Hugh McGuire

publishing, technology, media, philosophy, a bit of politics.

On Writing Clearly

Semi-regularly, mostly as a reminder to myself, I post George Orwell’s six rules of good writing, from his 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language. I was spurred to post them again after reading Tony Judt’s essay Words* in the NYR Blog. (As an aside, I had an interesting discussion with Alexande Enkerli, who suggests that the particular mania about clarity and concision in writing is not culturally universal, and is, indeed, particularly, or especially, Anglo-Saxon. Which sounds about right).

Here are Orwell’s six rules; rules I try to respect:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

(*Says Judt: “Though I am now more sympathetic to those constrained to silence I remain contemptuous of garbled language. No longer free to exercise it myself, I appreciate more than ever how vital communication is to the republic: not just the means by which we live together but part of what living together means.”)

Trying out posterous

I’m finally testing out posterous:

How do you like it?

Sifting Through the Books

I have a post up over at O’Reilly’s Tools of Change blog, Sifting through all these books:

…We have a massive and growing supply and demand imbalance in the book business. And, as the technologies for creating and distributing books becomes trivial, the supply of books is just going to keep growing exponentially. There is a whole other article to write about the business implications of these numbers, but I’m interested here in some ideas about how our info systems might manage this huge pile of books. That is, how are people going to sift through all these books to find what they want?…


Death to Design? Death to the Banner Ad?

We are getting to a point where all data – web sites, books – are accessible as raw, structured datasets, to a point when we users can/and will do as we wish with the outputs. This is the case with web sites now. You can force your browser to display things in a particular way. Or, you can do as I do: install the Readability bookmarklet – which strips all the junk off a web page, and gives you text on white, easy to read. Apple’s Safari browser just implemented a similar feature, based on the Readability code. You can also use Instapaper, which downloads the text from a page to your iPhone, and displays it, again, in a simple format – black text, white screen – that’s easy to read.

I rarely read anything on the web without using either of these tools, because both provide the best reading experience. This is going to become the norm for all kinds of reading: someone gives you the text, and you decide how you want to read it.

UPDATE: Matt just pointed me to Today’s Guardian – a simple display of all Guardian articles on any day, built by Phil Gyford, using the Guardian’s (revolutionary) Open Platform API.

Sample inline advertising: Buy Hendel’s On Book Design from Amazon

What’s happening here is that “design” is starting to fall away as a responsibility of the producer/distributor of texts. Their role is becoming more as a provider of an API to access the data. And then on the *other* end the reader is starting to choose the tools that deliver a design they like, how they want to consume that content.

Among other things, this should *kill* banner advertising. It will also obviate lots of book design.

Danny Sullivan, of Search Engine Land, has taken issue with Readability – or at least the way it was described by Rich Ziade on the Arc90 blog. Says Danny, in Readability’s comment thread:

I have ads because they help support the quality journalism my blog provides. I have related links because, news flash, sometimes readers like to read related material.

If we’re talking about due respect, here’s the “harsh reality” for those readers who want to be left alone. Ads pay for what you read. Since most readers don’t want to pay for subscriptions — don’t even make voluntary donations when asked — those ads underwrite content that they consume.

Now this is kind of interesting. Danny is a seasoned, and savvy web/media commentator, part of a web-native industry that tends to criticize mainstream media for trying to defend dying business models in the face of consumer choice and technology.

And here it looks like Danny, of the web, is defending a business model in the face of consumer choice and technology.

I don’t begrudge Danny at all – as a business owner, when you see a technology that might kill a major revenue stream (eg. banner ads), certainly you’ll get nervous.

So, are banner ads dead? I for one hope so. I hate them, and they get in the way of what I want to do: read.

But, what am I willing to pay in exchange for no banners? How am I willing to pay it? It’s not clear to me. I do know that I click on one banner ad in perhaps a gazillion impressions, so I’m not a consumer that’s generating any value for banner ads either. When I read your stuff, your banner ads bug me, and I sure as hell don’t buy anything from them. So what’s the point in having them there when I read your stuff? I’d say, there isn’t much.

But I also don’t know the alternative. I do know that asking me not to read comfortably is likely to work as well as asking my friend Tom not to watch television on TVShack.

Stuff for Your Mac

I had lunch with Mitch today; he’s a new convert to Mac. He asked for some suggestions of software that I love, so I sent him this list (that leaves out a few obvious ones that he’s already using – eg Skitch):

1password: encrypted password manager, changed my life … have not got it working on my iphone tho :/

Jumpcut: clipboard buffer, lets you copy lots of things to your clipboard, and paste just the things you want.

