Some books I’ve read recently

Some books I’ve read lately, in approximate reverse chronological order:

Starlet, Robert B. Parker – 4 out of 5 stars My favorite Spenser novel so far. Again, a slow start builds to a thrilling, surprising, and organic conclusion. The fun of Spenser, combined with the constant literarly jabs, plus a usable plot make this an outstanding read. I’m reading two more Spenser books right now.

The Widening Gyre, Robert B. Parker 3 1/2 out of 5 stars A short Spenser novel, but a good one. Like the Flynn series, Parker seems to trust the reader enough to not focus obsessively on giant plot/set pieces- instead, we get to keep our focus on Spenser, which can be most enjoyable, if at times static.

Thin Air, Robert B. Parker – 3 1/2 out of 5 stars My first introduction to the Spenser series of mystery novels and my first experience with Parker. At first I started off groaning at the dialog but once it got going- and it took a bit- I was captivated by the thorough investment in the character and enjoyed the contrast of the apparent cliche of the character with the countless clever references. By the end, I had lodged several similarities between Parker and McDonald, though Parker’s Spenser and McDonald’s Flynn are nearly polar opposites.

Flynn’s In, Gregory McDonald 3 1/2 out of 5 stars The original Flynn book. A midly interesting plot, but Flynn and his pal Cokie shine as uniques in a world of corruption. Worth the read, for sure.

Flynn’s World, Gregory McDonald 3 1/2 out of 5 stars A newer Flynn book- and a good one. Once again, the character crackles while the story feels limp and almost pointless. Still though- great character.

Digital Fortress, Dan Brown – 3 out of 5 stars Slightly better than Deception Point, but still long and exhausting near the end, this book foreshadowed Brown’s action+conspiracy+gadget template but didn’t reach the heights of DaVinci.

Confess, Fletch, Gregory McDonald 4 1/2 out of 5 stars A most unknown and underrated Fletch book- my favorite of the series.

Fletch, Gregory McDonald 4 out of 5 stars An unmissable classic of the detective genre. Harder, sharper, and much more dramatic than the (classic) movie, this is how it’s done.

Deception Point, Dan Brown 2 1/2 out of 5 stars Brown’s most movie-like, least interesting book.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Arthur C. Doyle

If you visited Google today, you may have noticed the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle logo.

Doyle is a personal hero of mine. He would have been 147 today. Besides the obvious- he’s the greatest mystery writer to ever live, and the inventor of the true modern mystery novel (forget Poe)- Doyle also led an amazing real life. His own detective work freed two innocent men, he introduced skiing to Switzerland, he was a devoted husband and friend, a doctor, and he was known across two continents as an adventurer and storyteller. And oh yeah, he was a knight.

Google logo

Besides the obvious- The Complete Works of Sherlock Holmes, which are among the most thrilling, enjoyable, and literary works ever published- I highly recommend The True Crime Files of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which tells the true story of Doyle’s work to free two innocent men accused of horrible crimes.

Notes from the week

Eeek! I’ve been away for over a week (rhyme not intended). Here are some of the things I’ve been up to since I’ve been gone:

* On Sunday, three years to the day of the launch of Moorelies.com, I re-launched by TV/Video/DVD blog, Network Landscape. Check it out, and if you’re interested in covering online video, TV, and etc., drop me a line.

* I added some photos to Flickr today, including two of the bookshelves in our office. I tagged them with the showyourbookshelves tag so if anybody wants to join in that or whatever, go on. I think it would be fun to browse what folks have on their shelves.

* We’re finally, hopefully, cancelling Adelphia cable in favor of DishTV (Any DishTV subscribers out there, feel free to leave pro/con comments or emails).

* Upcoming Summer Watch: We’ve grilled out once, cut down a couple of errant branches, and played badminton at work twice. Yardwork to come.

37Signals’ ‘Getting Real’ sets a bad precedent for self-publishing

Wildly popular software firm 37Signals is earning much press– predictably, some of the nicest is their own ;)- for the success of their latest book, Getting Real. If you haven’t heard, Real is a book on project management, software development, and business tips for the Web 2.0 era.

To their credit, the self-publishing model has allowed them to earn over $120,000 in profit by selling just ~6,000 copies of their book. For those who don’t know, that’s a pretty big deal, as most authors earn 8-15% royalties from their books, meaning that 6,000 copies sold is often either a failure or a moderate break-even for those choosing the traditional publishing route.

Although the firm deserves credit for their risk, I’m bothered by a precedent they’re setting. During the checkout process for the book (which I can’t link to thanks to their Ajax-ified site), they ask that buyers check a box agreeing to the following statement:

I understand I’m purchasing a single copy of book for myself and I won’t make copies of the book or distribute it to anyone else.

