, early 20. century book covers. Also vintage advertisements. Less zoom in, more zoom out. And cutting pictures into smaller fractions for an ebook series saves time, has the potential of looking quite nice but it’s better to know just how many books will be published beforehand. And do us all a favour and back away from that ebook cover generator.

Hope this was helpful. Peace out.


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So long, Readmill, and thanks for all the fish

I wish it had gone differently. I don’t fault Readmill for selling at this point. They did excellent work.

I’ve previously gone on record about my enthusiasm for their platform. (Which reminds me, I need to do a followup to that post, Kindle for iOS has improved dramatically.) Unlike most other firms designing ebook readers, Readmill understood that all of the typographic variables are interconnected. Unlike others, their defaults were beautiful to read.

It’s kind of hard to imagine it going any differently, though. Most people just don’t like reading in public. Publishers just aren’t that interested in working with startups. Ebook retailers don’t care for supporting competing reading apps. Sometimes a beautiful product just doesn’t make a successful product—it just ends up being a beautiful thing that not enough people want.

As for me, I switched to Marvin a while back, even though I prefer Readmill’s look.


Because the public social reading thing turned me off. I suspect I wasn’t the only one.

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What ebook production problems are self-publishers facing?

Driven by curiosity (as always), I’ve just spend a large part of my lunch break browsing through various forums[1], trying to get a handle on what problems self-publishers are facing when they are creating their ebooks.

My impression is that, unlike what I expected from the work and challenges I face making ebooks for a traditional publisher, styling and formatting isn’t a major issue—formatting problems seem limited to edge cases. I’m assuming this is because most self-publishers are doing novels with very simple style needs.

The problems people seem to be facing, in no particular order:

  • Getting font embedding to work
  • Editing and managing the metadata
  • Editing the book itself:
    • Creating ToCs
    • Getting footnotes to work and look nice
    • Editing typos and making corrections
    • Adding dropcaps (which fortunately has a simple solution[2])
  • Making sure the images embedded are of a correct resolution.
  • Conforming to vendor requirements (mostly making sure there are no links to rival stores)
  • Converting a Word file to a tolerable ebook.

Then there are more general problems that are probably more about library management for readers, such as:

  • Extracting a subset of a book
  • Merging books

What do you think? Is this an accurate reflection of the ebook production problems self-publishers are facing? Are there any major biggies that I’ve missed? Are any of these maybe not so big a problem (i.e. I stumbled upon a newbie thread and regulars think the problem is solved)?

  1. Ebooks @ StackExchange, Mobileread format subforums, kboards.com, KDP Community.  ↩

  2. Just don’t use them. Seriously. They’re ugly, break the word apart, and can’t be done properly on the web or in ebooks.  ↩

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Many stories, many truths

Once upon a time there was a man from Iceland who attended a conference in Canada.

The weather was, by any sane measure, awful. The temperature was borderline arctic. Snow covered everything.

But it reminded him of home.

So filled with nostalgia was he, and so primed by the resemblance to his birth country, which he had left many years earlier, that everything about the conference seemed more positive, more optimistic, and more uplifting than most publishing conferences he’d been to before.

So I went to Booknet Canada’s two day ebookcraft/Tech Forum conference combo. Did a talk.

Saw a bunch of talks I really liked. The Safari crowd especially did a good job, both Pablo Defendini’s one on digital comics and Liza Daly’s on markup quality in ebooks. Got a lot of thoughts on Pablo’s which I’ll write up whenever I get around to it.

Once upon a time there was a man from Bristol who whose health began to deteriorate. Breathing became more difficult. Sleep became next to impossible. Over two years nobody could figure out exactly what was going on and life became progressively more difficult.

Then he was discovered that construction work next door had caused the plumbing in his house to spring a leak resulting in a persistent colony of toxic mould. After moving to a house free of toxic mould and ditching some of the old furniture, he recovered completely.

Less than three months later, he attended a conference in Canada—the first conference since his escape from toxic mould. Well slept for the first time in two years, he saw this conference in a more positive light than any of the other publishing conferences he had been to before.

The talk I did was on social media. Not about social media analytics or social media marketing or any other stupid, fact-free bullshit like that.

The talk was about the joys of actually doing research into a problem before deciding how to tackle it, using the popular subject of social media as an excuse to stand up in front of hundreds of people and tell them most of their executives are greedy, destructive, and ignorant.

They took it rather well.

Once upon a time there was a country called Canada. Like its next door neighbour it had a large and dominant ebook retailer that had grown out of its book retail industry.

Unlike the rest of the world, its ebook industry wasn’t completely dominated by the big firm from its next door neighbour.

Then an Icelander came to visit. Having only experienced book markets who were completely and utterly dominated by the U.S. firm, he found attitudes in Canada to be friendlier and more productive than he’d experienced at other publishing conferences. Less time was spent on negative bullshit. Fear didn’t dominate publisher rhetoric. Even those visiting like him seemed to take a more positive outlook during their stay, preferring humour over fear.

Most of the advice out there on how to use social media to sell something is creepy and evil, and it is so in destructive and counter-productive ways. What’s worse, the very premise of the idea—infiltrating people’s communities as a shill with a mercenary product-selling motive—is fundamentally dishonest.

Those are not tactics you use if you see others as autonomous, sentient, self-aware, and feeling beings.

Once upon a time, an Icelander attended a book conference in Toronto, the home of an innovative powerhouse startup in publishing that democratised reading and writing in new ways.

Like a singularity bending time and space, this startup had distorted the publishing industry around it.

Through interacting with this new and alien entity, Toronto publishing people began to take a new outlook on the industry that was more forward looking and hopeful than those outside of the startup’s sphere of influence.

All of the above stories are true. Every one presents a series of facts pulled from real life.

One of the problems with most writing about research—posts, articles, and books that tell you the world is this way or that way and that this is caused by that—is that the world could well be this way and that way and neither being the cause of the other.

All of the stories can be true. All of the variables described can be interacting in the system in all of the ways narrated. Isolating something from the system removes it from the context that makes it work. It becomes inert, dysfunctional, and untestable.

In other words, almost everything you read is a story and none of them are true, especially the ones based on real facts and research. A story presupposes a single cause and a single effect and all too frequently they get them the wrong way around. It narrates a continuity of causation that presupposes perfect knowledge of the world. A story fabricates its own evidence for the singular truth it is promoting.

Which is cause and which is effect?

—Stephen Fry sells a lot of books because he has a lot of Twitter followers.


—Stephen Fry has a lot of Twitter followers because his work is popular and in demand.

A frightening number of articles and books that claim to be explaining how the world ‘really’ is, make the mistake of switching cause and effect, presenting a misbegotten jumble of ‘truthy’ facts as an ordered progression from cause and effect.

A story is a demand by a writer that you take their worldview as truth. It is a performance of what they want to believe is true, however subconsciously that desire may be.

There are exceptions. The novel structure is capable of presenting a multiplicity of voices, all interacting and interdependent, but nevertheless capable of presenting their own truths. You can write a ‘novel’ that isn’t a novel and a non-fiction book that is a novel.

If you want to present something that has the same truth dynamic as real life, you have to write something that is structured differently from regular blog posts, articles, essays, or stories.

Stories that sound true are almost always false. Especially the ones you want to believe. Stories converge on single ‘truths’. Reality is messy and divergent.

I went to Canada. Canadians are nice. We had fun.

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