Dropbox: all my files get backed up here, synced on all machines, incl iphone … peace of mind. (I also back-up my 1password database there).

Grand Perspective: shows you what’s on your hard drive.

Handbrake: for putting DVDs in usable digital format (eg. mp4).

Things: an excellent/simple to-do manager, syncs w iphone.

Also, just one other thing that makes life amazing, is the QuickDrag plugin for Firefox, which lets you just click & “fling” a link to open it in another tab.

Four Reasons to Worry about Publishing

I was invited to do a panel on Social Media for Authors at the Writers’ Union of Canada AGM. Writer Nichole McGill was the moderator, and I was joined by the wonderful Jenny Bullough, of the visionary publishing house Harlequin. (Harlequin is the most clued-in about digital of all the publishers I know of, along with O’Reilly).

As we discussed how things would play out, it was decided that I would be the prophet of doom – describing why everything has changed, and no writer can afford to ignore the web; while Jenny would follow-up with a concrete overview of the things writers should be doing on the web.

My – minimalist – slides are below, and I’ll give a tiny bit of context below that.

Here are my Four Reasons to Be Worried, and One Reason to Be Optimistic about Publishing:

Worry number one:
There are so many damn books published every year.

[Context: from 2002, number of titles published in the USA has stayed roughly constant, oscillating between 250,000 and 280,000. Which is an astramoical number of books. But in that period, a couple of things have happened: works of “literature” have increased from ~6,000 titles to roughly 9,000 titles, without any detectable increase in readership of literature. Secondly, the number of print-on-demand, self-published books was on the order of 25,000 in 2002. By 2008 that number was 285,000 – outstripping the number of traditionally-published books. In 2009, the number of self-published titles reached an astonishing 750,000; so there were more than 1 million books published in the USA in 2009. And that’s ignoring all the stuff published without ISBNs.

Compared to the rest of the world, I am a relatively heavy reader: I read perhaps 25 books a year. So there are at least 999,975 books published every year that I don’t read. There is a massive glut of books for people to read, and your book is one in a million.]

Worry number two:
Publishers can’t support all those damn books.

[Context: most publishers have tried to address this glut in supply by doing something counterintuitive: they’ve started publishing more books. Publishing is a lottery business: most books don’t break even, and a tiny percentage are the big hits (Harry Potter) that actually finance the industry. No one really knows what the next big hit is, so the theory goes: if you double the number of books you are publishing, you double your chances of having a big hit.

But even if publishers are not publishing more books, they aren’t swimming in cash either. Most writers think they are being neglected by their publishers, but the truth is everyone I know in publishing tells me that with the web etc. they have to work twice as hard as they used to, but they are still selling the same number of books.

Whether there are villains or heroes, I don’t know, but I do know this: publishers have less time than they used to for editorial and marketing, except for a tiny handful of successful authors. Most writers are not in that tiny handful; and the tiny handful might not have to worry about the web all that much. The rest of us do.]

Worry number three:
Readers don’t have any damn time to read books anymore.

[Context: It used to be that books competed against radio, TV, bridge and cocktail parties, baseball and square-dances. Now they compete against all that, plus Youtube and Twitter, and the blogs, and Facebook and World of Warcraft and Chatroulette, and Xbox, and Wii, and and and… The competition for readers’ leisure time is fierce, and writers and publishers need to do everything they can to make sure that readers will choose to read when they have a choice.]

Worry number four:
Prices are collapsing. Damn.

[Context: There will be lots of debates about ebook pricing and cost structures and hardcover sales and Amazon and 9.99 and all the rest. The debates will rage on with different theories about how much a book should cost, where the costs are (advances and editorial and marketing), and where they aren’t (printing and distribution). But in the end, readers don’t care about any of that: they will vote with their walltes. If you can spend $8.99/month for unlimited movie downloads from Netflix — in the US — then spending $27.99 on a hardcover of a book you aren’t sure you’re going to like starts to seem a bit dear. Not to mention the quadrupling of the number of available books, and the plentiful ways you can spend your time without paying a cent online, or elsewhere.

The price of most books will drop, because books are “leisure time items” and we have a massive massive glut of leisure time choices. The pressures will be different in different sectors of the publishing business, but the short, medium and long-term trend is this: down.