Think about that for a second: despite the fact that it’s in digital format, we are still talking about a book here. A book that- don’t forget, it’s in electronic format, meaning it’s nothing but a file- will cost you an already hefty $19 to own. That price ticks up a bit if you choose to print it, using your own paper and ink in the process (two things that are typically included in the price of a book). Now, they’re asking- ne, making me agree- not to distribute it?

They’re obviously reacting to the nature of the distribution platform; in this case the conventional wisdom is that a file is much easier to share than a physical book. But how much easier? Is it really so hard for me to carry a lightweight book to a friend’s house? Or to sell it or swap it on one of the innumerable auction/discount/trader sites out there on the web?

Sure, it may be more difficult than emailing a file. But imagine if every book you ever purchased came with a note that said “You must not distribute this book to anyone else.” Wouldn’t that be, oh I don’t know, laughable? How far would that kind of edict stand when discovered by intellectual property activists such as the fine folks at Creative Commons?

I’m not suggesting that 37Signals- or any author or self-publisher- should give away their product: far from it. As a published author, I’m keenly aware of the instinct to receive compensation in exchange for my efforts. However, it seems to me that there are two sides of the fence to come down on, and 37Signals has perhaps come down on the wrong one here.

Am I wrong, or is one of the advantages of selling your product on the web the fact that you can encourage distribution, sharing, linking, and via those factors employ your readers and buyers as evangelists, marketers, booksellers? Doesn’t it show more confidence in your product if you give more books away, not force your readers and buyers to watch over your property with little or no stake in it themselves?

That was the conclusion, but I won’t go away without offering some positive suggestions for altering their policy. Here goes:

* Lower the price. Guys, drop the price to $9.99. Let’s be honest here- some (read: lots) of the cost of publishing goes into, you know, printing and shipping the books: two big factors you’ve wisely avoided. So skip the vanity price in favor of one that will appeal to a wider audience and pass the savings onto your adoring fans. They may just thank you for it.

* Ease the draconian sharing restriction. Instead of telling buyers that they “won’t make copies of the book or distribute it to anyone else”, I suggest they re-phrase their agreement this way:

– Please do not distribute electronic copies of this book
– If you love the book and want to share it, please print a copy and share that. Then encourage others to do the same.

* Share the love. Send out 20-30 printed, bound copies of the book to bloggers, software developers, etc. Do it on your dime and ask them to consider reading the book and possibly offering their thoughts via their blog or in company meetings, etc. Then encourage them to share those printed copies freely. Guess what? Nobody will. Those 30 or so printed beauties will become like gold-plated trading cards among the tech blogerati, and you’ll get much better press for it in the long run. It would take away 30 guaranteed sales, but it might earn you a few hundred more from folks who may not have known you before.

UPDATE: I changed the spelling of the word “precedent” in this post after reading this rude, snarky comment on this guy’s Flickr photostream. Go, civility! And for those who think the above post is a “rant”, please explain exactly why in the comments. Be careful to define the word “rant” for the purposes of your argument.

Book review: ‘An Army of Davids’ is already marching

“A return to some sort of balance, in which the world looks a bit more like the eighteenth century than the twentieth, is likely to be a good thing.”

So says Glenn Reynolds, perhaps better known as InstaPundit, in the conclusion of his new book, An Army of Davids (view it on Amazon.com).

While that may seem a strange statement to make, you’ll be hard-pressed to disagree with it after reading Reynolds’ brisk, yet thoroughly fascinating treatise on the future of life, from blogging to space colonization.

I’ve been a big admirer of Reynolds blog for a few years, yet I always got the sense that blogging was just one of the Tennessee Law professor’s many hobbies. I think I’ve been proven right, in that quite a few of them- from beer brewing, to music, to an interest in space, nanotechnology, and life extension- are on display in Davids, as Reynolds proves to be a likeable and intelligent guide through some pretty far reaches of technology.

Beginning with the tremendous impact that blogging has wrought on top-down institutions such as government and big media, Reynolds uses the “Army of Davids” metaphor repeatedly to advance his theory that loose, decentralized networks of individuals will be the diriving force behind a multitude of amazing changes taking place over the next 30-50 years. When I say “amazing”, there’s not much hyperbole there- the colonization of space (seriously!) is one such dramatic change that Reynolds hopes will be come about thanks to the power of the individual bypassing the beaurocracy of a government.

Reynolds also describes some trends that, rather than being powered by the “Army”, will instead benefit it: If scientists succeed in slowing or even reversing the aging process, Reynolds argues that the single individual will become even more empowered, leading to a dramatic increase in personal productivity, creativity, and the like. These are just two examples- the singularity, space elevators, and artificial intelligence are also discussed.

