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The Discerning Author

Think about the potential downsides of writing that book before you haphazardly sign that contract.
Jan | 3 | 2024
  Jan | 3 | 2024
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BY Phil Simon
  Phil Simon

The Discerning Author

Think about the potential downsides of writing that book before you haphazardly sign that contract.
Phil Simon
Jan | 3 | 2024

The Discerning Author

TL;DR: Think about the potential downsides of writing that book before you haphazardly sign that contract.
Phil Simon
Jan | 3 | 2024
 

Even a college sophomore should know that economics is the study of scarcity. When a country, firm, department, or team chooses to accomplish X, by definition, it opts to forgo Y and Z.

Make no mistake: The same axiom applies to authors. Choices matter, and authors should be discerning. In this post, I’ll discuss two opportunities on which I passed in 2023, why I did so, and what you can learn from my decisions.

Opportunities in the Twitter Chaos

Soon after the acquisition closed, Elon Musk began dismantling Twitter and concurrently pissing off developers, advertisers, users, employees, and even San Francisco residents. More than a few tech companies smelled opportunity. Meta launched Reels, and Substack added Notes.

For its part, Mastodon and its community tried to usher in an era of decentralized social media. Early in 2023, my agent approached me about penning Mastodon For Dummies.

I thought about it over the course of a few days and spoke to a few trusted friends. I thanked my agent for the offer but ultimately declined.

Two reasons drove my thinking. First, I doubted that Mastodon could sustain its initial buzz and user growth. I was right, and color me amazed if the number of users doesn’t positively correlate with book sales. (Judging by the paltry number of Amazon reviews for Mastodon For Dummies, it didn’t exactly sell like hotcakes.) Second, I didn’t—and still don’t—see how any author can write a comprehensive guide about a tech product these days.1

Hopping on the AI Train

Later in the year, it became evident that generative AI tools like ChatGPT were hardly flashes in the pan. Against this backdrop, my agent broached the idea of writing Writing AI Prompts For Dummies. Again, I thought about it for a few days and reviewed the publisher’s offer before politely turning it down.

To be sure, artificial intelligence is already permeating just about every system and program. Think of it as the Paste, Copy, or Save feature in your app. By the end of the year, I’d be shocked if [insert name of tool] doesn’t let you do cool things via AI.

How any author can write a comprehensive guide about a tech product these days?

To boot, the publisher’s offer was fair, but that only checked one box. Fortunately, the acquisitions editor wanted to expedite the book’s publication—another good sign.

Still, something just didn’t sit right with me. AI is changing by the day. Will user prompts endure or be a flash in the pan?

Doing the Research

As AI whiz and future author Ethan Mollick writes on his popular Substack, One Useful Thing:

Being “good at prompting” is a temporary state of affairs. The current AI systems are already very good at figuring out your intent, and they are getting better. Prompting is not going to be that important for that much longer. In fact, it already isn’t in GPT-4 and Bing. If you want to do something with AI, just ask it to help you do the thing. “I want to write a novel, what do you need to know to help me?” will get you surprisingly far.

Mollick knows far more about the current state of prompts than I do, but let’s ignore that fact for a moment. Say that I could pen a decent guide on how to ask Bard. Claude 2, or Genesis to generate text, code, or photos. AI is evolving at a downright dizzying pace these days. Some relevant book-related questions include:

  • Is full-length text the right vehicle to convey knowledge about this subject? Would a course or even a LinkedIn post in the end prove the most effective delivery mechanism?
  • Assuming that a proper book is the way to go, will there be a good product-market fit with a For Dummies title?
  • Could I–or any author, for that matter—be even remotely certain that the words and chapters written in November 2023 will remain relevant in May 2024 when the book drops, much less beyond that?
  • Beyond the issue of Mollick’s burning plank, what would be my opportunity cost of devoting six months or more to writing a book with a decidedly limited shelf life? I would probably need to kiss a few ghostwriting projects goodbye.
  • Finally, have I effectively branded myself as an AI expert? Mollick sure has, but AI is only one of the topics in my new book The Nine.

You will lack complete information, but be honest with yourself.

The Blurring Lines Between Publishing Methods

Simon Says

The idea that a traditional publisher might want you to write a book might seem too appealing to turn down, especially if you’re new to the game. Make whatever writing decisions you like.

Here’s some unsolicited advice: Think about the potential downsides of writing that book before haphazardly signing the contract.

Feedback

What say you?

Footnotes

  1. How Zoom For Dummies still sells 100 copies per month absolutely mystifies me.

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