No matter what you think the value of books, or literature, or your writing, you cannot fight against physics, and when you have a glut of supply, prices drop.]

Reasons for optimism, numbers one two and three:
There are more people writing and more people reading than ever before and you can reach all of them on the web.

[Context: And, after all this bad news, here is the good news: there are more readers, and more writers than ever before in the history of the universe. People who love books love them as dearly as ever. And the web gives every author the ability to connect with those readers, with other writers, with the people who love what they do in ways that were unimaginable just a few years ago. The business side of all this will evolve, but we are about to enter a golden age of writing — perhaps we are already there — and that is something to celebrate].

Best books about the digital, the web & culture?

I’m doing a little informal survey. I’d like to know what you think are the three most important books about the web, the digital, and its cultural implications. These could be books about technology, about sociology, about philosophy; but generally books that have helped, and will continue to help us navigate the future as it becomes increasingly digital.

That is, what three books have you read about computers and culture that have stood the test of time, and deserve to be read, or reread again?

I’ll get the ball rolling, with three that have had a profound impact on my thinking:
* Wealth of Networks, by Yochai Benkler
* Free Culture, by Lawrence Lessig
* Programming the Uviverse, by Seth Lloyd

If you have suggestions, why not post comments here, or Tweet with the hashtag: #digitalculturebooks.

An Open, Webby Book-Publishing Platform, Based on WordPress

Ever since Book Oven shifted focus in November 2009 to Bite-Size Edits, I have been wanting to write about one of the major reasons for the shift: my realization that:
a) the world needs an open book-publishing platform
b) rather than building from scratch at Book Oven, we should have started with WordPress, and built atop it.

I just published my thoughts about this on O’Reilly’s Tools of Change for Publishing blog. The key points are:

The key insights behind Book Oven were the following:

* publishing a book is (almost always) a collaborative enterprise
* online tools (should) make collaboration on making books easy(er)
* if you build a “book” in the cloud, using structured mark-up, then expression of that book in various forms (print, epub, pdf, mobipocket, html, etc), on various devices (including paper & print) becomes arbitrary, and should be nearly trivial
* further, if the “book” exists in the cloud, then the range of things that can be done with this “book” multiplies significantly
* if a system built on these ideals is implemented well, it will be transformative, both for professional publishing workflows, and for the emergence of a new grassroots of indie publishing.

I am still deeply committed to this vision. But I have shifted towards a belief that the above-described platform should be open source. Or at least, an open source version of such should exist.


WordPress, it seems, is an ideal candidate as a platform on which to build an open source, online, webby, book-publishing system. There may be other likely candidates, but WordPress has the following characteristic which suggest to me that it is an excellent place to start:

* it is a familiar and comfortable tool to most writers and publishers who are at all engaged online
* it is a stable platform that can handle just about any scale of traffic you can throw at it (the New York Times, for instance, runs on a heavily-hacked version of WordPress)
* it is open source
* through its plugin architecture, it is infinitely extensible
* through its template architecture, it is infinitely stylable
* through WordPress Mu, it isinfinitely scalable it has a huge, world-wide community of committed developers
* existing plugins and plugin suites already achieve much of what would bewanted in a WordPress-based book publishing system.

And elaborating more fully, here is a list of plugins such a system would need:

1. robust version control
2. (based on the old commentpress)- to allow para by para commenting for editors, and later, if desired, for readers
3. wordpress –> epub conversion
4. wordpress –> ~LaTeX –> print-ready pdf conversion (or similar)
5. wordpress –> InDesign-compliant mark-up conversion
6. book-friendly front-end template(s) (including Table of Contents, Title page etc)
7. generation of a download/(sales?) page that lists available formats (epub, html, pdf etc)
8. table of contents generator
9. a book metadata generation/management tool (ONYX, OPDS compliant?)
10. …etc.

This list of plugins can continue, subject to the interest of developers, and the needs of users of such a system.

You can read the whole thing here.

And props to John Maxwell and his students at the Simon Fraser Masters of Publishing Program for actually building a protoype and publishing a book with it. Also, do head over to and see another implementation of something similar.


Sonar from Renaud Hallée on Vimeo.

[Via badlin]

Thought: the Internet and Books

I just posted this to Twitter, but I think it might be important enough to commit in the hard stone of a blog. And the thought is the following:

The distinction between “the internet” & “books” is totally totally arbitrary, and will disappear in 5 years. Start adjusting now.