If you think the topics of the previous paragraphs are the stuff of science fiction, I might’ve agreed with you just a few days ago. But after finishing Army of Davids, I’m excited to learn more about some things I once thought of as fantasy that Reynolds argues are already well underway.

The book is a quick read- I digested it in just a couple hours- but that is far from an insult. Rather, I suspect Reynolds’ conversational, at times swift-moving prose and frequent long-form quotes are designed to assume the reader’s intelligence, rather than condescend to it. Supplementing the wide variety of subject matter are copious citations, especially helpful when Reynolds cuts broad strokes through his often unfamiliar (to many) subject matter.

On his blog, Reynolds has, on at least two occasions, referenced reviewers who met with confusion as the latter half of the book veered away from blog-related topics and moved into more scientific and even sci-fi-esque territory. Personally, I didn’t have a problem with the book transitioning into trends of the near future. Because Reynolds is perhaps best known as a blogosphere celebrity, I’m guessing some readers expected the book to remain media-centric. However, I’m pleased that Reynolds guided his book away from a pleasing yet tiring re-hash of recent memory and instead took a risk by exposing readers to a some tip-of-the-iceberg stuff that I, for one, would likely have never learned of otherwise.

So if you’re expecting a light read about the impact of blogging, look elsewhere. But if you’re interested in the extension of trends that blogging is only a small part of, you’ll probably learn a great deal- and become pretty excited- about the future that An Army of Davids foretells.

The night before my book came out, Glenn Reynolds linked to it and drove its Amazon rank from around 12,000 down the mid-hundreds. Two days later, his links again propelled the book, this time all the way to #4.

Of course, I can’t return the favor, but the least I can do is link to Reynolds’ new book, An Army of Davids, and encourage you to pre-order it. I haven’t read it yet, but if you’re a fan of Reynolds’ blog- or blogging in general, or free markets, or people-powered media, progress, etc- you’re guaranteed to like Army of Davids.

What I’ve been reading…

A few books I’ve read in the past couple weeks:

Son of Fletch, Gregory McDonald – Fletch returns, this time to help his newly discovered son. Pretty good stuff. B-

Fletch Reflected, Gregory McDonald – Fletch is back again, or actually, Fletch’s son Jack Faoni is, but it’s hard to tell the difference in this one. The young prodigy is quite similar to his Dad. That’s good though- this book is nearly vintage Fletch. B+

The DaVinci Code
, Dan Brown – This book has taken some serious shots, in part because it’s so popular. Yes, some of the writing is a bit cheesy, and it was almost certainly written as a movie (the author even takes the lame shortcut of comparing his hero to “Harrison Ford in tweed.”) For those reasons and more, I avoided this thing for as long as I possibly could. Forget all that though- this book is a riveting, fascinating read that will amount to more history, philosophy, and re-examination than most people are treated to in a year. A

Angels & Demons, Dan Brown – Reading this after DaVinci, it feels like a mediocre warm-up to what Brown delivered with DaVinci. C-

Mickey Kaus and the infalability of Malcolm Gladwell

To be honest, I think it’s getting past time for somebody to infuse some much-needed skepticism into Malcolm Gladwell‘s writing.

As much as I love and respect Gladwell’s writing- his book, The Tipping Point, is one of my all-time favorites- he’s coasted far too long on an overwhelmingly unchecked public image. Call me cynical, but I believe that few, if any, public figures should enjoy a 100% approval rating.

It’s curious, then, that along comes Mickey Kaus to inject a healthy arched eyebrow towards Gladwell’s latest New Yorker article, subtitled The bad idea behind our failed health-care system.

Kaus doesn’t trash Gladwell- he just raises some interesting arguments that suggest Gladwell’s tendency to sometimes avoid mentioning counter-arguments hinders his points. Kaus’ sharpest criticsm:

Like many New Yorker policy articles, Gladwell’s reads like a lecture to an isolated, ill-informed and somewhat gullible group of highly literate children. They are cheap dates. They won’t think of the obvious objections. They won’t demand that you “play Notre Dame,” as my boss Charles Peters used to say, and take on the best arguments for the other side. They just need to be given a bit of intellectual entertainment and pointed off in a comforting anti-Bush direction.

Interestingly, Gladwell’s healthcare article isn’t getting flack from Kaus only- here’s the IceRocket blog search results for the article’s URL.

Hammersley’s new RSS book

Thanks to my affiliation with the Media Bloggers Association (disclosure: I am a board member and web developer) and the organization’s book review copy distribution program, I came home the other day to find a free copy of Ben Hammersley’s new book, Developing Feeds with RSS and Atom, waiting for me.

I’ve only glanced at the book, but I hope to start reading it sooner than later. More on it when I get there. In the meantime, thanks to O’Reilly publishing for the book, and for joining MBA’s review copy program.